In the world of today there is but one Jewish state and it's name is Israel. The country came into being in 1948. For the previous 2000 years, the Jews had no place where they truly belonged, most becoming scattered into diaspora. By blind faith and extreme stubbornness they persisted, and when at last granted their promised land, they were determined to stay for good. Seven armies of the Arab world thought otherwise. They closed in to drive them into the sea but it was not enough to destroy Israel. Many Jewish soldiers, having already lost their humanity in Nazi concentration camps, descended on the battlefield not as savages of war, but like glowing angels, and they gave their lives for the last thing in the world they could possibly die fighting for--a home. And in this manner the Jews remained, the borders of their small country now forming the shape of a dagger, one driven deep into the heart of the Middle East.
It is admirable the success of the Jews. With the help of the Russians, then the French, and now the Americans, they have built a thriving society that is something of a cross between eastern influence and western thought. Over the decades modern Israelis have become resolute and mindful of their place in the world like few people are. The pressing issue though is the division among them, for they are far from united. A recent influx of immigrants from Africa has deepened the gap. And even worse, there is no solution in sight to the issue of the Palestine. Both sides lay claim to the land, and the government of neither is prepared to give way. I set foot in Israel wanting to understand the conflict. In spite of these good intentions, my desire for knowledge led me into a deep spiral of confusion and conflicted emotions. Now I'm probably no better off now than when I started.
The second largest city in Israel, only an hour from Jerusalem on the Mediterranean coast, is Tel Aviv. I knew coming in that it would be expensive so I arranged to stay with a couchsurfing host. It was a Jewish holiday called Succot, and in observance of the day, public transportation did not run until nightfall. While I waited in the airport, the free wifi Internet was likely the fastest I'd used in months. I then rode the first train into the city center and took a bus to where my host Benzi lived. His home was in a caravan park near the beach. The next day, bright and sunny, I walked to the cliff lined shore and found a pleasant stretch of sand without rocks in the water. The setting was perfect. I plunged in and my body moved with the currents. Looking to the clear sky, I became lost in the grandeur of nature. In some ways the place reminded me of Torrey Pines Beach in San Diego. Both had windswept cliffs overlooking the sea. However, in Tel Aviv the water was warmer, the waves smaller and the sand lighter in color. This same outing I met an American who lived in the city. He explained to me some of the local culture, and also said he worked training dogs. Later I joined him while he walked a group of happy canines. Their owners had come to Israel from around the world, and the American had needed to memorize the basic commands in half a dozen languages to get the various dogs to behave.
Benzi was a gentle man, big and soft spoken. While at home he studied for a guide license in Israel, no easy endeavor, for he had to become knowledgeable of the country's long history. He also worked giving tours and was not around much except in the evenings. He cooked vegetarian food, simple things like lentil soup and bell peppers baked full of rice. After eating together on his porch we drank coffee and talked of the politics and history of Israel. Benzi didn't see any hope for finding peace in his country, yet at the same time, he didn't think the danger posed by the conflict was something to worry about. Of all the people I met, he was the one person to tell me to see the Gaza Strip. I briefly considered it. However, I could never go without special permission granted through an organization, and even were that possible I thought it better to avoid the area. I happened to arrive at a very volatile point in time, when tensions were high between Muslims and Jews. Along the Gaza Strip acts of violence were already a familiar occurrence and there was no indication the situation might improve.
After 3 nights at Benzi's I moved to another couchsurfing host in the city center. This second host, Shira, shared a small apartment with her boyfriend Ori. She was a veterinarian at a clinic, a job she said didn't pay enough (she was looking into other options). At her place she kept a rescue dog. The jack russell terrier was timid, but soon warmed up to my gentle character. Shira joked that at the clinic she told her clients how to properly take care of their dogs, but at home she broke nearly all her rules. For example, she spoiled little Yuli, letting the animal eat off her plate. Shira was poor at discipline in this way. I understood. I had the same problem teaching kids. When it came time to be firm I was too soft to bring down the hammer. Anyhow, we had good fun. While Ori went trekking with his old army buddies, Shira and I attended a rave festival. The set up was large and the beats decent, so I lost myself in the crowds and danced the hours away. Shira too grooved. Then she ran into an old colleague from veterinarian school, a weirdo who stalked her for most the remaining night. Since they spoke in Hebrew, I at first thought they were catching up on old times. Eventually, Shira pulled me aside and asked for my help to escape the guy. I might have simply told him too piss off. But I was too nice for that. Besides, he had been in the special forces before, and using Krav Maga, Israel's own martial art, he might've reacted by kicking me in the balls and chopping out my Adam's apple. In the end Shira and I had to be patient. We largely ignored him until he got the message and finally left.
I didn't do much sightseeing in Tel Aviv. I was too occupied spending time with my CS hosts. But I did go to Jaffa, a port with a much longer history than Tel Aviv. It's now a part of the larger city yet still retains its historic character. In the center a large church and cobbled street top a hill that juts up from the seaside. From there the coast stretches northward for several kilometers, its shore sandy and inviting to beach-goers. A single road separates the sand from the rest of Tel Aviv, and the buildings nearest to the water are as tall as those in the heart of the city. I've never liked that--when urban sprawl encroaches so tightly on a place that should remain natural and unmolested. I thought again of Southern California, this time recalling Los Angeles. Tel Aviv shared much in common with the city. It was overpriced, and though overall sunny and metropolitan, many of its buildings were run down and had graffiti on the concrete surfaces. It also had several white, tanned bodies walking the streets, and in some areas a lot of brown people. The darker skinned ones didn't come from Latin America though. They were out of Africa--Ethiopians, Etreans, Sudanese and Moroccans. Another interesting sight were the soldiers. Israelis, both male and female, must to do military service. When in public, they wear a brownish green uniform and sometimes carry a rifle. Because soldiers can ride public transport for free, they're ubiquitous on buses and trains, often seated in groups while chatting loudly in Hebrew.
After Tel Aviv, I used couchsurfing yet again, now staying at a host's place in the city of Haifa. This would be by far my most awkward experience using the site. To begin with, the host Haim preferred to be naked while at home. So when I arrived he took off his clothes. This was okay for me. It was his place, and he could do what he liked. And he'd already explained his alternative lifestyle and how he was gay. But then he said it made him feel uncomfortable when he was the only one naked, as if the other person were hiding something. So I felt pressured to also undress. I mean, i might have done it anyhow, for the hell of it, but i needed time to ease into that kind of thing. After a while I stopped worrying, and we drove to the beach in Haim's car. It was outside the city in a secluded area, a nude beach frequented by gays. Haim commented, "This is a wonderful place. You are free to do anything. No one cares." I could clearly see that. Two naked men were taking turns pleasuring each other while an older fat guy basked in the sun rubbing his exposed genitals. The overt sexuality was a little too much for me. Still, I kept an open mind. This was not my scene, but if this was how these men enjoyed thier sanctuary of homosexuality, so be it.
Just to be safe, I'd already explained to Haim that I was not gay, nor that I used couchsurfing as a means to hook up for sex. Plus, I'd gone through his references ahead of time. From the positive comments former guests had left, it seemed Haim didn't use the site for sex either. After all, there had to be an easier way for gay men to find casual partners on the Internet. He later told me of a site called cocksurfing.com. It sounded like a joke. But after one glance at the homepage I understood that it was indeed for gay travelers looking to exchange fluids with local hosts. Still, the way Haim behaved, I couldn't be certain about his intentions. He talked a lot about sex. I learned, for example, that Israel had too many bottom gays and not enough top ones. He also said he liked to go out to his balcony and masturbate, and that if I wanted, I could do the same. Having told me these things, I had to wonder, was he only after an intercultural exchange? You know, just a person to talk to as opposed to being alone at home all the time. Strangest of all, he wanted us to sleep together in his bed. And the man slept naked. Again keeping an open mind, I joined him, but only after putting on my pajamas. So there we lied in darkness, him nude, and me clothed. The situation was very tense. I feared that at any moment he might reach over, try to touch me in some way. But he didn't. And like this we slept.
During the days I saw more of Haifa and the area. The city sat beside the sea. Unlike most places in Israel it had an good mix of Jewish and Arab people, and they got along without trouble. The city was also home to the Baha'i Gardens. Terraced patches of green extended down a hillside, giving spectacular views of surrounding Haifa. At the bottom stood the mausoleum of Bab, the man who had 150 years ago laid the groundwork for the Baha'i faith. According to Bab's beliefs all the religions of the world had an underlying spirituality that brought people closer to God. So the Baha'i welcome anyone to worship at their temples. I'd already visited one in India. Now learning that the Baha'i existed in Israel enlightened me further in the ways of the little known religion. That night Haim and I dropped by the Haifa's annual film festival. Rather than see a movie, we wandered around the outdoor part, passing by stalls and street performers. The people in Israel strongly support the performing arts, and as an extension of that, independent film making. Admittedly, before visiting I hadn't seen many Israeli films. Off the top of my head, I could recall only Waltz with Bashir, Ajami and the Palestinian made Paradise Now. They are each gripping works of social commentary that shed light on a country often misrepresented in the media.
While staying with Haim I set aside a day to see Acre up the coast. The port's history spans the ages going back to the time of the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and half a dozen other empire builders. Not surprisingly, it's one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. Acre's historic quarter is huddled up against the Mediterranean and has remained largely the same since the Ottoman era. The most notable of its buildings is the Citadel, a fortress constructed on top of a castle built by 11th century crusaders. The excavated remains of the former now serve as a subterranean museum. Elsewhere, the historic quarter was a dense maze of stone buildings, arches and narrow alleyways. But as stunning as the place appeared to me, the locals saw it simply as home. They chatted in cafes, lounged on stools outside shops, prayed at mosques, and moved about tending to their daily business. I took pictures of everything as best I could. And while I may have succeeded in capturing some of the atmosphere, I believe Acre to be one of those places photography cannot do justice. To truly know its wonder a person must become lost in the city's back alleys, and wander and wander, until at last fumbling out into a breeze that sweeps along the cool waterfront.
|Underground Castle Ruins|
Jesus of Nazareth
It is written in the Gospel of Matthew that the angel Gabriel visited the Virgin Mary to tell her she would give birth to the son of God. This event took place sometime around the year 2 BC in the town of Nazareth, the Basilica of Annunciation now marking the supposed spot. Later on Mary conceived Jesus in Bethlehem, then returned home to raise him. How Jesus spent his childhood years the bible doesn't really say. But as an adult he wandered east to the Sea of Galilee, conducted his first ministry, performed miracles and gained countless followers. Later he went to Jerusalem where his presence attracted the attention of the ruling Roman authority. The governor, prefect Pontius Pilate, reluctantly judged Jesus to be a false king and sentenced him to death. Three days after his crucifixion Jesus emerged from his tomb, appeared before many witnesses, and was like, "Farewell, people of the world. I'm out of here." In a column of glorious light he ascended to the Kingdom of Heaven. His work was done. By living and dying among mortal men, JC had freed them of their sins. Aside from a brief period when Mary and Joseph had fled to Egypt with baby Jesus in tow, the events surrounding his life had unfolded in the northern part of Israel and nearby Jordan, from Bethlehem on upward.
