Rick Steves Travel Blog: Blog Gone Europe
I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick
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While I was in Cairo, I kept thinking the Egyptians should check out Istanbul. Both are megacities with over 10 million people. Both come from a poor and chaotic recent history. While Cairo struggles, Istanbul is zooming ahead. Just driving into town from the airport, I noticed landscaping along the highway (with fences to keep people out of the new gardens) and a clear delineation between people and traffic zones. While the architecture was still ramshackle/charming, there was almost no litter. It felt like northern Europe from a tidy point of view.
This is the season when we have all hands on deck. That means nearly all our guides are busy leading our tours — and nearly all our researchers and co-authors are busy updating our guidebooks. I’ll be working on our Italy and Spain books this spring. Pat O’Connor, the co-author of our Rick Steves’ Ireland book, is busy in the Emerald Isle. Pat has an affinity for Ireland like no one I’ve met. But even Pat can find getting to the point on the phone in Ireland a challenge. Here’s a transcript from Pat that helps us imagine what it’s like to have a long list of things to check via the telephone — and finding it slow going:
Phoning an Irish Bike Shop
(Pat just needs the hours, bike rental prices, and website for a guidebook listing.)
Pat: (hears the phone being picked up after multiple rings) “Hello?”
Bike Shop: (silence)
Bike Shop: (clears throat)
Bike Shop: “Hello?”
Pat: “I’m trying to reach O’Leary’s bike shop.”
Bike Shop: ” O’Leary’s bike shop?”
Pat: “Yes, O’Leary’s bike shop.”
Bike Shop: “You want O’Leary’s bike shop?”
Pat: “Yes, is this O’Leary’s bike shop?”
Bike Shop: (irritated) “Sure, and why wouldn’t it be?!”
Pat: “Well, the way you answered, I just wasn’t sure.”
Bike Shop: “Then why call if you’re not sure?”
Pat: “Look, I’m just updating a guidebook and wanted to…”
Bike Shop: (impatiently) “Well, we don’t sell guidebooks. This is a bike shop.”
Pat: “No, I’m updating a guidebook that I write.”
Bike Shop: (suspiciously) “How much does it cost to be in it?”
Pat “It’s free.”
Bike Shop: “Where can I get it?”
Pat “It’s not sold in Irish bookstores, but you could buy it online.”
Bike Shop: (triumphantly) “So then it’s not free after all is it?”
Pat: “No, it’s free to be listed in it, but it costs money to buy it.”
Bike Shop: (coughs)
Pat: (trying to just get the basic info) “Do you rent bikes?”
Bike Shop: “Of course, €15 per day.”
Pat: (sensing progress) “Great. What are your hours?”
Bike Shop: (long pause) “Hours?”
Pat: (rephrasing the question) “Yes. When are you open?”
Bike Shop: (patronizingly) “I wouldn’t be answering the phone if we weren’t open now would I?”
Pat: “No, I mean, from what time to what time is your shop open?”
Bike Shop: “We open as soon as I get here.”
Pat: “Right, but how long are you open?”
Bike Shop: “Well, my grandfather started the shop in 1911, and he was a hard worker, don’t cha know. My grandmother said it would never last, but he stuck at it. And then after the war…”
Pat: (diplomatically interrupting) “Sorry, I mean how many hours are you open today?”
Bike Shop: “Until dinner.”
Pat: (rephrasing and trying again) “From what hour until what hour is your shop open?”
Bike Shop: “Well, that depends.”
Pat: (breaking it down into basic elements)”What time did you unlock the door this morning?”
Bike Shop: “As soon as I got here.”
Pat: (changes tack) “What days of the week are you open?”
Bike Shop: “Every day.”
Pat: “Seven days a week?”
Bike Shop: “Seven days.”
Pat: “The entire week?”
Bike Shop: “The entire week.”
Pat: “Including Sunday?”
Bike Shop: “Now, why would I be open on Sunday? Of course I’m not open on Sunday.”
Pat: “I’m a little short of time and just want to get the right info into our guidebook so my readers can rent bikes from you when they come to visit. Could I get more info from your website?”
Bike Shop: “You can.”
Pat: “What is your website?”
Bike Shop: “Well, my nephew set it up, and he’s a bright lad. He’s over in London now and taking computer courses. I had to help him with the fare to get over there. But he’s found a nice girl and…”
Pat: (trying to get back on course) “Sorry, but my phone is running out of time. Can I ask what your website address is?”
Bike Shop: “firstname.lastname@example.org”
Pat: “No, your website please.”
Bike Shop: “email@example.com”
Pat: “That’s your e-mail address. Do you have a website?”
Bike Shop: “I just told you, my nephew set it up, and he’s never wrong.”
Pat: “Yes, but I need your website, not your e-mail address.”
Bike Shop: “I just gave it to you twice. Now I don’t have all day here.”
