Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Unholy behaviour in the Holy Land - Chapter 2

On January 12th 1989 Luke and I set off on a journey that was to change our lives forever. So much so, that when we returned six months later all our conversations started with, "was that B.I or A.I?"(Before Israel or After Israel). 

As my parents drove me to the airport that morning, I sat and looked out of the car window at all the people on their way to work. And I found it really hard to get my head around the fact, that while I was off to an uncertain future in a distant land, they were off to the routine of their everyday lives. My thoughts were only penetrated when the song, "She drives me crazy," by the Fine Young Cannibals came on the car radio. Even to this day when I hear this song my mind is taken back to that moment in time.

Once at the airport, we waved goodbye to our parents, before passing through some double doors, guarded by two machine gun wielding policemen. This was the point of no return, and I must say it felt wonderfully liberating.
We arrived at Ben Gurion airport around 9.30 pm. Somehow it felt far more exciting to arrive at night. Who knew how things were going to look like the next morning? Here we were met by Danny, a lad from London who had been living on Kvutzat Schiller for some time. Of course, we had a thousand questions for him; How's the weather? How are the women? Is it hard work? What's the food like? etc. These questions went unanswered, as he ushered us all into the mini-bus and told us that we would find out in good time.

Within the hour we arrived at the kibbutz and were shown to our rather spartan looking accommodation, which Luke and I had to share with Steve from Barnsley. The basic room comprised of three single beds, a bookcase, a built in wardrobe, and a small table. Being January, it was still cold so Danny brought us a two bar electric fire, which we were to find out also doubled up as a great little toaster.

There was an eerie silence around the kibbutz when we arrived. In fact, apart from Danny there didn't appear to be a soul around.

"They've all gone to Goshen land for some Gold Stars," Danny informed us.

Thursday night it turned out, was a big night out on our kibbutz. The kibbutz volunteers would head off to the nearest town of Rehovot some 30 minutes walk away. The object of their desire was a bar called Goshen Land where Gold star beers were order of the night.

A few hours later we could hear the other volunteers returning as they drunkenly stumbled down the road. The first to reach the volunteers huts was Jussi, a Viking of a man from Finland, with long golden hair, and an appetite for hard alcohol. As we were soon to find out.

"Alright me old China," Jussi shouted at us, in a Cockney (London) accent.

"Alright there," we shouted back, not quite sure what to make of him.

"You want a fight, you wankers?" he returned, once again in a cockney twang. At this point we weren't totally sure if he was joking or not, but given the size of him none of us really wanted to find out. Fortunately the rest of the volunteers turned up within a few minutes and the conversation was steered in a different direction. Over the next few weeks, as we settled into our new home, we were to become better acquainted with Goshen Land, Gold Star, and indeed Jussi the Finnish Viking.

It didn't take long to get into the swing of things on the kibbutz. That's the way that it's set up. Basically you arrive, get one day to relax and then you hit the ground running so to speak. Luckily we arrived on a Thursday night and had Friday and Saturday to acclimatise. Saturday being the Sabbath was our only free day. On Sunday we were picked up outside the dining hall at 6 am and driven in the back of a VW Transporter to the orange orchards. Here we were all given an eight foot wooden ladder, a shoulder bag with a quick release bottom to facilitate the emptying of our pickings into the crates, and a sharp knife to liberate the oranges from the trees. Matty, our team leader, then paired us up, gave us a large radio and told us that he’d be back in three hours for our coffee break. 

That Luke and I were paired together turned out to be disastrous. We'd spent the previous evening in the Coffee Club (volunteers common room) drinking a cocktail of alcoholic beverages including Gold Star, Arak (aniseed local brew), and very cheap vodka (or wodka as we liked to call it). Consequently we turned up in the orchard completely and utterly inebriated. Along with our friend Paul from Sheffield, we decided that it would be a great deal of fun to run full speed at our ladders before diving off the top rung into the incredibly spiky orange tree. The tree would then break our fall as we crashed through the branches, eventually being deposited on our arses at the tree's base. 

