Idea for a Cheap Adventure
In 1989 I was going to be at a loose end between finishing A-Levels and going to university. Me and my best mate, Chris, were both off to Leeds University in the autumn and thought we’d grab the opportunity for a bit of adventure. I did a bit of research in Blackburn Library (no internet back then) on working holidays and found the details of a company in London which placed volunteer workers on Kibbutzim. The idea was that you paid them for a package of return air fare and placement at a Kibbutz; you worked there voluntarily for food and lodging. You had to take your own spending money for any additional travelling. It was a relatively cheap way of doing a long foreign ‘holiday’ and I had a bit of money saved from previous summer work, so together me and Chris booked ourselves into the Volunteer Programme.
We were due to travel on a Monday morning, so I had a leaving party with some mates in Blackburn town centre on the Saturday night. At the end of the night I got into a bit of a fight with some drunken yob and I remember being a bit worried that I wouldn’t be let into Israel with a black eye. I spent most of Sunday with a bag of frozen peas on it.
We were flying from Heathrow on Monday afternoon so Chris’ dad, who was quite well off, gave us a lift in his Jag. This was very decent of him as it is quite a trek from Blackburn, but we bombed down the M6 and the M40 in style. In the Departure Lounge at Heathrow we met up with other kids who were obviously in the Volunteer Programme as well. The first top tip that one of them gave us was to tell Israeli passport control not to stamp our passports. This was because if we decided to ever travel over the border to Egypt, the Egyptians may be a bit shirty about letting in travellers from Israel. This was my first taste of the politics of the region, but I made a mental note. After a 5 hour flight we arrived in Tel Aviv. Going through passport control, I asked a stern looking official if he would be so good as to not stamp my passport. He was quite affronted about this and said, “why do you not wish to have the stamp of my country in your passport?” Too honestly, I said that I maybe wished to visit Egypt and didn’t want any hassle from their passport people about having been in Israel. He stared at my black eye for a few moments and then dismissively waved me through. Not a good start. I had underestimated how highly the average Israeli thinks about their country, but I was soon going to learn.
It was midnight by now and when we got out of the airport we were met in the car park by representatives from a number of Kibbutzim. They were friendly enough, but I got the distinct impression that we were being inspected like specimens at a slave market. Eager to impress, me and Chris stood up straight, chests out. I thought that, luckily, it was dark so they wouldn’t see my black eye. Clearly they were non nonsense farmers and were only interested in taking good workers. I saw them shaking their heads and talking in Hebrew about a dweeby looking lad in our group who had long hair and a guitar. Nevertheless, he was a paid up volunteer so we all got into various transit vans for the short journey to our allocated Kibbutz.
By the time we were distributed around our various accommodation blocks, it was too dark to properly take in any of our surroundings. Our block was a single storey building consisting of 3 adjacent rooms opening out onto a veranda, with shared toilet, sinks and showers at the end of the block. A number of these blocks comprised the volunteers’ quarter of the Kibbutz. Me, Chris and a very nice posh chap called James (who Chris used to enjoy winding up) were allocated one of these shared rooms. The room was quite large but very sparsely furnished with 3 single iron framed beds, a couple of small tables and plastic chairs. The room had one window covered in fine mesh (to keep out the mozzies) and one door leading out onto the veranda. The walls were painted magnolia. The floor was hard, tiled. Me and Chris took the 2 beds under the window at one end of the room, James took the other by the door. There was nowhere to put our clothes except in our rucksacks under our beds. This was to be home for the next couple of months. For a couple of 18 year-olds, it was brilliant!
The following morning we weren’t put to work straight away, but given time to acclimatise and to go through the various registration procedures at the very efficient Kibbutz office. All of our meals were taken in a central dining hall. Walking around the place, I was impressed to see a swimming pool, as well as a building used for weekly discos and an adjoining outside area for barbeques. As well as our communal blocks there were many smaller self-contained bungalows. It was quite green and lush, with well maintained lawns, trees and sprinklers in evidence everywhere. It was like an up-market holiday camp.
