My Journey

In September, 2009, this Canadian boy started a masters program the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, learning about ecology and health, middle-eastern politics and the environment, and how a dire problem may facilitate a region's coming together for the better. This Blog is a record of my head-first dive into this immense world.

Sunday, January 31, 2010


Yesterday was the Jewish holiday of Tubishvat, known as the holiday of the trees. As a kid in Hebrew school back when I was just a wee one, I distinctly remember collecting money to plant trees in Israel. About a week ago when I was driving from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, I saw the full impact of all of that effort. Grown from nearly nothing at the time (though most of the ‘desolate’ Near East was actually forested and green before ancient people cut down the forests), the hills between the two cities are green once again. Coming up from the Arava, it’s nice to drink in all that green like a cool glass of water.
It never really struck me as strange until this year that the holiday of trees was in the middle of winter, but like so many of the Jewish holidays, this one actually makes sense if you’re in the Southern Levant. Just as we celebrated Sukkot as the last dates were falling off the kibbutz palms, shaking a palm leaf, an etrog, and some myrtle, Tubishvat is happening just as the almond trees all around are in full delicate pink and white bloom. Yes, I apologize once again to those who are buried deep in the white stuff, but spring is coming! It has actually been raining quite a bit both here in Tel Aviv where I’m currently stationed, and in Jerusalem where I was last week. And January showers bring February flowers! Hmmm…..a bit different rhythm, but I like it.

So, you might be wondering what I’ve been up to. Last Tuesday, the 19th of January, I needed to move my some of my stuff up to the Save a Child’s Heart (SACH) house in Holon, where I’ll be staying starting on the 4th of Feb. Now, since my plan was originally to stay for two years, I got my parents to bring a couple of instruments when they came in October – so on top of my couple of bags, I also had my awesome hand-made Banjo (shout out to Jed!), and my/my dad’s old Gibson guitar. What to do! So my good friend Adi and I rented a car in Eilat and drove our stuff, as well as an ailing comrade, up to Jerusalem. Our car was a little Mazda 2, and the driver was myself. It’s a beautiful drive, with the first half through the desert and the second half with the Dead Sea and Jordan flanking you to the right. Those of you who know Israel well will know that this trip down the Arava road is probably the most dangerous thing I will have done in my stay in Israel, vastly more dangerous than visiting Ramallah or Bethlehem. Getting to Jerusalem, I was still at the helm, and Adi, who knew the city, was my navigator. I can tell you this: Jerusalem is a confusing city to drive in, especially if you’re from a nice grid like Toronto. Let’s say you want to end up about 1 kilometer north-east. The best route will probably take you southwest, curve around gradually for 500 meters, cut back across the road you were originally on, and then go through a tunnel. It took about three days of walking with a map in hand to finally get a real sense of the layout.
After moving Adi into Hebrew University, where he’ll be spending this semester, we drove across to Tel Aviv to move one of my bags into the SACH house, and spent the day in Tel Aviv, which is a stark contrast to Jerusalem. The ‘old’ port dates back to the 1930s! To put that into perspective, the Old City of Jerusalem dates back presumably to the 9th century BC (I’d write BCE but it’s really still counting from Jesus isn’t it? And BP (before present) is just a little confusing), making it roughly 50 times older. If Jerusalem is the holy city, giving you the feeling of the ancientness of the civilization here, Tel Aviv is the modern metropolis, reminding you that Israel is a modern state indeed, replete with all the secular pleasures and debaucheries of the modern western society. Jerusalem is full of American Birthright kids, yeshiva students, and older ex-pats playing Israeli on the one hand, and Haredi orthodox Jews walking around with their eastern European garb, living off the state, and multiplying like rabbits on the other (there’s plenty in between though, these groups are just the most visible). That, mixed with the constant tension of the conflict and the Green Line essentially surrounding a swelling city on three sides makes for a pretty intense experience. In comparison, Tel Aviv is almost like a normal city, only the people are rude like Parisians and speak Hebrew. Both are a welcome change from the tiny town atmosphere of the Kibbutz. What a pleasure to go into a coffee shop and not know anyone!
That being said, it was wonderful to return to the Kibbutz for the final party at the Arava Institute, and attend the last PELS session the next day. There’s nothing like a final ceremony full of love, tears, and speeches of admiration to make one question one’s decision to leave a place. In fact, my decision to leave didn’t exactly come all at once, but was the product of many swings back and forth, earning me tongue-in-cheek award of “Best Decision Maker” for the “most impressive balancing act” awarded by “cirque de soleil sans frontiers” at the closing ceremony, a multi-level reference to both my characteristic indecision and my now well-practiced ability of slack-line walking. But, with no regrets, I’m taking all the incredible memories and friendships with me now into the future, and I’m going to be applying what I’ve learned for the rest of my life. I’m trying to wipe the word mistake from my vocabulary. After a final round of capoeira and a last soccer game in the field, one more trip to the kibbutz convenience store and one more meal at the cafeteria, one more check in the communal laundry to make sure that there were no clothes in my spot a month after I dropped them off and about 500 hugs later, half of us hopped on the bus up to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, some for a month off before returning and many to leave the institute entirely. I have a feeling I’ll be back someday, in some capacity.
And now I find myself in Tel Aviv again, staying with my friend Itai and taking advantage of the debaucherous big city with some Arava comrades, going to a wonderfully too serious for its own good Indie show on Friday night, and to a fantastic Turkish-modern mash-up show (think twelve bar blues and Britney Spears’ Toxic on an Oud, a Q’noun, and Turkish Drums) at a classy bar last night followed by a trip to a gay bar with the best DJ I’ve heard since I got to Israel. Oh yeah, and finishing up the rest of my work from the Institute.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Thanks to Itai for the Pictures!

