Our guide got farther and farther ahead of me as I wound my way through the cavern trying to keep up. This was nothing like the carved out cave walk down and down to find the cisterns at one of Herod’s summer escapes in Caesarea. There you would only go down and down and there was only one way to go. You knew your guide was waiting at the bottom for you. But in this cavern there were multiple twists and turns, ups and downs, and plenty of time and room to get lost. I am relatively tall and so I could just make out the funky hat our guide wore way ahead as I struggled to keep up and at every intersection looked for that hat again. At every intersection, or any place for that matter, a vendor would tell me: “You American, I have great price for you, just one dollar! Come and look, just one dollar!” I would mutter “No thank you,” and move on to catch up with my group again. Over the top of the crowd of people I could just see his hat.
The “Old City” they call it. Yet the Old City of Jerusalem would sell you digital camera SD cards and batteries. Pots and pan, women’s and men’s clothes hung above you while on all sides were everything from antiques to TV’s and stereos. It was a cavern maybe ten foot wide and another one I had to duck through or I would hit my head on a low hung pan. Most every street was lined with a vendor of some kind and it was VERY easy to lose site of our guide who glided through the cavern like a stealthy cat knowing every twist and turn to get us to the places we were heading. Every now and again we would be overrun by pilgrims singing Christian songs in many languages as our path crossed theirs. They were following the “Via de la Rosa,” the way of the rose, the last steps of Jesus as he went through the old city 2000 years ago.
I was lost. I listened to the song “Beautiful Savior” sung in Korean for too long and the funky hat was nowhere to be seen. I pulled out the map of the Old City. It seemed to be a pretty good map supplied by the hotel and I knew where we were supposed to be going this afternoon but there was a problem. There were no street signs. Every now and again I would catch a glimpse of something scrawled on a wall that seemed to be the name of a street but I could not get it to match my map. Finally, after listening to a number of vendors trying to sell me their whole store for a dollar if I just come inside and have a look, I stopped one to ask for directions. “No problem” he said in near perfect English and a big smile. He showed me the way and it wasn’t too long and I found the tail end of our group and was back in step before our guide knew I was gone.
I was struck by the Palestinian man who gave me directions. Very quickly he dropped out of his sales pitch and was genuinely trying hard to help me. It was as abrupt as if he had a mask on and he took it off to talk to me. As I left he put the mask back on again and tried to sell his store for a dollar. As is the case more often than not I find a little more about myself as I find out more about my neighbors. My crisis had forced me to take my mask off first and treat him like the human he is behind the mask. My mask was mumbling and meandering through his streets, looking strait ahead and not acknowledging the humans with their masks on around me. When I took mind off and genuinely talked to him he reciprocated by genuinely smiling and talking to me. The masks were down and we had a moment, just a moment. I remember looking for him as we made our way back later that afternoon but all I saw were people with masks on. A mask-less face is hard to find.