Meir in the Middle

A Wake up Call and the Gift of the Pause Button

Way back in 2015, when there was still a slew of Republican candidates slinging mud at each other for the GOP nomination, my good friend looked me in the eye and guaranteed that Donald Trump would win it. He even bet me a fancy dinner over it. You’re on, I told him. With those odds who wouldn’t take that bet? Besides, it’s Donald Trump. Every bully has his day of reckoning. It’s only a matter of time before the world wakes up.

Fast forward a year and a half later and I’m wide awake. It’s 6:30 AM and the shockwaves are rippling. The headlines are flashing. The speeches are being made, people are talking and now everyone is listening. This is happening. I’m pinching myself to make sure it’s real. But it’s more than real, it’s surreal. Hate was given hope. Fear was given fuel. There are suddenly a lot more people willing to start saying ‘Eh’ and playing hockey. (Please don’t move to Canada, Fox family. It’s too cold!)

The days in your life that feel “surreal” like this one are worth your attention. They’re worth reflecting upon and thinking through. If you think about it, they’re an existential pause button, an opportunity to look both upward and inward.

For me these days a true test of faith. As much as I try logically, I still can’t make sense of the situation. I’m uncertain how things will turn out. I have no idea what the future holds. What comforts me personally is trusting that there’s a greater plan in motion, that Someone is pulling the strings. As a teacher of mine once brilliantly put it: wisdom is believing that there are causes greater than ourselves and our own comprehension.

But that belief doesn’t absolve us from getting out of bed and pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps. It still doesn’t exempt us from taking action, being proactive rather than reactive. The challenge of affecting positive change in uncertain times is not just in initiating, but in sustaining the changes we seek to bring about.

Think of the time before Yom Kippur when we ask our friends and loved ones for forgiveness. Shouldn’t we always be cognizant of how our actions affect those around us? Now especially we’re hearing about the need to respect others, to be sensitive to others regardless of race, creed, gender, or background. “We need to bond together. We need to battle injustice. We need to get involved.” Aren’t these things we should be doing anyway?

At the end of the day we’re still human. We can’t always be on. We need reminders. We need wake up calls. We need a pause button. Sometimes we can only reframe our thinking when our thinking is reframed for us. In a perfect world we wouldn’t have to wait for upheavals to start revolutions. But failing is essential to getting it right. Pain and discomfort are necessary components of growth. Unity requires fracture.

At this moment it’s easy to get inspired by positive rhetoric urging us to unify as a fractured nation. If you listened to his acceptance speech, you may have noticed that the very sweeping words Donald Trump said are being echoed by the very people (like me) distraught by this situation: “We have to get together…it is time for us to come together as one united people.”

But what does unity mean? Unity does not mean being the same. It does not mean revamping yourself to fit the perceptions or expectations of others. True unity is recognizing and embracing disparity. Simon Jacobson calls unity ‘the harmony within diversity.’ It’s being part of the greater whole while making the contributions only we can make as individuals.’ Unity is when all the different notes in the orchestra work together to create something beautiful. Before we can unify we need to comprehend what unity really means. Sometimes we need a wakeup call like this one to do that. Sometimes we need a pause button.

My heart isn’t at ease (thank G-d for memes) but I can rest assured knowing that I’m not alone. This may seem like a sickness we’re going to have to treat for four years. But maybe this is just what the Doctor ordered.

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Why You’re Really Drafting to the IDF

On the face of it, drafting to the IDF as a lone combat soldier seems like a simple enough concept: drop everything, embrace anything.

Oh you’ll do it. You won’t be intimidated. Because for you, realizing a dream is worth the risk.

But while planning is everything, plans mean nothing. You’ll have a fixed idea of how you want things to end up, a skeleton sketch of desired outcomes. And then you’ll see how things work out here, more often than not in ways you didn’t expect.

You’ll show up to the induction office all gung-ho. You might as well pin a ‘future-defender-of-the-homeland’ badge onto your shirt because you’ll feel like you’re the modern reincarnation of David Ben Gurion. But they won’t even know what to do with you when you get there.

“What are you stupid?” You’ll be told. “My cousin Lior live in LA, make a million dollars a year and kusiot appear out of thin air when he snap his fingers. Why you also no want to live like dis?!?!?”

You are certified crazy. They’ll think you’re nuts for pressing pause on your life, hopping on a one-way flight and signing up for a program that’s never been easy for anyone, ever.

Most people at the bakum are there to get out of the army. You’ve conveniently decided you’re an exception to that rule. You’re going to get in and you’ll do whatever it takes to see that through. Ma hishtagata?

You’ll be told you have no chance of getting in on time (HA) That the draft is full (Sure it is) That ‘ein li koach l’hitasek b’ze hayom’ (Mhhmm…yes… tell me more about things that are objectively true and not based on your reaction to how your Nes Cafe tasted this morning) That they only have room in the only unit you swore you’d never go to (YAWN). 

Most people spend their immediate post-aliyah days hanging out on the beach in TLV, slowly acclimating to a new culture and life—but nooooo, you’ve decided that NO really means YES, that bureaucratic red tape can be cut, that you’re not leaving this office until this gets done, STAT.

Why don’t they get it? Should I be playing hard to get? Like the more you don’t want it the more they want you to want it and will do whatever you need to get it.

You: I AM WILLING TO DO WHATEVER IT TAKES TO SERVE THIS COUNTRY.

Jobnik drafting team: Mmmmmm. Not gonna happen. Send a fax. Or better, don’t.

You: K, I’m not drafting.

Jobnik drafting team: No! Wait! SIGN HERE!!!!!

Sigh. 

But then the drafting works itself out and it all starts for real. You’re not in Kansas anymore. Once you get on that bus to your unit there’s no turning back. 

But tiragah, ach sheli hayakar, you’ll get it. You’ll learn on the go, as you go. You’ll think on your feet and pivot if, and when, the going gets tough.

