Chapter 9 – Taking the World by Storm
I arrived in Seville on January 12th of 2020 and started walking northbound on the Via de la Plata route of the Camino de Santiago a few days later. A couple weeks into the 38-day, thousand-plus kilometer trek – it was a day or two after Kobe Bryant’s helicopter crashed because that was all over the news as well – I remember sitting in this tiny café eating dinner in some rural village and seeing a bunch of shit on the TV about this new disease that was popping up in China. They kept showing images from hospitals in Wuhan Province with these teams of people in hazmat suits all crowded around sick patients, and to me it looked like a fuckin scene straight outta the movie E.T. Then they’d cut over to images of people out in the street wearing masks while mentioning total known cases and all that shit and, honestly, I didn’t really think that much of it. I mean, people wearing masks on the street in big cities in China isn’t that out of the ordinary with all the pollution problems they got over there and whatever. And as far as this big scary new disease goes, I mentally categorized that shit alongside the SARS outbreak they had over there back while I was in high school which – might I add – never affected me or anyone I know in any way, shape or form, so…who gives a shit, am I right?
But as I kept walking the trail, however, I kept hearing more and more about this mysterious new virus. They said on the news they were even starting to see some cases appear in Spain. Nevertheless, I still couldn’t be bothered. When I was out there doin that thru-hike, I didn’t give a fuck about anything that was happening in society in general or even with my family back home. Like, I was too busy doin my own thing, ya know? All’s I wanted to do was walk, eat and sleep every day and – beyond doing what I had to do to get those basic necessities met – I did my best to disconnect and ignore that the outside world even existed. But as I got closer and closer to the finishing point, I started thinking about what I wanted to do after the hike. By the time I finished it would only be late February which was still too early to go back home. Like, our customers wouldn’t start calling for window washing for at least another three to four weeks and I didn’t wanna just be sitting around the house twiddling my thumbs waiting on that shit to happen. I wanted to do some actual living. Like, honestly, I wanted nothing more than to just keep walking and keep not giving a fuck about anything or anyone but myself. That said, there was this other trail I’d had my eyes on for a while that I was considering doing. They’ve now rebranded it as the Palestinian Heritage Trail, but back then – a year and a half ago – they were calling it the Masar Ibrahim al-Khalil. Whatever you wanna call it, it’s this trail that runs for 330 kilometers from the north to the south of that world-infamous hotbed of conflict popularly known as the West Bank. After being on pace to crush the 1000-kilometer Via de la Plata in 38 days, I figured I could knock out the Masar Ibrahim in two weeks then head home from there and be back in time right for the start of window washing season. And, after a little research, it looked like flights from Santiago de Compostela in Spain to Tel Aviv, Israel, via Madrid were cheap as shit at the moment, so all signs pointed to the Promised Land.
I don’t remember the exact date I arrived, but I showed up in Tel Aviv late one night and took a direct bus from the airport to Jerusalem where I hadn’t bothered to book any accommodation. I scrambled to find a hostel to crash for the night in the western (Jewish) part of the city and when I awoke the next morning, I started walking to the East Jerusalem Bus Station across from the Old City’s Damascus Gate. It was from there where I caught an Arab bus headed to the city of Ramallah which currently serves as the administrative capital of Palestine. After picking up a SIM card from one of the many of these phone stores in Ramallah called Jawwal, I boarded another bus up to Nablus where I spent a couple nights resting and planning out the trek. The morning of the day I was due to start hiking, I took a bus from Nablus to Jenin – Jenin being the northernmost city in the Palestinian Territories – and from Jenin took a shared taxi to the village of Rummana which sits at the northernmost extreme of the West Bank. I actually had no idea where within the village of Rummana that this trail was supposed to start, but used the broken Arabic I’d picked up while in the Air Force to explain to the rest of the passengers in the taxi what I was doing and where I was looking to go. Turns out, one of the middle-aged Palestinian women who’d been dressed in traditional garb knew all about the Masar Ibrahim al-Khalil and directed the driver to the trail’s official starting point near some school in the center of town. When we arrived, I thanked everyone for their help and then stepped out of the taxi.
First things first, lemme hit you with a little background info here right quick… On the Palestinian Heritage Trail website there’s a list of hosts in each town along the way whom you can call up ahead of time and request to stay at their house for the night. On the eve of my first day on the trail, back when I was still in Nablus, I called this host in Burquin and used my limited Arabic to say something like “Ana ajnabi wa bookrah ana rah imshi min Rummana l’Burquin. Ana bagdur anam hunak fi baitak?” meaning “I’m a foreigner and tomorrow I will walk from Rummana to Burquin. Can I sleep there in your house?” The guy said yeah and told me to call him when I arrived in town. If I remember correctly, these homestays were like $35-40USD a night and they’d serve you dinner upon arrival and give you breakfast in the morning before you go and would also send you on your way with a little bag of snacks – mostly fruit – to take along and eat for lunch. I’d most often supplement said fruit with a liter of milk, a loaf of bread and some tuna that I’d buy from small shops along the way. So, there wasn’t really a need to worry about what I was gonna eat and where I was gonna sleep on this trek – no tents and no stocking up on the essentials for days’ worth of nature hiking. Even so, setting out on that first day from Rummana, I felt a bit apprehensive. I didn’t know what lay ahead of me. I didn’t know what to expect from a place that in America I’d never heard much about beyond it being the center stage for the perpetual conflict between the Jews and the Arabs.
