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Lebanons, part 7: The Land

The last chapter in Yuval Ben-Ami’s anti-travelogue: an exploration of places unvisited. (Click here for the rest.)

They say that in the Swiss countryside, one need not wear a watch or carry a cellphone to know the time. Towns are abundant, and each country church sports a functioning clock. Just look over to the next village, and you shall arrive punctually to your next Swiss engagement.

This is accurate only at certain latitudes. There may have been a church in the valley below me, but I was too high up to tell it apart from other houses. The familiar land of rusti and Sprungli, which was still a ways away.

I was headed for green Switzerland, descending there from Switzerland’s own white peaks. I could not go to Lebanon, but I could come here, and was that not an okay deal? Would I have rather had it the other way around?

The Swiss may go where they please on this Earth. Such is the fruit of stubborn neutrality, but so much of humanity is restricted in travel, if only for economic reasons. I was experiencing the human condition. I should learn to love it. There was no greater liberty, I told myself, than the liberty to be in the present moment.

The present moment was extremely lovable. At first the snowy slopes were challenging, but the stick kept me well and the snow soon gave way to rubble, then to gorgeous fresh meadows crisscrossed by streams, where mountain sheep grazed. An entire herd of them mistook me for a shepherd and followed me down a stretch of trail. I took a hilarious selfie.

Bereft of a foreign passport, I could not go to Lebanon, the next door country, nor to Syria, Iraq, Iran (which was particularly high on my sealed-bucket list), any land on the Arabian Peninsula and many in Africa. I would not get to know my own neighborhood well enough to ever truly be part of it. It was tragic, but look at the compensation!

I could be in Switzerland, the world’s least Middle Eastern land. Was it somehow also mine? We make places our own by traveling them, and I have done some traveling here.

In June of 1995, one month after first escaping my land for comforting Europe, I played a song for a baguette at a country bakery in the South of France. I took the bread...

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Lebanons part 6: The Bird

Yuval Ben-Ami’s new project is an anti-travelogue: an exploration of places unvisited. (Click here for more.)

The afternoon dragged on and the fog persisted. I passed the time playing catch with the friendly poodle with chewed up piece of rope, tossing it into the patch of snow outside the hut’s door. Beyond that patch of snow, I knew, were the cliffs. The hut occupied close to a half the rock’s crest, the snow covered the rest. Any false step, and that dog would plunge an entire kilometer, yet he galloped with utter confidence, knowing perfectly well the bounds of his tiny universe.

I thought of Anat and her flat, not 40 square meters in size. She was one year into her two year house arrest when I first walked through that door. I than walked out, leaving her at the threshold in her kibbutz-made plaid slippers.

She was accused of espionage, but was in fact a whistle-blower who exposed war crimes by passing incriminating military documents to the media. She was 23 when her apartment closed in on her, and 24 on December 31, 2010, when a friend suggested we welcome the new year in her flat.

We bought a bottle of fizzy wine and headed for Rabin Square. Walking past the courtyard, we shuddered. We knew we were welcome. Anat herself invited us, but the rest was unknown: Were we being watched? Was the flat tapped?

“There’s no tap,” she assured.

“How do you know?”

“I said things I shouldn’t have, and nothing happened.”

I expected crashing a party, but the only other person in the flat was her aunt, a silent, unseen presence in the other room. Anat’s house arrest conditions required that she never be left alone. Mother and aunt took turns watching over her, a burden that nearly tore the family to shreds.

That moment, with the slippers at the door, will stay with me for years to come. We headed into the night, she returned in for another year indoors, which would be followed by two and a half years at a women’s prison. We walked straight to the sea front, drawn there by reflex, and stared at the blackness that stretched all the way to Gibraltar, all the way across the Earth.

Anat’s cage was temporary, and there were other, shorter term ones. Some lasted for only a few minutes. Such as the Jerusalem hallway...

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Lebanons, part 5: The Smoke

Yuval Ben-Ami’s new project is an anti-travelogue: an exploration of places unvisited. (Click here for more.)

I made a bit of a headway. When the fog parted below me, the dark desert appeared at an exhilarating depth. Moreover: somewhere not far over my straining head, bits of grass stuck out, signaling the approaching end of the sheer cliff. I kept my eyes fixed on them while struggling up. The promised land of promised rest.