You’ll master a litany of unfamiliar commands and codes. You’ll build an extended vocab of slang that would horrify your Israeli Savta. You’ll gain a true perspective on what the Israeli army really is Vs. how it appeared at your school-wide Israeli Independence Day presentations. 

You’ll start thinking in abbreviations. You’ll start having vivid dreams about eating hamburgers. You’ll have nightmares about tuna. Calling your friends child names at every hour of the day won’t be weird. In fact, you better start doing it, YA TAMBAL.

You’ll miss your family. Your close friends. Free will. Your non-dictated life. Acting on orders is your new normal. Remember when you could decide, “I wanna do that today” and then actually do whatever that is? LMAO.

You’ll freeze your beitzim off. You’ll be thunderstruck at how much sweat your body can produce.

You will be amazed at your newfound dexterity with cutting vegetables.

You will shudder at the word ‘mediach.’

You’ll understand how it’s possible to fall asleep with your head banging against the bus window. On the shoulder of the confused stranger sitting next to you. On the armrest. On command. In any position. At any time.

You’ll be totally desensitized to all forms of male communal showering. If you accidentally touch butts with someone in a crowded shower room tho…that’s still gonna be hella awkward. (NEVER HAPPENED)

You’ll strongly advise gas masks be put on before you remove your boots.

Hanging out < Passing out

You’ll be horrified that your non-army friends still haven’t showed up 10 seconds after the time you set to meet them.

And then there will come a point in your service, lone-soldier-to-be, where you’ll wonder why on earth you made this decision. Doubts will surface hard. You’ll question your motivations, how much of a ‘step forward’ this really is. What if it’s a big step backward?

You’re in a system now where there’s someone to catch your fall—but what will you do in the real world after it’s all over? The idealism that once drove you can only carry you for so long before realism punches you in the gut. 

You’ll get super shavuz. You’ll be so damn tired. You’d love nothing more than to hear your girlfriend’s voice. You’ll want to go back in time.

You could be padding your résumé or boarding down sand dunes in Peru—but you’re stuck here shivering in a guard post in nowhere AF, Israel with no one in sight to switch you.

So honestly ask yourself, you strapping specimen of Jewish testosterone: why am I really joining the IDF?

Are you in it for the bragging rights?

Plan on impressing the cute mashakit that you met on your Birthright bus?

On a scale of one to therapy—how much do you really love hummus?

Maybe you’ve read Exodus way too many times.

Maybe you’re doing it because you’ll feel left out of the society you’re transitioning into if you don’t do it.

Maybe you’re doing it because you’re escaping something else.

Maybe you’re doing it because you simply can’t live with the regret of not doing it.

But maybe, just maybe, all the reasons I just listed don’t matter. Because the truth is, it doesn’t matter why, it matters that.

That you’re willing to sacrifice everything to benefit everyone. That you’re ready to put your time on hold. That you have the courage to make a contribution that only you can make.

How aware are you of this? It won’t become clear until you draft. Until you cuddle for warmth with a bunch of sweaty dudes on a G-d forsaken mountain. Until you walk so much that you feel like you’re walking backwards. Until you’re packed like a sardine into a giant steel box and don’t sleep for days on end. Until you understand that perspective is gained in retrospect rather than in the moment; by looking in from without, rather than viewing the outside world from within.

But this is why you do it, and this is why we’ll all be rooting for you like hell when you do.

In Memory of Coby Burstein z”l

In this world there are dreams and there are dreamers. But then there are dreamers who don’t let their dreams stay dreams. Last night we tragically lost one such individual, and life will never be the same.

Coby Burstein fulfilled his dream of making aliyah, leaving everything behind to start a new life in the land he loved. He overcame seemingly insurmountable odds and joined the elite reconnaissance unit of the IDF’s Givati Brigade as a lone soldier and combat medic. He did so fearlessly, never settling, always looking ahead, blazing the trail for others to follow. You’re an inspiration to us all, Coby, and you taught us that life is too short not to pursue the things you truly believe in.

I still remember visiting you during my winter break from college in New York when you were in the army; how I told you how jealous I was of you; how you told me, “this is the life I’ve chosen for myself, there’s nothing that can stop you from choosing your life as well.” I’ll never forget that. How could I? How could anyone ever forget you? Your contagious smile. Your amazing sense of humor. Your invaluable advice. Your comprehension and understanding were nonpareil- you saw the world with such clear eyes. How horribly ironic it is that a person whose maturity reached so well beyond his years was taken so well before his time.

Coby and I at my swearing in ceremony. He was always there when you needed him, always with a smile.

There was never a time that you weren’t there for me. Your door was always open, your phone was always on. I remember when you personally came down to the induction center to help me get drafted to Givati. That meant the world to me. I can only hope that these words mean something to all the people whom you meant the world to.

My heart aches for you, Coby. For your parents, brothers, wife, and everyone who was lucky enough to have known you. 

It’s all so surreal… just three months ago we were dancing at your wedding, celebrating how fortunate you were to have found such an amazing girl, and how lucky she was to have found you. Yet today I stood at your funeral fighting back tears that wouldn’t stop coming. The world was a better place with you in it, Coby, and now we’re going to have to figure out how to fill a void that cannot possibly be filled.

We had an ongoing tradition to call each other every Friday: to catch-up on the week that was, to share a laugh, talk about life, dating, school, politics, Israel, whatever it was, it was always a pleasure. This week I happened to miss your call and now I wish I could just tell you: how you were such an incredible friend, role model, soldier, husband, brother and son. How I miss you so much already.

I just wish I could tell you that one last time.

I’m Basically Tarzan, Part II

Stroll around your hostel on a given morning and you’ll find people consulting guide books and fellow backpackers for itinerary ideas. But venture outside and you’ll often find that the best travel advice comes from chatting up the locals. Getting an insider’s scoop opens your eyes to people and places you never could have imagined. And speaking of, I just so happen to be staying in a room with a group of Peruvian bros who invite me to tour a remote neighboring village with one of their aunts who grew up there. Excelente.