Pat: (giving up with nothing but a headache to show) “Okay, thanks. Bye”
Bike Shop: “Hold on. My cousin Seamus has a fishing tackle shop across the street, and you should put that in your guidebook too.”
Pat: “Sorry, but I’m not looking for a fishing shop.”
Bike Shop: “But you just said it was free to be in this book of yours.”
Pat: “I only need a bike rental listing right now.”
Bike Shop: “Well you should be looking for fishing tackle shops. What kind of a book doesn’t list fishing tackle shops?”
Pat: (in full retreat from a wasted phone call) “Gotta run. Thanks for your time.”
Bike Shop: “Well, such carry-on and not even a fishing tackle shop when you know full well that…”
Finally, after over a month in the Middle East, I’m heading west. For the next few weeks I’ll be in Europe again (Turkey, Italy, Spain, and Portugal). As soon as I left the Middle East, I was struck by the advertising. What I saw was interesting to me: Many Americans find a modest scarf — and a society where women cover up in public — so offensive, while people (men and women) from a more sensitive society travel to the West and are offended by how we treat our women. Here in the West, everywhere you look, women are naked in order to sell things. Strip them down and put them in a bucket — or let them help you sell hats.
In my travels, I try to understand people who are different than me. I start with this assumption: I don’t completely understand the context in which they live their lives and the culture that shapes their values and customs. It’s fun. It opens up my world.
During my week in Palestine, I was in the care of three great guides: Husam Jubran (firstname.lastname@example.org), Kamal Mukarker (email@example.com), and Iyad Shrydeh (firstname.lastname@example.org). Each is a proud Palestinian who works routinely with American tourists. They are all licensed guides (charging $300 a day, possibly with a car) who work like any guide in Europe. The big difference is that most of their clients are religious or political tourists. Frankly, I can’t imagine enjoying a trip here without the help of professional guides like these. With Kamal, Iyad, and Husam, I felt safe and got the absolute most learning out of each day.
Traveling through the Holy Land, my heart is a shuttlecock, swinging from sympathy with Israel to solidarity with Palestine. I’m saddened by the people — like some who post on this blog and on Facebook — who are so hardened on one side or the other that they cannot allow themselves to find empathy with the society they consider the enemy. Even if one side is the enemy, it’s not the entire society but just its powerful or just its extremists. And the young generation on each side is simply living with the history it inherited. As is so often the case in tough situations like this, most people would be willing to find a way to coexist peacefully but extremists can only get traction by blasting out the middle and making things more radical.
When I consider the challenges facing the Holy Land, I think of the importance of Israelis and Palestinians having ways to connect. I’m haunted by the devastation the people of France and Germany suffered in World War I, and I’m equally haunted by the fact that few Germans and French on the front lines had ever met someone from the other country in 1914. I believe if they had met, studied, drank, and danced together, they would have found a way to avoid the slaughter.
Whichever side of the separation wall your heart resides on, you should be concerned that — as a result of the wall — people on both sides will not get to know each other. They will not understand that they all root for the same soccer teams. Israelis and Palestinians who are soccer fans, curiously, root for the Madrid and Barcelona teams — but they don’t even know the other side does the same thing. There’s no way mutual fans of Real Madrid could be mutual enemies.
There’s a place on the Palestine side of the wall where passengers can conveniently change from a Palestinian car to an Israeli one. When I left Palestine, my Israeli driver waited there for my Palestinian driver to drop me off. I’ll never forget their handshake — in the shadow of an ominous Israeli watchtower painted black by the flames of burning tires and with angry Palestinian art on the wall. These men were each beautiful, caring people, caught in a problem much bigger than either of them. The exchange was little more than a suitcase shuttling from one back seat to the other. I watched as they quietly shook hands, looked into each other’s eyes, and said a solemn and heartfelt “Shalom.” After my week in Palestine, driving 300 yards through that security gate into Israel was like driving from Guatemala to San Diego. And I thought, “With all these good people, on both sides, there has got to be a solution — and a big part of it will be grassroots, people-to-people connections.”
I was having dinner in Bethlehem with a Greek Orthodox Palestinian family and two older German women who were retired Lutheran pastors. The Muslim call to prayer interrupted our conversation. We went out on the third-floor balcony to hear the confused cacophony of sounds coming from minarets on all sides.
My Greek Orthodox friends said the volume for the call to prayer in Bethlehem is particularly loud — it’s a kind of resistance to annoy the Israelis. They said about the man who sings the call to prayer: “It feels like this man lives with us. Five times a day he wails. Even God wants to sleep, but there’s nowhere to hide. In the summer, we must keep the door open, and it’s like he’s right here in our house. Early in the morning, the man who sings the call to prayer changes the words and adds, ‘It’s better to pray than to sleep.’ But we think God can wait for us. We Christians wake God only on Sunday.”