There really was grass up there, and a bit of flat soil. I was far from the fall now, engulfed in sacred silence. I sat down to catch my foggy breath and fell into great calm.

This was not, however, the very crest. The soil kept sloping up from here, grassy and more moderate, but still very steep. How far was it still to the hut? There was no telling, not by looking up. It was all fog-blank up there.

I followed the trail along the cliff’s edge and then up through the silent, stony meadow. It seemed promising, until the fog dispersed briefly, and the great cathedrals of creation appeared. The peaks! They were so dark, so silent, and so, so far above me still. These few steps of silent grass were a topographic prank. I was headed for more cliffs, more pegs and metal ropes, perhaps new waterfalls. How much strength was still in me and how much time before dark?

There was still some cheese in the bag, from the farm near Grindelwald. I sat down for another rest and had some. Yesterday’s heat caused it to sweat all its goodness out. Did I really walk in that heat? Was I really here now, a tiny man on a giant slope?

It was so giant, that slope, so truly deadly. I had to push through. No more rests. I climbed fast, strong and careful, rising out of the grass into a rocks colored yellow and blue by otherworldly moss. The peaks appeared again, tremendous pillars of danger, supreme and broad-chested, like the forbidding chord that ends a particularly pious Bach organ piece, then they disappeared again. The next time the fog let off, I saw the hut: a minuscule human abode, perched on a tooth of rock, still hundreds of meters further up. There was no sky above it.

At the top was snow, not fresh, but certainly decent. By the hut’s door were a...

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Lebanons, part 4: The Wind

Yuval Ben-Ami’s new project is an anti-travelogue: an exploration of places unvisited. (Click here for more.)

The three cages: my large one and the two small ones, remained clumsily interconnected. Then Israel withdrew its settlements from the Gaza Strip, and Hamas took over. The siege began, trapping 1.7 million souls in a territory one-tenth the size of Rhode Island, the most perfect, hermetic cage my land has produced to date.

I didn’t want to think about it. I wanted to be in nature, somewhere healthy and just, and I was just in such a place, in all but my mind.

I was in a forest of firs. Forests aren’t my thing. They force you to look at what is near, a patch of moss, a twig. I always desire to look far. I knew the tree line was near again, and rushed uphill to greet it.

To my surprise, once the trees vanished, so did the ascent end. I was at a high plateau ringed by dark cliffs, that extended to the unyielding cloud. The cliffs were washed by countless waterfalls. they gathered into a grand river that rushed through the flat terrain, toward the the thirsty gorge.

Blue and white stripes painted on sporadic rocks marked the trail. I advanced among them, breathing in solitude, the chill, the novelty of a Swiss desert.

Did I need a Swiss desert? I come from deserts, but maybe there are deserts you travel to and deserts you travel from. In any case, I was in bliss. This bliss drove me up a hug fan of gravel studded with patches of leftover snow.  Ahead now was only a sheer rock face and a waterfall.

Blue and white stripes appeared faintly in the fog above me, one atop the other, higher and higher up the rock face. the ladder of trail markers paralleled the chute of water and was very near it. I was about to get drenched.

It could have been worse. I could have not found that discarded hiking stick. As it were, it supplemented a third foot that could rest even on the slenderest hints of stepping room. A gentle drizzle mixed with the fall’s spray. I sang an Irish folk song to keep my morale high, while taking great care not to slip.

There were two sisters in County Clare
Oh the wind and rain!
One was dark and...

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Lebanons, part 3: The Gorge

Yuval Ben-Ami’s new project is an anti-travelogue: an exploration of places unvisited. (Click here for more.)

The next place on the map that had a name was “Schwarzwaldalp”. I headed for it in the cool morning, winding downhill into a small valley. The pastures were dark green, the cows cute. The clouds were low, obscuring how tall the mountains were above it all.

My foot kicked something on the trail, some stick that didn’t feel like a branch. I looked down and found a titanium walking stick. The handle was broken off but otherwise it seemed fine. Nice luck.

