Friday, 27 November 2015

Holy Land: Secular Pilgrimage: Part X: The Chicken Kings

world-map israel

Greetings!

Another week and I’ve been getting stuck into my North Korean travelogue which is coming along nicely but is now making me long for a second trip. Also on the writing front, there is a new story of mine up on Cultured Vultures, one for fans of the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, All Except Susan.

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Back to UTM, this is the penultimate instalment of Holy Land but don’t fear, there’s plenty more to come after this has been concluded.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

 

Flickr album of this trip

Flickr album of my 1997 trip

Links to other parts of the travelogue:

Sacred Pilgrimage

Part 1: Tel Aviv

Part 2: Ash Wednesday in Jerusalem

Part 3: Bethlehem with a Baby

Part 4: Exploring the Old City

Part 5: Hebron

Part 6: The Armenian Quarter

Part 7: Up the Mount of Olives

Part 8: Further explorations of Jerusalem

Part 9: The Lord’s Day

Secular Pilgrimage

Part 1: A Bus to Beersheva

Part 2: An Introduction to Kibbutz Living

Part 3: A Pioneering Vision

Part 4: The Silence of the Desert

Part 5: Living for the Moment

Part 6: Tearing down the Wall!

Part 7: Beautiful (?) Beersheva

Part 8: The Volunteers

Part 9: Reminders of Troubled Times

Part 10: The Chicken Kings

Part 11: Two Tombs

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D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers – that is to say, Simon, Chris, Tom and I – worked on the chicken farm. You could smell it a hundred metres off, but when you got over the smell, it was actually quite a nice place to work. There were 24,000 chickens housed in three large sheds, not battery – for these chickens could walk about inside – but hardly free-range either. Along with us volunteers, there were four other workers: two Thai guest workers who smiled a lot, toiled like slaves and spoke neither Hebrew nor English; Paolo, a burly Brazilian with an impressive beard and Vladimir, the boss, an immigrant from Siberia.

Vladimir was a good boss. He worked us but was friendly and when we left, provided us with a bottle of vodka. His English however, was minimal. “Take small piece of tree [scrap wood] and take to dirty place [the rubbish heap] tak, tak [here and here in Russian].” Over coffee he would lament over past volunteers; “Denmark girls very good, very good look. In summer many Denmark girls,” or, “Holland people, very good people; Switzerland people, also good people; England people, sometimes good, sometimes problem… with drinking.” He would also reminisce about his life before emigrating to Israel. He came from a small town in the middle of Siberia and he had been in charge of a kolkhoz with 100,000 chickens so Revivim’s farm was small fry for him. He hadn’t really wanted to move to Israel; he was a Christian and had only emigrated for the benefit of his Jewish wife and their children for whom Siberia held no future. He himself though missed the cold, pine-covered expanses with their endless skies and six-hour drives to the nearest town. Several years later, Tom and I learnt that he had passed away from cancer. We drank a bottle of vodka that night in honour of a good man who died in a stranger’s land.

clip_image002Vladimir, the Chicken King

When I started working, the chickens were fully-grown. We collected their eggs from the trays under the hen houses, (and occasionally chucked them at one another). Then, one night, they all disappeared, 24,000 gone in a couple of hours and we were left with an empty chicken farm. Vladimir explained that they had been sold to the Bedouin who came in the night and took them all away to the slaughterhouse. Then our work changed; we had to take the hen houses out of the sheds, load them onto a trailer and then drive them to the yard where they were jet washed with the power hose, (another task that ended in larking about), and then there were several centimetres of compacted shit to be cleared from the floors of the sheds before they too were jet washed. After that we were sent to the hatchery where 8,000 young chicks were vaccinated in a single day, and then finally the clean hen houses were put back into the clean sheds ready for the now-immune new occupants to take up residence. And then, when all was clean and easy and there were only eggs to collect again, I was moved to the plastics factory.

clip_image004Working on the chickens. Left to right: Chris, Simon and Tom

Perhaps the highlight of our time on the chickens however, was the staging of the inaugural – and so far as I am aware, only – Beru Games. The Beru, according to Chris who talked about little else, are a race of farmers and shepherds who live high up in the Jura Mountains. They are apparently all bulky and bearded with booming voices that they need to shout at each other across the valleys. They are uncouth and hardy and addicted to their Helly Hansen jackets that they never ever fasten as that would imply weakness. There are tales, according to Chris, of Berus being found dead in the winter, sat on their tractors frozen to death yet still with their Helly Hansens unfastened. They are real men and they play real men’s games and that is what we tried to imitate. There was a tractor tyre rolling competition and chicken juggling; longest belch (won by Simon who managed a hitherto unprecedented “Yabadabadoo aga misou malaka!”[1]); tree trunk tossing and cross-valley, (well, cross-desert), yelling of the traditional Beru cry of “Fuuuuuccck iiiiiit!” before Chris (who else) crowned as Revivim’s honorary Beru.[2]

