I recently returned from the 2016 Harvard College Israel Trek, in which myself and 47 peers explored Israel on a 10-day trip led by six Israeli students from Harvard. On the third night, we went camping in the desert near the Masada.
“Yesterday, we slept at a four-star hotel. Tonight, we sleep under a million stars.”
After our three-day exploration of Jerusalem, a 2.5-hour bus ride south took us to our tour guide Amir’s house, in the Israeli West Bank settlement Kfar Adomim, to refresh with snacks and discuss our experiences of the day in pods.
The snacks took us on a trip down memory lane: sipping on chocolate milk from bags and crunching on bambas, we caught in each other glimpses of how we behaved as children. (Bambas are peanut flavored maize puffs, similar to Cheetos — did you know they make up 25% of the Israeli snack market?)
People had a lot to talk about in pods. Earlier in the day we had heard from Prof. Reuven Hazan (chair of the department of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Salam Fayyad (former Palestinian Prime Minister), Khalil Shikaki (director of the Palestinian center for Policy and Survey Research), an advocate general representative in the Israeli military (IDF), and the mayor of Psagot, an Israeli settlement in the West bank. My head was spinning from all the conflicting opinions we heard.
Tonight, though, we had a respite from the politics and conflict. We left Amir’s house to go camping near the Masada, a giant rock plateau on the eastern edge of the Judean desert. Thirty more minutes on the bus, and we found ourselves in a barren area with no lights save the floodlights from a campsite that had been set up for us by two helpers. We dumped our backpacks at the periphery of this sole thirty-foot circle of illumination, spread out straw mats, and assembled pita sandwiches that the helpers had cooked for us.
After dinner, Amir showed us how to assemble tents — we were given the option of sleeping in tents or in sleeping bags outside, under the stars. Most of us slept outside despite some of the trek leaders’ anecdotes of scorpions and other critters that frequent the place — and despite our own spotting of a hungry fox who came by hoping to snatch a morsel of the food we were cooking.
On top of the straw mats we placed rectangular foam pads, our sleeping bags, and a few large rocks/backpacks to prevent everything from blowing away in the desert wind. We started a campfire using slabs from old wooden pallets — several people on the trip were experienced outdoors(wo)men, and I watched with fascination as they breathed life into the meager starting flame.
Once we had a robust blaze going, we turned off the floodlights. This was when the magic started.
The entire campsite, including ourselves, was bathed in a warm glow. The monolith of the Masada, silhouetted against the moonlight, watched over us from a distance with its timeless presence. Our anxieties seemed to vanish as we sat around the fire roasting marshmallows s’mores. Some of our talented trekkers played guitar and sang, as the rest of us enjoyed the music and chatted casually with our peers.
Surrounded by darkness, it was easy to forget where we were — a mere 70 miles away in Gaza, an Israeli retaliatory airstrike had killed a Palestinian civilian boy four days ago.
But this one night for ourselves was invaluable.
Looking around, I sensed that this moment was bringing us closer together as a trek than any experience we had had thus far. Over the course of the night people broke off into smaller groups of conversation, exposing their vulnerabilities, sharing their innermost thoughts, and deepening friendships. The number around the fire dwindled as people crawled into their sleeping bags for the night.
I drifted to sleep next to the dying embers of the fire, content with my trek family and tent of a million stars.