Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Too much trust in tour guides

Depending on location, situation and age we all have different expectations from tours and tour guides, but there should be one quality that we all agree on: Tour guides should be unbiased.

Stopping for a picture below a watch tower in Bethlehem October 2011
(c) fifiheavey

Everywhere in the world, at some time has experienced conflict, political, religious, cultural or racial disturbances. And one thing that we are sure of: there is always two sides (maybe even three, four, five – but definitely two) sides to the story.
When I visit a place which has or currently is experiencing some sort of conflict I like to walk away from there with a rounded understanding to all the facts, opinions and ideas that surround the situation – not the propaganda I can get from staying at home.

Recently I stopped off in Israel and Palestine for three days, with a severe shortage on time, the best and only way to see, hear and touch the places I wanted, was to go on a tour.
Israel has intrigued me for a long time, as a Roman Catholic I have grown up hearing stories from the Bible, tracking the life of Jesus Christ, the places he visited and the miracles and lessons he conducted. Place names in Israel have been embedded into my mind from the repetition of these tales.
Israel and Palestine have been glaring at me from my TV set for years and although very removed from the situation, the topic is a lively one in Ireland.
Days before we set off on our cruise to the Holy Land the question of UN statehood for Palestine had dominated pages of Irish newspapers, as our Tanaiste openly stated he would back Palestine in the vote.

A common sign outside Holy places in Israel
(c) fifiheavey

But I had a limited knowledge on the background, history, divides, opinions etc. I had done some research but the more I read the more confused I got. So I left the research and instead placed all my trust in the tour I had booked.
We had booked the Christian tour, I wanted to know about all the religious places in Israel, but again time was limited, so we had decided it was best to start where we at least had some previous knowledge.

On our first day in Israel we visited Nazareth and Galilee, our tour guide was a born Israeli Jew. Although he left hardly no time for photos at destinations and moved super quickly through the landmarks, his information was second to none. He really knew his stuff, he had charts, photos and so much background information that a migraine was inevitable at the end of the day. He was a liberal man who had traveled throughout Europe, experienced other cultures and came back to his home nation with an open mind.

He was exactly the tour guide we needed for day two: Jerusalem and Palestine. But on that day we got a different tour guide, an American who had met the love of his life un Israel and converted to Judaism. His speech was clear, he was easy to listen to, did not rush through important places and did not produce any migraines.
But he was biased, he really was an American Israeli and as we set off towards Palestine (or the West Bank as he called it) we were left in no doubt who was right and wrong in the current conflict, who he was backing and how the one sided situation came about.
My friend and I were the only Europeans on the bus full of Middle Americans, so political questions seeking a little more info were sort of taboo.

Posters about the UN vote and deceased Palestine Leader Yasser Arafat on the streets of Bethlehem
(c) fifiheavey

Although annoyed, we accepted this as we knew we were getting a Palestine tour guide as we crossed the (undefined) border – but he was even worse. He stuck rigidly to the Christian religious side of the tour, there was no mention of any border, conflict or even slight disagreement. With a limited English vocabulary, questions once again were off limit.

On the third day we were once again returned to our original tour guide, but we had moved on from Palestine. We did get to ask him some questions and did come home with a much better understanding of the situation, but our disappointment with the transparency of the guides is hard to forget.

Slap on the wrists for leaving the responsibility of my education to the tour guides. 
My bad experience has given me the resolve to read up on the conflict and return to the Holy and contentious land.
Do we place too much trust in tour guides? 

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