Friday, January 5, 2007

My Camel is Broken - The Negev, Thursday December 21

By now, Bus Double One is experiencing two inevitable consequences of putting 40 Jews on a bus for 10 days; nicknames and sickness.

On this bus, there are 2 Davids, 2 Jens, Dani, a girl, and Dani, a guy, plus a Dan and a Daniel, a Maya and a Ma'ayan, and, just for fun, 3 Matts. And since Matt B, Matt G and Matt M is the lame 3rd grade teacher way of solving these identity crises and Bus Double One is a creative bunch, the nicknames were inevitable.

I was spared a nickname because the other David became "Tony" or just "Dave." Though I should say, we were confused a number of times so maybe one of those nicknames needed to stick better. We also had a girl take on the nickname of "Gypsy", though I'm not 100% sure why. As for the Matts, one took his last name, another was identified by his association with his best friend, as in, "Which Matt? Oh, Matt and Will Matt." And the last became known as "Bubonic."

Why Bubonic? (I ask, sliding seamlessly into inevitable consequence #2) Well, Bubonic arrived on our trip with a hacking cough and sore throat, and gave it a dozen others, and by the time we departed Tel Aviv for the Negev on day 6, the plague had spread, and I was guzzling Airborne every morning.

We all know the perfect cure for hacking cough and sore throat and everything else - get a partial night sleep in a tent with 80 other people, ratty old sleeping bags and no pillows in the middle of the desert in December.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The day in the desert began in the blazing sunshine at Tel Maresha, where we participated in an Archaeological dig. Now, almost everything on this trip that I thought would be really cheesy turned out to be great. That is, with the exception of the Archaeological dig.

Here we learned about the Edomite civilization and the underground caves that they destroyed when Jews captured the town around the time of the Chanukah story in 120 B.C.E. Then we went into one of the caves and dug for artifacts, and in about 20 minutes managed to come up with some pieces of pottery and animal bone. One person even dug up a handle. But the whole time, I had trouble believing (as did many others) that we had actually discovered anything important or even anything that hadn't been discovered already.

My skepticism was verified after our debriefing. The guide showed us some impressive pieces already recovered, cleaned and catalogued from the Maresha dig and explained some of the archaeological process. Then she offered us a chance to buy an official "we dig Israel" t-shirt (get it?) as well as take home a few pieces of pottery found in the site, pieces that are too small to be of any use to them. Pieces remarkably similar to the ones I'd dug up just a short time before. So, what I found either gets cleaned or put back into the dig? Glad I could help.

I appreciate the importance of archaeology in Israel, for sure. The entire country is "one huge archaeological site" as our American staff, Dani, put it. But our archaeological experience was on an elementary school level. Which explained all the grade-school kids I fought my way around in order to wash my hands, get back on the bus and get on to Kibbutz Sde Boker.

Imagine for a second, President George W. Bush decides to leave Washington, eschewing most of his duties to go live a simpler life on a farm somewhere in, say, Texas. It' imagine...isn't...oh...

Well this is sort of what David Ben Gurion did back in the 1950s. He resigned as Prime Minister and went to live on Kibbutz Sde Boker, claiming that it was the kibbutznik that made Israel what it was. Eventually, Israel demanded his return to the Knesset and he did go back, reluctantly, but his heart was in his Kibbutz. And on Thursday, so were we.

Sde Boker overlooks the beautiful Zin Wadi, a cavernous, Grand Canyon-like desert valley mentioned in the bible many times. Ben-Gurion's tomb also overlooks this magnificent vista, and we stopped to pay our respects to the man who stood in Independence Hall in Tel Aviv and declared the establishment of the Jewish State.

"OK," says Ran, "Back on the bus, quickly. It is already getting dark, and we can't ride the camels in the dark."

The sun was down when we arrived at the Bedouin village of Kfar Hanokdim, and we were just in time for the camels.

It's hard to recreate what it's like when 40 eager 20-somethings bound toward a pack of stubborn, not very happy camels, but let's just say there's a smell, there's a lot of yelling (from us, from the camels, from the camel handlers), and a lot of movement. I got caught up in the frenzy as our group members paired off and mounted camels and the camels lifted off the ground, and all of a sudden me and a dozen others are left without a camel to ride.

"If you don't have a camel, get on a donkey! You'll switch later!" somebody shouts, it's hard to tell.

Oh, good. A donkey.

So what's the best part about riding a donkey? Ass puns.

"Does my ass look a little big to you?"

"Hey, did you touch my ass? Get off my ass!"

"Hey, Dani...nice ass."

And that's about all they're good for. The second best part was when my donkey (they're all tied together, by the way) snuggled up behind the one in front of me, and my leg was put in a very compromising position. Had the donkey in front of me decided to relieve himself, well let's just say I would have preferred the plague.

It came time to switch, and I got off my ass (there's another one!) and onto a camel. This is one of those things everyone talks about when they come back from Birthright. It's like a Birthright right of passage. Did you ride a camel? Of course I rode a camel, I was on Birthright.

Once the novelty wears off, the camel experience becomes a little unpleasant. Especially since my camel had an itch under her right shoulder and kept scratching it with her right front leg, leaving me eight feet off the ground on an uneven humped tripod. When the leg didn't work, the camel started trying to bite or lick whatever was bothering her. "Hey, pay attention to the road!"

The final challenge is getting down off the camel, which means the camel has to sit down. The camel does not like doing this. Clearly the up and down all day long and the walking around in circles all day doesn't make this camel, or any other camel, very happy. The camel lets out a loud and agonizing noise as she lowers herself to the ground, and then I graciously, but not gracefully, dismount. End camel adventure.

Begin the Bedouin experience. We pile our stuff into our evening accommodations - a large but somehow cozy looking tent - and head to a different tent across the way to hear about the Bedouin way of life. The Bedouins are historically nomadic, but Israeli Bedouins found themselves restricted by political borders and have adapted to modern ways of life. At Kfar Hanokdim, they are trying to preserve the heritage of the Bedouins.

We heard about the tradition of Bedouin hospitality, and had a musical presentation from a Bedouin musician who played a predecessor of the Lute and who was working on a PhD in music. All of this was followed by a traditional family-style dinner of kabobs and rice (nothing sharing a plate with 3 other people to keep that plague from spreading) and Chanukah candle lighting night 7.

After dinner, the evening was spent mingling with each other and with the other groups of young Jews there from all over the world. I found myself having a spirited conversation with a couple of young Jews from England, studying in Israel for the year. Meanwhile, our tent was evacuated because of a gas leak that robbed the sicker among us of some valuable rest. I missed all of that, well engaged in a deep conversation about Iran, the Holocaust and the Jewish world. You know, nice light campfire talk. (More on this to come, by the way.) It was almost midnight by the time I made my way back to the tent.

Whoever told me to bring a pillowcase with me to Israel - thank you. Bedouins don't provide pillows, only ratty, worn out sleeping bags and thin mattress pads. But somebody told me to bring a pillowcase, and I stuffed all of my clothes into it and created a makeshift pillow, wrapped myself in the sleeping bag and settled in to attempt a few hours sleep before our 4:30am wake-up call and the full and unforgettable day ahead.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I ADORE your writing!