A State Department Warning signals time to cast off to the land of danger for the savvy independent traveler. Those willing to take the minus one percent chance of being harmed are up for a hassle-free holiday, for such warnings brings tourism to a grinding stall, and the lowest travel season of all.
When the State Department issues a warning, it is attempting to influence the masses. Tour busses and cruise line passengers who gather in crowded places are indeed easy targets for local hoodlums looking for trouble and easy international headlines. Low profile independent travelers face far less of a risk.
Such a warning also wreaks havoc on local economies. Innocent shop keepers, hoteliers, restaurants, farmers and families are punished by men in power whose lives are unaffected by their choices that damage the lifestyles and well being of countless thousands.
A region blacklisted by the United States brings a new level of gratitude to independent travelers who pass through the affected territories. Although locals are unhappy with the U.S., personal experience has shown how local communities, tribes of people just like us, are ever so grateful for travelers free of fear.
Scare of the Century
Remember the big scare of the Millennium? Computers would mess up the world, havoc in the Middle East? Experiencing the Millennium in Bethlehem was only a positive experience for our family of four, my husband, David, sons Mason, then age 4, and Miles, 2.
Departing from Arizona, we stopped off in London to wait out the next leg of our trip, Jerusalem. All remained peaceful in Israel so we continued on, arriving in Jerusalem, Dec. 30, 1999. But there was no room at the inn. Had computers already gone afoul? Nope, just human error, like those times when you arrive in a foreign city near midnight, deathly tired and the guaranteed hotel reservation you made in the U.S. evaporates. Somehow we landed two rooms and became the only Western guests at the hotel.
December 31,1999: Bethlehem Square was peaceful and nearly vacant. A few local shopkeepers were open for business. We made no secret that we were Americans, from the land of cowboys and Indians. A few locals gathered around engaging us in a conversation about how the Media (Heard this before?) puts forth a false message, amplifying the actions of a few troublemakers as the ongoing fare in Palestinian life.
We returned to Jerusalem to put the kids in the safe care of a hotel babysitter before returning to Bethlehem for the grand New Millennium event. Sunset drew stragglers of Palestinians to Bethlehem. By darkness the square disappeared under the feet of mostly “under 30 males”
The only foreigners in sight were a couple of BBC reporters approaching us as we stood outside a well-lighted pizza parlor.
“Where is everybody?” I asked the reporter.
“They (tourists) are afraid to come,” she said, adding, “Are you afraid?"
"No, should we be?" I asked.
"No" she answered.
She interviewed me about why we were not afraid, as the crowd grew larger, more intense. After the interview she invited us on a rooftop where international journalists and her team were staked out. Palestinian law men lined the rooftop overlooking the sparkling lights in Bethlehem. Cages of pigeons, faux doves, at the roof’s edge were gearing up for takeoff at midnight. A large screen showed a foreign film, clearly of the un-American genre, in an event sponsored by Western nations and Christian organizations.
As the clock struck midnight, the faux doves were released, the crowd rejoiced and a cork blew from David’s bottle of Dom Perignon. Champagne sprayed everyone near us, including a stoic Palestinian cop who eyed us.
Photo op, then time to go. We had no plan for exit. An Israeli press team motioned for us to follow them downstairs to a yellow van waiting at the base of the building. The team hurried us in and whisked us off to Jerusalem, as if we were important.
No tour company could duplicate that experience.
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