Saturday, August 29, 2009

Celebrity Equinox - Private Tours, Israel and Conflicts in Perceptions and Perspective

The next couple of posts are going to be difficult to write; not because of too much to do, but because there is so much to say. As I write this I think I will provide a bit of an overview and my thoughts of private versus ship’s tours – giving examples – but will leave many of my personal thoughts…and there are many of them (and many more still being formulated)…for discussion on The Gold Standard Forum and elsewhere upon my return.


If I have not previously mentioned it, Israel is quite thorough about checking passports. Israeli officers boarded the Celebrity Equinox days before our arrival in Haifa to first review each passport and then to meet every person and put the face to the passport. I am not sure if it was only my family since I have endorsements to non-Israel loving countries or if it was shipwide, but our passports were not stamped. Boarding Cards were issued to all passengers which were delivered to our stateroom the night before arriving. Upon disembarking you show your Boarding Card and your SeaPass. (The same thing upon your return.)

Disembarkation was a breeze and we were off with our truly exceptional private guide, Ronnie. I will say that we took the “Jewish” route heading down the coast visiting Caesarea (truly fascinating), through Tel Aviv, all the way to Jaffa, where we had a great lunch in a little Falafel joint…and it was definitely as local as you can get. We then drove east to Jerusalem and had – what I thought at the time was – an in depth overview. [Note: The ship’s tours took the Eastern route to Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee; areas probably of more interest to Christian passengers. There was a bit of complaint that this left their journey onward to Jerusalem with little to see as they traversed the desert near Jordan.]

Our last stop for the day was East Jerusalem, where the Jerusalem Hotel is located. There was a bit of culture shock, when the clean streets and orderly way of life changed to a frenetic and seemingly disorganized and loud one filled with litter and dirt as the Arab inhabited area prepared to break the fast of Ramadan.

The Jerusalem Hotel was a bit of a respite from it all. It is not a sparkling clean and modern hotel, but the Palestinian owned and operated hotel staff was friendly and anxious to please, if not polished. Our room, with beautiful stone walls and floors and three large arched windows (no real view though) had two queen sized beds. The bathroom was, shall we say, not the best, but functioned.

We had ordered a rollaway bed which was missing. They quickly brought in what seemed like an old mattress and clean sheets and unceremoniously dropped the mattress on the floor and left. A few minutes later the bed frame arrived…which almost worked, collapsing as my son sat on the bed. My family was not thinking very highly of me at the time.

So we decided to take a walk to the Old City of Jerusalem; only a long block away. We walked through the Palestinians preparing for Ramadan break fast and hawking pretty much any junky looking thing you can think of. We eventually made to the Damascus Gate and…it was more of the same, and definitely not what I expected as my first experience in the Old City. I had much to learn and there is oh so much to understand! We essentially gave up and walked back to the hotel.

The kids were happy with the flat screen TV and tons of cable channels and I was able to take a little advantage of the complimentary Wi-Fi. I went to the attached, attractive, restaurant and ordered some water, sodas and a Palestinian beer (and, of course, forget its name at the moment). They refused to allow me to take them to my room, because that is what they do. The drinks arrived quickly, with the appropriate glasses and a nice dish of nuts. Things are looking up. And then…

BOOM. There was what sounded like an enormous explosion. My DW turned and looked at me with fear; with the look of “Our family is about to die.” I assume my look was sort of “I know, but I won’t let it happen.” So I raced to the front desk – trying not to look upset…especially because no one else in the hotel had any reaction at all – and was advised that to mark the end of the fast the tradition is to shoot off a cannon. Of course it had to be a block from the hotel.

My wife still trying to find a way to forgive me for placing my family in East Jerusalem in this hotel I convinced her that we needed to eat and that the food in the hotel restaurant looked good. So with trepidation we entered the restaurant…

And, as travel would have it, we had one of the most memorable experiences and wonderful experiences of our trip! We sat at a table off to the side in a very attractive garden setting. Next to us was an older couple smoking a shisha (water pipe). My wife asked about it and they struck up a conversation about how they just returned from San Francisco and offered my wife a try of the pipe, which she liked.