clip_image0061909522_154338390304_6543050_nThe Beru Games, Revivim, 1997

One evening Yankalei took the Spouse and I to visit his friend Yakov, another elderly kibbutznik who had one abiding passion in life: collecting. Opening the door to his apartment was like entering a backroom of the Ashmoleum. Pipes of all shapes and sizes lined the walls and desks, a plethora of clocks, a cabinet full of hookahs, drawers full of old coins and – to my delight – another drawer full of banknotes. With Yakov happy to deposit his doubles, (including some of the specimens discussed earlier in this travelogue), into my hands. I was amazed at the place, the result of a lifetime’s dedication to collecting and I wondered what would happen to it all after Yakov’s death. The Spouse however, was somewhat less impressed. As we left she resolutely declared, “No!”

“No what?”

“No, you cannot turn our house into a museum like that!”

1928273_147053460304_4605132_nYankalei with Yakov and his collection

The highlight of the kibbutz social life was the Shabbat disco every Friday night.[3] It was held in a purpose-built room attached to the Golda Meir Cultural Centre. It was here, after several preliminary beers or vodkas that the volunteers, Ulpan students and youngsters of the kibbutz met, partied, and found mates. It was arguably one of the best discos that I have ever been to.

I found it so good for the same reasons that most people found it so bad. So many folk – and particularly those in their early twenties – have a tendency to take music far too seriously and to automatically detest any tune that does not fit into their narrow remit of what constitutes ‘cool’. What was served up at the Revivim Shabbat Disco did not fit into anybody’s category of cool; it fitted firmly into the category of cheese. What’s more, the playlist was so limited that you knew what you’d be hearing before it came on – Night Train, It’s Raining Men, Son of a Preacher Man, Virtual Insanity, Govinda, Don’t Look Back in Anger and the perennial classic Lemon Tree by Fool’s Garden, (both the dance and single versions). There it was, in an atmosphere of ultimate cheese, miserable Simon, (“I don’t fucking dance, mate, the last time I danced was in Amsterdam; I picked up a gorgeous bird there and when I put me hand up her skirt, found a bloody dick there!”), and Carol propping up the bar, drunk on Tuborg, Oranjeboom, Macabee and Vodka Troika, surrounded by a bevy of Middle Eastern and East European beauties, (with a pretty Dane or two thrown in as well), we danced into the dark desert night before stumbling back to our beds in that egalitarian, wedding disco-esque, socialist paradise.

Final part: Two Tombs


[1]Aga misou’: an impolite way of telling someone to ‘Go away!’ in Greek.

[2] Despite extensive research on the subject, I have never heard nor come across any mention of the fabled Beru save from Chris. He tells me that is because they are reclusive.

[3] The Jewish Sabbath or ‘Shabbat’ is generally thought to be on a Saturday but that is not exactly true; it actually starts at sundown on Friday and finishes at sundown on Saturday.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Holy Land: Secular Pilgrimage: Part IX: Reminders of Troubled Times

world-map israel

Greetings!

It seems strange to think that Paris, the city that I visited for the first time only a few months ago, then reeling from the Charlie Hebdo attacks, has now been hit again by a wave of terrorist killings. These things one cannot imagine unless one is there.

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But it is equally important to remember all the other places where people have been killed by similar attacks in the last few weeks: Mali, Lebanon… the list goes on. If travel teaches you one thing, it is that those unfamiliar, very alien places that don’t hit the headlines so much are just as real and that the people who live there are just as human as you are.

Which is why I ask you to pray for them all.

And why I ask our political leaders not to jump into anything rash without considering it properly first.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

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Flickr album of this trip

Flickr album of my 1997 trip

Links to other parts of the travelogue:

Sacred Pilgrimage

Part 1: Tel Aviv

Part 2: Ash Wednesday in Jerusalem

Part 3: Bethlehem with a Baby

Part 4: Exploring the Old City

Part 5: Hebron

Part 6: The Armenian Quarter

Part 7: Up the Mount of Olives

Part 8: Further explorations of Jerusalem

Part 9: The Lord’s Day

Secular Pilgrimage

Part 1: A Bus to Beersheva

Part 2: An Introduction to Kibbutz Living

Part 3: A Pioneering Vision

Part 4: The Silence of the Desert

Part 5: Living for the Moment

Part 6: Tearing down the Wall!