Of course, we were scratched to pieces in the process, but in our drunken states we didn't seem to care. This turned out to be so much fun that we made it into a competition to see who could do the most dramatic dive into the tree. We even awarded ourselves points in a similar fashion to a high board diving contest. 

Time flew by so quickly that we didn't notice Matty’s arrival with the coffee. And that’s why, three hours into my new job, he was to witness me taking a 10 metre run at full speed, up an eight foot ladder, followed by a somersault into an orange tree. Had I not been so absorbed in my quest I may have realised that I had an unwanted spectator. It was only his slow hand clapping that alerted me to his presence. The look on his face was one that I shall never forget. A strange mixture, of despair, anguish, hatred and pity. The precedence had been set.

From that day on, Matty kept a keen eye on the three of us and it wasn’t without good reason. We were excitable young men, away from home for the first time, surrounded by similar young people from all over the world and an abundance of cheap alcohol. Things could only end in disaster, and they often did.

It was customary on the kibbutz to change people's jobs around a bit to see which role best suited their personality. But, apart from a failed attempt to put me in the chicken shed after a flooding (I have a major fear of chickens), I pretty much spent my whole time on the kibbutz up a ladder in an orange tree. This suited me fine. Ok, so we had a quota to finish before we could go back to our rooms, but ten crates of oranges was easily achievable. Yussi could down a half bottle of vodka and still have his quota finished by 10 am; mind you he had hands like shovels and could pluck two oranges from the tree with one hand. My own capacity for orange picking was somewhat more subdued. I tended to pick the first crate very quickly and then tapered off as my blood alcohol ratio returned to its normal level. Not that it ever really did during my time on Kvutzat Schiller.

One day, Luke and I were arguing as we picked, because I wasn't pulling my weight and he wanted to get back to the room early.

"Get a move on you wanker," he shouted at me.

"Fuck off, you are going just as slow as me," I replied (which of course was a complete lie).

"Like fuck I am, you're a lazy bastard, and you are going to end up doing a dead end job, living in a council house, with an ugly wife and ten ugly kids, who are all riddled with worms," he spat at me.

The last part of this comment was a direct attack on me telling him (in confidence) that I had spent a large part of my childhood plagued by thread worms.

With those words the battle commenced. Unable to provide a retort, I unleashed an orange at him some eight metres or so away in the tree opposite mine. The orange hit him clean in the chest, prompting a swift response. Within minutes the sky was ablaze with a sea of orange spheres, and the quiet morning air was penetrated by a hail of abusive words. That our kibbutz was right next to an army base, with helicopters constantly flying low overhead, only added to the drama. A helicopter went past us hovering low overhead, and a soldier who was sat with his legs out of the aircraft, looked on in bewilderment. It was only when I launched an orange at the soldier, almost knocked him from his perch, that our personal war was ended. We spent the next hour cleaning up our mess, and the next three days worrying that we were going to get reported by the army base.

A series of warnings from Matty and Varda (our volunteer leader) prompted Luke and I to try and clean up our act. We’d gained quite a reputation around the kibbutz for our erratic behaviour (unfortunately not our erotic behaviour), and there were rumours flying around that we were going to get thrown off. This certainly wasn't the right time to meet David, a wayward Israeli soldier, who liked to drink and owned an Uzi. After a few Gold Stars our promises of good behaviour were cast out of the window, and his Uzi became our new favourite toy. Funny how alcohol can make it seem OK to take pictures of David in his full army regalia, with his Uzi pushed into the back of our skulls. Fortunately we sobered up before we posted these back to our parents. As was our original idea.