So, that said, after I stepped out that cab but before I began the day’s seventeen-kilometer hike south to the village of Burquin, I took a minute to read this sign they had on the side of the road next to that little grammar school there, talking about the Masar Ibrahim and what it’s all about, as well as what I can expect on today’s hike and all that typa shit. When I got done reading that, I pulled out my GPS and started trying to figure out in which direction I was supposed to start walking. As I was doing this, I guess some of the administrators from this tiny school had taken notice of the foreigner standing just outside in the street and decided to invite me in for some tea. I accepted and was brought inside. Here I was sat down in a chair in front of five of the school’s administrators who all sat in chairs of their own and wanted to interview me – in the varying degrees of English they each spoke – about where I’m from and what I’m doing and to give me an official welcome to Palestine. To be honest, it was extremely awkward and my back kinda hurt from sitting in that bus and then that shared taxi all morning and I couldn’t wait to get outta there and start hiking. At the same time, however, they were all very nice and, as a guest, I didn’t wanna be rude and offend any of them by just standing up and sayin, “Fuck this, I’m outta here.” Like, I felt I had some responsibility as a goodwill ambassador from the West to be as cordial as possible with everyone I encountered, so I gave these guys as much of my time as I could before politely excusing myself and heading out on my way.
Within a couple hours of walking, I came across this new house being built. Like, the main structure was already completed, but a lot of work still needed to be done. As I approached, I could see the exterior wasn’t completed yet. It was mostly just a concrete façade on which they’d begun to adhere what appeared to be these grayish brick-shaped tiles. At the time, it was being worked on by these two guys, both of whom I’d say were in their late twenties and bearded. For the purpose of distinguishing them in this story, I’ll refer to one guy as the slim guy and the other as the fat guy. The slim guy called out to me as I drew near. He spoke some basic English and was definitely the more loquacious of the two. He informed me they were building the house for the fat guy and his family. They invited me to come have a look. I accepted. We began the tour upstairs and, a couple minutes later, the fat guy got a phone call. Slim Guy informed me that the call was from Fat Guy’s wife who’d be dropping off a freshly cooked homemade lunch for them in a matter of minutes. Slim invited me to join them for a bite and I at first refused, but he insisted, so I ended up accepting.
On the first floor in what would perhaps be the dining room of the house upon completion, the guys turned four buckets upside down. Atop one bucket they placed this big piece of tile that must’ve been about two-feet by two-feet in size. This would serve as the tabletop upon which they set a stack of circular pieces of bread, some kind of salad and a pot full of this warm meat stew that had vegetables in it. The other three upside-down buckets had been set up around this one for us to sit on while we ate. Now, if Big Homey knew any English, he didn’t bust it out in front of me at all. Most of the time, while the other guy was talking, he’d just smile politely or make a comment to his buddy in Arabic and start laughing. Aside from covering the “Where are you from?” and “What do you do for a job?” style small talk, the main message Slim kept wanting to convey to me over and over during this meal was that, “We like you, you good. But maybe people in next village…maybe they not like you. Maybe they have gun.” Honestly, I didn’t really know how to take this information. I mean, I’m in a strange area of the world with a violent reputation and this guy is warning me that the people in the next village not only don’t like foreigners, but they also have guns. Hmm…ya know, that sounds kinda fucked up, right? But at this point I was already 100% committed to the journey, so…pussing out and turning back was just not an option.
So, after the meal I thanked those two guys for their hospitality and in spite of Slim’s warning, continued on my way to Burquin. I’m not gonna lie, I was pretty anxious. I was half-expecting a Toyota pickup with a bunch of guys standing in the truck bed holding AKs to pull up next to me and throw me in the back and…well, who knows. And so when I got to the next area with houses which I figured must be the town with the hostile residents I was told about, I was hyper vigilant of my surroundings and felt kinda freaked out when this one man who was working in front of his house took notice of my presence, dropped whatever he was doing and walked over to confront me. And when he opened his mouth, instead of saying anything nasty, what this guy said was “ahlan wa sahlan” which was more or less him saying “Welcome to Palestine” just before he proceeded to ask me if I’d like some tea or if I’d like him to refill my water bottles for me. Dude, I kinda felt like crying. I thought this guy was gonna threaten me or something and this turns out to be the reason why he was coming up to me. It made me think like…why the fuck would that Slim guy say that shit to me when it so obviously wasn’t true? This person in this town was clearly as kind and welcoming as he and his fat friend had been in the town before. Like, what gives here?
Well, as it would turn out, throughout this entire trek that seemed to be the norm. With only two notable exceptions I’ll mention later on, like this, everyone I met along the Palestinian Heritage Trail was quite delighted to see me and wanted nothing more than to serve me food and drink and to hear about why I was in Palestine and what I thought of it. Everyone was very gracious and welcoming and would go out of their way to buy me something from a store or feed me a snack, but – here’s where it gets weird – at the same time be overly-concerned about my safety as I continued along with my journey. Like, as a guest in their country, they felt like my well-being was somehow their personal responsibility or something like that. Like, as I sipped from pots of fresh tea that they’d put on the boil just for me, some of these folks felt it their duty to warn me of all the dangers that supposedly lie ahead in the next village. In addition to being warned about xenophobic Palestinians with guns, some of the other big dangers I was most commonly told to look out for had been packs of wild dogs, and – mostly in areas where Israeli settlements had been constructed nearby – Jews that would shoot me dead if they saw me walking too close to their villages. As I said, at first I took these warnings quite seriously, but quickly learned to take ‘em with a grain of salt. That said, sometimes the warnings weren’t always total bullshit. Allow me to explain…
On my fifth day of hiking, I was going from the city of Nablus to the town of Duma and would be passing through a village called Awarta along the way. I don’t really care to get into the details here, but I’ve read that tensions between the Hatfields and the McCoys are particularly high in this area. There’s lots of back-and-forth drama between the Israelis from the settlement of Itamar and the Palestinians from the village of Awarta – the two of which sit no more than a couple hundred yards away from one another. On the itinerary for the official group thru-hikes offered on the Palestinian Heritage Trail website, the seven-kilometer segment between Nablus and Awarta is done via bus or shared taxi or something of the sort because it runs along a busy, polluted stretch of highway with an Israeli checkpoint on it. But I’m very stubborn, ya see, and I was determined to walk ALL of the West Bank on foot. So, feeling that getting a seven-kilometer taxi ride was cheating, I ended up walking this stretch of highway and, yeah…let’s just say that I definitely understand why they’ve chosen to transport the thru-hikers from Nablus to Awarta. Lemme just add real quick though that I’m a huge fan of chocolate milk especially when hiking and I was really surprised by how many different brands were available in Palestine. It’s almost like every village had their own locally-made brand or something and I had to try ‘em all because not only am I addicted to the stuff, but also because it’s good hiking fuel. So, that said, even though there were plenty of shops along the side of this road from where I bought and chugged way more chocolate milk than I should’ve, it really was a shit-boring stretch to walk. Well, that is, at least until I started getting near that military checkpoint I mentioned; I suppose it got kind of interesting at the point when an Israeli jeep pulled up and came to a screeching halt at my side just before some armed soldiers hopped out to intercept me. They wanted to know what I was doing and wanted to check my identification and to look in my bag to, I assume, make sure I wasn’t a suicide bomber with a backpack full of explosives looking to wipe their checkpoint off the map. After they checked me out and gave me the thumbs-up, one of the soldiers handed me back my passport and said in perfect English, “Have a nice time in Awarta.”
