Thursday, March 02, 2006

summer tramp

For some reason, the life lesson to be free and ready for anything is easier to remember in the summer, the official nomadic season.

Patoralists, seasonal laborers and wandering hippies, for example, take sedentary refuge in the winter and use summer to maximize their life potential wandering for/as livelihood.

The drastic North American weather pattern has in the past delineated for me a clear mark between summer and winter, between university semesters and lazier summers, between habitual sedentary work and the ability to actively embark on emotional and geographic wandering.

Lucky for me, life's little changes over the last year and Israel's awesome weather have given me the freedom to be a year round traveler, both physically and mentally. I've learned to balance sedentary and nomadic inclinations, to be a full-time employee and part-time wanderer. I've kept alive my love affair with the road, though truth be told, I'd become more of a habitual pasturer than wandering nomad, spreading my time evenly between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

I hadn't realized how dull the sensation had become for me until I peeked my head out of the bus in Tiberias last Thursday, hot, overdressed, my backpack full of just what I needed to survive in the wild for at least a week, and finally felt infused with that giddy feeling of being alone in an unfamiliar city, ready for anything.

The plan, concocted late Wednesday night, was to meet up with Elisha and Jackie at the foot of some northern trail or another early Thursday morning. That plan fell through when Ami and I realized we didn't have a direct bus to Tsfat until 9 from Jerusalem, and 2:30 pm from Tel Aviv. So Ami and I agreed to meet in Tiberias, early. But when I called Ami on my way out of the city, he was still sleeping.

So we met around noon in Tiberias and started walking up the road hugging the Kinneret to hitch a ride to Mount Meron, the plan loosely ammended on a bench in front of the Tiberias bus station.

Elisha and Jackie were on the other side of the Kinneret, and said they'd try to catch their own ride and meet us when they were ready. We found a bus stop about a mile outside of Tiberias, and waited around for a ride. After about 10 minutes an SUV pulled over to the side of the road and took us all the way to Tsfat. From there we caught another ride to Meron and walked up to the amusement park tomb of Shimon Bar Yochai, author of the Zohar.

I say amusement park because every time I'm there I feel like I've entered either a carnival or a Grateful Dead concert parking lot. Trance music dubbed with religious mantras pumping from corners of stalls selling paintings, clothing and paraphenelia; white-clad Breslov hippie hasids strolling the scene saying, "who's got my ticket to Uman;" Little Breslov hippies loitering by the dozen. Free food all day long. Sounds, eye candy, worship.

Ami disappeared into the tomb, and was still in there an hour later when Elisha and Jackie showed up. When he came out it was nearing 4 pm. We bought a bottle of arak (anise flavored liquor) and headed off into sun setting forest. We had only walked for about an hour when the dark really began to set in. We set up camp in a huge field at the highest point we could reach (the peak of the mountain is taken up by an IDF base and off limits to civilians). It was an awesome site. The snowy-peak of the Hermon visible in the distance, all the valleys and surrounding mountains in clear sight, and at our own site, a round well surrounded in stone built into the base of a tree that could only be described as bodhi-licious. We made a packed vegetable stew, munched on trail mix and roasted potatoes, and smoked the sage and zaatar we'd picked up along the way.

I woke up freezing the next morning and saw my tent mates moving around. I groaned a little because I thought they were waking up, and I really wanted them to stay in bed to cuddle with me and keep me warm. They weren't getting up, they told me, just going to pee. "But look at the sun rise," Jackie said. I peered outside. The whole face of the mountain was washed in the most vivid and vibrant orange sunrise I had seen in a long time, and the valley looked as if it were built inside a gold mine. I settled back into my sleeping bag, warmer now.

A few hours later, when Elisha had disappeared into the woods to write in his morning papers, and Jackie had gone off to walk somewhere, Ami poked his head into the tent and told me to stay inside for a few minutes, a couple of Brelovers were taking a skinny dip in nature's mikva. When I came out, they were getting ready to go, and Elisha and Jackie had come back. We ate oatmeal and leftover soup, and packed up. We wanted to go for a longer hike than we had the day before, but the sun was so nice and it was so windy, so we lazed around with our head on each other's bellies for a few hours, singing songs and talking.

When we finally emerged from our coocoon, it was getting late in the afternoon, so we headed back down to hike in the rocky valley and up to Shimon Bar Yochai's tomb. There we scored a free challah and bottle of wine and caught a ride to the mouth of Nahal Amud, to the base of Kadita. Kadita is a cluster of mountains dotted with pear trees, horses and maybe thirty families. Most of the residences are illegal, not for defense reasons like in the West Bank, but because most of the occupants chose to squat, rather than purchase their land.

