After we come home from a lengthy trip somewhere new, I like to pause and think about it; what did we learn, was it worth doing, would I go back, could we have done it on our own. I like to write while memories and impressions are still fresh and after I have recovered from jet lag. As I am writing this, we have been home five days and I am still unable to sleep more than six hours a night; not quite back to normal. I am at the tipping point: memories are already less vivid but I still feel deficient in the cognition department. Here goes..
We took a Nile cruise in the 1980’s and have stopped in Egypt on cruise ships occasionally, so we had some vivid impressions of that country and what it has to offer. We wondered how well it had coped with the six year period after Arab Spring when few tourists dared to return. One past cruise ship stop in Jordan left us feeling frustrated and knowing that there was so much more to see and do there. Even after this trip, that feeing still lingers. But the sticking point for our recent trip to the Middle East was Israel and its step-brother Palestine. All the bombings, wars, invasions and intifadas over the years left us wondering how dangerous it really was and if it was worth the risk. For deeply religious people seeing the places where Jesus walked and the prophets taught and God appeared to them, the attraction was strong. But that’s not us. However, after years of wandering the world, we knew that the media tends to overdramatize problems and when they bring troubles into your living room, they can feel like they are your problems and present everywhere. After previous experiences with OAT (Overseas Adventure Travel) we were confident that with their strong relationship with local guides and trip planners, we would not be put in danger and we should put our concerns aside and simply trust that it we would be the better off for having finally experienced this part of the world. And this was so. As with previous OAT trips, the guides we met in each of the four countries enhanced our understanding of their part of the world and made our visit there so much more than looking at sites and sights. Those are things you can do on your own. Meeting local people and learning why this part of the world cannot find peace despite its residents' fervent desire for it was priceless. I had not understood that while planning this trip and making arrangements for us, the lives of our guides had also been enhanced by their interchange with one another on our behalf.
I will never forget the meal we shared with the proud and happy woman who prepared it in her mud hut, precariously perched on the banks of the Nile. In Jordan we shared a meal with a Christian family, who had suffered to a degree from their minority status there, but it was clear that they felt safe and comfortable in a country that was overwhelmed by the influx of Muslim immigrants from Syria. As good Christians they wanted to help those less fortunate, but where do you draw the line when helping them begins to cause you and your family to suffer? Our hearts went out to the Holocaust survivor as she described her young life, having to leave her family before she understood why and ultimately working to build a new life complete with her surviving family members in Israel. But our feelings of empathy were taxed somewhat when she talked about the death of her grandson at the hands of a sniper when he was in a tank in Palestine. What right did he have to be there? And what right do we as we continue to function as the world’s policeman? For us the most illuminating time was spent in Palestine. After 9/11 the Arabs there have become bogeymen in the minds of many Americans. And here we met normal people trying to have normal lives, suffering because of the terrible decisions, graft and corruption of their leadership since the British gave away half of the land that they had been living in. We saw with our own eyes how they have become second class citizens in their own country. The constant encroachment and limitations imposed by their more powerful and better organized and funded neighbor have made living there untenable. But what should they do? Give up and leave? Go where? Throw another bomb or rock? If we could put aside those concerns and we cannot, all our natural sympathies would lie with Israel. After World War II the words “never again” are indelibly etched on our hearts. The Israelis have built an efficient, clean and modern country out of a lot of sand and rocks. We could easily imagine ourselves living in any of their cities that we visited, at least until we spotted another bomb shelter. But the self righteous and bigoted talks we heard both from the retired member of the Israeli government and the man from Chicago who lived in an illegal settlement, left us feeling that no peace will every come to this land at least until a Nelson Mandela comes along who can forgive, forget and move forward. The importance of good leadership becomes ever more evident.