My journey in Israel started in true Jewish fashion: by wandering through the desert. After crossing the border from Jordan I spotted a gas station on a highway off in the distance and figured that rather than following the windy road, I'd just cut through the desert. In the gas station I inquired about an ATM. The attendant said with a bit of a sneer "Let me guess, you're going to Jordan?" I told him I was just coming from there actually. He perked up. "Oh, well I hope you enjoy Israel more than Jordan!" I used the ATM and bought a local SIM card. "You know in a hundred years all of Jordan will be part of Israel. We're moving the borders a couple meters each year!" The attendant told me. "Good luck with that." I said half sarcastically as I stepped out the door.
I walked out to the highway to wait for a ride up north. I wasn't sure what hitchhiking in Israel would be like. The sun was unobstructed and I tried to put on sunscreen but there was never a gap in the traffic quite long enough to do so, and I didn't feel like ignoring potential rides. After a few minutes, a balding middle-aged man with only two top teeth pulled over. He didn't speak any English but we were roughly able to communicate about our intended destinations. He motioned for me to get in. I put my pack in the back seat and hopped up front. Before I had even finished applying my sun screen, the man stopped to pick up another hitchhiker. An Israeli teenager. "Oh good, he'll speak English" I thought. Nope. The kid may have spoken less English than the man. The man offered me cigarettes, but none to the other hitchhiker so I'm guessing he was quite young—besides, he wasn't in the military yet. No one in the car really acknowledged my presence, except when the man who would wink at me just before gunning it around four or five cars, only to pull back into our lane just before colliding with oncoming traffic.
What would have taken me six or seven rides to do in Jordan, took me one ride to accomplish just across the border. The man dropped me at the Be'er Sheva bus station where I sat and waited with seemingly the entire Israeli military. I felt out of place not having a uniform or a gun. I was on my way to visit Avishai and Anat, an Israeli couple that I traveled Mongolia for almost three weeks in a tiny van with. They lived in a little student village inside of a small desert settlement. Their house was a home and their neighborhood a community. Everyone knew everyone and no one locked their doors. Seeing Avishai and Anat again was great, and living in their home was comforting.
The next day Avishai and I journeyed into the desert to meet up with some more old friends. One was another Israeli named Yoel that had traveled with us in Mongolia, and another was a German girl named Clelia who I met three times in China, and just happened to be in Israeli at the same time as me. The four of us, along with four of Avishai and Yoel's other friends, did an overnight trek through the desert. We spent the night in an old cistern that was dug by the Bedouins when they started settling down. After cooking dinner in "the cave", we set our headlamps to strobe, put on some music, and had a little dance party. It wasn't long before the chaotic cave disco evolved into a strobe-lit, semi-coordinated dancing of the hora. A good time was had by all.
After spending a day at Avishai and Anat's home, Clelia and I ventured south to check out a kibbutz by the name of Neot Semadar that we'd heard good things about. It took us much longer to get there than we'd expected, so we didn't arrive until the late afternoon. "It doesn't work like that." The volunteer coordinator told us. "You can't just show up. You need to apply months in advance and go through the process. We don't have any space for you here. We can't even give you a blanket for the night." Oh. I inquired when the next bus to come by would be. "There'll be another bus in an hour. If you want you can walk around until then." She told us uneagerly. We left our bags at the office and took a stroll around.
There wasn't much to see at Neot Semadar, but at the back of the kibbutz we came to a line of date palms. Date season in south Israel is usually the height of summer, but the ground was covered with only slightly old dates. I hadn't eaten anything all day so I started gathering some up. The first couple handfuls I ate were amazing! As I went down the line they got worse and worse, but they continued to fill my stomach. We went back and waited for the bus and discussed our options: Head south to Elat and find a cheap hotel, go back to Avishai and Anats, or risk it at a kibbutz between where we were and Elat. We decided to risk it.
We arrived at Kibbutz Samar around dusk where we were greeted with a similar reception to Neot Semadar. "You can't just show up here." A random woman told us. "But I'll call the volunteer coordinator for you." She called him, but he was in a meeting. "He can't see you now, but I'll give you his number and you can call later." We thanked the woman then went out to the road to try to hitchhike to Elat. After a short while a car came out of the kibbutz and started heading in our direction. We flagged it down. The older gentleman who was driving said he was on his way to Elat, and offered to give us a ride. "I started this kibbutz almost thirty years ago. I was inspired by the beat movement in America." The old man told us. Boy had we lucked out! Here we had an opportunity to show the founder of the kibbutz that we were cool, and hopefully he'd invite us to stay. When he dropped us in Elat he told us that if we ever need anything we should give him a call.
