The last episode, the season finale, the wrap up, the farewell address, call it what you want but the end is here. While I will detail the events of the day, I'm also using this opportunity to note how this whole trip shaped out to be and how I didn't even fathom the degree to which my expectations and reality would differ.
This entry is being typed at 4am TelAviv time so if my yesterday's, today's, and other tenses of the words I use leads to some confusion you'll know why. We stayed at the Bedouin tents last night. Their delectable delights, which were just the staples of our trip that you were encouraged to eat with your hands (along with the assistance of pita bread), the camp fire, and star gazing made for quite the night to tucker most of us out pretty quickly.
This led to a lovely morning where our heater stopped working in the middle of the desert (irony, ees goöd no?) and we woke up freezing. After everyone had a nice good complain we finally got our act together and went to breakfast. It wasn't as endorphin producing as the barbarian's bazaar for our last meal, but it was edible. I can only be remiss that they did not serve hummus or have any breakfast pasta at the morning's buffet.
We then went to go ride camels. Conveniently they were a 100m walk from our tent, so we sauntered on over. We each grab our own ill fitting helmets from bags that never don't have ill fitting helmets in them, and then pair up with our camel riding buddies. I obviously picked (better) Zach and we had the infamous Zack Attack on Camelback. We decided caramel was to be the name of our camel as she was a particularly feisty mammal. She also was never further than 6 inches from the legs of Shoval (our resident Air Force officer) and this contributed to her glorious moniker.
Many camel selfies were taken, none successfully by me but you win some and you complain about everything else. I was sad we only got to ride the camel for 10 minutes and they had very little free rein in which to be further back or in front of the next camel. These powerful creatures that can travel the desert are awe inspiring. And they also have the ability to give one quite the powerful awe inspiring chafe that makes one scream for ashem the next time they take a shower. So it wasn't so bad we were only on for 10 minutes.
When we completed our camel carousel we got on the ol bus that we all grew to know and loathe counting off on. After almost forgetting a few things, having a sweat inducing jog to retrieve said things, and returning to said bus; we were on the road again. We went to another hike, and as I've written about before all of these "hikes" have been pretty basic and while scenic I realize I didn't need to prepare for them white so heartily as I had been. Rabbi says this is his favorite hike, and says "it might get chilly but don't worry and you can leave your stuff on the bus." So of course I leave my stuff on the bus and it's the most strenuous hike we do, and a camelbak and some snacks would have been the move. This is one of those times where I didn't pick up the W. However, a photographer who had recently lost her phone volunteered to take pictures so she could have them at a later date. This meant that lots of pictures got taken of me, which will make my mom Kvell about how much fun I was having.
The views were spectacular, you could hear the roar of our echoes on the rocky canyon walls, there was a trickling waterfall, immense caves, and a few ladders to climb. One of the few times that physical activities made me break into a sweat on the trip. (Scoring a goal during Macabi Tel Aviv training aside).
I would have liked my bag but being without it and relying on others to share water, or hold things while they take pictures all demonstrates the sense of belonging and community within our birthright tour but also is endemic of the Jewish people and culture as a whole. We rush to the bus to get lunch and embark upon the salad trail! Lunch is a reasonable 40 scheckels (close to 10 US dollars) for a cup of delicious sweet potato soup, a baguette with schnitzel and kebab meatballs, with salad and white sauce.
The salad trail, is not a weird name for another hike, it is instead the designation of the tour of a farming collective where you get to pick clean and eat the fruits (and vegetables) of your labor. Our helpful guide Jay, told us about the numerous different plants and types of growing techniques that they employ. I learned that cherry tomatoes were invented in Israel. Jay told us to stay away from the unripe fruit and that everything else was fair game. I took to taking a few extra and using them to casually toss in the general directions of my compatriots. This quickly escalated but was controlled, and the only casualty was the occasional erupting of a cumquat.
After this we went to a town less than a kilometer away from the Giza strip and saw the bomb shelters everywhere and learned about the culture of people too stubborn and proud (this is not a bad thing) to leave their homes and instead hunker down, fight back, and continue living where they have for millennia.