Part 7: Beautiful (?) Beersheva

Part 8: The Volunteers

Part 9: Reminders of Troubled Times

Part 10: The Chicken Kings

Part 11: Two Tombs

Israel-physical-map5

We went with Sara and Yankalei to the old kibbutz, Mitzpe Revivim, Tom and Thao travelling in the golf cart with Sara whilst Yankalei and I walked behind. The old kibbutz is a fortified enclosure just to the south of present-day Revivim. This was the place that the original settlers in 1943 had built and moved into, and this was the place that had played such a crucial role in Israel’s survival and birth as a state. David ben Gurion, the Zionist leader and later the first prime minister of Israel, a committed socialist and kibbutznik himself, was convinced that the Negev was vital to the future of Israel as a viable state as it provided space in which newcomers could be settled. In the 1920s, the region was largely empty, with no towns or villages to speak of south of Beersheva, only the encampments of the Bedouin. Ben Gurion encouraged settlements like Revivim that developed the desert as they were a clear and concrete demonstration of the progressive qualities of the Jews who were, in essence, getting something out of nothing. To the UN he argued, “Look, the Arabs are doing nothing with this region whilst we are developing it for the good of mankind!” and the UN listened. When they published their Partition Plan in 1947, the Negev was included within the borders of the proposed Jewish state solely because of the kibbutzim and other Jewish settlements established there. It was what Ben Gurion wanted as it was essential to his dream. He foresaw Israel as the country in which the wide Diaspora of Jews from around the globe could be collected together, but all those millions would need housing in new cities and towns. Unlike the Settlers of today however, he did not see the answer to that problem in trying to turn Palestinian Arab towns into Jewish ones; instead he believed that the Arabs could stay where they were – both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank were include within the proposed Arab state anyhow – and the Jews would populate the wilderness, the vast expanses of the Negev instead.

Unfortunately though for the Jews, whilst they accepted the UN Partition Plan, the Arabs rejected it outright and on the 15th May, 1948, the day before the British left Palestine, the War of Independence broke out, a war that had huge connotations for Revivim, situated as it was in the heartlands of the Bedouin and directly in the firing line of Israel’s mightiest foe, the Egyptian Army. The very existence of the settlement was in peril as is described here by Gilbert:

That December [1947], kibbutz Revivim, 12 miles south of Beersheba, was surrounded by armed Bedouin and could make no contact except by radio with the outside world. There was a call within the Haganah for the settlement to be evacuated and for other isolated settlements in the Negev likewise to be abandoned, as the ability to defend them did not exist. Ben-Gurion decided, however, that no attempt would be made to ‘shorten lines’ in the Negev by evacuating the more distant settlements. For him the Negev was an integral part of Jewish Palestine, and the centre of future settlement and growth. Not one isolated settlement would be abandoned. Every settlement would have to make plans for its own defence, and if necessary to withstand a siege.

The Negev settlements would not be left entirely to their own devices, however. Such weapons as could be spared would be provided. Reinforcements would be sent when they were available. A special Palmach brigade was formed to keep the Negev roads open, and the first armoured cars produced locally by a newly established Haganah Armour Service were sent to the Negev to protect the water pipelines on which the settlements depended. But Revivim, the most southerly settlement, lay beyond the reach of even the special Palmach brigade. It had to hold out unaided.’[1]

The siege was not a short one, but from the Egyptian point-of-view, it was not a successful one either. Against all the odds, the settlement was never taken:

In December [1948], the isolated kibbutz of Revivim, 15 miles south of Beersheba, which had held out, first against Bedouin forces and then against the Egyptian army for a whole year, was liberated. It had to be entirely rebuilt.’[2]

Wandering around the precincts of the fortified kibbutz – rebuilt from the one that the Egyptians had reduced to rubble with their tanks – that had defied the Arabs for a full year with one of the survivors of that siege was a powerful experience. This was not the pioneering kibbutz spirit of growing oranges on irrigated land and comrades dancing the horo round a campfire at night; this was war, backs against the wall, embattled guerrillas fighting a far superior enemy with certain death their reward if they failed. On top of the bluff was the fortified compound, around it barbed wire and tank traps, whilst underneath, in a cave inhabited in Byzantine times, a field hospital. “This is like Vietnam,” said Thao, whose youth had been spent being dragged round memorials celebrating the Viet Cong resistance to the Americans and French, and she was right. The atmosphere, setting and smells were the same. They were those of desperation and hardship. They were a world away from the peaceful, lush confines of present-day Revivim.

