ANTIGUA, Guatemala (May. 15)
It’s late afternoon, and a group of young Israelis are doing what everybody else does in this Central American tourist town — shopping for bargains.
But as they browse through the brightly colored tapestries, shoulder bags and scarves in the marketplace, or just walk the town’s cobblestone streets, they admit their minds sometimes wander to the ongoing violence back home.
It’s a situation that differentiates them from the American and European backpackers.
The others "travel because they are bored," says Idan Dovev, 22, from Moshav Sde Varborg, north of Tel Aviv. "We travel because we want to escape."
Like many other tourists here, Israelis spend part of their travel days in an Internet cafe. But their searches have a serious purpose — scouring Israeli Web sites for news of the Middle East conflict and reading e-mails to make sure that their families and friends are safe.
Even tens of thousands of miles away from home, "the world, the Internet, doesn’t let you forget," Dovev says.
For many Israelis, these post-army "escapes" have become a rite of passage. These long-term trips offer an opportunity to see the world and, after a stint in the army, to unwind outside of the Israeli pressure cooker.
"We say we can find two things around the world — Coca-Cola and Israelis," says Chen Grazutis, 24.
Indeed, there are parts of the tourist world that Israelis seem to dominate: Kathmandu, Nepal; Goa, India; and Cuzco, Peru, for example. Restaurants offering Middle Eastern food are plentiful — some with signs written in Hebrew — and Hebrew can be heard in the streets.
The Israeli tourists haven’t always been good ambassadors for the Jewish state: In Thailand and India, Israelis are notorious partiers.
In the United States, a few were arrested after posing for photos along the New Jersey side of the Hudson River as the Twin Towers burned in the background on Sept. 11. The culprits eventually were sent home for having overstayed their visas.
Israelis learn about places that are Israeli-friendly before they leave. Once on the road, word-of-mouth tells them which cities are the most hospitable — and the cheapest.
Central America hasn’t been on the Israeli tourist map for long, but it has been gaining strength in recent years.
Politics play a role: Central American governments and their people are friendly to Israel. El Salvador and Costa Rica even have their embassies in Jerusalem.
Almost all countries, including the United States, maintain their embassies in Tel Aviv because Jerusalem is a disputed city.
Guatemala backed the Jews in the United Nations in 1947, during the struggle during the struggle over Palestine that led to the creation of a Jewish state. The Central American nation also was the lone voice questioning the anti- Israel atmosphere at the recent Human Rights Commission in Geneva, says Dina Siegel Vann, the U.N. and Latin American affairs director for B’nai B’rith International.
Guatemala’s support for Israel may be based on economics, as the two countries boast extensive military and agricultural ties.
Despite these ties, Israelis haven’t reached the critical mass in Antigua that they enjoy in Asia and South America. But this town, which sits about 45 minutes away from the country’s capital, Guatemala City, is gaining in popularity.
It’s easy to see why.
Home to more than 30,000 Guatemalans, Antigua has a quaint feel to it. It’s noted for its cafes, low-rise colonial buildings — which better survive the occasional earthquakes — and surrounding volcanoes.
The town also is a magnet for tourists wanting to learn Spanish, with some 65 Spanish schools serving some 800 to 1,000 students each week.
Now that the civil war that plagued Guatemala for 30 years has abated, the country has become much safer for travel.
Perhaps the 20 Israeli security firms estimated to be operating in the country are partially to thank for that.
Antigua has become the center of the country’s tourist life. Internet cafes abound, as do restaurants, bars and used bookstores.
Storefronts offer inexpensive excursions to Lake Atitlan, further to the west, or the longer trip to Tikal, which is one of the world’s largest jungles and home to spectacular Mayan ruins.
There also is a simpler reason to stay in Antigua: It’s cheap. Young Israelis say shared rooms can be had for as little as $10 per person each night.
"This is the main city in Guatemala," Grazutis says. "It’s got a night life and it’s cheap."
There’s even a restaurant, Cafe 2000, run by an Israeli expat. Here, Israelis can quaff cheap Guatemalan beer, watch movies for free on a big-screen television — and sometimes even get some pickles with their meals, Tel Aviv style.
"It’s kind of like home. You have shesh-besh," Dovev says, using the Hebrew term for backgammon.
This year, Chabad, the fervently Orthodox group known for its outreach activities, held a Passover seder in Guatemala. While it didn’t attract huge numbers like Chabad seders in Asia, approximately 90 people attended.
Despite the comfort level Israelis feel in Antigua, there’s a certain anxiety now.
Cafe 2000 didn’t hold its annual Israeli Independence Day celebration this year, in keeping with the Jewish state’s toned-down commemoration because of ongoing Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Grazutis and his companions, other former army officers, stay in touch with their superiors to see if they have to return home for reserve duty.
For some, the crisis back home makes them think of returning to Israel.
"I now feel like I want to go home," says Roy Sason, 23, of Kiryat Ono, who’s been on the road for more than six months.
The Israelis say they try to avoid talking about politics when they meet travelers from other countries.
When politics does come up, they say, they often find sympathy — particularly from Americans, who seem to understand Israel’s predicament.
Some Europeans see the conflict only from the Palestinian point of view, they say. Dovev got into a conversation with a man who recently finished a stint in the Swiss army.
"He told me he didn’t understand what we are doing to the Palestinians," Dovev says. Dovev tried to explain that the conflict is "nothing like he sees on TV."
After a long discussion, Dovev felt he had helped the Swiss man "get" the Israeli point of view.
"In the end, I think I convinced him," he says.