So anyway, everything I just mentioned right there was happening on March 1, 2020. After I got my passport back, I kept walking as planned and passed right through Awarta without a problem. Not too far past Awarta, however, the route on my GPS led me to the top of this big old hill called Mount Al-Arma. Up on top there, I met a bunch of weird Palestinian guys that kept following me around and were so concerned for my safety to the point that it creeped me the fuck out. They kept telling me to stop walking. They said the “Yahud” are going to cause me “mashakel.” Honestly, in that moment, I was less concerned about the Jews causing me problems than I was about these guys gang-raping me in the ass and tossing my body off the side of the cliff. They then tried to convince me that if I kept walking, “Mumken humme rah qatal lak.” “What?” I responded. “Maybe they’re gonna kill me? That’s crazy. Hada majnoon. Itrikni, lo samahat.” I asked them to please leave me alone and let me go on my way. Like, they were fuckin weird, dude. I was getting seriously weird vibes from those guys. But in all fairness though, I suppose their concern for my well-being was not without basis. I’d later see a Palestine Chronical article with a headline reading “70 Palestinians Injured as Israeli Forces Storm Jabal al-Arma Mountain” that detailed events which had taken place on February 28th of 2020. And in this article there were photos of the Israeli army teargassing the shit outta the Palestinian villagers up there atop that very same mountain less than forty-eight hours – remember, 2020 was a leap year – before I was up there walking. So…score one for those Palestinian peeps and their paranoid warnings. That said, after about twenty minutes of borderline harassment, once they realized how stubborn I was, those guys eventually gave up on me and I just kept heading towards my destination for the evening.
Right before climbing up the final hill of the day to enter the town of Duma, I had to cross a highway. At the base of this hill blocking a smaller road that branched off the main one and led up to Duma was an Israeli army jeep similar to the one that’d stopped me however many hours earlier in the day. As I got closer to the jeep, I greeted those within. There were two guys and two girls who couldn’t have been much more than twenty years old. Like the one soldier earlier, these four all spoke perfect English and had been fucking around with social media on their phones at the time of my approach. They were very nice people and welcomed me to Israel but asked me what I was doing on foot in that area just as the sun was about to set. I told them I planned on walking up the road they were blocking into the village of Duma where I planned on spending the night. “Really?!” they said, shocked. “But a bunch of crazy violent Arab people live up there. You don’t want to go up there. Believe us, they’ll kill you.” “Hmm,” I responded, “but earlier I talked to a man on the phone whose house I’ll be staying at. He didn’t seem like he had any intention of killing me. In fact, he seemed quite nice.” They just shrugged at me and were like, “I wouldn’t go up there if I were you,” but informed me that if I wanted to go, they weren’t gonna stop me. With that, I wished them all the best and told them I hope they all get the chance to do some traveling of their own after their mandatory military duty but before going to college as so many Israelis I’ve met over the years tend to do. They thanked me and we said goodbye. I started walking up the hill to Duma where I was greeted as warmly as I had been anywhere else on the trek. Speaking of which, let’s take another minute here to further discuss Palestinian hospitality…
So, on the afternoon of the second day on my trek I was passing through some little village and there just happened to be some random guy a couple years younger than me who was walking in the same direction. He asked me what I was doing. I told him in general I was walking across the West Bank but specifically in that moment, I was headed toward the town of Sanur where I’d be spending the night. He said that Sanur was an hour or two past his house, but since his house was just off the road that leads to Sanur, he’d be heading in the same direction. I said “tuh-maam” or “hell-loo” which was my attempt at the Arabic equivalent of “Oh, okay, cool.” This dude didn’t speak English, so keep in mind this whole interaction was in Arabic. And so when we were nearing the edge of the town we’d been passing through, he told me to wait for him real quick while he ran into a little shop. I said, “Sure, okay, whatever,” and a couple minutes later the guy comes back out with a bag full of cold drinks and sunflower seeds. He says “yull-luh” which is like “c’mon” and then adds, “You will visit my house.” Although I was losing daylight, I not only didn’t want to offend, but also thought I should take some time to stop and smell the roses so to speak, so I accepted the offer and we sat in the shade on this guy’s property chatting and spitting seeds for about half-an-hour before I told him I had to be getting a move on.