Shwarzwaldalp was not much more than a small restaurant and a children’s playground. I grabbed breakfast: heavily buttered dark bread with slices of hard cheese.

Outside the restaurant was a sign detailing hiking trails in the area. The previous day at the Grindelwald tourist information office, I learned a sad truth: crossing the Bernese Alps on foot was impossible. The top of the range was a vast desert of rock and ice. No hiking trail led through it, just as no foot bridges spanned the Atlantic.

There was, however, one blue line that sloped dramatically up a slender shoulder of the range, then curved down into a valley and eventually met up with a road navigable by car. That trail was mentioned on the sign and to the best of my German understanding, was designated: “extremely demanding Alpine trail”. This was perhaps not an Amundsenian adventure, but wouldn’t be cheating either.

I looked up, knowing that nothing was there to be seen, nothing but fog. I was headed into that fog. How long would this climb take? Could I do it in a day? Unlikely, extremely unlikely. Two days? Perhaps. I pictured myself sitting out the night on a rocky shelf in my wind jacket and light wool sweater, drinking handfuls of snow. I could probably do it, but why would I?

Maybe it was the liberty — the land spread so freely before me, vertically, for the most part — but this was still that thing I lacked so much at home: an expanse.

The trail head awaited a few steps to the east, at a place called Rosenlaui. Like Schwarzwalalp, this was not a village, but an old hotel, perfect for my pre-trail toilet needs. Uphill from the hotel was a small hut that offered coffee, hot dogs and bottled water. I asked...

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Lebanons, part 2: The Town

Yuval Ben-Ami’s new project is an anti-travelogue: an exploration of places unvisited. (Click here for more.)

I walked in beauty. I walked in fire. Early morning matured into fully boiling day just as the trail led me from shady forest into pastures. Above me soared rocks in outlandish angles that seemed carefully measured so as not to shield me from the sun. Each village spring was a life saver. One farmhouse advertised cheese. I knocked, craving the cool of their cellar far more than the cheese itself.

Somehow I persisted, climbing to the town of Grindelwald, then beyond it. The mountains grew greater, nearer. Over the cliffs appeared the glaciers that worried Theo. They truly were melting, and water gushed down to the valley. The child of a land of few waterfalls, I couldn’t stop taking cellphone photos and posting them. Likes poured in by the hundreds.

Even at 1,500 meters I remained bare chested, cursing the straps of my backpack and guitar case. Oxygen was becoming scarcer and I rested more and more frequently, taking in the gradually expanding vistas of the valley below me. I had to push through. A lady at Grindelwald’s tourist information office booked me a bed at a hikers’s hut, directly above the tree line. I had to reach it before dark – and did. It was lost in a cloud, the first I had seen all week, and as I stepped in, rain began to pour outside.

The pleasant proprietors showed me to a room with fourteen vacant beds. I sat there with little to do but stare at the torrent. This would have been a great time to write about Lebanon, but I had no computer, nor even a writing pad, and in any case, I had nothing to write about Lebanon. I knew nothing of Lebanon. I have never been there.

Except once, in a sense.

Anna, a German journalist and a friend, smuggled me past the border fence in 2005. The IDF gave her permission to visit Ghajar, a village split between Israel and Lebanon, and to bring a translator along. My German and Arabic are both south of limited, but friendship gets you places.

Here’s how Ghajar got to be this way: It expanded into Lebanon while Israel occupied the country’s southern region, following the war of 1982. No Israeli citizens were allowed into the occupied land, Where the IDF...

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Lebanons, part 1: The Theft

Yuval Ben-Ami’s new project is an anti-travelogue: an exploration of places unvisited.
(Click here for more).

I was in Paris and it was hell. A heatwave beat down on the gray town, chasing people out through windows of old maid chambers. They perched in the evenings on roofs, Gothic spires in view, to sip wine by the light of an exhausted moon. Indoors was too hot, but then, out on the roof was also too hot. My hosts lent me a “wife beater” tank top to let my armpits breath. It did little good.

During the day I went for lunch with my friend Theo. We sat at the bistro’s terrace, gasping for air, digging with little excitement at our tartars. A bulldozer arrived and began tearing up the street, ripping out car-sized shards of asphalt with a harrowing noise, dusting up our food and serviettes.