After this we headed to our last hotel for the whole trip. It was at this point that there were 12 hours left and this magical spell will be lifted. Being in the airport writing this now is quite the experience, I've cried more on this trip than I have in the last 3 years, I've connected to more people more quickly and more meaningfully than I thought possible (within our group and with the locals and guides and such). I can't believe it's over, and when rabbi said I wouldn't know it was happening til we got here I didn't believe him and had to see to believe. The proof is in the pudding.
We got in unpacked our bus for one last time and parted ways with our chimney of a bus driver (Firahs), he got us where we needed to be and the bus only broke down a handful of times each time it was turned on. But ees good, sababa.
We ate dinner and then had a break and met for an activity which was basically our closing ceremonies. We lit candles for Hannukah, and then filled out surveys, and gathered round. We were all told to share with the group 3 things: 1) a person who was an integral part of your trip and had a profound impact on it 2) an experience you connected with the most and 3) a commitment or resolution to continue something that happened on the trip in order to retain some of what you feel. Everyone's answers were touching and all parties got to feel a little good about themselves for all being part of the positive experiences of others whether directly or indirectly.
We then had some KOSHER PIZZA! It was every bit as good as it sounds when we sign our tune in the morning. And then we went to pack, hang out, reminisce and generally be sad about no longer being our big happy family for 10 more days. Rabbi says not all good things come to an end and that is why he had us make a commitment to continue the trip in our own ways. Whether it be keeping in touch with someone, committing to go to temple more, to put on tfillin a few times a week, and it is one thing to say something and another to follow up. I talk a good game, but I'm confident I will follow up on my promise to myself.
I want to take a moment and talk about how much of an impact each soldier had on me. I didn't know what they were gonna be like, soldiers in my head are battle hardened warriors who show no emotion, feel no pain, and are total badasses. While the soldiers were most definitely badasses, it was eye-opening to fully comprehend how "just like us" these soldiers are. I'm older than most of them which to me makes me think I know more, but they have skills and expertise I've never had to train or think about. But at the end of the day, they like laughing at my stupid jokes, learning about the history of our people, having a good time, and they never complained, except when one was in great need of a (hummus) shower.
I got the pleasure to room with 2 different soldiers, and go to a Shabbat lunch with my only company being one of the soldiers. Being a part of those experience with them is something I'll never forget. Every other soldier was equally as important, I loved being told just to say someone's name to see the smile it brought to his and the other soldiers' faces when I pronounced the Hebrew name incorrectly. (They didn't correct me until the 5th day!)
I loved our Israelis and I wouldn't have wanted any other ones.
I wrote a very heartfelt letter to rabbi in a journal we wrote and I don't want to repeat myself (more than I already do) so I'll just say he absolutely lives up to the hype. His energy is infectious, so much so that our circle at the western wall was the largest because we kept attracting more and more Shabbas-goers. Our tour guide Daniel was unbelievably knowledgable and seemed to have a personal connection to almost every historic site we visited and that helped me understand the interconnectedness of Israel and the Jewish people. Ayalet (or omelette as she was affectionately referred to) also had many personal connections and stories and taught us the beginning of our morning routine.
Our staff member Avi, took a little getting used to. Nothing he did wrong but a good friend of mine had recruited me and one of his big selling points was that he was going to be there to help show me around the promised land. When I found out he wasn't going and I truly didn't know anyone I was a little apprehensive. However, I quickly learned my apprehensions were unfounded and that Avi was/is a stand up dude who I'm proud to call my friend. And he has epic beard pictures.
Then we loaded the new bus and we went to the airport.
Saying goodbye to our soldiers, those extending their trip, or headed to more adventures was really hard and cemented the fact that it was all ending.
I have a Polaroid picture as an instant souvenir, many articles of clothing and pieces of memorabilia with Macabi Tel Aviv, a shot glass or two, foodgasms, lessons learned, and a lifetime of memories from Mayanot 119. I'll never forget our chants and cheers, or the complaints and jeers. You've all been my friends and family, felt what I've felt, said the stupid rubbish that flies for what I think is funny, and we made a good shirt. Thank you all for being a part of this once in a lifetime experience for me. For those watching at home I salute you, and if you haven't been to the holy land yet all I can say is see you next year in Jerusalem.
- Zack "Z-Mo" Marks