A Hike to Freedom in Israel
The day before my trip down to Eilat, the southern-most tip of Israel, my friend and I spent the morning on the northern border of the country. The sky was clear and the sun beat down on the plain before us so that everything was clearly visible for miles. From the plateau where we stood, our guide explained what we were looking at.
“Just beyond that road there,” she said, gesturing to a long empty road that twisted between fields of grass, “is the border, and about 60km that way,” she said, pointing east, “is Damascus, the capital of Syria.” We stared at the distant land before us in awe. We were so close that we could faintly hear explosions coming from where our guide was pointing.
I tuned out after hearing the first booms in the distance. Instead of paying attention to our guide, I became intent on listening for the sounds beyond the border, counting the seconds between explosions as if it was an approaching thunderstorm. Nine… ten… eleven… boom! Counting as if to make sure the storm didn’t get any closer, though knowing full well that it wouldn’t.
We had a few minutes to take some photos and our group was then quickly herded back to the bus to make it to our next destination on time.
After navigating the rental car through bumpy desert roads and accidentally almost driving into Egypt, we finally met up at the base of the mountain as dim streaks of light were beginning to appear in the sky.
This year I decided to ‘take a break’ from my life back home and spend a year teaching English in Israel with a program called Masa. Before that, I spent a few months backpacking around Southeast Asia, getting a sweet taste of the spontaneity and autonomy that comes with traveling solo with no set itinerary. Beginning a program with a rigid set of rules and a schedule that is essentially carved in stone was a shock to my system. During the first few months of my teaching abroad experience, I began to feel weighed down and tethered to the timetable that dictated the specific time I had to board a bus, eat a quick lunch, or have a bathroom break. So when our schedules afforded a few days off during a holiday after a trip to visit the Golan Heights, my friends and I were quick to plan a short getaway to Eilat.
Though it started out as a trip for my five roommates and myself, friends continued to be added on to our plans until we were a group of twelve people staying at the same hostel. Some of us decided to rent a car and road-trip from the middle of the country, through the desert, all the way to the most southern tip of Israel. More than anything, I was looking forward to being free from bus schedules. A car would allow us to go anywhere at any time, something I hadn’t been able to do in months.
From a mountain in Israel, I was able to see Aqaba, a Jordanian city across the water. Behind me was the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, and in the distance was Saudi Arabia. Everything was so calm from up there.
Soon enough we found ourselves on our way to the Red Sea with two cars, full tanks of gas, and a playlist full of Disney songs and ’90s classics.
On our last day before leaving Eilat, we decided to drive to a nearby mountain for a sunrise hike. One of my roommates had already done this on a previous trip to Israel, and highly recommended we go. She had dubbed it the “four countries hike,” as from the summit you can look over four different countries. After navigating the rental car through bumpy desert roads and accidentally almost driving into Egypt, we finally met up at the base of the mountain as dim streaks of light were beginning to appear in the sky. The sunrise would not wait for us, so we had to hurry.
I spared no time in breaking off from the pack and hiking at my own pace. What was initially planned as a quiet getaway to Eilat soon became a loud and disorganized tour group and a perfect breeding ground for arguments and quiet hostility. I desperately wanted to be free of the people around me, to break off and go my own way in order to find a moment of silence.
We made it up the mountain surprisingly quickly as the sun was just starting to peek out from behind the outlying mountains. Though we were a large group, we were luckily the only ones at the top. I stopped for a moment to catch my breath and looked out at the view. The sun had now almost finished rising, and the golden light was shining over the mountains and reflecting off the Red Sea. We could see miles into the distance. I stood alone, taking in the view. It took me a few moments to appreciate where I was standing. From a mountain in Israel, I was able to see Aqaba, a Jordanian city across the water. Behind me was the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, and in the distance was Saudi Arabia. Everything was so calm from up there.
What was initially planned as a quiet getaway to Eilat soon became a loud and disorganized tour group. I desperately wanted to be free of the people around me, to break off and go my own way in order to find a moment of silence.
I suddenly felt overwhelmingly lucky: lucky to be living in Israel; lucky that I had the opportunity to live in the Middle East and enjoy most of the comforts I had back home; lucky that I could rent a car and drive freely throughout the entire country; lucky that I was surrounded by friends from different cultural backgrounds, different countries, different sexualities, and all of them were openly embraced and welcomed by the country I was standing in.
Over just a few days, I had climbed a mountain in the north and listened to bombs drop over the people of Syria, and now here I was looking over three other countries, each with their own set of problems. But I had never felt freer. My definition of freedom until then had been superficial and self-centered: maybe I wasn’t free to travel alone, or free to decide when my lunchtime was, but I was free to choose to live the way I wanted to, and that is worth more than anything else.
Without saying so, I believe the rest of my friends must have felt the same thing that I did on top of that mountain, because for the rest of the trip all the hostility and frustration in our group melted away.