Then that evening, just as the sun was setting, I still hadn’t reached Sanur. I was up in the hills just outside of town and making my descent into the area where all the people lived. Even though the sun had dipped beyond the horizon at this point, the sky was still lit up and I remember it being this fantastic mixture of colors with all shades of pink and blue and orange. And as I was walking along, out in one of the fields off the side of the road, a pair of guys were talking and one of them saw me and called out to me in Arabic. He said something like, “Hey, what are you doing?” “Walking,” I said. “Walking?” he asked. “Just you?” “Yes, just me,” I replied. “Ah,” he said. “But why?” And I said, “Because in the news I only hear about how Palestine has many problems but I want to see it for myself and talk to Palestinian people.” “And how is Palestine?” he asked. “Very beautiful,” I said. “Inta kwy-yiss!” he shouted, meaning, “You’re good.” And I concluded with, “Inta kwy-yiss k’maan!” (“You’re good too!”) before continuing on and finishing up my walk for the day.
One more example I wanna give is how, the next morning just outside of Sanur, an apparently wealthy man and his wife who’d been sitting at a table in front of their comparably large and aesthetically pleasing house invited me to sit down. As the man puffed his hookah and his wife sat there at his side, their young kid played in the grass nearby. While we chatted (again in Arabic) about all the basic stuff – ya know, where I’m from and what I’m doing – they wanted to make sure that I knew it was Friday, the Muslim holy day. I told them that I was aware. They then wanted to make sure that I knew that because it’s Friday, no shops would be open along the way. I said that that’s okay, that I had enough snacks in my bag to get me through the day. Even so, they said, they couldn’t let a guest walk away emptyhanded and the woman then ran into their house and came back out with this fruit basket loaded with all sorts of shit and told me to take whatever I wanted for my hike. It was quite the gesture. Like, I mean, who does that? That level of hospitality is unfathomable to me. In Chicago when I’m sitting on my front porch, the last thing I think of doing when I see a grubby foreigner with a backpack on walking past my house is to invite the guy to come over, sit down and have a chat with me. It’s incredible. And I don’t think I’m alone in that sentiment. I feel like most of my neighbors in Chicago would sooner call the police on someone like that than offer them a free assortment of fruit to take along on their journey.
And then get this – as if I didn’t already have enough food for the day at that point – an hour or two later when I was making my way back up into the hills outside of Sanur on my way to the town of Sebastia, I came across these four guys in their thirties who were preparing to have a little barbecue up there. After chatting with them for a couple minutes, it was quite clear that they were a very highly educated group of dudes. One guy was a doctor and another was some kind of scientist and they all spoke perfect English, had good senses of humor and were very worldly. They insisted I join them for their barbecue and I cordially accepted the invitation. The first thing we did was go around and gather up a bunch of dry twigs which we proceeded to break into smaller pieces before placing the lot of ‘em in a pile between this big pair of stones they’d set about six inches apart whereupon we set the pile on fire. Once the embers were white-hot, they set one end of these wooden skewers housing chicken, beef, tomato and onion on the top of each of the stones, essentially suspending the goods over the smoldering sticks and then sat back and snacked on a bag of potato chips while letting the heat do its thing. Occasionally, while we continued chatting, one of the guys would get up and go over to fan or blow on the embers and rotate the skewers so all sides of everything got equally done. Once the food was declared ready, I sat there and crushed with these guys until I had my fill, then thanked them and again headed on my way. In general I don’t like rating people, but I’d have to say that those guys were easily my favorite people that I’d encountered during my entire time in Palestine. And guess what…when we were saying our goodbyes, instead of warning me about all the dangers to come, these guys simply wished me a nice rest of my journey. What more could a guy ask for?
So, at one point on the trek I did ignore some advice that was given to me by a local – this was actual advice and not one of those paranoid warnings, mind you – and I made kind of a dumb decision that almost got me into some trouble. Like, when I was staying in that aforementioned town of Duma, I was looking at some information on the PH Trail website and saw that the next day’s hike was only supposed to be fourteen kilometers up to a town called Kafr Malik. I mean, it said there’d be some elevation gain, but even so, it’s like c’mon – a little over a week ago, I was averaging over thirty kilometers a day while walking the Via de la Plata in Spain. Somehow 14k just didn’t seem like enough. I mean, I didn’t wanna get to Kafr Malik around noon and then spend the whole rest of the day just sitting on my ass when I could be out there getting some more miles. And another thing I noticed while looking on the website was that the following day’s hike from the town of Kafr Malik to the Bedouin community of Al-Auja was only another fourteen kilometers, all of which would be downhill. So, to me, combining the two days’ worth of walking seemed to be a no-brainer. So, as I’m eating dinner there at his house in Duma, my host – a guy who spoke very good English – mentioned something about my hike the next day to Kafr Malik and it was at this point I decided to tell him about what I was thinking of doing.
“That’s not the best idea,” he said. “If you must walk all the way to Al-Auja tomorrow, you should consider bypassing Kafr Malik. You see, my town here is 600 meters in elevation. When you are walking the trail tomorrow, you will go down another two-hundred meters before you reach the turn-off point to go up to Kafr Malik which sits at 800 meters in elevation. And it’s not a gradual ascent on a nice trail. It’s a steep ascent up the back of the mountain on a rocky path that you’ll probably have to do some scrambling on to get over a few big boulders. You’ll be tired when you get to the top.”
“Yeah, maybe,” I said, “but that’s okay though because then the next fourteen kilometers will be straight descent, right? I’m lookin here on my phone and the website says that Al-Auja community sits like 50 meters below sea level. Sounds like it should be doable, no?”