Upon reflection, from a 24 year stand point, David was a lost kid who hated the army and wanted to meet friends who had no connection to it. And this is why he had little concern about bringing us rounds of ammunition which we promptly turned into small bombs to blow up inanimate objects around the kibbutz. When this supply dried up, we broke the heads off matchsticks and peeled the contents into small bits of pipe, which we crimped at both sides. We then left the finished article under a naked flame until a small explosion occurred. Placing homemade bombs in our outdoor fridge to try and blow the door off it became our favourite pastime. How we thought that this behaviour would not bring unwanted attention to us I'll never understand.

One of the great things about the kibbutz was getting to meet people from all over the world. Before I left for Israel I had never really met people from other countries before. Well, this is not strictly true. There were lots of people from Pakistan in an around East Lancashire. In fact around thirty percent of my school was Muslim. But they were generally born in England and didn't qualify as foreigners. All of a sudden I was surrounded by young people from Holland, Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, Australia, Ecuador, South Africa, and just about any country that you can think of. 

There were around 50 volunteers on the kibbutz at any one time. However people would forever be coming and going, so the nationalities of the volunteers constantly changed. For example, I arrived with eight other Brits and then a few weeks later, a group of 15 Dutch people turned up. It was quite sad in a way because you got to know people and then they were gone. But on a brighter note it meant that there were constant parties, including leaving parties, toga parties, camp fire parties, Coffee Club parties, and just about any party you could imagine. This didn't help our cause.

Another bonus point about life on the kibbutz, and believe me there were many, was that we got taken on a trip each month. The first trip was just a short jaunt to some caves in the nearby countryside, but after that the trips got progressively better. During my time on Kvutsat Schiller we were taken to both the Judaean and the Negev desert, where we hiked for hours on end in the baking midday sun. In the Judaean desert we walked through a wadi (valley), which had been flooded by heavy rains. Quite embarrassingly I have a photo of Luke and I stood on a rock at the end of the wadi, flicking the V sign at all those around, whilst donned in a pair of Union Jack shorts. The Gallagher brothers (Oasis) would have been proud of us.

The best trip, in my opinion however was a trip to the Dead Sea, followed by a hike up to the plateau fortress of Masada. Just being in the Dead Sea felt like an achievement in itself. I'd wanted to go there for many years, ever since I saw a kid floating in it whilst reading a newspaper, on the kids TV programme Jim'll Fixit. As it turned out, I didn't really care too much for the water though. The heavy saline content ensured that I painfully became aware of any abrasion on my body. Luke had his own problems when he lost his Adidas training shoe in the muddy sea bed. Fortunately he was to see the funny side of this and he forever immortalised his loss in the form of a song (My Adidas - in the Red Sea).

Masada was wonderful. This mountain top fortress was established in 30 BCE by King Herod, and was later (73 CE) the scene of a mass suicide at the end of the Jewish- Roman war; when Jewish rebels threw themselves off the top of Massada rather than be taken by the advancing Roman troops. For me, the atmosphere up there was almost tangible. I could practically hear the screams of the people as they leapt to their deaths. And the view over the Dead Sea was a sight to behold.

Luke and I, got a few days off after the trip so we decided to explore the area in more detail. As we were attempting to hitch a ride we were approached by a guy of Arab descent. When we told him that we were British, he got rather excited and came out with the following sentence.

"Your hooligans have done it again, you people are a disgrace."

Of course, we had no idea what he was talking about. It was only when we got back to the kibbutz a few days later, that we found out that 96 Liverpool fans had died at the Hillsborough football stadium in a semi-final game between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. As it later transpired, the police were at fault, because they’d opened a gate that should never have been opened, causing a huge group of people eager to see the game, to surge forward. Those at the front were crushed against the railings, in scenes that were televised live. Certain newspapers in England wrongly published that many of those involved were no better than animals, urinating on the dead and stealing from their pockets. It was journalism like this that caused people like our new Arab friend to have such a lowly opinion of the English. The date, April 15th 1989.

