COVID-19 Kills an Israeli Rite of Passage: The Post-army Backpacking Trip

With the skies closed, the nomadic dreams of a generation have been shattered. Some, however, have found backpacking possibilities in their own backyard

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The view over Machu Pichhu.
The view over Machu Pichhu. Credit: Aaron Mccoy / robertharding via
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

Israel is full of shattered dreams. Ye’ela Kedem, who recently completed her army service, planned to fly off to the Far East for the traditional post-army jaunt. The date of her departure passed a few weeks ago, after she’d saved up for months to pay for her trip. Now she’s trying to figure out what to do.

“It’s a dream that vanished,” says Kedem, a resident of Lahav. “I had a one-way, open ticket. Now I feel as though my life is stuck. I realize that there are people who have bigger troubles, and you might say, ‘What’s the big deal, it’s just a trip.’ That’s true, and every day I find myself apologizing for it, but it’s still really disappointing, and the uncertainty is frustrating. I feel like I’m in limbo.”

The weird situation in which all one’s plans fall apart is forcing Kedem, 23, along with many others, to make some big decisions. “I had to decide whether to switch gears in my life,” she says, “whether to skip the grand tour and start university, or to take a deep breath and relax. I decided not to start school now. I’ll wait until travel is possible again, and in the meantime I’ll keep working. It’s strange, because now I have this unfamiliar feeling, that I can spend money on nonsense.”

According to Kedem, many young men and women who are facing the fact that a journey abroad is not currently an option are asking themselves an important question: Is the big trip something they actually wanted to do, or were they just allowed themselves to be lured into conforming to a norm? For some, confronting that question yielded a sense of relief – they realized they don’t have a real yen for a trip – but many are of course disappointed, with the feeling that the big adventure they were anxiously anticipating has been somehow snatched from their hands.

Many in the early-20s generation are wrestling with similar problems. They did their military service in the knowledge that the next stations in their life would be getting a job, saving some money and then heading off on a long trip of months, even a year. They dreamed of Thailand, or the beaches of Goa in India; about treks in the Himalayas, the Carnival in Rio or the route of the Incas in Peru. No one on this planet can say now when such long, complex journeys will become feasible again, especially when most of them seem to involve countries where the sanitation and health systems are hardly top notch.

So now these young men and women are asking themselves whether they should abandon hope: Should they wait until travel opportunities emerge again, or just forget the whole thing? Should they wander about in Israel instead? Get a job, apply to college, hang out? Those are tough decisions, with, say psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists, potentially important implications for later in life.

It’s estimated that about 50,000 discharged Israeli soldiers would embark on a trip abroad every year, until the world turned upside-down and left them grounded. Since last February, what backpackers have been doing is returning to the country, many via so-called rescue flights.

Backpackers in Bangkok.
Backpackers in Bangkok.Credit: GARDEL Bertrand / hemis.fr via A

The Amsalem Tours and Travel company, which organized many of those special flights, estimates that they alone were responsible for bringing back tens of thousands of travelers. In Peru, they arranged for transport for stranded backpackers in Cusco, a popular destination, to Lima, in a complicated operation involving Peruvian army trucks. Four planes arrived in Lima to fly the trekkers back to Israel. Similar operations were mounted in Brazil and Argentina. In India, backpackers were transported on buses with a police escort from the northern part of the country to Dehi, where they boarded special flights to Israel.

Both those who stayed at home, and those who cut their trips short and returned home, because of the pandemic, realize that such formerly super-popular adventures are neither smart nor practical at the moment. For the forseeable future, long trips to remote locales, such as to little villages in the Far East or to South America, will simply be impossible. Especially if you’re coming from Israel, with its high infection rate.

Caesarea, not Cambodia

Noa Groman from Moshav Tzur Moshe, near Netanya, planned to fly to China this past April, and to finance that venture, found a “priority job” (for newly discharged soldiers) in agriculture.

It’s estimated that about 50,000 discharged Israeli soldiers would embark on a trip abroad every year, until the world turned upside-down and left them grounded.

“I understand that I won’t be able to get to the Far East anytime soon,” she says. “This isn’t a situation where you can travel, especially not to the places I want to visit.” So, Groman has decided to undertake a two-month trek on the Israel Trail. “It’s the best substitute there is,” she says, “and one way or the other I’ll be starting school in another year. The fact that I decided not to pursue my studies now means that my freedom is worth a lot to me. The aim is to enter university as a more mature person. But things are obviously very complicated. This is a worldwide pandemic, so a great many people are suffering. It’s hard for me to look at my problems egotistically. I know I’ll find a way to travel in the future.”

Inbar Gal is in a somewhat different situation. She has already tasted freedom. In January she managed to get to the Philippines, where she spent a month before moving on to Cambodia, then to India for three weeks before returning home to Israel on a “rescue flight” from Mumbai. She boarded that flight with mixed feelings, she recalls now: “It was a relief, because we realized we had to go back home, but it was also incredibly frustrating. Suddenly we realized that we were stuck there.”

It was not Gal’s first big trip. She finished her army service four years ago, and has already taken backpacking trips in East Asia and South America. But even so, she adds, “I felt that I had to have more.” She’s now saving money for tuition or more travel. “I’ll wait another year and then I’ll see,” she says.

