Past the Qalandia checkpoint and through the 9-meter barrier wall that cuts the West Bank from Israel, I landed in downtown Ramallah to meet my old friend Mais. Over the next week I tried to get a feel for life in Palestine's most lively city, from shawarma on Rukab Street to argila at Mais's upscale Arab cafes to sampling Taybeh at expat hangouts stacked with NGO workers. For lodging, I bounced around from guest house to hotel to a night back in jerusalem to some quality couchsurfing time, where I helped my host, Trevor, move into a new place downtown, complete with a spacious roof, bullet holes from an intifada and plenty of cheap shawarmers just around the corner. I could see myself living in this city.

While everyone else went to work, I took off on day trips around the West Bank.

With the city's top rap trio as my guides, I toured Nablus in the north, a city known for its kunafa, soap and gays. Ammar, Adly and Kaied shared a greasy sampling of the former after a wander through the old quarter of town, its walls smothered in shahid posters, rows of young martyrs posing with guns all photoshopped in front of the Dome of the Rock. The central flashpoint of the Second Intifada, Nablus has seen more than its share of violence and demolition, breeding more than its share of suicide bombers, both before and since the uprising. Ammar told me how the Israeli army had swept into the Old City on many occasions, including as recently as 2008. Sometimes it's been in response to actual attacks on Israel, but the Israeli strikes are most often pre-emptive, thanks to Hamas and Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades cells in the West Bank bragging about their constantly-improving rocket technology. Still, while thousands of rockets from Gaza have landed in Israel, not a single rocket has ever made it from the West Bank. On a broad patio overlooking the city, we joined a hip hop crew practicing their dance moves, part of a USAID-sponsored program to make Palestinians like us, before taking a taxi up the hill to Sama Nablus, a viewpoint high on the north side of town. The white concrete blocks of the city stretched all down the valley and up the mountain ridge to the south, while an old Ottoman tomb sat crumbling on the hillside to the east. Ammar was against climbing for fear of getting a rubber bullter from the Israeli outpost on the top of the hill. I took Ammar and Kaied's new facebook profile pics before heading back down to catch my bus back to Ramallah.

With Mais I rode down to Jericho, checking out a resort that would soon host her USAID-sponsored Arab Idol-style event, another US tax-paid project aimed at making Palestinians like us. Before heading back up into the barren hills, we wandered the spacious grounds of Hisham's Palace, built by the Umayyad Caliph.

Alone, I headed to Hebron. In walking down the old Arab souq towards Al-Haram Al-Ibrahimi, the Cave of the Patriarchs, I saw a bustling Arab city much like dozens of others I'd wandered. In speaking with the locals, however, a different story emerged. Several shopkeepers pointed up to the fence draped over the bazaar, riddled with trash, bottles and even rocks, tossed by some of the city's 500 settlers living in the apartments above. The chicken-wire fence unfortunately doesn't protect against the occasional sprays of sewage. Like many Palestinian cities, Hebron has been hotly contested since before the Crusades, but as the second holiest city in Judaism and the burial place of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the battle here is hotter.

Jews in favor of the settlement claim it as their rightful property, pointing to the 1929 massacre of more than 60 of Hebron's Jews, then living on the outskirts of town, a 1968 grenade that killed 47 Jews, and dozens more attacks throughout recent decades, including a 1980 shooting of 6 yeshiva students.

Meanwhile, Arabs and all opposed to the Hebron settlement, including large numbers of Jews, point to daily harrassment, indiscriminate shootings, home demolitions, and the closure of a large swathe of the old city to Arabs. NGO workers and Israeli soldiers are forced to escort Palestinian kids to school due to the religiously-motivated settlers' violent tendencies, illustrated most dramatically in Baruch Goldstein's 1980 massacre. Widely denounced as insane by Israelis, the Brooklyn-born doctor walked into the Ibrahimi Mosque and opened fire, killing 29 praying Muslims and wounding over a 100 others. 25 more were killed in suppressing the protests that followed. Apparently, extremists still sing praises to Goldstein.

After some falafel, juice and honey-drenched sweets, I laid back in a rooftop park over the old market with a good book, waiting for the running of the bulls, as Trevor had called it. Just about every Shabbat, the Jewish settlers leave their fortress to parade around the old city, surrounded by soldiers decked in their olive green, full combat gear.

When the gates finally opened around 4pm, the soldiers began to move at the head of the procession, pushing back the handful of tourists that watched. We kept a small distance as the kippah-capped crowd marched towards us, clapping and singing hymns. A group of young men came first while the women and families followed, a line of grim-looking soldiers taking up the rear. At one point I stepped into a nook with a couple soldiers, one aiming his weapon up the adjacent alleyway. A settler held out a hand as he passed. "Welcome to Israel," he said, with genuine friendliness but no smile.

Thanks to a couple young, keffiyeh-clad British activists provoking the soldiers, a small handful of us were rounded up and threatened with arrest if we came close to the procession again. Fortunately, by this point I thought I'd seen enough and headed back to Ramallah. Unfortunately, upon my return Trevor helped me realize I'd missed H2 and the notorious Shuhada Street, the most intensely guarded section of town, where the 500 settlers live alongside 30,000 closely-monitored Palestinians.