They left and our feast began. I ordered “Palestinian Mezza” which are, obviously, small plates similar to tapas or meza. We were to get 8 dishes, but they brought us an extra dish to try. The waiters spoke very little English, but after seeing we were enjoying ourselves (and I guess the suspicions or tensions reduced) they engaged us nicely. As is tradition in most Arabian cultures, forks are out and pita bread for dipping is in. I ordered a bottle of Cremisan, a white wine grown in Bethlehem and processed in Ramallah. It was not the best wine, but it really wasn’t the point.

After some more food and a second bottle of wine the children went back to our room (with concerns for safety now reduced) and my DW ordered up her own shisha with mixed fruit tobacco. When the kids came back to check in with us, they found their mom puffing away and thought it was cool (and much better than cigarettes since you don’t inhale!). Too much wine and shisha later we called it an evening. All of us had big smiles rather than the fears or concerns we arrived with.

We woke to one of the most moving days of my life. It was the day we “saw” Jerusalem. We saw the various important sites for Christians, Jews and, due to restrictions by the Palestinians, to a lesser extent Muslims. We saw the differences between the ways the Israelis cared for and improved things, how charity (tzedaka) has been utilized to improve both the lives of people and infrastructure, modern and ancient alike, and their forward looking perspectives vs. the Arabian approach which is more “in the moment” with little apparent concern for what was or what will be.

I have started to read This Week in Palestine, Issue No. 136. There is an article by Yousef A. Ghosheh entitled, “Resilience Revisited: A Young Palestinian Perspective”. He writes, “Palestinian youth are talented, motivated, and, to a certain extent, innovative. Yet the young men and women of Palestine often find it challenging to make it in the labour market or business world…[T]he youth of Palestine must learn to be persistent. The ability to maintain action and keep pushing oneself to the limit, regardless of feelings, is what many young people lack.”

I was taken back at first by the term “to a certain extent, innovative” because doing things and making things better just seems so obvious and ingrained in our thought processes. Then I began to struggle with the concept of asserting motivation exists, but then admitting “maintaining action and keep pushing oneself to the limit” is a serious problem. Without understanding, no less having, motivation and innovation, the Palestinian culture clashes with the Israeli and Western ones.

But enough of that, as I said, it was about the tour, but without having a hint as to the underlying issues, I cannot convey to you the benefit of having a truly experienced and caring guide. Being able to have one-on-one discussions with a knowledgeable and caring guide rather than merely scripted descriptions of physical places makes one’s experience in such complex areas really makes the experience much richer.

Another benefit was being able to walk into various sites without having to queue up for 45 minutes to 2 hours waiting to enter (required to deal with the large groups).

I did hear that quite a few people were upset with the Celebrity tours because they went to Bethlehem and Jericho; obviously famous places in religion. Why? Because the towns were so dirty and run down with virtually nothing of interest to see. Ironically I did not have the opportunity to visit them because they are effectively “no go” areas for Israelis. (And our guide warned us of their condition in advance.) Clearly I don’t think this is Celebrity’s fault and, as I have said before, some of my best experiences (good or bad) have occurred in the least likely places. If you want to miss certain places, or are unsure of their real value: Use a personal guide or ask your experienced travel agent.

One stop we made was the Holocaust Museum (Yad Vashem). This was a deeply moving experience that truly required a one-on-one guide to assist you on what becomes a very personal and emotional experience. It was, even for my 10 year old daughter (the youngest age allowed in certain areas for obvious reason), the most emotional place visited in our two days in Israel. I do not believe there were any ship’s tours to this museum.

Our tour did not end on such a note, however. My son has decided to start a collection of Zippo lighters from places he has visited. He wanted an Israeli one, so our guide called his wife and she scouted the largest mall in Jerusalem for us and found the perfect one. (Talk about personalized service!) We turned this into another local experience by having lunch at the food court. We ate more local Israeli food and spend some time observing what for me was a sort of culture shock. Hours before we had been walking down the street in utter filth with street vendors selling low quality “necessities” and then just a few miles away, we were at a mall nicer than the one closest to my home. It makes you think…and that, in large part, is what travel is supposed to be about.