The rendezvous point with tía Maria (that’s ‘Aunt Maria’ in Spanish for those of you with gefilte fish heritage) is the entrance to Iquitos’ main port and the morning bustle is in full swing as we walk through the main market to get there: sea creatures that could have starred in a Goosebumps series squirm on display, bunches upon bunches of bananas pile on top of each other, shoeless teenagers throw wooden crates aside like used candy wrappers, butchers shuffle past with piles of slippery raw meat, men bellow deals at the top of their lungs, people box each other out for a place in line- b’kitzur it’s Machane Yehuda.

Screw Gatorade. I'm hiring this guy for my next marathon.

Screw Gatorade. I’m bringing this guy to my next marathon.

Tía Maria tells us to watch our pockets and navigates us through the balagan down to the dock where boats are shuttling passengers into the murky water beyond. There’s an unspoken rule around these parts: if it has a motor it drives. And that rule could not be more true right… about…….now.

Up to the dock creaks a green mass of metal and wood, its motor BOB OB OB OB OB OB OB OB OB OB OB -ing as it churns the Amazon tide.

We fling ourselves into the first seats we find. Good thing there are seat belts and windows… NAAAAAAAAT.

“This boat is called a rápido! Hang on, it moves quick!” Hollers tía Maria over the sputtering engine.

HEY, TÍA MARIA! DID YOUR HIGHSCHOOL YEARBOOK SAY 'MOST LIKELY TO BECOME PIRANHA BAIT?!?!'

HEY, TÍA MARIA! DID YOUR HIGHSCHOOL YEARBOOK SAY ‘MOST LIKELY TO BECOME PIRANHA BAIT?!?!’ CUZ JUST WONDERING!!!!!

But then we’re off and we are straight up zooming- over flotsam, through traffic, against the current, all as Amazonian dolphins grace the waves alongside us. They don’t call this boat a rápido for nothing, because before we know it we’re sliding up onto a muddy river bank and disembarking onto the village’s entrance dock jam-packed with the next set of passengers eager to set sail.

Tía Maria guides us to the village’s main thoroughfare and with each step I feel like I’m going further back in time. It’s like the past forced itself upon the present: satellite dishes adorn decrepit tin roofs, restaurants season pig carcasses in metal buckets on the floor inside, sewage water slicks through ducts in the street.

photo 2 (5)

But the biggest surprise comes as one of the bros hands me a newspaper… In English.

WAIT A MINUTE.

In nowhere AF, Peru, they have a current newspaper, in ENGLISH?

Tía Maria to the rescue: The Iquitos Times is written and published by this English guy named Mike Collis who moved here from the UK to start his own tourist agency and build the first golf course in the Amazon. Who knew?

Tía. Freaking. Maria.

See, it exists.

See, it exists.

Witnessing tía Maria sketch a living blueprint of her hometown is an incredible experience. Each house tells a story, each path leads to a memory, it’s as if she knows every rock by name. Ask me if I can name more than fifteen people on my block in Teaneck. Spoiler alert: I can’t.

After spending all morning hitting up all the island’s hot spots we take a minute to deliberate about what we’re doing the remainder of the afternoon.

Peruvian Bro (Carlos): There’s apparently a butterfly sanctuary we could check out?

Peruvian Bro (Alejandro): Let’s head back to the hostel and drink Pisco Sours till we pass out.

No, amigos, I have a much better idea… I had heard about it from a local shop owner and couldn’t believe my ears. Now I realize this is my only chance… 

The words practically burst out of my lungs:

AmerIsraeli Bro Meir: “MONKEYS!!!!”

Silence. Blank stares. Perplexed eyebrows. Looks like this American gringo had a little too much mate de coca last night…

Peruvian Bro (Juan): Um, what?

AmerIsraeli Bro Meir: Monkeys! Let’s go to the place with the Monkeys!

Peruvian Bro (Alejandro): Monkeys?? What place with the Monkeys?!?

Tía Maria: Ahhh La Isla de Los Monos! Great idea! You guys are in for a real treat.

Have you ever had a sudden urge at the zoo to just high-tail it over the glass and kick it with the monkeys in their exhibit? Well now you can, because La Isla De Los Monos—“The Island of the Monkeys”— is exactly that: a refuge for monkeys of all sorts to roam free, chill hard, and climb all over momentarily terrified humans and steal their phones, and/or hats, and/or glasses and/or anything else they can get their hands and tails on. It’s amazing. MONKEYS. EVERYWHERE. DOING WHATEVER THEY WANT WHENEVER THEY WANT. I’M MOVING HERE IF ISRAEL RAISES THE PRICE OF COTTAGE CHEESE AGAIN.

THIS IS MY SPIRIT ANIMAL

Seriously, I’m Moving Here. 

The coolest part about interacting with these monkeys (besides dying of laughter as we watch Alejandro attempt to become buddies with the alpha male who is having none of that and proceeds to chase Alejandro up a tree) is witnessing how freakishly similar they are to humans. It’s mind blowing to experience it up close: they eat like us, they take your hand like us, they even Thug Life like us:

If this isn't proof of evolution I don't know what is

If this isn’t proof of evolution I don’t know what is

After a good hour of monkeying around we say goodbye to the monos and their super friendly American trainer who’s in charge of the Island, rápido it back to the main port, bid tía Maria adiós and make our way back to our hostel where the bros tumble exhaustedly into their beds.

But for me this is no time for sleep because tomorrow’s the big day- the day I head down river, past the refuges and into the wild. I better pack light. There’s no telling how many unsupervised monkeys I might find myself running away from.

I’m Basically Tarzan, Part I

Israelis tend to do two things when they travel:

1) Israelis move in big groups.

Like wayyyyyy outdoing the Moshava 5 person minimum Shabbos walk requirement; we’re talking 10+. As such, they spend a ton of time arguing with one another about what they’re going to do that day because, for example, everyone wants to go on a trek but Dror doesn’t like trekkim. NU AZ MA NAASEH??

