I’m normally a morning person, but on our ninth morning in Israel, I was barely a person. I woke up groggy and disheveled. My clothes smelled of smoke, I had to pee, and there were twenty-odd bodies sprawled between me and fresh air. I braved the bathroom,1 changed clothes, deposited my backpack in the bus, and then waited in the general vicinity of the camels, reminding myself never to take lazy mornings for granted again. The camels ignored me, grumbling to each other.
Okay, so just in case you’re imagining this epic Lawrence of Arabia-esque camel ride off into the horizon, let me tell you what it was really like. The camels were lying down, and tied together in a long line. We boarded them in pairs, clinging to our saddles as the camels stood up, back legs followed by front legs. Now we were standing in line, tied together. Camels don’t want you on their backs. It’s really, really clear they don’t want you there. But they probably know they won’t get fed if they toss you off. A guy grabbed the reins of the first camel and walked our camel train up a little hill and back down. And that was our camel ride.2
Next up was–you guessed it–another hike in the Negev. We drove for a whopping two minutes before disembarking and starting the hike.3 Sometimes a sprained ankle can be an advantage. For example, if you want a string cheese from the fridge and someone gets it for you, or if you need a good excuse to avoid a party you had no intention of attending. Or in my case, being so focused on your ankle that you don’t even notice the searing heat.4 The thing I remember most about this hike was being terrified that I’d step wrong, or someone walking near me would slip. That, and the snails.
There were snail shells everywhere, you guys. We also found dried up mud at the bottom of the ravines, which was the only reason I believed Dima when he said that the snails come out during the rainy season.5 Also, the trail was peppered with quartz, agate, and some kind of volcanic rock. Yotam gave me a stern lecture about not taking rocks.6 This was odd for me, as picking up rocks had always been its own punishment. When I was a kid, I’d fill my pockets and backpack on every hike, which meant hauling a bag full of rocks on multi-day backpacking trips, through airports, and finally back home, where I’d wash each one carefully and file them away in a special drawer. Sometimes when I was feeling sad or lonely, I’d take out my rocks and check for crystal growth, or identify them with my pocket rock guide.7 Dima and Yotam made the “if everybody took rocks then the desert would be empty” argument, but most people aren’t crazy enough to add extra weight to their bags in the middle of a scorching hike.8
Our next stop was Midreshet Ben Gurion, Ben Gurion’s grave. Dima led us to an unexpected haven of willow trees and lush, green grass, where he told us all about Ben Gurion and his legacy. At least, I think that’s what Dima was saying, because I was flat on my back in the grass, gazing up at the blue sky through leafy branches, gentle breeze in my hair, and wondering how the day could possibly get better.
It got better at lunch. I ducked into a nearby supermarket and, armed with hummus, pita, and a big bag of grapes, found myself a grassy picnic spot under a tree. Yotam wandered up and I shared my lunch with him as sneaky birds tiptoed around us in circles.9 In exchange, Yotam showed me his favorite view of the desert from his school days in Midreshet and we sat in silence, ridges and canyons stretched out in front of us for miles, shimmering in the heat.10
Our final stop in the desert was a goat farm, because how else were we going to use up that extra time? Most of the group acted like they’d never seen goats before, and I tried my best to be kind. I lost it a little when I overheard someone gushing over the rooster, delighted that it was crowing “in real life”.11 Later, we made some bricks out of mud and straw. Yes, this is a thing that actually happened. Birthright took us to a farm, where we observed livestock and covered ourselves in mud.
After another three hours on the bus, we arrived at our hotel in Netanya, just outside Tel Aviv. If I haven’t spent much time describing the hotels so far, it’s because there wasn’t much to say. Mediocre beds (or a cot for the third person in each room), mediocre showers (most didn’t have curtains or bathmats), and mediocre food (somehow always either too oily or too dry), but on a free Birthright trip you don’t expect the Ritz. Our hotel in Netanya? It was just about as close to the Ritz as anyplace I’ve stayed.12 It was right next to the Mediterranean- in fact, some of our rooms had sea views. One lucky group got an enormous suite, which I’m convinced was as big as the Bedouin tent and far more fragrant.
For our last night in Israel, Dima led us to a neighborhood in Tel Aviv full of bars and night life. Not being much of a night life person, I was in trouble before we even left the hotel. I’d only brought clothes for hiking, swimming, and lengthy bus rides.13 I learned Allison’s name that night, after she lent me her favorite shirt and lipstick.14 Megan helped me with the lipstick, and was kind enough not to laugh. After more girl time than I’d had in the past five years combined, I was ready for Tel Aviv.
There’s not much to say about our night out. I wish I could tell you scandalous stories, or hilarious drunken ones, or about learning someone’s deepest, darkest secrets. In truth, the highlight of my evening was daring one of the Andrews to eat a whole jalapeño.15 He had to down several dishes of sour cream, as the bar didn’t have any milk, and this was probably the lowest moment of his evening. Other than that dazzling moment of excitement, I had some nice conversations, gave a few pep talks, and drank some pretty good wine.
I headed to bed, exhausted but happy that I’d participated in something I’d been dreading since the start of the trip.16
- I was a little afraid of the bathrooms at the Bedouin camp, as I’d spotted a couple of tiny worms wriggling around on the floor the night before. Like the kind you pull out of your cat’s butt. [↩]
- After two hikes, a waterfall, hours on the bus, the Dead Sea, a smoky campfire, and a night in the Bedouin tent, I’m surprised the camels didn’t run away when they smelled us. [↩]
- When Dima said it was time to get off the bus, I thought he was joking. [↩]
- I am the world’s biggest whiner when it comes to heat, defined as anything above 75°F. [↩]
- I’m used to finding snail fossils in deserts, left over from a few million years ago rather than a few months. [↩]
- I was reminded of the time my sister picked a wildflower to press in her notebook, and a park ranger made her toss it back into the field. [↩]
- I’m pretty sure I still have every single one. [↩]
- Still, my inner environmentalist and inner collector were at odds. Logic Serena knew that they were right, but Feelings Serena just wanted a piece of Israel that wasn’t purchased in a gift shop. [↩]
- Have I ever mentioned how glad I am that birds are no longer dinosaurs? They still act just like tiny dinosaurs, and if they had the claws and teeth there’s no doubt in my mind that they would be the most terrifying creatures on earth. Just think about seagulls for a second. [↩]
- I gave Boris the remaining half of my grapes, which elicited the nicest smile I’d seen all day. [↩]
- There were a couple of roosters in my neighborhood in Tangier. For anyone who hasn’t lived with a rooster, they get old real fast. They don’t just crow at dawn, like nature’s most obnoxious alarm clock. No, they crow whenever they want to, for no reason, and especially at two in the morning when you’re trying to sleep. [↩]
- Maybe with the exception of one very special hotel in Cornwall, now ruined by renovation. [↩]
- To be honest, this is all I have at home, too. [↩]
- After several rounds of “you know, the pretty girl who wears the cool clothes all the time” with my roommates. [↩]
- It was actually very calculating and horrible of me, since I knew he was just drunk enough to do it. Also because he ended up being slightly allergic. [↩]
- Mandatory night out at “Tel Aviv clubs”? Honestly, this was near the top of my “cons” list when I was deciding whether to apply to Birthright. I was happy to be wrong. [↩]