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I made my first trip into the Old City with an older gentleman named Archie.
Archie is Welsh. Which is awesome, because I think accents are cool. It was also somewhat problematic, because I could only understand about 60% of what he was saying. But this didn’t bother me much, as I was able to catch the critical words and get the gist of what he was saying. It also worked because I often just laugh by default when I feel awkward or don’t understand something – and fortunately Archie liked joking around. He had a wonderful contagious wheezy chuckle and a real smile. Not one of those forced smiles that don’t reach the eyes, or one of those half grins that seem more arrogant that happy. Archie’s smile transformed his face into a mess of wrinkles and crows feet, and the only possible response you could think of was a genuine smile back.
So the two of us (and I have to say we made quite the odd pair: a nebulously ethnic chick and older white male) turned right from our courtyard and strolled down towards the old city. He talked most of the time, explaining what landmarks I could use to find my way home, which parts I should be cautious about, and how to just yell “NOOOOOO!” at the Taxi drivers. At least I think that’s what he was saying.
As we walked to the city I finally realized how absolutely foreign everything is to me. I don’t recall ever feeling this out of my comfort zone. I mean, yes, people are people everywhere. I’m sure if I spoke the language we would find common ground. But I don’t know the language. Or the culture. And the cultures here are loud. Beautifully, confrontationally, loud.
I felt sort of out of my body as we approached the gate. This was a place that lived in History books, in the bible, in a National Geographic TV series – and now right in front of my dumbfounded face. There wasn’t much time to linger like an open-mouthed idiot though. Archie yelled something welsh over his shoulder and marched down the stairs into the throng of people that were streaming in and out of the gate. Holy humanity Batman! I mean, there were a lot of people. A lot. Many people, many languages, many smells, many things. Everything was for sale. I walked by a shop that looked like it had been there since the time of King David, the next one was a Jewish Jeans Warehouse. Sweet shops with Turkish delight, New age shops with posters of Krishnamurti, shops with poofy prom-looking dresses, fish, hanging chunks o’ meat, Nike shoes, Sahwarma, crosses, Kippahs, menorahs, holy water, bangles, high-end jewelry, knock-off jewelry, scarves, scarves, and scarves. Huzzah, I am in the land of scarves!
In every corner were Holy symbols turned for profit. Pick your path; it was there in every shape, color, and style. Perhaps I am too cynical for my own good, but it diminished the sanctity of that place for me. All I could see where jackals profiteering off of years of History; a complicated History rich with beauty and bloodshed. I couldn’t help thinking about the souvenir stores we have back in Hawaii. Stores that boil down the history and culture of Hawaii into convenient little key chains, dancing dashboard hula girls, and shell leis (that were probably made in the Philippines). Needless to say, I didn’t buy anything.
Archie took me to the City Center, and told me how I could “take this road all the way to the northernmost part, then turn (something welsh), there’s a shop that has the best (welsh), but keep walking and it would wrap around back to base. But if we were to do that (chuckle, welsh, loud belly-bouncing-chuckle) so not today sweetheart.” Your guess is as good as mine.
Despite my small bout of cynicism, it was a phenomenal experience. I’m in love with the walls and streets of stone, the cacophony of languages I don’t understand, the way my head has to swivel back and forth just to take it all in. Everyday I hope to explore a little more, get a little deeper. A tour guide at the Garden Tomb put it perfectly, “you know Jerusalem, everything is on top of everything.”