Some of you may not know that several years ago, I toured Israel with a group. I’ve written several posts about food and agriculture there as well as some of the typical tourist sites that hold Biblical significance. But the trip itself was a very different experience for me.
As someone who had visited quite a few countries before going as an independent traveler, I had long wanted to go to Israel but the occasional security concerns in that part of the world made me less confident about biting that off than some of the other places I could choose. But when friends in the Philippines decided to go and friends in the U.S. said they were joining the tour, I begged my way in the door.
The decision was made in just a couple of days and I had less than a month to prepare for the trip. A month when I was scheduled to do a lot of business travel and one in which I was looking to relocate. So, I left the planning to the experts and glanced through the itinerary focusing on some of the well known places.
The visits in these areas were really brief but they left an incredible impression. I mean for most of us Palestine is way out of our mindset.
First, the reality of the separation of the two governments is significant. After spending time at the Dead Sea, we headed toward Jericho, stopping at a truck stop so our Jewish tour guide could get off before we went into the city.
Tourists are an important source of funding so once it was clear we were a group of Filipinos on a pilgrimage, we were allowed to proceed. However, we were cautioned that we would need to stay together and stay close.
Although I must say, it felt like I should stay nearby, the reason was poverty and hopelessness appeared to be everywhere. The only hope there was in selling a few things to the Christians like us who came to Jericho to see the centuries old sycamore tree rumored to have held Zaccheus.
We crossed more of the desert and headed into the city, going into Bethlehem on the way in to see Shepherd’s Field.
Crossing through the security checkpoint for Bethlehem was more intense.
The walls dividing the city were high and military security services on both sides paid close attention to what was happening. We even had soldiers board the bus and look at us all closely.
There were two of us who were obviously not Filipino — a priest from Ghana and me. I won’t lie, it was stressful. At one of the crossing we faced a few questions from young men with attitudes and automatic weapons who came into the bus.
Although I don’t want this to be the lasting impression of my tour, the disparity between the living conditions, the tension on both sides, the feeling that something small could result in an escalation… those things do stand with me.
And every time I hear about the problems in the Middle East and Israel, my mind is clouded by what I saw and the fact that answers seem so far away from the reality of so many questions faced.
And yet, some of the other images that standout are of going out on the Sea of Galilee on a fishing boat, checking out the Dead Sea, and walking the Via Dolorosa. I’m just wondering whether I needed to also share my memories of the Palestian portions because the complexities in that part of the world need more discussion and some genius folks working on how to alleviate the tension there.
This month, I am trying to write some of the various thoughts and memories that have been floating around in my head or that I share as stories now and then. So far so good with the posts! Fingers crossed for the long haul.