Our long day of traveling was made longer because we were detained at Ben Gurion. Sonja went through customs first – ME second, and the two us must have looked like terrorists because we were sent to a "holding" room. After two hours of waiting, we were called (separately) into an official's office for further questioning. It was good that I'd been to Israel before because I could sound believable about the sights that we wanted to see while here. It was good to get released, but really quite sad that we didn't get our teary goodbye with the Israeli girls. I should be thankful that we weren't sent on a plane back to the states.
Our contact in Bethlehem speaks Hebrew and Arabic, having studied both languages in school and spending 1 1/2 years living and working here. She was very concerned about our encounter at the airport and cautioned us about using the word "volunteer" or "service" in our descriptions - mainly because she said it's code for any sort of relief work in the West Bank. She met us at the bus station across from Damascus Gate, after-which we ate at a Jewish vegan restaurant. When the conversation switched to Jewish - Arab relations, she got VERY nervous and reminded us AGAIN that we needed to avoid any Arab references in Israeli territory.
We took the bus to the nearest stop outside the Bethlehem wall and walked to the checkpoint. There were several young men in an argument with one of the soldiers. They looked as if they were smashed against the iron fence, just trying to get through. Garbage was strewn all over the streets as we made our way toward our guide's apartment. (Tomorrow we're set to stay at one of the camps in town). We made one quick stop at a Bedouin store owned and operated by her friend, Moajte. Not only did he have personality (plus), he decided we needed a trip home!!
We had a fine morning with our guide, hearing about all her exploits has been eye-opening, indeed. She told the story of a 15-year-old boy who was captured in one of the Bethlehem camps and later burned at the stake. It irritated her that the Palestinians tried make it sound like he died honorably - fighting back. She described their coping as suppressing all feeling and trying to hold onto what little pride they have in themselves and in their country (what little they have left). We did get a lot of advice from her, as well as some of her personal story. We also made a stop at Bethlehem University and were welcomed by Brother Stephen Tuohy, who is the Vice President for Development.
So, after coffee with our guide and visits to the Church of the Nativity, Milk Grotto, and Bethlehem University, we are back to pack our things for the rendezvous with the coordinator for the Noor Women's Project stay.
Surprise. surprise. They DO have WiFi in Aida Camp! We are staying with a remarkable family - the last name I don't know. Islam and Ahmed have six children, one of whom is severely handicapped. They have several small apartments in a large complex that houses hundreds of people. I am impressed by the laughter and genuine kindness of these people. We helped Islam prepare the iftar meal and enjoyed learning some Arabic from her daughters. The oldest girl (Rua) is fluent in English, and the others know enough to have a conversation and share some laughs.
They had some interesting extra guests this evening - the International Director from Notre Dame, along with their satellite directors from Chile, Ireland, and England. They were meeting at Tantur Ecumenical Institute and made arrangements through their director (Jill) for iftar. I was impressed that they were bold enough be there. Nice people!
Tomorrow we're going to another camp for some music-making. I've been forewarned that the kids are very badly behaved.
It's 11:30pm in Aida Camp and EVERYONE is still roaming around. I don't think that they sleep during Ramadan. When we arrived this evening from our dinner out, we took a wrong turn into the camp and got lost. It doesn't help that there aren't any road signs to mark one's way - just skinny alley's separating the compressed cement. We stopped to ask for help at a carpenter's house (who was working in the evening) and he led us to a small shop for assistance. The proprietor had a brother who spoke English AND had a cell phone (that worked, unlike ours), so we were able to contact our hosts. They had to come and fetch us because there really is NOTHING to mark one's way in this camp.
It IS curious that I was never worried about our safety. Children (dressed very sweetly) don't hesitate in asking questions, hoping to practice their English. Despite their sweetness, I booked a room for Friday night at the St. George Cathedral Guesthouse on Nablus Road. This way, we'll have an answer - and no further bumbles. (Sonja admitted that her hedging probably got us into trouble on the way in. I think that she learned her lesson about "telling the truth"!)
Today was intense. We met our guide at the Intercontinental Hotel at 7:00am to catch the bus to Jerusalem where we met her teacher-friend (and Bethlehem University graduate) Soma. She is currently teaching English at the Shuafat Camp School and made arrangements for us to teach some music classes as the creative component for their summer school program. So, with some teacher support, I taught three classes, each with about 30 ADHD 7-8 year-olds in a room that wasn't much bigger than my kitchen. The kids were wild, but in a fun sort of way. We were doused with water during recess, but they seemed generally happy that we were there. Both our guide and Soma said that it's good to have people come from the outside to do things because it makes them (probably their parents) feel less forgotten.
After the sessions, Soma took us for a walk through Shuafat Camp. There was garbage strewn all over - a REAL DUMP - and I could only wonder how they endure. I learned so much from the teachers and kids at that school; the memory of a group of kids walking out the gate (into that God-forsaken mess) wearing their orange shirts and matching baseball hats, is burned into my brain. Our subsequent visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre softened me just enough to cry some heavy tears for those kids and their families.
We had another wild and crazy day in this wild and crazy country. Half the charm of this trip can be attributed to our guide, without whom I wouldn't be listening to the clatter of the camp or inhaling rotting garbage while trying to get some sleep. The irony of that is the disguised joy of this place - the children, their families, and the generosity of our hosts. Islam teaches cooking classes on a regular basis and is used to serving large groups of people. She has even published her own cookbook – all to benefit the lives of families with disabled children. Her service to the camp is done humbly, in an environment that would crush many.