Nazareth was the first place I visited in the region. I went to the basilica and sat in its arched interior watching other tourists parade around after their guides. The building, a recent construct from the 1960s, stands as the largest church in the Middle East. That said, the layout failed to impress me. This didn't stop tourists from arriving in droves. Over the centuries other members of the Christian community had come to erect churches and convents in commemoration of the life and times of Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. I went to a few of these too. But what I liked about Nazareth most was its ordinary buildings, the white, blocky houses and businesses which covered the hills around the city center. I disappeared into the alleyways going up on foot. When I was hungry I stopped to eat flat bread from a bakery. It was not enough. I then went to a fruit stand and picked out a big green apple. The man at the register looked at me. "Only one?" he asked with a raised brow. I nodded and he let me have the apple for free. That was awful nice, I thought. Yet I was still not full so I found a proper eatery for a falafel. The food--fried hummus with veggies in a pita--was vegetarian but surprisingly heavy. I couldn't finish it. In the meantime, the shop attendant saw my Nikon D600 and asked me for some advice about what camera he should buy. I told him the same thing I tell most people. Go with a cheap DSLR instead of an expensive one. My reasoning was that as long as its not some crappy camera phone the quality of the photos a person takes wont vary much between models. The skill and effort of the photographer make more the difference.
A bit east of Nazareth in a town called Midgal Haemek, I stayed at another couchsurfer's home. The man Alon was married and had a year-old daughter. His was a nice family with a big black dog. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 many people of Jewish descent immigrated to Israel. At that time Alon came from Moldova and his wife Alex from Ukraine. They later met in Israel but made it a point to use Russian at home so their daughter would learn it. As we got to know each other Alon told me an interesting story from his days of military service. When men become enlisted they don't have a say where they go. In Alon's case he was placed in the Duvdevan, an elite special forces unit that responds to acts of terrorism in urban areas. The way his story went, some years before, after a bombing had killed Israelis in the West Bank, his unit moved in to interrogate locals. They followed up on leads until they discovered a bomb making lab in a random apartment block. After that, the demolition team came in to blow up the entire building. But his most interesting story was from his training days. Alon's unit had to sneak up on a bedouin camp undetected and remove one liter of water from the camp's cistern. The camp had a dog though, and when the team was within 2km of the camp, the dog started barking. Unable to give up on the mission, they moved in, and when they stood right near the target, a bedouin man came outside. Rather than suspecting someone might be in the surrounding darkness, he gave the dog a good kicking to shut it up, then returned to sleep. In the end the unit was able to fill a plastic bottle from the cistern. Once safely away, the soldiers took a sip from the bottle one by one to cement the bond between them.
|Alon and His Daughter|
Christianity came from Judaism, and Islam from the two. In the holy book of the Jews, the Torah, it was written that one day a messiah would come and lead his people to salvation. When Jesus Christ appeared and preached a new gospel, some Jews accepted him as the messiah. It didn't hurt that the man supposedly performed miracles and prophesied events that later came true. Jesus, however, was not an anomaly of his time. Many other self proclaimed prophets emerged throughout the centuries forming cults or offshoot religions now forgotten. The difference was that in the case of Christianity, the religion had a very important champion in Constantine the Great. In 312 before the Battle of Milvian Bridge, the Roman general saw in his dreams a vision of the Latin cross. He took it as an omen, and after becoming victorious, decided that the Christian god was on his side. Constantine then broke away from Rome and founded a separate empire that extended outward from his new capital city of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). In time he took Christianity as his religion and granted religious freedom to his people, and it was this act that forever changed history. The Byzantine Empire would last over 1000 years at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. The influence it had on religious matters of the world cannot be understated.
As for Judaism, it didn't flourish in the same way. For one, the Jews didn't seek out new converts, nor were they historically in any position to punish others for not sharing their faith. Aside from the early Kingdoms of Solomon and David, their homeland was always in the hands of foreign invaders, and several times the Jews found themselves driven out en mass, most famously by the Assyrians, and later by the Romans. Where they went afterwards they became persecuted, and while in diaspora, the Jews suffered the most in Europe. The growing Christian population vilified the Jews for not accepting the word of the Lord Savior Jesus Christ. For why should they continue to see God as one when he was in fact three entities represented by the Holy Trinity? And was it not the Jews who had killed Christ? When Pontius Pilate asked during Passover who should be set free, Jesus or Barabbas, the Jews chose the latter. The way the priests told the story, it'd been as if the Jews themselves had driven the lance through Jesus' chest. But was it really fair to judge an entire people for the actions of a few? In churches they also accused the Jews of poisoning wells, stealing babies to use in blood rituals, spreading plague and so on. Some Jews couldn't take the persecution, and against their faith, they converted to Christianity. But even then they were rarely accepted.
Another problem the Jews faced was the resentment that came from matters of money. In both the Quran and Bible, it was forbidden to lend money. However, in the Torah, essentially the same book as the Old Testament, the Jews interpreted a few lines of scripture differently and did not view moneylending as inherently wrong. So the Jews become the bankers of Europe and the Middle East, and without them trade and commerce couldn't have grown into large scale enterprise as fast as it did. Of course many people didn't care that the Jews were helping their local economy. They were more concerned with their personal debts. Sometimes men of poor character used lies to turn the masses against a moneylender so that they could kill the man and destroy his record books. Other times it was priests who riled up congregations, most often during Holy Week, when Jesus was crucified. Angry mobs would then filter into the streets and beat and rape Jews, if not kill them outright. But of all the tragedies that befell the Jews in Europe, three stand out as the worst. The first was the Holy Inquisition. During this time the church expelled all Jews who didn't convert to Christianity, first from Spain and later Portugal and Italy. Then fearing that many Jews who had converted still practiced Judaism in secret, the church began to root them out. Interrogation and torture were the tools they employed.
The second horrific event that victimized the Jews were the pogroms of Imperial Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries. Again moneylending was at the heart of the matter, but as an excuse, instigators falsely accused the Jews of taking part in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. Antisemitic riots resulted in countless deaths, as well as droves of Jews fleeing the empire. As bad as this was, nothing could compare to the Holocaust which occurred before and during WWII. Once the systematic killing began in Nazi controlled Europe, it didn't stop until Berlin fell to the Russians in 1945. Estimates place the death toll as high as 6 million. Afterwards many survivors had no place to go, or feared returning home due to ongoing antisemitism. Under great pressure to resolve Europe's Jewish refugee problem, the newly formed United Nations had Britain carve out a sovereign state for the Jews in its Mandate of Palestine. The rest of the territory went to the Palestinians, and in 1948 the partitioning of the land was complete. But even before the borders were drawn, hostilities began. During its 31 year occupation of the region, the British had created a divide between the two peoples, and after a series of incidents, the Arabs decided they wanted the Jews out. They attacked from Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Iraq. Europe offered no military support in this time of Israeli crisis. Instead help came from the Russians. Stalin hoped the flames of socialism would spread into the Middle East, and Israel was his way in. He armed the Israelis with weapons from Czechoslovakia and provided logistical support. In the end the Jews emerged the winners. But Stalin's plan was a failure. In spite of Israel being pro-socialist, socialism and communism did not take root elsewhere in the Middle East.
I often reference the Lonely Planet guidebooks to get travel ideas. The Israeli edition (a pdf file that I shamelessly pirated off the Internet) had a segment on the Jesus Trail. It's a marked trail that goes from Nazareth to Capernaum, a town on the north side of the Sea of Galilee. The journey takes five days while covering many sites related to Jesus Christ. I was immediately keen on the ideal because the trail offered a good mix of nature, countryside and towns. To start the trail I went to Nazareth. From the city center, painted blazes marked the way. I followed them to the edge of town, where the next village started, and another after that. It was like strolling through rural suburbia, and it might have been nice had there not been so much garbage littering the ground. I saw it all--boxes, plastic bottles, worn out tires, dead cats, etc. Then I passed into open farmland consisting largely of olive groves. As the end of the day neared, I stood at the entrance of Zippori National Park. It was too late to enter so I set up camp for the night in a nearby forest.
On day two, after the Arab city of Cana, the trail began to bypass towns. Soon the scenery became long stretches of hilly terrain. It was a quiet and reflective time, and I enjoyed walking alone, pushing myself to see what was beyond the next rise. But I also had the heat to contend with. With my hat tilted against the sun, I moved at a brisk pace, only stopping to eat, and then at nightfall, to camp. The next morning, the trail took me to the Horns of Hattin, where nearby on an open plain, the Muslim leader Saladin had defeated a crusader army to secure control of the Holy Land. The trail continued on to Arbel National Park. This park was essentialy a mountain overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Men of antiquity had spent generations carving a fortress into its cliff-like facade. I marveled at the intricate network of stone stairs and cavernous rooms. Directly below, at the base of the mountain, rich farmland extended towards the lake. As I passed through later, I saw pomegranates, lemons, limes and pomelos, as well as other trees not in season. Most striking were the bananas. I'd thought Israel too dry and hot a place to grow them, but with drip irrigation and canvas netting it was very much possible.
