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.

Saturday, February 27, 2010


              Much has changed since my last post, and it may surprise many to know that I am now back on Ketura, and after all of the back and forth balancing act, I decided to head back to re-insert myself where I left off, coming back to the Machon with all the others after our shared semester break. Then again, it may not surprise many people who have had more personal interactions with me thus far in my Israel journey – on the blog I have tried to put my public face forward and give an insight into the wonderful things that have been going on, and thus have tried to make it more a personal writing project than a personal diary, and keep the messiness off the page. I’ll only allude to it now, as a supplication to the audience for patience and understanding as I half stumble my way through, and to for this moment accept another change of plans at face value. I finished up with SACH and said goodbye to the kids, which was quite heartbreaking. They all came out with me to wait for the taxi, and while we waited I made the mistake of putting one of them up on my shoulders. The taxi waited for an extra five minutes while each little one got their fair turn running around 8 feet off the ground.
                  Back to the Machon, I’ve also changed projects and supervisors, and will now be working on issues of environmental and public health in the region. Should be very, very interesting! More on the specifics as it progresses. That out of the way…


Yes, Purim is here in Israel, the Carnival of Jewish holidays during which it is a virtual commandment to inebriate yourself to the point where you don’t know who you are, where you are, or what is right and wrong. This commandment is paralleled by many shifting meanings and identities throughout the Megilla, the book that contains the story of Purim, which supposedly happened around the middle of the first Millennium BC in Persia. It’s definitely of the Jewish “they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat” holiday archetype, only it’s a little more like “they tried to kill us, we won, let’s dress up, get Schwasted and dance all night.” In Israel Purim is kind of like Halloween and Carnival rolled into one, and they take it very, very seriously. And I’m not one to argue.
               At the Machon, I’ve been attempting to step up my theatre initiatives. Last semester’s drama club met a couple of times, and it was a fun break from studying, but I want to expand the breadth of it to include some work during the Peace Building and Environmental Leadership activities, and to potentially even put together a little theatrical presentation at the end of the semester. We’ve started out strong, putting on an audience participation-based storytelling/improv show of the Purim story, including many classic improv games, and hopefully we’ll get into the swing of it this semester.
               And finally, rain down here in the Arava, by all accounts quite rare, has become old news, with another big storm coming in the past couple of days, causing flooding and power outages. My theory is that, just like winter rolled in on the physical winds of change, pretty soon we’ll be back splashing in the pool and panting like dogs in the noonday sun. Here’s hoping.
               And finally finally, shout out to the Canadian Olympic team!!!  What's that?  More Gold Medals than any other country thus far?  Boo Yah!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

In the SACH house

Here's a little thing I wrote for the SACH blog, and when it's up I'll link to it from here:

It has been a beautiful weekend here in Azor, with the sun shining and spring showing its face in the bright pink flowers on the trees lining our backyard. Thus, a lot of our activities have consisted of playing outside, riding around on toy cars, in strollers, and even on shoulders. Epifania in particular has continued her campaign to spend as much time on volunteer shoulders as humanly possible, greeting whoever she comes across with a stern tug, a smile, and a gesture to her own shoulders. Woodley, Edmar, and Clarence continue to be little packets of 5-6 year old boy-energy, but I’m happy to say have begun to master the art of taking turns without too much trouble. Making orders for different activities now actually seems to be an activity in and of itself for the kids. Khariat and Azmina, the two girls from Zanzibar, 6 and 3, often take charge of this activity, possibly forecasting future careers in leadership positions. Inside, there have been arts and crafts of all sorts, from clay to coloring and making masks, and the children have just discovered dominoes (though somewhat lacking in the patience to set up anything too elaborate before the urge to knock it down overwhelms their sense of the greater satisfaction of creating a larger set-up). The most patience perhaps belongs to Adriana and Rosanna, but unfortunately it’s hard to keep a precarious domino course set up with the likes of Clarence, Woodley, and Azmina zooming around the room. On Saturday we received a visit from the ambassadors from Angola, lugging a present as big as the kids for each one of them. Greg and I helped carry it all into the house, and watched as the kids jumped for joy at their take. It was a very nice visit from some warm and generous people.
This morning I went to visit the hospital, and got to visit Brian, Ancelmo, and Kinsey, our post-surgery boys, as well as the many Arab mothers and children at the Hospital. Brian is up and moving around, chatting and smiling like his old self, while Ancelmo and Kinsley are looking better all the time. Kinsley was feeling up for some high fives, and Ancelmo was drawing some beautiful pictures. I taught Ancelmo tic-tac-toe, and by the end of a few games he was cat’s gaming me every time. About noon, Simonne arrived with Amelia, who’s scheduled for her surgery tomorrow and is looking bright as usual. I doubt it will be long before she’s back at the house and playing again. I got to spend a little time with the Arab mothers and their children, who tend to be younger since their conditions are detected earlier. Some are from the West Bank, some from Gaza, and some from Iraq. Before I came to Israel I learned the Arabic alphabet, how to read and write, and how to say a few things, and so I entertained a few of the Gazan mothers by stumbling through reading and writing all our names in Arabic and trying to communicate through our mish-mash of three languages. The ultimate reason for our visit was to get a check up for our youngest in-house child, Lilliana, who is under two, and while we waited she was the darling of the room, laughing and playing with her little balloon, drawing all the visitors to her with her tiny charm.
Now I’m back at the house and the kids are fast asleep.
We’ve got a great afternoon planned, including a visit from some journalists, but for now I’m just enjoying a quick tea and a rest before the fun starts up again.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Arava Students, old and new

