“I just got to Antigua, Guatemala,” Gabriella tells me, “and I met a bunch of Israelis.”
It’s been the same refrain throughout my daughter’s entire Central America trip. Gabriella participated in a chocolate workshop in Cusco with Dana from Petah Tikvah and went hiking around a Nicaraguan volcano with a large group of compatriots. And every time she’s related this traveling detail to me, I’ve said the same thing:
“Why don’t you seek out people from other countries?”
Gabriella, who’s on her post-army trip, insists she’s not avoiding them. She strolled around Grenada, Nicaragua with James, a Liverpudlian, and had a fascinating discussion about the Holocaust with Kimi, a German girl she met in Salento, Columbia. She and her boyfriend, Din, spent an especially memorable evening in Lima double dating with a Muslim, Iraqi refugee living in Australia and his Australian-born girlfriend.
“That’s what I’m talking about!” I enthused. “Meet more people like that.”
Because to my way of thinking it’s simple: an Israeli abroad who predominantly travels with other Israelis is no different than one who primarily eats hummus abroad. Both activities deprive the traveler of the full travel experience.
When I took my own backpack abroad some 30 years ago, the last people I wanted to meet were other Americans. I can still recall being on a cable car near Interlocken Switzerland, a tableau of striking beauty with pristine, snow-covered mountains, waterfalls and glaciers. The spell was broken when the stranger sitting alongside me said in American-accented English:
“Where are you from?”
When we landed on the other side, I made it a point to get as far away from him as possible. I hadn’t come all this way to hang out with an American.
The highlights of my trip abroad were the afternoon strolling around Paris with a desolate young Iranian refugee studying in Turkey. On the island of Skye, I formed part of a raucous girls’ quartet: A South African farmer’s girl, a curly-haired prelaw student from Melbourne and a soft-spoken girl from New Zealand whose accent made her English barely intelligible.
But Gabriella, like so many of her fellow sabras, readily admits it: she prefers hanging out abroad with Israelis. She loves the commonality of their experiences and that they can always find someone they know in common.
“The Israeli travelers also want the same things I do,” she says.
“Really?” I asked. “The Israelis are the only people in the world who like hiking and clean and cheap lodgings?”
I got her there, I think.
But the main reason, and the one I can’t completely refute, is that traveling with other Israelis makes her, a lone traveler, feel secure. When Israeli meets one of his own abroad there is a tacit assurance that they will look out for one another. It’s a beautiful concept and alien to my own experience. When I met Americans abroad, I didn’t trust them any more than any non-Americans.
To illustrate the point, Gabriella related the tale of the two nights she suffered from traveler’s tummy. The first night she was in a room of foreigners who barely acknowledged her discomfort and one of whom even complained that my daughter’s constant bathroom trips kept her up. When she was in a room of Israelis they brought her bottles of water and made sure she was comfortable the next day.
As the worried mother of a lone backpacker flitting around the Third World, I obviously like knowing that someone is looking after my daughter. And yet. A stomach ache usually lasts only a day or so. Our travel experiences can last us a lifetime.
The tendency of Israelis to travel in packs also has adverse effects back home. Israelis are exceptionally well-traveled compared to many nationalities. But this hasn’t translated into a corresponding curiosity and openness to different cultures residing within our own country. As someone who immigrated here, I have found many Israelis completely uninterested in learning about the culture I left behind. An interest in the “other” is something that can be learned and cultivated during all these post-army trips that are so popular with our young people.
I have suggested to Gabriella that she will be spending the rest of her life with Israelis. Now is the time to learn about the rest of the world’s denizens. So, if she’s in a youth hostel and hears the familiar strains of Hebrew, I would urge her to smile in recognition at the familiar sounds, but turn towards those speaking unfamiliar languages. That way when she returns home she’ll feel that she really traveled.