2) Israelis stick to the Israeli route.

There are places Israelis travel to in Peru and places they don’t. Why? Kacha, they just don’t. The trail for Israelis has already been demarcated and is based almost solely on what has worked well for other Israelis: go here, stay here, do this, and your trip will be walla chaval al ha’zman. And following a sabratized-route-that-worked apparently works well, because if you were to ask most Israelis how their South America trip was on a scale of 1 to walla chaval al ha’zman they’d say it was “walla chaval al ha’zman,” all day errday.

But since my legal name is Mark and/or because I grew up in New Jersey, and/or/but mainly since I’m very much feeling the other meaning of chaval al ha’zman right now- i.e. that all this time is being wasted here with these Israelis always deciding what to do- I can also choose to temporarily stray from the tribe and hit up non Israeli-approved places while I travel. So in Abrahamic fashion I set out to the land the post-army children of Israel do not know. Yes, amigos, we’re talking the Peruvian Amazon and we’re talking about me trekking it, alone.

Run a quick google map search for Iquitos, Peru and you will find that it is conveniently located next to zero connecting highways. To get there you have to fly or a take a multiple week boat ride where your chances of not getting seasick are the same as walking out of the national insurance office in Israel bursting with hope for a bright Zionist future with a giant smile on your face.

VERY. LOW.

Since I have the same complexion as a Morrocan chulent, I can pass as a native of Spanish speaking countries. And Arab ones. Like don’t travel with me unless you want to join the you’ve-been-randomly-selected-to-be-searched party. But even with my strategically-picked neutral outfit (a black t-shirt, beige baseball hat, dark blue jeans. Very neutral, I know.) my big blue knapsack and high school Spanish make it pretty much impossible to give off the impression that I’m a local even in the big cities, let alone in the Amazonian jungle. That and the fact that I’m wayyyyyyyyyy too excited when I experience how people get around in this town.

Safety second?

Safety Second.

This is a Peruvian moto-taxi and it’s essentially one of those New York City bicycle taxis on steroids. This vehicle, that got apparently got accepted to South American Pimp My Ride, is the quickest, most popular and convenient way to travel on land in these parts. Wanna know how I’m a tourist? Show me someone else waving at people in other taxis, snapping photos with their iPhone, and whooohooooo-ing their head off at 11 PM as we zoom by, besides me.

The hostel is located by the city’s malecón, which is Spanish for waterfront promenade and Tourist for sketchy area where shady stuff goes down at night near the water. I learn this quickly as the hostel receptionist ushers me in and rams bolts into the door.

“Two of our guests have been mugged in the last two days- don’t hang out outside late at night.”

You always hear of these horror stories when people travel to foreign countries. Sometimes it’s just bad luck but the truth is it’s usually people being careless and not taking the right precautions to make sure they don’t get into bad situations. I made a promise to myself before this trip to come back with my stuff and dignity intact. So unless my cell phone gets jacked by a monkey, that’s what’s going to happen.

I get down to business right away about booking a tour to the jungle ASAP.

Meir: I’m not looking for a typical tourist experience. I want the real deal. Bushwhacking, swinging on vines, fishing for piranhas, that kinda stuff. Basically, I want to be Peruvian Tarzan.

Receptionist: I think I have just the guide for you.

One quick phone call and in walks an ox of a man, his bone crushing handshake underscoring a face that seems as if it was carved out of a midday sun.

Pablo: So I’m told you want to truly experience the Amazon jungle?

Meir: Ya, who’s coming with us?

Pablo: As of now just you and me.

Ok I’m not gonna lie- the prospect of venturing deep into the jungle with a guy who looks like he could decide at any time to crush my bones and feed them to a baboon is pretty unsettling. But since I’m on a tight time frame and the main hostel tour comes back Friday night this is my only chance. I came all this way… am I really about to deny myself at the doorstep?

Not a chance.

Meir: I’m in. Let’s do this.

Pablo: Great, we head out in two days at sunrise.

You know that saying you only live once? It was made for this exact moment. This is going to be insane.  

Because You Know I’m All About That Trek

Those of you who know me know I’m all about that trek, bout that trek (no Tevas?) so when I learn the second deepest canyon in the world is near Arequipa, Peru I’m hiking it, done deal.

Minutes after I arrive I’m at the front desk mapping out the trail with Miguel from reception, apparently so excitedly that it catches someone’s attention nearby.

“Hey man, you thinking of hiking Colca? I was thinking of boogying down there myself.”

Meet Adventure Mike. Mike is not only an experienced hiker, climber, and canyoner, but he even does it for a living teaching ‘adventure education’ in Colorado- uh, best job ever? There’s no one better to trek with than a chiller, and a dude that shows up Nalgene in hand, bandana draped around his neck, dropping “boogy” like its cool then calling it a ‘Mike-ism’ when asked to clarify, is the perfect hiking buddy. My roommate is even impressed when he sees the serious spread-out of our gear that evening.

Roomate: wow- what size is your Baltoro hiking pack?

Meir: YEH IT’S PRETTY CLEAR, IT AINT NO SIIIZEEE TWO.

Me and Adventure Mike Getting It Done

Adventure Mike and I getting it done

Colca Canyon is six hours away from Arequipa, so rather than opting for the city bus where we’ll likely get our belongings and/or identities and/or seats stolen, we pay for roundtrip transport with the private van taking the hostel tour group to the trailhead. This turns out to be a great move because the van also stops at Cruz Del Condor, a natural viewing deck overlooking a valley where condors nest… and apparently fly around. I say apparently because after twenty minutes there are still none in sight.

apparently

Before today the closest thing I’d done to birdwatching was chasing pigeons away from my apartment window in Queens, NY, so after all this condor no-show my excitement starts faltering like the hands of every person next to me gripping ginormous DSLR camera lenses, waiting with bated breath for any avian sign. But just as I turn to head back to the van a triumphant “¡MIRA!” pierces the air, and sure enough there’s one swooping down over our heads, sending “ooooohs” and “ahhhhhs” throughout the crowd and I’m not gonna lie it’s pretty amazing.

