Yesterday I went to Jericho - what a great title for a book! But no, it was just a day-trip out from Nablus. I went to the local service-taxi station, and was pointed towards the correct minibus. What a great idea this shared transport is: they wait until the bus is full (7+ people) and then set off for the destination. If we had these in London or Paris, a lot of congestion could be avoided.
Anyway, I've always loved the hustle and bustle of stations and airports, and have spent many an idle hour, during my back-packing years, just watching the people come and go. Yesterday was no exception, as the Jericho bus did not fill up quickly, as opposed to the Ramallah bus, which leaves pretty frequently. So we waited. I was given pride of place in the front passenger seat, and this afforded wonderful views. After 40 minutes we were off, heading first south, then after the check-point, turning east.
I had one of those WOW! moments, as we weaved our way up and around and over some of the hills here, to come out onto the edge of an escarpment: and the whole Jordan Valley lay before us, as far as the eye could see, with a backdrop of mountains. There was a haze, pollution or dust it's difficult to tell, but the panorama was breath-taking. In the foreground, soft treeless hills, scoured by ravines from the rains and looking like elephant hide, then there was the valley itself, criss-crossed with Bedouin paths and roads, and partially filled with huge polytunnels.
In truth this is what I came here for, not for the Biblical references. I had been annoying everyone with my tracabilite questions, about the origins of the food to be found in the Nablus market, to be told many times that it came from the Jordan Valley. So I came to see for myself, and it's true: hectare after hectare of green, irrigated produce, much of it covered by either brown chain-link cloth (to prevent scorching?) or thin plastic, with some of the produce out in the open, but in neat lines. This was the first food I had seen growing, apart from the ubiquitous olive trees, since I arrived, and I was fascinated.
Peppers, aubergines, courgettes, tomatoes, parsley, mint, sweetcorn, vines, dates...Finally I had seen where the local food came from, and the limited food-mile calculation was impressive. As we whizzed past the 'farms', it was difficult to see too much, but I did spot the signs on the entrances in Hebrew, so I gather they were Israeli-run operations. This is surprising, as my book tells me that the Jordan Valley was given back to Palestine as part of the Peace Accords.
But no Palestinian would put up a sign written in Hebrew, so I had to believe what my eyes were telling me. I wanted so much to ask questions but a) I don't speak Arabic and b) it wouldn't be wise to ask too many questions. Our minibus was stopped at an impromptu check-point, where lazy soldiers with automatic weapons slung over their shoulders, asked us for our papers in the midday heat.
It was the first time I had been addressed directly, and the only question was 'where are you from?'. He seemed satisfied with my reply 'England', and I was not asked to produce my passport, even though I had remembered to bring it with me this time. My fellow passengers, all locals, were not so lucky and had to produce papers and answer questions, and some numbers were read into a mobile-phone. After five minutes we were allowed on our way, but the resentment was palpable.
Finally after one hour we arrived in Jericho! The guide-book had warned me it was small, so I was not surprised that in half an hour I had seen the centre. I had the best falafel sandwich yet of this whole trip: fresh flat-bread, falafel, salad, fried aubergine, chips, gherkin and tahini sauce. For 60p. I went back an hour later and got a second one!
I decided not to walk the few kilometres to the local religious sites as it was very hot, and maybe I'll come back another time. In fact I was here 30 years ago, when I crossed the border from Amman where I was visiting a friend who worked at the British Embassy, but I can remember nothing about that trip. I did see a sign, however, for the Allenby Bridge, where the border is.
I did make an effort to go an see the 2000-yr old Sycamore tree, which has huge historic significance. Strangely, it is now inside the grounds of a massive new building, with fences all around and very well-maintained gardens (grass-wow!!). It was still being built, but resembled the White House in its imposing facade, and although smaller was no less impressive. Who, I asked myself, is investing a lot of money building this beautiful edifice, when all around the other buildings are old, crumbling, dusty, collapsed, derelict?
The answer was provided by two very friendly locals, who were sitting on a make-shift bench opposite the site, watching the hard work and drinking orange-juice. I was offered a welcome drink just as I passed by - they are very hospitable to strangers - and I asked the question. Despite the local's poor grasp of English, and my complete lack of Arabic, we got there in the end, and can you guess which country it is?