Restricted Movement: Bethlehem on Crutches

PalestineMarathonballoonsLike an endless game of ping-pong, the cars chug the couple of kilometres from Manger Square to the checkpoint and back again. As our hotel owner’s wife informed us with a weary shrug, “They have nothing else to do. They want to bring their families out on a Saturday evening, so they drive up and down from the square to the checkpoint. They can’t go any further.”

“They” are Palestinian Arabs living in Bethlehem. After the start of the first Iraq war, in 1991, Israel imposed a system of military issued permits on Palestinians seeking to enter Israel or move between the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza.  Those who succeed in securing a permit have their information stored in the biometric access control system (BASEL), which is installed in major Israeli checkpoints in the occupied West Bank and is used to grant or deny Palestinian movement across checkpoints inside the West Bank.

Palestine MarathonSo Saturday night fun for Bethlehem residents without permits revolves around driving to the separation wall and back to Manger Square, that near-mythical spot recreated with dolls and dish cloths in nativity plays across the world each Christmas. We sat in the window of a restaurant, feasting on hummus and falafel and watching the procession of cars, everything from ancient bangers rumbling along in a clatter of dust and prayers to new model Mustangs and a cherry-red open-top BMW driven by a teenager who waved like a passing monarch. “He stole the keys while his father slept,” sneered our luxuriantly mustachioed restaurant manager.

We hobbled back to our hotel—well, I hobbled, crutch-bound by my stress fracture. Things kicked off later, after a Real Madrid-Barcelona match, which pumped up the energy in that tiny space until it cracked open with the smell of burned rubber and the shots of fired-up engines as the cars did doughnuts on the main street until the police appeared. Our hosts told us that this is a regular occurrence: Families are divided along team lines, so matches between the Spanish soccer giants can set off manic scenes, as tension escapes in a fury of revved engines.

Otherwise, we found Bethlehem an unexpectedly cheerful and friendly place, although, given that we were there for the Palestine Marathon, there was something of a carnival atmosphere anyway. The event offers the only course I know that is itself a political statement: The fact that that land in Palestine is so limited and fragmented, the only way to construct a course is to make runners run the same route four times.

Palestine MarathonWe gathered in Manger Square on the morning of the race, dance versions of Adele and Justin Bieber pounding as announcements rang out in English and Arabic, and balloons of green, white, red, and black drifted high above the mosque and disappeared in a flawless blue sky. Atmospheres at the start of races are often tense, expectant, charged with the energy of a thousand GPS watches being synchronized, but this was different. Joy and excitement radiated through the crowd of 4,371 participants, most of them signed up for the 10km event, many of them swathed in winter coats and burkas, their race numbers barely visible amid the layers. Once the race started, they swarmed down the street like kids let out from school, many of them gasping and panting before they got to the bottom of the hill. But it didn’t matter; they were not there to win.

I followed behind on the crutch, glad of the surrounding crowds so that I could plod along without fear of getting lost. I had no clear intention at that stage; I certainly was not going to complete the marathon, but I wanted to complete as much of the course as I could before the heat and hobbling became too much. At about the 4km mark, I came to a section of the course lined with abandoned houses on one side and the illegal separation wall on the other. It is a grim barrier of concrete slabs rising 25 feet into the air, its length emblazoned with graffiti and punctuated with descriptions of isolation, like Stations of the Cross. I turned at the 5km point and negotiated my way back to the hotel. Bethlehem would certainly win no prizes for accessibility: Wheelchairs are unsurprisingly absent, given that even the shortest journey seems to involve flights of steps, paths inexplicably ending beside busy roads, and pavements blocked by parked cars or riddled with holes.

Palestine MarathonWhen I got back to the hotel, I downed the Turkish coffee that our host offers at every opportunity and clapped and cheered runners on their third round of the route. Their faces and bodies were slick and haggard from the baking heat of the furthest point of the course, high in the open plains of the outskirts of the city, where the residents of two refugee camps eke out an existence. I heard afterward that, whereas the kids held out their palms for high fives and ran alongside the runners on the first leg of the marathon, by the time the runners were leaving the camps behind for the final time, the bored children were firing rotten fruit and pebbles.

Alan finished the half marathon and we wandered around Manger Square, milling with delighted finishers wearing olive-wood medals and munching dates. It was chaos, but a joyful chaos for the residents who, unlike us, do not have the choice to be anywhere else.

We will return.

17 Miles in Lanzarote? No Sweat…


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Last Monday, I was dying for somebody to ask me about my weekend, but the hermit joys of working freelance meant that nobody did. For once, I wouldn’t have had to change the subject to a more exciting theme (like the weather) because I had just returned from two whole days in Lanzarote. Why would anybody in their right minds get up at midnight on Thursday night, drive to Dublin, take a four-hour flight to Lanzarote and leave their hotel at 9:30am on Sunday for a ten-hour journey back to Killarney? I’m still wondering, but it was great fun.


