Once Upon a Bus

If I’m honest with myself, what I’m going to remember most about the past ten days is the bus. There are other images that stick: the slate grey mud of the Dead Sea smeared across our stomachs and foreheads, fishermen in dampened jeans, at work on the rocks of Acre’s ancient harbor, the Tel Aviv skyline unwrapping itself along the beach. (A side note — Israel seems obsessed with water, as I guess drought-burdened places must be.) But above all that was beautiful, or strange, or heartbreaking, I’ll remember the tour bus that carried the fifty-six of us through this country. A bright red and orange bus, screaming “TOURISTS!” and complete with an in-vehicle microphone system. As fellow trekker Madison said to me on day one: “This bus is the vehicular equivalent of the human Guy Fieri.”

Our first encounter with the infamous bus, which served as our home on wheels for the week.
The human Guy Fieri. Do you see the resemblance?

Previous to departure, I hadn’t considered for a moment how traveling with a group of fifty-plus might shape my experience in Israel. But as soon as I exited Ben Gurion airport and saw the Guy Fieri Bus grinning in the parking lot, I internally kicked myself for the oversight. Being part of a group this large meant plenty of waiting, minimal control over my own day, no alone time, and seeing the Holy Land from the windows of a tour bus. My mind immediately turned to the tour groups that wander Harvard Yard every day, all wearing matching hats and following a guide with a neon-colored flag on a stick for visibility. Naturally, when we boarded the bus, there were matching red hats waiting for us on every seat.

Over the course of the week, the frustrations of traveling with a group held fast. Our admirable trek leaders and our Israeli tour guide, Amir, seemed to spend the majority of their time counting us in Hebrew to make sure nobody got left behind. That said, I came to appreciate the peculiarities and benefits of experiencing Israel with a group as large and diverse as ours. For one thing, we dove through a packed itinerary of destinations and speakers that would have been impossible to match traveling alone. My jet-lagged body was also grateful for the many nap opportunities I had on the bus, with the knowledge that our trek leaders were in full control. But, more importantly in my mind, the fifty-six of us, initially relative strangers, came together as a group. Thrown together on an unusual adventure, we developed a sense of collective identity. We saw Israel reflected through mirror of who we collectively were for ten days, a whole made of fifty-six parts, all napping and talking and riding through the country together on the vehicular equivalent of Guy Fieri.

How do individuals become part of a whole? I am thinking of our last day in Jerusalem, when some of us chose to wake early in the morning to squeeze in a visit to the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock. For non-Muslim visitors, the complex is accessible via a wooden walkway that extends over the Western Wall. It opens to the public at 7:30AM, so in order to get through security, we left the hotel at 6:30 and were waiting outside the gates by 7. We stood there, bleary-eyed and hungry for breakfast, taking in the view of the Wall, the Temple Mount, and the Jerusalem morning. For a while, our conversations and the whispered prayers of visitors to the Wall were the loudest thing around. Then, a parade of high school boys came scrambling toward us, singing loudly with their arms wrapped around one another’s shoulders, wearing Israeli flags tied as capes around their necks, and dragging large suitcases behind them.

High school boys from a National Religious school, arriving at the Western Wall after a trip to Poland.

Our tour guide, Amir, greeted one student and asked a few questions in Hebrew. Then he turned back to us, and with the air of a detective, said: “Just as I suspected. They’ve just returned from a week in Poland.” He explained that it is common for students in National Religious schools (one of the four Israeli school systems, which are divided by religion) to take a trip to Poland to visit historic sites associated with the Holocaust, namely former concentration camps. Fresh off the plane from this tour, these boys were concluding the week with a visit to the Western Wall, the center of Jewish religious identity. “I’m glad you’re seeing this,” Amir said to us. For me, that was an understatement. Watching those kids stream to the Western Wall, as if pulled by a magnet, and draped in their nation’s colors, I felt a sudden shiver of understanding. This was, in a nutshell, one very influential way of telling the story of Israel’s existence.

As Radhika wrote in a previous post, “narrative” was an oft-repeated buzzword of our trip. Many of our speakers argued that the Israeli-Palestine conflict, at its heart, is a clash of two mutually-exclusive narratives, each of which lays a claim to the same body of land. But why do these narratives matter in the first place? Why do humans hold so tightly to stories, factual or otherwise? The feminist theorist Sara Ahmed writes that emotions are social phenomenon, felt not only on an individual but also a social scale. Through narratives of emotion, she argues, collective bodies are constructed. America is proud. Israel is fearful, frustrated. Palestine is angry. These sentences, in a strictly logical sense, are impossible. But built on the foundation of a story — be it the Boston Tea Party or the siege of Masada — they gain weight and consequence. Narratives are important because they allow us to imagine collective bodies that feel emotions, and in turn, help us understand ourselves as parts living in relation to a whole.

All this is a lengthy way of explaining why, when I talk about the Israel Trek, I’ll have to talk about the bus. That red-and-orange caterpillar of a bus with its two white antennae is the start of our narrative as a group. We got on the bus, and then… It’s the most obvious way to explain who the fifty-six of us were, together. I didn’t go to Israel alone; I traveled in the company of many other people, and our sense of collective identity and purpose shaped what I saw and how I saw it. The sleepy one-on-one conversations we held on the bus rides are important. Our collective love for Amir, our tour guide, is important. The way we grew together over ten days, learning one another’s habits and backgrounds and baggage (literal and otherwise), is important.

Sometime during the trip, one of the trek leaders told us: “Israel is a land of tribes.” It seems only fitting that we traveled through that land while forming a tribe of our own. Being part of a group — whether as large as a country or as small as a family — guarantees both joys and difficulties. The specific joys and difficulties of our microcosm gave me a new way to think through the problems of forming a nation. In the end, this is the question I began to ask in Israel: how is it that people come together, and how is it that they come apart? For us, it began with a bus.

(Thanks, Guy.)