An Atheist, an Orthodox Jew and a Born Again Christian are sitting together in a bar in Jerusalem… . It could be the start of a bad joke, but it’s not. It’s reality. It’s the exact situation I’m in, sitting in the bar of the Post Hostel in Jerusalem, sharing beers, a very particular evening… . But we’ll come back to that later.
As I’m leaving Tel Aviv to ride towards the holy city, Jerusalem, I have no idea what to expect. I already heard that there are some big differences between the two cities. The Weather is a bit grey and I get some rain along the road. It also gets remarkably colder as I ride up to Jerusalem. As a child I always imagined it lay in the middle of the desert and that it was always excruciatingly hot. In Summer time it is of course but in wintertime Jerusalem’s climate is even worse than the Belgian one.
When I drive into the holy city it even starts to snow. I find a typical backpacker hostel, the Post Hostel. As you could already guess, it’s a hostel in an old post office building. I install myself in the dormitory and decide to adventure into the old city of Jerusalem. As I enter through the old Jaffa gate I can feel how ancient this city is. With its small streets and souks it hasn’t changed that much over the thousands of years the city existed. The second thing you sense while you enter the city is the tension. I’m quite sensitive to these things but I can feel how this city also has been for ages the scene for violent clashes between the three big monotheistic world religions, from the Roman times to the crusaders all the way up to the last 150 years between Muslims and Jews. It seems as a city for religious fanatics.
At every corner of the street you see young Israeli man and women in battle dress, fulfilling their obligation to the nation. It gives a very strange sensation of being watched, although I know that a white northern European Christian is not the kind of person they see as a potential threat. The dark clouds also add some extra shadow to the atmosphere. I walk through the city over the old cobble stone alleys and I end up at the Lions gate. The only thing that lightens the atmosphere are the hordes of Asian tourists that loudly laugh and take pictures, apparently unaware or indifferent to the dark, suppressing atmosphere.
While Tel Aviv was for me freedom, openness, sunny beaches with G-strings, Jerusalem is the complete opposite. I walk along the impressive old walls of the city. On the opposite hill side a see a string of black hats walking, a group of Othodox jews who walk away from a funeral they attended. The whole hill is covered with tombs. The whole scenery doesn’t lighten my spirit.
That evening I’m minding my own business in the common dining room/bar of the Post hostel when a strange looking fellow with a big beard starts a conversation with me. His name is Yuri. He’s a Brazilian Jew who arrived in Jerusalem a few years ago. At the same time and American, Brad, starts to talk to us. The three of us engage in a rather interesting conversation. Me as a sort of an atheist, brad as the ultra conservative, Texan, bible-belt-Christian and Yuri, the ultra orthodox Brazilian Jew. I realize that something like this can only happen in a city like Jerusalem.
It becomes a bit tricky when we start to discuss the creation of the world. My two counterparts are clearly convinced that our globe was designed and constructed just a few thousand years ago. I try to stay polite and we have and open discussion. After a while I realize that this is going nowhere and I try to steer the conversation into other, calmer waters. A Jazz band has started to play in the common room and I propose to just drink some beers and to enjoy the godly sound of this demonic music. Brad (I don’t remember his real name) is a typical WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), a bit red in his face and with almost red hair. He’s studying Jewish studies at the university of Haifa and travels quite frequently to Jerusalem the visit all the big Christian holy places. He comes from a small village close to Houston.
In his town his departure to the Holy land was seen as a big event, with coverage in the local newspaper. “My people don’t travel that much you know” he tells me, “ going outside of the states is a pretty big deal. People couldn’t believe that I was going to see the holy land”.
After a few beers we all go to sleep and we bid each other farewell. Yuri proposes me to give me a tour through the old city if I can give him a ride. I gladly accept. The next morning we meet again at the hostel. Yuri knows all the little spots and streets of the old city, at least that’s what he claims. He arrived in Jerusalem three years ago after a long spiritual journey. He grew up as the son of a small Jewish businessman in Sao Paolo. His parents are not really practicing believers. Yuri was also not what you could call a very pious man when he was younger.
“I did all kinds of drugs,” he tells me “my favourite was LSD, man. The experience you get from that high is just amazing”.
It was during one of these trips that the 23-year-old Yuri realized that he got a vision from god. He doesn’t want to share with me what he saw but he knew he had to start reading and learning the holy books. He spend several years in Brazil studying and learning until he decided three years ago to go from the most corrupted city in the world to the most holy one. He moved into the attic of an ultra orthodox synagogue, although he claims not to be ultra orthodox.
