December 30, 2015

Out in the Wild (part 2)

“It had nothing to do with getting from point A to point B. It had to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles with no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way.” 
from the book Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Day 2 of our Negev hike started with a camel appreciation moment. We sidled up to the camels, fed them hay and were hypnotized by their far-set deep brown eyes, flexible jaws and huge protruding incisors.

Driving us to the starting point, Ariel of Cameland shared stories about his life in the desert and his adventures as the ‘rescue guy’ for this area. He has saved the lives of dehydrated hikers and even carried a 135-kg guy up the steep mountain path we had walked the day before. This is heroic, selfless work.

Getting our bearings at the Roman fortress.
Today we hiked along gentle trails dotted with delicate desert flowers. We spotted remains of ancient Roman roads in the middle of nowhere and thought about the hardships of constructing these high altitude desert roads. The Tzapir Roman fort, its external walls still intact 2,000 years later, offered spectacular views and a great breakfast spot. 

We continued on until we came to the rim of another crater. It had the depth and majesty of a mini Grand Canyon, but we later learned that this was Nahal  Yemin, a river bed etched into a canyon.

There were deep fissures in the rock near the edge and as we imagined this precipice crashing down below our own feet, we quickly headed for the trail and snaked our way down. A group of Arab Israeli boys were on a school trip just behind us, moving quickly along the trail.

At the bottom, the riverbed of Nahal Yatira was lush compared to yesterday’s crater floor. There were many trees, prickly bushes and wild desert flowers. We made our way across this riverbed until we came to a sheer canyon wall, the Palmach Ascent. The only way out was straight up and the Palmach fighters for whom this 350-meter ascent is named after had no ladders to help them out when they were here in 1944.

The climb out started with a very long ladder that seemed to have endless rungs. This was followed by an iron rope, helpful for groping along the narrow path and metal rungs to help us up. At this point, I decided not to look down or up, rather to focus on each footing and hold.

Slowly, we all ascended. More metal rungs and suspension cables. And in some places, nothing to hold onto at all. Sheer will enabled us up and over these obstacles. Finally, at the top, we all needed space to decompress and relax.

Three men appeared, a few years older than us. One of them pulled out a gas stove and we enjoyed delicious sweet cardamom coffee together. Our new friends said they had known each other since kindergarten and had been hiking the Shvil Israel for four years, much like us. 

In passing, one of them pulled out a plastic tie and explained how these are important for securing torn shoes. He gave us a few and stuffing them into our pack, we wondered how and when this could ever be used.
We followed the path and passed a beautiful wadi carved into the rocks. Filled with water and rimmed by soft sand, Ein Yurkam is a true oasis where a mother sat reading to her children as they scampered in the water. We literally ran past it, hurrying to complete the hike, but making a mental note to come back to this spot with a picnic and time to chill out.

We then started to climb what is called the Big Snapir, our final 150-meter ascent. We heard children’s voices from afar then saw kids in white dress shirts climbing down. It was a hareidi school outing and these kids, with their loafers and Shabbat pants, looked better suited to be in a beit midrash than on a dusty mountain.

One kid yelled out in warning, “Aliyah metoorefet!” (A terrifying climb). I bit my lip and continued on, dismissing this and wondering how it could possibly be scarier than the one we just completed, the climb I was still trying to calm down from.

The three kindergarten guys were right behind me. Like Yota in Star Wars, one of them philosophized about fear and climbing. “Ze kol b’rosh,” he said as I grabbed for a rock and pulled my body up and then up, thinking about each foot as I placed it, praying I would not slip. 

'It’s all in my head.' I heard his mantra when there were no ladders or rungs or steel cables to hold onto. This ascent made the previous climb look like a practice run.

A few terrified boys were still stuck way up there, their rabbis trying to coax them down the trail. Did the parents know where the school had taken their kids? It was a miracle everyone was still intact, although perhaps a few of these kids would be scarred for life by this.

Enjoying the view from the Palmach Ascent.
The rocks were sharp and unforgiving, the height dizzying. This ascent should be renamed the Snapir Metooruf, I concluded. We finally all made it to the top and peered over. The view was staggering. 

The large observational balloon that had been floating listlessly above us for the past two days  was below. 

