The Illuminations of Travel

As Charles Marlow navigated up the slithering Congo River in Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, his mind was overwhelmed by fear and uncertainty, his ship the sole light in a river engulfed by “impenetrable darkness.” And in many ways that was me as I prepared for my trip. Though our motives and modes of travel may have been radically dissimilar, our psyches and emotional states could not have been more alike. I also feared that I was venturing into darkness; a world unsafe, unpredictable, and unwelcoming. Thank goodness that my narrative diverges here. Unlike Marlow, it was not my fears that were confirmed, just my ignorance.

When I first told my parents I had accepted a job in Israel for the summer their reactions were what I had expected. My mom dropped the phone, ran to my bedroom and hid my passport, threatening to not return it until school began in September. They both wondered if my New York job search had fallen flat on its face. They pushed for Chicago, claimed to know people who could help me in London, and even pushed a language program in China. But Israel was at the bottom of their mom-and-dad-approved list. It is hard to blame them. Iran was and continues to inch ever closer to a nuclear weapon, and the entire Middle East seemed to be enveloped in a state of revolution and civil war. This was no place for a Harvard Jew from South Florida. Eventually they capitulated and my passport came a few days later. But their hesitations only hastened my own fears and anxieties.

I found it quite strange that my first exposure to Israeli life occurred at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. All El Al travelers must undergo a pre-flight interview. Though the questions are simple, the agents are trained to pick up odd patterns in behavior. So naturally, when the agent asked me to recite my address I told him my school address, not the one in my passport. I panicked, back-tracked, and was certain that the only summer I was having was an unemployed one in Boca Raton. After establishing that I was Jewish, he asked me my favorite holiday. He did not even move his lips when I said Christmas. For some reason he let me through, but as an already nervous traveler to a foreign and threatened land this was an ungracious and nerve-racking introduction.

From the moment the wheels touched down in Tel Aviv, Israel has been nothing short of a series of unexpectedly remarkable surprises. I have long thought the country a vast desert, a monotonous plateau of nothingness on the eastern border of the Mediterranean. But its 8000 square miles, an entire country smaller than the state of New Jersey, boasts some of the most diverse and stunning landscapes the world has to offer. From the lowest point on earth and a mountainous desert in the south to valleys of waterfalls and snow-capped mountains in the north, I saw it all. Israel is one-twentieth the size of California, but within its borders is its own Lake Tahoe, a lower Death Valley, and nicer swimmable beaches.

My ignorance was never so apparent as it was the first day of work. Upon boarding the bus, memories of watching the news as a child flooded my brain. It was strange how vividly I recalled the images of a flaming bus, how clear the newscaster’s solemn voice sounded when he had read the number of casualties, many of whom were young adults like me on their way to work. But as I looked around the bus that morning, not a single person seemed afraid. And they had no reason to be. The last time Israel experienced a suicide attack was more than four years ago. I thought it was a society founded on fear, but the only person afraid on that bus was me.

It was the culture that may have shattered my expectations the most. Military service may be mandatory, but what university is to us the army is to Israelis—a time to bond with your peers and unite for a common cause. Tel Aviv boasts some of the best ham and cheese sandwiches on this side of the Atlantic, and the city’s high tech scene rivals that of Silicon Valley. I have had bacon, turned the lights on during Shabbat, and debated the idea of a two-state solution, all in a country that I thought spurned the secular and opposed radical change.

Had I chosen the summer in New York, or London, or even China, my preconceptions and misunderstanding of Israel would have only continued, my knowledge limited to what the New York Times and Wall Street Journal chose to report on. And for most educated people, this must be the case. Not everyone can visit everywhere. So hearsay, sensationalist media, and our inner emotions allow us to construct a world of falsities rather than truths, of vague conclusions rather than intimate details, of extraordinary events instead of daily life. But in many ways, travel alone can bring light to this darkness.

Samuel J. Doniger ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history concentrator in Adams House.