Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Holy Land - Part 3

--Há uma versão em português logo abaixo--

When I was in Europe someone told me that to travel by bike in this region would be like committing suicide. Well, after six weeks cycling in the Holy Land, and more alive than ever, I can only say that I feel sorry for those who let their fears deprive them of the opportunity to experience something as great as this.

My only complaint would be about the heat, but since I was expecting something even worse I can say that even that was OK.

Leaving Jerusalem I had just a small ride (less than 10 km) as far as Bethlehem; the city where the saviour of the world was born. There I slept three nights, at a place arranged by Catholic devotees from Argentina.

I visited the Church of Nativity, an orthodox church built in the place which, according to tradition, is believed to be the place where Mary gave birth to Jesus. And also the Shepherd's Field, which again according to tradition, is believed to be the place where the angel appeared to the shepherds announcing the birth of Jesus.

Tradition is something that plays a big role in the Holy Land. Many people believe 100% in the authentic of all the places that they visit here. As I have already said, I don't believe in almost any of it. What I believe is in what happened and the way it happened, but not in the locations where these things are said to have taken place. When cities or geographic references are mentioned in the Bible, I accept that without any problem. But when people go further pointing the finger to "exact locations" I'll visit it taking that just as a reference or a reminder of what is said to have happened there.

Tomb of the Patriarchs
My original plan was after Bethlehem to go to Bethany or Ramallah, but once there I decided I would go further south, and visit Hebron, where the Abraham's tomb is. At least that is something you can take seriously, the place is mentioned in the Bible and is also accepted by both Jews and Muslims. The place is shared by both groups.

On my way to Hebron I could enjoy the amazing hospitality of the Palestinian people. All along the way people were greeting me and welcoming me warmly. I remember cycling through a non-touristic city where people are not used to seeing foreigners. I can say for sure they are not used to see "things like that" moving on two wheels. For them it was like something from another world.

As I rode along the main street all the time people were coming out of shops, calling others and pointing at me, and when they saw my Brazilian flag at the back of my bike they would shout "Brazil" or the name of a Brazilian soccer player. Children ran behind my bike or waited for me to pass close enough to greet them with a high five.

It really touched me, this place has given me the warmest reception since I set out on this journey. Amazing Palestinian people!

In Hebron I slept in a school. I was only going to visit the Patriarch’s tomb there, but I wasn't lucky. The day I went there it was closed for Muslim prayers, and the day after it was closed because of a special Jewish holiday. So I visited the place only on the morning I was leaving the city.

From Hebron I cycled about 40 kms north to Bethany (via Jerusalem). The only place to visit there was the tomb of Lazarus, a place that you can't know for sure if it is the real one, but visiting Bethany is an opportunity to remember that that was the city where Jesus resurrected his friend Lazarus. Something great to think about.

There I slept two nights and not finding any religious institution that could host me, I had to count on the hospitality of locals, which wasn't a problem at all. I had a great time with the people that hosted me there. New friends that I loved meeting, listening to their stories, their struggles, and becoming part of my world.

From Bethany I cycled to Ramallah, the virtual capital of Palestine (Palestinians also claim Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state). It was about 30 kms, but what made it hard was the hilly area, I got there as tired as if I had cycled more then 100 km.

There I slept three nights in a Catholic school. I went to the Jordanian embassy to get my visa for Jordan, then I visited Yasser Arafat’s tomb, and spent some time walking freely along the streets of downtown.

There I also met interesting people. I entered a commercial building and went to ask something at a computer shop. The shop was closed, but a man from the office next door, who had also come to the shop, learning that I was from Brazil invited me to wait in his office, once there he let me know about his love for Brazil. He has already been in Brazil, and in Porto Alegre my city. He immediately called his Palestinian friend, a successful business man who lives in my state in Brazil and was visiting his father in Ramallah. His friend came to the office, surprised to hear about the "Brazilian on the bike". With him I spoke in Portuguese. We talked a lot, laughed and ate the improvised banquet that his nice friend offered us in his office.

Yasser Arafat's tomb
Many times during this trip I have heard people asking me to not forget them. As if it were even possible. I already said here I can't write about everything or everybody I meet, but I take all of them with me in my memory, in my pictures and on my flag.

Leaving Ramallah I headed to my last stop in the Holy Land: Jericho. It was a pleasant ride, cycling, all the time downhill. Jericho is in the Jordan valley, 258 meters below sea level.

With more than 10.000 years, Jericho boasts the proud title, "The oldest city in the world". The city is well prepared to receive the huge amount of pilgrims and tourists that visit this Palestinian city all the year round.

Jericho is mentioned in the Bible many times. The city was conquered and destroyed by Joshua, the successor of Moses, in the first battle of their conquest of Canaan. It was also the scene of Jesus’ ministry.

Dead Sea
I slept 5 nights in Jericho, visited some of its many attractions and also cycled to the Dead Sea (about 15 km). Like everyone else, I was amazed by the "magical" effect of its highly salty waters, where one never sinks, but floats all the time, as happy as a little child.

I cycled in the Holy Land almost 7 weeks, and I can only say that it's for sure the most special part of this journey. I'll always remember this amazing experience, and be forever thankful for the opportunity to have been in this wonderful place.

Today it's time to end this chapter, I leave Jericho for Jordan, my next stage in the Middle East.

I finish this post saying that if one day I had the opportunity to return, I hope to see a different situation than the one that's going on. I hope to see two peoples living freely, in peace, with dignity, and ensuring that their children have the right to dream without fearing anything.

No matter which side they belong to.