I had heard so many warnings about the baking January heat of this Mediterranean chunk of lava that it was almost a relief to land to overcast skies and a cool breeze (imagine high summer in Ireland, and you have the idea). We were met by Ocean Lava founder Kenneth Gasque, an imposing, ponytailed 65-year-old Dane in yellow trousers who seems to be universally beloved by the general populace of Puerta del Carmen, where he has lived for the past 30 years without any apparent need or desire to learn Spanish.

He and his wife, AnnaLis, welcomed us into their stunning home, the sun made its grand entrance over the Mediterranean, and I wanted to move in: To call their terrace a “balcony” is like calling Buckingham Palace a house; suffice to say, it has entire plantations of aloe vera and a swimming pool. Sipping coffee from dainty porcelain cups, surrounded by AnnaLis’s colourful canvases and the warm, sparrow-accented air of a Canarian January, I almost forgot the task I had set myself for the next day.

By 7:30am the following morning, however, I had my runners laced up, Ocean Lava visor pulled on, and water bottle filled, ready to trot down to the seafront for a 17-mile buzz killer. After about an hour, when the sun decided to make up for the previous day’s feeble start with a ferocious blasting that continued throughout the day, “run” became something of a misnomer. In fact, by the return leg, I was reduced to several stretches of walking, which grew in length and sluggishness as I neared the hotel.

I could have absolutely no complaints about the route: an almost perfect 8.5 miles from the hotel to the only skyscraper in Arrecife, all on paved paths specifically designed for bikes and pedestrians, complete with neat little sand-scraping machines and enough cafes and shops to keep you more than adequately refreshed (had you the foresight or common sense to bring any money…).

No, I could not complain about the route, but that did not stop my body from whining loudly and frequently through the tightly knotted sinews of my right glute, and later through the screeches of my hamstring, not to be left out of the pain party. Ah yes, there’s nothing like long miles in accustomed 80-degree sunshine to remind you just how pasty, weak, and imperfect your own particular version of the human body is. Once I got past the initial pain, sweat, thirst, and lightheadedness, however, there was something amost meditative about the process of putting one swollen paw in front of the other, when every ambition had shrunk to the desperate desire to rest, to shower, to drink.

That, I think, is the best thing about putting your body under pressure –  the realisation that relief is the most powerful feeling of all. That, and the fact that a bag of salt and vinegar crisps is a meal whose deliciousness is beyond measure.

Next time, I’m doing what any sensible person does in Lanzarote and heading to the beach.

Pushing the Boat Out

content writer KillarneyGiven how elderly I’ve been feeling since the Lakes of Killarney Marathon, there was something rather appropriate (if desperate) about heading to an island associated with everlasting youth. Inisfallen is the island you can see if you stand in front of Ross Castle; it is also believed to be the site of the mythical Tir na nOg (land of eternal youth) featured in Irish mythology.

To my shame, despite my claim to be a Killarney native and my double stint working in the local tourist office, I had never been to the island before last Saturday, so when the chance arose this weekend, I jumped (well, bobbed enthusiastically) at it. The fact that getting there would involve rowing proved particularly attractive, mainly because rowing is not running…

We headed out on a dull, grey, lifeless day, which as a newly anointed boating expert, I now know is perfect rowing weather.  Whatever notions I had of gliding effortlessly across the water were soon forgotten, as I shunted the boat around by the copper mines ad Governor’s Rock on Ross Island and out into the open lake. Swans and ducks paid no attention to us, despite the crash of oars and frequent lurches in the wrong direction, and the lack of engine made the whole experience quite mesmerising. If it is possible to be mesmerised while you are sweating profusely…

Content writer KillarneyDespite my floundering, it didn’t take long to get to the island, which is really a rather beautiful nugget of cropped green spaces and leafy woodland clustered around the ruins of a monastery. The green areas are more chewed than manicured, the reason becoming obvious almost immediately:  As soon as we landed and started out on the broad path that circles the island, the shadows began to move and, one by one, young Sitka deer emerged to feed. Like the swans and ducks out on the lake, they were not particularly interested in us either. Sometimes it’s great to be ignored.

Among the ruins is a little oratory with an arched Romanesque doorway. Inside, you’ll find the remains of a pillar bristling with coins, some of them are well darkened with age, but some are quite recent additions, with euros scattered among the 5-cent and 10-cent pieces. What is it with Irish heritage sites and coins? I really don’t get it.

We spent about half an hour on the island and then rowed back to shore, dodging the wake of the Lily of Killarney waterbus to make it back to Ross Castle intact. It’s definitely a more leisurely way to see Loch Lein than puffing around it three times, but the Dingle Marathon looms in September, so it’s back to grinding out the miles by foot…