On the fourth day I finally reached the Sea of Galilee. The trail led to a secluded beach huddled against a line of trees. Flat, round stones covered the shore and green algae grew thick in the shallows. I stripped down to my underwear for a dip. As I moved deeper into the water, the lake became clearer, and I swam out far past the point I could touch the bottom. Once refreshed, I continued to trek north along the shore. A string of beaches had attracted other people for the day, but compared to the first rocky shore, the scenery was not as pleasant. The trail then swung inland before twisting back to the lakeside in Taghba. This little town was where Jesus had multiplied a meal of fish and bread into food enough to feed 5,000. A few centuries later St. Helena visited the Holy Land at the behest of her son, the newly crowned Byzantine emperor Constantine. In Taghba she had a vision. It led her to a rock, where she proclaimed Jesus had performed the miraculous feat. Later a church was built at the same spot. t became neglected over the centuries, destroyed, and rebuilt again. St. Helena identified other sites too. Atop a hill near Capernaum stands the Church of Beatitudes. According to St. Helena, Jesus spoke there the eight beatitudes recounted in the Gospel of Matthew. I toured the area taking photos. All around me, tourists swarmed in and out by the bus load--Christians from Spain, Uganda, Mexico, Brazil---and at the head of each group stood a guide. The guides pointed at mosaics, walls, and pillars, before spouting reasons as to why they had been relevant in the distant past. The tourists followed them from one place to the next like little goslings waddling after the mother goose.
After finishing the Jesus Trail, my yearning to explore on foot was not yet sated. I kept trekking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. My couchsurfing host Alon had told me about Yehudiya Nature Reserve, northwest of the lake, and there I headed, crossing the Jordan river along the way. It was only a few more kilometers to the reserve entrance. By then the hour was late so I pitched my tent along the park trail. Night fell and the surrounding wilderness came alive with sound. Wind blew through eucalyptus trees, traffic droned on from the nearby highway, and soon the cries of jackals filled the air. At the time I had no idea what animals were making the noise, and hoped the menacing beasts came no closer. Then I got up early, awoken by a giant badger scampering along the trail. Deer too rummaged through the brush. I caught sight of several as I started my trek after daybreak. But most fascinating were the hyraxes. Years before I'd watched a nature program about the unique animals. They look like marmots, but are different in that they have special feet which give them the ability to climb up almost any rock surface. In the national park I entered a narrow canyon, walled in by steep cliffs, and the hyraxes scattered above me, moving like rabbit-monkey hybrids. It was wonderful. I'd done hiking across Asia many other times since leaving Japan, and I'd not seen so much wildlife in one place as I did in Yehudiya.
As for the canyon, it had a stream flowing towards the Sea of Galilee. A vibrant forest grew along its length and the trail led over rocks while occasionally cutting back and forth across the water. In some places the stream formed a waterfall fed pool. I stopped to go in once, twice, three times. But best of all, about halfway up the trail, a natural spring that came filtering down over a rock overhang. It created the perfect shower, and though I'd swam just a few minutes before, I couldn't resist getting wet again. After that I began encountering several other hikers. Most had come to visit the largest fall in the park, a 30m column of water that dropped into a deep pool. There a group of Israelis invited me to a cup of coffee. We talked about nature and travel. Two of the guys were still in the military, and they had it in mind to take an extended trip to South America when finished. I thought back to the year I'd spent in Chile, and assured the two that many wonders awaited them on that side of the world. When we left to resume our hikes, I went north and them south. It had taken a full day of hiking but I finally reached the other border of the park. It ended right where the town of Katzrin began. I went first to a supermarket and bought dinner--a pomelo, pomegranate, fresh pita bread and hummus. This was a much needed upgrade from the canned chickpeas and tuna I'd subsisted on for the past several days.
I might have returned to Alon's house to pick up some things I'd left behind, but I felt I had one more place to see in the north. After spending a night at a park on the edge of Katzrin I took a bus to Tiberias located on the south side of the Sea of Galilee. A stifling heat greeted me. Tiberias, after all, was 213 meters below sea level, and with the concrete and asphalt of a proper city, midday temperatures reached obscene levels. I didn't want to even imagine how the place was in August. Anyhow, I again put on my trusty hat, and for the sake of sightseeing, braved the heat. Tiberias was famous for its part in the writing of the Talmud. In the 7th and 8th centuries a consortium of rabbis took the 613 laws originally written in the Torah, and through great debate, expanded them into thousands of more clearly defined laws. Some of these rabbis are interred in the town's hills. The devout visit the sites in pilgrimage, and at the one tomb I went to, I saw Orthodox Jews in black coats bent forward in prayer at the foot of the marble block. Other than that the town had a few buildings left over from the Ottoman Era as well as a mosque no longer in use. I didn't bother swimming in the lake. I'd done enough of that already, and the beaches to the north were better.
In my hostel I met a French tourist named Vincent. He had a plan to go to a hot spring called Hamed Gamat. I jumped at the chance to join him. So car we went in his rental car to the east side of the lake near the Jordanian border. We arrived after dark at a kind of outdoor complex, which featured a zoo as well as the spring. To my surprise they pumped the spring water into a giant swimming pool. The pool's temperature remained a constant 32 and the water smelled like boiled eggs. Vincent thought the stink had something to do with a lack of cleanliness. "It's from the sulfur in the water," I explained. Before we dried off, Vincent noticed another, smaller pool, and went in ahead of me. This second pool had a higher temperature of 42. I later slipped in down to my neck and soaked. Every few minutes I came up to cool off, then went down again. The water did wonders to my sore body, especially my shoulders which had borne most the weight of my heavy pack over the past five days. My feet too were in need of some relief. Sitting at the edge of the pool, I kneaded knuckles into the taught soles. Having sufficiently relaxed at the hot spring, we had a falafel for dinner. It was of poor quality, consisting of veggies that had probably been sitting out for hours. By the next morning Vincent had become violently sick. He spent an hour holed up in the bathroom, and when I saw his face as he came out, I thanked the Gods above for my iron stomach. In almost a year of travel I'd only had food poisoning once *knock on wood.*
Months before arriving in Israel, I used the workaway.info site to volunteer at a hostel in Jerusalem. My plan was to stay there for 6 weeks. But the day my flight had arrived in Tel Aviv, trouble began brewing in the city. At the Temple Mount, a place sacred in both Judaism and Islam, Jews visited in large numbers because it was Succot, a Jewish holiday. Owing to an already touchy situation surrounding the site, every time a Jew goes to the Temple Mount, they need a police escort, and the presence of police incites anger among the Muslims. This year there was some rioting, and to control the situation, the Israeli government prohibited Muslims under the age of 45 from entering. It made the problem worse. The Muslims, and Palestinians in particular, feared that the Israeli government was now taking steps to take complete control the site. Prime Minister Netanyahu denied such accusations, but it didn't stop Muslims from lashing out in violent ways. In the meantime Hamas started to call for another intifada (uprising), and more people took up arms. Knifings against Jews became commonplace, and in one instance a Muslim boy charged an Israeli soldier with a blade, only to end up shot seven times. Elsewhere in the country stabbings increased. In response, Israeli Defense Forces tightened checkpoints and apprehended more Palestinians for interrogation.
In this climate of unrest, I decided to wait on Jerusalem. So I returned to Tel Aviv and stayed with my previous couchsurfing hosts. It gave me time to figure out what to do next. I checked the workaway.info site and saw that Israel had plenty of other volunteer opportunities in the area. I first contacted a commune in the West Bank. The place, Ecome, was all about peace and understanding between Israelis, Palestinians and foreigners. It also seemed quite hippie-ish in atmosphere, and normally this would have put me off, but since staying at the commune would give me a chance to meet Palestinians and talk to them about the conflict, I committed to two weeks. A few days later I was on a bus eastbound. Ecome sat on the corner of a highway junction 7km outside of Jericho where plenty of date palm fields filled in the scenery. A member of the commune picked me up at the bus stop and I soon met the people on hand. The group was a mix of Israelis, Palestinians, Europeans and a Kenyan, as varied in background as they were in appearance. Talking with them, I got a good, friendly vibe from the start.
For my first duty, I helped an Israeli woman named Shiri to build a garden. We had to lay the beds by digging trenches, fill them with compost, and then covering everything with soil. Next, we set down and adjusted a drip irrigation system composed of black plastic hoses. In the places where the water dripped, forming wet circles, we planted saplings--tomato, eggplant, lettuce, cabbage and green onion. Shiri also wanted to place cardboard around the plants to reduced evaporation and keep weeds from growing. Lastly, for aesthetic purposes, I lined the bed with stones. I had to carry buckets outside the compound and scour the dry landscape to collect stones that satisfied the proper dimensions. Once all the work was done, I stood back with my hands at my hips, and ascertained the quality and look of the garden. Not bad, I thought. The others were quick to heap praise upon my effort. Though Shiri had helped, I ended up doing most the work, so to honor me, the good people of Ecome named it "Phil's Garden."
|Celebrating Another Birthday|
A lot of places in Israel have a long history: Acre, Jerusalem, Bethlehem. The oldest of all, however, is Jericho. The city has been continuously inhabited for 15,000 years. At the beginning of this period the climate was mild and the water plentiful. People lived in simple mud settlements and farmed the land. Though the weather has since become hotter, natural springs still exist to this day, and agriculture remains a big part of the local economy. Tourism has also become integral to the local way of life. When I visited, the tourists came--again--by the bus load. They hit up all the major spots in the town, sporting big hats, sunblock and shades. I did my sightseeing on foot. Having made a day trip from Ecome, I walked through the city center and then to the ruins of the old mud settlements. I didn't care to pay to see a bunch of old walls, so I ventured outside the town to the Mount of Temptation. Helena of Constantinople too had visited once and decreed it the place where Jesus had fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. A monastery is now carved into the side of the mountain. I would've liked to have entered the place, but it was already closed for the day. From outside the entrance the high vantage point gave a wide view of Jericho, and the dry thirsty mountains which surrounded it.
While at Ecome, I met many Palestinians living in the area, most of whom came from Jericho. One man Iyad operated two shops in the town. He had paid for them with money he'd earned years before working in Jerusalem. With the income from his shops he was able to take care of his extended family including his grandfather. That man had fled from his village years before when the Jews took it from the Arabs in 1948 during the Arab-Israeli War. I visited a shop of Iyad's where the old man said that after the war had ended his parents had kept the key to their home with the hope of one day returning. However, that day has not yet come, and in Jericho there are many refugees whose children and grandchildren live with them in the refugee camps. This was and still is a problem in the West Bank. Many people were displaced, whether voluntarily, or from fear of direct violence. And because the Arabs had lost the war, the Israeli government did not allow them back. To worsen their situation, war resulted in the annexation of Palestine, both in the West Bank to Jordan, and the Gaza Strip to Egypt. Palestinians in effect became stateless. This changed in 1967 after the Six Day war. Israel took control of all these lands, and the West Bank, has since been occupied militarily, hence the ongoing conflict.