New Delhi, India.
New Delhi, India.Credit: hadynyah / Getty Images

According to Liron Bonano Stern, an editor for the website of Lametayel, the travel gear and information chain, those who have recently completed their army service are “a lost group, whose last ‘chapter’ was stolen. During their service they dreamed of a happy ending, on the beach in Goa under a full moon – and then, poof, it’s gone.”

However, alternatives have cropped up in the world of backpacking. While very few people are traveling abroad these days, after the Jewish holidays conclude this week, Bonano Stern expects a large number of young men and women – such as Groman – to set out on the Israel Trail, a trek of about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) covering the length of the country, as a substitute for the grueling routes in the Himalayas or the Andes. Before the increasingly tight lockdown that began before Rosh Hashanah, sales of hiking equipment soared, Bonano Stern notes. People who had never pitched a tent or used a sleeping bag were going camping every weekend; they had discovered a new world and were apparently willing to invest in it. In her view, this is a trend that not only will not fade, but will intensify as coronavirus restrictions are eased. Her expectation is that, with the advent of cooler winter weather, camping and hiking in the country’s south will be especially popular.

Another development that has caught Bonano Stern’s eye is that hikers are looking for companions to join them on their forays in Israel. In the past, the search was for partners for treks in Bolivia or Namibia – but now the venue might be the Nitzana region of the western Negev, or the Golan Heights. Caesarea in place of Cambodia.

“The travel bug hasn’t disappeared,” she asserts. “It’s in waiting mode and is looking for alternatives. Trekking addicts are biding their time, and in the meantime are hiking in Israel or looking for possible nearby destinations. Greece, which was never perceived as a leading venue for backpacking, is turning out to be a treasure.”

If the current crisis prevents a large number of young adults from embarking on their big trip abroad, a whole host of problems – personal and social – could arise in the future.

Long-term effects

Darya Maoz, a sociologist-anthropologist who lectures on travel and human relationships at the Hadassah College of Technology in Jerusalem, has studied the phenomenon of Israeli backpackers in India. They lead a relaxing alternative lifestyle there, Dr. Maoz says, something they feel they are unable to do home. Many expect to undergo some sort of meaningful metamorphosis on their journey, and often it allows them to explore and adopt a new identity. Such trips are undertaken at times of transition in life, she notes, and both the distance from home and the duration allow one to observe life and engage in soul-searching. It’s difficult to take a break like that in Israel, but on a long trip abroad it’s built in.

A maturing young adult needs a time-out to “rebel” against conventions and to search for an identity, says Maoz. Indeed, a trip abroad allows one to turn everything upside-down in their life, since there are no real obligations. Psychologically, such a break from the routine of life is necessary and essential.

Hikers in Hod Akev in the Negev, a part of the Israel Trail.
Hikers in Hod Akev in the Negev, a part of the Israel Trail.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Those who prefer to skip that route and continue to plod along a more familiar path may discover later that there is a serious lacuna in their life, according to Maoz. In many cases they may feel fettered and frustrated. They may begin to realize that they have made some bad choices, and this gives rise to bitterness. In some instances, she says, opting out of the post-army adventure leads to career changes and even divorce. Today there is a concern that if the current crisis prevents a large number of young adults from embarking on their big trip abroad, a whole host of problems – personal and social – could arise in the future.

Maoz: “In many cases, the young people travel to places where they can do anything. Society’s vigilant eye does not rule there, so there’s an intense feeling of freedom. In Israel, there’s no way a 22-year-old can sit around for a year and just stare into space. In India, that’s legitimate. There are periods in life when such things are important and even necessary. Because of the distance, there’s this sense that no one’s looking, which is beneficial for both them and their famlies. In most cases, these travelers return from their journey with a great sense of satisfaction. For society, it’s an excellent deal here: Most of them continue to toe the line, and only a very small group become long-term wanderers.”

The Eilat alternative

The only place in Israel where it’s relatively acceptable to disconnect and lead a do-nothing existence is Eilat, Maoz notes.

The setting there is appropriate; the geographical remoteness and the image of a city where hanging out on the beach is de rigueur, together with a tolerance for light drugs, positions it differently compared to other regions in Israel. “The prevailing image is that Eilat is outside the law,” Maoz says. “In India the feeling is that the law won’t touch you. Drugs are illegal there, too, but young people on the beach don’t think that they’re in imminent danger of being arrested. Accordingly, we’ve seen lately that Eilat has assumed the role of a city of refuge.”

Some solve the problem differently. Shalev Myers, 23, lives in Kibbutz Ein Gedi, along the Dead Sea. He completed his army service two years ago, and was scheduled to fly to Australia, followed by New Zealand, this past April. Everything was canceled. “It’s very disappointing, a real downer,” he relates. “But you can’t stay in that mode. Fortunately, I have a job and a place to live, neither of which can be taken for granted these days, but I’m wrestling with a lot of things at the moment. The urge to travel is just raging within me. I feel that it’s a tremendous deprivation. Obviously we’re not in an ideal situation now, but I know it’s best not to cry over a bitter fate, but just to keep going.”

Which for him, as a kibbutz native, means moving to a big city. He’s hoping to be living in Tel Aviv in the months ahead. “For me,” says Myers, “Tel Aviv is the new Australia.”

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