Kibbutz in Hebrew means a ‘gathering’, it is a collective community traditionally based on agriculture. Kibbutzim had a long history in the region throughout the 20th century, but really took off in the 1930s and 40s when Jews fled persecution in Europe and headed to Palestine to establish their idea of a utopian community. The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the further flood of Jewish refugees from Europe and the Arab world meant that kibbutz system began to expand still further through new members and cheap labour. By 1989, the year I went to Israel, the population on kibbutzim peaked at around 130,000.
I wasn’t particularly wordly wise, but even I was aware that I was living in an environment that was designed to be almost purely socialist. And like all good egalitarian societies, there was a definite pecking order on the Kibbutz that I became quickly aware of. At the top of the tree were the founders – old Jewish farmers mainly from Europe who had survived the Holocaust, emigrated to the new state of Israel and carved out a fertile agricultural settlement almost from scratch in the desert. Then there was the next generation of permanent kibbutzniks, Israeli-born, and in some cases born and raised on the Kibbutz itself, usually married with children. Next were those who had been accepted as permanent kibbutzniks after years as volunteers – most were Israeli, but some were foreigners from all over the world. Then there were the long term volunteers of several years standing – aspiring kibbutzniks who had moved out of the volunteer blocks were living and in their own bungalows. Finally there were the short term volunteers like us, who were there for a few weeks, or in some cases a few months; some short term volunteers would move around between different kibbutzim for a bit of variety. Within the group of short term volunteers, sub-hierachies formed, usually depending on how long you had been there and how sociable you were (nationality did not really come into it – but English was the common language). So, at first, me and Chris were at the bottom of the pile.
The Kibbutz was run by committee and all the income generated by its farming activities was ploughed back into the Kibbutz itself, making it self-sufficient. I’m not sure how any surplus income was distributed among the kibbutzniks themselves, but I never saw any evidence of differences in wealth or material possessions, whatever job they did. The kibbutzniks did live together in their bungalows in family units, but the very young children seemed to spend most of their time together in a communal nursery. One of the volunteer girls was employed as a nursery assistant. As volunteers, we did not receive any money as salary. Instead we were accommodated and fed in the communal dining hall and received paper tokens which could be exchanged for goodies from a wooden shack near the swimming pool which acted as a shop. All of my tokens went on bottles of Gold Star beer and on packets of Noblesse cigarettes (which I figured out were selling at the equivalent of 20p for 20).
We were there to work. On our first full day as new volunteers we were placed into various work groups. The standard jobs for us involved farm labouring: planting orange trees, picking avocados, tending to the cows in the dairy shed, tending to the chickens and so on. There were other domestic tasks, such as working in the communal kitchen and dining room. For those with specific skills and training there were more specialist jobs such as nursing in the medical centre or looking after the children in the nursery. Not being particularly keen on animals (or children), I was quite pleased to find that, along with Chris, we were detailed to join a group who would be planting orange trees. We were issued with a couple of sets of working clothes from a central store. The working ‘uniform’ was a pair of dark blue trousers and shirt. Well, it is more accurate to say that they were once dark blue – my set had been virtually bleached through having been worn by a million volunteers before me, exposed daily to hard toil and strong sunshine, then laundered to within an inch of their lives. Some volunteer before me had cut the sleeves off my shirts and, being 6 foot 2, my trousers were half mast. Nevertheless, receiving the clothes was a right of passage – we now fitted in and thought we looked the bee’s knees in our new rig.
Our working day was 4 am to 12 noon, with a break for breakfast between 8 and 9 am. This was done to avoid the hottest part of the day in the afternoon when working out in the fields would have been unbearable in the height of summer. I set my trusty travel alarm clock to 3.45 am. Being teenagers of course, we had rarely seen this hour of the morning, unless it was through staying up the night before. When the alarm went off, I felt sick. After a quick wash, teeth brushed and throwing on our working clothes, we made our way wearily through the darkness to where a minibus was waiting to take us out to the fields. As well as my working clothes, I was wearing a pair of purple Converse baseball shoes (very much in fashion at the time) and a green bush hat. I had also brought a pair of sunglasses and a full water bottle – an aluminium military style one in a green webbing case which I could fit to my belt (which I soon ditched as it clunked around while I was working).
