Travelling to Palestine may seem like an impossible prospect at first, and even once you have decided to make the trip, it can feel like the questions far outweigh the certainties. However, visiting Palestine is just like visiting any other place: understanding certain conventions and commonalities will make everything less daunting when you arrive.
Something that may be especially useful for British visitors to know is that Palestinians are far more friendly than people in Britain, where it is considered polite to ignore your fellow pedestrians. Don’t be alarmed if people greet you in the streets and want to stop and chat, which would be taboo on the streets of London or Birmingham. Similarly, don’t be afraid to smile at passers-by (I have had people ask me why I was looking so sad when I thought I had a perfectly normal expression on my face). The attention can be overwhelming to those from more standoffish cultures, but it is kindly meant.
Another point that isn’t made clear in the literature about the area is that there are multiple checkpoints inside the West Bank. It isn’t just a matter of crossing the border once from ‘Israel’ to ‘Palestine’. Actually the area under control of the Palestinian Authority is more of an archipelago than an island, as a trip from one Palestinian city to another can easily involve crossing several different areas of control. Therefore, it’s a good idea to keep your identification papers or passport on your person at all times while travelling.
Thought the street layout here may not be the same as what you are used to at home, everyone will be happy to help you out if you lose your way, even if you don’t speak Arabic. Danielle is from the USA, and she is participating in the Teach English and Speak Arabic in Palestine programme. Danielle says: ‘It is easy to get lost – the whole system is very different to the Western system. But as someone who has been lost several times, people are generally very willing to help you out.’ Across the West Bank people will offer you directions and even lifts if they see you looking uncertain in the street. This is especially relevant if you aren’t sure if an area is safe – locals will have a far better sense of what constitutes danger: if you follow their advice, it is easy to avoid hazards.
Public transport is cheap and plentiful in the West Bank, from buses connecting the major cities to the capital Jerusalem, to shared taxis that will take you almost anywhere you can think of and taxis zipping across all the streets. It is worth noting that some places require you to swap vehicles at certain checkpoints or to catch a connection in a city half way to your destination. As long as you are clear about where you want to go, everyone at the bus stations and taxi ranks will do their utmost to get you there.
An unwritten rule that it is easy to transgress is that in conservative areas in Palestine, men and women who don’t know each other don’t tend to sit next to each other on public transport. People here are too polite to correct internationals, but it is better to avoid potential embarrassment when you realise that you have broken a rule that people may go to some lengths to keep.
In short, there are quirks to life in Palestine: differentials that mark it out as a country unlike any you have previously visited. But these differences, alarming as they may seem at first, quickly become ordinary, even comforting parts of your routine. Phil is from the USA, and he is taking part in the Teach English and Speak Arabic in Palestine programme. Phil says: ‘the whole place is quirky but when you cross back over to the Israeli side, that seems even quirkier.’