Besides our kibbutz trips we also accrued another day off per month, which we could add to our Saturday, thus enabling us to have a normal two day weekend. On the first of these extended Sabbaths Luke and I took off to Jerusalem for a few days. This was the first time that I'd ever stayed in a hostel and I was immediately sold. Here was a nice clean room, bang in the middle of the old city, within a stone’s throw of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (built on the site where Jesus was crucified). With the cost of a dorm room being a fraction of the price of a hotel, and the added bonus of being surrounded by like minded people, I failed to see why I would ever need to stay in an expensive hotel again. A policy which I generally still adhere too.

Jerusalem was wonderful. A wealth of history contained in a small area. A city split into quarters (Christian, Jewish, Armenian and Muslim), with every corner brimming with famous sights connected to that religion. Although, at the time I was still a little too young and immature to fully understand the importance of Jerusalem, I was still left with the feeling that this was a truly unique city, and a place that I really wanted to return to one day.

Naturally, we visited all the main sights, The Dome of the Rock, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, The Wailing Wall and the Garden of Gethsemane etc. I was dying for the toilet when we visited the Wailing Wall and briefly considered what would happen if I chose to surreptitiously empty my bladder against the wall. A quick glance around at the insanely serious faces of those there to pray, soon put pay to this idea.

There was a curfew in the city during our time there, but nobody had informed us. This is why we got caught up in a mini riot around 11 o'clock one night, when a bunch of young Arab boys started hurling rocks at a group of Israeli soldiers. We got so engrossed in the excitement of it all, that we ended up getting charged by the soldiers ourselves. Being chased around the narrow streets of Jerusalem by a bunch of marauding military men is an experience that will live with me forever. Thankfully we didn't get caught.

The second of our trips was even better. A bunch of us went up to Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee, or Lake Kinneret as it's also known. Where we hired bikes and spent all day cycling around the lake (sea), stopping along the way for picnics and dips in the water. Halfway around the lake we stopped off at The Butterfly Cafe for something to eat. Here we were to witness a rather bizarre spectacle. As we sat there waiting for our food to arrive, a very beautiful and incredibly large butterfly flew past us and landed on the cafe wall. In an instant, the cafe owner ran out with a hammer and nails, and pinned a nail in both of its wings. He turned to look at us with a large smile on his face as though he had accomplished something quite wonderful. It was only at this point that I noticed that his whole wall was covered in butterfly carcasses. Maybe The Butterfly Graveyard Cafe would have been a more appropriate name.

It was during this cycle trip that I had my first real travel moment. As I cycled ahead to enjoy the open road, I was suddenly hit by how wonderful life was. Here I was on a random weekday in the middle of March, cycling around a body of water that I'd heard so much about over the years. I mean, this was the very body of water that Jesus is reported to have walked on. It doesn't get cooler than that! Well, actually it does, that night we slept outdoors and bathed in the Sea of Galilee the next morning. I can confirm that I don't have the same miraculous abilities as Jesus.

Luke and I had been toying with the idea of leaving the kibbutz soon after my birthday on April 20th, but we had no solid plans. However, three events happened within a short space of time, which were to accelerate our departure. The first of these occurred one evening as Luke and I where leaving Goshen Land with David our soldier friend. As we stepped into the main street, we became aware that two guys in army attire were moving in to attack David. With lightening speed Luke sprung to his defence. In one smooth action he walloped both soldiers in the face with two accurate punches. This was my queue to jump into action, although I hasten to add, that I am not the man that you want to back you up in such an occurrence. My terribly inaccurate punch missed both soldiers by a good two feet and I ended up landing in the gutter.

By the time I had dragged myself out of this unfortunate position, Luke was being chased by the soldiers up the main street of Rehovot, with David in close pursuit. The chase ended by a restaurant at the far end of the street, where Luke was hit over the head by an outdoor table. It was all over when I arrived, and Luke was lying in a pool of blood. He had to be taken by ambulance to the local hospital, where he received stitches to his head wound. This news was relayed back from the hospital to the kibbutz, thus adding further fuel to our already roaring fire.