This is at about 9 in the morning, the sun had still not come out and a little drizzle was in the air. In the background you can see Kibbutz Grofit with a wispy cloud hanging just over it.  In the picture is Itai and me bathroommates for life.

This Acacia picked a good spot to live!

It was too late, however, for this acacia.

Here we find a snake seeking cover from the rain under a rock.  I don't think he particularly wanted company.

The official definition that you hear most times of "wadi" is "dry river bed."  So I guess these were, for a brief 24 hour period,  not wadis but rivers.

Here we find a waterfall!

And up close.

We climbed up a crevice in the rock and shimmied to the top of the waterfall.  By this point the sun had come up and the people below were rejoicing.  For those of you in cold climates.  Think about the first snowfall of the year and how excited everyone gets.  Now think about if you hadn't had snow in 25 YEARS!  Anyone who had kids took their children out to see the flood.  It's a once-a-generation sort of thing.

Itai in a rock pool.  nuts.

If you want to read more about it, my friend Adi has a post at his wonderful blog:

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Flood of the century (so far)

Tonight it is supposed to rain.  A lot.  By tomorrow morning there may very well be waterfalls in the wadis up in the hills, and deep rock pools where we can swim.  I remember one time in Colorado skiing with my family, sitting in the hot tub and looking at the snow all around, being really struck by the cognitive dissonance.  Maybe tomorrow as I look out from a deep rock pool and see the as yet lifeless landscape, I'll feel the same way.  My camera's still out of commission, but there should be some group pictures I can nick from somewhere.  Hopefully I can share it with all of you.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Last Day of Classes

So, today was my last day of classes; it was a full, 8 hour day at that!  I finished with 3 hours of Environmental Anthropology in the morning and 5 hours of Eco-Health in the afternoon.  Nadav Davidovitch, our professor for Eco-health, is a public health physician and researcher at BGU, and he managed to sneak in a short apropos lecture about natural disasters and public health missions into the 5 hour session, which was mostly us presenting and discussing our rough papers.  In fact, he will likely be heading to Haiti with the Israeli delegation in the next couple of days, and has been helping to prepare them since yesterday morning.  My friend Adi and I are convinced that he's a superhero in disguise.

Even though I know that leaving after this term is the right thing for me, the prospect of leaving this place and all of the wonderful friends that I have made here is a bit painful.  I know I will be in Israel for another few months and will get to visit and spend a little time with them, but the reality of leaving the kibbutz is quite rapidly approaching.  I move my stuff to Holon, where I will be working for Save a Child's Heart, on Tuesday!  After 4 months in a place, not matter where, it kind of feels like home and I guess it always will to a certain extent.  I will try to, in the next couple weeks, catch all you readers up on the goings on of the last little while and try to sum up this whole experience somehow. 

And then it will be on to new adventures...

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Teaching in Aqaba part 2

So, when we left our fearless hero he was just about to commence teaching in a high school all day in Aqaba, Jordan...

    So, the first class I was only thrown into for about 25 minutes, and Khalid told me just to talk with the kids, to engage with them and practice their English.  When I asked him what would be a good activity or exercise to go with, he said, you know, just talk with them.  Right.  As you can imagine, walking into a classroom of 25-30 tenth grade students in a foreign country with no real plan leads to a slightly absurd situation.  I think the only thing that really saved me was their initial  fascination with me being from North America - they asked me some questions about it and I told them a couple stories about canoe trips and train trips and how long it takes to get from one side to the other.  Then I started asking them some questions: What do you like to do?  What are your favorite movies?  What kind of stuff are you learning now?  The time passed and the conversation was pretty consistent, but it was pretty obvious that I didn't have any sort of plan and there was some ruckus and what teacher's call "classroom management issues".  But the time passed nonetheless.  After the class (and all the ones that followed) the students filed out and each one personally thanked me and called me "sir".  If only Canadian high school students were so respectful.

