Trekking through Southeast Asia is a nearly national ritual for many young Israelis, but now an agricultural institute in the Arava desert is drawing aspiring Southeast Asians to Israel for a different kind of travel-abroad experience.
Located at the northern end of Israel's Arava desert prairie, the Arava International Center for Agricultural Training (AICAT ) is bringing young college graduates to Israel from Indochina - the region stretching from Nepal in the West to Vietnam in the East - for a 10-month agriculture work-study program. Students learn through hands-on experience about Israel's modern agricultural techniques, which they in turn can bring back to their countries of origin.
"The project is amazing, really amazing," said Haim Levite, the training center's academic director, who also employs two students on his own farm growing peppers, eggplants and melons. "Because everyone that is involved with it benefits, no one loses: the farmers, the students, Thailand, Israel and the Arava residents."
From the local point of view, AICAT students provide Israeli farmers with access to an additional labor pool: The Interior Ministry restricts the number of foreign workers allowed into the country at a given time. Currently, the ministry permits only 26,000 foreign agricultural workers, 3,000 of whom are in Arava, according to Hanni Arnon, AICAT's program director. Nearly all of those workers are from Thailand, Arnon said, noting that agricultural workers from other countries are no longer being permitted into the country.
The program is also advantageous to other residents of the region, Levite points out, providing 35 jobs for teachers and administrators in a peripheral region with few job options.
And it's a boon to students from the developing world who hope to soak up a working understanding of high-tech farming practices and save up some money on the side, he said.
Since starting 17 years ago, the AICAT program has been steadily growing and is now up to 550 current students. Levite said he hopes to add another hundred to that figure next year - including Cambodian students for the first time.
Much of the students' time is spent working in the fields. They work five days a week performing agricultural labor on privately-owned farms in moshavim and kibbutzim in the region, and one day a week in classes in the nearby settlement of Sapir.
They are paid by the hour for their labor and receive the national minimum wage, some of which covers room and board, tuition and monthly trips, according to Arnon.
The opportunity to intern in Israel gives students first-hand experience with industrial agricultural methods to which they wouldn't normally have access.
"I saw every aspect of agriculture: how to control pests, how to harvest, how to package, how to save the post-harvest losses," said Amit Kumar Jaiswal, 26, from Nepal.
Added Jaiswal, "80-85 percent [of Nepali farmers] use hand tools, indigenous techniques. Plows are drawn by oxen, harvesting is done by sickle, threshing is done by hand. When I came to Israel, I saw that Israeli farmers have cars, tractors, modern technologies, big farms." Jaiswal, who completed the program in 2010, has since stayed in Israel to continue his agricultural training at at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and and the Volcani Center near Rishon Letzion. He emphasizes that he now has access to the on-site modern facilities necessary for practical training.
"In my first degree [in Nepal], we had only theoretical courses," he said. "We learned modern agriculture, but only in books. We don't have high-technology labs and greenhouses," he said.
Jaiswal notes that Israel's agricultural techniques cannot be replicated exactly in developing countries like Nepal. "But we should learn some technology and make some modifications for our local area," he said. "They can't build greenhouses from the same materials, but they can use bamboo and plastic. Like how you train the tomato to climb, sometimes you can apply that technology to the bean. We can learn general principles."
For some of the program's participants, agricultural training is more than just vocational - it's also intensely personal.
"My father is a subsistence farmer. He works from the morning to the evening, all day in the field," said Indira Paudel, 25, another AICAT graduate from Nepal. "Now my father is 65, and ever since he was 12, he spent his whole life working in agriculture just to provide food. My father wants to develop his farm commercially, but he has no idea how, because he is completely uneducated. So I want to fulfill my father's desire, his dream."
Paudel says she is indeed fulfilling that dream, studying for her master's at Hebrew University and developing irrigation protocols for tropical fruits.
AICAT may be a dream come true for students like Paudel, but it's still hard work.
"We knew about the program from previous students, but we did not imagine that the life would be so hard in the greenhouses, said Jaiswal. "Because we are just students, we thought we would do simple work. We have to work at the same type of hard work as the Thai workers."
"We try as much as we can, but we cannot compare with them, because the Thai workers have been working here for two or three years, some of them even five years, so we cannot reach their level of proficiency," said Mg Mg Hein Tun, 25, from Myanmar.
Even Paudel - the daughter of a farmer and no stranger to hard work - found the harsh climate of the arid Arava to be an added challenge. "Even though I had already worked in the field, it was hard because of the environment, she said. "It was hard to adjust, especially because we came from such a nice environment, from Nepal, to the desert. I thought, how did people start living here without any plants? But after nine months, I started to enjoy even the rocks, I started to love the way of living, the topography, the sunrises in the deserts. I went back to Nepal for three months, and then I came back here. I went to the Arava, and I felt exactly like I was going to my home."
Ultimately, AICAT students say the hard work makes them stronger and more self-confident.
"We learn to have a good work ethic, so when we go back, we will not be the same as when we came here," said Hein Tun. "After being in Israel, it doesn't matter. It's no problem for us. Everything is no problem!"