Friday, April 01, 2011

Israel - Chapter 1

Life is full of adventures. When I, a nonbeliever, had the opportunity to visit the Holy Land with a group of Mexican Catholics on a pilgrimage, I accepted.

It was a whirlwind tour which began in Oaxaca City Thursday, March 17 at 11:30 p.m. Originally we were to travel to Mexico City on a Mexican commuter flight. Although cheap, it proved not to be reliable.

Lesson learned: When you must make a connecting flight it’s not a good idea to use a commuter because they can change their flight times at a moment’s notice, you won’t get your money back, and your ticket may be useless because you can’t make your connection.

Instead of flying to Mexico City mother Ruth, daughter Ruth, Concepción and I took a six hour bus ride on an ADO Platinum bus. Platinum buses, as the name suggests, are first class. Individual television screens are built into the seat in front of you, when boarding you are given earphones, a blanket, pillow and a bottle of water. The seats are more comfortable than the somewhat cheaper ADO buses.

Although Mexican buses travel by way of toll roads called Cuotas, which are generally in excellent condition, last year’s record breaking rains played havoc on the relatively new Cuota between Oaxaca City and Mexico City. The ride was a bumpy one. A fellow passenger fell and broke her arm on the way to the bathroom. The bus waited for an ambulance delaying our arrival in Mexico City. Because we had a long wait at the airport the buses delay wasn’t a problem.

The flight to Madrid was eleven hours and left Friday at 12:20 p.m. We had another long wait in Madrid before our five hour flight to Tel Aviv.

At the Tel Aviv airport we gathered up our luggage, went through immigration and found our way to exit door number two. We had been traveling for two days and still had a long ride to Tiberias, which is where our journey through Tierra Santa (The Holy Land) would begin.

I decided months ago I would simply follow along, mother Ruth is the undisputed jefa (boss) of her family and throughout the past months she has assigned daughter Ruth and son Erik tasks. Erik thinks he’s looking after the women in his family. Daughter Ruth thought she was in charge now that we were in transit. I knew differently. Mother Ruth is always the boss. Mother Ruth has raised her children well and as young adults they are all confident capable people. I was in good hands.

Daughter Ruth, armed with the packet of information well prepared by her brother made sure we were in the correct van, a New Gate Tours van that would take us to our hotel in Tiberias. “Oh yes,” the driver of a shuttle assured her. He knows New Gate and he will take us there. The common language daughter Ruth and the driver speak is English, which the driver speaks poorly and daughter Ruth speaks very well, as a foreign language. We arrive at the New Gate, which is literally a gate that leads into Old Jerusalem. We’re in the wrong city. He demands his fare, and tells us it’s a three hour drive to Tiberias and he has no intension of taking us there. Until now I haven’t been paying attention.

Daughter Ruth, no fool, suggests to the driver that he take us to the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, where we will be staying after our visit to Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee.

Mother Ruth and daughter Ruth go into the Noter Dame hotel to explain the mess we are in. Daughter Ruth asked me to make sure the suitcases stay in the misbegotten van. I tied, but to no avail. The driver was determined to dump us on the sidewalk and be on his way.

Conceptción remained in the van. I disembarked to the sidewalk along with the suitcases. Concepción speaks Popoluca, Zapateco and Spanish, none of which the driver speaks. Still she argued with him and he argued back. I tried to mediate speaking Spanish to Conceptción and English to the driver. I was both challenged and intrigued. It got very tricky when the driver threatened to call the police.

I urged Concepcion to be tranquil, that we are in a different country, but I had no success. She continued to argue with the driver in a language he didn’t understand. “Give me a minute, I urge him, I’ll go get Ruth, she will be more rational.”

I went into the hotel where Mother Ruth and daughter Ruth were discussing our predicament with the desk clerk.

“The driver is leaving. There’s nothing we can do to get him to stay. Concepcion is refusing to get out of the van. The driver is threatening to call the police,” I calmly reported.

Mother Ruth went out to the van and I followed. She said something to Concepcion and Concepcion left the van. I apologized to the driver. “Then will you pay the fares?” he asked. “No,” I responded. He would be, he told me, in trouble with his boss because the van was not his. “Oh well” I think, “Perhaps this is a lesson learned. Listen when people are telling you where they need to go.” However, I said nothing more. It was time to move on.

The hotel, which as it turns out is well acquainted with New Gate Tours, contacted the tour company, a taxi was arranged and after a cup of cappuccino and a bite to eat we are on our way to Tiberias.

Our trip to Tiberias included a drive through Palestinian Territory. A guard at the checkpoint took our passports. “Excuse me. I must get out of the car and talk to the guard. I do this anytime my passport is taken. My passport is very important,” I tell my fellow travelers.

“So is mine,” said daughter Ruth.

I opened the taxi door, walked toward the Palestinian guard holding the biggest automatic machine gun I’ve ever seen, and our passports. I moved close enough for civil conversation and yet maintained a respectful distance.

“Excuse me, I said. “I feel compelled to make this point. I’m a Canadian. My passport is very valuable. The only reason I’ve handed it over is because I have no choice. As soon as it is possible I would like it back, I’m not letting it out of my sight, and I’m not leaving without it.”

“It’s just what we do,” he said. “I understand,” I said. No use in repeating myself. I’ve been clear. There are only two guards at this checkpoint, a male and a female.

A bright spotlight was shone over the taxi. After a thorough examination of the taxi’s interior the male guard climbed under it. While he inspected the taxi the female guard escorted us, and everything we had in the taxi, into a building. I watched her as she placed our passports on a shelf. The system used to inspect everything was the same as in an airport, with a twist, the scanner we walked through appeared to be malfunctioning because no matter what, its alarm sounded. Eventually the guard gave up and ignored its sounds.

After the luggage went through the scanner the guard researched the luggage and then went through everyone’s purse, except mine. As she searched I watched the passports still sitting on the shelf.

“Do you want to search my purse?” I asked.

She shrugged in the same manner she had shrugged when she had made the decision to ignore the scanner that won’t stop sounding its alarm, and didn’t search my purse.

I looked out at the car. I couldn’t see the male guard. “Are we through?” I asked.

“Yes,” she says.

“May I have my passport please?”

She handed me my passport. “Because you are Canadian,” she says.

“Yes, my passport is very valuable, many people want a Canadian passport.”

All the passports were returned. We climbed back into our taxi and were on our way.

The hotel in Tiberias, having been contacted by New Gate Tours, was aware of our unexpected detour. Our supper was waiting. We met our guide, Padre Arturo, a priest from Madrid. He is a handsome, charming man. I wondered, as a nonbeliever, why on earth he became a priest, but I wisely kept my thoughts to myself.

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