The Kibbutz itself was self-contained, centred on the communal ‘village’ with acres of fields and orchards surrounding it. After a short bumpy ride on the minibus we were dropped off at one of the fields just as the sun was rising. There were about 10 of us, a mix of boys and girls. The minibus disappeared and we were left under the supervision of an old farmer called Itzik who had arrived before us in a tractor and a large trailer loaded with shovels, irrigation equipment and scores of orange tree saplings. The field, which had been little more than hard packed light brown desert, had been ploughed into channels and thin black rubber water pipes had been laid alongside each channel. Our job was to dig holes at regular intervals along the channels, plant the saplings and stick a black plastic widget into the water pipe by the sapling to allow water to dribble into the ground surrounding it. The first problem was apparent as old Itzik spoke hardly any English. All of our small group was English, so his directions came at first in the form of mime. As the morning went on I had a smattering of French from school, so I tried that and was able to exchange a few words with Itzik. I also had some schoolboy German, which I found a bit more difficult to speak, but Itzik’s ears pricked up and we were able to have a basic level of conversation. I was put in the privileged position of being Itzik’s interpreter in directing the other volunteers. The work was back breaking, hot and repetitive but once I got into the rhythm I found I was quite enjoying it – particular as the field of fledgling orange trees began to take shape.
At 8 am the minibus returned to take us to the dining hall for breakfast. It was a self service canteen and was busy with hot and dusty workers. We guzzled large quantities of chilled orange cordial from a dispenser, before grabbing a tray and checking out what was on offer. My heart sank a bit when I saw the food. It was more of a light lunch than breakfast, and dominated by salads and exotic vegetables like eggplant. There were no fried eggs, sausages or baked beans, and bacon was definitely off the menu. The only thing that seemed vaguely meat-related was hard boiled eggs, so I grabbed 4 or 5 of those, sat at a table with Chris and my new comrades and became adept at shelling them and scoffing them in 2 bites. Like most teenagers, I was a fast food junkie (although I was stick thin at that time) and I thought that the food in Israel was nothing to write home about. I see now that it was healthy, nutritious, green, sparing on red and white meat, and the kibbutzniks thrived on it – I never saw a fat one. However, for my whole time there I basically survived on hard boiled eggs for breakfast, falafels in pitta bread, the odd meat dish like veal cutlet and, as a real treat, the occasional barbecued steak and corn on the cob when a leaving party was put on.
After breakfast we went back to work to finish the remainder of our shift. We knocked off at 12 noon just as it started to get too hot to work. The minibus would pick us up and take us back to the dining hall for lunch which, as far as I was concerned, was not much better than breakfast. As the days went by, we quickly settled into a working routine with the orange tree planting. The more I spoke to old Itzik in our combination of pidgin German, French and English, the more I managed to piece together his story.
Whenever he had his sleeves rolled up, I saw a number tattooed on his forearm which could only have come from a concentration camp. He told me that he was Polish by birth and that he had been imprisoned in a camp (he didn’t say which) with his mother, brothers and sisters when he was a child during World War 2. This was where he had learned some German to survive. At the age of 12 he was deemed to by an adult by the Nazis and was to be transported to Auschwitz. He said that he left his family behind and never saw them again. On the cattle train to Auschwitz, he saw an opportunity to jump and was able to push a friend, Josef, off the train with him. Itzik and Josef escaped and then embarked on an incredible journey south from Poland which took them through Turkey, Syria and eventually to Palestine. As young men the pair of them had helped to found our Kibbutz. At the age of 60, they were both still there and working like oxen on the farm. One of the younger kibbutzniks later told me that Itzik and Josef had fallen out over some farming related matter in the 1960s and had barely spoken to each other since. I sincerely hope they eventually made it up.
Within a few weeks our work planting the orange trees was finished and we were reassigned to picking avocado pears. I spent the rest of my time on the Kibbutz doing this job and loved it. We would climb the trees with a pair of secateurs and a cloth bag and pick off the ripe ones. One of the reasons I liked it was because up in the trees we had plenty of shade and the pace was more comfortable. Our supervisors were a pair of younger kibbutzniks and they were quite relaxed, although they had the strong work ethic that everybody on the Kibbutz had. They simply couldn’t understand the mindset of the odd lazy volunteer who would take any opportunity to skive. The younger kibbutzniks’ directions were easy to follow because they spoke perfect English, albeit with the American accent that all the younger kibbutzniks seemed to have.
