Backstory: Extreme vacation

Hospitality Club sets up travelers with holidays off - way off - the beaten path.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

The streets of this seething Palestinian refugee camp, just outside Bethlehem, are dirty and crowded. The main street, where screeching strains of a political rally mingle with the din of animal and mechanical obstacles, gives off onto a dismal lane where Hamas posters merge with graffiti and a ragged Fatah flag flutters.

This hardly looks like the ideal holiday spot. But nestled on this chaotic lane is the al-Haj apartment: tourist destination.

Vacationing in a Palestinian refugee camp - past Israeli military checkpoints and onto streets most often photographed for nightly news not tourist brochures - may seem unlikely. But a stream of foreigners - Americans, English, Dutch - booking stays at Yasser al-Haj's apartment here prove otherwise. Despite frequent blackouts, Israeli army incursions, a lack of hot water, and nary a mint on the pillow, some foreigners find the West Bank - and other global hot spots like Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan - prime vacation territory.

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Mr. Haj, a Palestinian who's lived here all his life, is one of more than 100,000 members of Hospitality Club, an Internet-based organization that puts travelers in touch with each other, favoring free home stays and personal introductions over generic hotel accommodation and guided tours. Through the club, vacationers connect with one another and arrange to meet for dinner, drinks, or sightseeing in the host's city, or stay at his or her home. In Haj's case, this is a small ground floor apartment that he shares with his aging parents, in the dismal depths of the West Bank.

The majority of HC members from 188 countries live in pleasant Western locations. A handful, like Haj, are from truly off-the-beaten-track countries unlikely to make the Top 5 - or even Top 105 - holiday destinations.

Raving about her recent visit to Kabul, Afghanistan, Kathrine Frygtloes, a Dane interested in Afghan dancing, credits it all to her young Afghan host, Abdul Waheed, who safely steered her through "so many soldiers and weapons everywhere."

"It's nice that members from France can visit members in the USA," says Veit Kühne, a German who founded the club when he was in college and now works with it full time. "But what I've always really wanted to do is bring people from more 'difficult' places, like Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Serbia, and Palestine, in contact with people from outside those areas.... Once you know someone in countries like Iraq or Afghanistan, once you have friends on the 'enemy' side, you understand that those people are human beings just like you, and it's much harder to demonize them."

***

As soon as you enter Haj's living room, his elderly mother, in a long embroidered gown and head scarf framing a careworn face, immediately appears with a tray of fruit and strong cardamom-flavored coffee. "You see?" he smiles, "Palestinian hospitality already." We shiver in the chilly, unheated room, furnished in "Arabic baroque" with a mural of a blazing sunset vista.

In the eight months he's had his profile on the website, he's had dozens of e-mails and has hosted several travelers. "I first joined Hospitality Club in order to make new friends abroad," says Haj, who visits Germany frequently because the small youth center that his nongovernmental organization, Karama, runs receives funding from charities there. His effort to meet HC members in Germany received no answers, he says, unsure if it was the result of an unfavorable image of Palestinians in the West. "Instead," he adds, with genuine puzzlement, "people started to e-mail me, asking if they could stay with me."

Despite limited means, Haj refuses to accept payment for phone calls, food, or lodging. It's a matter of pride to even the poorest Palestinians to welcome even strangers with open arms.

Still, why - out of the whole world - would a traveler turn up on this grim, albeit hospitable, doorstep? It's important to experience local life from the "inside," say some travelers like Paul Gabriner, a retired English professor from the Netherlands who stayed with Haj. "The world would be a better place if regular people across the world met each other regularly ... there would be much more international understanding," he says.

Most who visit the Haj family are intrepid souls. "But they're scared to be here alone," says Haj, "because they think the Palestinian Territories are unsafe. People have ideas that Palestinians are thieves, terrorists, and killers.... And being with a friendly local makes them feel safer."

Though he doesn't automatically tell guests unless they ask, Haj admits his own record of youthful "terrorism," having thrown stones at Israeli soldiers, burned tires, and sprayed anti-Israeli graffiti. At 15, he was thrown in Israeli detention for two years for cutting a hole in an Israeli fence encircling the camp. (On the issue of host-guest security, Mr. Veit notes that HC requires passport number exchanges to make a reservation. "Risk is relatively small," he says if a host has been rated well on the website by several guests.)

But regardless of his personal history, which might be enough to immediately send some guests packing, Haj's visitors keep on coming.

Israel's "security wall" is the biggest photo opportunity near Haj's apartment, and the cuisine, though hearty and home-cooked, isn't exactly a gourmet's delight. Some, like Mr. Gabriner, volunteer for a few days at Al Haj's Karama center to complete the experience.

"There aren't any up-to-date guidebooks, so people don't know where to go," explains Roel Forceville, a Belgian development worker in Palestinian East Jerusalem and one of nine HC hosts in the Palestinian Territories. As unlikely as it sounds, there's actually a lot to see when vacationing in the West Bank - especially with someone who knows the region. Beside Bethlehem and Jericho, there are many impressive monasteries in the countryside. And, Mr. Forceville and Haj both suggest, the West Bank is a relatively safe destination for foreigners. Suicide attacks and bombings usually take place in Israel - not in the Palestinian Territories. Visitors, they say, arrive scared of what they'll find on this side of the wall - and leave realizing the threat lies just as much on the other.

Guest Gabriner agrees that before and after impressions are poles apart: "When I thought of a 'camp' I thought of ... something impermanent. But it's not: it's a permanent slum, still called a camp because people living there need desperately to believe that they're not there for good."

This balance - seeing beauty through the decrepitude, and finding that danger doesn't always lurk where it is expected - says Haj, is central to the visitor's experience of "Palestine."

***

When Haj's weary mother enters the living room carrying another tray of coffee and fruit she hands her son a cellphone, worriedly relating how her brother has just been arrested by Israeli troops for illegally trying to cross the border into Israel.

"He was trying to get to Jerusalem, to look for work," explains Haj. "They might let him go with a fine, or he may go to prison. I'll see what I can find out," he says as he starts a string of calls.

To a Western Hospitality Club vacationer, able to walk in and out of the West Bank with relative ease, this might be an exciting, thought-provoking vacation moment; to a Palestinian at Deheishe Camp, it's just a regular day.

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