This hike’s a two day-er: all steep downhill to an oasis at the bottom of the canyon on day one, all strenuous uphill to get out on day two. Getting to the oasis requires following a series of directions spray painted on random objects along the way, which for the first half of the journey works out great until “Oasis” gets suddenly replaced by the word “NO.” Um. Wut.

Ya so it would be great if you could just turn back into this, thanks

Ye so it would be great if you could just turn back into this, thanks.

Meir: According to the Miguel map we’re supposed to be headed in the “NO” direction… should we check around for a “YES” to be sure? 

Adventure Mike: Nah man, more like NO Diggity. Let’s roll.

Hash Tag Adventure Mike.

The Miguel Map

The Miguel map + My travel notes = Winning

The “NO” way is actually the right way and snakes us through remote high-altitude villages, one of which makes for a well earned rest stop after a particularly nasty lung-squeezing bit of uphill. They have everything spread out when we get there- snacks, drinks, and of course, guinea pigs. Yep, it’s a delicacy here. If I don’t get how something that looks like someone just peed in a Coke bottle is the most popular drink in Peru, I definitely won’t understand why Peruvians eat guinea pigs.

Yum?

Yum?

Tell me this doesn't look like someone just peed in a coke bottle.

Yum??

Adventure Mike can fill a fortune cookie factory with snippets of Mike-isms, our conversations weaving between religion (I’m Jewish, he’s Roman Catholic), optimal climbing geology (Granite > Rhyolite > Moshava climbing wall) our hometowns (nono, I am not from the Jersey Shore) and the IDF, which gets brought up in highly unexpected fashion:

I cannot stand the taste of tuna. So of the many skills Israeli soldiers learn to survive in the field, burning tuna in a can using toilet paper was especially essential cuz it meant I no longer had to use packets of Israeli ketchup to make it barely edible. HAVE YOU EVER TRIED ISRAELI KETCHUP?!? IT’S LIKE EATING RED PAINT MIXED WITH SUGAR WHILE BEING FORCED TO WATCH KEEPING UP WITH THE KARDASHIANS.

Maybe this practice is solely indigenous to the Israeli Army because as I pop open a can, plop on a piece of TP and light it up, I notice Adventure Mike gaping in astonishment, even more so when I let him try it.

“Wow (nom nom nom) right on man (nom nom nom) the IDF are geniuses.”

I knew tuna was good for something.

Before we know it we’re at the oasis, a gorgeous patch of greenery with shimmering natural pools. The only downside of not hiring a tour is that the nice wooden huts to sleep in are already booked up. Since I didn’t bring a one person tent like Adventure Mike, my only other option is to sleep in a stone hut with bamboo slapped across the ceiling, the bed bug forecast at 1 million percent yes, is that even a question? 

Weird, I can’t find the light switch when I walk in. Or an outlet. Or anything that doesn’t convince me that I haven’t just stepped back into the Paleolithic era upon entering.

Can't wait to tell my hunter-gatherer friends!

My hunter-gatherer friends are gonna be so jealous.

Meir: Hey, I can’t find the light switch?

Random guy who lives in the oasis and happens to own a bunch of stone huts: Do you have a candle?

Wonderful.

No prob, I can totally do this caveman thing for a night. It’ll even be nice to disconnect from the plugged-in part of life, right?

Wrong.

I sleep a total of 2 hours and 34 minutes. Ya I timed it, cuz not only are these buildings as hot as Satan’s nacho farts but there are large insects constantly scurrying about the roof, which makes the probability of sleeping the same as living in Israel without ever having to argue with your cell phone provider.

So if you ever trek Colca Canyon make sure to pack your bug spray and headlamp. Or you can just be like Adventure Mike and always be shakin’ it, like you’re supposed to do.

Where Israel Meets Agrabah

Driver: Mastool?

Meir: Uh…Como?

I barely close the door of a rickety, yellow, former-robbery-getaway-car/ “taxi” in hm-this-seems-an-ideal-place-to-get-kidnapped, Peru and it’s already happening.

Driver: Mastool? You from Israel, si?

Meir: Si…

My cover’s blown. Way to wear a shirt that says יום ספורט גדוד צבר.

Driver: You quieres mastool?

What does he keep on saying? Mastool? Mastool…mastool…c’mon, AP spanish think…hm…maybe it means… wait—

I know exactly what it means.

This is amazing. I can’t believe I missed it.

Meir: OHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! YOU’RE TRYING TO SELL ME DRUGS! IN HEBREW!!

Driver: Si, si, en hebreo. Mastool for you, achi. 40 soles.

     Mastool [Mah-stool]

     Adjective, Slang.

     Intoxicated; High; Stoned; Wasted

Driver: You Golani, Tzanchanim, Givati?

The rumors are true.

Remember the opening scene of Aladdin; endless sand, burning sun, sneaky auto-tuned lamp seller? Take that, add Israelis, and the result is Huacachina.

K but actually where's Abu?

Do I get to be Aladdin? Cuz Moshe was in the Morasha play and I’m still not over it

I had heard this was a destination frequented by Sabras but I was unaware of the breadth of their influence: not only are there so many Israelis here that the cab drivers know IDF units, but there are so many Israelis buying weed that the cabbies know to offer it, first thing, in our native tongue, “achi.”

An oasis tourist trap nudged between towering dunes and a murky lagoon, Huacachina offers three potential activity options:

1) Smoke weed – with Israelis (I know a guy, he drives a taxi)

2) Go dune buggying and sand boarding – with Israelis

3) Take a boat tour of Las Islas Balletas – with Israelis, including Daniella from my hostel who lives in Givat Ze’ev, whose first cousin happens to have been my childhood babysitter, and who also knows of two more relig people nearby who are about to cook dinner. Score.