1928273_147053465304_7179127_nMitzpe Revivim

Of course, 1948 was not the only time that war – and even annihilation – threatened Revivim in particular and Israel in general. Dotted around the leafy confines of the settlement are underground bomb shelters that point to darker days. The one near to Beverly Hills was open and on occasions we sat in it for fun. We were not the most notable people to have prepared for war on the kibbutz though, for on the eve of the 1967 War, Golda Meir, later to become prime minister of Israel was on Revivim, visiting her sister. The words in her diary record the atmosphere of fear and uncertainty that lingered in the air:

I went to Revivim one day to see Sarah and the children. I watched the kibbutz that I had known from its first day calmly prepare itself for the Arab onslaught that might turn it into rubble, and I met with some of Sarah’s friends – at their request – to talk about what might happen. But what they really wanted to know was when the waiting would end, and that was a question I couldn’t answer. So the clock ticked on, and we waited and waited.”[3]

She did not however, repeat the visit prior to the 1972 Yom Kippur War when she was prime minister although she wanted to. The danger then was equally great and Moshe Dayan, her Chief of Staff forbade her to come with the explanation: “If there is a war, we might not be able to get you back by helicopter.”[4] It is strange to think that the kibbutz I know so well and that is so peaceful and isolated, could easily have been wiped off the face of the earth on more than one occasion and only a few bomb shelters and some words in a diary remain as testimony of this.

david-rubinger-golda-meir-smoking-Golda Meir on Revivim, 1973

Next part: The Chicken Kings


[1] Israel: A History, p.156

[2] Israel: A History, p.242

[3] Israel: A History, p.379

[4] Israel: A History, p.428

Friday, 13 November 2015

Holy Land: Secular Pilgrimage: Part VIII: The Volunteers

world-map israel

Greetings!

At the moment I’m feeling all DPRK after starting to write up my trip to North Korea earlier in the year. Although I only spoke a week in the country itself, (although the entire trip was just under three weeks), there is so much to write and talk about that I somehow suspect that this will be one of my longest travelogues.

As part of those preparations, I’ve read another book dealing withe the DPRK, Bruce Cummings’ North Korea: Another Country.

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Recommended to me by a UK member of the Juche Study Group, (a pro-DPRK group), as being more balanced and less sensationalistic than most accounts, (not hard), I have to say that I agree with him. At around 220 pages its not long and not a hard read although one thing that did annoy me was the author’s very US perspective, (everything was compared with the States as if nowhere else in the world exists and there were no metric measurements), and, perhaps connected to this former point, a lengthy and frankly rather dull chapter on nuclear weapons. The other book that I read on the DPRK by an American author, Victor Cha’s ‘An Impossible State’ was similarly obsessed with this issue which perhaps interests Stateside readers greatly but me not one bit. Whether Pyongyang gets the bomb or not, (it probably already has it anyway), is of little consequence just the same as it didn’t matter much that the Soviet Union had it. What matters is the real life and economic situation in the country and if I were to recommend anything to Mr. Cummings, it be that in the future, he stick to that. Nonetheless, ‘North Korea: Another Country’ is a good read for anyone thinking of heading that way or, on a more immediate note, to my lecture about it in Hove next Thursday.

North Korea: Orwellian Nightmare or Socialist Paradise?

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is one of the most talked about and least understood countries on earth. Matt Pointon draws on his studies and travels in the DPRK to present the country in a new light; which may surprise and will definitely inform. Join us for an evening of exploration into the peculiarities of the DPRK, one of the most fascinating countries on the planet.

Hosted by Enrico Tortolano & Laura Shewan

With Guest Speaker Matt Pointon

Café Salvage 84 Western Road, Hove

Thursday 16th November 7.15 – 9pm

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Flickr album of my 1997 trip

Links to other parts of the travelogue:

Sacred Pilgrimage

Part 1: Tel Aviv

Part 2: Ash Wednesday in Jerusalem

Part 3: Bethlehem with a Baby

Part 4: Exploring the Old City

Part 5: Hebron

Part 6: The Armenian Quarter

Part 7: Up the Mount of Olives

Part 8: Further explorations of Jerusalem

Part 9: The Lord’s Day

Secular Pilgrimage

Part 1: A Bus to Beersheva

Part 2: An Introduction to Kibbutz Living

Part 3: A Pioneering Vision

Part 4: The Silence of the Desert

Part 5: Living for the Moment

Part 6: Tearing down the Wall!