The orchard we were working on was on the boundary with a neighbouring kibbutz and one day, during a break, me and Chris thought it would be daring to climb over the wire boundary fence and have a look around. We were in a field of long grass, where I spotted some strangely patterned stones. On closer inspection I found that it was a family of small tortoises: an adult and 3 babies. I thought it would be really cool to keep one as a pet, and went as far as putting one of them in my hat. I had second thoughts though when I considered looking after it in the block and then trying to get it back through Customs. Plus, it might have been my imagination, but the remaining family of tortoises looked a bit upset. For some reason old Itzik came to mind, so I put the tortoise back and left them alone.
The great thing about finishing at noon was that the rest of the day was ours. After lunch, then a shower, we would head down to the swimming pool to chill out for the afternoon and work on the suntan. These days I can’t stand sitting in the sun, but back then I was conscious of trying to look good. We were competing with the olive-skinned Israeli lads who were very popular with the girls. So I would lie in it for hours, plugged into my trusty Sony Walkman. Because I was knackered from working all morning I would usually nod off. After an early evening dinner, which was marginally better than lunch and breakfast, we would spend the warm nights sitting around on the verandas of the volunteers’ blocks. We would drink Gold Star beer, smoke Noblesse ciggies and talk crap like most teenagers do. Music would be on the background; Pink Floyd was popular – I suppose we were pretending to be hippies, but without the drugs (a definite no-no on a Kibbutz). Friendships formed very quickly, and the odd romance too.
One night, in the first week of our stay, I got chatting to a girl from Cornwall. She had been on the Kibbutz for a few months and had then gone off travelling around for a while. She was calling in at the Kibbutz to say goodbye to her old mates before heading off home. I knew that she had been going out with one of the other volunteers and that they had split up before she had headed off. It also became obvious that she was trying to make him jealous by getting friendly with me. Not that I was particularly bothered by that. At the end of the night we went our separate ways. Me, Chris and James were usually in our beds by 11pm because we were up so early for work. At about midnight there was a knock on our door, so James answered it. It was this girl. She needed somewhere to ‘crash out’ for the night. We invited her in of course. She said that she had her sleeping bag and didn’t mind kipping on the floor. The light went back out, but I couldn’t sleep. I heard her wriggling about trying to get comfortable; poor girl, the floor was rock hard. After about 5 minutes I plucked up some courage and asked her if she wanted to share my bed. She said, “I thought you’d never ask!”, and she hopped in and cuddled up. Obviously, with 2 other lads in the room I behaved more or less like the perfect gentleman – but any pangs of homesickness I’d been feeling that week disappeared there and then. When I got back from work the following day she’d gone for good. That was to be it for my Kibbutz romances, but I quickly got over it. One of the Israeli kibbutznik girls took a bit of a shine to me a few weeks later at the disco, but she was the daughter of one of the farmers so I thought it wise not to get involved.
The Kibbutz was quite a conservative place. Relationships between boys and girls were not exactly frowned upon, as long as they were conducted reasonably discretely, but it was definitely not a case of anything goes. However, they were liberal enough to understand what healthy young men and women got up to in their free time and to issue free condoms at the medical centre.
One of the benefits of my very short-lived affair, was that mine, and by association Chris’, stock rose a bit higher with the other more established volunteers. My ‘score’ had got us noticed and accepted (although the girl’s ex-boyfriend played it a bit cool with me). And we made some great friends. Dave, from Birkenhead, was from a similar background to me and Chris so the 3 of us became close buddies.
One of my favourite people was a long term Italian volunteer called Diego, who was very popular throughout the Kibbutz. Because he had been there for a few years and was hoping to become a permanent kibbutznik, he had got his own little bungalow, which was great if we wanted somewhere a bit more comfortable to hang out. More often than not though, he’d be round at the volunteers’ accommodation making us laugh. He wrote me a letter out of the blue a year or two later, which brought the memories flooding back; he was a great bloke. His English wasn’t perfect (but far better than my Italian, which he tried to teach me). One evening on the veranda I said, “Let’s have some ghost stories!”. Diego said, “Lee, if you want it, I get it for you!”. He disappeared and came back with a crate of chilled Gold Star beer. “Thanks Diego, but I said ‘ghost stories’, not Gold Star”. We drank it anyway – and told ghost stories.
