Monday, April 13, 2009

A Tired but Happy Jew in Kathmandu

I left Jerusalem on Friday evening.  It was hard to say goodbye to the girls, especially Rosa, as I will not see her for another four months.  I cried, of course, as I walked back to my bed and breakfast to catch the shuttle to the airport.  And when I was there, I had more goodbyes: to Danny Flax, the proprietor, and two of the guests with whom I'd grown quite close over our ten days together: Elsie from Australia and Alan from New Zealand, both sweet-natured Christian Zionists in Israel for a lengthy visit and show of support.

My first flight was on Royal Jordanian Air from Tel Aviv to Amman, Jordan.  It is an incredibly short trip, maybe thirty minutes, basically up and down.  But the terrain sure changes--Jordan looks like a complete wasteland from the air, with not a speck of green in sight, a sharp contrast to the irrigated fields of Israel.  The only living thing I could see was a bunch of camels.  The scene made August in Boise look positively verdant (and with that said, I'll also confess: maybe the Jordanians are doing it right and we've got it wrong; we're starting to learn that the whole "make the desert bloom" idea may not be such a great one after all.)  

From the very start of the flight,  I got a better sense of what challenges Israel faces, living in the neighborhood she's in.  The flight magazine's "Jordan Briefing" section began by noting that Jordan is home to six million people, then described its borders as follows: "The kingdom shares boundaries with Syria, Saudi Arabia, the Red Sea, Iraq, and Palestine."  The map corroborates this description,with no mention of Israel--though here I was, flying into Jordan from Tel Aviv with a full planeload of Israelis!  

Then the flight attendant (who was very polite and respectful) handed me a free copy of the English language newspaper, The Jordan Times.  A headline declared: Israel Group Strives to Revive Memories of Lost Arab Villages.  The article described the work of a left-wing Jewish group called Zochrot (memories) which is calling for the re-population of Arab refugees into former Arab villages destroyed in the 1948 War of Independence.  This points to a major problem in the balance of power and public relations: there is no democracy in the Arab world, and therefore no dissenting voices.  But in Israel, everyone gets their say--including the far left and the far right, both of whose words are, in different ways, used to the benefit of Israel's enemies.  Last but not least, I read another article in the Jordanian Times, this time an editorial which proclaimed, Colonial Values Rule Again in Palestine and went on to describe Israel as the most vile colonial power on the face of the earth.  Whoa.  I'm not a right-winger on Israeli matters.  I recognize that Arab Israelis do not enjoy the same living standards as their Jewish counterparts.  We have a lot of important work to do. But Israeli Arabs still live better than their brothers and sisters in virtually every Arab nation.  Worst of all, this kind of vicious anti-Israel sentiment is coming from Jordan, which is, frankly, Israel's best friend in the entire Arab world.  It only gets worse from there.

That's when I arrived in Jordan myself.  The airport there is a grim place, indeed.  Lots of morose bureaucrats with guns and cigarettes.  I wasn't sure where to go, so I sucked up my manhood, walked to the Royal Jordanian information desk and asked for directions.  A middle-aged man in the Royal Jordanian uniform said, "I will show you" and took me about one hundred feet to the transit area.  Then he asked me for $20 for his efforts.  I asserted, "No!" and gave him a dollar.

It gets worse from there.  When I arrived at the gate, I heard them paging my name so I went up to the counter.  They told me that the bags I checked in Tel Aviv exceeded their weight limits by 7 kilograms--and that I therefore owed them $240 dollars (thirty-something dollars per kg).  I fought and fought and in the end, I lost and forked over the money.  What could I do?  They were not going to let me on the plane, I was sitting in a pretty hostile place. . . Needless to say, that huge baksheesh did not leave me a happy camper!

I then lamented this whole episode to a woman I met at the gate, Harriet Aswad.  She is the United Nations' communication advisor for the region, born in Atlanta but stationed in Amman for the last four years.  She empathized, noting the huge amount of graft in the country.  She also gave me her card and said that if I need help in Amman upon my return flight, I should give her a call.  Who knows--I may need to do just that.  She was a real mensch.  For all the criticism of the UN coming from the Israeli perspective, it is nice to know they have some good people working for them.