My flight from Amman fast approaching, I got a ticket on the night bus from Tel Aviv back to Eilat. In my few hours there i joined a trio of Dutch girls at an Ethiopian diner near the bus station. But for the Hebrew signs and Arabic graffiti, I felt I could have been walking through Lagos. Sleeping refugees filled the park as we headed towards one of the girls' homes. I chatted with her boyfriend, Kidane, until the time came to catch my bus. Having sneaked his way across multiple North African borders, getting shot at by Egyptian soldiers and being rounded up by Israeli soldiers in the Negev after jumping barbed wire fences and narrowly avoiding Israeli bombs during a desert drill, he had plenty of stories and I was all ears. Although nothing out of the ordinary for refugees, his experiences cast my 100% legal border crossing hassles into a different perspective. By the time I'd hopped off the bus in Eilat, walked across the border, piled in with a shared taxi to Amman, hitched the last 50km when the shared taxi broke down on the highway for the second time and finally wound up in downtown Amman, I had only one day remaining before I was all clear to re-enter Europe on a fresh 90-day Schengen visa.



Since there were no buses to Aqaba on Friday (Juma'a) and only two buses from Eilat to Jerusalem on Saturday (Shabbat), I arrived well after the old city's shops had closed. Thanks to a few inconvenient stamps in my passport, the border crossing was delayed for hours by a long interrogation session with a bored young customs official. Luckily, the bag inspection didn't turn up my other passport, the one I've used to enter some of Israel's absolute least-favorite places. When I took off through the city the next morning almost all the shops were closed for Sunday (Sabbath), so I spent much of the day relaxing in the sun on the roof of my hostel, glancing up from a Karen Armstrong book every now and then to stare down at the Dome of the Rock.

As usual, I never quite knew where I was going in the old city. In running circles though, I did manage to stumble into the Wailing Wall, the Muslim cemetery just across from the Mount of Olives and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, its old wooden ladder still leaning against the second-story wall, unmoved since 1854 (due to an interfaith dispute over ladder-moving rights). Every inch of the place has been fought over for centuries, from long, bloody crusades to priestly tantrums over unauthorized sweepings.

But far more preplexing than Jerusalem's conflict-breeding sites are the diverse and sundry people that trot up and down its cobblestone streets. Hasidic Jews in thick Russian hats and long, curling sideburns, white-bearded, black-gowned Orthodox Christians, Taiwanese tourists in color-coordinated caps, elderly midwesterners with khaki vests and film cameras, and young backpackers from all corners of the earth wearing checkered keffiyehs loosely around their necks. On one short walk through town I spotted some BYU girls haggling with an Arab shopkeeper, an unidentified troupe of white-scarved maybe-Russian ladies hurrying off to some unknown ceremony, and a tearful entourage of Filipino pilgrims hauling a cross up the Via Dolorosa. But these weren't even the most interesting ones.

At my first hostel, I was joined on the roof by a friendly, older man with a grey beard. He offered a cigarette before launching into an hour-long discourse on the Bible. Among other things, I learned that Noah's ark had been found, that extra-terrestrials had slipped secret codes into the Bible, decipherable only by a painstaking process fit only for experts on the topic, and finally, that since the Bible was written so clearly there is no need for organized religion. Just read it yourself, believe it, ask God about it and then know it (but also do check out the bible code online because it is awesome), in that order. I managed a polite smile the entire conversation, although I honestly thought he was joking when he mentioned meeting Jesus in 1977. I laughed out loud before getting that there was no joke. I moved hostels.

At the next one was another old man, a nearly blind mathematician with a long, white beard and a wooden cane. He found me in the common area and planted himself for the ensuing lecture. Like grey-beard's, the theme of white-beard's talk was finding God. All you have to do is read the Bible and ask God about it. Organized religion is unnecessary once you realize how simple is that set of 66 books written by over 40 authors over the course of 1500 years. He couldn't see me sitting in front of him, but he seemed to feel it important that I get his message. For the last twenty minutes before I excused myself, the lecture turned to his other most passionate of pleas: "gravity is in, not down."

In this city, these two characters are nothing special, and by no means crazy when compared with full-fledged victims of the Jerusalem Syndrome. Apparently there's a mental institution nearby to treat surprising numbers of self-proclaimed prophets, prophetesses, Virgin Marys and Messiahs. A bearded dude caught roaming around the Mount of Olives in nothing but an animal skin isn't entirely uncommon here, and he's quickly identified as just another John the Baptist. At one point, two Messiahs in the institution were put in the same room as an experiment: neither changed their minds. Most cases of the syndrome involve Protestants arriving on package Bible tours from Middle America with no intention of staying, but becoming overpowered by the spiritual whisperings of the city, have a hard time leaving. I was more than happy to get out.


Wadi Rum II

Of all the places to learn html, I picked up the basics over my last three weeks in Wad Rum, building a website for new Bedouin friends. Just another random experience found on workaway. Although this one involved quite a bit of work seeing as I knew nothing of website building, it was worthwhile thanks to my great hosts. When we weren't spending nights in the black, goat-hair tent of their desert campsite, we slept in home of Ali Eid Zalabyeh, his front porch just a short stroll from Nabatean ruins and the soaring cliffs of Jebel Rum. His family adopted me for a few weeks. We spent most days together, sharing meals and tea breaks in the desert, exploring hidden canyons, scrambling up natural arches and relaxing in remote dunes, as well as sharing stories of camels and tourists gone wild or ever-mischievous jinn, usually to the soundtrack of ouds being plucked to death. When Ali dropped me off a the Israeli border I was ready to move on, but sure I'd return.