Talking of ghosts, I had a (platonic) friendship with a girl from Bristol who I spent one interesting night with. One conversation got onto the subject of séances, communicating with the spirits of the dead through a ouija board. I told her that I had once taken part in one. She said, “let’s me and you do one”. I imagined that a séance would not go down well at all with the kibbutzniks, so I said that we would have to do it somewhere quiet when everyone else had gone to bed. Because we weren’t working on the Saturday (the Shabbat, or Sabbath day in Israel), we decided to meet up at the deserted dining hall at midnight on the Friday night for our secret mission. We had some paper and a pen and made up some squares of paper with A-Z, 0-9, Yes and No on them. We sat at a table in the corner, laid out the squares of paper in a circle and put our fingers on an upturned glass in the centre of the circle. Because I’d done this before, I was going to do the talking and write down any messages. I knew that this girl was head-over-heels in love with a young kibbutznik called Avner. She talked about him all the time. He was a good-looking dude, very cool, with dark curly hair – like an Israeli version of Michael Hutchence (lead singer of INXS – who was hot at the time). So when the séance started, imagine my surprise when we started picking up messages from Avner’s long-dead grandmother! This girl took over the questioning and it transpired that she and Avner were going to get married and have 6 babies together (lucky we laid the number squares down to pick up that!) Being an old cynic about these things now, I suspect there was a bit of wish fulfilment going on, but, I promise, I wasn’t the one moving the glass! I suppose she was only doing what young women have done through the ages, consulting the supernatural for reassurance about her love life. We stopped after a couple of hours when a kibbutznik patrol car disturbed us. For security reasons, the kibbutzniks mounted an armed patrol every night – which, frankly, added to the excitement of what we were up to. Anyway, we sneaked out of the dining hall back to the blocks and she went to bed happy. When I finally got back to our room after 2 am it was dark and the other 2 lads were asleep. When Chris heard me stumbling about he opened one eye and muttered in his broad Blackburn accent, “Where the f**k have you been?”
One of the younger Israeli kibbutzniks, who I always enjoyed talking to, was called Benji. He was aged 14 and had been born on the Kibbutz. He left every weekday morning to catch the bus to school in the nearest town, Petah Tikva, with a group of other kids. I learned a lot about the Israeli mindset from Benji. He was very patriotic and couldn’t wait for his spell in the army. National military service is mandatory for Israelis over the age of 18: usually men serve 3 years and women serve 2. I remember once being in a nightclub popular with off duty conscripts and being weirded out watching them, particularly the girls, dancing to U2 with an automatic weapon slung over their shoulders. As far as Benji was concerned, the Jews had been kicked around and persecuted for centuries and the state of Israel was their symbolic way of saying, ‘Never Again’; they were under siege on all sides from nation states that wanted to destroy them. In his mind, nothing could contend with the mighty Israeli military – only the armed forces of the USA and Russia could match them. As a young man with ambitions of joining the RAF I knew better of course, but thought it best not to contradict him – Brits tend not to rant on about crushing their enemies. All the same, if you got young Benji off the topic of politics he was a great kid, very bright, funny and I really liked him.
The highlight of my time in Israel was the days we got out of the Kibbutz and went travelling. We worked 6 days a week, but you could store up leave and then book a free day or 2 off in advance. Because Israel is a relatively small country and the Eged bus service was so efficient, it was easy to get around. For safety we always travelled in small groups. It was usually me, Chris and Dave, and we would usually chaperone one or two of the girls as well. We started off cautiously with trips into Petah Tikva, which was a 10 minute bus ride away.
Petah Tikva became very familiar to us as it was handy and had enough shops and amenities to keep us interested. With the style of the buildings, shops and cars, it always reminded me of a small American mid-western town of the 1960s like you see in films. Around the town, I saw many of the older generation of Israelis, men and women, with the concentration camp number tattoed on their arm – I tried not to stare. I spent many a shekel on falafels that were available from a stand on every street corner. McDonalds and Burger King hadn’t yet made their mark in Israel, but falafels were the next best thing (actually, they were better) – the falafel where balls made from ground chickpeas and served in a pita bread pocket, topped with salad and drizzled in a delicious sauce. Whilst we were there we would stock up on any luxuries that we couldn’t get on the Kibbutz – sweets, specific toilteries, etc – as well as gifts and stamps for aerograms home (like most teenage lads, I didn’t write home often enough).
