Rain sure does have a way of putting a damper on your plans, doesn’t it? As a hardened traveler, I’m a pretty firm believer in making the most out of any situation. After all, rain can bring some pretty wild experiences (see: collapsed bridges in Laos…). But this wasn’t just any experience. This was Christmas Eve in Bethlehem, a day that had started out nicely but was turning sour fast.
If you’re just joining me in this story, I might suggest that you read Part I first to read about the good parts of this special day in Bethlehem. If you already have, you’re about to learn why I declared this night to be one of my biggest disappointments.
Those bright blue skies earlier had given way to a torrential downpour, one that had manifested itself while I and some fellow CouchSurfers had settled in for some dinner. We had planned to meet up and enjoy the entertainment that was supposed to go on all night in Manger Square, right outside of the Church of the Nativity. They hard already started singing Christmas Carols in Arabic on a large stage in the square and we were eager to get back there to hear more.
But as we wandered back to the square, we found that the rain had scared everyone away. Gone were the performers. Gone was the stage. Gone was the crowd. Manger Square looked like a ghost town…and it was only 7:00pm!
There was really not much of a point of being in Bethlehem if there was nothing to do, a point that was not lost on several of the CouchSurfers in my group, who said their goodbyes and made their way back to Jerusalem. And so, we were down to just 3.
What to do…. Here we add 5 hours to go till the Midnight Mass started and, though we knew we wouldn’t be able to go to the mass, we were all keen to check out the live broadcast out in the square. The rain poured on.
Why not take a walk? After all, it’s probably the biggest night of the year in this town so surely everything will be open, right? Well, by 8:00pm the market was pretty much closed up and so was just about every other shop. And it was raining…and at this point, freezing too, so spending more time outside was not such an enticing concept.
So we confined ourselves in a nearby hostel, where one of the CouchSurfers had booked themselves a room for the night. In this case, a room meant a gym mat on the floor since they were completely booked. I was lucky enough to get a room on the outskirts of town at the last-minute. And we killed a few hours by sitting around trying to get warm and dry off.
By 11:00pm, we were back on the Square, resigned to the 3 souvenir shops that were open which sold nothing but Christian paraphernalia. At this point, we were all so drained and miserable and sick of the whole experience that we’d started making some fairly sacrilegious statements, so we thought it best if we chill outside.
As we wandered back outside (where it was still raining) we saw a bunch of people standing behind a barricade holding up their cameras. We went to see what was up and somehow ended up on the opposite end of the barricade, right along a line of heavily armed Palestinian soldiers. There was a series of black cars in front of us, one of which had license plate #1 on it. It was Mahmoud Abbas’ car…
“Maybe if we just stand here, nobody will notice,” one of my fellow CouchSurfers whispered to me. That worked for about a minute before we were very kindly asked to move and we joined a group of people heading through a restaurant to what ended up being the entrance for folks with tickets, which we lacked.
Turned away, we found the screen where they were broadcasting the happenings inside the church. It looked quite nice. But there was a small problem. There was no audio!
So the 20 or so of us who were foolish enough to be standing out there in the rain watching the silent mass, did was seemed most fitting at the time. We sang Happy Birthday to Jesus. And then, we went to bed!
It was still raining when I awoke on Christmas morning. I was so cold. Some of my stuff was still wet. And all I wanted to do was get the hell out of Bethlehem. I’d had a miserable experience the night before and I wanted to get to a warm place and into some dry clothes pronto!
Yes, there are things to do in Bethlehem on Christmas morning that anyone can do. There are plenty of masses one can attend, even at the Church of the Nativity (no tickets required for this one). But I, and my fellow CouchSurfing friends, wouldn’t have it! We were hell-bent on getting out of there, so we scoured the Calle de Estrella, which had led us through the Old City, for some breakfast but resigned ourselves to the remnants of a hotel buffet.
Soon enough, we were back at Israel’s enormous and graffiti-covered “Security Wall,” separating the Palestinian “West Bank” from Jerusalem. A kind driver took pity on us getting drenched out there, that he drove us through the checkpoint. Upon arrival back at the Old City, it was still raining and still cold. We all needed warmth and this was not the place to find it!
Eilat. We agreed that we would all be heading there. It’s the southernmost city in Israel, located on the Gulf of Aqaba that opens into the Red Sea. It was bound to be warm down there! So the next day I hopped a bus, with no terribly concrete plans. I’d already thrown my original plans out the window in favor of warmth! Wedged between Egypt and Jordan, Eilat was the perfect outlet to go to either.
Egypt honestly wasn’t even in the cards. That is, until I made a friend on the 5 hour bus ride. A friend who I’d end up visiting in Iraq! He said, “I’m going to Cairo, you should come with me!” Famous last words as the next day my journey would take a sharp, unexpected turn and I’d see this….
How would you have reacted in this situation? And how has weather affected your travel plans?