When Mike, one of my closest friends from college, announced that he was going to visit Israel in early summer, I was thrilled. I was excited to welcome a buddy to what was now my home and take him out drinking, gallivanting and causing general debauchery, just like the old days (you know, college), but more so, I wanted to go on a trip. A camping trip! One with hiking! And hopefully animals and a campfire and beers aplenty! The good kind of camping. My friend Sam took care of transportation arrangements, and I handled supplies. In a pleasant turn of events, my friend Aaron, from my days at overnight camp in the Poconos, was wrapping his Birthright trip the night before, and would be joining us on the journey. Three was good; four was great. The plan was pretty loose: head from Tel Aviv up north, pass the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) to a great hiking spot called Yehudiah, which, we had heard, was packed with waterfalls and beautiful views and treasure and dinosaurs. From there, we planned to find a good spot to camp; somewhere, anywhere in the north of Israel. Then, we planned to drive home the next morning and stop for falafel. One trip, three components, none of which went as planned. Obviously. The morning of, Sam picked up Mike and I at my apartment in a beautiful, 4-door sedan. I say beautiful because I never ride in cars anymore; I can’t afford one, and precious few of my friends drive. So I’m pretty impressed by anything. No automatic windows? No problem. We hit some bad traffic on the way out of Tel Aviv, but soon enough were headed straight north to pick up Aaron in Netanya, about 30 km. outside the city. Aaron, mind you, had literally finished his 10-day Birthright trip the night before, or more accurately, that morning. His group left Israel around 3 a.m., and he bummed around until daylight when we came to pick him up. Understandably, his consciousness fell somewhere between completely comatose and ‘lively zombie.’ Regardless, it was great to see him, and by midmorning the car was packed and headed to the mountains. The drive to Northern Israel is one of my favorite things in this country, visually speaking. Tel Aviv is such a clusterfuck of sweaty people, crumbling buildings, weird smells and colorful sights that it can feel like a deep breath of freedom when, just a few kilometers outside the city, you’re suddenly confronted with wide open spaces. From the lush, coastal lowlands outside Tel Aviv, you’re soon driving through the beautiful, olive tree-covered, semi-arid Galilee around Karmiel just before everything changes again — the land around the Kinneret is tropical and verdant, shadowed by the looming Golan Heights that extend gently into the sky on the sea’s eastern coast. It’s breathtaking, and the whole shift in landscape, from start to finish, takes less than three hours. The only similarly dramatic shift I can think of is also in Israel — the Tel Aviv to Negev drive, which operates in exactly the opposite way. From lush lowlands to sandy nothingness. In other words, from South to North Israel, you hit just about everything. Except tundra. We don’t have any of that. Or rain forests. Anyway, by early afternoon, we pulled into Yehudiah. The hiking ground is named for the spidery stream that empties down the Golan slopes in the Kinneret. But up in the heights, it cuts through the land beautifully, bringing gorgeous, colorful vegetation to life on either side. But it was closed. Good planning, friends! So no Yehudiah. We were crushed. But only for about 8 seconds — we quickly learned something great. Zavitan, the less-impressive but still awesome northern leg of Yehudiah, was open for business. We parked, unpacked, rubbed each other down in sunscreen, peed behind the car, ate some grapes and set off on the trek. Zavitan isn’t known as the toughest hike; it’s mostly known as the second banana to Yehudiah. But we still set upon it with vigor, enjoying the hot sun as we walked through the rugged land scattered with ruins from decades-old Arab villages (the Golan Heights used to be Syria). It’s a wild, if politically controversial, sight: one-room stone buildings blend into the rocky, green, mountainous land almost too easily, like they were always that way.
As we hiked, we soon learned that we’d arrived on the same day that a school from Rehovot had a field trip. There we were, feeling all cool and tough and outdoorsy-like, being passed by third graders wearing Teva sandals and Angry Birds t-shirts. So, being gentleman, we stopped to let them pass. Didn’t want to scare them with how manly we were. Zavitan’s trail winds alongside the waterway, often crossing from bank to bank, often under a canopy of low trees and vines. It makes for cool, secretive feeling — you find a spot where you can’t see the sky and dip your feet in the cool, fresh water.
Further down the trail, we reached the first of two big pools. Made of individual stones shaped, by hundreds or thousands of years of running water, into perfect hexagons, rock walls shot up along the banks. Can’t really explain the hexagons, but it’s a great sight. At some points, the wall was five feet above the water. At others, close to 30. Obviously, I wanted to jump off something. I just wasn’t sure what I wanted to jump off of. Thankfully, a second school group — this one of Haredi teen boys — was also on the hike, and so we tested the depths of the water by watching them jump off the walls. I figured, if the water was shallow I’d hear them cry in tremendous, awful pain when they hit the sharp rocks below. But, thing is, I didn’t hear them cry! In fact, they seemed to be enjoying themselves. So, scientifically speaking, we knew the water was safe.