“Well, yes, it’s doable, but I’m telling you it’s a lot. The first hour or so when leaving Kafr Malik is very easy. First you’re on a paved road with switchbacks to get back down to the level you would’ve been at if you hadn’t taken the turn-off to climb up the back of the mountain to visit Kafr Malik in the first place. Then once you’re there, you walk through some fields and might see some farmers – here it’s still relatively easy walking. But then you enter Wadi Auja which could be a problem.”
“A problem?” I asked. “Why would it be a problem?”
“It’s difficult hiking,” he said. “You don’t want to be tired when entering Wadi Auja. Believe me, I’ve walked it many times. So, if you really want to go to Al-Auja Bedouin village tomorrow, don’t make the turn to go up to Kafr Malik. Save yourself the time and energy and just stay on the path that goes around the mountain on which Kafr Malik sits and then descend into Wadi Auja from there.”
“Hmm, I see what you’re saying,” I said. “But I wanna do the whole Masar Ibrahim trail as it was designed to be. To me, skipping out on that town which is an official stop on the trail kinda seems like cheating. I wanna go up there, but I also don’t wanna spend the night up there because I feel like I’ll get there too early in the day. And then that’d be a lot of time to be stuck sitting around doing nothing, ya know what I mean?”
“I understand your point,” he said, “but I don’t know what else to tell you. It’s a lot to take on.”
So, the next day I was up and at ‘em and – after scrambling over some rocks and crushing that 400 meter uphill – just as I imagined, I’d arrived in Kafr Malik right around noon. Up there in that town, I found a store from where I bought a bunch of chocolate milk and spent like half-an-hour eating snacks and shooting the shit with the store owner. Still not wanting to spend the night there, I decided to act against the better judgement of my host in Duma and proceed on my way down to the Bedouin village of Al-Auja. I mean, the sun had been setting at six o’clock every day which means that I’d have more than five hours to walk somewhere between 14 and 15 kilometers which is more than plenty under normal circumstances. On top of that, I checked the weather and there was no rain in the forecast and, in spite of the morning climb, I really didn’t feel all that tired either, so…all that said, I kinda felt like I’d be a huge pussy and a big idiot if I didn’t just “strap one on” as the kids say and keep on keepin on on my way down to Al-Auja. So, after I picked my bag off the floor and slung it on my back, I said goodbye to the chocolate milk dealer behind the counter at the shop and thanked him for providing me with my fix, then headed out the door and was on my way.
Retrospectively, I’d have to say what I failed to grasp from what I read about the route on the trail website and what my host in Duma had been trying to convey to me is just how goddam big and isolated the valley known as Wadi Auja really is. I mean, first things first, it was stunningly beautiful…at least it was during this time of year amidst a particularly wet rainy season. It was green from top to bottom – much greener than anything that typically comes to mind when trying to picture landscapes of the Middle East. So yeah, it was beautiful…but it was also a motherfucker. Sitting here at my keyboard, I’m finding it very difficult to try and describe exactly all I was feeling while walking through Wadi Auja, so instead of doing that I’ll just try to describe the experience as briefly as I can here so you have some kind of idea what it was like…
So, as I entered the valley, the stream at its base posed no problem for me nor did all the spiky shrubs and bushes that grew alongside it. I was able to continue along as my GPS indicated I do without issue. The deeper into Wadi Auja I went, however, the more narrow the base of the valley got. And in those narrow areas – areas that my GPS was telling me I needed to go through – the ground was so flooded and/or overgrown with thorn bushes that there was literally no place for me to walk. It simply wasn’t passable, so I had to improvise. I tried to deal with this problem by climbing up the valley walls (when I say “climb” here, I literally mean “climb”; I’m not using it to mean “ascending on foot”) until I’d reach a part flat enough to walk whereupon I’d continue in the direction I’d been heading, trying to walk parallel with the route mapped out on my GPS. It was the only way, I figured. And I’d be making some progress and going good, but every now and then would run into a spot where it’d be too steep to pass or there’d be a cliff straight down and I’d have to backtrack and either climb higher up or go lower down the valley walls and see if I could find a new route where I wouldn’t run into such things. This whole hours-long process proved to be one long crazy-ass ride on the old emotional rollercoaster.
I’m not gonna lie to ya, with no end in sight as the sun began to set on Wadi Auja and as I kept running into dead ends, I was getting pretty fucking scared I wasn’t gonna make it out of that valley before nightfall. Thankfully however, I reached the end of it during twilight’s last gleaming when I came across this area along the water where some groups of locals had been having picnics. I approached a group of teenage boys and asked them the way to Al-Auja village. They pointed me in the general direction, but I didn’t see anything that resembled a village. I mean, I didn’t suspect they were lying to me or anything like that because the way they were telling me to go was the same way my GPS said to walk. It’s just…I figured I was a lot closer to the village than the one or two kilometers more I ended up needing to walk, that’s all. So, I kept going and darkness had completely fallen by the time I eventually reached what I figured had to be Al-Auja. Turns out, as I’d see in the light of the following morning, Al-Auja wasn’t really a village per se. It was actually more of a conglomeration of Bedouin tents and shacks scattered here and there in the middle of vast nothingness. And unfortunately, at the time I had no idea which of those tents or shacks could’ve been the one belonging to my host.