I don’t know which genius decided: “¡OYE! Let’s take pieces of wood, attach nylon straps most definitely used in their previous lives as Peruvian airline seat belts, rub mini wax candles on the bottoms for grip, and let people zoom down the dunes on them!” But that guy is my Peruvian hero.

After hopping into a dune buggy – rollover bars, overhead baby buckles, and non-Israeli tourists utterly terrified by shouts of “YAAALAHHHH NAHAG!!! TAASEH THRRREEEEE SIIIIIIIIIXTEEEYYYY K’VAAARRRR!!!!” included – our driver (aka the guy who also works the hotel reception?) launches us through the desert – bending, dropping, banging through mountains of sand, skidding heart-stoppingly close to the edge of the first dune and cuing an everyone-who’s-not-Israeli-is-now-rethinking-going-on-Birthright chorus of “MAH HISHTAGATA!?!?”

Everyone behind me is Israeli. Everyone.

Everyone behind me is Israeli. Everyone.

You can go down the four size-increasing, ego-deflating dunes standing up or on your belly. And since I’ve snowboarded like three times in my life I obvi know exactly what I’m doing so HELLZ YE I’M GOING STANDING UP.

So is everyone else, of course…just after someone else goes first. So who’s gonna be the guinea pig?

“I’M GONNA BE THE GUINEA PIG” nominees:

1) First, we have Tomer from Gan Yavneh

Tomer braved blustery highway 1 to visit his girlfriend in Jerusalem during this past season’s bust-out-the-squeegees-we’re-shutting-it-down snow storm so he’s totally got this boarding thing down.

Tomer is also Israeli so he’s probably never seen a guinea pig in his life and is probably like ma hakesher guinea pigs achshav?

B) Next, it’s Dror from Beer Sheva

Dror, like myself, knows the desert having earned an honorary doctorate in sand education by serving in the Givati Brigade. Also his friend Itai is currently standing next to him reminding him that he’s a coccinel  if he doesn’t go first.

Nu, Dror. Don’t be a coccinel.

(Says Meir Fox, who definitely isn’t going first)

But in a surprise move “That Guy” turns out to be “That Girl” as Debrah, a middle school bio teacher from Kentucky, headbands her Go Pro, straps up, and bravely places her board at the edge of the first dune.

And takes off.

For three brilliant seconds Debrah is the Shaun White of Peruvian sand boarding, coasting down like a jefe and picking up speed. But then it happens, in painful slow motion: the board gets caught, launching Debrah airborne, sending her toppling down the rest of the scorching slope face first. That’s gotta hurt.

But Debrah gets up right away, sand wedged between her smiling teeth, dirt packed all over her beaming face, and raises her fists in victory. The crowd above goes absolutely wild, especially Tomer and Itai. Big hats off to her.

Dror is now swiping left for all Debrahs on Tinder.

Now that Debrah’s proven that survival is presumably possible, everyone starts going and I am super pumped. I strap in, kick over, shoot down, and miraculously don’t wipe out! The second and third times. The first time I tumble onto my tachat faster than my driver/sand boarding instructor/hotel check in guy can yell “¡¡¡USA LAS KNEEES!!!”

BRING IT

BRING IT

Braving the elements and geometrical angles that would have frightened Pythagoras out of his day job, I go down all four dunes standing up.

Lies. I tooootally wimp out on the last one and go down on my belly.

Go down this monster standing up? MA HISHTAGATA?!?

NOT BRINGING IT

NOT A CHAAAAANCE

The next day the dati dinner crew and I – along with every other person staying in Huacachina (unless you want to take a swim in the radioactive-colored lagoon, your options are tight) sign up for a trip to Paracas, a nearby town with boat tours to Las Islas Ballestas.

The Dining Dossim: Evyatar, Achya, Daniela, and Meir

The Dining Dossim: Evyatar, Achya, Daniela, and Meir

Alternatively known as the “Poor Man’s Galapagos” (quite the downgrade from “Crossbow Islands”) the Ballestas constitute an archipelago of rocky caves, cliffs, and overhangs with sea lions, penguins, pelicans, and TONS of bird poop on or around them. Fun fact: that bird poop, called “guano,” is highly valuable for use as a fertilizer and was Peru’s prime export during the 19th century.

Fun Fact #2: On the way to the Islands there’s a giant geoglpyh in the shape of a candelabra, the origins and motives behind its creation completely unknown.

Thanks, Wikipedia for telling me what geoglyph is!

I’m contacting Discovery Channel Peru if the whole becoming an Israeli rock star thing doesn’t work out

Huacachina: drug deals in Hebrew, sand dunes straight out of Jafar’s playbook, aerial attacks of expensive bird poop, and it’s only Monday. Who knows what the rest of my week in Arequipa has in store.


Am Israeli, Will Travel

Sketchiest taxi ride of my life.

Wandering around the Lima airport at midnight (cuz my taxi reservation with the Israeli owner of my hostel falls through. Surprise.) I find the reputable cab company I TripAdvisored just in case and, after some serious AP Spanish bargaining that would make my entire extended Spanish-Morrocan family shep muchas nachas, am led by the driver to a black car outside- no taxi light adorning the hood.

You want me to get into that? OH HECK NO.

I’m Israeli now, so when it comes to life and taxis I’m not a frier. But let’s be real- what other options do I have?

Other options that I have:

1) Extremely dodgy bus/kidnapper van from the highway nearby that my huge backpack and touristy self would most probably get stuff stolen on.

2) That’s it. Those are all the options I have.

A double check of the driver’s Taxi Green ID badge and my Spanglish interrogation of his credentials do little to assuage my uneasiness.

“No te preocupes,” chuckles the driver.

WELL MAYBE IF YOUR CAR FULFILLED THE MINIMUM TAXI REQUIREMENT OF HAVING “TAXI” ON IT THEN NO ESTARÍA PREOCUPADO!

(Proper conditional progressive tense usage brought to you by Ale K. and Sara L.)

