***Written years ago for a travel writing class in college, I recently reread this story and realized its potency and relevancy in the world of today. It highlights memories that still blaze true, and are even more reflective now that my sister is living in Israel.***
Seventeen is a tender age to visit one’s homeland. In a place where the sun rises and sets on some of the holiest places on earth, my memories of Israel are a haphazard collection of adolescent love affairs, fabulous mountaintop sunbathing and nights spent taking vodka shots out of empty film canisters. At the time I promised myself that I would write in a journal every one of the thirty-four days that I was in that tiny strip of exotically landscaped history; but when reading that journal today I find misspelled Hebrew names of the landmarks we visited, plenty of gossip on who slept in whose sleeping bag last night and whether that strange kid actually attempted suicide with the plug-in wire from the iron.
I remember nameless places and sweat drenched complaining. I remember techno dancing in bomb shelters and mysterious eggplant meals. But most of all, I remember those sunsets. The most alluring and heart stopping moments that stun you back to life, running on the cracked, barren ground toward the ends of the earth, just to make the magic last a few more precious seconds.
Visiting the Bedouins and following them camelback through the desert was the most authentic, yet somehow luxurious experience I had on my israeli adventure. Knowing that this group of people were vagabond types who slept in tents far away from civilian cities, I reluctantly dragged my hundred pound wheeless suitcase towards what looked like a circus tent made of rain resistant tarp. I groaned as we stumbled over jagged rocks and looked around at the vast and empty expanse that surrounded our hovel for the night.
Pulling back the plastic shower curtain of a door to get inside, I ran into a few of my fellow group members who stood fairly agape at our Indiana Jones accommodations. It was so unexpected that you had to take a minute to shake off the surprise of finding Persian rugs sprawled across the floor and miniature round tables set low to the ground, crowned with lit candles and surrounded by soft, white pillows.
It was warm and glowing inside the corners of the three-walled abode, and on the left side you noticed that there was no curtain enclosing us from the world outside. Ten feet from where we were sleeping was a fence of 4’ boulders all snuggled up against one another, attempting to keep warm amidst the evening desert wind. Beyond that protective barrier, the earth dropped off into nothing. Miles below the land looked like a feather stuffed quilt, its colors and designs rolling up and down against the twilight sky.
It’s hard to breathe standing in a place like that, where the wind is tempted to blow you right off of your crest and into the waves below. Everyone has colorless eyes, reflected against the wash of pinkish grey, cascading down the boundaries of the world.
Israel is like a whirlwind game of Jumanji, where a new set of challenges and adventures are awaiting you around every turn. In a country that is only 280 miles long and about 85 miles wide, it seems that the eclectic landscape of oceans, forests, mountains, and deserts are the only thing residing peacefully together in the cramped quarters.
Five years ago when I boarded my midnight Tel Air flight to Israel, over 500 other anxious adolescents were joining me. In a time of so-called peace, there was only one suicide bombing that happened in Jerusalem during the month I was traipsing around, and I probably only stopped for a second to be thankful I wasn’t near the attack. Now, most of the youth group trips to Israel have been cancelled. Any young adventurers are left to endure a hundred year sleep plagued with nightmares, patiently waiting for prince charming to sword through the decades of war’s undergrowth, and let back in the dreamers.
We were the dreamers, the schemers and troublemakers taking over the gawky tour buses that summer. Seventeen, free from parents, and legal to buy alcohol and cigarettes, get tattoos and piercings, we skirted around every rule and took full advantage of all our opportunities. Trekking through the sandy sun drenched Negev, I lit a cigarette while riding high atop my new camel friend, Abu. There were so many clothes, sleeping bags, and other random supplies stuffed into the side pockets of Abu’s sporty fanny pack that my inner thighs were stretched in gymnast like directions. I just looked down to my far-from-Moses-and-forty-years-in-the-desert-friendly companions and laughed, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I were smoking a Camel on my camel?!”
By noon the heat in the desert is too intense for laymen to be bumming around in, and our Bedouin guide led us to a giant rock structure that seemed to rise out of the barren landscape at exactly the right time. It was a twenty-foot alcove that tucked us inside its cool, stone walls, and we scattered like mice to find the best shaded hiding places that might lull us into mid-afternoon sleep.
No air conditioned hostel before, or cushioned mattress after, would offer the kind of sleep we found in that sprawling old piece of God’s architecture. I lay there with my head resting on my water bottle, looking out into the starkly blue and brown landscape, peacefully unappreciative that it would be one of the most serene moments of my life.
When you first think about camel trekking through the desert, Aladdin-like images are conjured up full of rolling orange sand dunes and magic carpets. But our abandoned dune seemed to appear out of nowhere and stood singularly majestic amongst the miles of flat, cracking, rocky desert floor. After a breathless climb to the top, I expected to look out over that imaginary sea of blowing stand, but instead was accosted with more of the rocky, ungraceful terrain we had previously traversed. So I sat atop my lonely beach castle and entertained myself in the evening sun, watching handfuls of sand slalom around the stiff brown hairs on my unshaven legs.
For millions of people around the world, Israel is the religious mecca, and some spend all their lives trying to make one trip to see the birthplace of their beliefs. When I tell people that I spent over a month in the holy land when I was only seventeen, they always ask me, why? I tell them that it is sort of a tradition. I tell them that my parents did it when they were teenagers, and it was their plan to send their children to experience the same sort of adventure. I tell these people that it was my right of passage, my good fortune, to be sent away to have such an important and life altering experience. Sometimes I wonder what I have to show for such a lucky break besides remnants of the vulgar songs we used to sing on the bus, and photographs of the vicious sunburns we managed to incur.
People look at me in disbelief when they find out that I spent so much time in this war torn country at such a young age. I find it impossible to explain that it hasn’t always been this way, that there have been times of peace, that Israel is a stunningly beautiful country perfect for any type of fantastical vacation or getaway. I see the confusion in their eyes and know that they are wondering how it is possible, after all of these bombings, that anything beautiful could be left behind.
I remember how we used to sit in only our bras during the long trips up the coast, and pluck our eyebrows to pass the time. I remember how we begged to go see Armageddon one night and I cried the whole movie through. But most of all, I still remember those sunsets. We ran on the cracked, barren ground towards the ends of the earth; watching the dragon-fire sun sink deeper into the dusk, with tears in our eyes from the stinging dry air and my camera long since gone. I stared in disbelief and promised myself I would never forget what that moment felt like. The most alluring and heart stopping moment, that still stuns me back to life.