The Church of the Nativity was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site the day before I went to visit. I didn’t know when I boarded the tour bus and I overheard a fellow passenger talking about it. The Church of the Nativity is in Bethlehem and Bethlehem is in the West Bank aka Palestine and thus the Palestinians have their first UNESCO site. WOW. Amazing. Later I learned this designation had caused outrage and controversy.
There are many sites worthy of protection in the West Bank: Jericho, oldest continual city in the world, Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, and Herodium, Herod’s fortress built on a volcano and quite possibly his burial site, to name a few.
So why the controversy?
I don’t pretend to really understand it. Somehow it’s tied up in a 1994 US Law that requires the US to pull out of the UNESCO if a non-state is recognized? That seems a little short-sited since China and Russia are now paying a bigger % of the fees and have more control. But …
That’s not really what I want to talk about. What I want to talk about is this:
Why do people travel when they want everything to be like home?
As we climb on the bus an older (60ish) couple from the midwest get on and sit behind me. She’s upset because he forgot to buy her a bottle of water. I have two so I offer her one. We start chatting. ”Oh we’ve been on 7 tours since we’ve been here,” he says. ”How are you finding Israel?” ”It’s different alright.”
As an evangelical Christian (let’s call him Pat) Pat is upset that David’s Tomb is not a more pristine attraction here in Jerusalem. ”It needed more oomph” he says. He’s surprised by how close the Muslims, Jews and Christians are to each other; as if the people of all three religions haven’t co-existed here centuries.
On our way to the West Bank, Pat declares his dismay that the name of the Church of the Nativity may be changed because of “this UNESCO” thing? And he’s heard that ‘they’ haven’t kept the church in good repair. Pat: Wake Up. This isn’t Disneyland. This is an ancient building in one of the poorest parts of the world. It’s now a UNESCO Heritage Site so money can be raised to repair it.
One woman on the bus was excited because she finally found a McDonalds. ”They food they eat here is different” she explains. ”Just give me a burger and fries and I’m happy.” Me? I want Shwarma.
Pat and his wife were discussing the lack of a Roman Catholic service in English. They couldn’t find one in Tel Aviv and the only one they could find in Jerusalem was at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at 6:00 am. And Pat was adamant that 6:00 am was inconvenient for him.
I want to ask: ”Why did you bother to come?” One young woman declared her answer while talking to her seat-mate: ”Oh, it’s on my bucket list”. Check. Bucket List Item 12 completed. Yup. Still American.
I love traveling. It opens my mind and breaks down prejudices I didn’t even know I had. Conversing with taxi drivers, bar tenders, hotel staff and other guests give me a fuller picture of the world around me. Mostly though I learn about myself. When I travel I am awake. Really awake and working to be open and to understand what I’m experiencing. That’s one reason I like to be behind a camera when I travel: it forces me to be present.
Walking where ancestors walked. Walking on mosaic floors built 1200 years ago. Eating in a restaurant tucked inside a building shaped during the 4th Crusade. These are the experiences that bring me closer to the past and to the world around me. These are the experiences that help shape my future and let me see myself better.
It’s thrilling to walk through markets and see the food stalls, the artisans and people carrying on their every-day lives while I get to observe and experience it for just a slice of my life. I love being surprised by an off-chance moment, like when my friend Aviv took me to Jaffa and we found a jeweler and a hidden room full of artifacts from Ramses II through the Crusaders to Napoleon. It was found when the jewelry store was remodeling. How cool is that?
In spite of my lamentations about some of my fellow travelers, I find most to be engaging, curious and open to the experiences as they find them. I don’t need a bucket list. i don’t need a check list to feel I’m achieving something with my travel. i just need to be present and engage with the world as I find it.