My first visit to Palestine was a three-week vacation in September 2013. Through online interaction, I had met and conversed with a Palestinian man from West Bank. Arrangements were made so that this person would be my host and guide during a short vacation. Excited about my exotic travel plans (I had never left US soil except for canoeing in US/ Canadian Boundary Waters), I extended my visit from 10 days to three weeks.
Only after I arrived did I learn my error in judgment. The third week of my visit was timed during the last week of Ramadan. According to Islamic custom, my host was obligated to visit and present gifts to all the members of his large extended family. I amended my plans and spent my last week in a bed n breakfast in the Muslim Quarter of Old City Jerusalem. (Stories of this remarkable week will be forthcoming.)
My travel plans had been made. Now it was time for the execution. (Freudian slip–yes, I was embarking on a risky adventure.)
The nature of my visit needed to be concealed. I could not announce to Israeli immigration officials that I was passing through Israel to spend two weeks as the guest of a man in West Bank, Palestine. Had I done so, I would have been interrogated, denied entrance, and put on a plane returning to USA.
Indeed, countless American tourists visit holy sites in West Bank–Bethlehem, Jericho, the Dead Sea, Arafat’s tomb in Ramallah, King Herod’s palace. Access to West Bank is presented in a way that seems benign. But the vast majority of visitors take day tours from Israel. Even when conducted by Palestinians, the tours are licensed and permitted by Israeli officials. American visitors do indeed visit the holy sites in West Bank. But they never see or mingle or interact with the real Palestinian people.
I arrived in Tel Aviv on a late afternoon in September. Since I was staying for three weeks, I had to bring my Hawaiian quilt. I was working feverishly on “He Poʻai Aloha,” a quilt to honor Queen Liliʻuokalani. A three week interruption in quilting? No way. So I was carrying two full-size heavy suitcases. (I marvel at guides who tell travelers how to tour with one carry-on.)
My first alarm went off when I de-planed and walked into the airport to witness soldiers armed with assault rifles. They were everywhere. My blood pressure ratcheted up. Oh, Ric, what are you getting into?
I stood in line for customs. Focusing on my breathing, I appealed to my body, Calm, please. When the heavy thud of the ink stamp landed on my passport and I was admitted to Israel, I breathed a partial sigh of relief. But my challenges were not completed.
My host had hired a taxi to pick me up at the airport in Tel Aviv. After I collected my luggage and finished the hurdles with authorities, I needed to connect with my transportation. By this time, it was evening and it was dark outside. I exited the lobby according to instructions given to me by my host. There I found–nothing. No one was waiting for me. No taxi was visible at curbside.
I pulled out my cell phone to call my host. I was in Israel, not Newark. I had no phone service. (Remember, this is my first time traveling abroad. I didn’t know these simple crucial details.)
Panicked, stranded, helpless, alarmed. I had to keep telling myself to calm down. If anyone from the authorities stopped to question me, what would I say? I needed to look as though I was waiting for connection without a hint of the hysteria I was feeling inside.
The weirdest part is: I don’t even remember how it resolved. Somehow, a man approached me and asked if I was Stark. He helped me with my luggage and we exited the airport in his taxi.
The taxi was driven by a Palestinian man. Licensed by the Israeli government, this man was permitted to travel between Israel and West Bank. I presume that he worked for part of the visitor tour services that I described. Presumably, he was taking a risk in helping me to enter Palestine for an unauthorized two-week visit.
The night did have a happy ending. The taxi crossed the border between Israel and West Bank without a hitch. I was delivered to the appointed address in Bait Laim (Bethlehem). I met my host, Farouk Al Jaarabi. I had arrived. An American visitor to West Bank, Palestine.