Part 7: Beautiful (?) Beersheva

Part 8: The Volunteers

Part 9: Reminders of Troubled Times

Part 10: The Chicken Kings

Part 11: Two Tombs

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When Tom and Chris left after a month to travel around Egypt, (Chris spent most of his time stoned on Dahab beach in Sinai), I moved in with Simon, our other workmate from the chicken farm and another eccentric. To start with, Simon was not even his real name; that was Robert, but he didn’t use it as he was on the run, not from the law, but worse, from his wife.

Simon’s problem was that he loved women too much. All women, all of the time. He was either happy because he’d slept with a girl on the kibbutz or morose because he hadn’t. He’d spent the majority of his forty-odd years on earth either chasing women or running away from them after the event, for the one thing that Simon could not cope with was commitment. Any commitment. Take his latest wife for example: one day he hadn’t been able to handle being “caged” any longer so he’d told her that he was going to the shop for a packet of fags. He never went back. She was a Welsh ballet dancer he told me, absolutely gorgeous, fantastic in bed, the only downside was that her tits were too small. Big tits get in the way of ballet he’d explained like a wise guru imparting his life-learnt wisdom to a devoted disciple. He still missed her in some ways, he confided, but those ways were all purely connected with sex, not the relationship side of things. Simon’s idea of paradise was a place full of beautiful women, ballet dancers but with bigger breasts perhaps, eager for sex with him but not wishing to stick around afterwards. That’s why he’d ridden his motorbike across Europe and settled in Kavos, the party resort on Corfu. It was close to perfect for him; he could sit around all day tinkering with bikes, (he worked in a moped rental place), and drinking frappé whilst at night he screwed horny tourists who then left after a fortnight. Even this paradise though, had its imperfections for Simon; he’d got involved with a Greek girl which had caused him to have to leave town for a while when her brothers and cousins found out and then he’d got entangled with a holiday rep who, rather annoyingly, stuck around. What’s more, the season ended in October, after which there was neither work nor women to be found. And that is why he was on the kibbutz.

And there was another thing about Simon: he hated religion. He liked Israel because they didn’t celebrate Christmas there. However, for a man who wanted to escape the Almighty, he had one massive problem: with his long brown hair and beard, he was the spit of Jesus Christ. He was continually accosted by people pointing out that he looked like that famous Galilean carpenter. And being in the desert wilderness of the Holy Land only exacerbated matters. Perhaps the scariest moment of my life came when, after a night of drinking around the bonfire and in the disco, I woke up in the dead of night in my room to a sight that caused me to reach for the Rosary. In my half-compos state I realised that there I was in the Holy Land and there in the next bed to me, fast asleep, was the Messiah! Please God, forgive me! I’ve not been that bad, honest! Of course it was only a second or two before I realised that it was actually Simon not Saviour snoring away, but by God, they were the most terrifying seconds of my life!

Oh yes, and one more fact about Simon. He could belch like a real man. Deep throaty belches on demand. He could belch “Yabadabadoo malaka!”[1] in one go. Trust me, for a guy that is an achievement to be remembered by.

016Simon and I in the dining room, a year after and he was back to miss another Christmas

The other volunteers were a similarly disparate lot with more than a few eccentrics amongst them. There were, of course, too many to list individually, but here are a few of the more interesting/important ones:

Elton and Adrienne. Revivim was unusual in that it was one of only two kibbutzim in the country that took in volunteers over the age of 35. Elton and Adrienne fell into that category. They were a Kiwi couple in their fifties who had spent the previous year travelling around Europe in a big red camper van. They stuck around longer than most and because of their age and amicability, integrated more with the kibbutzniks than the other volunteers. After I returned to the UK they rolled up one day and I showed them the highlights of North Staffordshire. Several years later I rolled up in New Zealand and they returned the favour. We are still in contact.

1914208_1212622242487_4751140_nLeft to right: Me, Elton, Adrienne, Bela and Simeon

Heather from Bury was assumed by everyone to be about twenty because of how she looked and acted, but in fact she was a full six years older, (which is a lot when you’re in your twenties). She’d settled down young with a guy and a mortgage but then found that such a life really wasn’t for her so she’d become a Eurocamp rep in France and then gone kibbutz volunteering. When I later went to live in Leeds she became a regular drinking buddy. We are still in touch.

Jacob and Christina were a young Danish couple who were extremely friendly and polite. If all Danish women look like Christina, then I want to live there. We are still in touch but they are no longer together.

