Jerusalem, Israel to Bethlehem, West Bank

06.27.2010

Today I left the relative comfort of Israel to head to the West Bank and explore Bethlehem and some surrounding areas for a few days.  I have a couch surfing host set up, and a little bit of an idea of what I want to do there.

I left Ma’ale Adumim (the settlement I was staying at) in the morning around 9a to catch the bus to the Damascus Gate to get to the Arabic Bus Station.  From the Arabic Bus Station, I took a bus for about 6NIS to Bethlehem.  It’s the most direct way to get to Bethlehem without having to walk through a checkpoint.  The Israel’s don’t seem to care who goes into the West Bank, but they do care about who leaves.

I went to the Arabic Bus Station and found the bus to Bethlehem.  It’s always interesting the looks I get when I go to this bus station.  I’ve gotten to the point of not even telling Israelis where I am going, instead I just say, “I need to get to the Damascus Gate”.  Otherwise I get a lot of questions and shoulder shrugs.

The bus was full by the time we left and we picked up people along the way too.  I thought we would have to stop at a checkpoint to get into the West Bank but we didn’t.  The bus driver was supposed to drop us off close to the center of Bethlehem, but he didn’t.  I ended up sharing a taxi to Manger Square with a couple from Spain.  Then I borrowed another taxi driver’s phone to call Fadi, my couch surfing host.  He had offered to pick me up in emails, but when I called said it would be best to take a taxi, so I did. 

I arrived at their house and rang the bell to go inside.  Many families who can afford it, have large apartment-style buildings with each family occupying a floor level.  This is the set up Fadi and Abeer had.  Fadi’s mother lives just to the side of the building in a house that has 2 foot thick walls and is over 100 years old.  She is a very devout Arab Christian, most likely Eastern Orthodox based on some of the icons and pictures of priests in her house.  Fadi took me over there to feed her pigeons and check her devotional candles.  She was away visiting family in Lebanon so I didn‘t get to meet her.

Abeer took me to the apartment I would be staying at for three nights.  It was very nice and I was looking forward to having some time to relax.

Before I get too far into this, I do want to share some of my initial impressions and explain why I chose to go to the West Bank on this trip.

First of all, why go to the West Bank?  Well, the last time I was there in 1995 with a large pilgrimage group, I distinctly remembering being ushered on and off the bus when we were in Bethlehem.  We were not allowed to really interact with any people and my only real recollection of that experience was the Church of the Nativity and the Shepherd’s Field.  This visit, I made an intentional plan to visit the West Bank and to stay there for a few days.

This is where Fadi and Abeer come in.  I found them on the couchsurfing.com website.  My initial reaction to their profile was these were people who could give me a good perspective on life in the West Bank and what it means to be Palestinian.  I was slightly hesitant to couch surf with them because they were asking for money ($15/night), which is completely against couch surfing rules (and against the very spirit of couch surfing).  I decided to go ahead and do it since it sounded like they needed the money to survive.

Well, once I arrived and saw their place, I felt a little bit like I had been taken advantage of.  Their house is nicer than mine back home.  They have a computer and a flat screen TV, things you would find in any American home.  Their house is fully furnished and very nice.  Fadi is a secretary at a local hospital and Abeer is a kindergarten teacher.  By American standards, they would be considered middle class.  I’m sure their income levels are not in the same bracket as an American middle class family, but that’s all relative to the cost of living in the West Bank versus the United States.

Since arriving in the Middle East, it has become quite clear to me that as an American traveling solo, I am seen as being rich and wealthy.  I am viewed as a “dollar sign” everywhere I go and it’s like everyone is out to get some of my money.  I am getting tired of it.  I sensed this same attitude with Abeer when I told her how I funded my trip.  I explained to her that I used part of an insurance settlement from an accident I was in on my scooter plus savings to pay for this trip.  She was incredulous that I wouldn’t have used the money to start a business or something.  I told her it was more important for me to travel and see the world.  The money issue began to not sit well with me.  I felt like I was betraying the very essence of couch surfing by paying to stay there.  I also felt like more of a customer than a guest in their house.  It really changed the dynamics of the interaction for me.

I had a late lunch with Fadi, Abeer and their children.  Abeer is a lovely cook and the food was delicious.  During the meal, they spoke very little English and lots of Arabic, so I mostly just sat there and enjoyed the food.  It felt a little bit awkward and eventually after the meal, I went back to the apartment downstairs to chill out and try to get caught up on my journaling.  Tomorrow, I plan to go to the Church of the Nativity, Shepherd’s Field and explore Bethlehem.