Tuesday, May 27, 2014

No blog post has ever felt as impossible to write as this one. Because for ten days, I lived in a world I can't recreate in words or photos. This makes me feel like I'm not good at what I do. But it also makes me feel like language isn't good at what it does. Which we all already knew anyway...

If you are expecting to read about Israel, you're going to be a little annoyed, because while this is about Israel, it is really about my very particular experience not just with Israel but with myself. Two weeks ago, I told a few close friends back home that I felt like I was on the edge of something. A cliff. A horizon that was about to disappear. I had just finished my final semester of real coursework, had rapidly cleaned my apartment, packed, said goodbye to all my friends, and closed up shop in LA for the time being. I didn't want to get on the plane to JFK. I didn't want to meet 40 new people. I didn't want to go to a country that makes me and almost everyone I know politically uncomfortable, and I especially didn't want to go there on a trip called "Birthright," because that name makes me cringe. But I'm also 25 and in grad school and unlikely to ever really make much of a living, and I take what I can get these days.

I can't reiterate everything that happened or everything we did, so I'll give you the highlights. Be prepared for a lot of seemingly hyperbolic statements. We all know I'm prone to exaggeration because I'm a passionate person. But you really, really have to trust me more than ever when I say that the ten days I spent on the other side of my world were drastic, life changing, and put a distance between my old and new existence that I'll never be able to seamlessly bridge. It's less that I jumped off a cliff and more that I looked back after this trip and realized that the ground had torn itself in half behind me leaving a chasm I don't care to do anything but walk away from.

We began in the north. The reason that's important is because there was a river. On our very first day of the trip, after a morning hike through a beautiful natural spring, we went rafting on this river. D and I got a kayak and spent over an hour floating downstream in a place that was distinctly Israel with people who were at this point complete strangers, but in place that looked exactly like every river I've traveled in Colorado. I think this combined sense of strangeness and familiarity allowed me to relax in a way I couldn't have otherwise done if the terrain were too unfamiliar because I would have been trying too hard to document it. As we floated along, we occasionally spotted a mulberry bush or tree and quickly paddled upstream where we would anchor ourselves along the bank so we could pick berries and eat them in the cool shade. I watched my new strangers pass by in their rafts and imagined the ways in which we might become friends. D and I talked about Israel. About history and borders. We found a turtle and strange bugs. And afterward, we all went biking through a citrus orchard where we plucked freshly ripened grapefruits straight from the trees.

There was one day while we were still in the north when we went to the city of Tzfat, the center of Jewish mysticism. I found myself wandering, taking photos of windows and doorways when I ran into O. He took me to this little candle shop outside of the main market area. While I was there, I spotted these little wax owl candles almost identical to a pair I have on my bedroom shelf at home. My ex bought them for me on his trip to Israel over two years ago. I didn't realized they'd come from the place I now stood, a lifetime away from him, from us, from everything I'd been through back home. I shuddered. I told O about it. It felt weird to tell a complete stranger this thing that wasn't at all relevant to his life other than incidentally. It also felt important to break off that small part of myself and leave it in that candle shop in Tsfat. Because my ex did this same trip two years before I did, and I remember a lot of what he told me about his experience, and we weren't in a good place then, and for the first few days of my trip, that wasn't far from my mind. That I was going through the same motions he was going through when he was there and I was thousands of miles away, unknowing, disconnected. I mention all of this because one of the most important things that happened to me on this trip was that I was able to close that chapter of my life, dust myself off, and walk into entirely new terrain where I no longer feel the weight of my past. And that is a miracle. Something I never thought would happen. Right before my best friend left for the Peace Corps earlier this year, we made a list of things we thought would be different when she gets back in two years. On that list was "I will be over my relationship." But even as I said it then, I didn't believe it would be possible. I just said it to feel strong. She's only been gone a few months. This is what travel does to me. It breaks me so I can put myself back together. Not always, but sometimes, when I need it the most.

At the end of that day in Tsfat, we were driven to a winery that also makes goat milk products. We were sent into a dark room to watch a movie about the winery, and at the very end, the screen on which the movie was projected rose and beyond it was a little patio with tables, chairs, wine glasses, and a fountain, and a vineyard in the background. Everything glittered. We cheered. We were then treated to a few different wines and goat cheeses and some frozen yogurt made with goat milk. We all just kept saying, this is the best day ever. Because each new day on that trip was the best day yet.

The thing I was looking most forward to for years before this trip was camping under the stars in the Negev. Because the word Negev sounds so beautiful, and the weight of it in my mouth feels like nothing else. Round and flowing. Heavy but light. We didn't quite camp in the Negev, but rather the Judea Desert. We made a campfire. We toasted really awful marshmallows. We slept on the thinnest sleeping pads with the tiniest sleeping bags under the stars. This was far from peaceful. It was cold and, more importantly/annoyingly, there was a group of 250[!!!] orthodox Jewish teenage boys camping right next to us and they had four floodlights and they were blasting music ALL NIGHT LONG. Maybe camping etiquette is different in Israel, but I have never witnessed people be more disrespectful in the outdoors. The stars were downed out by the lights and some cloud cover. I had to sleep with ear plugs. But it didn't matter because I knew we were waking up at 3:45am anyway to hike Masada.