Hank was a rather strange American Jew who was obsessed with all things military. He had wanted to join the US Army but they’d declared him unfit so he’d moved to Israel to join the IDF. They didn’t want him either. After careful analysis, he’d worked out that the Syrians were going to attack the Golan Heights that spring and he wanted to be there for “a piece of the action”. He was thrown off the kibbutz for getting into a fight with some Russians after he’d called them “Evil Commie Bastards”. The Syrians never attacked.

Long John Silver was a tall Englishman named John who would get into long, deep conversations with people and then stop mid-sentence and leave. More disconcerting however, was when he would then resume the same conversation, mid-sentence, several weeks later.

clip_image006clip_image008Long John Silver (left) and Diane

Diane was a Kiwi in her forties who was friendly with Simon. She was easy-going and chatty and it was all good until the inevitable happened regards Simon and women. After that he couldn’t cope with the fact that she still liked him and was sticking around, and being his roommate it got to be a pain.

George was a young Mancunian who had been diagnosed as an alcoholic and had gone to Israel to get over his drink problem. Gaby roomed him with the two biggest drinkers on the kibbutz and several weeks later he was thrown off the kibbutz for drinking to excess. Last I heard of him was in 1999 when Heather visited him in a mental hospital near Rochdale.

Carol was English and miserable. She’d volunteered on Revivim several years previously and it had been brilliant. Now it just wasn’t the same. She propped up the bar with Simon every Friday night.

10399517_1213164656047_1967622_nIn the Moadon. Left to right: Finnish guy, De, Unknown, Heather, Jacob, Carol, Maja, Nikki, Michael (South African)

Monica was Swiss and a real traveller. We were all far too young and fake; she was the real deal. She was also extremely arrogant and never shaved her legs because, “Those hairs are a part of me.” Not that she’d have been attractive if she had mind.

Andrew was another real traveller but he didn’t wear that on his shoulder. He was serious and Kiwi and had come to Israel after several months dishwashing in London and then traipsing across Central Africa. I went to visit him in Auckland in 2001 but lost contact after that.

clip_image012clip_image014Andrew (in New Zealand) and Weird Sam (in her own little world)

Weird Sam was, as her name suggests, weird. She came one day and all the male volunteers thought, ‘Hmm, when she showers, combs her hair and puts on some clean clothes, she’ll be hot.’ Problem was, for an entire month she never did any of the above. Also she was a hard-core Evangelical Christian. Wrong place, love.

Victor and Maria were a lovely young Swedish couple who, with black hair and tanned skin, looked distinctly un-Swedish. He had an excuse; he had Moroccan heritage, but she was wholly Swede, so dunno how that happened. Victor’s claim to fame was that he’d once gone to a party in a posh house in Stockholm and got so drunk that he’d thrown up in the toilet. Looking up he saw a picture of the Queen of Sweden on the wall. “Who on earth has a picture of the queen in their toilet?” he’d asked out loud. “I do,” replied the prince whose house it was.

revivim25Victor and Maria in the Date Palms

Ulrich was a German who always wore a shirt even when shovelling shit in the chicken sheds. He also continually apologised for the Holocaust to anyone who’d listen. No one did listen though, so he apologised all the more.

Nikki and De were two English girls who arrived with Heather. Nikki never spoke much, just jogged around a lot in lycra outfits which was good since she had a nice figure. De also had a nice figure but she jogged less and, unlike Nikki, was not weird and you could have a decent conversation with her. We kept in touch and went camping once in Shropshire with Heather and some mates of mine from school.

Philippe was German Swiss and a drinker. Gaby roomed him with George. He sported a moustache that made him look like a real Musketeer.

10399517_1222212802245_7406004_nParty in Beverly Hills. Left to right: Michael, Philippe, Unknown, Heather, De, Ulrich

Next part: Reminders of Troubled Times


[1] ‘Malaka’, the Greek term for someone who enjoys masturbation.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

V-log 12: The Ashes 2015

Greetings!


This week's V-log covers a passion of mine that is little discussed on UTM: test cricket. I've been following test cricket for years and can think of no game so completely absorbing from the beginning to the end. The uninitiated may scoff but it is because they don't understand. I'm not knocking football, rugby or other sports; I follow them too, but there is something about test cricket that cannot be equalled.

And the pinnacle of test cricket has to be the fiercely contested Ashes series between England and Australia. Today's v-log is of the first test in this year's series which I was honoured to watch at Cardiff's SWALEC Stadium.

Oh yes, and for those who don't follow the game, we won.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt







Check out all my V-logs!

V-log 1: So Uncle Travelling Matt, how many countries have you visited…?


