Tuesday, October 07, 2003

trip to the north

The student's council kindly organised a trip to the north of Israel, to give us desert dwellers a taste of what Israel is really like. I have been in the south for so long that the word Israel instantly conjures up images of the desert, but its not what the rest of Israel sees. As soon as you cross Bersheva on the way up north, the landscape changes. Bersheva is on the the boundary of the water divide and this is easily discernible even to the casual observer: the vegetation changes dramatically, and the density of houses, settlements increases all the time before tapering off at the very north. We first stopped at Ramat HaNadeev, at a park built (there's no other word for it) in the memory of Baron Rothschild: the great benefactor. I'd been to the park before on a spider hunting session, but never entered the actual park, we had just hung out in the semi wild area. This time we entered the park, and it was a stark contrast from the neighboring areas: it was carefully manicured and with impeccable order. We wandered around for a while before visiting the crypt, where the Baron and his wife are buried. It's carved out of the 'Rock of Israel', whatever that may be, and looked all the world like a cave. There was a small star of David on the wall opposite the grave. After that we did the Mt Meron Loop, a small trek around the peak of the highest mountain in Israel. Well there's some debate, because Mt Hermon is technically higher, but the peak belongs to Syria. It was nice being in a forest, with an actual canopy , and to see the undergrowth of shrubs, something that you would never see in artificial forests or plantations.

The day was getting on so we hurried out of there to the Druze village of P'kiin where we were staying at a youth hostel. We landed there and with time to kill before dinner, we decided to take a look around the village. It was called a village , but it looked more like a small town to me. A small town with lots of ups and downs. We wandered around trying to find a coffee place, but either because of Sabbath or because the village itself kind of winds down in the evening, we couldn't find anything open. Well thats not entirely true; there was a carpet shop open and a small store, where surprisingly enough they sold mate. Apparently some guy from the Druze village had been to Argentina many years back and brought back mate, and consequently everybody adopted it instantly. Now with the influx of immigrants from Argentina, it's easier to find mate everywhere. The Argentinians in our group were thrilled to bits. Anyway, with nothing to do in the village we headed back to the hostel wondering where the downtown area was; if there was one and what the young people hang out, other than randomly going up and down the slopes in their cars. Met some kids on the way, kids eager at the sight of obvious foreigners and I tried to overhear what they were saying, but it sounded neither Hebrew nor Arabic. So for the first time in Israel, I asked them if they spoke Hebrew, and they immediately replied that they knew Hebrew, which didn't really answer my question, come to think of it. Anyway, the reason I asked them was that I'd heard before that the Druze practiced a religion separate from that of Judaism or Islam, and that they kept it a secret. I was wondering if they had a separate language as well (it turned out that they didn't, it was the accent that confused me).

We got to know more about the Druze religion at the dinner, which was at the house of one of the leaders of the Druze community. He told us about the culture and their link to the state of Israel, and seemed inordinately proud of the fact that the village appears on both the old and the new 100 shekel Bank notes of Israel. They served traditional food to us and we were stuffed completely at the end of it, but i found nothing really special, other than the bread which was like a very broad and flat tortilla. At the end of the meal, the leader of the Druze, played some flute songs, demonstrated a few typical dances and generally held a question and answer session. I particularly wanted to know if their God had a name but he hedged the question the first time, saying that their god had 99 names and later recited a whole string of names: but the first one was Allah. Still don't know if they are actual names or descriptors. The evening was quite pleasant, but a bit marred by the stones some kids started throwing on the roof of the place. The roof was made of some metal thing, so it made an awful racket and startled everybody.

We walked back to the hostel and spent the night in blissful sleep. The next day we headed to the Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). We stopped at Tabgha, the church built in honour of the multiplicative miracle that Jesus did with regard to the fish and the loaves of bread. The church was very quiet and pleasant, with two Russian violinists providing haunting music, but the church was also very obviously geared towards the tourist trade, with a shop inside and instructions to guides and so on. After that we headed to the water trail, a place called Madgrasa, where one can walk in water that reaches to the thigh at its deepest. This reminded me so much of the times I spent in the forest of India walking transects and stopping to have breakfast always along streams. It was very soothing, to was gently like a heron, placing its feet carefully among the half hidden stones on the stream bed. The walk took about an hour and fun was had by one and all. We then headed to the Kibbutz Ein Gev, to have lunch. The kibbutz is perched on the edge of the Kinneret and there were magnificent views of the lake. I finally touched these holy waters for the first time. A pleasant afternoon sun, and the wind carrying the whisper of moisture in its wake, and the company of friends. What better end to a perfect trip. Well of course that wasn't the end, we still had to travel half a country to reach home, but the trip buzzed by me, aided by sleep and contentment.