So, as I’m pitifully stumbling along in the dark like Velma from Scooby Doo trying to get on without her glasses, from every single tent I passed, I was greeted by loud angry barking dogs. They’d run right up and get within ten feet of me, then follow closely behind making enough noise to raise the dead, but never physically attacking me, Nushkor Allah! Following the advice that a shepherd had given me earlier in the trek as to not provoke overprotective sheep dogs, I kept walking purposefully forward, looking only straight ahead while doing my best to ignore their existence. I think I was doing okay, but with an ever-growing pack of dogs following and barking behind me, I felt the time was nigh to pull out my phone and call my host to ask him which one of these tents was his. He told me in Arabic how to get to his house but, in the pitch blackness that surrounded me, I was unable to see whatever landmarks he was mentioning, so his directions made no sense to me. He ended up sending one of his children out to find me. It probably wasn’t too difficult for the kid to track me down given I was the only foreigner walking through the area with a big pack of barking dogs behind him. I was so thankful to have made it to a place with a warm meal awaiting me and a bed to curl up in. It was a long day. And I slept like a rock that night.
The city of Jericho – which is where I headed the following day – is some 250 meters below sea level. Like I mentioned earlier, Al-Auja was more or less something like 50 meters below sea level. So, even though they’re geographically not that far away from each other, these places proved to be quite a bit warmer than it was up by Kafr Malik the day before. A lot of the day’s 14 to 15-kilometer walk was up in these barren hills that overlooked Jericho. Aside from the odd shepherd accompanied by a grazing flock, there wasn’t much to look at until I was reaching the big descent into Jericho from where I could see the whole city and – since it was a relatively clear day – also catch a glimpse of the Dead Sea behind it. And one more thing I’d like to mention is that pretty much the whole time I spent walking up there before making that big descent would’ve been dead silent if it wasn’t for the constant humming of Israeli drones overhead, making me feel that I was never truly alone.
At one point when I was still up in those hills, I hadn’t seen another living soul for at least a couple hours and for some reason had been feeling pretty anxious at the time. I didn’t know exactly why I felt that way. Perhaps it could’ve been the emotional exhaustion of the day before catching up with me – I’m not sure. But whatever the case, I was quite certain that I needed to break up the monotony of walking even if just for a little bit. So at some point I decided to wander off the trail, set my bag down and walk behind this big boulder I’d encountered. It was there that I pulled my pants down to my knees and began to masturbate. As I mercilessly flogged my dolphin trying to rid myself of the nervousness within, the distant buzzing of the all-knowing eye in the sky remained constant. I really didn’t give a shit and just kept pumping away. So I kept going and going until… Anyway, the conclusion I have to draw from this situation is that, more likely than not, somewhere in their archives, the IDF has footage of me with trou dropped, playing with myself behind a boulder somewhere up in these hills between Al-Auja and Jericho. If those guys ever post that one on Insta, I hope they’ll remember to tag me.
The next day, after having spent the night there, I headed back up and out of Jericho into a valley known as Wadi Qelt. In comparison to Wadi Auja, Wadi Qelt is much less isolated and much more frequented by Israeli and Palestinian hikers – not to mention foreign tourists – who wanna see St. George’s Monastery carved into the valley wall there. In addition to the tourists, there’re also a few locals who spend their days hanging out in the valley, selling bottled water and offering donkey rides to said tourists for a living. There really weren’t that many people in the valley on the day I was there. I might’ve seen ten total the entire time, counting both tourists and vendors. That said, I did end up having a rather unpleasant encounter with one of these locals that I’d briefly like to talk about here. He was a young man in his early twenties that’d been quite keen on selling me a donkey ride. He was very persistent right from the start. Given the lack of tourists, I had to assume that business was slow which caused me to feel guilty saying no, but I really was enjoying my walk and wanted to continue seeing the rest of Palestine on my own two feet, so I politely declined the guy’s offer. He acted like it wasn’t a big deal, but instead of letting me go and continuing to wait in his place for the next potential customers to come by, the guy decided to walk at my side while pretending to be my best friend in the world. He kept up this nice-guy act for a whole minute or two before again asking me if I was sure I didn’t want a ride on his donkey. I again politely declined and he kept walking at my side. Instead of being my buddy now, he decided to play the pity card and started telling me how poor he is and – at the end of the spiel – asked me for something absurd like “only” fifty dollars. I said that I was not comfortable with giving him a handout and, not taking the news very well, the guy proceeded to spit on me and cuss me out. I pulled out my phone and started filming him but he quickly covered up his face with a scarf, pulled his baseball cap down and put on some sunglasses then started walking with his donkey back towards where we’d first encountered one another. I kept walking towards where I needed to go and he left me alone. That night I slept in another Bedouin tent out in the middle of nowhere at a camp known on the trail website as “Sea Level Community.”
The next day, on my way from Sea Level Community to another Bedouin camp known as Tal Al-Qamar (“Hill of the Moon” in Arabic), I passed through some classic Jesus-Christ-wandering-for-forty-days Judean Desert terrain. It was a peaceful and lonely walk for the first half of the day, having seen no living creatures save a pack of camels – one of whom was quite aggressive and seemingly irritated by my presence, yet ultimately ended up letting me pass unmolested. I wouldn’t see another person or animal until lunchtime when I happened upon a shepherd who’d been sitting atop a green hill, gazing off into the distance as his beasts grazed below. The man noticed my presence when his five or so dogs ran up and all started barking at me. He called them off and I kept walking in his direction. I greeted him and ended up sitting down there at his side for about fifteen minutes, chatting and contemplating the scenery. He offered me tea, but I declined. He was a friendly old man with a kind smile. He asked me if I liked Trump. I don’t do politics in general and especially didn’t wanna be associated with or have anyone’s displaced anger dumped on me for Trump’s controversial 2017 recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, so I kinda dodged the question and tried to bring up something else. But the guy ignored my attempt to change the subject and unexpectedly proffered that he is indeed a fan of Trump. I still didn’t wanna talk politics, but felt compelled to at the very least ask, “Ahn zjahd? Inta bit-heb Trump?” (Really? You like Trump?). He said yes and I nodded and we left it at that.
