Those of us who travel to Bethlehem soon discover the huge gap between our happy Sunday School expectations and the heavy realities of visiting the West Bank in person. It’s not such an easy place to get to, though world interest makes Bethlehem far more accessible than say, Ramallah or Jericho.
Out of 133 destinations rated in this month’s issue of National Geographic Traveler, the West Bank’s little town of Bethlehem ranked the lowest. Sad but true, travel experts consider the birthplace of Jesus Christ to be the world’s worst travel destination, one that’s surrounded by a giant concrete wall with difficult checkpoints and generally tangled in a political rat’s nest.
Still, for those in search of a geographically-correct Christmas, Bethlehem offers a nice dose of nostalgia served with a serious side of political pondering. It’s also a bit of a circus, like Las Vegas with Franciscan monks and machine guns. In such a place, it helps to have a guide. In lieu of a bright star shining in the east, behold ten hints for helping you navigate the dark streets that shineth:
- Check the border situation constantly: security in Israel varies wildly. Peace or violence in one location does not pre-determine security in other locales, especially in Bethlehem. CNN, BBC, and US State Department travel alerts are interesting but rarely compelling. Instead, ask around in country. Learn to listen beyond the bias and get the inside scoop as to which entry points are ‘hot’ and which ones are getting less traffic. Which brings us to the next point:
- Plan a window of extra time: crossing into the West Bank is always a gamble. In some cases, you may not even make it, so don’t write “Bethlehem” into your travel planner between 10:00 and 12:00. Instead, plan a range of days and hope that your first attempt is successful. If not, try, try again.
- Hire a Palestinian taxi driver with Israeli license plates: When it comes to straddling a tumultuous border, get the best of both worlds: A Palestinian driver with Israeli papers (and driving a car with Israeli plates) is pre-cleared and faces far less hassle when crossing back into Jerusalem. They will also be much safer escorts for you while you are in the West Bank. Again, ask around and seek trusted insights from insiders.
- Avoid big bus tours: though safer in principle, taking a tour bus into Bethlehem is often a recipe for a painful wait at the border in either direction. Add fifteen minutes for every olive wood sculpture of the baby Jesus in your backpack. If possible, travel ultra-light (passport, camera and a bottle of water) and in small groups.
- Visit the Church of the Nativity backwards: the supposed birthplace of Jesus Christ is anything but peaceful, with all the wailing Russian Orthodox pilgrims and nit picky clergy who voraciously guard their little corner. Take a second to relax your religious connotations and realize that you are in a major tourist destination with crowds like those at the Empire State Building or Dollywood. Visiting the church in reverse order–saving the Grotto of the Nativity for last–can help you skip some of the longer lines.
- Don’t go on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day: I know, I know, that’s kind of the point, but know that it will be a Christian madhouse. Try going instead to visit first thing in the morning of December 24th, otherwise (insert joke about there not being any room in the inn, ha, ha.)
- Dinars or dollars: shekels have very little use in the City of David and most ATM’s disperse Jordanian dinars. Get some cash before you enter, or use US dollars. Again, the lighter you travel, the better.
- The Shepherds Fields of Bethlehem is a hoax: What? You mean the shepherds that saw a star shining in the sky and then heard angels singing, “Glory to God”–they weren’t actually hanging out on that specific hilltop that happens to be a ten-minute drive from the Church of the Nativity? No, sorry. The chapel and twisted olive trees are a nice reminder of a cool event, but it’s a Victorian-era invention for tourists like us.
- Bring a bible: The Book of Luke is probably the best and only guidebook to take with you. The book never gives false information about restaurants, opening hours, or directions, and offers some great context about the town itself.
- Keep apolitical: It sounds way obvious, but a trip to Bethlehem is not the time to show off your cocktail conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Be assured, no matter what you say, you will offend least one person. Even UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon would put his foot in his mouth in Bethlehem, so better to shut it. Talk about the weather and delve deeply into your clueless tourist persona–on this border, it’s the safest way to be.