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Travel

Desert Dreaming

7 June 2017

It was one of my first weeks as a volunteer in the desert eco-village of Lotan, as the relentless sun scorched onto my tanned shoulders and I was 20 metres up a date palm, up to my elbows sorting sticky, squashed dates. It was 2 pm, nearly time to climb onto the tractor that would take us back for a hearty lunch of three different types of pasta, two types of tomato sauce and one type of salad: Israeli salad. The other volunteers and I were participating in the usual end of work banter, until Yaki, the kind, father-of-four, Neil Patrick Harris lookalike, communist, rap-loving, crazy boss of the date plantation scaled our tree with his bare hands and said something that would guide my journey in the months to come.

“The desert is more than what you see. The desert is what you feel in your heart.”

Though it is a small community, Lotan contains many hearts and feelings. The people here are either crazy or lost, or both. I’ve never met kinder people, stranger people, or anyone more free. A place where background, age and appearance become irrelevant and all that matters is your spot on the couch in the zula, translated to ‘the place where everyone chills’, or if they’ve run out of the crappy hummus in the dining hall. A place where you can look around and be surrounded by people wanting to hear your story and know your soul, or look at the sky and feel more alone than you’ve ever been. A place where you can see the best and the worst of people, everything laid bare as the sandy plains.

I’ve never experienced highs like these, hours when my face hurts from smiling as much as my hamstrings hurt from picking. Or the windy desert cold, blowing me into the endless, melancholy hours when I can’t leave my bed. I’ve told everyone at home this place is Gan Eden, the Hebrew word for heaven. And towards the end of my time, the Garden of Eden had grown thorny and neglected. But Genesis tells us that Gan Eden was never perfect. Its beauty was a façade for its role in a story, the first story ever told. This place is so full and so empty, this place is a fantasy, but this barren moonscape is more real than anything.

One evening I took a lonely walk to the Jordanian border, the tears streaming from my eyes quickly whipped away by the dry desert air. On my way back I bumped into Judith, perched on a rock like the Cheshire Cat with a cigarette. She was still wearing the impossibly well-fitting overalls she wore to the date fields. “Mon ami,” she purred in her Parisian slur, “sometimes, it is good to be alone”. With a kiss on my cheek, she was gone into the dark blue night. Lucia was seven years older than me, and added an affectionate Italian suffix to my name, which she called several times per meal across the dining room where she worked. She was also eight years older than Judith, who had fallen desperately, tragically in love with her. One night, we crashed a kibbutz member’s wedding at the fairy-lit pool and lay on each other’s stomachs on the grass, intoxicated from the moon. They played games in Romance languages, but could only communicate in English. In the end, Lucia could never love Judith as much as Judith loved being in love.

I’ve talked about politics and poo, I’ve roared with laughter over decibels of voice, and I’ve star-gazed in silence so deep and dark I felt like I would be swallowed whole. I’ve sung Ed Sheeran too loudly at Karaoke night in front of parents and children. I’ve danced to brain-numbing trance music like no one’s watching, at 3 am with two other people I’d never met in the Friday night pub. I’ve made friends to wash dishes with and to race in the idyllic blue pool, and I’ve made friends that were just for that night when they got stung by a scorpion and I had to wait with them for the paramedics.

Dark things happen in the desert, but the sky is too clear, the sun is too bright, refracting its light onto every grain of sand, every blissfully green blade of grass, blinding off that heartbreakingly blue pool, where one afternoon my heart broke. Love is strange in the desert, so pure and so distorted, stroking hands and tired eyes, happily married Rabbis hiding too many secrets to fit into their small white houses. They spill out sometimes, like the rainfall, making rivers of the sand, so soon dry.

I’ve lived a double life: a daily 5am wake-up, eight hour work day grind, caked with sweat and dirt and dry morning lips, sticky with my breakfast of dates, my coffee-stimulated heart banging against my ribs. I’ve fallen into bed after lunch with my skin shades darker than it was in the morning. And I’ve lived in a dream, my heart beating for the sunrise and sunset, and my pupils dilating for the vivid pink and yellow of the sky and the muted gold and brown of the sand. My eyes have burned with the rising of the October super moon with the arms of friends around my shoulders. I have kissed in and I have pissed off the old watchtower, left over from the days when the army was here to protect the kibbutz from Jordanian terrorists. And my skin has filled with goose-bumps from the cold, and also from those two-minute snippets where someone’s soul is showing, bare as those sandy plains, that turned my always bare feet to stone. There was a time where I didn’t wear shoes for six days, a hunter-gatherer of dreams.

In Lotan, sleep is what you do when everyone else has gone, but I was never gone. One night I shook and wept to my friend and her lover, as they watched me draw all over my legs with permanent marker. At 2 am, I always became a master persuader, using my wit and my music to coax someone to stay, just stay up with me for a while. Every single day I was so completely tired that I was dizzy up those trees, a hazy, hollow desert consciousness. I ignored my obligations like a child, and created new ones for myself, ones that were more poetic. I couldn’t wash my clothes, but I could languish on the swing attached to that big tree on the grass, my sun-bleached straw hair flying on the wind, and imagine that I was something else.

The desert wind makes time twist and turn. I knew then how to make five minutes into twenty-five and how to make a second into a moment. How to spend 2 am to midnight talking on someone’s couch and how to lose myself in the wind slapping my cheeks in the back of a tractor and how to say goodbye in that moment before the bus drives away, through the ghostly mountains, up the highway home. The second it’s over, everything becomes a memory. This place will be a memory for me, but I will be much less than a memory in this place. Maybe my ghost will haunt those lonely late night paths between the trees, trying to find someone, anyone awake.

I am no longer a stranger to this desert. But now I’m sitting on the volunteer grass and I don’t really know who I am anymore or what the world wants from me or how to be with people or how to be with myself. And I still struggle to understand how I am perceived, and how to see, and it’s all just secrets that the world is hiding from me, and I think I never learnt how to seek. I am empty and spinning but what I am full of is questions and love.

There is a desert inside of all of us waiting to come out, if only we let it. Maybe not everyone should have their heart floating 20 metres up a date palm, tears falling onto the sandy earth below, while a fellow Israeli volunteer continues her work bemusedly, singing to Bruno Mars. But I have felt the desert in my heart, and it is growing. And I sit here now, in a city desert of my own, more untethered than ever. But the date-thorn scar on my ankle will remind me to taste those fruits in my memories, dancing and crazy and lost.


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