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December 16, 2011

The Three (un)Wise Men, Episode 7

by drivingfarce

Well, you’ve made it to the final segment of the Israel/Palestine series.  If you haven’t yet spent enough time reading nonsense, you can get the rest of the installments here:  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.  However, if you feel that you have wasted far too much time on this already, please click on the small “X” at the top-right corner of your screen.

We spent one final night in Nazareth and headed to Mark and Andrea’s flat in Zababida, located in the northern part of the West Bank.  In the morning, we met up with our quiet, but friendly taxi driver and drove up the hill one final time to collect Andrea at her flat.

We headed south from Nazareth and into the hill country.  It is a far more deserted drive than what a map would lead you to believe.  I can understand why people may not want to call this area home anymore, as this is also the first moment I saw signs warning of land mines along the road.  As the road wound its way up over the mountain, the driver slowed his pace down a bit as he navigated the ridge.  We started our descent, and about halfway down the hill, he jabbed the brakes and got a panicked look in his eyes.  Then I heard it:  the pop-pop-pop of automatic rifle fire.  I looked out the window to my right and could see several Israeli military vehicles parked in the valley below.  The driver muttered something to Andrea and, with a look of sheepish relief, started driving again.

Welcome to the West Bank

Of all the features of the home, most impressive was the marble flooring—a true luxury in most of the world.  Mark explained that there were quarries surrounding the town, so the material was more of a convenient commodity than a luxurious amenity.  The only downside I could see to it was that it got cold in the rainy season, so from October to March, donning some sort of slipper seemed to be the norm, as shoes are never worn inside the home in the Middle East.

Our week in Zababida was spent discovering all sorts of things.  We observed the process for picking the olives used for pressing.  We followed these same olives from the grove to the town’s brand new centrifugal press that they were justifiably proud of.  I even managed to purchase a couple of bottles of the final Extra Virgin product at the grocer in town.

Olive Harvest

We took a tour of the Catholic high school where Mark & Andrea taught English.  I met the Headmaster, a pleasant enough, priest-like man who offered Jefe and me tea, but no cigarettes.  Judging by the state of the ashtray in his office, he must have run out of them.

While in the “big city” of Jenin, we took in a few stores and found a restaurant that served knefe, a dessert made from phyllo, ricotta-like cheese, and honey.  We weren’t even hungry, but Mark forced it on us, due to mounting social pressures.  (“When people go to Jenin and do not eat knefe, we laugh at them.”)  With some time to kill in Jenin before the shiroot left for Zababida, a relaxing game of chess with tea seemed to be in order. Everywhere you go in Middle Eastern cultures, you find older men sitting on plastic chairs, on opposite sides of a backgammon board, smoking shisha while drinking tea.  I always thought I’d want to spend my retirement traveling or restoring a precious car.  After spending a couple of hours trying this tea-shisha-chess combination, I had to admit that it appealed to me.

After nearly a week in Zababida, we had to say our goodbyes to Andrea as Mark accompanied us back to Jerusalem for the day while she continued teaching.  Goodbyes also had to be said to all the wonderful neighbors and friends that we met in this little town.  It was a difficult task to undertake.  A little town in the middle of nowhere welcomed us with open arms.  Everyone was more than willing to feed us, joke with us, and visit with us in their homes.  Even with the reputation of this town as a political hotspot, the bullet holes in walls across the street, and F16s flying maneuvers overhead, I never felt in danger.  The people were simply magnificent.

Downtown Zababida

Mark showed Jefe and me around the Old City of Jerusalem one last time, picking up some much-needed gifts for our families back home.  Jefe was also looking to score some CDs for the long flights back to Honduras, and Mark found just such a shop.  From the back of the store, I could hear Jefe negotiating prices with the owner.  A shrewd man, he was not going to be mistaken as your average American tourist.  The owner, perhaps even more shrewd, found himself up against a worthy (cheap) adversary and tried to avoid the bargaining altogether by switching to Italian.  Jefe’s romantic language skills kicked in as he met the man’s tactic and continued negotiating in broken Italian.  The shop keeper once again made a quick decision and switched to Spanish—a nearly fatal mistake.  Jefe cut him down with a few swift strokes of Central American price negotiation phrases, and the salesman finally admitted defeat.