In spite of the problems in the West Bank I found the area around Jericho to be peaceful. The land was open and hilly, extending upwards in the direction of Jerusalem to the west, and to the east, downwards until reaching the Dead Sea. One corridor that marked this descent was Wadi Qelt. I went into the narrow canyon and hiked from Jericho to St. George's Monastery. It had rained some days before and the ground was muddy. I also encountered several pools of water. They were dark yellow and smelled of piss. I'd later learn that the rains had brought in sewage from the Palestinian city of Ramallah. Not yet knowing that, I still wanted to climb around rather than go through the uninviting pools. This proved to be dangerous. The canyon walls were smooth and the rocks hard to grasp. I also had to jump at times, and one misstep would have resulted in a big fall. If I had injured myself I'd have been completely screwed. I was alone and without phone reception. Lucky for me I reached the monastery with only a few scratches. I snapped photos of the building, which like the monastery at the Mount of Temptation, was also built into a wall of rocky earth. Then with my camera bag slung back over my shoulder I took a foot path out of the wadi and returned to Jericho via a dirt road, the city lights coming to life before me during the late hour.
|St. George's Monastery|
Some places, though few they may be, are run by women. Ecome was of them. The commune had twelve members that lived on site, nine women and three men. Two of the guys were boyfriends, the other a Palestinian, and by the time I showed up, all three had already accepted the female power structure that dominated their daily lives. The women made the important decisions. They planned the workshops. They had it where the food was vegetarian only. But above all else, they made sure that not one day went by without a touchy-feely talk about emotions. They called these sessions circles. The first time I sat in one, the girl Megan who was leader for the day asked, "Phil. How do you feel this morning?" I replied, "I'm good."
That did not satisfy Megan.
Putting her hand on my shoulder, she looked me straight in the eye. "No, really. How do you feel?" The move perplexed me. Out of my mouth came nonsense about feeling well rested in spite of having spent the night in my tent. To my relief, the circle continued to the next person. The men were brief with their answers. The women were not. They spoke about the condition of their bodies, the stress of living out in the desert, their dreams, their failures, and so on. Then, when one of them was on the verge of finally finishing, another women in the circle asked something like, "My goodness. So what was going through your mind?" and on went the droning for another five minutes. This happened at the meetings too. Each time there was supposedly a topic of importance to discuss, but feelings tended to rear their ugly head. I couldn't be forced to sit through the talking. I'd say I had to use the toilet, or get started on dinner, or anything to slip away and disappear. It were as I was in 5th grade math class all over again. Next, I had the hugs to contend with. The women loved embracing one another and holding tight for at least ten seconds. When called to join I reluctantly gave in and hugged limply, wondering when they'd release me.
I have to admit. When addressing the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, a woman's sensitivity made a world of difference. Moreover, to ease the flow of conversation, the female members used a style of talking called non-violent communication (NVC). This meant using a lot of rhetorical, indirect speech while avoiding loaded and aggressive words. So when Megan told me to empty the compost toilets, she didn't ask, "Go check the toilets, will ya?" She instead said, "Hmm. Maybe the toilets need some changing now. Are you busy Phil?" This in itself was not a problem. But the female members used NVC for everything and it soon became annoying. The other guys at the commune shared this view. We'd joke about the air of estrogen at Ecome. So palpable was it we might as well have been at a tuna cannery. Ok, bad joke. The funny business aside though, the women really held up their share of work. They cleaned and cooked, they did heavy digging for the gardening, they welded the frames of their simple homes and lined the walls with date palm fronds. I helped when I could. That was my job. I was a volunteer to be used as they saw fit. To be honest, I didn't mind. I really enjoy spending my time productively, especially when I work with my hands. At Ecome it made me feel like a real man, one in a sea of women.
Another element of Ecome that wasn't necessarily feminine orientated--but still not my thing--was the yoga and spiritual-sidedness of the commune. Every morning at 7am several members got together to do yoga or meditate. They invited me to join. I'd answer maybe and instead sleep in my tent until breakfast. Ecome also allowed outside groups to visit. The front gate was basically open to anyone, and we had some guests that used our place to do a meditative retreat in the desert. One group was made up of Europeans who chose to exercise a vow of silence during daylight hours. Then in the evening they sat apart from us and ate their own dinner food. I respected their desire to be alone in their little spiritual world but at the same time thought them a bunch of weirdos. The other visitors were more ordinary. Some had heard of the place and showed up out of curiosity. Most were friends or relatives of the members. This included many Palestinians. These locals came later in the evening because they'd work during the day. They liked sitting in the patio to talk while smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. Joining them, I noticed that Palestinians had a peculiar sense of humor. They liked to joke about anything and everything. For example, after I'd shaved my head, Iyad said, "You look like ISIS, man. The Israeli soldiers gonna to shoot you at the checkpoint."
"No way," I said. "I'll show them my passport. They'll know I'm American."
The existence of Palestine is a tough issue for Israel. It's become a security problem that the two sides of government, the right and the left, have taken different approaches to dealing with it. The right thinks militarism is the key. The left is open to peace to settle the matter as they'd done with Jordan and Egypt. However, until now, both sides have failed to make much ground with Palestine. The closest was in the early-1990s. Then prime minister Rabin was in talks with PLO leader Yasser Arafat to give greater autonomy to the West Bank and Gaza while maintaining a nominal military presence for security reasons. This resulted in the 1993 Oslo accords which gave Palestinians in the West Bank control over the main cities such as Ramallah and Hebron. This move had the best of intentions, but with the assassination of Rabin in 1995 (by an Israeli right-wing extremist) the situation worsened. More Israeli people moved into the West Bank, the Palestinians reacted violently, and greater military intervention on the part of Israel followed. Later Bill Clinton held the American-led Camp David Summit, bringing together Yasser Arafat and new Prime Minister Netanyahu, to try and sort out the Arab refugee problem and possibly implement a two-state solution to the conflict. It failed. Since then Netanyahu has taken the military route, and the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank continues to grow.
What does this all mean? Well, we have to go back to the Oslo Accords. At that time the West Bank was split into three zones--A, B and C. The C zone was placed under complete control of Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The B zone maintains a strong military presence for security reasons, and Zone A, mostly in the cities, is under the authority of the Palestinian government. Under this agreement IDF are not permitted to enter Zone A, but they still do. Mostly they are after terrorists and other dangerous dissidents. However, the soldiers sometimes enter to break up their monotonous routine. Iyad had complained to me about this. They'd show up at his shop at night in Jericho in Zone A, buy meat and barbecue out front. He didn't want their business but accepted it to avoid a confrontation. The local kids thought differently. They'd shout at the soldiers, telling them to leave, and on occasion throw garbage and stones. The soldiers would then fire their rifles into the air to frighten them off. In spite of the ruckus the Palestinian police did nothing. But for the most part the people in the cities did not have to deal with soldiers. It was only when they left to travel around the West Bank because the IDF maintained checkpoints on the major roadways. Aside from the access points to Jerusalem, they were not always in operation, but when open, they caused Palestinians delays. Worse was that IDF could arrest any driver or passenger without giving a reason and hold the person for years. And even if they only arrested someone for a day, that person's car would be impounded and they would then have to pay to get it out. Moreover, an arrest meant that the person was blacklisted, and it would become all but impossible for them to get a permit to travel into Israel in the future.
For the Palestinian's in the West Bank, the checkpoints were only one of the problems they've had to deal with under Israeli military occupation. Outside the cities in the Zone B and Zone C, a number of Israeli settlements have popped up alongside Palestinian towns and villages. Jews continue to move into the area because it is a much cheaper place to live than in Israel. With the increase in population, the Jewish settlers and Arab Palestinians are often at odds over land ownership and access to water for agriculture. This causes clashes where extremists attack and sometimes kill one another. On the Israeli side exists a group of hardline Zionists who believe Arabs have no place in the West Bank and that the Israeli military should drive them out. Conversely on the Arab side, there is a group of extremists who do not acknowledge the existence of Israel and want to push the Jews into the sea to free their land of what they see as foreign invaders. To enflame matters, the West Bank government--the Palestinian National Authority (PNA)--rewards terrorists who kill Israelis, giving them money, or in the case that they die, passing the money onto the martyr's family. This position of the PNA has made peace talks with Israel contentious to say the least. Another matter is how the PNA misappropriates aid money from the international community. Rather than help the average Palestinian with social welfare projects and infrastructure development, the people in power are more inclined to keep the cash for themselves.
The situation in the West Bank is one half of the problem. The other is the Gaza Strip. For a time Jews had settlements in this area too but in 2005 the settlers pulled out. Since no one needed protecting anymore, the IDF withdrew from the area as well, leaving the 41km stretch of land to the Palestinians. Later in 2007, the political party Hamas, took control of the local government from the Fatah backed PNA. Until today the West Bank and Gaza have remained separate Palestinian entities which are unable to reconcile their differences. Hamas in Gaza is also more extreme in its position against Israel. Its military wing has regularly conducted rocket attacks and bombings against Israeli soldiers and civilians. The latest major attack was in 2014 when they launched hundreds of rockets into Tel Aviv, Beer Sheva and surrounding towns. This was in response to Operation Brother's Keeper, in which Israeli had bombed Hamas facilities in the Gaza Strip as well as cracked down on their presence in the West Bank. Israel retaliated with increased air strikes, and overland incursions to destroy a tunnel network that Hamas had been using to smuggle in weapons (among other things) from Egypt. In the end 6 civilians died on the Israeli side along with 55 IDF soldiers. In Gaza, reports vary, but it is estimated that around 2,200 were killed.
While I was in the West Bank I met a young man from Gaza. I shall call him Abdul. He had received a permit to leave Gaza, travel through Israel, and visit his father who had recently undergone surgery at a hospital in one the West Bank cities. The visa was only for 14 hours. He did not return in time and was stuck illegally outside of Gaza. If at anytime the IDF asked for his ID and saw his status, they would have arrested him on the spot, then deported him back to Gaza. After that Hamas would have interrogated him to determine whether or not he was a spy collaborating with Fatah or the Israeli government. This probably would have involved torture, and in the event Abdul did not satisfy their questions, execution. Abdul was no spy. The reason he didn't return to Gaza was because he'd grown tired of the situation there. Damage to the infrastructure from bombings, coupled with the blockades from both Israel and Egypt, have caused severe economic stagnation. Unemployment was and still is in the 40% range. Moreover, Abdul didn't want to deal with the ongoing violence. During the 2014 Gaza-Israeli conflict, he had been riding in a taxi, and from the back seat witnessed an aerial bomb blow up the car in front of him. He was so close that he saw pieces of the passengers fly through the air. Thankfully, Abdul won't have to experience that type of thing again. He received a visa to enter Jordan and from the capital of Amman was able to fly to South East Asia. He is now trying to figure out what to do next with his life. I wish him the best of luck.