If life customized your answering machine, those 30 minutes/de facto GTA 5 simulation mighta sounded something like this:

HI!!! YOU’VE REACHED MEIR’S PERUVIAN CELL PHONE!!! NOW’S NOT A GOOD TIME BECAUSE I’M CURRENTLY IN AN UNMARKED CAB WEAVING THROUGH DECREPIT CITY BLOCKS, SQUEEZING THROUGH TRAFFIC AND KINDA SORTA ALMOST BASICALLY RUNNING OVER PEDESTRIANS BUT IF I MAKE IT OUT OF THIS ALIVE I’LL BE SURE TO CALL YOU BACK AT MY EARLIEST CONVENIENCE!!! PRAY FOR ME!!!

Night number one and this is already a trip I’ll always remember.

Addressing perhaps the biggest first world problem ever (there are so many places to travel to… I don’t know which one to choose) in classic post-Israeli-army fashion I’m bound for South America faster than you can say inverted question marks, accented vowels, and upside down exclamation points. For most IDF expats it’s usually there or southeast Asia (“ad matai-land, kama hodu”). But as someone of Spanish descent and after taking it for four years of high school? C’mon, amigo. My Abuela would not approve if her nieto were chowing pad thai instead of arroz con pollo.

Israelis travel the world after military service because after being in a system in which ambitions of independence and freedom exist only as dreams with a countdown, they’d love nothing more than to get far away from it. While us Americans rehearse our pickup lines hoping to pick up that cutie at the Hillel Formal/on the YU-Stern shidduch shuttle, our 18 year old Israeli counterparts rehearse the “I like your hair, mami. Want to see an instoosh of my car?” speech hoping to pick up that kusit at the shekem, the knowledge that one day they’ll make it to Tomorrowland instead of sneaking You Tube clips of it during kitchen duty- their beacon of eizeh-dubstep-chazak-achi light at the end of the shvizut yom aleph tunnel.

It’s my first time doing the backpacking another country thing and I decide to do it alone because I’m adventurous like that… aaaaaand because the prospect that Shaked from the Israeli Gringo board is possibly the “Mi Scusi” guy from Eurotrip is a chance I’d rather take in person.

It’s also my first time doing the hostel thing and I already feel at home when a girl named Timor helps me bang the broken lock frame under my bed back into place (the reception guy gave up and handed us the hammer) while chatting about the glow in the dark race in Shoham we both apparently were part of and the nearest place we can find chili matok ASAP.

But Timor is just the first savior in a place of many.

Like Gloria, who happily guides me through the process of boarding and paying for the sketchy-but-way-cheaper public trans “combio” bus aka Peruvian hippie van (do I pay the driver or the guy jumping on and off the bus shouting things?) and fields all my preguntas about walking around Plazas de Armas and San Martin, even giving me a handmade pen as a souvenir.

Yes. That guy.

Yes. That guy.

 

Yes. This pen!

Or some dude whose name I can’t remember but is an architect whom I meet on the wayyy-less-sketchy-yet-only-slightly-more-expensive municipal bus, who makes sense of the map in my Lonely Planet guide book- even walking me part of the way to ensure I don’t get lost. And of course Alvaro, the Argentine consultant/programmer with an MBA from NYU stern whom I meet at Chabad, who maps out my itinerary and whose sensational english and insider knowledge of Cusco trek bookings (book it in person and the price goes way down) cellular options (Claro has micro-sims, not Movistar) and hostel availability (what’s unavailable online is most likely still available the day of if you call) are of immeasurable help.

Dude knows his South America

My new hostel comrades and I take an awesome surfing lesson- and I even stand up a few times! (strong emphasis on the word few)- from some dude with a tent with surfing equipment on the grey-skied Miraflores beach where slippery stones substitute for sand; And I explore the streets and markets of downtown Lima where during a royal guard musical performance at the presidential palace I’m greeted with wonderful nostalgic military support.

 

 

They just haaaad to put me at the Shin Gimmel.

I hear you, compañero.

I’m starting to get a feel for this place and can even start rationing my Clif Bar supply cuz there’s a supermarket nearby where I can get OU products! It’s the start of week one and there’s five and a half more to go. Next stop: sand boards, dune buggies, and Israeli drug deals. Oh you’ll understand. 

Rising Above

The radio blared unexpectedly- its message stopping everyone and everything. We didn’t want to believe it. We had to act. We could only hope.

A routine day in Talmon suddenly upended itself: a Palestinian man had stolen an Israeli car with a baby girl still in the backseat. Our mission was to bring her back. 

Uncertainty makes the anxiety of a fear more frightening than that fear. It’s those moments of groping in the dark- where actions lack tangible results, when the compass points simultaneously toward nowhere and everywhere- that expose us most. Here success is a product of reaction, of using what you know to find out what you don’t. But when human life is on the line, there’s room for trial but no room for error.

Two frenzied hours later she was safe in her mother’s arms.

This incident kicks into mental replay as my eyes gloss over headlines of the recent kidnapping of three Israeli yeshiva students. Only here, endless hours have turned into unending days.

Such is the experience of connecting to a place where ripples and shockwaves are one in the same, of being part of a people whose emotions ebb only to flow again. The skin of our triumphs is eternally scarred by our hardships. As Twain characterized us: “he’s made a marvelous fight in this world, in all the ages; and had done it with his hands tied behind him.” Right now those bonds feel forever tightening.

Being a Zionist means believing in Israel’s moral fiber while getting entangled in it. We do things that no other nation would or would ever be expected to, and it hurts. I’ll never forget the frustration boiling inside me as I stood at a checkpoint in Ramallah and watched the gleeful faces of convicted murderers being sent home for nothing in return. Watching soldiers’ sacrifices disintegrate before your eyes leaves an indelible stain, a gash that will never heal. These moments strip you of everything except the will to overcome them. We’re told to fight through, as much as it stings. And with gritted teeth we somehow do.

