Born Again in Palestine
There are many kinds of travel. There is travel over hill and dale to see your grandmother for the holidays. There is travel to the big city for a night on the town, with drinks and oysters on the half-shell at a tony restaurant followed by front-row seats at the theater. There is travel across the country to the town where you were born for a reunion of friends you haven’t set eyes on in twenty-five years. There is travel to a foreign land for leisure and the mental stimulation that is only afforded by spending a fortnight wandering art museums, devouring spicy cooking, and shopping for textiles at a noisy bazaar in a strange, foreign land.
And there is at least one more kind of travel.
The kind of travel that happens when you, on a lark, find yourself 6,000 miles from home sitting behind the wheel of an overheating rental car that’s two-thirds the way back in a long line of cars leading to one of the most heavily guarded military checkpoints in the world. You, like all the drivers, are waiting to be interrogated by machine-gun-carrying guards who themselves are hot, tired, traumatized, and unempathetic. And you are trying to think of what you could possibly say to the guard that will make him feel at ease, something that will convince him that you are not there to cause trouble, that you deserve to be let through the checkpoint without hassle.
But, frankly, you don’t know what to say to the guard, because, well, you have no idea why you are there. You can’t specify a planned itinerary. You don’t own a briefcase full of bona fides. And you don’t know a soul who lives in Palestine.
The “you” in this story is obviously me.
At the time, in 2011, I felt compelled to travel to Palestine. I felt nudged, pushed, coaxed by a vague, barely conscious force inside. Carl Jung once equated the Unconscious with God. So, I suppose I was, in some respects, on a mission from God.
Wait, I think. That’s what I’ll say to the border guard. That’s my reason for traveling to Palestine. “I’m a Christian tourist. I hope to visit ancient Christian religious sites in the West Bank.” With that explanation, he’ll let me through without hassle.
And it’s true—to a degree. I was a Christian once. As a depressed teen growing up in Kansas, I read the Bible and prayed every night at bedtime. I served as an altar boy, too. I loved to make small talk with the pastor in the sacristy after services as he guzzled the leftover Blood and chewed the leftover body of Christ. And, all things being equal, I would say that, for this depressed teenager, being a Christian was a pretty decent coping mechanism to deal with my father’s heavy drinking. For this goody-two-shoes kid, it seemed like a more righteous path than drugs and heavy metal.
And sometimes, late at night, I ask myself if I could be a Christian again. It couldn’t hurt. I could use a little spiritual sustenance. Certainly, the American Dream has never felt like a viable god to believe in.
I look up from my dashboard and see that I’m now second in line at the border crossing.
I’m pleased with my story about being a Christian tourist, but suddenly I’m unhappy with the temperature inside my car. It’s nearly as hot inside as the 105-degree air outside. I reach to the console to turn up the air-conditioner. As soon as my finger touches the lever, the dashboard lets out a groan, then a burp, followed by a hiss. The vents blow snowflakes for 30 seconds. And then, nothing. I’m sweating like a pig. I roll down the window and stick out my elbow. I think of my girlfriend back in the U.S. She didn’t understand why I needed to come here either. My family back in Kansas? That conversation didn’t go well. Through the phone’s receiver, I could hear them shaking their heads: Why aren’t you doing what a 45-year-old American man is supposed to be doing? Why aren’t you investing in the stock market, putting your adult children through college, and working on your golf handicap?
And suddenly it’s my turn to be interrogated. The soldier sidles up to my car window. I hand him my passport. He flips through the pages, glancing up occasionally to look me in the eye. He asks me why I’m here. I tell him my Christian tourist story. I embellish it by adding that I’ve long dreamed of being baptized in the River Jordan. Oh, and I want to see where the Devil tempted Jesus. The soldier laughs. I laugh. He asks me to pop the trunk. I follow orders. He looks inside, and then slams the trunk shut. He hands me back my passport, and motions with his gun muzzle for me to pass through.
At first, I drive slowly. I glance down side streets at Palestinian men in t-shirts selling bottled water, women in headscarves carrying babies. Toddlers toddle. I glance up at the concrete towers. I peer through the slot where snipers sit, waiting to blast a third eye through the skulls of anybody who does anything out of the ordinary.
I press the accelerator with my foot, and the rental car picks up speed through Ramallah’s bombed out neighborhoods.
And then it landed on me why I was there. Because I resist the narrative that I shouldn’t be there. That’s plenty reason, don’t you think?
The car keeps careering through Ramallah. The bombed-out buildings seem farther apart now. The city gives way to suburbs, and eventually to lonely desert.
I hit the gas and speed off toward the River Jordan. I could use a baptism, I think. Or maybe just a short swim.
Brad Wetzler is an author, journalist, editor, and teacher. A former senior editor at Outside and former contributing editor at George and National Geographic Adventure magazines, Wetzler traveled the world writing articles about far-ranging topics including politics, exploration, the environment, travel, and sport. His articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Wired, GQ, National Geographic, Men’s Journal, Yoga Journal, Travel + Leisure, the Best American Travel Writing series, and many other publications. He is a former columnist for Outside and Universal Press Syndicate, and his book, Real Mosquitoes Don’t Eat Meat, was published by W.W. Norton’s Countryman Press. He is working on a travel memoir about faith, yoga, and the psychology of spiritual seeking. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, where he writes, edits, teaches yoga, and hikes the Front Range with his dog Tommy.
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