Salt. It fills the world's oceans, those white shakers on the dinner table, and among other things, the Dead Sea. In fact, the Dead Sea has one of the highest percentages of salt content for any body of water in the world. It's also low at its surface---420m below sea level to be exact. You can't find lower than that. The lowest place in Amerca by comparison is in the in the Death Valley where the elevation drops to only -82m. When I went to the Dead Sea for the first time it was late in the day and the beaches required an entrance free. The woman I'd gone with, a friend from Ecome, did not want to pay. She believed they had no right to charge, and tried to get in for free by talking with the door woman, arguing that we would only be there for a short time. Such words failed to get us inside. So we went with plan B--jumping the fence. That led us down a rocky slope to the shore. In recent years the Dead Sea has become notorious for sink holes that have swallowed up tourists, sometimes resulting in deaths. The safe places are designated spots like the beach we were trying to get to. In the end we arrived without incident. The lifeguard, however, had noticed us. He came and told us how'd we put our lives in danger. We nodded in shame and apologized for entering without paying. I thought he might kick us out, but being the cool Palestinian dude he was, he told us he'd pretend he saw nothing.
Now free to enter the sea I removed my clothes down to my underwear. I then tiptoed my way into the calm water. Pain shot through my feet. It was the salt and minerals seeping into several exposed sores I had around my ankles. I'd gotten the sores from mosquito bites and hiking blisters, and it now felt as if someone was poking them with a fire brand. "It hurts," I cried out to my friend. "That's the Dead Sea for you," she said, a touch of sympathy in her voice. Gritting my teeth, I continued on, and when the water came to my waist, I sat back. Sure enough unseen buoyant forces held me upright. "Strange sensation, huh?" said the lifeguard who was in the water with us. He then turned to my friend. "Would you like an aqua therapy massage?" I couldn't tell if he did so in an attempt to hit on her. Either way, she was uninterested. For one she was a lesbian. Second she did not seem to trust Arab men. But when he asked me next, I who was neither lesbian nor racist, gladly accepted. This was a good choice. While I floated on my back, the man dug his fingers into my shoulder and neck muscles. "You're too tense," he said. I hesitated to dip my head back completely, fearing water might get into my eyes, but eventually I let go. The lifeguard dragged me forward and backward on the surface by my shoulders. It was both a weird and divine experience. Afterwards his hands returned to working at my muscles. The 15 minutes of massage nearly put me to sleep.
A week later I visited again. This time around I went to a more secluded area accompanied by a guy named Chanan, the husband of my friend. He took me in his car and from the road we made our way on foot to the shore. Oddly, a boat sat nearby on the water. For ages, people haven't used many, because there is nothing to pull out of the Dead Sea. No fish or plants can survive the salinity levels, hence the name. When I tested the waters I again complained about the pain in my feet. "Oh shut up already," said Chanan. "What are you? A little girl?" I did as told and continued in, then floated in place. The water beneath me was deep and the buoyancy kept me from going down. I couldn't touch the bottom even if I tried. Chanan remained on the shore to prepare some coffee with a portable burner. When it was ready I got out to have a cup. Here was the strange thing about the Dead Sea that I hadn't expected before first visiting--the water had an oily texture, and coming out, it felt as if I'd lubed myself up in some kind of aloe vera lotion (sans the smell). The combination of minerals that produced this effect was supposedly good for the body and many people visited from both inside and outside the country to take advantage of the water's curative properties. once I came out, we drank the coffee and soon we were both in the water where we had a nice chat about the history of the region. Chanan explained that during the Palestinian Mandate era the British had set up processing plants along the shore to extract potassium chloride for use in fertilizers. They abandoned them during the Arab-Israeli War and only one such plant is in operation today. If the Palestinians managed to build more they would certainly benefit from the economic stimulus.
Ramallah and Hebron
The most modern city in the West Bank is Ramallah. When I visited I didn't expect it to be so developed or clean. But Ramallah was where most Palestinian businesses' were centered. I arrived from Jericho by bus and went to the house of John, a Palestinian American who was a friend of the people at Ecome. The girls had kicked the guys out of the commune over the weekend in order to conduct a women's workshop. John was nice enough to host me for those nights. I got to his place and the first thing I noticed was that the guy couldn't walk. He'd later tell me that he'd worked as a journalist before and had been injured on the job. I didn't ask the specifics. At any rate the guy was very upbeat for someone in his condition. He had a wife and daughter that lived with him in their rather upscale apartment. They had an interesting relationship, constantly unloading slights and insults against one another, but not in a nasty way. Perhaps it was how they displayed their affection, like at the school playground, when a 7 year-old boy teases the girl he's interested in. Interestingly, the daughter seemed oblivious to her parent's bantering. She focused more on her tablet computer and dolls, and every few minutes had something important she wanted me or her father to see. For example, she showed me a tiny salad she'd made for her Barbie doll, one containing shreds of paper.
I did some sightseeing during the day. I went to the old city but there was not much to see aside from a few churches and stone buildings. A little further was the modern city center. Stylish shops lined the street and pedestrians filled the sidewalks. The main intersection featured a monument with a lion. Palestinian police monitored the area, but from the look of it, they were too busy chatting among themselves to take note of much in their surroundings. Ramallah also had an outdoor market with vendors hawking vegetables, fruits and household goods. Compared to the prices in Israel, the West Bank had a lower cost of living. A street falafel went for around 10 sheckles ($2.50) in Tel Aviv and only 3 sheckles ($0.75) in Ramallah. Even a can of Coke was about a third the price between the two cities. I didn't eat out though. John's wife cooked at home and I ate with the family. She made maqluba one of the nights, an Arab dish with rice and chicken that tasted absolutely divine. The food gave me the strength to set out the next day and walk all the way across town to the tomb of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Two soldiers armed with AK-47s guarded the marble sarcophagus. It was okay to take pictures, and I snapped a few. But other than that I didn't make any big moves. The last thing I wanted was to get shot by accident. And I can't say I'm an admirer of Yasser Arafat. The man was as corrupt as they come. During his time in power, he accumulated mass wealth at the expense of the people he'd vowed to help, and this set a precedent for all those that followed.
Another large city in the West bank, the largest in fact, is Hebron. I decided I must visit before leaving the area, so I found a host on couchsurfing.com. The man, Mohammed, lived in an apartment in a quiet part of the city. During the day he worked at a hospital, but in the evening he enjoyed hanging out with guests and/or friends from the international community. In fact, he had hosted over 300 people, more than any other person I'd met using the site. He encouraged his guests to write messages or draw pictures on the white walls of his living room and kitchen. One guest from Ireland had scrawled a poem about a mother discovering her son masturbating and connected it to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in flawless rhyme. I too made a contribution. I drew a picture of a samurai dog, a character I'd once used when teaching children in Japan. Anyhow, the one night I stayed, Mohammed also invited over a group of foreign volunteers who supported the Palestinian resistance against the Israeli occupation. A Danish guy from the group cooked curry. So we enjoyed a nice dinner, after which we smoked a hookah while discussing a variety of topics. The conflict often came up. The group spoke about how in Hebron Palestinians and Israeli Jews lived side by side, but not in a good way. Some of the Jews were abusive towards the Palestinians, and the Israeli soldiers did nothing to stop them. According to the volunteers, the Jews could get away with just about anything short of murder. They even harassed children on their way to school, telling them they didn't belong in the city, and spitting on and hitting them. The volunteers often escorted the children in the hope that it would discourage the Ultra Orthodox Jews who lashed out violently towards Palestinians.
As part of their work the volunteers accompanied Palestinians into their fields during the olive harvest. They asked me if I wanted to join that following morning, and I thought, sure, why not? We went into the H2 zone of Hebron where about 600 Jews lived among 30,000 Palestinians. The olive trees sat in a valley with Palestinian homes on one side, and a fortress-like complex of Jewish apartments buildings on the other. As we walked out to begin our work, I noticed a Jewish man glaring down at us from behind a wall lined with barbed wire. I feared he might alert others to our presence and that a group would come to harass us. We continued on to join a Palestinian man and his son. They'd already laid a large plastic sheet beneath a tree and were picking olives, dropping on to the sheet. We did our best to help and when the tree had been picked clean, we gathered the olives off the sheet and placed them in large sacks. Next, we moved to another tree and repeated the process. That day we could harvest in peace for no Jews came. Moreover, we enjoyed a lunch with maqluba which the Arab's man wife had prepared. I loaded on spoonfuls of sour cream. No too long after eating I left to see the Cave of the Partiarchs. Like the city of Hebron it too was divided into a Jewish and Muslim section. The patriarchs are the founders of the Abrahamic tradition, including Abraham himself. Many of them are believed to be buried in these caves, on top of which sits a large stone building. Access to the caves is largely restricted but the building is open to the public, and Jews and Muslims go to their respective sides. Tourists can go to both if they like. Inside are cenotaphs of the patriarchs, or rather, empty tombs that symbolize their place in the earth below.
|West Bank Wall|
|Yasser Arafat's Tomb|
|Dinner at John's|
Palestinian Problem II
If there is one thing I realized during my time in Israel is that Jews living in Israel and Arabs in the West Bank simply do not understand one another. Abdul, for example, said he didn't hate all Israelis, only those who served in the military. I then explained that every physically and mentally capable Israeli is obligated to do military service (or civil service), and over %90 oblige, usually joining right out of high school. That surprised him. Conversely, the vast majority of Israelis have no idea how Palestinians live. They don't get their sense of humor or empathize with their fears, not because they despise the people, but because they make no effort to know them. The media certainly does not help. It causes a divide between the groups by sensationalizing the violence and mistrust between them. In truth I don't think the average Palestinian hates Israelis, nor does the average Israeli hate Palestinians. My couchsurfing host Alon had put it best. During his time as a soldier in the West Bank he concluded that 80% of Palestinians in the area were willing to live in peace under the Israeli occupation. Meanwhile, 15% did have hatred for Israel, but they didn't lash out for fear of the consequences, and moreover, saw some stability as a better alternative to violence. The last 5% were those who were determined to hurt or kill Israelis given the chance. From what I'd heard, the same could be said of Israelis. Most wanted for everyone to get along and just live life. But a small minority thought violence and overt oppression were the only means to deal with Palestinians, or in other words, to control them by putting a foot on their throat. And if they continued resisting, to drive them out.