The result is a paradise of sorts inhabited by some of the funkiest people around. My aunt and uncle have been heading up to Kadita for years, a settlement which until just a few years ago had no running water or electricity. It also has a high turnover of occupants, apparently because its location limits any sort of booming business and the character of the inhabitants limits any sort of desire to work for the man. My friend Tiferet's aunt has a 'mansion' in Kadita, meaning a really funky home of her own, surrounded by a small but glamorous guest house, an unused restaurant, shed and tons of property.

The five of us were given our own house in the shed to shack up in for as long as we wanted, we were told. Tiferet's very British grandparents, a far cry from their radical daughter, were staying at the inn for the weekend to celebrate their 59th wedding anniversary. We made a pot of stew and an avocado salad to contribute to the dinner, and without bathing, let Shabbat wash over us.

Max, Devorah and Amitai were supposed to join us for the weekend, but they'd gotten stuck near the Kinneret trying to hitch north, and decided to stay in a cave with some Bedouins they'd met near a monastery. So the five of us sat on a mattress in the middle of the shed's three rooms, in a circle with our laps covered by a blanket, and began to sing Kabbalat Shabbat, a series of hymns welcoming in the day of rest. It's a really beautiful service that if done with the right intentions is as riveting as some of the deepest medidation practices. This one was done with the right intentions, and we were all flying high by the time we joined the rest of the family in the restaurant for the meal.

We spent the weekend sleeping deeply, eating delicious food and walking barefoot on the rocky, thorn-riddled paths of Kadita. The family's property was meant to be a sort of guest house, but since we were the only guests, we got the run of the place. On Saturday night Ami took off back to Jerusalem, and the rest of us set up a bonfire in the yard.

We woke up late Sunday morning, and Elisha had to run off to Tsfat to catch a bus to make it back to Jerusalem in time for his evening class. Jackie went with him to say goodbye. About an hour passed when I heard Tiferet on the phone with her aunt who was saying something about police, and turned around to seek Elisha and Jackie coming back up the road, flanked by four men. Apparently they'd stopped them walking down the path, searched their stuff, and found a pipe, so decided to come back to the house to search. Lucky enough, they stuck only to our stuff, and didn't go into the family's house.

They took Elisha in for an 'investigation' - meaning, they took his ID number and let him go. What a silly bunch of cops. Don't they have more to do in this country than searching us in vain for drugs?

Tiferet's uncle gave the three of us remaining, all women now, a ride into Tsfat. We went for lunch in the square in the middle of the old city, at this vegetarian cafe that Max's sister-in-law's aunt owns. She wasn't around but we got some really awesome sandwhiches and sat around for about half an hour. It's amazing how everybody seems to know each other in Tsfat, and how even though I never lived there, I also seem to know everybody. In less than an hour in Tsfat, I ran into so many different people I'd met at various times in my life, including this woman who I met last summer at a Palestinian/Arab/Jewish retreat called Sulha. She'd been the religious looking woman walking around with her Muslim friend - the one who jokingly told me, "I am the Hamasnakit, and this is my settler friend."

Jackie, Tiferet and I headed about an hour and a half before sunset into the valley of Nahal Amud, an area I have probably hiked more than anywhere else in Israel. The valley was covered by a layer of fog and raindrops were drizzling, but we were steadfast in our mission. They'd built a new road throught Tsfat, just above the entrance to the nature reserve, so we had to walk alongside the highway for about 20 minutes before reaching a tunnel that reached under the road and directly into the valley.

When we emerged on the other side of the tunnel it was like waking up in Oz. The wadi (Nahal Amud) at this time of year was lush green, dotted with all sorts of budding flowers, blossoming trees and rushing waters. We stuck to our trail and hiked until the daylight turned to dusk. We decided to set up camp in the dirt atop an old Roman (?) water carrying system adorned with the sign, "do not enter, danger of collapse."

Jackie and Tiferet went off to gather wood while I started putting up the tent. When I headed out on the trail to get some wood myself, I saw Jackie pulling whole felled trees toward our site.

"Every time we go camping with guys, they always feel like girls can't start a fire," she said, throwing the bunch down near the tent.

We got a nice fire going and sat around eating trail mix and playing on the harmonica. I turned over a couple plates and set the finjan at an angle, and started banging away to the rhythm in my head. It made a really funky little drum set and soon we were singing just about every rock and pop song we could remember the words to.