V-log 2: Llangelynin

V-log 3: A Tour Around Schouwen-Duiveland

V-log 4: Draycott-en-le-Moors

V-log 5: Barmouth Cliff Walk

V-log 6: Walking Pilgrimage to Bardsey Island

V-log 7: Crowland, Lincolnshire

V-log 8: Repton, Derbyshire

V-log 9: East to West Berlin

V-log 10: Berlin

V-log 11: Poznan

V-log 12: The Ashes 2015

Friday, 6 November 2015

Holy Land: Secular Pilgrimage: Part VII: Beautiful (?) Beersheva

world-map israel

Greetings!

Today I want to talk about someone who has really inspired me this last few weeks. His name is Mike and you might recall that he was my travelling companion on both my Poland 2012 trip and Berlin to Łódź expedition in 2013.

That is not however, what I wish to talk about today. Mike is in his fifties, had a nice house that he rented for a reasonable price but a job that he was unhappy in. He wanted a change in his life, but then, as we all know, that is easier said than done. Then, a few months ago, my old boss, Mr. Popov from the George Byron School in Bulgaria called me. He needed a teacher; did I know anyone?

The end result is that last week Mike started teaching at the school where I spent such a happy year teaching over a decade ago, working for the best boss that I have ever come across. That alone is pretty cool, but to have such courage to risk a safe job and nice house for all that when in your fifties is, to me, truly awe-inspiring.

So Mike, I salute you, and best of luck. Oh yes, and if you do end up writing any blog posts about your time, let me know eh, and I’ll link them up to UTM.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

B2L09With Mike in Berlin

Flickr album of this trip

Flickr album of my 1997 trip

Links to other parts of the travelogue:

Sacred Pilgrimage

Part 1: Tel Aviv

Part 2: Ash Wednesday in Jerusalem

Part 3: Bethlehem with a Baby

Part 4: Exploring the Old City

Part 5: Hebron

Part 6: The Armenian Quarter

Part 7: Up the Mount of Olives

Part 8: Further explorations of Jerusalem

Part 9: The Lord’s Day

Secular Pilgrimage

Part 1: A Bus to Beersheva

Part 2: An Introduction to Kibbutz Living

Part 3: A Pioneering Vision

Part 4: The Silence of the Desert

Part 5: Living for the Moment

Part 6: Tearing down the Wall!

Part 7: Beautiful (?) Beersheva

Part 8: The Volunteers

Part 9: Reminders of Troubled Times

Part 10: The Chicken Kings

Part 11: Two Tombs

Israel-physical-map5

We took the bus one day to Beersheva. We’d hoped to hire a car and to drive up to the Dead Sea, but I’d forgotten to bring my driving licence and they wouldn’t accept Thao’s as she’d only passed her test six months before. Instead we explored – or in my case, re-explored – the city centre.

As volunteers we visited Beersheva regularly. It was the only place that one could get to easily on the bus and it was the nearest place that sold vodka which was not available on Revivim. Kibbutzim attract a wide spectrum of volunteers, from religious nuts to hippies, recluses to backpackers, but there seemed to be a high proportion with alcohol issues and a social life based around drinking vodka around a bonfire every evening was not really conducive to their rehabilitation. Several got thrown off the kibbutz during my stay due to their inability to work, but that is, as they say, another story. All you need to know now is that we needed vodka and Beersheva was the place to get it.

My abiding impression of Beersheva was of a soulless dump. From its concrete bus station to its bland shopping centre, (the Kanyon), to the grid-iron streets of the Old City, (old in that it dates from the 1960s, the rest is much newer), I could recall nothing positive or endearing about the place. However, having travelled extensively in the intervening years and discovered that so many of the world’s cities present a bland exterior to the world but can hold much more for those who cause to seek it out, I wondered if my memory was not being unkind to Beersheva.

It was not. If anything Beersheva was worse than I’d remembered it being. It is an indescribably tatty and soulless place. Its only selling point is a mock-up of an ancient well in the central square, (a tribute to Beersheva’s only mention in the Bible as the place where God caused a spring to gush forth for the benefit of Hagar and Ishmael), but even that is now broken and vandalised.

7226677Beersheva’s highlight: a faux ancient well

It hadn’t changed much since my last visit, but what changes there were interested me. There was a smart new railway station, (part of Israel’s rail revolution discussed earlier, for back then there were no passenger services to the city), by the bus station. That at least meant it was easier to leave these days which was heartening to know. The other change was more subtle but more important; Russian had replaced English as the city’s second – or even first – language. There were Russian shops and signs everywhere and it was heard everywhere in the streets. Beersheva’s population has doubled since my first visit and those newcomers were virtually all from the former Soviet Union. It now resembled some shitty provincial Siberian city transplanted into the desert.

