‘This……. is a Church,’ the woman replied a tad hesitantly when I asked for directions to Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre. She looked young, very young- a girl really, possibly in her late teens, as did her male colleague. They looked lost when I asked about Jerusalem’s most famous Church. The pair was sitting outside a smallish Church which was definitely not the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and they looked completely unaware of its location. Smiling with unperturbed ignorance and shrugging their shoulders, they left me with no choice but to say, ‘Never mind,’ and continue on my own, looking for signs which would give me some direction. Their combat fatigues faded into the dark behind me, as I advanced through cobbled lanes, my shoes and stroller clicking on the yellow stones polished by thousands of years of footfall. Their rifles rested on the walls of the church, as they sat back on its porch, arms hugging folded knees tucked under chins, chatting like students on a college campus; Israeli soldiers on their night shift at an army station within the walls of the Old City, Jerusalem.
Jerusalem, the destination of my first solo trip came with all the ticks- logistically easy, reasonably cheap if I was willing to lodge in hostels rather than hotels, actually pretty safe but dangerous enough on media to raise eyebrows and give me bragging rights; thousands of years of history that made my spine tingle. It also annoyed my mother no end, giving rise to a tirade against my ‘irresponsible decisions’, which I found unwaveringly amusing.
So that was how I found myself at 4:30 am, outside the towering arch of Damascus gate, dropped off by a shared taxi near the Old City. ‘Your hostel‘s inside, to the left,’ the driver waved vaguely. The streets were deserted and the wheels on my stroller rumbled loudly in the darkness, as I entered the narrow pebbled labyrinths through Damascus gate.
The souks, which would be packed with crowds in the morning, large tour groups following bright flags waved by their guides, were empty. Happily, some shops were still open and I began asking for directions to ‘Hostel Hebron’. One shopkeeper would give me zig-zag directions until I found another to go a little further. There was a juice counter manned by a woman in her twenties who said, ‘Go further down, you’ll find the soldiers, they’ll tell you.’ Soldiers actually sounded good at this point; people guarding the Old City who would know it inside out. It also meant that security was tight.
But then I left the soldiers behind to find the signs myself. The hostel was somewhere near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I knew that. Suddenly a signboard loomed in the labyrinth, as if by magic, to say ‘Hostel Hebron’.
I flopped on my bunkbed, without bothering to change. Around me the Old City slept, its mazes guarded by two teenage soldiers with incongruously long rifles.