Leaving Amman, my next stop was Delhi, where I arrived after a four hour Royal Jordanian flight.  That was an adventure, too.  The Indian airport officials kept shuttling me and three Israelis, who were also bound for Kathmandu, through mazes of security and bureaucracy.  The next time I am tempted to criticize TSA and Homeland Security in the US, I will think twice--they are downright jovial compared to the airport security I met on this trip.  Indian military officials ended up taking our passports, telling us to trust them to make the proper arrangements.  What could we do?  We trusted them.  And after we sat for an hour or so, they did, indeed, return with our boarding passes.  About two minutes later, I heard an announcement over the PA system: "Calling all transit passengers for Kabul. . . all transit passengers to Kabul please report to counter three. . ."
"Lo todah--no thank you!" mumbled one of the Israelis--to which I added a hearty "Amen!"

All of this gave me a new appreciation for the nation I'd left--Israel. I've done my share of complaining about the noise and aggressiveness and difficulty of life in Israel.  I think that's because I've been comparing it to the US and Europe.  That makes sense--I came to Israel via the US and Europe.  But you would sure see Jerusalem differently if you arrived from Jordan or India.  This isn't entirely new to me; I've realized it in the past, when I returned to Israel from a week in Egypt on previous visits.  I've quoted an Israeli friend who describes Israel as a "third world country with first world stuff."  That may be true, but it sure is smooth and efficient compared to real third world countries!  Israel is still a new nation, without the history of Europe or even the US.  So it is not really fair to hold it to those standards.  By the standards of its own neighborhood, it is a spectacular success story!

Well, Rosa will surely point out that I can't really say I've been to Jordan or India.  In our family, where we like to keep track of the countries we've visited, Rosa and I have concluded that it only counts if you actually leave the airport. I didn't get out in either Amman or Delhi.  Still, it certainly was a new adventure just flying through those places.

At 8:30 am I finally arrived in Kathmandu.  Nepal is, interestingly enough, in its own time zone, 11 hours and 45 minutes later than Boise time (or 2 hours and 45 minutes later than Jerusalem.)  Apparently the forty five minute thing is because they don't want to be in the same time zone as India; it is a way of asserting their independence from the great power of the sub-continent.   My guide from Canadian Himalayan Expeditions met me and shepherded me through customs very quickly, which was really nice after my earlier difficulties.  Then he drove me to the Kathmandu Guest House, where I am staying.

And if you think Israeli driving is tough--and believe me, it is--it's nothing compared to Kathmandu.  Here there are no lanes at all.  Everyone weaves wildly, at high speeds, swerving to avoid cyclists, pedestrians, rickshaws--and cows, which walk right through downtown in this Hindu nation.  We drove along the river, where fires burned all along the banks.  My guide explained that these are ritual cremations.  Ritual cremations create a lot of smoke, which joins the haze enveloping the city of three million.

Almost everyone in town wears something resembling a surgical mask, because the air pollution is not to be believed.  Imagine the worst LA smog--and then multiply by twenty. The water is undrinkable, too; it exceeds, by a factor of ten, the acceptable levels of fecal matter as set by the World Health Organization.  And the power only runs for about eight hours a day, at different times each day.

And yet Kathmandu is a very fascinating place.  It is very colorful and very alive, and the people have been exceedingly polite to me as I've walked through the Thamel, the part of town where Westerners tend to stay.  My guest house is a kind of oasis, with beautiful and tranquil gardens.  It's also very easy to keep Pesach here, at least in Sephardi fashion, as rice is the heart of the diet and the food is very good, indeed.

I'm going to head to bed early tonight, as I got very little sleep on my travels.  Tomorrow (Sunday) morning I am meeting my guide at 8:45 am in the hotel lobby.  He is going to give me a briefing on the trek and then take me on a day-long tour of the city: royal palace, Hindu and Buddhist holy sites, interesting shops. This should be fascinating, and he is a great guy.

No pictures today, but I hope to post some at the end of the day tomorrow.  I'm having a wonderful adventure but I also miss you all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Tom is here on the way to Alaska, Ive committed to saying travelers pray for him, thanks for the good lesson and he's going to ask Rabbi in AK to say the say for your safe return.