Four hours of sleep after day one, I was pretty sure I wanted to curl up in a dark corner somewhere and just sleep until the end of the trip. Patience has never been a virtue of mine, and I’d completely run out. I had no patience for the crowded breakfast room, and walked out. No patience for a longer shower. No patience in my hotel room, counting down the minutes till it was time to board the bus. No patience for the Hebrew lesson on the bus, time I felt would have been better spent on sleep. No patience when the bus doors broke and we couldn’t depart. No patience for the musical chairs getting-to-know-you game that replaced sleep yet again, as the bus driver rigged the doors shut with his belt. No patience for the winding ride through the Golan Heights that made me feel sick and sad and full of regret.
When we arrived at our first hike of the trip, though, I beat back my haze of self-pity long enough to hear an important warning: “Most of the land has mines still in the ground. Don’t leave the trail.” And I think that’s what finally snapped me out of my funk.
We followed our guide, Dima, along a dusty, hilly trail. The sky was distant, a hazy blue. Everything else was thistles, dying grass, and brown-gray rocks. We stopped to admire abandoned military barracks, drink some water, and tie blue yarn around our wrists as a symbol of something very important that I’ve now forgotten.1 (The string is still on my wrist, though, so that’s got to count for something.) On the trail again, I asked Dima a barrage of oddly specific questions about the local fauna and geology, which he fielded like a pro. Someone else asked about poisonous snakes. Were there any? How poisonous? How aggressive? What should we do if we run into one? Did Dima have a snakebite kit? I thought about answering, “Yes, everywhere. Poisonous enough to kill you in 30 seconds. They’ll chase you for a mile. Start praying.” Then I remembered that Erin had given me strict instructions not to be an asshole. I shut my mouth and hiked on.2
Hills, rocks, thistles, grass. Hills, rocks thistles, grass. Then suddenly- hills, rocks, thistles, cliff! We were on the edge of a ravine, and the path became an ankle-threatening obstacle course of rock scrambles, loose dirt, and one sturdy metal ladder that seemed to perplex the group ahead of us. I focused on my feet, praying that two weeks of physical therapy was enough to get me through this.
We stopped. I looked up. Everything had changed! The dry, dusty hills had melted into a cool, blue pool fringed with flowers. It even had a babbling brook, tiny waterfalls, and dragonflies skimming the surface. We followed the water up, edging along the cliff face, around the corner, until we were rewarded with a pretty big waterfall and an even prettier pool. We were told not to jump in, though I could tell from everyone’s faces that they were seriously considering breaking that rule.3
I was exhausted, aching, and completely bowled away by the beauty of the Golan Heights.
Later in the afternoon, we went rafting down the Jordan River.4 I heard a neat bird call, followed by a flash of blue and black feathers.5 I got splashed a lot. We formed a flotilla, declaring war on the smaller boats. A group of Israelis on the bank looked up from their picnic and waved at us. We learned Dove’s last name.6 We even spooked some fish.
Because Birthright is all about cramming way more into a single day than you could possibly imagine,7 we clambered back onto the bus, dripping and happy, and drove up to the Syrian border. We had a geology lesson (volcanoes everywhere) closely followed by a politics lesson (war everywhere). We looked out past the barbed wire fence and across the rolling hillside, imagining all the war-torn villages just beyond the horizon. Clouds rolled in and thunder echoed over the hills. And then again, rhythmically. We realized it wasn’t thunder.
Back at the hotel, Jake, our trip leader, presented me with the largest bag of ice I’d ever seen. Seriously, it was a garbage bag filled with ice.8 I wrapped that sucker around my ankle and, lying back on my hotel cot, considered the fact that this trip might not be completely horrible.
- I learned another name: Ben, the tall redhead from the airport, who looked just as excited to tie a blue string around my wrist as he had been to meet 40 strangers. He tied it in a bow, inexplicably, but was always happy to retie it for me each time it came loose over the next nine days. [↩]
- When I was a kid, I actually was chased by a snake and it was terrifying. It was also an anomaly. For those of you who don’t hike on the regular, just stomp a little while you’re walking- especially through tall grass, and avoid overturning any logs or rocks. No snake in its right mind will be anywhere near a group of 40 chattering hikers. [↩]
- Andrew, whose name I learned because of this incident, accidentally dropped his water bottle into the pool. I kept a look-out, high school style, while he pulled off his shoes and socks and gingerly lowered one leg into the water to fish the bottle out with his toes. Impressively, he succeeded. Mollie, Jake, if you’re reading this- I don’t think it counts as swimming unless he’d fallen in and thus does not represent a violation of the rules. [↩]
- More like the Jordan Creek! [↩]
- Later identified as a white-throated kingfisher. [↩]
- Dove Buffalo Rainbow. [↩]
- And this comes from a pretty active traveler. [↩]
- Jake, if you’re reading this, just know that you have my (ankle’s) eternal thanks. Anytime you’re in need of five pounds of ice, I’d be happy to oblige. [↩]