Sunday, April 01, 2007

An Open Letter to Rick Steves, Travel Writer and Guide:

Dear Rick,

My name is Joy Ellison and this is my mom, Kay. She is probably one of your biggest fans. When I was 15, Mom took our family on a two month summer expedition all over Europe. Thanks to Europe Through the Back Door, I survived the Louvre and became a world traveler.

Since that first trip to Europe, I've traveled in India, Bolivia, Northern Ireland and one very special place that I want to tell you about: Bethlehem, Palestine. In the summer of 2006, I spent three months living in this small town and it became one of my favorite places on earth. Bethlehem is rich with history and filled with the most friendly, warm, and hospitable people I've ever meet. I want to invite you to come and visit Bethlehem, hosted by Open Bethlehem, an alternative travel organization. Bethlehem needs caring people, like you, to share its treasures with the world.

The entire Bethlehem area has been declared a World Heritage Site because it's chock-full of religious sites held important to all three Abrahamic faiths. Bethlehem is the the birthplace of King David and home to Rachel's Tomb, Ruth and Naomi's Field and the Church of the Nativity. I'm not much for churches, but these religious sites aren't just among the most significant in the world, they're also the most interesting. In the Church of the Nativity alone, you can find statues for a saint with a strange affection for a skull, real bones in an out-of-the-way corner,three different Christian traditions worshiping in separate services, and Christians and Muslims worshiping side-by-side in the Milk Grotto.

Most visitors focus on churches and miss out on Bethlehem's true charms, like the Cremisan Monastery, a tiny Catholic school and winery. The multilingual head priest gives wonderful tours and wine tastings. Pick up some falafel and you've got the perfect Rick Steves picnic.

Or visit Mar Saba, a Greek Orthodox monastery that clings to the side of a cliff just outside of Bethlehem. Only men can visit the church, but anyone can enjoy the quiet majesty of the desert.

I'm sure you would love Cremisan and Mar Saba, but as you taught my family, it's the people who live in a place that are truly worth visiting. The most wonderful part of a visit to Bethlehem is talking with Bethlehemites. Palestinians are quick to invite new friends home and feed them until they nearly burst. You'll want to socialize in the market, play backgammon with the old men sitting outside the Citadel and smoke hookah at The Tent. I'll teach you a few Arabic phrases, and before you know it, you'll have a new Palestinian family.

I'm sure that you would enjoy visiting Dheisheh refugee camp and its world renown Ibdaa Center. “Ibdaa” is Arabic for “making something out of nothing” and that just what the residents of refugee camps do every day. At the Ibdaa Center, you can meet young people who've traveled the world performing traditional Palestinian folk dancing called dabkeh. Dabkeh is something like a cross between Greek folk dances and Irish step. If you ask nicely, the kids of Ibdah might give you a lesson.

You won't want to miss the Palestinian Heritage Center. The owner is a gregarious woman dedicated to preserving and sharing the folk costumes of Bethlehem. For about $5, she'll let you dress up in traditional dress and take pictures inside a reproduced Bedouin tent. It's a delightful way to learn about the local culture and reminds me of something my mom and I would find in your guidebooks.

I'm certain that you would love visiting Bethlehem, Rick. This city is a treasure and you could share it with the world. The truth is, Bethlehem needs your help. My friend Bethlehemite Carol Dabdoub works for an organization called Open Bethlehem, which is working hard to share the magic of Bethlehem. Carol says that “Bethlehem was a city of tourism before the word even existed.” But because of the political situation, most tourists whiz into Bethlehem, spend ten minutes in the Church of the Nativity and leave. As a result, Bethlehem's economy is dying. But Carol and other Bethlhemites are working hard to change that. They have created a culturally sensitive guidebook called Palestine and Palestinians and are now taking groups on back-door tours based in Bethlehem. I don't like tour companies, especially in the Holy Land, but Open Bethlehem is dedicated to helping visitors have the experience they want, while keeping tourist dollars within the local economy. I'd entrust my closest friends to this wonderful organization – and my favorite travel guide.

Bethlehem is a perfect “back door” destination. Rick Steves readers and listeners should be visiting Bethlehem, taking tours of olive wood factories, sipping Taybeh beer, attending an Orthodox mass, and using Bethlehem as a home-base while visiting the surrounding area. Bethlehem has a developed tourist infrastructure – cheap lodging is abundant, most residents speak English and it's easy to find visitor information at the Bethlehem Peace Center, the Alternative Information Center, or in the pages of “This Week in Palestine.” Bethlehem is safe, inexpensive, and above all, friendly. So Rick, come visit and share what you learn. Carol and I would be happy to show you around. As Palestinians say, Ahlan Wa Sahlan. Welcome to Bethlehem!

Thank you, Rick!

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