The number of people resorting to violence has grown in the past month. At the time I write this, between now and when the escalation had begun, about 120 people have died. Over 90% were Palestinians. The place with the most violence is Hebron, with about one Palestinian dying a day. The casualties are primarily the result of demonstrations between locals and IDF forces. Sometimes the demonstrators throw rocks, and the soldiers respond with tear gas, rubber bullets and a foul liquid called "skunk." If a person gets sprayed with the latter they'll stink of rotten meat and sewage for days. Other times the soldiers might be the ones to begin the aggression. In the worst cases, regardless of who starts what, the soldiers use live ammunition on the crowds. I'd visited the notorious roundabout where these demonstrations often are. It is near an IDF checkpoint that divides one part of the city from another. At the time it was raining and no demonstrators had gathered. The roundabout seemed peaceful with the locals walking about and shopping as usual. But if at any moment the situation changed I'd have turned tail and run for safety. The truth is the conflict is not my fight to take up. And I don't see a solution in sight that is worth striving for. If the two sides ever reconcile they will need to begin by understanding each other, and as of far, it's not happening.
After understanding, the next step to reconciliation is accountability. Both sides need to own up to their mistakes and poor policies rather than place the blame entirely on the other side for how the situation has turned out. After that comes compromise. Neither side will get everything they want. So certain sacrifices must be made in the name of peace and stability. Most people I think would be for this. But proactive leadership is also key if things are to improve. In other words, it's up to the government to make the hard decisions that will benefit both sides in the long run. This may all seem like a dream at the moment, but I have faith in humanity. People have after all overcome worse divisions in the past. The conflict between the Tutsi and Hutus in Rwanda comes to mind. Months after a genocide involving the indiscriminate slaughter of up to 1,000,000 Tutsis at the hands of Hutus, the United Nations cooperated with the newly formed government to begin a reconciliation process that has since healed the divide and brought peace to a once war torn land. Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the genocide. I am fascinated with this chapter of history and plan to visit Rwanda to learn and understand, same as I have done in Israel. As for what will happen here, only the future can tell. But in the meantime I hope for the best. Whatever people think, the global trend since WWII has been a large shift towards stability. The media may try to trick us to think otherwise, but there's a strong argument that the current state of violence and war is less damaging and more isolated than at any other time in history. I won't go into the several reasons as to why, but instead ask that you try and think of ten countries suffering a sustained military conflict on its soil with over 1,000 casualties a year, and out of those, five engaged in total war. It's not so easy.
|Future of Palestine|
The one place I'd looked most forward to seeing before my visit to Israel was the city of Jerusalem. By the time I got around to visiting, I'd already been in the country for 6 weeks. I'd avoided the city until then because of the conflict. I didn't think it dangerous to go. I'd instead hoped the situation would improve so I could see Jerusalem under somewhat normal circumstances. It never happened while I was in the country. So I finally gave in and stayed with my friend Brianne. She was someone I knew from a study abroad program I did in Madrid 13 years prior. We hadn't met once since, but I had her on facebook, and when she saw I was in Israel she invited me to stay at her home. How could I refuse? I arrived with her husband Chanan who had picked me up in the West Bank. About 5 years before she had met him on a visit to see her sister who was then living in Jerusalem. They'd only spent a single evening together, but they kept the relationship going long distance, and two years later married. Since Chanan would only accept a Jewish wife, Brianne had to convert after moving to Israel, a process that took her 3 years. She told me it was difficult though she ended up finding several answers in Judaism that Christianity had failed to provide her. We even had this big debate about God, and how in the Christian world he is clearly defined, while in Judaism God is more loosely characterized, and can be open to more interpretations.
The couple operated a jewelry store in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem's old city. Chanan did a lot of his own pieces, including cutting Hebrew words out of silver for necklaces. When I asked how he'd learned the craft he told me he'd done an apprenticeship for several years and in that way mastered the tricks of the trade. Other items in their shop included jewelry, paintings and ornaments produced by local Jewish artisans. What they didn't have were Christian or Muslim items, apart from a few pictures that were replicas of mosaics from Christian churches. Chanan manned the shop most days. As for Brianne, she did graphic design work on the Internet and also spent time at home looking after their son, Zion. A little over a year old, Zion was an adorable toddler with blonde, curly hair. He spoke a few words of Hebrew but otherwise babbled in the adorable way children his age do. The boy also liked to play with random things in the apartment. His favorite place seemed to be the kitchen where he pulled pots and containers from the lower drawers and cabinets. Both Brianne and Chanan understood that the boy had to be a boy, and while he played, they did little to control him aside from concerning themselves over his safety.
Brianne and Chanan lived in a neighborhood of apartment blocks well outside Jerusalem's old center. I'd stayed over the weekend, which begins Friday evening. From the hour it gets dark to the same hour the next day the Jews celebrate shabbat. This is when they are meant to do no work and instead rest. It also includes a large dinner with family and sometimes friends. Shabbat comes form strong religious tradition, yet many secular Jews follow it to a degree. The difference is that they do not observe the many rules associated with not working. For example, according to the Talmud, Jews are not allowed to drive or cook during the day. Nor can they flip a switch to turn on or off a light. Some of these rules apply at the civil level too and are why most shops are closed. Public buses and trains don't run either. Because Chanan was more traditional in how he observed shabbat he followed most the rules and made sure Brianne did the same. But me being non-Jewish, I could do as I pleased. So I played on my computer and turned off lights to help out, particularly when Brianne needed to put Zion to sleep. That same night, Chanan and his friend asked me if I wanted to join them at the synagogue for shabbat prayer. I said sure and we dressed up and put circular kippa caps on our heads. It occurred to me on the way that I'd never before wondered what Jews do at synagogues. Now I was about to find out.
The place we went to doubled as a daycare center for children, changing into a synagogue on the weekend. Once inside I took a good look around. Men sat at tables with their children while women were in a different area and out of sight. Everyone had a song book. From time to time, the same man stood up front and sang facing a cabinet like object. The others followed his lead. A young rabbi then read something from the Torah. He had a large pistol holstered at his hip. These were difficult times I remembered. When the rabbi finished there was more standing, singing, siting and standing again. Some men rocked while they sang. I rocked a bit too, but I couldn't sing. I didn't know the Hebrew words. Chanan's friend at one point leaned in and assured me that at other synagogues the people were much more lively. I tilted my head to the left (a shrug-like habit I'd picked up in South Asia) and still enjoyed the shabbat prayer for what it was worth. Moreover, everything seemed casual when compared to the church masses I'd attended as a child. The prayer didn't last long either. Perhaps half an hour. After that everyone shuffled outside and went to their respective homes, a slight drizzle falling from the night sky.
|Old City Sign|
|Brianne and Zion|
|Channan Making Jewelry|
During my stay in the capital I took the opportunity to tour the old city. It is an area surrounded by large stone walls built by the Ottomans some 400 years before. There are four quarters, the Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian. Clear boundaries don't exist, but generally one can see the difference looking at the shops, people and types of buildings. I began by visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian quarter. The large church was built on the site where the Romans crucified Jesus (aka Calvary). Saint Helena marked the area when she found a piece of the cross there. Due to its great importance and the number of Christian faiths in the world, over time the church became divided into 5 sections, each headed by a different group. I walked through the dimly lit building taking photos, and since I was without a guide, I had no idea what I saw. Still, the atmosphere was impressive. Afterwards I went to different church in the old city that held the tomb of King David, and alongside it the building where Jesus held his last supper. People from around the world had crammed into both places and they turned their heads as their guides spoke, directing their attention to one thing after another. I on the other hand didn't understand much beyond the obvious because one: stones don't speak, and second: there were few placards. Later I researched the places on the Internet to learn more.
I was fortunate that Chanan joined me for my second outing in the city. He was studying to be a tour guide and provided much insight into Jerusalem's history and politics. We went to see the west wall, the closest place that Jews can pray to the Temple Mount. Those who wear the black suit and hat, and have long locks of hair hanging from in front of their ears, they are orthodox Jews. Other Israelis jokingly refer to them as penguins. At the west wall I saw orthodox Jews put their heads against the stones and rock in place. Next we went to the other side of the Temple Mount. The inside is for Muslims and there are two mosques including the Dome of the Rock. According to Islamic tradition, this was where Mohammed ascended to heaven to pray with Abraham, Moses and Jesus. It is now the third holiest place for Muslims after Mecca and Medina. I couldn't enter. But I walked around the castle-like structure. The old Hulda Gate stood at the top of a staircase. Chanan told me that Neil Armstrong had once entered the Temple Mount not too long after the Apollo 11 mission. He passed through the gate, and upon realizing that Jesus had set foot in the same place, said, "I'm more excited stepping on these stones than I was stepping on the moon." I found that hard to believe, but Armstrong was a deeply religious man so maybe he wasn't exaggerating. Jerusalem certainly had an effect on me. The thing I liked most was simply walking around the alleys, trying to get a feel for how the locals lived in so dynamic a city.