He takes me to the western wall of the old temple of David. Everybody is praying, the wall is separated between women and men. The men even have an indoor part next to the wall so they can pray, shake their heads and complain in a dry place. Yuri shows me the scrolls and explains me how they pray. In front of the outside part of the wall some young Israeli girls in military uniform are taking some sexy poses in front of the Western wall. They are clearly on some kind of field trip. It’s quite contrasting to see a lot of orthodox Jews praying in front of their holy wall, while some young Instagram princesses take less orthodox poses behind them.
“Do you still do some drugs from time to time?” I ask Yuri. He smiles at me and answers me in a typical enigmatic way “If god brings the drugs to me than it must be that I’m destined to take it. But the last few years he hasn’t send any drugs my way”.
I state that he can wait a very long time if he wants to get some divine drugs send to him, while living in the attic of an orthodox synagogue. He laughs and tells me that god works in mysterious ways.
While we make our way back to the Damascus gate. Yuri explains me that he’s in the process of founding his own Jewish sect. What follows is a very difficult explanation about mathematics, numbers and some old scrolls. He looses me from the start of his explanation but I nod very convincing so he doesn’t realize that I have no idea what he’s telling me. (It’s one of the few talents I have) .The only thing I do understand that his whole sect idea gets him into trouble with his fellow orthodox Jews and that they’re planning to expel him from the synagogue.
In the end it turns out that his thoughts are less radical than theirs and that he things we all have the same god. We say goodbye to each other and I feel a bit sad for Yuri. He’s definitely a good guy, but he’s looking so hard to find himself. I really wonder what he saw in that vision that made him transform from a “normal” drug abusing engineering student into a semi-radical religious person.
For me Yuri is the best embodiment for what Jerusalem stands for: A place where people come to look for themselves, but forget what really matters in live: to live together and respect each other. Everybody is so focused on their religion, which all have the same base, that it becomes impossible to live together. I hate religious fanatics and Jerusalem is full of them. That’s why I don’t really believe that Yuri belongs in this place and I hope he’ll soon realize that and move on to somewhere else.
The next day I’m off towards the old fortress of Massada. It’s built on a huge rock overseeing the dead sea. In 66 CE the (Jewish) Secarii sect took a hold of the fortress and had to succumb a siege which ended when the Romans built a huge ramp made out of stone and sand to role their siege towers up the mountain. The 960 men, women and children who lived under sieged all killed themselves. No happy ending. Nowadays it’s one of the most popular tourist attractions in Israel. You can choose to take a cable car up to the fortress but I believe that if you go on foot you’re more impressed with the way they’ve built this stronghold. As a kid I had a book about different fortresses around the world, one of my favorites was this one.
On my way up I find a lost phone on my path. As true Sherlock I flip through the pictures. BAM!
(no, not an explosion, I just recognized one of the people on the pictures. It’s the father of the family that passed me earlier.) I deliver the phone to the family and that means that I can only get good karma today!
Unfortunately nothing less is true. It’s already getting late when I finally drive north to enter the Palestinian West-Bank territories. It’s a pity I haven’t got any Palestinian contacts. I have the impression that I’ve seen and listened a lot to the Israeli point of view about the whole safety situation but I didn’t have the time or the contacts to get the Palestinian side of the story. While the sun sets and the whole west bank looks on fire thanks to the final sunlight, I make a mental note and promise to come back for the Palestinian side of the story. I see most of the time fields and little villages. It doesn’t look too different from the other side.
It’s already dark when I want to drive again into the Israeli part of the West-Bank. But that ‘s easier said than done. I get again a complete check-up. Looks like my good karma already left me. At first the border patrol soldier tells me I don’t look anything like the picture on my passport. I must admit that I do look like a shifty Bulgarian car dealer in that picture. It does look more like a mug shot. In the mean time I’ve become three years older and I got a serious tan, beard and my hair looks more like a wig after spending almost four months in a helmet. After 1,5 hours of questioning, x-raying my luggage and a failed flirting attempt from my part towards my charming interrogator, I’m allowed to enter Israeli territory again.
I’m on my way to Haifa. The idea is to ship my motorbike to Athens and spend a few more days before transporting myself by plane to the capital of Greece. In the end I have to leave my motorcycle on the docks of Haifa port. I had expected to ride my bike onto the ship myself. But, the boat, the “Alexo” has engine problems and is stuck in Greece. Not very promising. I have a flight to catch to Athens and can’t wait.
I’m flying from Tel Aviv to Athens because it’s much cheaper. Furthermore the prospect of rocking threes days on the Mediterranean Sea during wintertime doesn’t really tempt me. When I arrive in Athens my bike is still stationary on the docks of Haifa port, waiting for a the infamous “Alexo”, that’s still stuck with engine problems in the port of Limasol, Cyprus. It’s the first time since the beginning of our trip that Kermit and I are separated …