I sit in the wrong seat on the plane. I’m looking at my phone as I follow the slow progress of my fellow passengers down the aisle, and I sit in E12 instead of E13. When Mr. E12 comes he smiles and tells me to stay put. That’s how my journey to Guatemala begins.
On my left is a Hispanic woman, who I think is five years older than me, but turns out to have kids practically my age. She is slim and wears heels, a dark dress and an intricate sweater with purples and reds—I noticed her on the line to board and wondered who she dressed to meet in Guatemala City. The guy on my right wears an oversized baseball hat and light jeans. He smiles at me and I’m correct when I guess he’s a college kid. He studies business at a school in Los Angeles, where he’s always lived.
She’s going to Guatemala because her grandmother has died. She’ll spend three days with her family in Guatemala City. He’s going—in fact he’s taken a semester off school just to go—because he wants to spend six weeks partying with his similarly aged cousins. He tells me he works for an organic coffee company, and before that he worked at a paint company with his dad, but now his dad’s gone—dead.
Me? To learn and see.
So on the plane, with chatter and a nap, I transition from my uncertainty about leaving the States to excitement for what’s to come.
When I walk out of the terminal, a warm breeze literally washes over me. I’d pictured a chaotic airport scene, something like Cairo with endless men haggling, offering taxi rides, etc. Instead, there’s a small semicircle of people gathered behind the gate, in the sun. A friendly man offers a shuttle to Antigua for $10—I say ‘si’ and wait around a few minutes for him to find other passengers.
A guy in his early thirties whose girlfriend’s working with a hospital mission in Antigua (Don), and an expatriate who builds solar stoves are my companions in the shuttle(Gwen). I ask Gwen a lot of questions:
He’s lived in the same community in Northern Guatemala for 8 years, but only began the solar stoves within the last. It started with his home in California, where he still has a house but only lives a couple months a year. Last year a man in his community approached him, saying he’d heard Gwen knew about solar energy. He asked Gwen to teach him what he knew. Gwen hit his computer, only knowing the basics as a consumer, but soon he was attempting a solar stove as they’re created in Africa with cardboard boxes and foil. ‘But people wanted something more durable here,’ he explained. So working with the curious man, he created a model using a large stainless steel pot. Though the costs are higher, the model is durable. He’s only created a few and given them as gifts—‘No one funds me,’ he responded to my question. He hopes to create a business out of it, but it’s difficult because the people in the community don’t have the money for stainless-steal pots. The other guy, Don, said he had some friends who worked with non-profits who might be interested in working with him.
I ask him more questions about his life. About living in a community with no other gringos. There was another a few years ago, he says. He tells a horror story of a female teacher who was brutally raped and beaten in his community a number of years ago. “It wasn’t by locals and it wasn’t gang violence.’ When I ask more he talks about the normalization of violence and oppression in Guatemalan society, not to justify the violence but to understand. It reminds me how I think about kids who act out on the South Side of Chicago.
Thus when we arrive in Antigua, I am both inspired and wary. Eager to learn more on both accounts.
When a professor recently asked me to write an article about my infamous experience at the Taba-Eliat border crossing, I could not bear to reiterate the same story I’ve told many times. So I’ve begun a new quest: To learn what rights, if any, travelers have at border crossings. Because borders are often governed by bilateral treaties or domestic laws, rights, regulations and procedures are different everywhere. For the time-being, for obvious reasons, I’m focused on travelers entering Israel.
Currently I’m following a winding trail of repetitive non-answers, referrals and ambiguity. What I’ve learned, more than anything so far is people all over the spectrum–from journalists, travelers, human rights activists in Israel/Palestine, lawyers (at least in the States–waiting to hear from Israelis) and embassy employees, is there is a lack of knowledge. Though border-crossing tips are out there, when it comes to rights, many draw blanks.
For example, while Israel has the right to deny an individual entry, do they have the right to demand information about the contacts in a person’s phone–is an individual obligated to give up a friend’s telephone number? Can they read journals, look through photos? At one point they asked me if I had a password for my computer. They never asked what the password was. Did they have other means of accessing information on it? Do security concerns equate a blank check?
Or are there limits. For example, can a traveler choose to end a search and return back to where they came (something potentially difficult considering you’re trying to get back in a country without evidence of being in another….) ? If Israelis suspect a person of being a terrorist it seems counter-intuitive they would let them simply go back the way they came. Can a person ask to speak to a representative from their embassy during a search?
These are some of the questions I’m hoping to answer. If anyone has any knowledge or ideas, I would appreciate the help! I’m currently waiting to hear-back from some Israeli lawyers and someone at the American embassy. (The exchange with the embassy has persisted for a number of days without helpful results thus-far…)
P.S. My goals is only to educate! Not knowing your rights is being helpless.
Also consider, tourism is positive for Israel/Palestine (and most other nations). Letting travelers know what to expect at the border and how procedures work and what their rights are might encourage hesitant individuals.
Update 4/25/11- FYI I am removing the contents of this post due to the highly personal nature of the content.
Why do we think how we do? What shapes our lives? What can we learn? The following is a series of anecdotes, which in part, explain how I have reached certain opinions. I have received a lot of personal criticism over the last few days. This is my response.
Thanks for reading!
If you have commented it should show up within the next day. I’m not censoring, just busy traveling.
My goal on this trip was to explore and learn. To see things for myself.
I’m using this incident as a chance to discuss, learn and question. I hope you’ll join me….
I loved my experience, learned a lot and hope to share more positive anecdotes, as well as laptop updates, in the coming days.
Also, thanks for the invitations, however I am no longer in Israel or the Palestinian areas.