I decided to leave. Norway sounded appealing, but I had to remain in France. My girlfriend at that time was attending two academic conferences and I was to join her when they ended, down in Geneva. That sounded right. Geneva was naturally higher in elevation, but would be too expensive. I Googled an Alpine city in France, Grenoble. Its weather report predicted an entire week of 38 degrees Celsius.

“How is that possible?” I slapped my sweaty forehead, “Grenoble is in the mountains!”

“It’s relatively low,” Theo explained.

Everywhere was low. I soon learned that the cities of the Alpine region are all situated in deep valleys, only a few hundred meters above sea level. Continental Europe claims not a city lofty enough for a neat midsummer blizzard. Theo checked the weather on his own phone. “Their glaciers must be melting like crazy,” he lamented.

“I’ll have to reach actual peaks,” I calculated, “I’ll go to a village, a mountain village.” What would I do alone in a village for an entire week?

I knew what I would do. I would write a book about Lebanon.

I have never been to Lebanon. I can never go to Lebanon. I can get to Paris, 5,000 kilometers away from my home, and rant about it, I can climb up the Alps for air, and rent a room with a mountain view, but the roads that extend north from Tel Aviv all terminate at in impassible fence. The Lebanese can’t visit me either. The...

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Station to Station 4: The two towers

This series will soon arrive at Nitzana. Doors open on the left. The next stop is Nablus. This will be the last stop. Thank you for riding with Elisha Baskin and me.

(for the full, four part project, click here)

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The country is magnetic. Several energy fields hide in the terrain, emitting the land’s intensity and mystery like orbs in a Tesla experiment. One such field is famously Jerusalem, another, far vaster one, is the desert.

A journey that began in a dusty ditch on a city’s outskirts, now furthers into the wilderness. Elisha and I take a bus from Be’er Sheva into the Negev. The Turkish wartime rails extended south of here, and the remains of a station await us at Nitzana, directly on the Egyptian border.

Nitzana, a Nabatean town, has not been a place of proper human habitat since the ninth century. A train station was built there in 1915, and was literally nowhere-central. It served a remote police station that guarded the empire’s border with the British controlled Sinai, and a hastily constructed hospital where war wounds were tended. The hospital’s ruins can still be seen atop the mound of the ancient town. It seems like a very bad spot to bring potential amputees. Go figure.

History moved quickly. A flood of Union Jack-waving Aussies and Kiwis appeared from the southern wilds and ousted the Turks from the holy land after centuries of dominance. Nitzana station began crumbling almost as soon as it was built. When we arrive there today only the limestone water tower is left to remind us of long lost wars. It sticks out of the wasteland in majestic mystery, much like Arthur C. Clark’s monolith.  We wander over the expanse, finding a few more walls, recognizing traces left by the rails, taking in the silence.

Following the buzz of music and children’s voices at Be’er Sheva, silence seems to be telling a truth about history. We need to listen well, and not limit ourselves to a tower and a wall. We haven’t yet answered this project’s principle question: why are we even doing it? What’s in a station?

We climb the mound, or “tel.” A dry wind blows through the dead hospital’s windows. We are the only...

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Station to station 3: We the living

In a land of rampant commercialism, abandonment isn’t the worst thing that could happen to an historical railway station. Elisha Baskin photographs — and insists on riding the kiddy train.

(for the full, four part project, click here)

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Once upon a time, the good people of this land were able to travel by train from the coastal cities up to Jerusalem. They still can, come to think of it, but nobody does. The trip is twice as long it as it is by bus and the terminal on the Jerusalem end is at Malha, a remote southwestern offshoot of the city. When Elisha and I headed to check out Jerusalem’s historical depot, neither of us even proposed the train, we automatically met at the “sherut” minibus station.

It’s a fairly interesting ride. A man in the front is speaking excitedly in Arabic to the driver for the entire hour-long journey. He’s out of his seat, balancing himself in an awkward crouch, his knees threatening to shift gears. At one point, near Abu Ghosh, he pulls out a stick of hash and singes it with his lighter. We are quite amused.