A week or so later, I was to test the kibbutz volunteer leader's patience even further, when I decided, one Friday afternoon after work, that my mind was stronger than a bottle of vodka. This was absurd because I generally get drunk off a few beers. We were sat outside on the common patch of grass in front of the volunteer’s huts, when I suddenly jumped on a chair to preach my ideas to the rest of the volunteers.

"It's all in the mind," I shouted as I gulped from the bottle.

"I can drink ten bottles of vodka and still be sober," I announced with conviction. Needless to say, within 30 minutes, I had fallen off my chair multiple times and was totally naked. I did however stand by my convictions and continued to preach my mantra of "it's all in the mind," until a group of volunteers decided that they had seen enough of my manhood, and put me to bed.

Things got worse. A football game had been scheduled between the kibbutz volunteers and the kibbutzniks, and was taking place as I slept off the vodka. Somewhere in the second half I miraculously woke up and wandered naked into the middle of the football pitch, much to the horror of the men, women and children who were watching the game. Once again, I was captured and put to bed, only to wake up a day later, with strawberries and cream around my John Thomas, and a toothbrush rammed up my arse. I rightly assumed that people had been offended by my naked shenanigans, and this was their revenge.

The final mishap which put our stay on the kibbutz in jeopardy occurred one afternoon as I was attempting to climb an orange tree. As I stretched up to get higher into the tree, something snapped in my back and I was left in agony. Friends helped me down from the tree, where I lay in pain for the next 30 minutes, until I could muster up enough energy to get myself to the kibbutz doctor.

The news wasn't good. The doctor informed me that I had probably slipped a disc and that I should think about going back to England. This did not fit in with my future travel plans at all, I argued with him. To which he said "I can only give advice Mr Mitton, but if I were you, I would think about getting a flight home as soon as possible to get some professional help with your back problem." He then told me to have a word with Varda the volunteer leader, to try and get put onto an easier job the next day.

I had a word with Luke instead, and he agreed that this seemed like a good time to leave. My back was in agony, his head was bandaged, and images of my naked body were still firmly etched into the minds of all those who had witnessed me streaking. Besides this, my vodka consumption had reached such levels that my dreams were being converted into nightmares by the devil himself. Demonic laughter was filling my sleep with fear.

Within the week we'd packed our bags, and were ready to leave Kvutzat Schiller. It had been a wonderful experience, but it was time to move on.

Leaving the kibbutz was difficult though, and this was why. On the kibbutz we were surrounded by people from all over the world who all had exactly the same status. OK, some may have been there for a lot longer and therefore had worked their way into a better job. But on the whole, everyone was equal and got the same pay ($20 a month). On the kibbutz we got up early, worked until lunch and then we were finished. For this work we were supplied with somewhere to lay our heads, three square meals a day and all our basic necessities. For example, our laundry was done for us, we got free toilet paper, free matches, free soap and free condoms (not that I needed them). Many people who went on the kibbutz had never been away from home for an extended period of time before. The kibbutz therefore became their surrogate family.

So, on April 30th 1989 we collected our money from the office safe and headed through Kvutzat Schiller's gates for our final time. We knew that this was when the travelling would really begin. Luke and I, looked at each other, did our secret handshake and headed off down the dusty road in the direction of Rehovot. From where we would catch a bus to Eilat. Joining us on the trip was Renata, a girl from Holland. I didn't know at this point, but a few years later she would be my girlfriend and we would live together in both England and Holland (funny how life turns out). 

As we made our way towards the bus station in Rehovot, my mind suddenly became all consumed with the Whitesnake tune - Here I go again. I burst into song, and was instantly joined by the other two.

An' here I go again on my own (not strictly true).

Like a drifter I was born to walk alone.
An' I've made up my mind.
I ain't wasting no more time.

Who would have known that a week later, Luke and I would have parted ways and I'd be heading to Egypt with Renata? We can never predict what paths our future will take! One split second decision can have such an impact on the rest of our lives.

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