First we tried the five foot wall. That was fun, but I needed more. So Sam and I jumped off the 30-foot wall. Yep, that one was enough. I could feel my balls in my chest. Very weird feeling, I assure you. Towards the end of the trail, there was a huge waterfall. To get to the waterfall, though, was no easy task. We trekked nearly straight down for almost 30 minutes into a wide bowl, the walls bending upwards about 100 feet back to the trail above. The long, slow extra hike was worthwhile — the water spat out from above and sprayed into the pool below; the walls of the bowl were wet, covered in plants and full of secret-looking caves that were prime for climbing into and jumping out of. The whole scene felt like we’d stumbled into some forgotten nature-y wonderland. The Haredi kids, who’d caught up to us, began jumping out of caves in the side of walls 50 or 60 feet above the water. This time, I can say with relative intelligence, we decided not to copy them.
By late afternoon we’d wrapped the hike and it was time for dinner. We began driving aimlessly around the Golan Heights looking for something to do or eat, which is a difficult thing to do in Northern Israel at night. We stopped several times on the side of the road to ask passersby their suggestions, then followed their instructions and ended up lost or misled. The dudes were getting hungry; we needed to make a move. We ended up in a small moshav (like a kibbutz) at its single restaurant, which was surprisingly nice and everyone ate and was satisfied. But we still had nowhere to camp, and a trunk full of warm beers. I asked a moshav-lady who owned her own pottery shop, and she was quite helpful, but her suggested destination was at least an hour away, and cost money. We were looking for nearby and free. Not a good fit. So we decided to just, you know, keep driving till we found something. Thing is, you can’t just ‘hope for the best’ in Northern Israel, because so much of the land is covered in land mines. That’s right, land mines, all from the ’73 war against Syria. These are the things that kill you when you step, or lay your sleeping bag, on top of them. Field after field on backroad after backroad was barred with a sign warning us of impending doom. We even drove into a tiny, 100 house village looking for someone’s big backyard to crash in, but to no avail. Driving a few kilometers from the border of Syria, we were unsure of our next move. It was dark out, and we had too much beer to drink and no ice. “Pull into this parking lot,” I told Sam, our fearless driver. “Ok.” Sam turned the car off the road into a dirt lot, where, as the darkness cleared, we saw a gigantic, stone mosque. It looked so stoic in the darkness, but was in disrepair — a wall had caved; any exterior decoration was long worn off by weather. The minaret, however, still shot proudly and imposingly into the sky. Then we heard someone yelling at us and all nearly shit our pants at the same time. But I quickly recognized it as Hebrew, and friendly Hebrew at that! There was a young man in the minaret calling down to us, “Hello? Who are you?” I strapped on my best Hebrew skills and called up to him, “Shalom, achi! Anachnu michapsim l’makom lishon ha’laila. Nahag’nu m’Tel Aviv,” or, “Hey, friend! We are looking for someplace to sleep tonight. We drove from Tel Aviv.” I expected another false suggestion, like we’d received all night, but I soon learned I’d sold our new friend short. “Beseder. Atem y’cholim lishon po, yalla,” or, “Sure. You can all sleep here, come on.” I stuck my head back in the car and explained our situation to my friends. “This guy who may or may not be living in a bombed-out mosque near Syria just invited us to have a sleepover. Thoughts?” Everyone nodded and we got out of the car. Our new friend descended the many minaret steps and stepped out to meet us. “Shalom, chaverim. Ani Yechiyam, v’ani oved l’shmor ha’makom l’yad ha moshav sheli. Ani oved col ha’laila, eem hiyeh mitsuyan eem atem rotzim lishon po,” or, “Hey, friends. I’m Yechiyam, and I work to guard the area near my moshav. I’m working all night tonight, so it’d be great if you want to sleep here.” He seemed friendly enough, and no one felt in any immediate danger of murder or rape, so we decided to stay. Yechiyam, we learned, had just left the army and returned to his tiny home. He was working overnight shifts as a guard, or shomer, for the fields near his village to keep the livestock from running away overnight, and more so, to keep predators from eating them. Plus, when Syria is in the middle of a civil war and you live 5 kilometers from the border, it can’t hurt to have a guy watching things at night. The fact that his guard post was a mosque’s minaret seemed inherently weirder to us than him, naturally, but the scene was incredible. The mosque was giant, the size of a large auditorium. Bullet holes were scattered in the walls, which were covered in graffiti new and old. A fire pit had been built in the middle. The open doorways let the cool night wind sweep through the place. The minaret rose two floors above the roof, with enough room for all five of us to perch and look out over the vast, dark night. A quick note: this isn’t a story to debate the merits of Israel controlling the Golan, and hence all the buildings that once belonged to Syrian Arabs. Was it right to sleep in an abandoned mosque? Probably not. There was a sense of history that haunted the place; the collapsed wall could’ve been due to nature or a bomb from 1973. We had no way to know. I’ll leave it at that. Yechiyam wasn’t satisfied simply by giving us a place to stay. No, he wanted to give us more. He asked if we needed ice for the beer, and firewood, and food. The