"We're so high, we're above the ballon," we shouted out like kids. On second look, no. The balloon had landed and we were deflated, but not for too long. We then dove into our backpacks searching for food to fortify our tummies and calm our nerves. At this point, people were sharing cold day-old soup, rice and any leftover crumbs they had.  Ripped fingernails, torn pants, muddied boots, sweaty faces, it felt as if we were ‘humans in the wild.’  The three wise men, calm and composed, joined us  yet again.
Luckily, the descent was gentler than the climb. At one point, Danny showed us his ripped shoe. A light bulb went off as we had the exact cure for such a malady; the plastic ties from the wise men! He stitched his shoes back together and we climbed down some more until we crossed a train track, reentering civilization.

The 20-km hike ended at the side of a highway just past some railway tracks. This will be the start point for the famous Carbolet hike, renowned for being the most challenging of the entire 1,000-km Israel Trail. Maybe this last ascent was a bit of an introduction to what lies ahead. 

As we were about to get into our warm, comfortable cars and be reacquainted with civilization, the three wise men appeared. The philosopher opened his hand and showed us two fossils. “Who wants them?” A strange request, yet maybe not so. Mark ran over and excitedly explained that he had been looking for fossils for his son for the last two days and had found none. He was about to go home empty handed.

After such an epic adventure, no one went home empty-handed or empty hearted. The wise men disappeared down the dusty road and as our cars swooshed us away to the comforts of our city lives, our souls were expanded simply by knowing how it feels to be out in the wild. 

December 28, 2015

Wildness in the Negev

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.” John Muir, 1923.

Our desert adventure of three weeks past was calling to us. We just had to go back. 

We have been hiking the Israel Trail (the Shvil Israel) in small sections for three years and have walked most of the country from Mount Hermon in the north to Arad. Now we find ourselves faced with the southern desert sections of the trail and since winter is prime hiking time in the desert, out come the boots and poles. 

We were able to gather fourteen over-civilized people for this portion of the desert hike. “Fourteen?” a friend of mine asked in disbelief. She couldn’t understand how such a large group of adults could simply escape from life to hike. We are not yet retirees; we are not post-army adventurers; and we are not kids out on a school trip.

We are people who appreciate the benefits of leaving behind the noise of the man-made world, of ‘going home to the mountains’ and returning to the majesty of nature. We like to challenge ourselves physically, clear our minds and reconnect.

I wonder if this would happen were we all ensconced in our North American lifestyles. Previously, most of us were tied to desk jobs sitting for hours in small cubicles, striving to meet pressing deadlines and trying to stay afloat in a competitive dog-eat-dog world.

Many Israelis do live like this, but our crowd of olim (immigrants) find themselves living a more flexible lifestyle. Some are self-employed, while others work hard overseas and then come home to Israel to energize.

And as the level of stress in Israel intensifies daily, who could say no to a stroll through the peaceful, meditative desert? In these dark, violent, complicated times, the simple wildness of the desert does seem to become a necessity.

To start walking early, we had to wake up at 3:15 (a.m., that is!) Sunny yet chilly, we started off wearing hats and gloves, yet peeled them off as the air warmed up. 

We soon came to the rim of the Machtesh HaKatan (small crater). This unique geological formation is found only in the Negev and Sinai and was created by erosion some five million years ago. Seven kilometers long and four kilometers wide, it is surrounded by steep cliffs and has a small opening at the east end.

Our steep path twisted and turned past ochre and mustard colored sandstone. Like children in a sandbox, we would stop to stuff our pockets with small rocks and fill bags with this dusty desert gold. We ran into a group of Australian teenagers on an Israel trip and within minutes, Jewish geography scored a few points. Where else but Israel could you find your college roommate’s daughter’s cousin walking through a desert?

We reached the bottom and walked along a dry riverbed, making our way across the crater floor. Ahead of us loomed towering cliffs. We looked up and, like ants climbing a blade of grass, we saw people slowly moving along a ridge above. As we got closer, we saw it was a group of teens on a school trip hiking down the path. 

They moved on and we moved up. It was a relief to leave their chatter and plunge back into the silence of the desert, to focus on our steps and on our breath. We have each developed our own way of climbing steep paths and we went to work, poles clicking, soles of boots creaking, breath heaving.

As I hoisted my knees onto jutting rocks and pulled up my body, I was thankful for having practiced yoga over the years. As we climbed, we would stop to see our progress, watching those teens become ants crawling in a line across the crater floor. It was liberating, invigorating.

The views were spectacular and as we all met at the top to survey our work, we had our traditional moment of silence to appreciate the beauty of this tranquil place.

We stayed overnight at nearby Cameland and were grateful for the hot shower at the end of this 20-kilometer hike. 

Ariel, our Cameland host, sat regally in his chair. Wearing a thick embroidered coat lined with sheep’s wool, he looked as if he had always been a part of this landscape, yet he left city life to come to the desert. 

