So far so bad. Israel had been below my expectations. Tel-Aviv was a pleasant modern city along the coast line. Nothing to rave about. Jaffa was a smaller and older town, bordering the former. It is clean and well taken care of as it is really the only tourist attraction within walking distance from Tel-Aviv, yet Jaffa has little to offer besides a few historical facts, urban legends and expensive shops.
On the bus taking me to Jerusalem I wondered what I had misunderstood. What had I not seen, felt or experienced that others had, leading them to appreciate the city as it should. I felt guilty.
The bus reached Jerusalem after an hour ride, just past 10:30 am. My friend and I raced off to Jaffa Gate to catch a free tour. A sympathetic guide walked us through the old city while also working on his skills as an actor. First there was the gate, then some narrow streets filled with Arab merchants trying to rip us off, -one succeeded in that- then a distant view of the Mount of Olives, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, an old piece of wall, and finally some other places I can't even remember. Nothing being free, it ended with a clumsy joke on Donald Trump and a pleading for a tip. He recommended a sum and stretched his hand out, as if to say "I'll see what you will give me", making the situation awkward.
Each sacred place, with often over a thousand years of history, made me wonder yet again what I was missing. A small church in the heart of an old little town can drift my mind through time, yet these places left me uninspired. I thought of how lucky I was, when so many Christians, Jews and Muslims dream of such trip. Perhaps it was linked to the fact that I would for the most part describe myself as non-religious, and lacked any spiritual connection with these places. I had no answer.
Two days later we decided to venture over the border, and go to Palestine.
Another squeaky bus and off we were, Ramallah was just an hour away. This day trip wasn't my idea, matter of fact I was not really up for it. I put my expectations extremely low, predicting insecurity and hostility from the locals. I'm tall and have light skin and my friend looks a bit Jew, or Arab, but more Jew. She is German by the way. Heck, we had even been advised more than once in Jerusalem only to go with a guide. The odds were bad.
Swoooosh, the dice began to roll.
As we entered the city in a traffic jam, a tall man sitting a few seats behind us began a conversation. His English skills were good, as he claimed "I lived in the US for 20 years" but didn't have a clear answer to why he had returned to Palestine. "Family" he mumbled. This individual wanted to help, with all his heart. He didn't come across as rich, but the first thing he did was take us to a fresh fruit juice bar and offer us a drink. "Where are you going today?" he kept saying with a deep voice, rolling the Rs. We had no idea. "We're here to pick up the vibe. What is there to visit?" Such a concept seemed hard for him to grasp. It's just as hard for me to grasp the interest of people who spontaneously help me during a trip, when so many only want ma' money. After helping us to find a map, he pointed out the direction of Yasser Arafat's tomb. "Very good. Many tourists go there."
"Shukran!" Off we were.
The tomb has recently been inaugurated, and the neighboring museum is not yet finished. Half a dozen military personel with machine guns guard the place. These guys are angels. On first aproach I doubted if we could get close. That thought didn't last. They immediately made welcoming gestures inviting us into the complex with a big smile. Inside the 11x11m tomb (Yasser Arafat is dead on the 11/11/2004), two more guards were posted. They happily accepted to be photographed.
On my way out, one of the guards waved me to come to the security post. He pulled two bottles of water out of a carton and in a timid English said "Welcome to Palestine" as he handed them over. We were amazed by their kindness. It was just the beginning.
And the dice continued to roll.
As you walk through the city, if you open your Wifi connection -at anytime- this is what you will get.
It doesn't always work, but it is the initiative that is fabulous. A city, entangled in war, fighting for an identity, yet making a bold claim: "We are a city of today."
Ramallah's IT infrastructure mirrors everything else here, it is surprisingly modern. A rule in Jerusalem, in order to keep the architecture consistent, obligates every building to be covered in limestone. It gives the city a little something extra I can't describe. This comes at a considerable financial cost. So what did they do in Ramallah? They covered it in limestone as well. Let's face it, Ramallah wants to be cool, and so do the people.
But there are not gazillions to do in Ramallah as far as sightseeing goes, and that probably doesn't come as a surprise. There is an Orthodox church which was locked up but it neighbors the Old Quarter so we ventured in.
