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Sunday, February 1, 2015

Entry 4: Jaffa to Ramallah

Jaffa to Ramallah

Wednesday, Jan 21

After several days of procrastinated packing I finally left with goodbye hugs to my friends. I must admit I was sad to go but I didn't want to get too comfortable.

Right now I'm in the mindset that I need to keep traveling, I left the Milk and Honey hostel because I could feel myself getting too comfortable there. I made great friends and it was sad to go but I felt like I had to because I'm traveling -- that's what you do when you travel, right? Yet when I walked away with my heavy backpack slowing me down, there was an additional weight of regret pulling me back to Milk and Honey as if I wanted to stay longer.

The warmth of the sun and clear skies gave plenty of room for thinking my plans over though I trekked onward to an on-ramp Ori suggested to try hitchhiking, or "tremping" as they call it in Israel. Swaying in my arms in plastics bags were a fire starter and fuel kit that I collected from guests who left them behind, dried fruit, nuts, and granola to ensure my sustenance for the coming days.

I waited a half-hour until I met Shoshana, a New Jersey native who picked me up on her way to her Jerusalem home. We talked the whole time about our home country and why we left.

Once she dropped me off I took the short walk to Abraham Hostel where I checked in for free, as fellow hostel workers get three free nights there. Soon after, I met up with my friend Zoe, an experienced traveler helping me spread my wings and fly, who toured me through the city.

After a long day I rested my head in a crowded dorm room of Abraham Hostel.

Thursday, Jan 22

I woke up early to get first in line at the Ministry of the Interior's Jerusalem office where my attempt to extend my visa was thwarted by a bureaucratic delay, which I was warned is horrifying -- the earliest appointment I could get was February 9th, one day before my visa expires. Whatever, I'll get there early that day too, and if they don't accept it then I will quickly trek to the Southern Israeli city of Eilat where I can hop to Aqaba, Jordan and back, though they may only extend my visa for ten days. If this happens then I will try the Egyptian Sinai and back, or maybe move on to Cyprus.

I returned early enough to score a second breakfast at Abraham Hostel where I found a former guest of Milk and Honey, Tseda, an American researching for her senior thesis on the history of medical attention to refugees (I think? I forget).

Stressed about my visa circumstances, I wandered around the city and ate a mini cup of Ben and Jerry's cookie dough (so thankful they have it here) until I ran into my Norwegian friend from the asshole-led Jerusalem Gardens hostel, Bjørnulf -- Beo for short. I forgot to write about it in my last post but I ran into him at the Milk and Honey Hostel too, as he wanted an escape for a day, so it was a crazy coincidence to see him again. He lifted my stress and I went straight back to the Abraham Hostel's wifi to work out my situation.

While I could have stayed for free at Abraham Hostel, I ditched my reservation to CouchSurf with Ira from Silver Spring, Maryland, a town fifteen minutes away from my hometown of Scaggsville! Ira hosted another guest along with me, Claudio from Italy, and regaled us with tales of his activist youth in the 70's.

Friday, Jan 23
Friday and Saturday I found another CouchSurfing host, Shiri, a chemistry student at Hebrew University who cooked me and her friends a fabulous vegan dinner that kept me full for days. Like me, she grew up Jewish but is now atheist, so we bonded over that.

It's interesting actually, my time here in Israel has made feel less Jewish. Non-religious and atheist-Jews in America often still culturally identify with Judaism, joking and mocking their own Judaism to stick out as a form of identify expression in a Christian dominated culture. I know some such American Jews who casually joke about themselves openly to their friends as if to remind themselves and others about their Jewish background. Not that this is a bad thing, it creates a sense of community and belonging out of a tiny percentage of society who would be alienated otherwise.

However Israel doesn't have this because of the Jewish dominated culture. It's not necessary to joke about getting Chinese food for Christmas when nobody forces Jesus down your throat. The secular and left leaning Jews I've met here are actually disgusted at the increasingly religious-right government and certain parts of the population, so they eschew Judaism all together to create bonds rather than joking about their own Judaism like American Jews do. When showing my avocado seed carved Star of David to an Israeli I met he even compared it to the Nazi Swastika, asking me to get rid of the nationalism from his sight.

I can't deny my Jewish cultural identity though since I was raised with it but when the Netanyahu administration ties Judaism with Israeli Nationalism it becomes elitist when one does deny the Palestinian struggle.

