Tuesday, December 27, 2011

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Twas the Tuesday before Christmas when I held an end of the semester party for my Balata kids. I will not be teaching there until February, although I will supposedly be leading a drama a few days a week. It was bittersweet, since I love those kids, even though I can barely handle the now overcrowded classes. There are now too many kids in both classes, and I am the only teacher at the site, which I find strange since Balata is the biggest refugee camp (in terms of population) in all of Palestine. Nevertheless, I would much rather continue to teach at Balata and get an extended break from my private school class. The party went off without a hitch, and the children were unexpectedly calm as I handed out snacks and sugary drinks. After the second class's party, 6 of the older kids stayed behind and helped me clean up, of their own volition. I was bombarded with hugs, goodbyes and I love yous which made all the work worth it.

On Friday I decided to explore the camp a little more because I had never walked farther than the center where I worked. I went with a visiting Brit who worked for TFP last year and had never walked around either. It ended up being a little awkward as Balata is very poor and we just looked like tourists amongst the curious glances and not so quiet exclamations. But we ended up running into Mohammed, who works at the center I teach at. His brother was one of the prisoners that just got released in a recent prisoner swap. He was arrested during the 2nd Intifada at the age of 19 and was in jail for 9 years. His entire 20s was spent in an Israeli prison. Mohammed invited us back to his house for the welcome home party. We only stayed a little and arrived at the beginning, so we didn't see much of the festivities. Nick and I were also split up as I went to sit with the women and he with the men. It was slightly awkward but I did get to meet Mostafa (the brother) and wish him my congratulations. He was a very nice, quiet and respectful man and I was dying to know his story. Definitely not the right time to ask. Perhaps in the future..

Saturday morning we headed off to Ramallah to drop off our stuff, decorate the guys' house and buy food for Christmas dinner the next day. We stayed with American guys we had met a month or so ago and have since become good friends with. They have friends with cars so from there we drove to Bethlehem. We couldn't seem to find Shepherd's Field where we heard they were having services, but after about 10 instances of turning around and asking for directions we finally found it. Its definitely a tourists' park, not an open field, but it's very well kept and nicely decorated for Christmas. We caught the end of an Indonesian service (they were ALL wearing Santa hats) and then headed up to Manger Square where we walked around looking at the decor and grabbing dinner. The restaurant was very warm and cozy, but the food and company are what made it a meal to remember. Several other friends had met up with us, so our extended table laughed, ate and enjoyed the new community we had made to celebrate Christmas. It was raining by the time we left the restaurant, so we drove to the Shepherd's field again and went to the chapel where, thankfully, they were holding an English mass for a tour group of Malaysians, Indians, and perhaps some other Asian countries. It was nice to sing carols and listen to the--quite frankly--adorable Indian priest give a message (although definitely not the style or content that I am used to). Afterwards, cold and a little wet, we headed back to Ramallah. We put in It's a Wonderful Life (which only 2 of us stayed down for the duration of) and had freshly baked chocolate chip cookies thanks to Lindsey and a Betty Crocker pre-made mix.

The next morning we woke up, made a pancake and eggs breakfast and relaxed for a little watching more Christmas movies and opening stockings Lindsey had made and we had stuffed with candy and other little things. Then we started the task of the day: cooking Christmas dinner. We all took over the kitchen in shifts. We knew people were bringing food, and the Turkey had been taken to a different house to bake, but we still made a bunch of food. Lindsey and Amy baked amazing pumpkin pies, I made a vegetable stew and others made some various other dishes. By the time dinner rolled around we had about 11 people. Then all of a sudden, at least 10 or 15 more people walk in just as the turkey is arriving. Everyone brought a tone of food: carrott cake, hummus, mashed potatoes, pasta salad amongst other delicious dishes. The boys had borrowed a second dining room table from their neighbors, so we fit as many people in that, and the rest sat at various other chairs, couches, coffee tables and arm rests. We met a lot of really cool and interesting people (all telling us to come to Ramallah where the jobs are better and the life is freer...so tempting). It really turned out to be a great night, even though I was away from my family, friends and home. Although, I have to say, my friends here are really like a new kind f family for me. I'm really glad I was with them this Christmas. And who would have thought I would be celebrating Christmas with Jews, Muslims, Christians and others...a very unique experience. For my first ex-pat Christmas away from home, it couldn't have been much better.

We came back the next day and rested. Then today after our first post-turkey workout, some of us went to the Turkish Baths for some serious cleaning. We laid on hot tiles, relaxed in a sauna and tried our best to breath in an intense steam room. Then we scrubbed with Nablusi soap and a loofah made of something like straw. It was a pretty nice experience, and the clean feeling after is incredible.

Now we've begun to plan for a New Years celebration in the boho neighborhood of Florentine in Tel Aviv (apparently one of the only places where you can find a big New Years celebration  because both Jews and Muslims celebrate different New Years). Two days of teaching before we head out early on Friday...and thats about all the planning we've done so far. As always, more to come.

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