Fast forward thirty years and he is now a specialist in camel husbandry and teaches his skills internationally. He has developed a specialized camel saddle and, together with his Bedouin staff, he offers camel tours. He has several simple rooms that he rents out and offers hikers transportation to and from the trailheads. Ariel has incorporated the very wise words of John Muir that prefaced this posting, that "wildness is a necessity."

We eagerly retired to our simple cots in our tiny rooms on this remote camel farm. After a full day out in the Negev, we felt intensely satisfied: grateful for life’s simple pleasures, thankful for the strength in our own legs and in our ability to reconnect to a place that takes us away from being over-civilized and back home to ‘inner peace.’

Check out the hiking details and see more photos on our hiking blog

December 13, 2015

Chanukah adventure

Lighting the eighth and last candle of Chanukah, Jews are bringing more light to the world. Here in Israel, this Chanukah holiday has been filled with light in the form of inspiration and togetherness, a sure sign that Israelis are united and strong.

It started at the hairdresser when my daughter donated her long locks to Zichron Menachem, an organization that makes wigs for women with cancer. Talya entered the salon with a wide smile, happy to donate her hair. The 'secular' hairdresser prepared her hair by weaving it in a long braid and then snipped the thick hair off in an even cut.

A friend of his was visiting the salon that morning. As the hairdresser picked up the cut braid, he explained to his buddy, “Giving like this reflects values, and these values come from the home. Dozens of girls in this community donate their hair. While many teenage girls care only about themselves and their looks, these girls understand life on a deeper level.”

I was speechless. His friend (no kippa) then searched the Internet and said,  “I love this week’s parsha. All about dreams. So interesting.”

The hairdresser snipped and he snipped.  “You want to know the best parsha ever? Shemot. Now that’s a good one. Anyone who has that for their bar mitzvah has the best.”

I was speechless again. It was as if they were discussing their favorite TV series. But the topic was a love of Torah. Can anyone imagine this scene happening at a hair salon anywhere else in the world?

As my daughter and I walked outside, the warm December sun glistening on her new short hairdo, the Na Nachman truck parked in front of us. A guy with a long beard and payes and a wide white kippa jumped out and started swirling to the blaring music. Everyone stopped in their tracks and took a break from their errands to smile, to swing, to sway. 

Chanukah was in the air. The streets were already festive, the line ups for buying donuts bursting out the bakery doors.  

The highest family menorah ever seen.
Come nightfall, people make an effort to place their menorahs right on the streets and in their apartment lobbies. We see this at our neighbour’s house. They take Chanukah so seriously,  they need a ladder in order to light their giant menorah. 

Their second menorah is made from Kassam rockets that were fired into Israel. When lit, this menorah turns terror into light. And since every child in their family of eight kids also has their own Chanukiah, they have a table laid out with eight menorahs on the street. Each evening, they light the olive lamps and they sing Chanukah songs together.
Each branch is made from a Kassam rocket that was fired into Israel.

I heard these songs in several other places over the last few days during our mini Chanukah adventure. 

On our Chanukah camping trip in the Negev, two hikers turned up at our campground. They had a tiny tent and were carrying all of their gear on their backs. Still, they had room for a menorah and some olive oil. They lit outside their tent and they sang together.

We had a brief stop at a hotel in Mitzpe Ramon.  Menorahs, boxes of candles and a plate of donuts were set out in the lobby for the guests. As we lit, the receptionist took out a silk white kippa and placed it on his head while we made our blessings over the candles, then placed it back in his pocket after we were done.

One night after, even deeper in the Negev Desert, we made our camp alongside three families. They arrived in three 4x4 vehicles and had set up a campsite par excellence complete with foam mattresses, a projector and garden lights powered by a generator. Israelis braving the plummeting temperatures of the desert in December are truly hardy (as Canadians, we come by this naturally).

And these Israeli families were having lots of fun. Aside from their campfire, they all lit menorahs and sang every Chanukah song that existed. Their menorahs flickered across the dunes and their song echoed in the still night as a resplendent canopy of stars twinkled above. 

Those stars shone above the Maccabbees nearly 2200 years ago, and now here we are, proudly celebrating in the same land. During my Chanukah adventure, I became more aware that here in Israel, it doesn't matter how we dress or whether we have a head covering or not. We all light menorahs, sing the same songs and rejoice in our traditions. In effect, we are lighting our souls and strengthening ourselves as a vibrant, united nation.