Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A day in Bethlehem and the Dead Sea

Last week Dan's colleagues were in town for a business meeting.  Two came from Dubai, and two from Dearborn, MI.  One of the guys from Dearborn brought his wife and they stayed a few extra days, as this was their first visit to Israel - a "trip of a lifetime," she indicated on several occasions. 

A tour of Jerusalem was scheduled for the Ford team on Thursday. But because she expected to be on her own for Wednesday, she had scheduled a tour guide then as well, to see Bethlehem and the Dead Sea.  I offered (via Dan) to take her to dinner in the evenings and show her around Tel Aviv, so she reciprocated and invited me on her Wednesday tour.  It was my first time out toward Jerusalem since 2006, which was the only time I have visited Israel before we moved here. 

We started with a drive up through Jerusalem, to the Scrolls of Fire monument that is a memorial of the Holocaust. It is in the Martyrs Forest, comprised of 6 million trees, representing the lives lost. 

Then our guide, Yuval, took us to the border of the West Bank where we transferred to another vehicle (a border shuttle service for tourists).  I had my passport with me, but it turned out not to be required.  The border guards obviously knew the driver, a Christian Arab who lives in the West Bank but has ID allowing him to go back and forth.  Yuval did not go with us, likely because Israeli's are not generally allowed into the West Bank.  Crossing was easy, and once over there, we transferred cars again to join a guide who took us into the Church of the Nativity.  This is where they say Jesus was born.  There is a church built over the site, as with all the bibilical locations here.  It is a combination church, in that the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic each have a side to the building. 

Next we transferred to yet another guide in order to go about 5 minutes away to the Shepard's Field.  The Arab guides in Bethlehem have specific sites that they cover, not unlike a gangster's territory, however, these guys were focused on cycling through the tourists referred their way to earn their share of the daily fees.  I asked how things are over there for them.  Recent relative peacefulness has increased the number of tourists, and that's good news for them.  40% of Bethlehem is working in the tourist industry.  So they have a strong vested interest in peace.  One of the guides said he was able to freely go back and forth before 2000, when the suicide bombings in Israel drove the government to start restricting travel.  That is what lead to the building of the Wall that now restricts most Israeli's from the West Bank, and most Arabs from the rest of Israel.  But I met others there who do have access to travel back and forth.  They just weren't young men.  Profiling is a way of life here, unfortunately.  But it's working, for both sides, from an economic standpoint at least.  I don't see that it helps cross-cultural understanding.  Business and tourism seem to be driving forces in cross-cultural interaction, which from what I have seen tends to break down stereotypes.  We did pass by an interesting settlement outside Jerusalem (before we got to the West Bank) where Yuval explained that Christians, Jews, and Muslims are purposefully coexisting peacefully.  He said their model is based on the education system - they go to their own religious establishments for religious education in the morning, and have a co-educational environment all afternoon.

After the Shepard's Field our guide took us to his tourist shop and tried to sell us his over-priced goods.  Unfortunately this is standard operating procedure, as are kick-backs for taking your tourists to specific restaurants and vendors (as we learned once back with Yuval, who ate and drank for free everywhere we paid).  Once back with Yuval, he took us to a Kibutz for lunch and then we drove out to the Dead Sea and floated around at 1500 meters below sea level where the salt concentration is 8.6 times that of the ocean.  When I say float, I mean float!  Once you lift your feet up, you can barely get them back down to the mud.

From there, it took about an hour and a half to drive home.  This will be a guaranteed stop on your local Israel tour, should you decide to come visit us.

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