The pain felt from this kidnapping has seen this fractured nation momentarily suspend its ideological tensions and cultural divisions, and unite. There’s no religious and secular, no Israeli and non-Israeli. Our focus has been inescapably diverted. Legs spring to action, eyes search for answers, hands grip hands, heads bow as one. Everyone is holding their children a little closer tonight. For now we’re all the parents of Naftali, Eyal, and Gilad, wanting nothing more than to bring our sons home.

So we keep praying, we keep hoping, and we keep fighting simply because there’s no other way. Resiliency is a permanent strand in our DNA; we still get up knowing we’ll get knocked back down. It defines our history, demonstrates our character, and it’s what we’ll always do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Misrad Harishui

I set my Israeli bureaucratic office waiting time record this week. And where more fitting than the universally acknowledged institution for collective agony: The DMV.

Israel’s evil DMV twin, misrad harishui, is a wonderful place to visit… if you’re an anthropologist conducting an ethnographic study of nu-mah-yiheyeh?! Israeli citizens. Other than that, steer clear or prepare for the pain.

The army often militates against your efforts to get the things you want; if you’ve gotta get something done you learn to fight for it- a skill that translates wonderfully into dealing with Israeli bureaucracy. So the day I show up at misrad harishui ain’t gonna go down like it did pre-army at misrad haklita. No, today I’m gonna get in and out faster than a schnitzel sandwhich from the stand outside misrad harishui will give me indigestion.

I get on the earliest bus from kibbutz and before I know it I’m walking through the entrance. It’s 8:10 AM. So I didn’t make it by 8 but still, not too bad…right?

Wrong, oleh chadash living in a movie.

Apparently I should have gotten here yesterday because the office is packed like a train to Be’er Sheva Merkaz on a Sunday morning. Not to worry, I unreasonably convince myself, mostly everyone here is Israeli- so the line for converting a foreign license should move relatively quickly due to the proportional lack of people needing that service.

Nirah l’cha? oleh chadash in shock.

After getting my number (yes, Israel still simulates all bureaucratic waiting to be like ordering at a bakery) I sit down, look up at the number being serviced, back down to my number, double check the number above, dissuade my disbelief, glance back upwards, and stare in horror at the number above.

There are forty three numbers ahead of me.

MA PITOM?!?! I’m only ten minutes late! Did these people camp out in the parking lot and have mangals the night before?? Are they all Morrocanly related to the ticket guy?? I silently pray things will move fast, even though a quick glance to the reception area guarantees they won’t.

There are one and a half women servicing two windows. I say one and a half because the other one disappears soon after her counterpart returns from her coffee session, trip to the bathroom, cigarette break, hanging with her buddies from the second floor, her kids that she brought to the office, wherever she is she’s not here, at her window, doubling the amount of number dings per hour. Cue the anxiety as soon as she gets up:

Oh no. Please don’t go. I-ma-leh she just left. When will she come back? Will she come back?? What if she doesn’t come back??? HOW CAN ANYONE THINK ABOUT THEIR NUMBER BEING SERVICED AT A TIME LIKE THIS WHEN OSHRAT HAS GONE MISSING?!?!

But then there are those moments when she does come back, and for the time being there are two of them. A collective sigh of relief resounds throughout the room. Regular breathing commences. I consider introducing Israelis to the slow clap. All is good in the world. AND THEN THE OTHER ONE LEAVES.

After a few minutes of arriving I notice a feeling emanating, already extant in the people around me. It’s like you inhale eizeh-siyut syndrome at the door, the symptoms materializing in consonance: your eyes start to roll, your exhaling becomes audible, you meet the same glance from the person sitting next to you with that I-know-right? feeling boiling in the substratum of your being, pervading your nascent sabra essence and forcing your mouth open with utterances of “oof” and “yoo” and other english words that have somehow turned into hebrew exasperations that you’re suddenly totally cool with using right about now.

Psychologists call it collective closure, but I like to think of it as balagan bonding. It’s what happens when anyone must wait for service in an Israeli bureaucratic office. Everyone, and I mean everyone, must deal with the same shtuyot cuz unless you’ve got mad protexia there’s no way around it.

An essential part of balagan bonding is finding and identifying with people in the office that look or feel confirmedly as annoyed as you are. And after chatting with Hector from Guatamala (you’re also here to convert a foreign license? Ma ata omer! ¿Cuánto tiempo has estado esperando?) in searching for new candidates I have a surprisingly interesting time taking in my surroundings.

Some lady who clearly understands english is clearly eavesdropping on a clearly British couple’s conversation next to her that their ears just may as well be touching; A guy is reading The Hunger Games in Russian kinda intensely but juuuuusstt not intensely enough to not hear his number ding above; And one dude is just passed out. Like straight up tanked, taking up three seats. Hope he’s also not waiting. K let’s be real we all hope he is.

Most interestingly though are the number checkers. These are people whom, like me 2 hours ago, have a ton of people ahead of them and therefore attempt to do anything in their limited power to somehow expedite the process or find solace in the feeling of being involved in it. They go over and cut to the front and stand over the currently seated customer to sneak in “just one question really quick” and when they’re done interrupting rudely ask the next approaching guest to the exclusive window party to demonstrate that they are indeed the next number in line. Ma atem lo mitbayshim? Eizeh chatzufim.

My number is finally called.

This is it: the moment of truth. I feel like George Costanza ordering medium turkey chili from the soup nazi: If ONE document isn’t in order, ONE date past due, ONE unrecognized signature, one SOMETHING, ANYTHING, THAT WILL RAISE THE EYEBROWS OF OSHRAT the now controller of my near automotive future and I will have to come back to this place.  

But everything’s in order and I’m all set! Whew. 4 hours. It takes 4 hours to hand over a form that takes three minutes to process. I want to give Oshrat a shomer negiah hug, bless her and her children with long life, and start high fiving the people waiting at the schnitzel stand outside.

It wasn’t short. It wasn’t pretty. But victory here tastes good. Even if it gives you indigestion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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