Friday, March 18, 2011

Birthright Israel Trip - Part VII

This post was originally handwritten in a journal in Israel on a Birthright trip - Jan. 2011.

We're on the bus driving through the Negev Desert. Por la ventana, es fascinante ver los cambios geográficos. There's tremendous variation in land between North and South Israel. Both have mountains. The North is modern and developed, but the South is emptier - well not empty, just less full. 60% of Israel, according to Gai, is the Negev, and it's hard to develop. The first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, sought to develop and use the desert. Because of him, there's a large campus there which researches solar energy. Also, there is some agriculture and there are towns. Since deserts have the lowest precipitation, they have the highest daily variation in temperature. Today the temperature ranged from 12C to 22C. (That's a big change in Fahrenheit too.)
The Negev Desert
At night we went to a Bedouin tent in the desert to eat dinner and sleep. Bedouins, the ones we met, are Muslim. Bedouins place great importance on hospitality - an initial welcome during which they serve you sweet tea and a very tiny cup of coffee (see photo below). You're supposed to shake your cup if you don't want more coffee. I was going to try that, but they never actually served us seconds, although they told us it's normal to serve 3 cups.

Dinner was pretty sweet. We ate on cushions at a low table. Pitas, rice, veggies (spelled veges in the journal??) meat, humus, we always eat the same thing here. Looks like we ate all our food before this photo was taken...hmm...

After dinner we had a campfire which was strikingly American - songs, guitar, and s'mores included. I was rather surprised, upon biting into my s'more, to find that my marshmallow was pink and strawberry flavored.

Después, all 50 of us went out into the desert to find a quiet, dark place - not easy to find in today's world. The idea is to eliminate sensory input so you just think internally. Sight - it's dark, hearing - it's silent, taste - there's nothing to taste, smell - there's no scent, and touch - nothing but the ground under your butt. The touch sense is ignored over time; however, due to sensory adaptation (tuning out non-painful/unimportant stimuli). Example: You don't feel your socks on your feet all day long. A few seconds after putting them on, you don't feel them.

While sitting on the ground in the desert, I thought about the different ambiances in all the cities we'd seen so far: Tsfat - conservative, contained and proper with history, Jerusalem - modern and busy and energetic, Old City Jerusalem - reverent, and the Negev in Arad - peaceful, quiet, and restful.

While looking out into the darkness, I remembered the story where the Jews wandered through the desert for 40 years. I never really understood what took so long or why walking would be difficult. Being from the midwest, I assume all land is flat, and therefore easy to walk on. Not so - the desert is full of sand/rock mountains which are fun, but not at all easy to climb.

Out desert spot wasn't perfectly quiet either. We saw distant lights from other villages, and a dog from a nearby Bedouin village came over and kind of joined our group. Lots of animals sounds. One of the soldiers with us, Tslil, told us we should come back some time and find an actual quiet spot. He said he camps with friends sometimes, and the experience is better. He's almost done with his army service. He's works in intelligence and shared some of his stories with us about his experiences.

The main difference between us and the soldiers is that they're far more mature. The army makes them grow up quickly. One moment they're a kid, and the next moment they're working as border control deciding who to let it, etc. Suddenly their lives change and they are forced to make incredibly difficult decisions. [another excerpt] I really enjoyed meeting the soldiers very much. Hearing about their experiences in the military and learning what it was like to grow up in Israel from them was quite a gift.

Our group's security guard, Moran, was released from the army 3 years ago. He always carries a gun for our safety and waits for us when we fall behind because we take too many pictures. Today he, I, and Conor - another student on the trip, raced through Chavarim Creek. Obviously I don't run as fast as a 6 ft tall guy who just got out of the army. One of the girls in the group ahead of us turned, saw us all, and was like, "There's a guy with a gun chasing me!" It was hilarious - we all laughed.

Earlier that day, we visited Har Herzel, the military cemetery to honor those who died while serving. Many of the soldiers with us shared stories of friends and people they knew who died and were buried there. I won't share their stories online, because they're not my stories to tell. I will say that many of the stories involved terribly difficult decisions - decisions I cannot imagine having to make. [excerpt removed]
Har Herzel

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