The streets are rather peaceful in this part of town. You'll find street art in some places and children running around saying "Hello!" in others, but mostly, you'll see posters of "martyrs" hanging on the doors of homes "Dead fighting for our independence."
The dice began to lose momentum.
Next stop was Mahmoud Darwish's museum. I had no clue who he was and you probably don't either so you should most likely go there too. Click here if the plane tickets aren't cheap. Wikipedia is still free.
On our way back to the city center we began searching for a coffee. Our first stop was an Italian looking shop called Pronto Restocafé. The prices were too high, but we were stopped by a young man on our way out. "Hey, where are you going? You didn't order. What's up?"
"It doesn't quite meet our budgets..."
"Have a take-away coffee for 5 shekels, please. I'll make it cheaper for you. Do you want it for 5 shekels? This is my father's restaurant. It's as if you entered my home. I can't let you out with nothing. That would be rude."
He yelled our order over to the barista. Then we began to wait. Then chat. And chat. Then the coffees arrived. He offered us to sit, so we chatted even more. He was open minded and willing to speak about everything and so we did. I drilled him on his country, the flourishing economy, the culture, men, women, you name it. Between two sentences straight out from the mouth of a dreamer in love with our world he put the puzzle together for us. William you taught me quite a few things. I hope you learned from me too.
If I hadn't had these interactions, a basic way of measuring how welcome I really am somewhere is the look I receive when eye contact is made. As we walked the streets I could see a little bit of everything. Women didn't look at me much, though younger girls did. Men did look, but didn't really care, as if to say "Yeah I saw you, you are here, good for you but it won't change my life." But the younger boys? They yelled "Heyyyy", "Welcome to Palestine", "Where are you from?" with huge smiles, sometimes high-fiving me as I walked by. They made my day in Ramallah. Children and their innocent airiness is a blessing.
Ramallah is still an untouched pearl, but there are less and less. In many countries, tourism has gone utterly wrong.
The dice slowed even more.
A jeep leaves camp before dawn. It carries 4 men. Two are black and have an inner filling of guilt, but families to feed. Two are white and have a thirst for blood. Suddenly the vehicle stops along the dirt road. The visibility is good; the sun has risen. Two of the men begin to peer at the thicket. Their hearts are pounding. Adrenaline begins to rush through their arteries. Now nothing can stop them. There will be blood. The man in the back makes a distinct sound. A young lion comes running out of the thick bushes a couple of dozen meters away. He'd been set free two days earlier but doesn't know the rules of the game. Mommy never thought him how to hunt and when to run. Mommy gave birth in a cage. He is drooling. The sound triggered salivation. This time the man whistles. The lion stops all movement. This game he knows. If he moves on the whistle, no food. Young lion is hungry. But today, there is no food. The man in the driver seat stays silent for he has seen this too many times. The one in the back points at the lion and nods. The two men look at each other in triumph. "Take your shot man, it's yours, you deserved it!" The other smiles in agreement. He lays the barrel of his Winchester Hunter rifle in a little metal V welded to the roof. The man is close to obese and couldn't hit his television from his sofa. As he tightens his grip on the weapon and puts his finger on the trigger, he lets out: "This one is my favorite, it's got the most trophies, I never miss with it!!" The lion is starting to wonder. He recognizes the feeders, but not the two men who smell like a chemical factory. They don't look threatening so why not stay. Maybe they are for breakfast. Suddenly a thundering noise comes from the fat man. This doesn't sound right thinks the lion. Time to run. He'd like to but now he can't feel his legs anymore. It's as if he is floating. He panics. His heart skips a beat. It makes no other. He dies.
The dice stood still.
For several thousand dollars, you can legally murder a lion in South Africa.
Traveling is without a doubt one of the most compelling experiences one can currently have in life. Tourism, with the jobs it creates and families it feeds, is a great tool for economic growth, particularly in developing countries. But it has its drawbacks. It fuels greed in locals who once were good-hearted. It generates theft, crime and abuse. It makes men and women cross boundaries they would have never crossed before. It takes away the unconcern of children who once played in the dirt, and gives them a basket with postcards, magnets and other souvenirs to sell. And with it they sell their childhood.
We each have a role to play in this game, and now you know the rules.
Please travel consciously.