April 7, 2017
I realized with some chagrin that I had forgotten to pack sunscreen, as we marched along a long, hot Israeli highway, our feet seeming to sink slightly into the melting asphalt as cars charged past. I held David’s windbreaker like a tarp above my head, hoping this half-hearted tenting would spare my milky Berlin winter skin the raw, red slap of a burn. I tried to remember which suffering Biblical figure it was who had been stuck wandering in the Galilean wilderness, because I now understood the tribulation conjured by the phrase – though then there was surely less traffic and more scrubby date palms to rest beneath.
I was the one who had so desperately wanted to see the Sea of Galilee, to give the stories I’d grown up hearing sustenance. David wanted to go camping. So we decided to camp at the Jordan River Park, just north of the Sea of Galilee. But now it seemed it might have been too ambitious to combine a camping trip and a brush with ancient civilization. Because no matter how far we wandered, big backpack roped up with a tent and stuffed with sleeping bags and food, we never got closer to the lake. It started to feel almost mythical. A mirage we’d never reach.
We’d arrived at Jordan River Park just as the midday sun was swinging its last long punches. The bus had belched us out on a dusty, desolate stretch of highway, no sign of life except for the lone bus station and miles of long road reaching out. No one else got off the bus, and for a moment, I thought the driver might playing a trick on us as he sped off and left us alone on the road. But David’s phone said the park was straight ahead, and so we set off at a good pace, feeling optimistic.
There’s only so much a map can do to prepare you for the land itself. The map had seemed barren when we’d looked at it in David’s Tel Aviv apartment, creamy peach crisscrossed with dotted pink lines that seemed to suggest here had been Syria, might still be Syria, will one day once again be Syria. On the map, it was just a fingernail’s walk into the park, a blotch of pasty green.
Walking along the highway, it felt interminable. Heat shimmered up from the road, pooling in sun puddles in the distance. We passed groves of trees walled off behind impassable fences and groups of fat rodents, like obese beavers or prairie dogs, peeking up from clusters of rock. And when we finally found a sign telling us the park was ahead, it seemed like all we had found was more road, winding and endless.
Dusk was threatening when we eventually rounded a bend and saw the entrance to the park. As we wandered around, we began to grow nervous, not seeing anything that resembled a campsite. We’d follow the peeling white paint of a tent icon, but there would be no campsite waiting like a pot of gold, just some new sign listing a starburst of hiking trails. The park headquarters office was shuttered, as were snack stands and what looked to be a summer bar. We did see groups of families grilling around the park, the air full of grayish-blue smoke and the smell of charring meat. The third time he passed us in his official-looking green golf cart, I stopped the young man collecting bags of trash. Where was the campsite, we asked. “Everywhere,” he answered and gestured expansively around the park, then quickly zipped off down the beveled path.
We shrugged. Alright. And wandered back to a small clearing we’d passed earlier in a bend of the river. There was a patch of soft grass and dirt shaded by a copse of bamboo where we could set up the tent, and a flat patch of earth slightly charred by a former fire. We dropped our bags as the sun started to sink and the evening cooled.
We sat down in the grass to eat what we’d purchased that morning from the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv. Hummus and a jar of tahini, avocados, sharp cheese, two loaves of soft bread sprinkled with sesame seeds, and a tub of tabbouleh mostly made of chopped parsley leaves and another herb I couldn’t identify, bitter and sharp. For dessert, there were strawberries that had started to macerate in the earlier heat and sweet, juicy tangerines.
After dinner, we walked around the park, looking for twigs and sticks to build a fire. The ground was mostly littered with dry brush and strips of bamboo, and our pile was paltry at best. But we built a ring of stones nevertheless, and set up a small pyre of wood, quick-burning brush, and tissue. The tissue would catch and then the brush, the tips of the sticks glowing like the lit ends of cigarettes. And then the fire would fizzle out and die, dark. Again and again we tried, arranging the wood in new configurations. Again and again it would spark out.
It was dark by now, and the night sky was brilliant with a freckling of stars, always so dimmed by the city’s electric hum. I found Orion, the only constellation I can ever find, his belt strapping and shoulders broad, his face turned to look across an inky sea.
We tried again, careful with our frail pyramid. The flame flickered… and held, this time quickly licking the twigs and sticks as we fed it our choicest finds. What a reward it was, to see this tiny fire dancing to life in the wind, how our hearts surged every time it grew, casting dramatic, rusty shadows on our faces. We opened the bottle of wine we’d cradled in a nook of roots in the river to cool, and kept our little fire alive as the night deepened, seemingly alone in this vast park with just the crackle of burning wood and the river’s burble.
