17 July 2009

Jerusalem and Discovery

It takes a lot to surprise me after traveling to 96 countries. During my travel I have seen hundreds of cities and have a long list ones I love, and those I don’t. For my first nine days in Israel I have been working 12 hour days and what little time free time I did have was spent walking around Ramallah and Nazareth. I thought Nazareth was an amazing town, full of historical sights and small back alleys filled with fruits, deserts, clothing and lots of people --Nazareth is part of the religious pilgrimage tour. What I discovered within a few moments of entering the Old City of Jerusalem was that Nazareth is to Jerusalem what hamburger is to filet mignon. For someone like myself, who has always wanted to visit Israel, it is clear that I was ill prepared for what I found in the Old City of Jerusalem. I was uncertain where the Old City was located so I asked for directions and was told to go out the door, turn right, then left and walk to the wall. I thought that the shops and stores I was passing were part of the Old City, but then I saw the flow of people walking towards this huge wall and entering through an archway which led them into the Old City. I guess I was in the old “new city” but have since found out that there already is a “new city”. Old cities are not new to me – I have seen the island of Rhodos and its “old city.” I loved walking the back “steps” on Hong Kong Island leading me past seemingly ancient stores as I walked up a non-ending set of steps. Oh, and Istanbul, and its market which could keep you occupied for several days. As I walked through the entry way into the Old City, I had no idea what was awaiting me. It was immediately apparent that this was something rather special. The shops were carved out of what was once a solid rock. The walkways were a combination of stones and cement heading downhill for as far as I could see. I was definitely on the main route but just about every 100 feet there were paths leading to more shops. It was a true labyrinth and I was afraid of getting lost. When I am new to any place, I tend to slow down and notice everything, mental breadcrumbs as I call them. I walked up an alley until I felt I had gone far enough. I didn’t take any branches off the branch but instead simply returned to the main path and continued with my Old City discovery phase.

I went deeper and deeper into the old city. I saw rug stores, jewelry, roman antiquities, fruit stands, food stalls, clothing and churches. I joined a tour group for a few moments and discovered that the alley they were about to walk up was the oldest section of the Old City. I also learned that the church we were standing in front of was 700 years old. The arches I walked through were built between 1537 and 1542. If I go one direction I will see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and another way to the Western Wall and yet another to the Dome of the Rock. All of this exists within relative feet of each other. This is, as the guide book states, “above all a holy place.” I am not a religious person, but I did decide to walk into an old church and listen to the service. It was in Spanish so I did get the gist of the service - “Our father, who art in heaven” but in Espanol. It was somewhat calming for me to attend the service. I started writing a blog in my head and was anxious to return to my computer and write about the joy of discovery I had in the Old City. I started to head back, thinking about stopping at the English language bookstore I passed. I was thirsty, so I stopped to grab a soda. I asked how much the soda cost and the shop owner, who was probably 20 years old, told me five shekels. I handed him a ten shekel coin and he told me it was no good. This was the third time that someone had told me this, but I knew that there was nothing wrong with the ten shekel coin, so I asked for it back and I then handed him five 1 shekel coins. I asked him if they were any good and he said yes and placed them in his drawer. He then said, “let me see your ten shekel coin and I will show you why it is no good.” I thought he was being nice, as I have found everyone to be, but then he threw the coin in his drawer. I asked him to give me back the coin and he just stared at me in a non-responsive manner. Someone else came into the store and his attention was now on them. I interrupted him and asked for my $2.5 dollars back – I really asked for the coin, but that is the exchange rate against the US dollar. Again he ignored me so I said that I would get another soda if he was not going to give my money back. I got the soda, and walked out of the store with two diet cokes. Yes, I know, I should have just walked away, but more than anything, I hate being played for a dupe. Doesn’t matter what country I am in, I just hate being ripped off.

I walked out of the store and was about 50 feet away from the store when he grabbed me from behind. Yes, I knew he was coming, but I was not going to start a physical fight. He tried to grab the can out of my hand and I asked for my money again. Trust me, he spoke English very well. He grabbed once again for the soda, but this time he knocked it out of my hand and it hit the ground and burst open. I turned away from him and walked away. As I did I could see that a number of people had stopped to watch the standoff between a merchant and the American. All of the sudden the joy of being in such a beautiful location had quickly soured. I left the walled city and then sat down and felt that last bit of bright sun on my face. I played the whole thing through my head over several times and realized that I probably should not have done what I did, but it was so clear what he had done to me that I just simply couldn’t let it go. As the adrenaline ebbed away, and regained my composure, I thought about how beautiful the Old City was, and realized that all I lost was $2.50.

I walked backed the same way I came, following my mental breadcrumbs. I stopped at the bookstore again and purchased my most favourite newspaper, the Herald Tribune. I also purchased the Lonely Planet Guide to Israel and Palestine and then read the part about Safety and Security in Israel. It says that you should protect yourself from theft. Oh well, it won’t ever happen again.

P.S. The picture is of the vendor's shop who "ripped" me off.

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