“I’m wearing my Mum’s gardening trousers!” Olivia cries in dismay, and we all burst out laughing because this so perfectly sums up the ridiculousness of our situation. I’m sitting at an outdoor shisha café on a warm September night sipping cocktails under brightly colored umbrellas. With me are two girls, both age 21 and traveling alone. Olivia is from the UK and Catherine is from Montreal. We met at our hostel, one of only two in the city, which was opened by a young American-Swiss man who wanted to draw tourists here and create jobs for locals. We’re surrounded by gorgeous women in pairs or groups, all wearing slinky cocktail dresses and tight jeans with perfectly applied makeup. We three, on the other hand, are wearing the baggiest, frumpiest clothing we could find, and we look absurdly out of place.
Why would we dress like this? Because we’re in Ramallah in Palestine’s West Bank, and we all thought we need to dress like this to avoid attracting unwanted attention. We also thought we’d be intimidated and harassed and that our lives might be in danger. After all, we’re in one of the world’s greatest flashpoints for terror, aren’t we? As it ends up, every one of our expectations, formed by media coverage, are way off the mark.
I start my day in Jerusalem’s bus terminal just outside the old city walls in the Eastern, or Arab quarter. I can’t figure out which bus I’m supposed to get on. I’m intimidated beyond words and am carrying myself with none of the powerful confidence I usually possess. For the hundredth time I’m reconsidering my decision to cross into Palestine on my own. Then I see a girl of about 25 years dressed in western clothing with her head uncovered. I make a beeline to her and ask if this is the bus to Ramallah. She answers in perfect English, then tells me how much it costs and where it will end up. She doesn’t mind when I sit next to her on the bus, and we have a pleasant conversation along the way. She works in a Jerusalem hotel, she tells me. Her family has a home in Ramallah but they live in Jerusalem, so she has a blue identification card that allows her to cross back and forth over the border whenever she wants. People who live on the Palestine side have green cards, and their crossing is much more difficult. Her parents don’t know she has a boyfriend in Ramallah she is on her way to see.
The bus is supposed to take us to the main station in Ramallah where I have easy walking directions to my hostel, but today is the final day of Rosh Hashana, one of Judaism’s high holidays, so the bus dumps us unceremoniously at the border crossing. I have a moment of anxiety until my new friend motions me to follow her into a servis, or shared taxi. We get in and to my surprise she pays my fare.
Ramallah is a bustling city of about 500,000 residents and like most Arab cities, it’s choked with horn-honking traffic, black graffiti and piles of rubbish strewn haphazardly along the side of the road. The servis weaves through the traffic effortlessly. There are eight of us inside and I’m surrounded on one side by my guardian angel and an old abaya-clad woman on the other. Suddenly my friend says something to the driver and makes a move to get out. “Wait, don’t leave me!” I hear myself say. “How will I know where to get out?” I feel the panic rising, but she says something to the other passengers, who all nod in assent. “Shukran,” I tell her with true gratitude. Thank you so much for taking care of me.
In the end I have nothing to worry about. The older woman and a young man both get out a few minutes later and gesture me to follow them. They then commence an argument in Arabic, and I can tell it’s about who gets the honor of walking me to my hostel. The young man wins. He, too, has a blue card, and he’s grateful because his friends with green cards have a hard time finding work. As we walk, we pass shop after shop with the latest fashions. Men come out of their stores and even hang out of second-floor windows to call down to me. “Welcome!” they all say. “Where are you from? You are welcome here!”
My hostel is one of only two in Ramallah and was opened recently by a Swiss-American who wanted to create opportunities for people like me to come and experience what Palestine is really like. He is warm, intelligent and passionate about his adopted home, and encourages me and the other guests to get out and explore.
Walking these streets alone is completely safe for a woman, day or night. Some women cover their heads, other women don’t. Some men wear western clothing and others wear the traditional thobe and head covering. If the hostel hadn’t posted a sign with the latest news, I’d never know that Palestinians were in their third day of increased tensions with the Israeli army over access to the Al Aqsa compound in Jerusalem, Islam’s third-holiest site and the place where Mohammed is believed to have ascended to heaven.
This is the real Palestine, I realize, not the CNN or Al Jezeera or Fox News version. The real Palestine is full of busy markets and bustling streets and warm, welcoming, friendly people. It’s certainly not what I’d consider a tourist destination, but I am so glad I came and experienced for myself the authentic vibrant culture the media doesn’t show.
What I learned in Palestine:
- Ramallah is completely safe, even for a woman traveling alone.
- Don’t stress about what to wear, but do expect unwanted attention if you strut the streets in a bikini.
- People in Palestine are some of the warmest, most hospitable people in the world.