When I came across news late last week that "rockets [had] landed in Tel Aviv," my heart sank. And my jaw dropped: I vividly remembered a conversation I'd had with my friend Lior the last time I visited Israel, in 2011.
"The day a rocket falls on the streets of Tel Aviv," he said, with a noise I couldn't for certain call a laugh, a whimper or a sigh, "it's all over."
Now, further reading -- and an "OMG, is the world about to end?!?!?!" post on Facebook -- quickly confirmed that rockets had fallen not "on the streets of Tel Aviv," but into an open field in the outlying city of Rishon LeZion.
"The sirens woke me," Lior joked, in his comment on the post. "I want to go back to bed." Obnoxious, but hardly the end of the world.
And hardly the first time I have felt a personal connection to the political affairs of foreign countries, which was incidentally during my first trip to Israel, in 2010.
"I will simply tell them that I have no opinion about it, and no personal stake in it," I explained to my Jordanian friend Najwa, who warned me about the Lebanese stamp in my passport as she waited with me at the bus station in Amman. "I'm an American of non-Arab descent -- they won't look twice!"
But look twice the Israelis did and before I knew it, three hours had passed since the Tel Aviv-bound bus left the Jordan Valley border crossing without me.
As I stared intently into a room where Israeli border officials were supposed to be clearing me for entry -- they were, instead, huddled around a table laughing and talking shit -- I began to wonder whether everything Najwa's family and friends had told me about Israel was true.
The primary objective of Israel, they'd informed me, after distinguishing between the political entity of "Israel" and the land of "Palestine," was to always portray itself as the victim, in order to perpetuate crimes against Palestine, the true victim.
As an American who, at this point, hadn't traveled very extensively, I knew only what the news media had told me -- which was exactly the opposite of this.
But when I bitched about my senseless detention, the supervisor on duty happily stamped my passport himself. It's all in your head, Robert, I thought, as I quite literally walked into the sunset. The Israeli frontier was impossibly lush and colorful when compared to Jordan's border territory. And maybe theirs.
Unfortunately, the farmer who was nice enough to let me ride to the next town in the back of his pickup was among the only people I met during my time in Israel who suggested this was the case.
During my brief stay, I was stopped, questioned and outright interrogated no less than a dozen times. I headed back toward the border less than 24 hours later firmly on "Team Palestine."
The larger impact of my disastrous maiden voyage to Israel was not my personal stake in the conflict, although I do feel I now have one, which I will explain further in just a minute. It was that, from the moment I sprinted back over the border to Jordan, I was no longer able to remove myself, as a traveler, from the political affairs of a particularly country.
As I waited in line for my visa at the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok later that year, for example, I heard my Shanghai roommate's words repeating in my head. Every dollar you spend in Burma, he wagged his finger, supports the brutal military junta that rules the country and suppresses democracy.
Now, democratic reforms have obviously began to flower in Myanmar in the years that have since passed -- I was even lucky enough to be in Oslo and watch Aung San Suu Kyi accept her Nobel Peace Prize this past June!
But as I walked down the filthy streets of Yangon and Mandalay and through the dirt paths of villages like Inwa, Sagaing and Amarapura, I pondered to what extent Myanmar's "back in time" charm was linked to the political ignorance of its citizens.
(And on the plane back to Bangkok, nearly a week ahead of schedule, I pondered whether the near-death food poisoning I'd gotten was my gut punishing me for my decision to visit Myanmar against the feeling it gave me.)
To be sure, I have almost always erred on the side of "be aware, but go anyway" when it comes to visiting countries embroiled in political or economic turmoil, from post-crisis Greece to post-revolution Egypt to countries like Colombia, which are generally regarded as unstable or even unsafe.
As travelers, we can (and should) educate ourselves about political situations in the countries we visit. But we often can't (and almost always shouldn't) inject ourselves into them.
I returned to Israel last fall because, after a year of attempting to research my way to full agreement with my Arab friends' views on the Middle Eastern conflict, I needed the "other side of the story" I never got on account of the disastrous circumstances of my first visit.
And when I left Tel Aviv after 14 amazing days, I not only humbled by the happiness, joy and peace I'd found there -- I was changed.
I was longer no longer on "Team Palestine," although I was also definitely not on "Team Israel." If the conflict ever escalated, as Lior and many of the other friends I met there had postulated it might, it wouldn't be a victory for one side and a defeat for the other -- it would be the end of us all.
After everyone on my bus toward the Egyptian border had fallen asleep, I thought back on an exchange I'd had the very morning I arrived in Israel two weeks earlier, when the sexy Israeli who'd eye-fucked me the whole inbound flight from Athens had asked me to share a cab into town with him.
As the taxi sped toward central Tel Aviv, the sky still dark, I noticed the man was wearing a Star of David on the silver chain around his neck. "I didn't exactly peg you as a religious Jew."
"I don't wear it because I'm Jewish," he gripped the star in his fist. "I wear it because I'm Israeli."
"It's all I have," he interrupted me, before I could ask him to elaborate. "You see, this 'conflict' the rest of the world is trying to understand, to break down and to mediate, it's 5,000 years of hatred -- it's in our blood. I hope it will end one day, but in my heart I know otherwise."