This trip to Israel had been full of small rewards. One day, with David at work, I set out to discover Tel Aviv on my own. I walked through the long and narrow Carmel Market, stopping to admire piles of spices spilling into each other, the bright-colored vegetables, dried nuts and fruits, waist-high burlap bags of tea. I walked to Sabich Frishman to get a sabich – pillowy pita stuffed with eggplant, hummus, potato, mango pickle, egg, and fresh salad – and exchanged a few words with the stranger sitting across from me at the thin black takeaway bar before walking down to the ocean to watch a heated game of footvolley play out in front of the crashing waves.
Walking back to David’s apartment as the sun began to set, I was reminded of the semester I’d spent in Melbourne, the first city I’d really explored alone. I remembered the thrill of walking from the college down to Queen Victoria Market or along the funky shops on Brunswick Street. There’s something about walking through a city solo that makes it yours, and it had been a long time since I’d wandered through a city’s streets like that without destination or goal.
Another day, David and I walked all the long way to Jaffa for more of that ethereal musabaha we’d had a few months before only to find they’d just served up the last bowl. Hot, hungry, and footsore, we retraced our steps and found ourselves in an antiques market, where in a cluttered, dusty shop, I found a small yellow bowl painted with fish that sang out to me when I held it in my hands. And just around the corner, a shakshukeria materialized, where we were rewarded by a bowl of vibrant shakshuka draped in hummus, with a generous basket of bread, a plate of sliced shawarma and raw onion, and cold glasses of beer.
The feeling followed me home. One evening, I decided to use the baharat spice blend I’d found in Jerusalem to make maqluba, an inverted rice dish made by frying eggplant, then cauliflower, making a chicken stock, and then alternating layers of eggplant, cauliflower, chicken, and tomatoes in a deep pan, topping it with basmati rice and cooking it all in the stock mixed with baharat and other aromatic spices – cumin, cinnamon, turmeric. It didn’t sound too complicated, and at 5:30 p.m., I embarked on the endeavor. At 10:00 p.m., I was still pouring stock over the rice, which refused to soften, as I greedily gobbled up leftover bits of fried vegetables, the only scraps of dinner I was about to get. I wasn’t in bed until 11:00 p.m., with no idea how my maqluba had turned out, if the rice was overcooked or undercooked, if it would even slip out of the pan.
I brought it to work the next day for lunch, worrying the whole while it warmed up in the oven. But what an exhilarating moment it was when, with a colleague’s help, I flipped over the pan and out slid a perfectly round cake, top glistening with tomatoes like jewels.
David laughed when I told him, and asked if the dish would still make it into my post. Thematically, I reflected, it fit right in. Just think about our Sea of Galilee experience, I said.
We’d woken up that morning smelling of wood smoke and char, the dampness quickly dissipating as the morning sun rose fierce. After a breakfast by the river, we packed up the backpack and hiked the whole long way out of Jordan River Park, headed for the Sea of Galilee. We’d hoped to find some sort of inroad towards the lake along the highway. We knew it was there, just out of reach to our left, but all we passed were those fenced-off groves and scrub. So we walked and walked, by now familiar with the brush of wind from cars as they whizzed past. Even when we finally found a small trail, it simply meandered beneath trees and through poppy fields and over rocks, and though we knew we were close, we could still only catch glimpses of water that seemed so very, very far away.
We were on the point of giving up. Our bus – the only bus back to Tel Aviv that day – was scheduled to leave in two hours. We’d been hiking steadily in the opposite direction and didn’t seem to be one inch closer to the water. “Let’s turn back,” I said. “We’ve come all this way so you could see the Sea of Galilee,” David said. “We can’t leave without you having seen it in the end.”
“Just ten more minutes,” I said, “and then we turn around no matter what.”
“Agreed,” David replied, and on we walked across the sunbaked mud and sand. As our ten minutes were ticking up, we saw a large sycamore in the distance. “Let’s end there,” we said, and started walking up our last gentle slope. And suddenly, there it was. Past the tree’s sweeping boughs and gnarled blanket of roots was the water, lapping impossibly close. We scrambled through a short stretch of scrubby grass and rocks and dropped the backpack there at the shore. It wasn’t exactly what I had had in mind when I first wanted to see the Sea of Galilee, but the cool water on my fingertips was its own kind of reward.