But with less character.

We did not stay for long.

22 The stunning architecture of Old Beersheva

I have talked about the Ulpan students but it is perhaps more important to talk about the volunteers since they were the people that I spent the majority of my time with. And first and foremost must come my initial roommates and workmates on the chicken farm: Tom van den Ouden and Christoph Geiser.

Tom was Dutch, tall and with long hair. I didn’t like him. That first day, whilst I was still wondering why I’d volunteered myself for a sentence on a labour camp, I held my very first conversation with him sat outside our dwelling in the Ghetto. It went something like this:

Matt: Hi, my name’s Matt. I’m from England.

Tom: I am Tom, I am from the Netherlands. Do you like music?

Matt: I like Jefferson Airplane.

Tom: I have never been keen on their music.

Matt: I also like Bob Dylan.

Tom: I prefer Bowie. He was more innovative.

Matt: Your English is excellent.

Tom: I do not speak English because I love the English, I speak it because I have to speak it. Nobody speaks Dutch.

Matt: I feel bad for not knowing another language. I should like to learn Dutch.

Tom: Why would you learn Dutch? It is pointless for you to learn Dutch; the Dutch all speak English.

Matt: This kibbutz seems ok.

Tom: It is a shithole. The last one we were at was better. That also was a shithole but it was better than this one.

Matt: I heard that the chicken farm is a hard place to work.

Tom: It is easy. I am not afraid of work and that is easy work.

Matt: But the smell!

Tom: You get used to it.

Matt: Do you like Israel?

Tom: No, it is a shithole.

Matt: Oh.

10399517_1213988756649_5960663_nConversations around the bonfire

I later learnt that it is a Dutch trait to be defensive, confrontational, annoying, call it what you will, on initial meetings, but I found it rude and so took a dislike to the man. Not that I let him know of course; whilst the Dutch may be inclined towards abruptness, the English veer towards politeness – or falsity, depending upon how one chooses to look at it – and that dislike slowly turned into tolerance. The Dutch, I now know, have a habit of being cold until they are sure that they can trust a man and after that they’re the best friends that you could wish for. So it was with Tom. About three weeks after our meeting for the first time, he suggested that we go for an evening walk which culminated by climbing atop a pile of hay bales by the dairy farm. Lying on those bales gazing up at the numberless stars of the crisp desert sky, he told me his life story; of his childhood in a small town on an island in the Rhine-Maas Delta; of his grandmother who exhorted him to see something of the world and in whose footsteps he had journeyed to the Holy Land. On that day a friendship began which endures to this day. If the birthday party in the Ulpan Room had inspired a lifetime of travel, then Revivim must also be credited with finding me my most enduring travelling companion. Tom and I have journeyed to Switzerland, Japan as well as our own native countries, but most importantly you can also find him as the Lowlander in my travelogue detailing my epic journey in 2002 from Japan to Bulgaria, a trip which he shared with me from Seoul to Moscow.[1] It is no coincidence that my son, who was the main reason behind this trip to the Holy Land, is also named ‘Tom’. He was named after his godfather.[2]

But it wasn’t just Tom that I shared a room with in the Ghetto, for just as crucial to the experience was Christoph Geiser, the third member of a troika christened ‘The Three Musketeers’ by the other volunteers. Whereas Tom was initially cold, Chris was warm and welcoming. He was a quiet man with a big heart, a love of Motorhead and a wicked sense of humour. He hailed from a small village named le Fuet in the French-speaking Jura Mountains of Switzerland, but had spent much of his youth in the Ivory Coast where his parents were missionaries. We all enjoyed Chris’ company on the kibbutz but years later, when travelling to Switzerland to see him, I realised that all was not as hunky dory with the jovial rocker as we’d all assumed. Early in his youth in Africa, Chris had contracted malaria which, although cured, had left him with a form of schizophrenia. This couple with a penchant for hard drugs was not a winning combination, which was further exacerbated by the fact that he was a man torn: both Africa and Switzerland were home but Africa was where his heart lay and where he wanted to be. The money for daily existence however, lay in Switzerland and so he could only ever spend a few months in the Ivory Coast. When travelling and particularly when he was in Africa, (for Tom went with him once and relayed it all back to me), he was the happy-go-lucky fellow we knew so well on the kibbutz, but in le Fuet he was melancholy and depressed and turned to his drugs for comfort. It was very sad to see.

1909522_155318280304_2259229_nThe Three Musketeers

Next part: The Volunteers


[1] ‘Across Asia with a Lowlander’

[2] And the doubting saint, and my grandfather, and the tank engine.