It was really different and really awesome to be camping with just women. I loved how strong, comfortable and free we felt - so much more so than in a big group with guys.

Even though it was freezing, we decided to take a dip in the river. We walked down the path, Tiferet in her bare feet, to find a clearing. When we found one we stripped off our clothes and went in. Shock and awe.

We walked back to the site with our bottoms bare. We crawled into the tent, got dressed, and cuddled up to sleep. But it was so cold, and there was a big rock right underneath me, so I couldn't sleep. Sometime in early dawn I decided to take off my sweats and put on my long johns, when I remembered what Evan's dad Les had told me a couple years back (when I think he was trying to get me to score with Evan): It's always warmer to sleep naked inside a sleeping bag. He was right. The minute I took off my pants I found I was warmer than I had been with a million layers. So I stripped down completely and finally managed to get some sleep.

I tried to wake the others up at 7, and then again at 8 so we could get a move on the day, but it was past 10 when we finally got up. I could hear groups of people moving around and talking outside the tent, and vaguely remembered that we were sleeping in a nature reserve off limits to camping.

I had to be at work at 8 pm after the five day rainbow flow, and told them that. So we gathered our stuff together, I took a quick piss off the water carrying structure as I'd wanted to do since we'd arrived, and we headed back up the trail. It was really hot, and all we had to munch on was a single avocado and orange pepper, since we'd eaten all our food the night before lazing around the campfire. I was sweating and breathless by the time we got to the top of the hill. We collapsed for a few minutes in the field, and then crossed over the road to try to get a ride down to Tsfat.

There were no buses from Tsfat to Tel Aviv that day (there's only one a day that leaves at 9 am), so we decided we'd either hitch to Tel Aviv or catch the bus from Tsfat to Jerusalem and then to Tel Aviv. The first option was a long shot, we figured, and the second would take forever. But we still had plenty of time, so we caught a ride to the junction at the entrance of the city and waited.

A haredi guy who came up to the hitching station a few minutes after us got picked up almost immediately, and a few minutes later, so did we.

The driver was young, bald and serious looking, his friend bearded, rugged and skinny. The back of their car was a flat surface covered in soft cushions.

The bearded guy turned around to look at me. "Are you more Jewish or a Zionist?" he asked me.

I laughed (nervously?). "Jewish," I said. I'm not sure I am a Zionist, or even what it means."

He gave me the thumbs up sign. "Good," he said, and looked at me intently. "Don't forget that. Zionism is nationalism. Judaism is faith. Always have faith."

We arrived just then at the junction they were dropping us off at down the road. We said goodbye, and hopped out. The hitching station we'd arrived at was swarming with soldiers, but when a car pulled up literally within less than a minute of our arrival, no-one approached it. So I did, tentatively.

It was a soldier, who said he was going to kfar Saba. That would take us at least 2/3 the leg of our journey, so we gladly stuck our bags in the trunk, and got in the back seat.

"Hey, I'm not a taxi driver, someone come up front," he said. Tiferet moved up.

His name was Greg and he was from South Africa. We listened to music and talked the whole way. Somehow we convinced him to stop for lunch in Beit Yanai, where we got falafel and salads and he got a chicken liver sandwhich. I don't usually like falafel, but this was really good, surprising coming from a shopping center restaurant. They also had little cups of coffee, really good and strong. The guy at the counter nodded to the scarf around my head and said, "I like."

"Thank you," I said.

"Like Osama," he went on. "Osama good, Bush bad." I couldn't tell if he was serious. They all laughed.

We got back in the car and Greg dropped us off at the Morasha junction just outside of Kfar Saba. There were a couple of kids there trying to hitch to Eilat. They told us we'd have better luck on the other side of the bridge, where there was a more direct road to Tel Aviv.

Jackie came up to me and said, "ali, someone's one the phone for you." She handed me the receiver and wire end of a broken public phone. I attached it to my bag and we crossed the road to get to the other side of the bridge. On the way we passed a vendor selling strawberries on the side of the highway. She told us they were organic and pesticide free. We bought two cartons.

It didn't seem like the station the guys had pointed us to was visible anywhere, but we finally found it. A car full of happy looking hippies pulled up. "We're going north," they said. I had the urge to say, "Yalla, back to the north," but refrained. A few minutes later another car pulled up, and the driver said he was going to Tel Aviv. We got in just as a dreadlocked dude came up. "Any room?" He asked. There was. He got in.

Less than four hours after we'd set out from Tsfat, we got to the beach in Tel Aviv. We walked back to my house from there. It was sunny and the air smelled different. It felt like summer was really starting.

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