We slept that night amidst moonlight palms on the shore of the Red Sea. In the morning we called the volunteer coordinator and dropped the name of the man who had driven us to Elat. The coordinator said that if someone in the kibbutz invited us, we could come and stay. He gave us the number of a kid our age named Ziv, and told us to give him a call. We gave Ziv a call and he said he would be delighted to have us, but that we may only be able to stay for one night. So, we hitched our way back to Samar. The kibbutz sits at a seemingly arbitrary point in the desert, just off the highway and below a shallow range of mountains. The small compound is encircled by concertina wire and surrounded by a high barbed wire fence. All the kibbutzim are. Everything changes once you're inside however; there's no keys, no money, and no rules. It's said that Samar is the only true remaining kibbutz—all the others have become semi-privatized.
On our first day at Samar, Clelia and I were put to work landscaping. I had missed working with plants so I was eager for the job. Lunchtime was a large buffet of fresh salads and vegetables, and of course tahini. Tahini was served at every meal, and the food was always healthy and delicious. In the evening I joined the pickup ultimate frisbee game. Samar is kinnda like a summer camp, and there's always something happening. That evening we got the good news that we were invited to stay for another night. The second day was similar to the first, but in the evening there was an impromptu jam session at the Ziv's house. The next morning just as we were packing up, Ziv got a phone call concerning us. The father of one of the kids that was showing us around had invited us to come stay with them for a couple nights. We finished packing our things, then moved over to his house.
Throughout our time at Samar, people would often ask how long we were staying. We'd say "Just a day or two" and they'd laugh and say that they had come for just a month and wound up staying twenty years. While living with our new host I got to learn a bit more about the kibbutz. He told me that unlike the other kibbutzim, Samar had no strict rules and that they never strove for equality. It seemed as though the other kibbutzim were trying to force community, while Samar simply laid a foundation for it to naturally form, and there was no dearth of community at Samar. On Friday night before dinner, Clelia and I were invited into the home of another longtime kibbutz member to celebrate Kabbalat Shabbat. It was a family home with a mother and a father and four kids. There were pictures on the walls and fridge, kitchenware that belonged to a set, and some abstract feeling in the air that made a house seem like a home. The celebration was mostly just singing songs in Hebrew, but for that one hour I felt like I was part of the family. I had that included feeling like I was part of something bigger, like what I guess you're supposed to feel on Christmas morning.
The next night at dinner the founder of the kibbutz came up to us in the dining hall and asked how long we were staying. We told him that since we didn't have a host after the weekend, we'd have to leave. The next day we were given our own apartment. The landscaping work that we had been doing was finished, so I went to the kibbutz's hi-tech company to see if I could be of any help. At the back of the junkyard in Samar is a ragged looking building which hosts a semi-autonomous company called CrystalVision. Like many kibbutzim in the area, Samar makes most of their money by selling dates. They've got a large date plantation on the other side of the highway, but they faced a problem: harvesting dates is extremely labor intensive and they didn't want to exploit cheap workers but they needed to make a profit. So, they asked CrystalVision for a solution. Rather than picking and sorting each date by hand, Samar now shakes the trees and catches the dates in large nets, then feeds the dates through a machine which analyzes each date and sorts it according to quality. The system is so advanced that as the attributes of "good" dates change, so does the sorting algorithm. The date sorter is just one of the inventions to come out of CrystalVision. I spent most of my time there soldering components for an Irrigation On Demand system to be installed in China, which is supposed to save 30% in water use.
When all was said and done, I wound up spending over a week at Samar when I had only come for a day. I can see how people get sucked into a place like that. Stress couldn't be any lower and community couldn't be much higher. The food is delicious, the activities are fun, and the people are very nice. Oh, and the dates; they're to die for (but not like in The Lion King). So why did I leave? For a couple reasons. Long before coming to Samar, and even before arriving in Israel, I had made plans to go trekking with some other Israeli's I'd met along my journey. Also, the time was right for me to keep movin' on. At a different point in my life I'd love to live there forever, but I was starting to feel lonely. It's funny how in the most communal and welcoming place I've been on this trip, I felt the most lonely. Perhaps that's because I knew I'd be moving on and hence felt like I was amidst the community without actually being part of it, and I could see what I'd been missing. That is, except for the one night at Kabbalat Shabbat. For that one hour, I've never felt more at home. It was also time for Clelia and I to part ways. At another time in life I'd like to spend more time with her, and perhaps I will, but for now we're moving in opposite directions. Living in a kibbutz was a unique and educational experience, and something I don't think I'll forget anytime soon.Soundtrack: Invisible Touch (Genesis)