The station itself promises less excitement. It has recently been converted into a shopping and entertainment complex. No fences or thorns or squeaking stairs await us. Here is home of the ice cream cone and porcelain mezuzahs.

That in itself, however, attests to history. As a child of the 1970s I got to live in two Israels: a largely socialist one, born in 1948; and the radically capitalist one into which it metamorphosed in the 1990s. Elisha was born a decade later and came of age in the second Israel. Being a history buff, she can imagine with clarity what the earlier times were like, but it does demand imagination. The first Israel boasted a single TV channel. Its only shopping mall could be reached by train from the stone structure we are now entering. Now everything is a shopping mall, including this building.

Hopa hopa, here is no Europa

The Ottoman station’s waiting room is occupied by a quirkily designed gift shop. Mainstream Israeli singer Evyatar Banai is playing in the background. “There’s something about places that play Evyatar Banai,” I comment,...

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Station to Station 2: The phantom line

In a strange feat of partial resurrection, half of the railway between Haifa and Damascus is being fixed for reuse. Elisha Baskin’s lens and Yuval Ben-Ami’s pen follow it, focusing on the decaying and embalmed, rather than the freshly welded.  

(for the full, four part project, click here)

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For the next leg of the journey, Elisha and I meet at a train station, a living one. We are hung up on ruins, but Israel also boasts railway infrastructure that is largely modern, functional, and topped with a bonus bit of irony: our red trains are the same used for local service by Deutsche Bahn. Our forefathers fled German trains to establish a sovereign state where we would ride German trains.

The engine of our train dies before we emerge from Tel Aviv, and we remain stuck for 15 minutes or so, but the driver is so apologetic that we forgive. An hour later we are in Haifa, switching to a bus that would take us east, to explore the “Valley Railway.” The rails used to run east of here, linking the coast with Dar’aa in Syria, and with the main artery of the Hijazi railway: Damascus to Mecca.

The Ottomans laid down these rails in anticipation of constructing a major port in Haifa. They run along the Jezreel Valley and past the ancient site of Armageddon. Armageddons around here are a dime a dozen. The empire crumbled soon enough and the port materialized only under British rule. Once the Brits left in 1948, it was the rails’ turn to crumble. The border between Israel and Syria was sealed, the largely rural Eastern Galilee was not deemed worthy of train service, and the locomotives vanished like billows of steam.

Afula’s eggs

Abandoning rails is always a mistake. The fate of towns such as Tiberias and Beit Shean would have been dramatically different had they not been taken off the grid. The Valley Railway is currently being recreated all the way to Tiberias, but for the moment the new rails aren’t functional. We have an entire phantom line to explore and a strangely morbid task: to pick out the dead from the living, to ignore the shining new...

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Station to Station 1: The fenced failure

A journey to the Holy Land’s disused railway stations begins with a sonnet of concrete. Digital and disposable camera photography by Elisha Baskin.

(for the full, four part project, click here)

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There is an old railway station in south Tel Aviv. It isn’t really so old by local standards, being 80 years younger than the city’s first train depot. A concrete edifice of the 1970s, it would hardly delight all eyes. “Tel Aviv south” is no Milano Centrale, oh, and it hasn’t served any lines since 1993. It’s useless.

Nevertheless, not only do I take off a hot September day to head there, but I have company. Elisha is a history adventurer: an archive detective who finagles rare film footage, photos and sound bites related to this country’s past. I told her I plan to explore the country’s disused train stations, and she sent me a strange array of ancient photos related to transport in the Holy Land. They were stunningly random. Here was spectacular company for a random historical journey.

“And the first station is just down the street from your hood,” I mentioned.

“Where?”

“Just past the Kibbutz Galuyot highway bridge.”

“There’s a station there?”

Behold how the past evades even its greatest lovers. Then again, South Tel Aviv Station was invisible from its beginnings. That is what sealed its fate.

I would build on the moon

Here is the brief chronicle of a civil engineering folly: the city’s first train station was opened in Jaffa in 1892, when only Jaffa existed. At one time you could board a train there and travel north to Damascus and as far south as the Sudan.