When I went, tensions were high. I didn't feel it so much as a tourist, but I did see many soldiers with guns throughout the old city. Oddly, off duty soldiers also walked the narrow alleys in regular clothing while carrying an assault rifle over the shoulder. By this time I was accustomed to seeing such young men and women. These chicks, when armed with an M4 carbine and clad in black boots, were sexy hot. I would've loved to get a picture with one. I never had the courage to ask though. So I merely observed. And like I said, there was no shortage of them in Jerusalem. The soldiers were on the lookout for Arabs armed with knives. About every other week, one of these so called terrorist attempted to stab a Jew. Whether the person was a man, woman or child, the soldiers didn't hesitated in the slightest to shoot them dead. And still the Arabs kept trying. The entire situation was messed up. But I refused to let it prevent me from enjoying my time in the city. Besides, there was no reason for anyone to want to kill a tourist. At worst I might be mistaken for a terrorist by soldiers, or as a Jew by terrorists. To minimize the chance of this happening I borrowed a pullover from Brianne. It had a patch of the Canadian flag embroidered on the shoulder. While I walked around the old city, I felt secure and warm within the pullover, though I was soon annoyed by vendors calling out, "Hey Canada!" They'd try to sell me their wares and I would in turn explain that I don't buy souvenirs. My backpack has no space for such things, so if I'm going to take something home with me, pictures are good enough.
|Dome of the Rock|
|IDF Soldiers and Arabs|
|Prayer at West Wall|
|Inside Church of Holy Sepulchre|
In the south of Israel is the town of Mitzpe Ramon. It straddles the Makhtesh Ramon, a large crater through which Highway 40 runs en route to the southern port city of Eilat. Using the workaway.info website, I arranged to volunteer at a hostel in town. The place, Green Backpacker's, was run by an Israeli couple that had relocated to the south to realize their dream of living in the desert. Lee handled the administrative side of the business while Yoash did the maintenance work and also gave jeep tours with a company called 4xDesert. I arrived at the beginning of November, relieved to get away from the tension that had been escalating elsewhere in the country. I wasn't alone. Many Israelis in town had moved to Mitzpe Ramon for the same reason. Isolated from big cities like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, it was a kind of frontier settlement where people of varied backgrounds found peace and quiet. It also served as a great place to experience the great outdoors, and in that regard, trekking was the main draw. When I was not volunteering I had a chance to do several day hikes.
My number one priority at the hostel was to check in new guests. To do this I needed to have them fill out a form then make copies of their passport. After that I'd explain about the hostel, such as how to turn on the timer for hot showers, the password to the front gate, where they could go and buy food in town and so on. Other responsibilities included washing the sheets, hanging them to dry and then placing them back on the beds. There was also some basic cleaning, but most of that was handled by a Russian woman who came in every morning at 10:00am. As I became more knowledgeable of the area, I was able to give out advice about what there was to do, though I left the more detailed hiking explanations to Lee and Yoash. One of the two always showed up at 8pm. They made sure the guests were clear on what to do the following day, while Yoash also let it be known that 4xDesert's tours had room for more people. This was how the days passed, and for the most part, volunteering at the hostel was laid back work. I'd always have time to watch a movie with the guests, play chess, do some writing, or simply surf the net. It was exactly what I needed--to slow down. In Israel alone I'd been on the road for a month in a half, and because I was often changing places every few days, the weeks started to become a blur. Now I could center myself. The vibrant desert sky brought with it the promise of tranquility, and stepping outside in the mornings, I'd look up with a smile. Another beautiful day was upon me.
In Mitzpe Ramon I was not the only volunteer. Before me there was a French woman name Brunnhilde. She was friendly, an avid hiker, an in the typical French way, she liked to poke fun at the inane and silly things of everyday life. We only worked together a few days before she left. I was sad to see her go. But shortly afterwards came another volunteer named Constantine. He was from Germany and it was his first time to travel overseas alone. Like me, he needed to be trained. The regular workers Tamar and Yulia helped. Both were Israelis that lived in the area. Tamar raised honey bees on the side with her husband. As for Yulia she was originally from Russia. She had a boyfriend who worked as a park ranger in Ein Avdat to the north. Tamar and Yulia did their jobs well. After all, they were the ones who kept the place going most the time, and they'd seen hundreds if not thousands of guests pass through. A map on the wall showed where the backpackers were from, a pin marking the towns. The largest number were from Germany (aka die Bundesrepublik Deutschland according to their passports). France, England, Italy and the US rounded out the top five. I think Lee and Yoash preferred having it that way. Westerners, especially those from Europe, usually came and went without complaint. They also cleaned up well after themselves. Israelis on the other hand were more demanding. They expected service like at a B and B, though at a backpacker's hostel, the cost of a bed was lower. In any event all travelers were welcome and the wide mix of nationalities that showed up on any given day made for some interesting nights.
As for the town itself, it was quite large for a place with only 5,500 people. The one supermarket sat right off the main roundabout and there was an assortment of shops in the same complex. Beyond that the town had schools, and a few community centers. On the north side, a failed attempt at an industrial center became warehouses now filled with art galleries and craft shops. It was also in this area where the bars were. I visited the two. The first was called Hebereh which means "knee" in Hebrew. Locals kept it busy throughout the week, and by saying locals, I mean Israelis who had moved to Mitzpe Ramon from elsewhere. They were a friendly lot who had an open mind and were all about peace and love. My only hang up over going out was that drink prices were comparable to those in Tel Aviv. Enjoying a night of drinking in Israel is never cheap. The second bar, The Jazz Club, was bigger than the Hebereh and had a stage. On Thursday nights it hosted a Jazz session, and local musicians came to jam. I'd seen some black people around town, including some who had immigrated from Atlanta in the US, but they were not the ones performing. It was instead white Israelis. I know music has little to do with color, but I was a bit disappointed at first. Then the performance began and the group played exceptionally well. P erhaps a hundred people packed the place to watch. Some danced freely. Others tapped their foot to the beat. I simply pumped my head, my eyes fixed on the vocalist who seemed to sing in an Arabic prayer style. Her voice fit the music perfectly.
|At the Hostel|
|Plenty of Drinking|
I love cooking. It's something creative, engaging and productive all at once. Basically, you go to a supermarket, collect things from various shelves, then take them home and transform the chosen ingredients into a hot delicious meal. What's great too is how limitless the possibilities are. Globalization has brought a wide array of fruits and vegetables to most everyone regardless of the time of year. On top of that many supermarkets got the foreign section offering things like Japanese Teriyaki Sauce, Italian dressings, Mexican Taco seasoning and more. This variety tends to exist more in developed countries than elsewhere, an example of which is Israel. So by spending so much time there, I had constant access to more food items than my mind could process. Now if only the supermarkets were cheap, say like in Malaysia, it would have been perfect. But what's a man to do?
The first proper meal I made was in Tel Aviv for my couchsurfing host Shira. I wanted to prepare chili. The market we went to wasn't so good and I couldn't find kidney beans. I substituted chick peas in their place. Shira also happened to be a vegetarian, something which removed meat from the equation. A bit apologetic, she did produce a pack of veggie sausages stored in her freezer. I sniffed them with abject suspicion. They were likely filled with all sorts of additives and preservatives which made them worse for the body than any red meat would. But it didn't matter to Shira. She wasn't a vegetarian for health reasons. It was the ethical side of the meat industry--or lack there of--that had her at odds with eating animals. Well, when I finished making the chili, I wasn't too pleased with the result. Kind as she was Shira still ate up a full plate and said it tasted delicious. This was the first of six occasions I prepared chili in Israel. The second time was for Alon and his wife. That night I had the exact ingredients I needed and the dish came out sublime. I think it also had something to do with the onion soup powder I threw in. Loaded with starch and monosodium glutamate it gave an added kick to the mishmash of veggies and spices.
In the time between, when I was in Haifa I cooked pasta for Haim. The quick, cheap and easy meal came out surprisingly good, though it did feel odd cooking while naked. I can't say I'd done that before. I stood in Haim's fancy kitchen and pranced around the stove trying to get everything together. As I did this I had the unsettling feeling he was watching me from behind. Oh well. That's all in the past now. I'd later prepare pasta at Ecome. The kitchen there was a step above Haim's. The sheer quantity of food at my disposal made the difference. We had a huge supply of potatoes, tomatoes, bell peppers, spicy peppers, carrots, avocado, garlic, onions, zucchinis, okra, cauliflower, cabbage, coriander, parsley, etc. And those were just the vegetables. The food was for 15-20 people a day, and when cooking, we prepared five different dishes to serve at once. This almost always included a type of salad drenched in an olive oil dressing. The other big staple was pita bread served with tahini, a type of sesame dip. To mix things up I often made stews, trying out different types of ingredients. When the people at Ecome complimented me on my cooking abilities, I smiled and told them that in every dish I added a secret ingredient--love.
The other place where I cooked a great deal was the Green Backpacker's hostel. I'd often just make dinner for myself. But on Fridays we had shabbat dinner. It was a potluck with everyone making something to share so we each feasted on an array of foods. To my delight, many people checked in every Friday. I got particularly excited when we had Israelis for the night. They went all out for shabbat and prepared the best meals. Most delicious was salmon meat cooked in a superb tomato sauce. After trying a spoon full I regretted not watching to see how the guy made it. In actuality it wasn't too different from shakshuka, a food typical among Israelis. Except, rather than salmon, shakshuka has eggs in it. The dish seemed easy enough to cook, but when I tried making it, I didn't get it right until the third try. The secret was to boil down the sauce so that it would not mix with the raw eggs when they went in last. Once the eggs cooked the food was done. I also topped it with shredded coriander. As a Mexican American I love the stuff and was pleased to learn Israelis use it in their everyday cuisine.
|When Too Lazy to Cook|
|More Shabbat Dinner|
Mitzpe Ramon is situated in a great spot to enjoy hikes. From the Green Backpacker's Hostel it takes only three minutes to reach the main trailhead leading into Makhtesh Ramon crater. The main green trail leads down the crater wall and levels out before heading north. It continues to Highway 40, but not before passing the Carpentry, a hill made up of prism-like volcanic rocks. Right near it is a pond that forms following heavy rainfall. Going this route requires two hours of hiking, and from Highway 40 it is possible to hitchhike back to Mitzpe Ramon. When I did the hike I got a ride with a friendly Israeli couple who had driven down to the crater for a pleasant lunch in the sun. The other popular option is to take the green trail to the red trail, which cuts west to a prominent hill called Ramon's Tooth. The lookout on top offers excellent views from within the crater. This route requires about 5 hours of hiking time before it links up with Highway 40. I went on a bright, breezy morning in November. Prior to this I'd taken a jeep tour to the same area with 4xDesert. Green Backpacker's owner Yoash was my guide for the day. He shared his extensive knowledge about the crater throughout the tour, beginning with the geological history. The makhteshim (plural for makhtesh in Hebrew) are a rare formation because unlike most craters neither meteorites nor volcanoes created them. Instead, over a period of tens of millions of years, shifting seas and tectonic plate movement formed layers of sandstone with hard limestone sediment on top. Water erosion later washed away sections of limestone, and when the rivers receded, rain and wind eroded the exposed sandstone beneath. Of the seven currently known to exist, five makhteshim are in the south of Israel, while the other two are in the Sinai peninsula of Egypt. Makhtesh Ramon is by far the largest. The crater spans an area of 47x17km and can only be viewed in its entirety from an airplane.