Then came the real class, the one I had actually prepared for.  About 30 kids packed into a classroom just big enough to fit all of them.  Luckily it's winter and so it wasn't sweltering.  With 30 kids in the room in June I don't think I would have been able to breathe! actually went pretty well!  The kids got into it, especially when I was speaking about water scarcity, which even the high school kids know its a huge issue.  They deal with it every day.  At one point I broke them up into little groups and had them debating whether or not a water diversion project should be implemented - they were supposed to be different people involved: the farmers who would get the water, the animals whose water source would be dried was a little chaotic and I overestimated their reading ability, but I'd say about 50 percent really got it.  One lesson learned: Know your Class!

The rest of the day went pretty smoothly and we even had nice little break for sandwiches and tea After seeing me teach a few classes, Khalid insisted that I come and teach for them starting in September.  They were looking for Biology teachers, and especially ones that spoke English.  I would like to think it was due to my outstanding teaching abilities, but my guess is that he makes that offer to any Anglophone to walk in the door. 

I left at the end of the day, shared a cab with one of the other teacher (who we dropped off at her place before heading to the border), crossed back over, paying my 5 Jordanian Dinar to get back into Israel, and headed back up to the Institute.  What a whirlwind of an experience!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Teaching in Aqaba part 1 (of 2, really :-)

Tuesday morning, 3:30 am.  My alarm goes off, and though my first instinct is to promptly smack the snooze button and close all avenues of escape for the warm air sandwiched between my body and my blankets, it hits me suddenly what I'm going to be doing today.  Having packed up everything I needed in the evening, I jump out of bed, jump into an unsatisfactorily lukewarm shower (since the showers are solar heated, mid-day is by far the best), get into my somewhat nicer clothes for teaching, and run out to the Arava highway just outside the kibbutz to catch the night bus from Tel Aviv as it barrels down the straight path at 150 kilometers an hour.  The bus I'm catching actually left Tel Aviv at midnight and I'm catching this one since the first morning bus to come by in the Eilat direction wouldn't get me to the school remotely near on time for my 8 o'clock lesson  We pull into Eilat, and it is nearly 5 am.  This is what Eilat looks like at 5 am.  We're looking here over the Jordan mountains, in the direction I'm headed:

The border doesn't open for another hour and a half, so I've got a little time to kill.  I find myself a 24 hour cafe/convenience store, buy some bland crisps and a pack of humus, and go over the lesson plan I've prepared.  Hanan, the professor in environmental education who set me up with this gig, assured me that I would be teaching 15 +, and that "their English is better than most of the Israelis".  As I go over the lesson plan, a pretty sophisticated discussion of humans and their relationships with the natural world, I start to get a little panicky.  What if they can't understand a word I'm saying?  What if they don't give a rat's ass? 

Oh well, I'll probably never see them again. 

At about 6:20 I grab a cab to the border to beat out the big tour buses which lumber through carrying hundreds of eager tourists in and out of Jordan for the day.  I covered crossing the border in a previous post, and now I know exactly where to go and what to do.  Only last time I had a cab there waiting for me and this time I'm planning to just be resourceful and figure out a way.  After all, I'll have about an hour to get there.  At the other side of the gate I see what looks vaguely like a couple of cabs with some somewhat sketchy looking drivers hanging out smoking.  I ask one of them how much it would be to take me to the rosary sisters school.  After conversing in rapid Arabic for about 20 seconds, one of them smiles a big, friendly smile and says:
"10 dinars for the hostel."
"Sorry, but I'm looking for the rosary sisters school"
more conversing
"8 dinars for the hostel"
"no, not a hostel, a school"
"what school?"
"the rosary sisters school.  Do you know where that is?"
"Sure, yes, yes.  I take you downtown and then someone take you to the school"
"Is the school downtown?"
"I take you downtown"
It was about this time I heard "pssssssst" from behind me.   The exit guard was beckoning for me to come over.  He led me to a friend of his, an oddly plain-clothed man, and the two spoke quickly in Arabic just like the other two men had done. 
"I'll take you to the school"
"The rosary sisters school?"
"yes, of course"
"you know where it is?"
"how much?"
"don't worry about it my friend, no need to worry.  I'll get you there"
This guy was going to take me for free!  This seems to happen in Jordan quite frequently.  When I went to Egypt with my dad, everyone offered you a gift, only to say at the end "oh, well how about a little bit in exchange, you know, for a friend who gave you such a gift."  But this guy just drove me there.  We had a  nice ride and conversation about our families, where I'm from, what we're both doing, and a firm handshake and smile, then he dropped me off.  Amazing.

