Sunday, November 2, 2008

The sun was starting to bake the Dead Sea pretty deeply as Rob and I stumbled down the last steps of the Snake Trail down from Mosada. In the growing heat around noon, the hike down looked a lot further than when we’d envisaged it from the top of the Roman siege works. The hike up had seemed pretty easy!

Paying $5 for a fresh orange juice didn’t seem like a bad idea at all, at the bottom, but then the crummy cafeteria-style restaurant with the long line-up and boring food seemed the wrong way to cap off the exhilaration of exploring the 2000 year old ruins on the mountain-top. So we drove off in search of better food along the Dead Sea “coast”.

Ein Gedi offered a dingy empty resort, a tour-bus-crammed tourist haven, some roadside coffee-stops, and several kilometers of empty desert. Hmmm… let’s go to Jericho! It’s just another 30 minutes, up the North end of the Sea, on the way back to Jerusalem. Rob had been there 20 years ago, before the intifada, on a tour-bus visit to the archaeological dig, and it had been very dry and boring… but now it promised some adventure.

As we approached the Israeli checkpoint, I felt nervous. Rob had left his passport at the hotel, so just had his driver’s license and birth certificate. Our rental car’s not supposed to go to the West Bank. MDA HR warns us that our insurance package does not cover us there. This is Palestinian Authority land, with their flag flying, practically a different country, famously hostile to Israel. The soldier inspected our id carefully, shrugged and waved us on. He looked like he thought we were silly to be going there. Across the road, a long line of cars was waiting to get to the Israeli side.

100m down, a Palestinian checkpoint was a much more relaxed-looking soldier, smiling and waving a welcome as we drove past. The next few blocks were uninviting, very run-down and poor, except for the anachronism of an Intercontinental Hotel. We considered having lunch there, for about a split second, and drove on to find the heart of Jericho. We picked up a hitch-hiker to ask for recommendations; it turned out he was from Cairo, visiting a friend; he guided us to the center of town and told us there were lots. Suddenly we’re in a bustling busy town square, a messy sort of round-about with negligible traffic rules, no parking rules, Arabic music blaring everywhere, every storefront spilling out onto the street with cheap goods from China.

We found the Moon City Restaurant, the only one that seemed to have a few words of English out front, and were greeted with warm hello’s and “welcome!”. We had heard “welcome!” from many voices as we walked down the street; I guess we stood out. The friendliness was palpable as the poverty.

Hassan, the restaurant owner, chatted with us off & on. There was no menu, just a discussion about the type of food we’d like, and off he went. The usual 10-dish Arabic salad was fantastic, especially the humous. A heaping plate of kebabs with soooo tender sausage and delicious stewed tomatoes. Lots of fresh veggies. Hmmm… then wonderful Turkish coffee. Hassan bragged about his Jewish American wife he had back in Pennsylvania, whom he sees every couple years now. He’s Muslim, had no intention to marry, but bumped into her while she was married to her first husband, and… we never got the full story. Who knows. He was fun to talk with anyway. He complained about Fatah’s corruption, raved about Jerusalem as the best city in the world, and said it would take 300 years for Palestinians to get their own currency. But he’s obviously proud of his city, and works hard to make Jericho successful. He shook hands with us as we left, and invited us back any time for a tour, a meal.

Hassan said Jericho only has about 15,000 people. We wandered the town centre, poking into various shops. Children bustled everywhere. It’s wonderfully real and informal and exotic. I stopped in a little music store and bought a couple CD’s, one of “Palestinian” music apparently made for tourists, and one an Egyptian woman who’s apparently famous… I don’t know her, but she looks great on the cover anyway.

As we drove out of town, the cars thinned rapidly. There was no wait at the checkpoint now. The Israeli soldier studied our id intensely, with his machine gun dangling inches from my face. Waved on, we sped up the road to Jerusalem, up the dry desert mountains, up past the “sea level” sign.

Odd, it was just a lunch in a small town, but it felt like an intensely exotic adventure.