That afternoon I walked through Kidron Valley and saw Mar Saba Monastery. Somewhere out in the hills beyond the valley, I rounded a corner and stumbled upon this shepherd who’d been sitting there with his herd. He was much younger than the shepherd I’d met earlier in the day and – also unlike the old man who wore more traditional clothing – this guy had on black pants and a Nickelodeon-orange colored t-shirt. The guy didn’t speak any English. There was no one else around. I hadn’t seen another person for at least an hour before and after running into this guy. I greeted him with a friendly “As-salamu aleikum” and a “Keef halak?” and instead of offering a “May peace be upon you” and a “How are you?” in return, he right from the start was saying things like, “Give me money. I have lots of kids to feed. You give me money now.” I told him no. He said more of the same. I gave him more no’s. I started walking away, he started following me. I turned around and confronted him. He told me to give him money. To get him off my back, I “agreed.” I told him I didn’t have money on me at the moment because it was already waiting for me at the guesthouse I was going to. I said that a tourism company brought it there for me so I wouldn’t have to carry it while walking. That said though, I told the guy that if he were to give me his phone number, I’d call him later in the day when I got there and I’d give him all the money he wanted. He agrees and gives me his number. I thank him and start walking away.
After a minute or two, the guy must’ve figured that he’d been duped because he began chasing me and shouting like a madman while riding on the back of a donkey. I pulled out my knife and thought about fighting him. There was literally no one else around. He could’ve killed me out there and no one would’ve ever known. I mean, I guess I could’ve done the same to him. Either way, not feeling like engaging in a fight to the death with this fuckin retard, I took off running full-speed with my 30-something pound backpack on and ran for half-an-hour straight. Then after that, an hour or two of paranoid walking later, I eventually got to the Tal Al-Qamar guesthouse and explained to the sole non-English-speaking employee what’d happened out there. He takes the phone number from me and calls the guy up and talks to him for a bit. He says the guy is coming over, presumably to collect the free money promised to him. He then calls his boss – a middle-aged man that speaks decent English – who is also going to come from wherever he was at the time to perform a Chris Hansen style confrontation. The shepherd shows up and an intervention commences. The guesthouse owner basically tells the guy that, “Business is slow as it is and I don’t need you harassing and scaring off what few tourists I do have coming this way, so you better knock it the fuck off or there will be consequences.” At the end of it, right after he told the shepherd to take a hike, the boss turned and said to me that, “That man…He is a very, very stupid man.”
The next morning I got up early and, from the elevated vantage point of the Tal Al-Qamar guesthouse, witnessed one of the most awesome sunrises I’d ever seen. The sky was a blend of orange, yellow, pink and fiery red. This beautiful, tranquil sunrise however proved to be the calm before an impending storm. Maybe fifteen minutes after I’d taken a bunch of photos of the sun peeking over the hills that sat between the guesthouse and the Dead Sea to the east, brutal winds picked up and brought with them a thick gray cloud cover. Although I didn’t have a long day in front of me (officially 14km from here to the town of Bethlehem), as I was waiting for my breakfast to be served, I was shakin’ in my britches at the prospect having to walk that long through a totally fucked-up thunderstorm. But there was a zero percent chance I was gonna stay in that guesthouse in the middle of nowhere another night. So I wolfed down my food and set off walking at a very brisk pace. When I started hearing the thunder, I upgraded to a steady jog, wishfully thinking I could make it to town before the rain set in, but it was of no use. The clouds burst about an hour into the walk and, like a fire hydrant in a room full of dogs, I was left soaked from head to toe. In addition to the general unpleasantness of being wet, the lightning didn’t seem to be striking all that far away in the distance and I was very frightened. Not knowing what else to do, I just kept running towards Bethlehem non-stop like Forrest fuckin’ Gump.
I ended up doing all of the 14km in about two hours. Upon reaching the outskirts of Bethlehem, I was so soaked and miserable that I was ready to let go of my stubborn obsession to walk the entirety of the trail by foot and to hop in the first shared taxi I saw going towards the city center and then check into a nice hotel and have all my clothes washed and dried and to spend the rest of the day in bed under the covers watching movies on TV and jacking off to porn on my phone. So, at some point I saw this shared taxi on the side of the road and went up to knock on the driver side window to ask how much it’d cost to get a ride to the city center. From the other side of the glass, the driver looks at me like I’m a fuckin zombie from outer space and shoos me away from his car. I’m a bit hurt but I figure it’s just because I’m dripping wet and that would not only make the other passengers uncomfortable, but might also fuck up his seats. I keep going. Ten minutes later, I try again. Same result. So I say fuck it, I’ll just walk to the city center. At some point I pass by a shop and decide to stop in to get some chocolate milk as a little morale booster. The store owner lady sees me about to come in and runs up and locks the glass door and starts shooing me away. I don’t know what’s going on. I figure that maybe she thinks I’m a Jew and since the tension between Jews and Arabs is particularly high in these parts…I dunno. I just keep walking and finally get to the center and see a fancy tourist hotel near the Church of the Nativity where I decide to pop in and get a room. So I walk into this place and I tell the girl behind the desk what I’m looking for. She tells me there are no rooms available. I look around the lobby. I see no one. Seems a little fishy, but I decide to take what she says at face value.
“Okay, well…can you recommend to me any other hotels in the area? How bout that one across the street? Is that place any good?”
“No,” she told me, “there’s no availability there either.”
