Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Bethlehem Blackout

Here is how I imagined Israel: brown, dusty land with brown, dusty buildings and a few brown, dusty plants. When people said, "Take lots of pictures!" I thought, "What could be more boring than looking at other people's pictures of dust?"

I didn't know this before we arrived, but we are here during the only "green" month of the year. When we got into the van and drove through Jerusalem at sunrise, here is what I saw: lush, green land laced with pink flowers and palm trees. Palm trees! Some of the roads were lined with deep green bushes or feathery grasses; one road was lined with these peculiar, short trees that Kathy told me are olive trees. The buildings are all made of white stone that glistens in the sunlight, and because of the hills, they look like there are stacked on top of one another. Jerusalem looks like a holy city on a hill in Florida.

Now, Bethlehem. Bethlehem is how I imagined Israel, although it rained a lot before we came, so it isn't dry and dusty. A few months ago I read a National Geographic cover story about crime in Bethlehem, and throughout our travel days I started to sense that we shouldn't broadcast that we were staying there. I wasn't sure what the fuss was about until we made it to the checkpoint--a series of booths and lines and turnabouts that were difficult to fit through and a puzzle to do so with luggage. Ingoing wasn't bad, but the outgoing "line" was a huddled mass of hundreds of Arab men penned in by chicken wire that wasn't holding up very well. We squeezed through groups of men who had been pushed out line. Finally we made it to the checkpoint, at which point I realized that no one had looked at my passport.

After a short cab ride, we made it to the Father's House and claimed our rooms. Pete and I have a bedroom, bathroom, living room and kitchen. One whole wall is a window that overlooks Bethlehem.At around five, everyone had scattered for various reasons--to pick up the rental van, buy a phone card, take a walk. At seven I became aware that I was alone in an open apartment building at dark in a National Geographic cover story location. Then I remembered Liz. I walked into the hallway and called her name a couple times. She stuck her head out of the door, looking relieved. Liz is exactly my age and is traveling with us to help Kathy coordinate meals and logistics.

A few minutes later we were playing cards in my living room, and the lights went out. Thinking that the switch had flipped on its own, I felt around on the wall for the light switch. That's when Liz pointed out that the entire city was black. "Maybe we should lock the door," I suggested. My door is difficult to lock even with ample lighting, so we decided to go to her room. We started down the dark hallway when we saw someone with a flashlight. "Jon, is that you?" I asked. A stranger pointed his flashlight at us, said something in Arabic, then hurried up the stairs. Liz and I grabbed each other's hand and stumbled back into my room. Eventually we got the door locked, and we pulled up chairs to the window to look over dark Bethlehem and a well-lit Israeli settlement. Apparently this happens about twice a week.

Everyone seemed to come home from their errands at once, and we realized that we hadn't eaten in fifteen hours. We walked downstairs to the restaurant (Jon and Nikki are friends with the owners) and the cooks made us cheesy chicken sandwiches with olives on the grill. You know how anything tastes good when you haven't eaten in fifteen hours? Well, delicious food after you haven't eaten in fifteen hours is an other-worldly experience. We ate sandwiches and Mediterranean salads to candlelight. And even though we cheered when the lights came back on, we all admitted that it had been more fun when they were off.

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