Our schedule meeting with the father-daughter director team of Sumud Story House went very well this morning. They are very excited about the sophomore composition project, even though the meeting droned on and on and on...mainly because the former director had a religious agenda (fallen away Catholic turned evangelical). He's all about peace...even though he is passionately opposed to the "rules" of the Catholic church. His daughter, the new director, had to leave the meeting early, which was doubly unfortunate because his babbling led us way off topic. After the former director got everything off his chest, he asked me to email him with specifics about the project. I had to chuckle because I could have done that in the states!!!!!
Long before we arrived in Israel, our guide decided that a trip to Hebron was in order, so we hopped a bus and bumped our way to what could be named Really Crazy City. Unfortunately, the bus dropped us in a place unfamiliar to our guide, which meant relying on her intuition to get us to the central part of the market for a visit with her friend, Laila. The streets were really crowded with people, so I tried to stay right behind our guide. A middle-eastern man took a shine to Sonja and ran up to her asking, "Would you kiss me?" She freaked...and ran to catch up with us - staying close by. We thought we lost him until he reappeared on the next block, coming back at her, this time with us in close proximity. Our guide was OUTRAGED...and ran after him, yelling, "Eib...Shorta"! In seconds, the guy was surrounded by about 50 Arab men who asked Sonja what she wanted them to do - police? She seemed to think that an apology was enough, so settled on that.
The shop was small, but had some beautifully embroidered goods made by the Hebron Women's Group - a cooperative of women with disabled children. Laila was definitely interested in selling, but was more concerned about Sonja and her experience, convincing Sonja and our guide to go to the police and report the incident! While they were gone, I bought several Christmas gifts that Laila will ship to the states...AND watched the parade of Israeli soldiers parade back and forth and back and forth. Laila said that it doesn't stop and is so discouraging.
When the two of them got back, they purchased a few things before we visited the tomb of the patriarchs (which was rather anticlimactic after our street episode). Our guide likes to live on the dangerous side, so we walked down Hebron's "ghost town" and through a Jewish settlement enroute to the bus stop. After the bumpy ride back to Bethlehem, we purchased dinner at Casa Nova, but that didn't matter to Ahmed and Islam - who stuffed us yet AGAIN! Ahmed smoked cigarette after cigarette and talked incessantly while we ate. I think that Arab men like the sound of their own voices!
Today started slow, but ended like most of our days here...rather harried with some "near miss." We decided to go back to Manger Square for a last peek at the sights and decided to take a different route - this time down Star Street (the old pilgrimage route). Our good luck has been great, and today we happened past a lecture inside a side chapel that looked to be on iconography. When I looked in, the guy giving the lecture said, "Come on in!" He turned out to be the director of the Bethlehem Icon Centre (http://www.bethlehemiconcentre.org/) and was speaking about the wall icons that he was painting for the side chapel. Afterward, we took the stairs up to the center, which had a nice lecture hall for tour groups.
We also made a second visit to the Milk Grotto - this time to see the chapel and garden that we missed the first time around. The time whizzed by and we found ourselves hustling to get to Vicki's place by 2:15pm - only to find her in need of a nap. We touched base and then doubled back to cross (yet again) Manger Square toward Aida Camp, agreeing to come back by 4:15pm. There were yet a couple of important things to do - stop at THE BEDOUIN STORE to ask Moajte (our guide's friend) if he'd send our suspect Palestinian books and cards with gift items back to the US and pay/say goodbye to Islam and her family. Everything seems to take longer here (maybe because I'm schlepping another person), because by the time we finished these two errands, it was already almost 4:00pm.
We walked as fast as we could with our 50-lb backpacks and reached a fork with Manger Street on the left and Star Street on the right. Instead of taking Star Street, intuition and a vague memory of Vicky’s recommendation led us down Manger Street (which we learned was the LOOOONNNGG way)!! We walked and walked and walked and I was getting crabbier and crabbier and crabbier. By 4:25pm, I could see the spire for the Mosque of Omar in the distance and knew that we weren't going to make it back in time. Suddenly, we heard a honk with someone yelling, "Ladies, it's too far walk. I give you ride." We thought it was just another taxi-jerk until we looked up and saw Moajte sitting in his car motioning...come on. I teared up when we sat in the car...mainly because this was the THIRD time that Moajte helped us out.
Our guide's friend, Fatima, invited us to iftar with her family this evening in a small village outside of Bethlehem. The house was very clean and well decorated - quite different from Aida Camp! Fatima is a French teacher (born in Kuwait; educated in Jordan), who wants her daughters to see the world. She's not very fond of living in a village, but has made the best of it. We helped with the cooking and learned to make some things that I'm not going to try to transliterate (especially after yesterday). Fatima's husband dropped us at the checkpoint and we decided to play it safe and take a taxi back to Jerusalem.
Our taxi driver (who wasn't really a taxi driver) dropped us off in the wrong place near Damascus Street, which I was trying to avoid. (Wandering around in the dark with heavy backpacks is not my idea of fun - nor a very smart thing to do.) After about 20 minutes of wandering and asking questions, we found the St. George Cathedral Guest House and checked in. When we asked about getting a sherut for tomorrow's ride to the airport (65 NIS each), the hotel attendant said that it was Shabbat and that the sheruts weren't running. He did say that he'd be happy to book a ride for us to the airport FOR 300 SHEKELS each!!!!! Ugh. Neither of us had that much money left, so ventured out to find an ATM. The nearest was the OLIVE TREE HOTEL...and my card worked for the first time since Poland! We decided to celebrate at the Grand Court Hotel, where we stayed for the DSBS tour in 2008!
Currently sitting in the airport, happy to have breezed through security!