A walk on the west bank

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Wednesday, March 19, 2014


SOME travel to see historical sites and tourist spots, while others go mainly for local delicacies and food. I prefer to combine both. So in planning an itinerary, a trip to a good restaurant, cafe, eatery or market is priority.

One can get an overload of tips and advice from the Web or via apps. But there are still places where first-hand information are hard to come by. For example, Palestine.

Yes, Palestine, an unlikely travel destination for most people. I was not on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but I went to Ramallah, the current center of Palestinian government and cultural life, upon a friend’s invitation.

My visit fell on a Friday and I was told the city shuts down until 3 p.m. for prayers.

How do you get to know a place and meet locals quickly? Go to the market. I timed my walk from the hotel to the “Hisbeh” produce market shortly before the Palestinians come out of the mosques and shops reopen. The steep cemented streets were almost deserted. “Hello! Welcome, welcome,” a group of youngsters I met along the way chorused in greeting, surprising me with their easy smiles and friendliness.

The peaceful stroll ended when I reached the market in the city center. People were busy buying and selling fresh vegetables, fruits and bread for the evening meal. Some men were making their way to cafés for the afternoon tea or coffee.

A tourist can use all five senses when he or she goes to a local market. And with a smile and a camera, one gets to interact with the people. A baker offered me free straight-out-of-the-oven flat bread after I took photos of him. Getting directions to particular shops turned out easy.

I wanted to buy some dates and nuts, and Palestinian sweets, especially the knafeh – one of the most popular desserts of Palestine. It is made of fine vermicelli noodle-like pastry with syrup-sweetened cheese in the center, sprinkled with crushed pistachios.

The Palestinians I met at the market were welcoming. They do not get to meet a lot of tourists. Many of them speak some English, which is helpful as I know no Arabic whatsoever (except the numeral system, which does not count). But I learned that Ramallah in the West Bank, about 15 kilometers from Jerusalem, means “High place of God”.

Before my trip, I had no idea what the city would look like, as the images I have seen involving Palestinians were mostly of protests, explosions, the separation wall and Israeli soldiers at checkpoints.

The one-hour taxi ride from the Tel Aviv airport to Ramallah took me on a winding road through valleys and green hills strewn with cream-colored stones and boulders. One cannot avoid checkpoints when entering or leaving a Palestinian territory. Near a checkpoint, a huge red sign that marks the city’s borders reads, “The entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden. Dangerous to your lives. And is against the Israeli law.” Ramallah is one of several Palestinian cities that have been off-limits to most Israeli citizens since October 2000.

To travel to Palestine, one has to go through Israel. I’ll spare you the history lesson because it’s very complicated. Filipinos visiting Israel can get a visa upon arrival at the Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, but if you want to go to Palestinian territories without a tour group, I strongly suggest you do not mention your plan to the immigration officer.

A visit to Palestine is an intense experience that will leave you wanting to know more about the state and its people.

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on March 20, 2014.

Lifestyle

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