When the call to prayer finished, we continued our conversation about living on the wrong side of a “separation wall.” The German women reminisced about 1989 and the fall of “their” wall. One pastor recalled watching West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl cry for joy and thought, “Oh, how silly.” Then, when what had just happened sank in, she found herself crying too…she said that she fell to the carpet and cried all night for joy. These women come to Palestine every year and — 24 years later — the “wall tears” they now shed are of sadness.
When I travel I collect ideas like butterflies as they flutter by. I jot them down, never knowing if they will find a place in something yet to be composed. Here are some random, thought-provoking “idea butterflies” I caught but didn’t know what to do with. I’m not saying they are right, so all you hair-trigger partisans should hold your fire for this one. These are just some ideas I found interesting and wanted to share:
I was told that 400 years of Ottoman control — followed by European colonialism — destroyed the social fabric of the Middle East. In other words, much of the frustration we have with the lack of progress in the Middle East is due to centuries of occupation, colonization, corruption, and dictatorship brought on by the Ottomans and the West.
When I consider the many extreme political ideologies that I believe undermine peace — from fringe groups in the USA to fundamentalist organizations that inherit power for lack of any good competition in places like Egypt and Iran — I find that many have a foundation in religious passion. When you travel, you understand how fundamentalism (whether your religion’s or someone else’s) can lead to fear and violence.
I was once told that a “massacre” is when at least five people are killed by force without fighting back or without an opportunity to fight back. It occurred to me that this is arbitrary…but then I wondered, what makes a “massacre?”
Someone explained the rise of Islamists throughout the region this way: Autocrats and dictators have long kept the left-wing opposition in their countries weak by giving conservative religious groups room to grow and organize politically. Suddenly, with the Arab Spring, the dictators are gone, but there’s nothing organized on the left. So the right-wing religious groups (as we see in Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and Gaza) grab power over the less-organized, secular left. Also, in many troubled places like these, locals wanting freedom have a choice: the USA-supported faction or the religious right. The effect is just the opposite of what the neocons who brought us the Iraq War predicted: a “domino effect” yes…but of right-wing fundamentalist Muslim “democracies” almost inheriting power by default.
Islamists — from Cairo to Kabul — are smart. They build outside of politics. Over time, they infiltrate society by providing people what governments should (e.g. decent schools and a social safety net). Today, there are more veils on the street than ever. Even girls from modern secular families feel the pressure at school, and many come home requesting that their parents get them scarves. They just want to fit in.
A person in a poor and ramshackle city told me, “I remember my first time in USA. I saw old people bagging groceries. We have only a little money, but our old people will never be treated that way.”
You meet far fewer tourists in the West Bank than elsewhere, but those you do meet are really interesting.
A big part of Palestine is desert, and much of it is below sea level. Nearly any tourist here will stop at the Wadi Qilt viewpoint for a look at the vast and awe-inspiring Judean Desert. Nomad communities fill dusty gullies with their ramshackle huts and tents. Children and sheep dogs follow their flocks of goats and sheep as the herds search for something to munch on. Modern water pumps are caged in and surrounded by barbed wire—a reminder of what is the most important natural resource around here. And desolate monasteries cling to remote cliffs as they have for 1,500 years. From this viewpoint, you drive down to the ancient city of Jericho and, continuing on as your ears pop, you come to the bottom of it all: the Dead Sea.
Growing up, the only Palestinian I was aware of was Yasser Arafat. But a thoughtful museum at the tomb of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish introduced me to the author and poet who wrote the Palestinian Declaration of Independence. Darwish, who died in 2008, worked with Arafat but used a pen rather than a gun as his weapon.
If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.
Ramallah is the boom town of the West Bank. As, bit by bit (under the settlement policy of Israel), the likelihood of East Jerusalem being the capital of Palestine is fading, Ramallah is emerging as the de facto capital of the country. It feels secular and relatively sophisticated, and there’s no question that it’s Palestinian. The PLO headquarters is here. Yasser Arafat is buried here. And it’s busy with NGOs and international agencies working on Palestine’s problems. As many Palestinian Americans have moved back home and live here, there are lots of American accents. The city of 70,000 people sits at about 3,000 feet above sea level. Its name means “God’s Mountain,” and it was cold when I was there. As it lacks the trouble-causing religious sites — and is more liberal and cosmopolitan than other Palestinian cities — it was the most relaxed place in the country for me.
In the Balata Refugee Camp, mothers send their sons out for chicken, and they bring home a very fresh bird ready to cook. The boy selects a bird from the cage. The butcher slits its throat, drains it, and tosses the bird into a spinner to remove all its feathers. Then he guts it, washes it, and puts it in a plastic bag. The cost: about $4 a bird. Palestinians call the spinner a “ma a’ta” — the same word they use for the turnstile they have to go through at various security checkpoints. To them, whether you’re a chicken or a human being, the ma a’ta robs you of your dignity. Warning: There’s some graphic content in this butcher shop video.
If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.