Saturday, December 31, 2005

O Little Town of Bethlehem....part I

There's a lot to say from 7 days traveling in Palestine and Israel. I'll post by days, probably a day or two each day of this week. Here's day one...

December 22 and 23

After frantic packing (knowing you’re leaving at night is probably bad because you feel like you have this whole day ahead of you to do everything but then suddenly you have only one hour left to pack…), we left for the bus station about an hour before our bus was due to leave. Unfortunately for us, it turned out to be only about a 15 minute drive away. So we waited and waited, and finally were summoned to a bus that had been standing there the whole time—even though we had been told that the bus was not yet at the station! Anyway, we got on the bus and took off right on time. Interestingly, it seems that our bus had no heat and also no working door. The front door kept flying open throughout our trip. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in the desert at night in the winter, but we were definitely chilly. Needless to say (but I’m going to say it anyway), not a lot of sleeping happened on that trip.

We arrived at Taba and the bus driver was nice enough to drop us at the actual border rather than at the bus station (about 1km away from the border crossing). We waited about an hour on the Egyptian side because it was “not open.” Finally some guy came and took a few of our passports and disappeared, then returned with them and took a few more….and finally the last few people took theirs over to the “arrivals” side to get departure stamps. After two hours we were finally all stamped and ready to go—and a couple of our group members even managed to pull off a “please don’t stamp my passport”—something that was not allowed on my last time through this border crossing. Once we arrived on the Israeli side, things were...well…different. It was a clean and modern building, with people who were actually doing work. Unfortunately, it was also a place where apparently my previous trip to Syria and Lebanon was looked on even less kindly than last time. I got through the inspections just fine, but when it came to the passport stamping time, they took my passport and wouldn’t give it back. After waiting about 45 minutes, I was called into an office where I answered questions about my previous trip to Syria and Lebanon, my previous trip to Israel, whether I knew anyone in Israel or Palestine, what I was doing in Egypt, my family, my phone number in Egypt, my Dad’s phone number (dad, did you get a phone call from Israel?) and what I was planning to do this time. Then they sent me back out to wait some more. After another hour or so, they came out and asked what all these other people were waiting for, and my group was like “uh, Teri.” When Sarah (who had no idea what was going on b/c she was busy talking to some other friends who had traveled with us) heard that, she called out “Teri, what did you do now?” When I answered “I went to Syria and Lebanon” all the other people who were waiting too groaned and said “ooooh, you’ll never get in.” Great! Just what I wanted to hear. It was pretty interesting to me, though, that Jay (who is going to Lebanon next week and told the border guards about that when they asked why he didn’t want his passport stamped) had no trouble but I (who went there 18 months ago) got stopped for two hours. Anyway, they finally brought my passport back and told us we could go. Hallelujah! The length of this narrative should give you some feeling of the length of time we sat there in limbo. Oy.

Once through the border, Lynn decided that (since we had missed the connecting bus we were trying for) we would take a service taxi/minibus to Bethlehem. It ended up costing more than double what the regular bus would have cost, but we did get there a little quicker. After a stop in Jerusalem to get our return bus tickets, we drove right into Bethlehem because our driver had Israeli ID and could go through the checkpoints with no problem. We arrived at the Casa Nova (the Franciscan-run hospice that is connected to the Church of the Nativity….as in the Roman Catholic sanctuary part of the church shares a wall and a courtyard with our hotel) and promptly went to take naps and showers. Our driver haggled over the amount of his tip (even though he had already been paid twice as much as the usual cost for a drive from Eilat to Jerusalem!) and Lynn and Dick argued with him before paying it….bringing our total cost of the van ride to $400 US. Crazy! Anyway….there’s more drama about this day, so don’t tune out now. Upon waking up from a post-shower nap, I discover that my purse (containing my passport, my camera, and my wallet with IDs, money, and credit cards) is not among my belongings. I check my roommate’s stuff, my other traveling colleagues’ rooms, and then report to Lynn that it’s missing (just when we are supposed to be going to dinner at Niveen’s house). Luckily our tour guide for the next day had come to meet Lynn, so he was able to help. I promise to make this a shorter story than it actually was:
Most of the group went on to dinner, and Dick and I stayed behind to deal with the problem. It turned out that in the hurry to get out of the van (when we were all exhausted and when the driver was arguing over the tip) my purse had gone under the seat and I had not noticed that I didn’t have it. When our tour guide (his name was Nidal) called the driver, he said he didn’t have it. Then he called back after a little while and said it was there but it was open and things were “loose.” Right… Nidal didn’t trust the man. In any case, the guy said the camera and money were gone, but the passport and credit cards were there. He said he would bring it back to Bethlehem for 650 Shekels ($141 US). We told him to bring it, and we called the police. I gave a statement to them (via Nidal, who translated for me). Then I went to dinner at Niveen’s house—which was great. Niveen is a Palestinian woman who graduated last May from ETSC (the protestant seminary where I work). To go to her family’s house for a meal was fantastic! She lives in Beit Jala, a village just over a mile outside Bethlehem. We had good food, tea and wine, chocolates, and good conversation. It was fun. We went back to the Casa Nova just after 11, and my entire group came down to wait for this driver to show up. We read the Christmas story in the lobby of the hotel while we waited. Finally he came, gave me my purse (sans money and camera, but with passport, IDs, and credit cards), and the police were called. He was taken to the station, his statement was taken, and his info was taken down and given to me. The police suggested we pay the amount that is the “usual fare” from Eilat to Bethlehem, about 150 shekels. The driver refused and offered 300 (about $70), which Dick paid. All the time we were at the police station (about 200 yards from our hotel, right at Manger Square) the police were talking only to the driver, to Dick, and to Jason—they didn’t even look at me. Very frustrating. In the end I kind of broke down and stormed out of the station because they weren’t listening to anything I asked or said. Oh, and it was after 1am and I had only slept about 2 hours in the past 36 hours. Anyway, I got my passport back, which was good. I had no camera, which was both bad and good (as I’ll explain in another post). I ordered a new camera online and had it shipped to the home of a fellow YAV whose sister is coming to visit the first week of January (so I’ll have it before the Nile Cruise). And I went to bed. Chalas (finished).

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