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The Israeli flag is one of the first things you see when you disembark at the outdoor bus terminal in Antigua, Guatemala. It flaps in the wind atop one of the highest buildings bordering the station.
It's called Hotel Place to Stay, and it has become a legend among Israeli backpackers traveling along the Latin American trail. The top post-army travel destination for young Israelis was once the Far East, but over the last few years many Israelis have opted to tour Central and South America instead.
One of the trail's main tourist attractions is the quaint, volcano-surrounded town of Antigua, which served as Guatemala's capital until it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1775, at which time Guatemala City became the new capital. There is no place in Guatemala quite like Antigua, and no hotel in all of Latin America quite like Place to Stay.
Founded in 2000 by Ladino Raoul Armando Cruz-Valdez, 42, Hotel Place to Stay was originally meant to be a Spanish school. "But while we were working on the building, an Israeli traveler named Shirli came to the door and asked if we had any vacancies," Cruz-Valdez said. "She was so nice, I couldn't say no to her, so we set up a room for her. At the end of her stay, she said she had a great time, but that there was one problem - the hostel needed a name. So I let her name it, and from that day forward we became Hotel Place to Stay.
"Before we knew it we had more and more Jewish and Israeli guests," said Cruz-Valdez, who to this day cannot come up with a rational explanation for why the place attracted that particular clientele. "All I can say is that God has a purpose for everybody."
Several years previous to the opening of the hostel, Cruz-Valdez embarked on a search for what he dubs his "true identity," in the belief that he had Jewish roots. Born to a Catholic father and non-observant mother, his suspicions have not yet been confirmed, and he has yet to begin the process of official conversion. He has nevertheless discovered his Jewish lifeline in Chabad Guatemala, which has put him in touch with spiritual leaders who have taught him laws of observance and prayer.
"Over the last three years, I have begun to feel much more Jewish," he said. "Running this hostel has been a big part of that. Before the hostel, I felt like I was stumbling around life. I didn't feel fulfilled until I opened this place. Now I am happy because I am with all of the people with whom I want to be - Israelis and Jews from around the world."
Since it officially opened, Cruz-Valdez estimates that Place to Stay has become a temporary home to thousands of transient Israelis, who for $3-$8 per night have kept its 30 beds full, used its somewhat creaky lavatories, cooked in its pseudo-kosher kitchen and joined its communal Friday night dinner table. For the last two years, Place to Stay has also helped host Chabad Guatemala's Passover seder in Antigua, which this year attracted about 150 Jewish backpackers.
The main wall in the common room - plastered with postcards, photos, poems, letters and artwork by hundreds of Israeli guests - is a testament to the warm feelings between Cruz-Valdez, his brother Fernando, who joined him in running the hostel in 2003, and their guests.
"I love this wall that shows all these people who have been here before me," says Alon Ben-Yehuda, 28, from Netanya, who stayed at Place to Stay halfway through his five-month trek through Central America. "This wall, with all its messages written in Hebrew, makes me feel at home."
Ben-Yehuda and his girlfriend arrived at the hostel on a Friday afternoon, just before Shabbat. "It's not everywhere that we have been able to really celebrate Shabbat properly," he said.
For Noa Mindlin, 23, from Meitar, Shabbat at Place to Stay was a real highlight of her four months of travel. "It was my first Friday night dinner of the trip," she said. "It was great to celebrate Shabbat so far away from Israel."
But she noted it wasn't the best thing about her stay. "It's about the way they trust us, and help us without asking for anything in return" she said. "I trust the owners with my eyes closed, and that is the best thing about this place."
Nissim Bar-Kohav, 30, from Tel Aviv, stayed at Place to Stay for half of his two-month stay in Guatemala. "The amount of time I spent at the hostel speaks for itself. It was just like being at home." "It's really nice to know that this place exists. There is no place like it that's geared to Israeli travelers in Central America," said Ben-Yehuda. "A lot of places we have been to didn't like Israelis." He named locations in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico. "We have had lots of experiences, where you tell locals you are from Israel and they make this terrible face."
He said the anti-Israeli prejudice was not entirely unjustified. "The reason why Israelis have earned a bad reputation is because when we travel after the army, we are looking for this big release, and a lot of Israelis tend to do whatever they want and don't show that they care about the area they are visiting," he said. "We need to be better travelers and remember that we are representing our country."
Although the Guatemalan Jewish population is very small, only 1,200, Cruz-Valdez said Guatemalans typically feel a great affinity for Israel. Guatemala was the first country to announce its recognition of Israel to the UN, immediately after the proclamation of the state. Many Guatemalans know this fact - and boast of it.
That's not to say that there haven't been some tense moments at Place to Stay. According to Cruz-Valdez, there have been a few instances in which European travelers who weren't in the know about the hostel stayed for one night, then told him they were leaving because of all the Jews.
"I refuse to take their money," he said. "Place to Stay is not just for Jews and not just for Israelis. People from all places and walks of life are welcome - just as long as they respect the Jewish people."
"Lots of guests have asked me what I want them to send me from their home country," said his brother Fernando, who requested T-shirts and sweatshirts with Hebrew writing. But nothing ever came. "Then one day, I told one Israeli girl that more than anything else, I wanted an Israeli flag." For the last three years, the hostel has received four new flags each year, in unmarked boxes.
Cruz-Valdez, who wears a Magen David around his neck - a gift sent to him by one of his Israeli guests - said that every time the flag gets dirty, he takes it down and puts up a new one. "The flag means something very special to us. There are so many people who support us, and we really appreciate that."
Both brothers dream of one day visiting Israel. "As soon as I finish my degree, I am flying to Israel. It will be my graduation present to myself," said Fernando, who is two years away from completing his course in veterinary science in Guatemala City. "I look forward to spending time with my Israeli friends on their turf."
One thing is certain. As Bar-Kohav put it, "When the Cruz-Valdez brothers finally do get to Israel, they'll have lots of places to stay."
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