Just to preface this, what follows is a completely selfish blog post; the below travel journal entry won’t mean as much to anyone else as it does to me. But I hope it conveys the triumph of experience over opinion.
Nine months ago, I was given the opportunity to travel to Israel, a country that before visiting, I was unashamedly indifferent to.
I’m definitely not a Zionist, but I’m not a believer in media propaganda either (something that Israel and its distinct lack of any kind of PR function experiences on a daily basis). I’m simply a member of the modern-day Diaspora, who prior to this trip was moderately confused about my identity and the concept of a ‘Home Land’ belonging to any kind of people, race or religion.
Until visiting Israel, that is. I firmly maintain that any Brit – right-wing, left-wing or politically apathetic, Jew, Muslim, Christian, atheist or otherwise – has no right to form a fervent opinion on a country with as much history, violence, contention or profound worldwide religious significance as Israel, without actually visiting it.
I made the trip with other 24-26 year olds, from a variety of backgrounds (religious, secular, atheist) who, like me, were trying to grasp at some kind of identity. They were also going to party. It was a kind of pilgrimage for the soul, mind, body…and, er, liver (New Year’s Eve in Tel Aviv with thousands of students and soldiers in a giant marquee was a somewhat epic night).
For many people (certainly for me ten months ago), Israel seemed foreign and dangerous. I’m not going to use this space to go off on a political rant or even suggest where my allegiances lie. I’m just going to politely suggest that anywhere is foreign territory…until you’ve been there. Even now, I don’t particularly get it or fully understand how I feel about Israel – her people, borders and conflicts – I just know I had an incredible time and made some lifelong friends who, like me, can speak from a privileged position of experience. That’s the true beauty of travel, I guess…
The other day, I unearthed some scribblings that a fellow traveller and I threw together on one very bumpy bus journey through the Negev Desert. Reading over them today, the words brought me right back to sights, sounds and conversations. But more than that, they brought back to me how I felt, and how I still feel, about being in a specific place, at a specific time, with a specific group of people.
The day we left Jerusalem was a significant part of the trip, mainly because it was a day filled with contrasts, divides and borders.
We arrived at the seam-line with expectations of a place that showed signs of conflict, but in reality it was a peaceful spot that facilitated stunning views of the city. As always, Yaaron (our tour guide) was bursting with information about the history and personal accounts of families separated, false teeth falling out of windows on to the other side of the border, and frisbeeing pitta breads.
As we stood at the various viewpoints looking out on checkpoints that govern a now united city, it seemed an appropriate time for our first group photo (complete with Tal and gun, obviously).
We listened to Jerusalem; City of Gold, felt the sun shining on the city landscape and we all felt a bit emotional to be saying goodbye.
As the bus drove through and beyond Jerusalem, the mood was expectant. Emerging from the other side of the tunnel, we were met with miles and miles of rocky, moon-like desert which was soon to become a familiar landscape. It felt like we were going underground and surfacing in a completely different country.
Many of us slept for the longest uninterrupted period since Luton, pausing only to briefly check out the camels by the petrol pumps. There was nothing around for miles as evening started to fall upon our singular coach in the Negev.
We reached our destination: a semi-authentic (and partly Disney-fied) Bedouin village. Some very sweet tea and coffee gave us (and our legs) the energy we needed to mount a herd of particularly noisy, smelly and evil-looking camels…..let’s just say our ride wasn’t the smoothest. Those who didn’t fancy playing the part of the proverbial straw that broke the camels’ backs were thrust upon donkeys half their size and proceeded to break theirs instead!
We then dragged our aching bodies into a beautifully adorned tent and were given more sweet tea, bitter coffee (there’s that famous Bedouin hospitality again) and were told about the joys of polygamy – although we were assured that one wife was more than enough for a Bedouin man.
Another treat awaited us, and with it we enjoyed the delights of Israeli pass-the-parcel, oddly leading to military training, balloon friction and lowering a stick into a plastic bottle – gotta love that Israeli sense of humour. A massive feast (in yet another tent) was enjoyed from the floor and in a supremely animalistic way, using just our hands.
It was well and truly nightfall and the stars were brighter than any of us could have hoped to have seen back in the UK. We took the opportunity to venture back into the desert (in the style of many wanderers before us) and heard from Yaaron about the constellations illuminated by what can only be described as a badass laser pen thingy.
Following some personal reflection and some big yellow moon gazing, we clambered over some rocks to be met by the kind faces of Tal and Sarale who indulged our Britishness with more tea and cake.
Being in the middle of the desert was inspiring for all of us, but most notably for a select few who took it upon themselves to recreate the dawn of man. After many valiant attempts, we gave up trying to make fire with rocks and went to sit around a bonfire that was already lit, (probably using matches).
We were reunited with the other group for a guitar singalong (worryingly in front of the noisy camel enclosure). We toasted marshmallows and huddled together to keep warm around the fire. With the prospect of a half past 4 wake-up call looming, we made ourselves comfortable side-by-side in our tents…and passed out, ready to climb Mount Masada and meet the dawn.