On one occasion we missed our bus and it was a while before our next one, so we decided to walk the 4km to the Kibbutz. As we made our way out of the outskirts of Petah Tikva along the main highway we soon got bored and it was getting a bit late so we decided to hitch a ride home. The girl that was with us was a prized asset. We hang back by some bushes while she stood by the side of the road, stuck her thumb out and flashed a bit of thigh. The bait was hooked and soon snapped up by a passing Israeli boy racer who probably couldn’t believe his luck. She sweetly asked him for a lift back to the Kibbutz for her and her friends. He looked a bit put out when we emerged from the bushes, but she had the car door open by then. However, he gracefully honoured his promise of a lift for us. While the 3 of us hunched up on the back seat, he serenaded our girly in the front seat by wailing along to some cheesy Israeli pop song at full blast on his radio. The lads gave him top marks for effort.
Tel Aviv and Netanya
On another occasion we ventured out a little further over to Tel Aviv, which was a modern, bustling, cosmoplitan city. The vibe there was not much different to the only other major Mediterranean city that I’d been to up to then, Barcelona – except in scale (Tel Aviv was much smaller) and the fact that there wasn’t much of historical interest (though other places in Israel more than made up for that). Then we went further still, up to Netanya on the coast. There was a fantastic beach at Netanya, very popular with ex-pat Brits and Americans, and we went there most often towards the end of our time on the Kibbutz to do some final suntan blitzing.
A large number of us from the Kibbutz went on a coach trip up to the Roman Amphitheatre at Caesarea, on the Israeli Mediterranean coast. The Amphitheatre was built by King Herod 2000 years ago and was well-preserved and fully restored. Its modern use was for concerts, and the main attraction for us on this trip was an Eric Clapton gig. The gig seemed to be a magnet for every old English hippy in Israel and we chatted to some weird and wonderful characters there. Some of them had been in Israel for many years on various kibbutzim and the consensus was that they had no intention of returning home. I’m afraid that I’m one of those people whose favourite Eric Clapton album is The Best of Eric Clapton, but there was something very special about that concert. Not so much the music, which was appropriately chilled, but the setting – sat high up on ancient stone seats (well, restored ancient stone seats) watching old Slowhand down on stage with the Mediterranean behind him as the sun was setting. I half expected to see a Roman Galley go rowing by.
Our most ambitious excursion was an overnighter around the heart of the Holy Land. Me, Chris and Dave, plus a couple of the girls headed out on the bus to Jerusalem. For some reason we didn’t set off until early evening, which was a bit dumb because we hadn’t sorted anywhere to stay. The moment we got out at Jerusalem, people were round us like flies – trying to sell us stuff, trying to get us into cafes and trying to lead us to different hostels. We attracted particular attention because of the 2 girls, one of whom was blonde which was an extra draw. We kept tight as a group and stuck the 2 girls in the middle of us, while we walked around looking for somewhere cheap to stay. An Arab lad was particularly persistent and persuaded us to let him lead us to a particular youth hostel, “very cheap, very clean!” – he must have been on commission from the owner for every punter that he brought in. He led us further and further down narrow winding streets, stuffed with old white washed buildings that must have been there when Jesus was knocking around. It was getting darker and we were getting more nervous. He kept turning round to reassure us, but only freaked us out more when he said, “come, it’s OK, I haven’t got a knife!”. After what seemed like hours, but was probably only about 20 minutes, he brought us to one particular youth hostel. It was behind a huge wooden gate, with a small opening in it for a door. It was like a fortress. We stepped inside, while the Arab lad went off to get the owner. The hostel was ancient, but quite nicely fitted out around a central courtyard. There were 2 dorms, one for boys and one for girls. The hostel owner eventually emerged with the Arab lad. He was short, fat, bald and looked about 80. He and the lad started jabbering away, while they both pointed at the 5 of us. The lad came over to us looking sheepish and said that they only had room for the 2 girls and 1 of us boys. The girls were great, and immediately said that it was all of us, or none at all. Some more jabbering ensued, then the lad said that they would sort something out. In the end, the 2 girls went into their dorm, Dave took the one remaining bed in the boys’ dorm, and me and Chris slept in the owner’s private quarters – with the owner in with us! His room on the first floor was large, nicely furnished, with 2 comfy single beds along each wall. In the centre of the room was a long low cluttered table, with a half finished bottle of whiskey on it. Me and Chris took the 2 single beds, while the owner slept on the massive window sill which was wide enough to take a single mattress and bedding on it. I guessed the old boy slept there every night with the window wide open, which must have been very comfortable in the cool night air – but one false move would have seen him roll out of the window into the street below. The owner didn’t speak a word of English, but wished us something which I fancy was ‘good night, sleep tight’ then took his teeth out and put the in a glass on the table by the whiskey bottle. Looking back, me and Chris took a real risk sleeping there that night – but, to be fair, the old boy probably took the greater gamble by sharing his room with 2 foreign teenagers. As it turned out, I had the best night’s sleep there that I had in all my nights in Israel.