As I write this I am sitting in the dingy little Eilat bus station, waiting for the night bus to take me back to Tel Aviv for work in the SACH house at 9.  It slipped my mind (once again) that Thursday night in Israel is really the first night of the weekend and since all public transport stops at around 3 pm tomorrow, this night bus will probably be packed and I haven’t yet purchased a ticket.  No problem though, the Egged lines will always let you on, you just may be lying in the aisle using your backpack as a pillow (note: I did end up getting a seat, and slept like a baby all the way to Tel Aviv :-). 
What am I doing in Eilat at midnight, you ask?  Returning from the 4th annual Arava Alumni Peace and Environment Network (AAPEN) conference, that’s what!  The conference was held in Aqaba, Jordan, and so once again I made an all too brief pop-over into the Hashemite Kingdom, riding down from Tel Aviv with a good many friends from last semester and an assortment of alumni from the last 12 years of the Machon.  As we stopped in Sde Boqer and then Ketura, we picked up even more current and former students, and by the time we got to the border the bus was abuzz with excited chatter as old friends re-united and new friends hit it off.  Luckily, we pulled into the border just ahead of a busload of Brazilians, and got through it in just over an hour.  We were picked up by a new bus on the other side and driven to the Days Inn Aqaba, which really could have been a Days Inn anywhere, only they served Hummus, Foul, and Labaneh with dinner.  Waiting for us at the hotel were many of the Palestinian and Jordanian students, past and present, who made it down for the conference.  Yesterday night there was a brief introduction to the meeting schedule and then we were turned loose into the city, some finding coffee shops, some beaches and some liquor stores (yes, alcohol is sold in Aqaba, likely for the same reason that IDF shirts are sold in the Arab quarter of Old Jerusalem- rhymes with honey). 
The next morning, after a slightly groggy breakfast, we went down to the conference room and were woken up by a stirring speech on environmental leadership from Alon Tal, famous Israeli environmental lawyer and activist, and also co-founder of the Machon Arava.  Following that was a talk from Alan Weismann, author of the book The World Without Us, which essentially describes what would happen to global ecosystems if humans were to all suddenly disappear.  This thought experiment led to a brief foray into the always touchy topic of population control, and how it can ethically be achieved without coercion, unequal treatment, and with cultural sensitivity.  This, incidentally, is what Weismann’s next book will be about. 
Then we got down to business.  You see, it turns out that at a time when NGOs all over the world are suffering from the general economic downturn, the Machon is thriving.  With more students than ever before, more donors than ever before and maybe more projects germinating than it is sane to handle, the Institute is looking to strengthen its alumni network as well, and is looking to get a large grant for a large transboundary project for the near future.  So we sat down and brainstormed all sorts of potential projects, from environmental education to shared nature reserves to major infrastructure projects to cultural and artistic gatherings.  One of the major issues with doing transboundary projects with Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians, is travel.  Since Palestinians must have permits to travel to Israel, and these permits take a whole lot of concerted effort to obtain (anyone who’s dealt with the Israeli Ministry of the interior will know that this institution is stubborn and nasty at the best of times, to even the most upstanding of Israeli citizens and benign foreigners).  On top of that, it is illegal for Israelis to travel to most places in the West Bank.
Ilana Meallem, that wonderful alumni I posted about earlier, has proposed a potential solution, which apparently has been waiting to crystallize in the peace and environment community for quite some time – basically a retreat in a neutral territory, one that Israelis can go to and for which Palestinians and Jordanians don’t need permits.  This kind of location apparently exists somewhere along the Dead Sea, and the plan is to turn it into a kind of Eco-Village and peace centre.  I hope I can be around to see it become a reality.  After this we heard about some projects going on in the region, the most interesting of which is the Biodigester project, a health and environment initiative aiming to help poor Palestinian and Bedouin communities.  Most of these people have large herds of goats and flocks of sheep, their main source of income, but from these herds and flocks comes quite a bit of waste, much of which is burned for fuel or essentially left around, both of which are public health hazards and waste problems.  With a Biodigester, a low-tech, low cost technology, the manure can be digested anaerobically to form methane gas, a clean burning fuel for cooking and heating, and the remainder of the waste, after minimal treatment, can be used as fertilizer.  This solution is good for the health and sustainability of these communities.
I unfortunately had to cut out from the conference after dinner and before the movie, since the border closes at 8 pm and I needed to be back to Azor for 9 tomorrow morning, having gotten only two days off from Save a Child’s Heart to go.  I’m really looking forward to being back though, I’m becoming quite fond of the children currently in the house.  More about this in the next couple days…