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Back to the Holy Land for TechCamp Ramallah

August 26, 2013
Last night I slept sitting up and today I floated in the Dead Sea. Knowing what I’m up against, I sleep the entire trip from Newark to Tel Aviv, no movies, no studying, just food and sleep. The crying babies are mere whispers in my Ambien-induced stupor.

It is my second time back in the Holy Land and this time I want to be prepared to dig deeper, to go one layer below the surface. I step out of the plane less daunted by the fifteen-hour trek and the eight-hour time difference. As I step out of the plane, I feel more prepared for the light out here, more direct and golden than anything I had seen before in my life a year and a half ago. This time when the sign “Welcome” in Hebrew stands before me between two ancient stellas painted on the wall, I lift my camera to meet it.

I feel less disoriented knowing on the other side of customs is my secret weapon, Aviva, one of the friends I made from my first trip here to present at two Techcamps, one in Tel Aviv and the other in Ramallah, back to back. TechCamp is a program under the U.S. State Department’s Civil Society 2.0 initiative to bring together the technology community to assist civil society organizations across the globe by harnessing the latest information and communications technology to find solutions.

It was my crash course into Techcamps and how they were organized and put on, but I had no idea what it would take to understand the model and then take it back to Guatemala City with me to coordinate our own do-it-yourself version. Six TechCamps later I find myself at the beginning, knowing now what I didn’t know then.

Outside, Aviva is waiting for me. She has lived on a Kibbutz for forty years and she’s promised to swoop me up and take me there from the airport. I have only to make it through customs. I show my passport and letter from the U.S. Consulate stating my purpose in Israel, my time here for ten days and my work as a TechTrainer in Ramallah. I get a small identification card which is stamped with my date and time of entry and then I move towards the baggage claim.

I present my documents to two women customs officials. One of them pores through my passport.

“You are from Guatemala?” She asks. Yes, I tell her, that is where I was born. She nods.

“I have been to your country, to Tikal, Antigua and Semuc Champey,” she continues. “It is very beautiful.”

“Yes, it is,” I tell her. “As is yours.” I expected to get my passport back, but instead she calls over another customs woman. They both look over my passport and call on a cellphone. Then I am told to pick up my bag and follow them. They keep my passport in hand so I rush back with my bag and follow them to a small room at the back of the airport where a few other passengers are having their bags and documents thoroughly screened. I get in line and await my turn patiently.

“Come over here,” one of the custom folks tells me, motioning me with his hand. He points to the zipper on my bag. “Open it.” I nod. I am told to unwrap a few gifts I brought, maple syrup, Texas barbeque sauce, buckwheat pancake mix.

“What is this?” He asks me. Gifts, I tell him. He removes his latex gloves and instructs me to zip the suitcase up again. Then the questions.

Why Ramallah they ask? I tell them it is for a conference and that I’m teaching storytelling, tools and other skills. Who brought you here? The U.S. Consulate. Why? Because I am a TechTrainer. A what? I teach workshops on storytelling and journalism. In Ramallah? Yes. What kind of stories? The stories that impact them in their lives. Anything? Preferably true, I tell them, otherwise that is gossip. I smile. There is an uncomfortable silence. Each of them looks straight at me. I smile back. They bend in to whisper to one another in Hebrew. I wait and keep an eye on my documents. My passport is passed on to the woman who escorted me here. She waves me over with a faint smile and leads me through different security checks. Stamp, unzip, screen, walk through body screen, zip up, stamp, staple, walk away.

“You are good now,” she tells me and hands me back my passport. “Have a good visit in Israel.”

I walk out into now a small group of people awaiting the stragglers from this flight. Aviva waves to me from the right side of the room and I walk towards her, my legs suddenly weary and my eyes blinded by the afternoon sunlight behind her. I thought I was ready.

At the Kibbutz tucked between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, there is only the sound of crickets and the olive trees blowing in the breeze pushing across the cut dry meadows. Families stroll lazily across playgrounds and perfectly planned communal spaces. In Aviva’s house friends gather, there is talk that I work with the C.I.A. I tell them I am too old to work for the them. It’s true! The cut-off year is 35 and I am 36 now. There is laughter, we eat rice cakes, cheese, grapes, we laugh, the fourteen-year old dogs snore in the corner of the room. The windows are open and the fan blows a small breeze above us. Later in the evening we walk to a neighbor’s house, have soup, tell stories, crack hazelnuts and share pictures from different trips. Neighbors ask me why I teach people storytelling and journalism. I teach authorship, I tell them, and the tools for people to narrate their own lives and get the information they need to impact their everyday reality. Around the table I get pensive nods. I hope for approval of this sleep talking conversation I’ve realized I’m having as my eyelids get heavier.

More presents from travels are exchanged, me with my pancake mix and Stubb’s Texas barbeque sauce, and others with rich cheese cake and smoked cheese from Georgia. The neighbors’ thirteen-year old dog limps across the porch and looks off into the twilight silhouette of trees surrounding us.

I can see how forty years of one’s life could easily slip away quietly here.

Aviva looks in my direction across the table. Tomorrow, she reminds me, we drive to The Dead Sea.

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