Journey to the Holy Land – Day 28, Part 1

November 20, 2010

I will begin my journey home in 11 hours so wanted to post this blog entry before ‘the long and winding road’ begins. I made my last lunch time trek up the most arduous street to climb in all of Bethlehem, Milk Grotto Street, for the last time today—at least in 2010.  Once again, as I have for the past two days, I stopped at the shrine and lighted a candle for my friend.  I did some last minute shopping at the Christmas House and headed back to the office to complete some unfinished projects.

My co-workers invited me to a going away celebration dinner after work and I enjoyed spending a few relaxing hours with them at the traditional Arabic Grotto Restaurant. Do you remember how I couldn’t fine the Latin Catholic Church at the Shepherds’ Field?  It is right next to this restaurant.  Too bad it is so dark that I can’t see it!

Food is served family style here for all to share with brick oven made pita bread.  In all the time I have been here, and I have eaten a lot of pita bread, I have never tasted any as good as what I had tonight.  Of course, the traditional hookah (locals refer to is as the hubbly bubbly) was a part of the evening for three of my friends.  I received a beautiful mother-of-pearl nativity figurine from the staff.  A little wine, good friends, great food—what more could one ask for on her last night in this Holy Land?

As I sit in the office typing this entry and night has fallen, I gaze out at the beautiful lights of Beit Sahour for the last time.  I shall miss this gorgeous sight. 

Speaking of missing things, I have decided that the rest of my blog entry for today will be devoted to the topics “Things I will miss, things I won’t miss, things I miss from home, and things I didn’t miss from home.  Here we go…. 

Things I will miss:

  • The HCEF Office Staff
  • Sunrise over Beit Sahour
  • Daily walks to Manger Square
  • Wonderful accommodations in Bethlehem.  Nicer than some “luxury” U.S. hotels I’ve stayed in.
  • Palestinian people
  • Fresh squeezed pomegranate juice
  • The school children as they gather near the school’s entrance
  • Morning cup of Arabic coffee made and delivered by Maha with a smile
  • LARGE Bath towels—more like a bath sheet
  • The Birzeit elders at the Senior Center
  • 80 degree weather in November
  • Caa-caa fruit and Jericho dates
  • Healthy food
  • Knafeh, a local dessert
  • Being able to walk alone at night without fear
  • Muslim call to prayer
  • The Calliope Musical Truck
  • Groups of Pilgrims in Manger Square
  • The Holy Sites

Things I won’t miss:

  • Slow internet connection
  • Barking dogs
  • Nightfall at 5 p.m.
  • Cats jumping out of dumpsters as I walk by
  • Attending Mass in a foreign language
  • The scary drivers and blaring horns
  • Seeing the Har Homa Israeli settlement every day from my office window
  • Hills, hills and more hills
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Israeli checkpoints

What I missed from home while I was here:

  • My family and friends
  • Fast internet connection and secure wireless access
  • Smoke-free restaurants
  • Traffic lights and stop signs
  • Highway access
  • Driving a car
  • R-A-I-N and thunder and lightning
  • MCC co-workers
  • Attending Mass at St. Patrick and Anthony Church in Hartford
  • Nomar, the Black Lab

What I didn’t miss from home:

  • My job (no offense MCC)
  • SNOW

Some final observations, similarities and differences:

  • Cell phones.  They are as much in use here as at home although the cell reception is BETTER.  Same law against using the cell phone while driving unless with a hands-free device.  Fine is 600 NIS (shekels) which is about $172.  Texting is very popular with the younger set as in the U.S.
  • Seat Belts.  There is a law that they must be worn.  Fine is $200 NIS ($56).  Interesting that the fine is so much lower than the one for cell phone use.
  • Cigarettes.  Lots of male cigarette smokers.  The culture bans it for women although I did see one woman out in public smoking and one in a restaurant.  One of my co-workers told me if a woman does smoke, it would be in a hidden place.
  • Cost of cigarettes.  Although cigarettes cost between 10 and 18 NIS depending on the brand ($2.77 – $5) and although that may seem low compared to the U.S, you must take into account the standard of living here where the income is much lower than in the U.S.  So whereas Americans now pay up to $7 a pack, the price is relatively comparable when income levels are considered.
  • Homeless People.  There are none in Palestine.  The culture here is that families take care of each other in whatever way necessary.
  • Single mothers.  There are none in Palestine unless a woman is divorced or widowed.  Should a woman find herself in the unfortunate circumstances of pregnancy before marriage, either a marriage would take place immediately or the woman would be hidden from the outside world until such time as she was ready to deliver.  She would then go to a social service agency and give the baby up for adoption.  I was told by someone who has personal work experience with this situation that people of the Muslim faith do not accept adoption as an alternative to out-of-wedlock births.  Sometimes the consequences for a Muslim woman can be extreme which is a good deterrent to sex outside of marriage.
  • Holidays.  Municipal holidays are November 15 Palestinian Independence Day and Labor Day on May 1.  Religious holidays include two celebrations of Christmas; one for most Christians on December 25 and one for the Greek Orthodox Christians on the Feast of the Epiphany January 6.  There are also two holidays for Easter—the traditional Christian Easter and the Greek Orthodox Easter which must occur after the feast of Passover.  I was told in 2011 both Easter celebrations fall on the same day.  There is also the Muslim Feast of Eid al-Adha which does not occur on the same date each year.
  • Nuns.  The religious sisters in Palestine still wear habits.  Most of them are a shorter version and their veils do not completely cover their hair although I have seen some how still wear the traditional habit.  Although you may see a few nuns in the U.S. still wearing the habit, it is much less common than here.
  • Grocery Stores.  There are no ‘supermarkets’ as far as I could tell.  All grocery stores seemed to be much like our ‘convenience stores.’  The local people go to the market to buy meat, fruits and vegetables.
  • Clothing.  Except for those Muslim women who wear the traditional long dress and/or head covering, most of the clothing seemed to be much like Americans wear.
  • Pharmacies/Drug Stores.  These are relatively small shops with just the basic medical supplies and medicine.  No mega stores where you can buy everything from greeting cards to flash drives as in CVS in the U.S.
  • Junk food/Fast food.  I did not see any fast food restaurants like the typical American chains.  I thought I saw a Subway once but couldn’t find it again.  If anything could compare to our ‘fast food’ it would be the restaurants who serve a limited fare of falafel, salad, pita bread, hummus and fresh vegetables.  This can be gotten quickly either by stopping outside the restaurant where it is being prepared or going in for a sit down meal.  When I was here last year, I was convinced that they didn’t have junk food.  I was wrong and you can buy your typical candy, chocolate croissants, cinnamon buns and cookies—even ice cream—at the grocery stores.  Even so, I believe they do not indulge in these things much as few of the population would be classified as obese.
  • E-mail.  They are not addicted to it like Americans are.  I sent e-mails inquiring about information at different organizations and usually I did not get a response for a week.  Even in the work environment, the staff is not likely to respond instantaneously as the Americans believe they have to.  In some ways, the pace of their society seems slower and less harried.
  • Health Insurance.  It seems as though companies and government agencies provide health insurance to their employees on an 80/20 cost basis.  Also some plans cover 90% of the cost of medical care out of plan.
  • Health Insurance for Retirees.  There is none—no Medicare or government sponsored program and purchasing health insurance for this age group, 60 and older, is extremely expensive.
  • Retirement.  Once a person who works for a government agency reaches the age of 60, he MUST retire.  A pension plan is provide by these agencies but the accumulated monies may be expended in the first few years of retirement.  People over 60 may continue to teach in private schools and may also seek a job from a NGO (non-governmental organization) in order to continue working. 
  • Salaries.  There is an equal pay for equal work environment in this culture.  Women and men receive the same rate of pay.
  • Poverty Line.  For Palestinians, earning $8000 or less a year is considered living below the poverty line.  This equates to about $700 a month which is the average income for most families.  In contrast the poverty line in Israel is $24,000.  A Palestinian unskilled laborer will make $660 a month in the West Bank but will be paid $1445 for the same work in Israel.  A skilled Palestinian will earn only $940 here but in Israel $3250.  I was told that the majority of skilled laborers are Palestinians so when Israel closes its borders, they only hurt themselves by not allowing the native Arab population to work in Israel.
  • Citizens helping Citizens.  As in the U.S. if a driver sees a traffic officer/speed trap, he or she will flash their headlights to warn on coming traffic.  And one final note about the driving—since they don’t have traffic lights (actually I heard a rumor that there are two in Bethlehem but I haven’t seen them) the way they slow drivers down is by putting speed bumps in the roads at frequent intervals.  It does seem to work for about 5 seconds!

I have reached the end of my list and must finish some last minute packing to get ready for my journey home in nine hours.  I have enjoyed your company on my travels, and I hope you have learned many wonderful things about the Palestinian people.  I will send an update when I arrive back in the U.S.A.  Until then, rest well and I look forward to seeing you soon.

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Published in: on November 19, 2010 at 10:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

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