Having survived the night, we settled up with the owner and included a good tip for his extraordinary hospitality. We headed off early into Jerusalem to do a tourist blitz of the main sites (although I can’t remember now the order in which we visited everything). I’m not religious, but loved the history of the place. For true believers of whatever faith, a first visit to the ancient walled city must be a spiritually mind blowing experience. We had a look around the souq, stuffed with shops which all seemed to be selling the same bits of tat. We didn’t linger there too long as the pestering of the shopkeepers, street hawkers and ‘tourist guides’ became too much and we didn’t want to be so rude as to tell them to bog off – even though we felt like it. We visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which covers what was supposedly the site of Christ’s crucifixion and his tomb. Any geographical features which might have provided any evidence of that were now rendered unrecognisable by the church itself and a cluttered display of expensive religious fixtures and fittings added over the centuries since. We visited a competing site for Christ’s execution and burial spot which had not been ‘pimped up’, the Garden Tomb. A cliff to one side of it is said look a bit like a skull (Golgotha meaning place of the skull). The car park at the bottom rather spoiled the effect. We stood in front of the Western Wall, after donning some cardboard skullcaps. At first I thought that the Wall had been vandalised, until I saw that the cracks in the wall were stuffed with little pieces of paper on which people had apparently written memos to God. All kinds of different people were praying at the Wall. From there we walked up to the Temple Mount, where stands the gold plated Dome of the Rock. To cover our modesty, we were all issued with light blue dressing gowns. It was there that we posed for a rare photo taken by one of the girls:
After ‘doing’ Jerusalem by early afternoon, we made the short bus ride to Bethlehem. I was surprised by how run down Bethlehem looked – you develop a certain image after years of Christmas hymns and nativity plays since early childhood – but then it was a living place for modern people, not a religious theme park. The Church of the Nativity was built over the supposed place of Christ’s birth and is one of the world’s oldest surviving Christian churches, the present structure being built in 565 AD, with interior décor courtesy of the Crusaders in the 1160s. The Grotto of the Nativity was the star attraction for us. It was set in a cavern underneath the church and to get to it we had to go down a flight of wooden stairs by the altar. I was at the back of our group and as we trooped down the stairs, a pregnant Middle Eastern lady in a blue headscarf – which I thought was very apt – was coming up the stairs and she smiled at me as we went past. The rest of the group claimed not to have seen her, but I think they were just winding me up. Down in the Grotto, a silver star set into the floor marked the spot where Christ was believed to have been born. It was traditional to kiss the star – but I declined, dreading to think what germs were lurking on it. A very nice touch was provided by a French choir singing their version of Silent Night at the back of the cavern. It was very atmospheric and I half expected it to be snowing outside when we re-emerged – but it was baking hot, as usual. We eventually made it back to the Kibbutz after dark and I thought we had done well to cover both Jerusalem and Bethlehem in one full day.
Masada and the Dead Sea
We managed one more trip out before we left Israel. Our now intrepid travelling gang went on a single day trip to Masada and then the Dead Sea.