Ok, that's enough pseudo-anthropological rambling, let's return to my blog.

Sunday, Jan 25

I left Shiri's place early to ensure my procrastination habits of a few days before would not resurface, leaving the fire starter and fuel here as I didn't want to bring that through the checkpoint. Standing at two of my bus stops on the way, I mentioned to the Israelis waiting with me where I was going to which they gravely warned me to be careful and wished me luck not to get killed. The only thing that scared me, I told myself, was how ignorant Israelis were -- buses are segregated, after all. (Keep this is mind as you read though as I end up scared nonetheless.)

I got to the bus station for Palestinians at around 3:00 PM, where a friendly one-armed man enthusiastically helped me toss my giant backpack and grocery bags under the bus and asked for twenty shekels, which I assumed was for the bus ride. I think he ripped me off though, using ten of those to pay for his own ticket, and since asked me for more money when I sat next to him. After he fell asleep, I occupied my time with staring out the window, keeping silent and enjoying the Arabic language in the air.

Passing the checkpoint is a breeze going in; it's on the way out that gives Palestinians hours, usually a full day, of trouble. During this bus ride I saw the apartheid wall up close for the first time -- it was surreal, a high wall with barbed wire rounding the top decorated by watch towers and occasional graffiti. I didn't get a photo, I wanted to wait until I learned the culture a bit first before I pulled out my iPhone's camera. As the blue dot on my phone approached Area D Hostel, which I knew had free wifi, I exited the bus and thanked the driver, shukran, lugging my bags across the street toward the hostel while people smiled at the American idling by.

Soon after borrowing a phone to call my CouchSurfing host Mohanad, he took me to Ramallah Cafe for hookah where he smoked as we chatted for a couple hours. He bought me Chinese take out as we headed for his home in the north of the city. I have a private room, bathroom, and shower in his beautiful apartment, recently emptied by his ex-wife and three-year-old daughter who he plans to see in Sweden soon. Mohanad works at a bank while studying for his master's in International Development, mountain biking with his friends in the little free time he has, so his busy schedule allows me to explore the city by myself.

Edit: check out this article about him and his friends mountain biking in Palestine!
Or this link:!Mountainbiking-in-Palestine-Thats-Ramallah-Baby/c166d/55ae11330cf286eab0280e10

Monday, Jan 26

I woke up early yet spent much of the morning on my phone looking over my plans, with a late start out of Mohanad's home. While it's a half hour walk away from the city center, I took the stroll to see the route. Perplexed by a fancy KFC/Pizza Hut on the side of the road, I wandered in expecting to check it out for just a minute when a man exclaimed at me to help him finish his meal after learning I was American. I rejected at first but he insisted and eventually left me alone for his taxi job, which I first thought he was slyly making me pay for his meal but he turned out to be a sincerely nice guy.

Full with grease, I kept moving toward the city center where a swarm of kids ran into me at the afternoon market trying to communicate with what little English they knew, though it was much better than my Arabic. They cheerfully led me to their "boss man," an eighteen-year-old named Ali selling vegetables for his father's business, who's Arabic name on Facebook is علي أبو عطيه. The rest of the day and through the night I learned what Palestinian hospitality means. It's as if their national sport is throwing kebabs and pastries at Americans. From a teen worker handing me raw fennel drizzled with lemon juice to an old man walking by who came out of nowhere and literally pushed his half-eaten doughnut into my mouth out of giddy generosity, I was stuffed until the next morning.

Ali asked me more than a few times if I was scared to which I replied that I wasn't. No way, why would I be scared? They are people just like any other on Earth, kind and compassionate at heart. But could he see something that I couldn't? In the middle of goofing around with the kids at the busy market, an older guy around my age cut through the crowd and inched to my face with a stern glare, seemingly annoyed at me as if I was disturbing his family by my presence. I calmly asked him if he was ok, repeating myself several times yet got only a silent, angry glare in response. After a full minute or two of this he let out an incomprehensible yell -- immediately followed by a chorus of laughter as the kids realized their older brother was joking with me long before I did. He walked away chuckling at my fear. Without me realizing it, Ali was right. It was just 24 hours after arriving in a new place and new culture, the Arab world and the "Other," why wouldn't I have some fear and anxiety? Racism permeates us all subconsciously, it's naive to think I wasn't scared of entering the West Bank.

