Got my computer back up and running for a moment, so here is a post I wrote a few days back to capture my time in Bethlehem, my second stop in Palestine. Enjoy!
Day two in Palestine, and I continue to be taken aback by what I find.
Admittedly, I’ve only had limited experience traveling through developing countries, so I think some of the things I’ve come across, which to me seem unique and powerful, may to others seem like a part of daily life. That said, I can only report what I’ve seen and experienced, and that is generally the remarkable kindness of Palestinian people.
I ventured off to Bethlehem today, and even my trip to the “service” vehicle (group taxi essentially) was a wonderful adventure. Prior to setting off, I stopped in at a pharmacy across the street, and had a very interesting conversation with the gentleman behind the counter about medications in Palestine, and their lack of a prescription system, essentially the result of having no doctors. He as a shop owner was remarking quite honestly how this creates a system where pharmacists are entitled to sell whatever they want, and often will sell someone more than they need to make money. An interesting conversation to be had, as he was selling me a prescription only expectorant for my cough (basically the equivalent of strong Robitussin), but I genuinely got the impression that he was telling me that I might understand the situation better, and also as a way of assuring me that he was treating me fairly and honestly (i.e. what I’m describing to you, I don’t do). He also went out of his way to try to help find me a store that was open on Friday where I could purchase an adapter. Since most stores are closed on Fridays, he asked that I come back tomorrow, and that he would point me in the right direction then. So nice.
Then, getting to the bus/”service” (pronounced sair-veece): I continue to be amazed by the community efforts here to help one another, and to help visitors. Never before have I asked for the help of a police officer bearing a military grade rifle, who pointed me around the corner, where another gentleman (a service driver himself) pointed me to the upper level of a garage where I could find my service to Bethlehem. Sadly, I am a dumb American, and still didn’t understand that the building I was looking at was a garage, so I asked another gentleman, who quite literally went out of his way to walk me to elevator, and told me to go to “1”. After that, at least two more gentleman pointed me in the right direction, and I finally was on the bus. It’s like there’s an electric current of kindness and helpfulness running through this place, leading from one person to the next.
(this photo is completely unrelated – I just thought it was hilarious)
And then, as if all that wasn’t enough, the two guys I sat next to on the service happened to be from Bethlehem, and they rescued me from walking in the complete wrong direction when we arrived. They, with even their limited English, made efforts to engage me in friendly conversation, and helped guide me to the center of town and the church of the nativity. As we parted ways, we shook hands and gave each other bro hugs. No English necessary there.
Of all the religious sites that I saw, I have to say, the highlight for me was seeing the Milky Grotto (and I put that above the birthplace of Jesus in the Church of the Nativity). The story of the Milky Grotto goes a little something like this: when Jesus was just a baby, Mary was breastfeeding him in a cave in Bethlehem, when a drop of milk from her breast fell and hit the ground. Thenceforth, all kinds of miracles began happening, and a church was built to commemorate the point of milky plashing.
Besides just being an awesome story, I was really intrigued by the “realness” of Mary breastfeeding Jesus. For whatever reason, this image was one I had never heard mentioned before by any folks I know who are Christian, nor is it something I’ve ever heard about during attending various church services and events over the years. The analogy may be vaguely inappropriate, but the idea of Mary breastfeeding Jesus was as unseen/unexpected as Jack Bauer taking a bathroom break in 24 – one of those things people just never seem to ask/talk about.
It really added a level of humanity to both of these historical figures that I really appreciated. I also appreciated the notion that Mary’s milk itself could be something holy. In an age where things like birth and breastfeeding are often kept behind closed doors and pulled curtains, it was refreshing to see images depicting the reality of Jesus’ infancy and Mary’s motherhood.
After this, I decided that I might as well see the birthplace of Christ while I was in town, but to be honest, the best part about this was meeting Rhonda in the line waiting. She saw my yoga mat in my backpack, and struck up a conversation that led to her deciding to tag along with me to the Dheisheh Refugee Camp later that afternoon (having a yoga mat in a church worked as well as eating cereal at a bar in Santa Barbara – it’s good to be quirky). We chatted as we made our way through the long line to the birthplace of Jesus, and both got our requisite pictures once in. You can see below – unlike the Western Wall, I can’t say that this was a particularly emotional experience. There was something about the way people were all packed in, squeezing their way in to get a couple of moments looking at the site – I was having trouble imagining that Jesus would be excited to see his birthplace become so packed with tourists.
From there, Rhonda and I set off to find some good eats before the refugee camp. Like Tel Aviv, I could tell we weren’t going to make a decision without some outside help, so I stopped a passing nun to ask her advice. Noel was her name, and she, like most other folks I’d met today, went out of her way to help us – working with other locals to help us find a falafel joint that was cheap and open on Friday. Thanks Noel!
With our bellies filled, Rhonda and I set of for Dheisheh. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had heard about the camp from Hannah, whom I had met last night at Karaoke (she’s been working at a refugee camp for the past 9 months, and her dad’s a rabbi – nothing in Israel/Palestine is ever as simple as it seems), and I was imagining something along the lines of tents and UN issued food, gear, etc. Dheisheh turned out to be a section of Bethlehem set aside for Palestinian refugees – a hodgepodge of broken stone buildings, nice (relatively speaking) homes, rubble, greenery, trees and trash.
The three main impressions I took away: the joy of the children, the kindness of the residents, and the incredible political art and graffiti that lined the streets. Children were constantly coming up to us smiling and laughing, and playing what seemed to be their favorite game with foreigners. The game was roughly as follow: “Hello!”; “Hello!”; “What’s your name?”; “David.”; (laughter/run away). This happened at least fifteen times, and maybe I’m just a sucker, but I loved it, and always made silly faces back at them.
At one point, Rhonda was in need of a Jack Bauer bathroom break, so we went into a store to inquire where a restroom might be found. Next thing I know, the cousin of the shop owner was taking us out back to their adjoining home. She invited me in and sat me down on the couch, and then proceeded to introduce me to each one of her sons as I looked about the place in wonder. I felt so overwhelmed that these people would just let two perfect strangers into their home, without hesitation, and indeed, with great kindness and joy.
To close this post, I’ll let the art I saw do a lot of the talking. The people living in these refugee camps are just like anyone else in the world, so very much like us: trying to live life in the (harsh) reality that is presented to them, and trying to do so with joy. What struck me is how much we could learn from these folks about what it means to be a community – children were running and playing the street, and everyone seemed happy to interact and share. I’ve felt more unsafe walking down a busy city street in New York, or even late night at Denny’s in my hometown in Maine. I don’t want to idealize these people and places, but again, these are the things I saw and how I was greeted. To me, even a brief visit thus far has been incredible. More in Palestine tomorrow.
What’s your name?