Meanwhile, I was waiting outside the store to occupy myself with the goings on in the busy alleyway.  There was a merchant with a falafel cart tucked into an alcove in the street wall.  Business was slow, so he busied himself by tossing bang-snaps at a cat that wandered into his corner.  While the novelty fireworks posed no harm to the cat, both the cart owner and I were highly amused by the frantic reactions he was getting from the puss.

That night, we found ourselves at the Tulip Inn Golden Walls hotel just outside the Old City.  We said our goodbyes to Mark and tried to understand exactly where we should pick up the shiroot for the airport in the morning.  Jefe and I then scarfed our shawarma on the rooftop terrace of the hotel and took turns throwing scraps to the feral cats that decided to join us (I assume they figured out the elevator) as the setting sun cast a golden glow on the ancient walls of the city.  We turned in early, with dreams of Shen in our heads.

The next morning we grabbed our luggage and headed up the street to the New Gate where we would meet our transportation.  We had walked this road before–not much more than a half-mile–without any trouble the first several times.  That morning we were each loaded down with two bags of luggage:  one containing our own possessions and one packed full of books that Mark had sent along with us as part of their move back to the States in a few months.  The trek up the hill to the pickup point took far longer than I expected, but we still had to wait on the van soaked with the sweat of hauling 60-pound suitcases.

Once at Ben Gurion Airport, we tumbled out of the van and made our way toward the terminal.  Jefe and I immediately found ourselves in the crossfire of camera flashes as another group of far more interesting men emerged from a bus and made their way to the ticket counter.  Undaunted, we continued on our way and eventually made it to security.  Ben Gurion is set up unlike any other airport I’ve been in.  Instead of dispensing with your luggage at the ticket counter, they require you to carry your luggage with you (as a traveling party) during screening in an effort to inconvenience would-be bombers and, as it turns out, would-be tourists.

Downtown Zababida

Jefe and I had our bags scanned and were immediately called over to the security kiosk for questioning.  I had nothing to hide, so I was quite open as I was interrogated by the very attractive female security agent (it’s almost as if they grow them there).  The one string of questions (of the many asked) that stood out to me was “Mr. Herr, how long were you in this country?”

“Just under 2 weeks.” I replied, with a twinkle in my eye.

“You have 2 bags for this time?  Mr. Herr, I am a heavy packer.  Not even I need this much luggage.  What is in the bags?”

Crestfallen at the thought of outpacking a girl, I sheepishly answered her question.  “Books.”

“Books?!”

“Yes, books.  Oh, and olive oil.”

“Okay, you can either open the olive oil or discard it.  We have to be sure it’s safe.”

This made no sense to me.  “But wouldn’t breaking the seal remove any possibility of it being safe?  It’s checked luggage, after all.”

I’m not exactly sure whether it was the quantity of books or olive oil, but I suddenly found myself waiting in a small room for upper management to come in and give me a thorough physical examination.  “When my manager comes in, you can take off your pants.” I began to disrobe.

“WHEN MY MANAGER COMES IN!!!”

“Oh…….sorry.”  I put my belt back on.

Eventually, the manager did come in and donned gloves as he checked my nether regions for either doves or bombs (maybe both?).  Not wishing to have this experience any more awkward than it needed to be, I broke the silence by asking, “So that bus full of guys that everyone was taking pictures of…..who were they?”

He rolled his eyes and said (as his latexed fingers swept over flesh, I didn’t realize I had) “They are the national football team.  They are terrible.  They lose every game.  They cannot score.  It is embarrassing.”

“Huh” was the best I could come up with under the circumstances.

Finding neither fuse nor feather on my deepest person, they allowed me to head to the plane where El Jefe would be waiting for me, cheap CDs in hand.  I was escorted to my gate by yet another attractive female security agent.  As we reached the final checkpoint she asked, “You are from Pennsylvania, yes?  Is it nice there?”

“Yes.  Quite nice.  You’ll have to come and visit sometime.”

She turned toward me and smiled.  “Yes.  Sometime.”

A distant voice echoed through the hollows of my skull.  “DON’T CRACK A SMILE!”

Still, I could not resist.

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