And this is what I saw in front of me:

Pretty snazzy, hey?  So I walked onto the premises and into the building, not really know what to expect.  Inside it was quite nice, with white stone floors, a black reception desk and simple decor.  One thing though, there was no one at the desk.  It was about 7:15.  I stood around for about ten minutes, and every now and then someone would pass by on their way through to something, and we would exchange a nice good morning smile and a SabaH il-Kheer (good morning in Arabic).  But I still had no idea what to do.  I decided to ask the next person to walk by if they would show me where Khalid was.
"ahhh...yeah Khalid Ali"
"who's that?"
"Ahhhh, KHAlid!  Not in yet.  I'll take you to the sister.  The principle."
So I walked wearily down the hall after this man and entered a little office smelling sweetly of Arabic coffee, rich with cardamom.  At the desk was a tiny middle aged woman with a hijab (which, by the way, is the religious head covering of traditional Arab Christians as well as Muslims).  We sit down and she offers me some coffee, the strongest I've ever had, in the smallest cup I've ever held.
"So, you are here to teach.  How long will you be here for?"
"Just for the day"
"Not for longer?  We love having Americans come to teach for us.  It helps our students so much with their English.  Where are you from?"
I remembered that Hana has cautioned me to not mention Israel if I didn't have to.  Apparently the sister and he had a good relationship until the Gaza war, and so this operation was a little under the radar, just between Hanan and Khalid.
"ah, Canada!  It's beautiful, but it's very cold, is it not?"
", do you know where Khalid is?"
"Oh, you are teaching for Khalid's class.  Funny, he didn't mention anything about it to me.  He' will be here shortly"
"Oh, that's odd."
So we chatted away until Khalid showed up, and then he led me up into his office.  He basically told me that he didn't really care what I taught, and he just really wanted me to speak English with the kids, ask them questions, talk to them and get them into conversations.  I told him what my plan was and he frowned a little:
"hmmm....that is pretty complicated.  Many of the students don't have that good English.  Maybe you should just speak with them about whatever you'd like, but not so complicated"
Great.  The premise of this project is teaching environmental education.  I make up my mind to tough it out through my lesson plan and wing it out of my repertoire of Green Stuff if things start to head south.
"oh, and can you stay for a few lessons?  I have you filling in for teachers for most of the periods."
What could I say.  Why not?

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year!

Last night was a wonderful new years eve.  It was a full moon, and so we went out into the Negev Highlands for a five hour hike back to the Kibbutz under the brilliant silver light.  My camera isn't functioning properly, so unfortunately I have no pictures to post, but I can paint you one:  Imagine being surrounded by the jagged edges and exposed body of the desert landscape, interspersed with dunes of sand so soft and fine that it feels like powdery snow.  Rabbi Michael, who came with us on the hike, made the comment that so many visionaries find their visions out in the desert because the landscape is totally exposed, and in turn you expose your own soul.  But the most amazing vision for me was of the moon shadows playing on the landscape.  The moon was so bright that the interplay of the clouds and the moon made shifting silver ephemeral shapes crawling across the dunes.  And to think I could have been stuck inside watching the New Years shows in TV!  We climbed down from the plateau of the highlands into the Arava Valley along one of the supposed paths that the ancient Israelites used on their 40 year wanderings, and made it back to the Kibbutz by around 11:30.  Following this fun spiritual journey, we all piled into the already crowded Kibbutz pub to dance to the top 40 and bring in the new year!  But I have to say, coming in from the desert made the pub experience all the better in its juxtaposition.

So, there is something that I must tell those of you who have been reading this blog in the expectation of two full years of stories and thoughts.  I have, for various reasons, decided that the pursuit of a masters degree through this program is not where I want to be headed.  Retracing my steps through my thought process, I realized that it was really the experience of the place, and not necessarily the degree, that I really wanted, but thought that I "might as well" go for the degree if I was going to be here anyway.  So, though it may seem odd given the enthusiasm I've displayed, I will only be staying at the Arava Institute for one term, and will be leaving on the 29th of this month.  I've had some unbelievable experiences here, and hope to continue writing about them through reflections on this blog.  I will also be staying in Israel for a few months after I leave the Institute to volunteer and travel, and will write about those experience too.  I'm glad I chose a flexible blog title!  Where I go from here I'm not entirely sure.  I have some ideas, probably too many, and I think that some time experimenting with them and trying on some different hats will help me figure myself out.  After all, I've been in school writing papers and doing tests every year since I was six (well, maybe the papers started after that, but you get the idea).

Anyways, Happy New Years everybody!  May it bring us all a little more joy and wisdom.