“Oh,” I said. “So is today some special holiday or is there a convention in town err…”
I was starting to feel like Mary and Joseph struggling to find a place to sleep in Bethlehem – ya know, when they traveled there in late December and all the rooms were booked up because it was Christmas. Sorry, couldn’t resist making a little joke there. So anyway, this chick proceeds to tell me that the Palestinian Authority had just ordered all hotels in the West Bank to stop receiving foreign tourists after four suspected cases of the coronavirus were found in Bethlehem. Translation – I’m pretty much screwed. My hike is over. This I found hard to believe. I mean, in a lot of the villages I entered, children would be the ones who noticed me first. And perhaps without the social filter that most adults have to stop them from dumping their fears on me, a lot of the kids would yell from afar, “Ajnabi! Maak korona!” which means “Foreigner! You have corona!” In spite of this, I still didn’t think too much about the virus and just kept walking on my merry way. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect some shit like this to happen.
So, not wanting to throw in the towel just yet, as I sat in this ghost town of a hotel lobby, I decided to reach out to my buddy Damian who has a lot of connections in the travel industry. I was pretty sure I remembered him saying he’d done some work in the area not too long ago and figured he might know some people. So, I explain the situation to Damian and he shoots out a few texts and manages to get me in contact with one of the directors of the Palestinian Heritage Trail. The guy’s name is George. I talk to him on Whatsapp. He’s a very kind man and thanks me for coming out to walk the trail but essentially reiterates the message of the concierge, telling me that my walk is over and I need to find a way out of the West Bank as soon as humanly possible if I don’t wanna get trapped there. I asked how they were gonna make me stay there for some sort of quarantine if I wasn’t allowed to stay in any of the hotels. He said he wasn’t sure about that but added that Palestine was not equipped with sufficient hospitals, tools and staff to handle a major pandemic the way Western nations might be and, to prevent unnecessarily exposing any more citizens to the virus, the borders were likely to be closed down no later than the following day. Make haste, he said – waste no time leaving.
So, unlike what I did with the advice I got back in Duma, I ultimately ended up deciding to heed this guy’s warning. And I’m glad I did, because Bethlehem went into a complete lockdown the following day – like, not even Palestinians and Israelis were allowed to go in and out of the city – and a 30-day state of emergency was declared by the Palestinian Authority. That said, before I made any major moves but after I’d talked to George, I left that hotel lobby and found the nearest restaurant where I could eat lunch and think things over. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to go back home yet or not. I was looking at flights to other places and everything was ridiculously cheap at the moment. I texted Damian to see what he thought. He said that, yeah, flights are dirt cheap right now – especially to Asia – but that you might as well call all those air routes the Corona Express. Alternatively, he said I was welcome to come visit him at his place in Kenya if I wanted, but told me to keep in mind that more and more airlines are cancelling routes every single day, more and more countries are closing their borders, and that wherever I decided to go, there’s a pretty good chance I’d end up getting stuck there for an indeterminable amount of time. Hearing this, I immediately felt like I had ruby slippers on as the words “There’s no place like home” rushed to mind. I really didn’t wanna be caught anywhere in the world other than where my family was. After filling my belly at that restaurant to help me get through what I knew was going to be a very long day, I began my journey home.
I’ll spare you the details but, after changing into some dry clothes in the bathroom of that restaurant, it took me about five hours to get back to West Jerusalem. That’s five hours full of Israeli military checkpoint drama and crooked Palestinian taxi drivers ripping me off, either charging exorbitant prices they knew I wouldn’t reject because it was pouring out or not taking me to where they said they’d take me but telling me it was in fact the place I needed to go and telling me to get out the cab to go see for myself and then speeding off before I had the chance to confront them about it. It was all so god damn frustrating, but I eventually made it. And while sitting in the Jerusalem Central Bus Station, I looked up flights and bought a ticket back home to Chicago departing the following morning from Tel Aviv. The flight was on Turkish Airlines with a short layover in Istanbul. From Jerusalem, it was quite easy to get a bus back to Tel Aviv. When I went to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv two weeks beforehand, I took a bus directly from the airport so I didn’t get to see any of the city. But this time returning from Jerusalem, however, the bus ended up in Tel Aviv Central Bus Station and boy…what a surprise that was. There were Asians and Africans and Indians and Arabs and Jews and rasta musicians and Russian hookers and… Never would’ve imagined Tel Aviv was such a diverse city. At least in the seedy neighborhood surrounding this bus stop it was. I was so pleased with my surroundings that I ended up getting a room in some crappy motel right across the street from the bus station so I could spend my last night abroad exploring.
I spoke with a few different people while walking around the neighborhood but the one that stood out the most was this Eritrean guy working the register in a shop down the block from my motel where I stopped in to get my chocolate milk fix for the evening. He was a young dude in his twenties and spoke pretty good English with a few words from his native language thrown in the mix. He told me he was exiled from his country. I asked why. He said because the government is “sharmoota” which is like “bitch” or “whore” in Arabic and some North African languages. Since there were no customers at the moment, he stepped outside the store with me for a minute to chat. He told me how much he misses his mother. He said he called her every day. And then he started crying because he said he didn’t know if he’d ever be able to see her again. I gave him a hug and told him I’m sorry and that he should continue to be strong. Some other customers entered the shop and he had to go tend to them. We said goodbye and I was left feeling as if this was the universe giving me affirmation that I’d made the right choice in deciding to go back to Chicago for the impending world quarantine. With the death of my father a short two months away, little did I know at the moment just how right of a decision it had been.
I continued walking around the neighborhood drinking my chocolate milk and when I ended up getting bored and feeling tired an hour or two later, I went back to my seedy motel, took the stairs up to my room and laid myself down in my presumably jizz-stained bed. In the middle of the night, someone was fidgeting with the door knob and trying to get in my room for at least ten minutes. Sitting upright with my fists clenched, I was ready to beat the fuck out of whoever crossed that threshold, but whoever it was eventually abandoned their hope of a clandestine entry. Not too long after the fidgeting ceased, I gave myself permission to drift back to sleep.