During Yoash's tour, I also learned about the crater's fauna and flora. Acacia trees grow in the lower wadis and are the same variety found in Africa in the Serengeti, the ones in nature documentaries that lions like to lay beneath on hot days. These trees share a symbiotic relationship with gazelles living in the crater. The animals eat the seedpods growing on the lower branches and only after the acid in their stomach has dissolved the outer shell, will the seeds germinate. This prevents saplings from growing beneath the mother tree. In other words, the gazelles carry the acacia seeds to a different area and poop them out in places where new tress can grow without competing for the same water and sunlight. I found this all very fascinating and hoped to spot a gazelle. It never happened though. What I did see were ibexes. They'd often venture into town to dig food out of garbage cans and dumpsters. The large animals were not that afraid of humans. I could get within 20m before they moved away, and even then they seemed more annoyed than scared. Compared to the ones that lived far from the town, these ibexes were fat and had larger goatees, which according to one local I'd met, made them hippies. Now that I think about it they did trot around with permanent stoner grins. We had them hanging out across the road from the Green Backpacker's Hostel. Another 200m up was camel lookout, a giant rock that had the shape of--you guessed it--a camel. This vantage point is the best spot in Mitzpe Ramon to view the sunset because it faces southwest over a bend in the crater. Another trail continues in the same direction along the rim before turning inland to reach Route 17 and Hemet Cistern, a rectangular pool used in ancient times around 4,000 years ago to hold rain water.
About 30 minutes north of Mitzpe Ramon were two other trekking options. The first was in Ein Avdat National Park. It was possible to travel from the nearest bus stop to the entrance via a rugged wadi, and from there access a larger canyon and then the spring which gives the park its name. The canyon walls are impressive onto themselves, but seeing them mirrored in the shallow pools of water, well, that alone iwasworth the trip. I went with another backpacker from the hostel and we had the lower part to ourselves. The canyon drops in stages like an elongated staircase, and the trail follows it upward, then zigzags along the western wall until reaching the rim. The views from the top looking back in are spectacular, and from beginning to end the hike is only about 2.5 hours with minimal elevation gain. This was without a doubt one of the best hikes I did in Israel. Near the same park entrance is another trail that leads further to the west and into Ein Akev canyon. I'd again entered from the lower end, so it was another climb to reach the upper part, and then the rim. Ein Akev sits outside Ein Avdat National Park in the same Zin Valley, and no entrance fee was necessary. Visitors are also welcome to swim in the canyon's natural pools, but late as it was in the year, the water was frigid when I went. I managed to stay in for about three minutes. Above the pools the terrain became greener with bushes and reeds growing thick in the canyon's river bed. In the end it took me 5 hours to get back to the main road. From there buses headed back in the direction of Mitzpe Ramon. I opted to hitchhike instead and used the savings to buy alcohol. In my opinion that's the best way to celebrate a successful hike--with a victory beer!
|Hiking the Makhtesh|
|Striking a Pose|
This would be the end of my Israel adventure. I hitchhiked to the southern port city of Eilat, and a few kilometers away from the hotel lined waterfront, I pitched my tent on a gravel beach. I preferred the little grey stones over fine sand. The sand would have gotten in everything, easily finding its way into my food, tent and sleeping bag. From where I camped I could see Jordan across the Red Sea, a line of mountains standing tall above the city of Aqaba. Further to the right was Saudi Arabia, and if I looked down the shore on my side, I could make out part of the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt. So fascinating how the three countries and Israel sat wedged against one another, the tranquil sea uniting them. When I later ventured into the water, I discovered coral reefs growing not 20m from where I'd put my tent. Everything came into sight in such fine detail, blue and crisp like in a well-maintained aquarium. A parrot fish circled below, little angelic gold fish darted in and out of the colorful reef, black urchins swayed ever so slightly with the currents. In this northern part of the world's northernmost tropical sea, a stunning ecosystem flourished in the warm water around me.
At night I'd lie propped up on an elbow while reading a book by candlelight. The constant sound of waves crashing against the shore rose and subsided, same as the wind rattling the sides of my tent. Sometimes I chose to sit outside beside a bonfire. I'd make it inside the cut out bottom of an oil drum that was ringed with large granite stones. In the distance the sea and Jordanian mountains were black save for the shimmering line of lights from Aqaba. I seldom sat alone at the fire. Other people camping along the beach appeared, drawn like moths to its inviting glow. Beach goers from before had left chairs and we made use of them. Once the wood ran low I went for more. A nearby dumpster seemed to be the best place to look. Across from it a washing station offered an endless supply of drinking water. A cafe 100m up the beach had restrooms with toilet paper. Free wifi even reached my tent. The beach was a pleasant place to be. "Paradise," I'd say more than once. My companions who'd join me at the fire were inclined to agree. One Israeli had been at the place for three months. He was what I could best describe as a vagabond--a guy with no home, no commitments, no phone. All that mattered to him was a bit of shopping for food and the occasional washing. The rest of the time he sat around drinking coffee, reading books and smoking hand rolled tobacco. After dark he slept in the camp he'd built up on the rocky hill opposite the coastal highway. I visited once to check it out. He had his tent under a large canvass netting supported by wooden beams and his possessions sat beneath, in a clean organized manner. It was the complete opposite of the chaos inside my tent. Since I'd hiked up, he offered me tea and we drank while talking geopolitics.
The adjacent city of Eilat I did not care for. It was a tourist trap and most everything was overpriced. So I stayed at my beach, only leaving to restock on food at the big supermarket. The long-term beach folk continued to make good company. The longer I remained the more I realized there was an ongoing struggle between them and the local authorities. The police would look for any excuse to fine or drive the people out. It was peace, love and happiness VS bylaws and local enforcement. I had to be careful too. For example, if I didn't use a proper pit for my fires I could be slapped with a costly fine. The same went for entering the sea outside the designated spots. Police cars often passed slowly on the highway, an officer scanning the shore for his next would-be victim. I had never held any disdain for the Israeli authorities but now contempt grew in my mind. The beach folk were kind, generous people who didn't want to live the 9 to 5 grind. They chose instead to support one another getting by hand to mouth, if not on the beach, then in the hills alongside it. As one older man put it, "Every time I give something to someone, God sees to it that I am given ten fold back." He was a disabled veteran of the '73 Yom Kippur war and a perpetual drifter. But I sensed no bitterness in him. He wanted only the freedom to live as he pleased, staying on the coast in his van, and he didn't see how his lifestyle harmed anyone. The police thought differently. They hassled him and his friends. As a result they were always looking over their shoulder, never knowing when they'd be forced to leave.
|Indoor Ice Rink Mall|
|View From Up Top|
|Hanging at the Beach|
|Freshly Imported Cars|
In some regards travel puts things on hold. It removes us from work and a daily routine. We become free to do other new and exciting things. If only we didn't have to worry about the world we left behind, or rather it did not pull us away from the joys of being in a different place and culture. I don't mean this in a selfish way. Because for me, to be drawn out of my free way of thinking, something terrible must happen. And I don't want that for anyone I love and care about. While I was in Israel, however, this did come to pass. The first time was with my cousin Angelica. She suffered a massive stroke, and after falling into a coma, was unable to recover. Young as she'd been her sudden death shocked the family. I felt heartbroken for her three children and her husband, and for her sisters and parents. Some of my other cousins were close to her as well. I was not. While I did care for her, I'd hardly seen her in the last 25 years, and the last time 8 years ago, we'd only shared brief conversations. So Angelica was someone who had only been a small part of my life, and the loss was not felt as deeply. But her passing saddened me. And I hoped those that were closest to her could find the strength to carry on with her now absent in their lives.
The second time, the person who passed away was Vicky. I'd known her only a few years, but in that time we did many things together, and I considered her a good friend. She loved Japan with the same weight of passion that I did. And she was unique individual. Strong and independent, she tried to hide her soft side, but I always knew it was there, vibrant and tender as the smiles I could coax from her. Another thing about Vicky was her cheeky side. One of her favorite words was its Japanese equivalent, "atsukamashii." The Japanese people didn't have much use for the term. Cheekiness wasn't in their nature. So Vicky did her best to contribute what she could. And like the rest of us she taught English and enjoyed the good times that made expat living in Japan so worthwhile. Then I heard she was leaving. I went to her farewell party. She told me face to face she'd been diagnosed with breast cancer and it was the reason for her abrupt departure. A flush of emotion came over me. It was the memory of my own cancer treatment coming back to me. A chemical taste filled my mouth, and queasiness soon rumbled in my gut while lethargy unnerved my limbs. I felt a terrible sadness for Vicky to have to go down that same road. But she refused pity. She brushed aside my empathy. Such things were never her style. So we settled on a promise--that somewhere down the line we'd have a pint to celebrate how we'd both beaten cancer in our lives.
I believed with all my heart the day would come. Three years later the hope died with her. I'd never be able to see my friend Vicky again. I cried at in my tent in Eilat. I cried as I walked the street to town and back. Coming to terms with her death consumed me. But A few days later as I snorkeled along the reefs, right as the sun was about to set behind the mountains in Egypt, I imagined her spirit was in the water with me. "Look, a lion fish," I thought, pointing out the obvious "And there. Such beautiful fan corals!" It were as if I was trying to communicate with her telepathically. I've no idea what happens to us when we die. I don't think anyone really knows. But I want to believe a part of us carries on in this world and continues appreciating its many wonders. And along this line of thinking--not in a way I claim to understand or recognize--just somehow, in some way, maybe Vicky and Angelica are still here with us.
I stayed in Israel for two and a half months. It was more than any other country on this trip. I also passed the one year mark in my travels. Setting out from Japan, I didn't know if I had it in me to be on the road for so long. Yet in spite of the loneliness, and homesickness, and exhaustion of living out of a backpack with the continual wandering from place to place, I slowly adjusted to the challenges. In the process I have experienced and learned much more than I would've had I spent the year in one place. That's the real beauty of travel--it's capacity to shape and build upon who we are. So though I'm still the same person I was last December, at the same time, I'm a better man. Not to mention this past year has probably been the best one I've ever had. I can't say with complete certainty because there have been many great years in my life. I suppose I'll only know how to measure them against one another in the future when I can look back with a more objective eye. But for now I'm living it up. And what's more, I'm far from finished.