answer to all three was, well, uh, yes, yes we do. Follow me, he said, and we piled into both our rental and his very large truck, and drove out from the mosque. Down a few windy mountain roads, Yechiyam led us to a water pumping station in the middle of nowhere —endless black night surrounding us. There, he told us, a friend would give us ice. We hopped out of the cars and followed our new friend to a tent next to the large, industrial looking pumping station. His friend was an old Bedouin man, also working an overnight shift. He welcomed us into his workspace and shook our hands warmly. I have no idea what his impression of us could have been; I got the feeling he didn’t come into contact with roving bands of Americans very often. We got to talking and learned about his sons, who worked in the area, and how he grew up in the North when it was still Syria. He offered us black coffee, of course, and we accepted. Side note: true Bedouin coffee is really something to try, at least once in your life. Imagine the blackest, thickest cup you’ve ever drank, then make it thicker and blacker. That’s about half as thick and black as this coffee was. And it was great. So great that I entirely forgot what we were waiting for in the first place. But our Bedouin friend and Yechiyam knew — after 15 minutes, the big metal box in the tent started sputtering, and spat out endless ice cubes, which Yechiyam poured, ever so caringly, into our beer cooler. When it was full, he loaded it back into our rental’s trunk, then things got even more hospitable. Let’s go get some firewood, he said. Alright, we said. So we followed him to a small outpost where he loaded his truck with wood, and we returned to the mosque. We proceeded to build a campfire outside the mosque and drink lots of beers and whiskey. It seemed, for obvious reasons, extremely sacrilegious to drink and start a fire inside a place of worship, thought it was clear people had done it before. Alas, we were happy drinking and bro-ing out outside. Yechiyam enjoyed just one beer with us; he was on guard, after all. Then things got weird. A car full of 15 and 16 year olds pulled up, boys and girls, from Yechiyam’s nearby village. They were trying to party, but clearly not with us. We kept trying to say hello, but they staunchly refused to acknowledge that we existed. The built a huge fire inside the mosque, which filled the place with a blanket of black smoke, then started cooking chicken, then started flirting with each other and kinda-sorta-making out. All while we were outside enjoying grown up drinks and such. I have to imagine, whatever God-type figure presides over that mosque was not happy. We bummed around for much of the evening, sitting around the fire talking, then walking up the minaret steps to enjoy the view, then repeating the whole process. By 1 a.m., the teens filtered out and my drunken crew began the process of sleeping. Aaron was the first to go, somehow finding respite in the rental car with all his clothes on and sitting upright. Then Sam passed out alongside him. They may have cuddled, though I cannot confirm this. That left Yechiyam, Mike and me. Around 3 a.m., our boy leaned in, with a stern face, and asked the question of the night: “Do you want the hunger?” Neither of us had any idea what he was talking about. I explained this to him in kind terms. “You know, ze hunger! Do you want hunger? We can go hunger now.” Yechiyam kept tryin got explain himself in English, and I’d explain that I was baffled in Hebrew. Odd how that worked. Finally, he just motioned for us to get in his truck. So, of course, we did. A few minutes later, we were back inside his village, parked outside a large barn. The barn was like his office, he explained. On night shifts, he came here to eat food bought for him by the village council; the barn also served as a workshop for cars and assorting farming equipment. The place was large, musty and dark, probably even more so because Mike and I were quite faded on Goldstars. He opened a rickety refrigerator and pulled out a half dozen salads — hummus, tehina, cabbage, eggplant — and a frozen bag of schnitzel, or flat, fried chicken. The hunger! Oh, we thought all at once. Hunger, you see, was the single word he knew that had to do with food, and his English transformed it to mean “food,” “kitchen” and, of course, “hunger.” Mike and I hugged, rejoicing in the bounty set before us. Yechiyam was a true friend, and we three sat and enjoyed our feast. By 4, we were back at the mosque. Yechiyam bid us farewell — he needed to make some rounds and visit other lookout sights. We never exchanged numbers or even last names. He never expected anything in return from us, just appreciated having people to talk to. He said goodbye and drove away. Mike and I laid our sleeping bags in the mosque and tried to sleep. He failed miserably, and was consequently immediately eaten by bugs. When I woke up 90 minutes later, all three of my friends were intertwined in the car. The sun was coming up, and it was time to roll.
The beach was everything I’d imagined: a long, wide, shallow strip of water perfect for laying, floating or playing Frisbee, capped by a chain of islands a few hundred yards into the water that are covered in coral. Yeah, it was that beautiful. We frolicked and such for a few hours, then packed up and drove to the nearest Arab village, where we found the nearest hummus and falafel restaurant and ordered a shit ton of food. When that gluttony was over, we drove back to Tel Aviv. Sounds like the excitement would be done there, right? Wrong! As he parked in front of my apartment, Sam totally pulled into another car and destroyed the fender on our rental. Way to go, Sam.