The armed guards paid us no attention as we walked through the opening in the observation-tower-capped concrete wall cutting through the desert. "What's that?" I asked, half-knowing the answer. "The separation wall" my friend told me. "Are we in the West Bank now?" I followed. "Well, yes and no." He continued. I was starting a trek through the Judaean desert with an Israeli father and son whom I trekked for a few weeks in Nepal with. They're the two on the right if you remember this picture. The father was a policeman and carried a loaded gun holstered at his waist. We cut off the highway and into a polluted valley in order to lower our profile. After and hour or two of walking we came to the official trail. A few minutes later we were descending toward an ancient spring. "Look water!" The father said. "Yeah..." I responded. "Water! Here! In the desert!" Um, ok. One thing I've noticed about people in the Middle East is how mystified they are by the sight of green things. Often times when I told people where I was from, where I had been, or where I was going, the first thing they would say was "Oooh, it's very green there."
We followed the valley until we came to a different natural pool which methodically filled and emptied itself four times every hour. After ending our trek we hitchhiked our way back to Jerusalem. The father and son I was with thought it would be fun to camp in a large city park. When we arrived at the park around 9pm we found that the main field was in use by a group of guys playing ultimate frisbee under the lights. We put down our things and I went to go join them. We slept that night in the bushes at the edge of the park, then spent the next day touring the old city of Jerusalem. The father, who's fluent in Arabic, took us to a very good hummus restaurant, explaining that the Arabs make the best hummus. That Arabs make the best hummus is fairly undisputed, but if you ask an Israeli where the best hummus in Israel is... you'll probably get an evasive answer, even online. It seems as though the big conflicts that have been around since the dawning of the modern state of Israel (hummus, occupation) have been so well discussed and everyone knows the arguments so well, that no one actually wants to talk about them. Even when I pressed people for opinions they would usually just tell me the general opinions that exist without making any assertions themselves.
To help form my own opinions about things I made Jerusalem my home base for the next couple weeks. I stayed with my friend Yoel from the Mongolia expedition, who lives in the first Christian house built outside the old city walls. It was a perfect point for me to set out and taste famous hummus, take in modern culture, and make small trips into the West Bank. I visited the ancient cities of Jericho and Bethlehem, went to the community garden and an art exhibition with Yoel's mother, and joined Yoel and his friends for various different happenings like a poetry slam and a hookah lounge. I found the people of Jericho to be very nice, and the city very typical of an Arab settlement. Bethlehem on the other hand, I did not like so much. I found the people of Bethlehem to be jaded and unfriendly. Perhaps they're too used to tourists, or perhaps they're too close to "the conflict". The separation wall runs right through Bethlehem and I biked along side it for a while when I was leaving. The graffiti on the wall really moved me. One of the lighter slogans painted on it said "Make hummus, not walls".
There was a large cultural event coming up in Israel which I was getting very excited to participate in. The holiday of Purim celebrates that time some people tried to kill the Jews and failed. Wait, that might be too generic of a description. In a National-Treasure-Esque proclamation, King Ahasuerus said "Well, someones gotta be mass-murdered" and since he had a new appreciation for the Jews but had already put the hit out on them, he declared a kind of "opposite day" where the Jews could slaughter their assailants for a change, you could dress the opposite of how you normally dress, and it would be considered a good deed to get so drunk that you can't tell your friend from your enemy. Ok, maybe I'm simplifying a bit too much and entirely missing the point of the book of Esther, but you can't blame me for expecting a party like a combination of Halloween and St. Patrick's Day, even if all my friends tried to convince me it would be otherwise.
I spent four days celebrating Purim, and I don't remember seeing a single drunk person. Maybe a few people that were tipsy, but no one that was totally trashed. I went to parties in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem. One night I scaled the old city walls with some Israeli friends and snuck into a large Purim party at David's Tower. The scene inside was somewhat surreal—like the mescaline trip from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—but at the same time it was all too real. "Am I in some sort of Bizarro World?" I wondered. "What kind of young adults don't like to get drunk?" I was mostly surrounded by secular Jews, but even if they were religious it would have been a mitzvah to drink on Purim. I started to suspect there was something else at play. "Maybe no one is drinking because it's too expensive to get drunk."
Right before leaving Haifa to come back to Jerusalem, I got a call from one of Yoel's friends asking me if I wanted to meet him in a rich suburb of Tel Aviv where one of his other friends, Omer, lived. Yoel had told me about Omer and suggested that we'd hit it off really well. Omer self-proclaimed that he lives like a redneck among millionaires, and in many ways he did. He restored a tiny house that his family used to own, and now two large metal shipping containers sit on his front lawn and function as his workshop. I viewed Omer as a modern day Tesla, and he even had a half-finished solid state Tesla Coil on his workbench. Omer was one of those guys that's good with anything that receives or transmits, and can fix just about anything that moves. Omer also liked the outdoors and trekking, so when I told him that I was headed up north to take in the nature, he said he'd come with me.
We hopped in Omer's well-maintained Land Cruiser and started driving north. We stopped in some charming cities along the Mediterranean, trekked in some craggly canyons, drove through some beautiful countryside, and spent the nights sleeping under the stars. The Land Cruiser could make it just about anywhere, and Omer loved taking it off road. While coming into camp along the border with Lebanon and Syria, a flash bomb lit up the horizon. The sound of explosions serenaded us to sleep that night. When rolling up to camp on a different night, we found the place crowded with a large group of people. Omer instantly recognized them as settlers. "These are the exact kind of people you've been looking for!" Omer told me. I had previously mentioned that I wanted to spend a shabbat in one of the settlements. "These are the perfect kind of settlers for you to stay with. Lets go talk to them. I bet if you tell them that you'd like to spend a shabbat with them, they'll invite you." We went up and talked to them and they invited me for shabbat.
On Friday morning Omer drove me through the settlements in the West Bank and eventually dropped me at the house of a family who said they'd host me. The family consisted of a mother, father, and three boys. As well as me, a friend of the family, a very religious Dutch Jew, was also visiting for shabbat. "Alright, if anyone's gonna be vocal about 'the issues' and won't hold back their opinions, it's these people." Wrong again. The father of the family was a math professor at the local university, but his hobby was keeping goats and sheep. While herding the flock one day the father told me the real issue: no matter where you are in Israel or what you do, the cost of living is simply too high. He was echoing what my rich, poor, left-wing, right-wing, young, old, male, female, student, and soldier friends had told me. The fact of the matter is, the occupation sucks and there's not much that anyone can do about it, so people are finally starting to talk about the things that really effect them on a daily basis and things that perhaps they can do something about. Maybe that's why the Cost of Living protests in 2011 were the biggest demonstrations in Israeli history.
The West Bank? It's probably not what you think. It's neither as violent, as desolate, or as restricted as I had envisioned. The settlements? They're far more like modern suburbs than I was expecting. North Israel in the spring reminds me of the Driftless Region of Wisconsin in the summer, and the southern part of Israel is very much the desert I imagined. The university students in Israel seem to be pushed harder than the university students in any other country I've been to. Community is rife in Israel. The kibbutzim and the settlements form natural communities; youth groups, hiking clubs, and military service bring young people together... except the ultra-orthodox, and that's one of the real issues in Israel today, as is the problem of high living costs and low wages. Israel is a unique but very misunderstood country. If you want my opinion... Abu Shukri makes the best hummus in Jerusalem (except for anyone's mom of course, she surely make better hummus).Soundtrack: Desmond Dekker and The Aces (Israelites)