I hung out with Ali and his friends at the market until it closed shortly after seven, then we all headed to an Internet cafe in a taxi-van to spend the rest of the night goofing off, sharing music, and learning about each other's lives in butchered Arabic and English, while sipping a creamy, orchid tea (picture!). While it was mostly fun and games, they also showed me YouTube videos of the IDF countering Palestinian demonstrations and a montage of Palestinians who have died at the hands of the IDF. While they love Americans they don't like our government, which backs Israel. Interestingly, I never heard the word "Jewish" from anyone yet; it's pretty clear to me that despite some Israelis claims otherwise, Palestinians hate Israel, not Jews. My CouchSurfing host has Israeli friends he invites over, though with difficulty due to the wall. I brought up the subject on my own and told him I was Jewish, which didn't phase him at all.

Ali invited me to stay with his family that night, who gave me another full dinner. I wasn't hungry but it would be rude to refuse and it was tasty anyway. After I told his Dad I was in Israel before coming here he gave me a long talk in decent English about how Israel doesn't exist, it's all Palestine, which I was grateful for the opportunity to listen and not argue. He also spoke in Arabic to Ali at length about their financial situation; I could see the poverty in their faces though they didn't specifically mention it to me. Hanging on their family's wall and as Ali's Facebok profile picture is a portrait of one of his sons who was taken prisoner by the IDF even though he was not armed.

They have a small television and wifi, though it's a crowded home as I slept in a small bedroom with two of Ali's brother's while Ali got out an extra mattress to sleep on the living room floor. I only saw Ali's Mom a couple times, who wore a headscarf and didn't make eye contact with me. While Ramallah isn't as traditional as the rest of the West Bank women are still often kept separate from men, especially when guests arrive. In the streets however I see plenty of women without any headscarves. I was warm enough to sleep most of the night however the morning call to prayer at around 5 AM wouldn't let me fall back asleep. The mosque must have been very close to his home because it was very loud and kept going for at least twenty minutes. In a odd sense of familiarity and curiosity I realized that while it was definitely foreign to me, it was similar to Jewish music heard in synagogues as a minor keyed tune.

Tuesday, Jan 27

7:00 AM breakfast at Ali's was sweetened tea, though he bought me some plastic wrapped pastries on the way to the market as well. He works twelve hour days with his family yet makes the best of it despite the conditions, giving travelers like me all he has. I hung out at the Area D Hostel typing this up (check out the view!) and checking emails then went back to market where I was given more fruits and pastries out of hospitality.

Notes, Tuesday through Sunday:

Mohanad finished the book he had for his course, "Popular Resistence in Palestine: A History of Hope and Empowerment" by Mazin B. Qumsiyeh, so he lent it to me for reading.

One night, Mohanad took me to meet his friends at an Irish pub where I met other CouchSurfers, NGO workers, and travelers. It was like a UN meeting of various countries sipping alcohol in Ramallah. Another night we went out again to a different bar and then to a dance club at the top floor of a fancy hotel.

I mostly wandered around the city, not doing anything in particular, but simply exploring and getting to know the place. Often people of all ages shout out to me "Welcome!", wave in glee, or even hand me a piece of whatever fruit or vegetable they are selling. Once some teens followed me around asking for shekels, the Israeli currency also used here, but adults caught them and sternly told them to back off (or at least I assume that's what they said since I don't know Arabic). On the other hand, I've had kids offer me money too, which I had to flat out refuse -- there's no way I'm taking that from them. While I typically walk everywhere to save money, walking to the Mahmoud Darwish museum honoring the late poet some people offered me a ride in their car right up to the front gate.

I left my CouchSurfing host Mohanad to spend one night for free at Area D Hostel on Saturday night, since a volunteer there invited me when he visited Milk and Honey a few weeks ago.

I start volunteering at the Hostel in Ramallah today, Sunday February 1st, for at least one month, and I may volunteer at a refugee camp or teach English during the next month. My first week here has been incredible, here's to the rest of my time here.

Adding on: Just got to the Hostel in Ramallah, and was greeted by a wonderful guitar voilin duet rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" as we're making dinner together. I like it here already, great music, great food, great people.

List of Arabic words I've memorized so far (pardon me if I butcher them):
Salaam Alaikum -- hello, goodbye, peace. Like Shalom in Hebrew
Layla Sayeeda -- goodnight
Jayeed -- good
Mahyi -- water
Shukran -- thank you