The best day of my trip, maybe, just maybe the best day I've ever had in my entire life, was the day we woke up at 3:45am in the Judea Desert, then hiked Masada in the quiet light just before sunrise. As we hiked, D told me the story of Masada, how the Romans were building ramps up to the Jews on top of the mountain. How the Jews were rolling boulders down the ramps to stop the Romans. How the Romans decided to use Jewish slaves to build the ramps because they knew the Jews wouldn't kill their own people. How the Jews knew it was over, decided to commit mass suicide rather than be captured and kept as slaves or worse. D also told me the story of the time he hiked Kili, a story that took place near where my brother spent a fair amount of time. Right after he finished his story, we reached the final 50 or so incredibly steep steps, had to run in order to make it to the top before sunrise, then POP, the sun rose over the mountains in Jordan, over the Dead Sea, over the Negev, just as we reached the overlook and took a deep breath. My 50 new best friends all gathered and watched, breathed, took photos, laughed at the miracle that was our predawn hike. A did some handstands at the edge of the mountain. K and N meditated, faces toward the sun. Then, four of the girls on the trip got spontaneously Bat Mitzvahed in the ruins of the synagogue and we danced and danced. All before 7am. A gave us a tour of the place, then we hiked down and ate breakfast. Afterward, we went to an oasis, pronounced oh-AH-zis by our patient, always reliable tour guide. I had never been more excited to see water. I took a soapless shower under the waterfall, lay in the pool below, recovered. When we left, we went to the Dead Sea. Something I've wanted to do since I was seven years old. We covered ourselves in mud. Walked in. I waited one moment, then lifted my legs. It's rare that you wait 18 years for something and when it finally happens, it exceeds your expectations, but it did. I wanted to cry. I was exhausted. I was happier and more intellectually and emotionally full than I'd maybe ever been, and I was doing something I'd only ever dreamed of doing. And my ladies parts were burning off because holy hell, salt water and sensitive areas. Us ladies had a hard time staying in too long, but it was worth all the time we spent there.

I chose specifically to do an outdoorsy trip because I love outdoor adventure, and because I wanted to go light on the political and religious rhetoric. Of course, just being in Israel is a political act, and some of the most significant moments on the trip for me were the ones where we were face to face with borderlands. Our first border was Syria while we were in the Golan Heights. As we looked out into the distance and traced the line between the two countries, two bombs went off. We didn't see them, but we heard them. Both were Syrian bombs set off in Syria. I don't know a single person, not one person, who has heard a bomb go off. I grew up in the suburbs in the middle of the western United States. I'm sure I know people who know people who have heard bombs go off. But my privileged life means that I get to sit in the ivory tower with a lot of other privileged folks who have also never heard a bomb go off, who have never lost people to that kind of violence, who have never lived anywhere near a border, a place of uncertainty and political horror, and I get to read theory and talk about theory and have discussions about violence and politics and the "Middle East" and citizenship and nationality and terrorism and militarism. But even just hearing those bombs go off changed something in me. My politics haven't changed, but my distrust of theory and language grew exponentially. How can any of us write cultural criticism from a distance? And yes, of course so many people writing about these issues have experienced the things they're writing about, and my very small, safe, momentary experience is nothing in the face of that, but I'm telling you right now that I talked to so many people about Israel before I went and every one had an opinion and no one had actually been there.
We also saw the Jordanian border. And the Lebanese border. I've only seen the Mexican/US border once, as I drove through southern Texas, past Ciudad Juárez a couple summers ago. But these borders aren't that border. The weight of these borders is palpable in an entirely different way. Each day that we saw a border, my heart and head sank into themselves, confused, uncomfortable. This includes the days we passed West Bank check points, which I don't even want to get into here but will gladly talk about if you ask sometime.

We stayed in hotels. We stayed on a Kibbutz. We stayed in the desert. We stayed in a Bedouin tent. We found a scorpion in the Bedouin tent. I'd never seen a wild scorpion. He was beautiful. I hung my shoes from a nail while we slept.

The night of the Bedouin tent, we had an epic dance party in the desert. A few other groups were there, there was a live band, and it felt like summer camp. Afterward, some of us sat around our campfire while J played us songs on the guitar to which we all sang along. Closed the night with "Hallelujah." J does the best Jeff Buckley I've ever heard.

I got to room with some amazing women, some of whom I know I'll be connected to for the rest of my life. I even spent part of this Memorial Day in Brooklyn with N, my first roommate on the trip. If it were up to me, I wouldn't have left the rabbit hole. I wanted to stay with those people in that place forever. I am someone who desperately craves control, and this trip was an exercise in letting go for me. I had to adhere to a strict schedule set by the organization and our tour guide. 42 of us [50 when we had our Israelis] had to wake up at the same time every day, eat breakfast together, do all activities together, eat dinner together, go to sleep together. That's how 10 days feels like 3 years. When you are with the same relatively small group of people 24/7 and you are all responsible to each other. We ate every meal together, had long bus rides together, did strenuous activities like hiking and biking and rafting and walking ALLL the stairs together. Together we flew to the other side of the world and back, literally. I don't know what I would have done without them. My ladies. My crew of BroFFs who seriously got me through every emotionally rough moment of the trip. Our staff. Our security guard. Our tour leader who hates flip flops and bathroom breaks but who somehow seemed to get a kick out of us anyway and who, when you least expected it, would drop some real knowledge and emotional insight on us about life and travel and love and eating pigeons.

This doesn't even begin to cover what happened on this trip, where we went, what we did, what I learned, who I got to know. I could keep writing this forever. I doubt many of you have even made it this far. That's fine. This is mostly for me. A scrap book. The public version at least. There are so many other things, things I learned about other people, mostly things I learned about myself. Patterns I've finally started to recognize. Fears I've begun to conquer. I put a prayer, a wish, onto a little piece of paper, folded it up real small, tucked it into a crack in the Western Wall. To know what it is that I want.

I'm getting so much closer.

[P.S. Most of my photos from the trip are on instagram @alirachelpearl. The rest are on my facebook.]

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