IS THERE ANYTHING positive I can say about Israelis? Not really. It seems that the only time you hear about them it’s because they’ve stolen some more Arab land, bulldozed some innocent people’s houses, stormed a ship in international waters and shot dead unarmed Greek students, sent their Mossad agents to murder terror suspects in foreign countries (sometimes killing the wrong men) or gunned down Palestinian kids who’ve thrown stones at their armoured cars. So, no...I don’t think I have anything positive to say about them. And before anyone thinks I’m being racist, I’m not: I’m talking about Israelis, not Jews. I know plenty of Jewish people in London, and there is no way they could be tarred with the Unmentionable brush. The Israelis are truly a breed apart from any other traveller you are likely to meet.
The Unmentionables travel in packs, and don’t mix. In fact, the most you’ll likely get is a dirty look if you happen to arrive at a hostel they’ve taken over. According to Guatemalans I’ve spoken to, one of whom spoke Hebrew and listened in frequently, their modus operandi is to establish themselves in a place, and then start haggling and making unreasonable demands which the owner can’t refuse without losing money if they all move out at once. In Coban, our hostel owner told us that they’d complained there was no kitchen for them to use. After snooping around, one of them came to him and pointed out that there was a kitchen at the back of the property. The owner said that this was his mother’s, but was bullied into letting them use it. His poor mother had to put up with being barged out of her own space when they took over to cook dinner. Charming.
I’ve seen some appalling incidents over the course of the last few years. In Saigon, I was in a cafe where around ten Unmentionables had commandeered half of it. The old Vietnamese lady serving got one of the meals wrong, which drove one of the Israeli girls into a rage. She waved the old woman away, and her dismissive hand caught the edge of the bowl, sending the noodles over the waitress. I was disgusted, as were several open-mouthed diners.
We arrived in Lanquin late one evening, and drove slowly down the hill into the village. On the way we were met with scowls and hard stares from some of the locals sat by the side of the road. Kneehead remarked that the place didn’t look too friendly. I replied that it looked downright hostile to me. It wasn’t long before we found out why. I’d put it down simply to resentment at rich Westerners visiting, but a local told me a different story. The place was crawling with Unmentionables, likely because it was one of the cheaper places in Guatemala. Antigua is the most expensive town in the country, and doesn’t see many of them. Probably explains why I’ve spent almost three weeks here? The local lad told me they were rude, haggled aggressively, and were disrespectful to his people. Within a day, we saw this in practice.
We’d spent the sunset at the mouth of the caves at Lanquin, waiting for the bats to exit for the nocturnal hunt. I’d found it hilarious as Kneehead cowered in near-terror as the bats flapped past his face, and lost count of the times he said the words “I think this is a really bad idea.” We headed back to the village, smelling fusty and with footwear encrusted in thick bat-shit. Nasty. A couple of New Yorkers tagged along for dinner, and we found a popular local restaurant. For around £3 each, we were fed a delicious chicken dinner with all the trimmings. As we ate, there was a commotion developing between the lady owner and a couple of Unmentionables sitting in a corner. Kneehead, having the better Spanish of us, earwigged on the conversation. He shook his head disgustedly and told us they were disputing the price of the food after they’d eaten it. Pigs.
Heading for Coban the next day, we discovered the same pair on our shuttle bus. The fare to the town is a standard Q30; a decent price for a two hour drive, at around £2.50. On reaching our destination, the conductor scrambled up on top of the minibus for our packs. The male Unmentionable questioned the fare, and said he would pay Q20. The conductor looked at me and Kneehead. I shrugged. As we were shouldering our packs, the debate raged back and forth. The Guatemalan appeared to back down “OK...OK...is 20 Quetzales for the ride...” and the Unmentionables looked triumphant “...and 10 Quetzales to get your bags back.” Checkmate. Guatemala 1-0 Israel. As we walked off, I cast a grin at the man on the roof, and he winked back.
A lack of manners was on display on the bus to Antigua from Coban. Three young female Unmentionables were hogging the back seats of the bus with their bags. As we waited to climb in, they were looking down their noses at myself and the Bognors. Nicola was distinctly unimpressed with their looking her up and down. A few hours into the journey, we stopped at a gas station and bought some snacks. An older American named Pete was first in the queue, the rest of us behind him. One of the Israeli girls sidled up next to Pete, blatantly pushing in and, a few minutes later her friends joined her. “Don’t mind us, we’ll just queue here for nothing” I muttered. They didn’t bat an eyelid. The arrogance of it. I was more annoyed with myself later for no saying anything, merely fuming in the bus for an hour; always better to get it off your chest. Especially where rude bastard Israelis are concerned.
On getting off the bus, I was set to walk with an American named Laura, as she had a decent hostel in mind. The Unmentionables had been asking her where she was staying, but were still on the bus as it drove away. I breathed a sigh of relief, and told her that if they’d joined her I’d have walked in the opposite direction. She said “Oh, I love the Israelis...” and before I could recover my jaw from the ground “...they make us Americans look polite.” So it’s not just me that thinks this way.
To be fair, I won’t tag all Israeli backpackers as Unmentionables. I met a lovely couple in Tulum; but I can’t consider them backpackers anyway, considering the stunning Efrat had 20 bikinis in one suitcase. With a body like hers, I can’t blame her, either. Her boyfriend, faux-Italian “Fabio”, was impossible to dislike...despite looking like Gael Garcia-Bernal and having a drop-dead gorgeous girlfriend in tow. I spent some time in Thailand with an Israeli lad travelling with a Canadian flag on his pack; he said he was ashamed of some of his countrymen and their behaviour, so sought to distance himself. I’d laughed and said I hadn’t met many wiry, olive-skinned Canadians with curly black hair. There was also a couple of affable musicians on a night boat in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, who were very nice lads. They're certainly not all bad.
The rule of thumb seems to be that if you meet an Israeli travelling alone, or as a couple, they are generally nice people. But in groups, they have this post-national service mentality that the world is against them; they need to stick together and not trust outsiders. That’s clearly not the case. One of the joys of travel is meeting new people, finding out more about their culture, and having a bloody good laugh with them. It is certainly not about travelling a poor country and squeezing every last penny out of the impoverished locals, just so you can travel for longer. By doing that, you only make things difficult for your compatriots who follow. I’ve seen the way the locals’ attitude changed in Lanquin as soon as they find out your country of origin. “English...always tips me” a smiling Guatemalan told me. Be nice, give a little extra where it’s due...and you’re going to get a lot more back.
Fabio and Efrat invited me to Israel as we left Tulum. To be honest, I’m not sure I’d fit in. I’d love to see the pair of them again; but I think that, certainly after this article, I’d be assured of a warmer welcome in Palestine or Syria.
(And this fellow (Jewish, too) seems to concur)