Masada is a fortress-palace on a high plateau in the Judean Desert overlooking the Dead Sea. Its historical claim to fame was its defence to the death by Jewish rebels against a Roman siege in 72-73 AD. I had avidly watched the TV mini-series about the events at Masada, starring Peter O’Toole, when I was younger so I was particularly looking forward to this trip. Getting to up Masada was hard going as we decided to hike up on foot. There was a cable car, but I had never really trusted them after seeing Where Eagles Dare. When we eventually got up there, after some whinging and moaning, we could see the old Roman ramp, built to get to the rebels, as well as the restored remains of the synagogue, storehouses, and houses that the rebels had lived in before commiting mass suicide in the face of the slowly advancing Romans. In many ways I preferred the dramatic ruins at Masada to the monuments at Jerusalem and Bethlehem precisely because they had not been gilded over and changed beyond recognition over the centuries by a succession of religious devotees.
After our descent from Masada we were hot and tired, so a dip in the nearby Dead Sea seemed the best way to round the day off. The Dead Sea is a salt lake fed mainly by the River Jordan and, at 423 metres below sea level at its shoreline, it is the lowest dry land elevation on the Earth’s surface. It is also the planet’s saltiest body of water – this is what creates the harsh environment in which animals can’t flourish, hence its name. Because of the high salt content, we did indeed float. It was a weird sensation to lie on your back in the water and put your trust in nature to stop you from sinking. To get the best effect of the Dead Sea, it is best to try to go when there are as few people there as possible – probably more difficult to achieve these days. We were lucky because, apart from the 5 of us, there were only a few others around – mainly old people having a dip for the health properties. I think it was a combination of the low elevation, the still, dead water and the setting in the remote, arid desert that gave the place an other-worldly feel about it, like humans shouldn’t really be there. Normally when we went into the sea at Netanya beach we would splash each other and generally mess about, but here we were all still and calm, floating around in a world of our own. Besides, it was best not to splash around in the Dead Sea – you really didn’t want to accidently swallow any of that stuff, or get it in your eyes. After eventually getting out, I felt slimy from the salt – so was glad of the fresh water showers conveniently provided on the shore to freshen up before starting our journey back to the Kibbutz.
The Masada and Dead Sea region of Israel was fantastic. I had got a ‘thing’ about the desert, probably from messing about in the sand dunes at Ainsdale Beach near Southport when I was little, and the stark beauty of the Judean Desert stayed with me. Memories of that area were to flood back when I found myself in the deserts of Iraq years later.
Our time was up. I could see why many volunteers chose to stay and make a life on the Kibbutz, everything was pretty much laid on. But me and Chris had other stuff to do. After the leaving parties, swapping addresses, hugs and farewells, we flew out of Tel Aviv back to Heathrow. I had a manky old rucksack stuffed with a few cheap souvenirs, a load of dirty washing and as many packets of Noblesse as I could get through Customs. Our plan was to get back to Blackburn by train, which meant going in to London first. At London Euston disaster struck when we found we were about £5 each short of the fare to even get as far as Preston, which was on the main line. We were scrabbling round in our rucksacks looking for things to sell – I was pulling out my cigarettes and Chris his rolled up Jimi Hendrix poster – when a lovely lady who had been queuing behind us gave us both the money. We were very grateful and to this day I regret not taking her address to reimburse her. Thanks to our Good Samaritan, we made it to Preston station. I remember us having 10p left between us to call Chris’ dad to give us a lift back to Blackburn, and praying that the phone wouldn’t swallow the coin. When I eventually got back home, my mum and dad’s first words when I stepped through the front door were, “bloody hell!” – I was skinnier than ever, as brown as a nut, my hair had got quite long and sun-bleached, I hadn’t shaved for a while and I had travelled in my ragged-arsed Kibbutz working clothes (being the only clean clothing I had left). When I checked myself out in the bathroom mirror, I could see why the woman at Euston station had taken pity on us.
Me and Chris both went off to Leeds University, but eventually we both drifted off into different circles of friends. Over the years I’d bump into him now and again in Blackburn on the rare occasions that I was home – but we’d usually chat about how we were getting on, rather than reminiscing about our time on the Kibbutz. I wonder if his memories are the same as mine? Looking back now, it was a tremendous experience – a chance for a bit of independence, learn a few life skills, work hard, get a bit of culture, meet people from all walks of life and generally have a good laugh. I think to go to Israel now would require more extensive research than I ever did on the safe areas and the areas to avoid – but I wouldn’t let the political situation put me off from being a Kibbutz Volunteer. I’d encourage any youngster to do it.