On a 'Disappearing' Indian Island, an Israeli Helps Women Gain Independence

Arrivals / Departures: A development worker who found purpose in life while backpacking in India prepares for the next chapter; a circus performer who spent five months in the Israeli desert recalls how she met her boyfriend at an acrobatics conference.

Gili and Maya Navon at Ben-Gurion International Airport.
Tomer Appelbaum

Gili Navon, 32, lives in Nataf, and Maya Navon, 24, lives in Tel Aviv; arriving from Larnaca, Cyprus

Hello, can I ask where you’re returning from?

Maya: From a family holiday with parents, three sisters and three partners/husbands. It’s the first time we’ve done this.

Gili: It was good, it was a lot of fun.

Maya: We’ve never all been together on a vacation like this. Everyone is usually very busy and working, but suddenly we found a window and we just went.

Gili: Even though you came to visit me.

Where did you visit her? 

Maya: In the East.

Gili: I’ve been going back and forth for the past four-five years. A few months here and a few in Majuli, an island in a river in northeast India, in Assam state.

Doesn’t sound like the standard Goa trip.

Gili: It’s a remote, isolated region of India. I manage a local NGO, mainly on behalf of women from the Mising tribe. Socioeconomically, the Mising are very low, beneath the caste system. But they are peace-loving, sociable people who never resorted to violence to gain independence. You have to understand that Majuli is a disappearing island; there’s soil erosion, and people are losing their land and can’t cultivate it. I work with them to create organic local agriculture and alternate sources of livelihood, so they won’t be dependent on the eroding earth. We’re trying to make it possible for them to stay. We started a weavers’ cooperative – here is a silk scarf that they made.

Maya: Until I visited, I didn’t understand the scale of the changes she created.

What did you see?

Maya: Someone from the NGO picked me up when I landed. We drove with my backpack on a motorcycle and then took a ferry to the island. The driver parked in front of a bamboo house and Gili ran out to me.

Gili: The more established people have regular houses, but the Mising usually live in bamboo homes that are elevated above the ground. It’s a lovely green area.

Maya: Lots of water, small cows, people on bikes, children running about.

Gili, how did you get involved in Majuli?

Gili: I backpacked for a year in India, I studied Sanskrit and yoga. I really loved India and it loved me, and when I got to that region, with all the tribes and communities, it grabbed me. I was looking for something more challenging and less self-evident, a way of life different from anything we know. The Mising live in communities in villages; the children are passed from hand to hand, the grandma lives in the home. Everything is intertwined in the village. I studied anthropology and read every study about the place, and then I enrolled for a master’s degree at the Hebrew University [of Jerusalem] in a community development program called Glocal, which is a combination of “global” and “local.” Then I established the NGO with the assistance of my adviser from the university, who is still helping me, even though officially the project ended four years ago.

What exactly do you do?

Gili: I look for volunteers, raise money. We have a Facebook page called Amar Majuli, meaning “our Majuli.” It’s a platform for them to create things.

Maya: There’s a store there, they established, where they sell their woven products. Many tourists go there specially. A local woman manages the place, and a few young girls live with her ...

Gili: Unmarried women who don’t have a home. It became a women’s hostel, and the cooperative also gives them a place to be. Even though the women of the tribe are even lower in status than the men, they are very strong and they have a vision. You just plant the seed and they push the project forward. Now I’m planning not to be there for a whole year, because the NGO is being transferred to young hands. It is locally registered and there’s a local board. They need every opportunity to become independent.

What will you do now?

I am looking around. I have a partner in Israel and a home that I love – that was the hard part. There was a great deal of sacrifice and patience, especially on his part.

Marijke Vermeir at Ben-Gurion International Airport.
Tomer Appelbaum

Marijke Vermeir, 29, lives in London, flying to Ostend, Belgium

Where did you say you’re flying to?

After the chaos in the Brussels airport, with the explosions and all the people killed, flights are landing elsewhere. It’s scary. I grew up in Brussels.

Are you going to visit family?

And friends. I was here for five months, in Mitzpeh Ramon, at Hangar Adama, doing a dance course.

You’re a dancer?

I work with the body, as a physical performer. Combining the two is good.

Could you explain?

I perform with a mini-circus, four people, two clowns and two acrobats. We also do family events, and I do acrobalance.

I’m still not sure I understand.

Acrobalance evolved from acrobatic circus exercises. I practiced for years and taught circus arts in Belgium. I really loved acrobalance and wondered how I had gone without it all my life. There are usually two people involved in acro, one as the base and the other as the flyer. Sometimes there are three. In Spain they do pyramids with lots of people, but I’ve mostly trained with only one.

You’re usually the flyer?

Yes. Women can be the base but it’s usually men. My base is a man; I moved to London because of him.

For acro or for love?

First we did acrobatics together and then we had a relationship. We met at an acrobatics conference. They have them in places like Holland and Germany, and now there’s one in Israel. I was at a conference in France – 10 days of acrobatics workshops, and in one he and I started to do acrobatics together. It went really well, it was exciting.

Is it rare to find a partner for acro?

It’s hard. It also depends on the level of skill and experience. You need to be coordinated, and there’s also chemistry, like with every person. A partner can be really good acrobatically but very boring. Sometimes you meet someone really strong, who can throw you as high as the ceiling and catch you, but no more. There’s no fun in it.

Is there a playful element in acro?

As in other areas of art. First you learn the basics, and once you have a better understanding, you can improvise. The more you trust your partner, the more creative and inventive you can be.

How did you become a couple?

After the conference we went to London, to see how we would do in a different environment, without 100 enthusiastic people around. To see whether we still liked what we did together. We did, so I stayed, found a job and afterward we became a couple.

Overnight? By surprise?

It wasn’t all that much of a shock when it happened. You can write that there were fireworks and surprise, but really, it just felt right. We still work together. He visited me here twice; after Brussels I’ll go to London.

Was it hard to be apart for five months?

At first. But it was a good thing. I had a serious injury at the time, and felt I needed time to recover, physically and mentally.

How were you injured?

At an acro performance. I didn’t warm up enough beforehand. We did a trick and I didn’t land well. I couldn’t get up, my elbow was injured and it didn’t heal well. Now my arm is weak and I can’t straighten it. That’s a major thing for someone who stands on her hands a lot. Acrobats look for particular forms and physical harmony. After the injury it looks different and feels different.

Isn’t danger always lurking?

In training you tie something on your hips, to steady you, in case the trick doesn’t work, so you won’t land too hard; there are also spotters. But after you’ve done the trick 100 times, you perform without a safety net, and sometimes things happen.

Were you angry when your partner didn’t catch you?

It can happen. You do your best. That thought comes into your head sometimes, but it’s like jealousy: If you know that it’s stupid to be jealous, you can stop it from dominating you. You can break off the thought and push it back into the hell it came from.