Following the war of 1948, that station became disused. The young State of Israel sought to decentralize Jaffa, allowing the adjacent Hebrew city to inherit it. The final mile of rails was undone, and trains now only ran as far as a station in central Tel Aviv.

The 50s and 60s saw society and leadership both turn automobile-crazed. City politicians expressed concern over traffic jams and blamed the trains that rolled into downtown. Eventually a new station was planned at a peripheral location, and an architect was chosen: Nahum Zolotov.

Zolotov himself felt uncomfortable with the initiative and...

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Seven Nights 7: The Pub Crawl

‘So we’re going out, and here’s the deal: we’ll only drink in places where people were murdered due to inter-group hatred.’ The seventh and final installment.

For other nights click here.

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One April night in 2003, my cousin Yaron decided he needed a bass player. He was growing as a local blues musician and figured that some accompaniment would do no harm. He told his girlfriend, Shir, that he’s popping over to Mike’s Place, a blues bar on Tel Aviv’s promenade, and left.

He returned shortly afterwards, covered in blood and in a state of shock. While the band played at Mike’s Place, two men walked in wearing explosive belts. The place went up in flames, claiming three lives along with that of one of the attackers. For a reason that remained unclear, the other terrorist failed to pull the trigger. He escaped into the night; his body was washed up by the waves a few days later.

Shir washed Yaron off with the shower hose. The blood came off and no wound appeared — the blood belonged to other people. Nine months to that night, the couple’s first child was born, a Second Intifada boomer and a treasure of a kid.

A dozen or so years later, on the eve of this story’s final night, I invited my friend Michelle for a drink at Mike’s Place. “I’m planning a epic pub crawl that will be remembered in this city’s history. I have been healing nicely from what happened at Jerusalem Pride, but I need a catharsis. So we’re going out, and here’s the deal: we’ll only drink in places where people have been murdered due to inter-group hatred.”

“May I remind you I live in Jerusalem,” Michelle replied, “That is what I do whenever I go out.”

So she was out, but others agreed to come. At 9 p.m. I left for Mike’s Place with a happy song in my head — one that has been stuck in my head ever since picking the name for this series: “Seven Drunken Nights,” an Irish pub ditty. In each verse, a man returns home from the pub and finds another object that seems to belong to another man. His wife denies, blaming his blood-alcohol level:

Ah, you’re drunk, you’re drunk, you silly old fool. Still you cannot see?
‘Tis not...

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Seven Nights 6: Malawi

On its next to last night, the journey leads away from the cities and, in a way, to another continent.  

For other nights click here.

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The papers promised a meteor shower. Here was a great excuse to take a spin out of town. I haven’t been off the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv axis in a while (Bethlehem is essentially a Jerusalem suburb). Nothing sounded more appealing than heading into the dark hills to chase a shooting star or two.

Ruthie was feeling a tad better and encouraged me to head out, but I was unsure. Then a surprise phone call called the shots. My old buddy, Cindy, who lives in Hawaii, urged me to meet a friend of hers on a short visit to the Holy Land. The friend, Nadi, was staying in Haifa, had a car, and was eager to go watch meteors. I stuck with Ruthie for as late as it made sense, then hopped on a northbound train.

It pulled into Haifa just before 11:00. Abby waited in the parking lot. “The climax of the shower should take place just after midnight,” I informed her while buckling up, “How much time and energy have you got?” I asked.

“I need to return the car by 6:30,” she said, “That’s pretty much it.”

This was more than I had bargained for. The Carmel range offers a patch of woodland, the nearest respite from light pollution. but it appeared we didn’t need to stay near. ”So we can go and explore, right?”

“Let’s do.”

All I knew about Nadi on the way up was that she is Malawian. I also knew she is a top class traveler. Rolling out of the city and into the Galilee, I learned that she spent much of her life in the US and was now studying medicine in Boston. She came to Haifa to support a friend, a member of the Baha’i faith, who came to volunteer at the Baha’i headquarters. We spoke of Bahaullah, of Boston and of Cindy for a long while, while seeking a dark spot. There was no such spot, so we spoke of gender issues in Malawian society. We covered the issue nicely, but there still was no dark spot. This country is just that populated.

Bitter coffee

We turned to smaller roads, but even they ended up winding around and through...

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