When Workaway Doesn't Work
On Wednesday December 12th, I returned to Tel Aviv at roughly 9:10pm, nearly 24 hours after I left it. Confident that I had made the right decision, I returned to Old Jaffa, my previous stomping grounds, a little colder, but not in the least worse for wear. Just a day before, I had departed with much the same level of assurance bolstered by nervousness and excitement. I had never done anything like it before and by the end of that first day, it was clear as to why. But before this revelation, I was overwhelmed by the possibility of free rent and adventure that I hadn’t thought the situation all the way through. And I was about to pay a high price for my naiveté.
On Tuesday December 11th while I was riding in the taxi towards the train station, my driver asked me where I was heading. So, I told him. “Bet Shemesh.” I replied in the best Hebrew I could muster. “Bet Shemesh?” he replied properly articulating the name of the small city. “Bet Shemesh? What is there to do in Bet Shemesh?” Feeling somewhat slighted, I replied that I was going to work on an organic farm. “Oh.” He replied.” Satisfied, but not fully convinced.
Nevertheless, I excited at the prospect. Israel, as one of my friends had warned me, was far more expensive than I had anticipated—at least Tel Aviv was. So, I was delighted by the possibility of spending my time here rent free and seeing another part of the country that I may have missed otherwise. And in that respect, I was not disappointed. But in others…well. We will get to that later.
Three hours later, I found myself in another Taxi heading to Mata and even smaller village in a few miles away from Jerusalem. I smiled at myself somewhat and thought about how normal an occurrence situations like these had become to me. After twenty pensive minutes, I arrived at a small compound that could only be called a bohemian’s paradise. And in that moment, I realized that perhaps I wasn’t as bohemian as I once thought.
There was beautifully arranged “stuff” everywhere. And when I say stuff I mean it in the truest sense of the world. There were piles of windows and doors in one corner, an outhouse with a flushing toilet near the entrance, a seating area for a restaurant and an indoor enclosed kitchen on the other side of the yard. All this overlooked the rolling hills in the distance. The entire situation was beautifully bizarre.
I was greeted by my host’s wife. A shy and somewhat unattractive woman who lead me to the sleeping quarters in the cellar. And it was then that she dropped the first bomb. There was no wifi in the volunteer’s quarter. It was then that a small part of me began to protest. But before you write me off as a spoiled and entitled American, might I remind you that I make money by teaching English classes on the internet. So privacy and internet access were essential to my continued work success.
She mentioned that the internet would work perfectly in the outside restaurant area. The little voice then grew even louder. I couldn’t teach outside. There were far too many variables to account for: consistent lighting, ambient noise, wind, rain and, of course, cold. While it is true that Israel is in the Middle East, it is not true that the Middle East is always warm. Especially up in the hills where I was located. As I sat down to my first class, I battled the wind and the clouds for the attention of my students. And suffice it to say, unfortunately, I did not come out as a the winner.
Still, being the well raised daughter of my mother that I am, I tried my best to be polite and show as much appreciation as possible. So, when he told me that he was heading to Jerusalem to buy meat, I was more than eager to come along. I will detail that excursion in a later post, but that being said, it was one of the highlights of my experiences abroad, so far.
We drove through checkpoints and anyway streets to arrive at a small butcher shop in the Palestinian area of the city. As my host talked to the butcher, I actually started to tear up a bit. While I was no where near the old city, I had still made it to Jerusalem. Jerusalem. A city whose name I had come to know as well as I had my own. I couldn’t believe that I was actually here! But more on that to come.
A few hours later after the car was full of meat and I had eaten the best falafel of my life, we returned to the compound. Inside the main house we stored the food and I was introduced to some of the children as well as my fellow volunteer. As he introduced us, he mentioned that I was a dancer. My host suggested that I show them a bit. I declined as politely as I could, but inside my inner voice was screaming. It seemed that no matter what, here I’d always have to be “on.” Somehow working or performing gratitude and/or actually performing seemed to be an integral aspect of this job. It was all just too much.
I knew then that this arrangement definitely would not work. But since I had just gotten there and had no place else to go, I thought it best if I at least stay the night. With nightfall, the cold arrived, but I wasn’t worried. The wife had assured me that with the propane heater, the cellar was actually quite comfortable. So the other volunteer and I carried a propane tank down to the basement, plugged it in and turned the clock back to 1998. As she read a book, I returned to the restaurant to continue working. But it wasn’t long until I had to concede defeat and return to the one region in the house that didn’t have internet.
I went back inside and exchanged brief hellos and introductions with my fellow volunteer. She told me that she was a kindergarten teacher from Estonia and had taken to traveling the world after a bad breakup. She was also an Ecstatic Dance devotee who was heading to India next to join a dance community there. She was nice enough, but oddly passive aggressive. I wasn’t sure whether or not she was someone that I wanted to get to know.
At around 8:30, she told me that she would be heading to bed soon and suggested that I should probably join her. So I climbed under the three sets of blankets and was set to settle into my first and last night there.
But around an hour later, I needed to use the toilet. Which, unfortunately, was located, outside near the entrance to the house. While the toilet did flush and there was an LED light inside to light the small space, there was no form of heating. And by this time it was freezing.
I returned to the cellar climbed into bed. But despite the three blankets, I felt the temperature around me drop precipitously. And throughout the night it continued to drop, and drop and drop. After a while, I realized then that the Estonian girl had turned off the heater. I didn’t know why, but as I am not generally one to rock the boat, I didn’t turn it back on. Perhaps these were the rules of the house, or perhaps the Estonian girl was just continuing in her passive aggressiveness. Nevertheless, I can now say that I spent the coldest night of my life in a cellar in Israel while working as a volunteer in a makeshift restaurant and farm.
The next day went about as well as expected. I awoke just minutes before breakfast. And despite the brief shower and dressed, I was still confronted by the Estonian girl about being late. She saw it necessary to remind me of this despite the fact that she walked in on me getting dressed. When I was finally dressed, I glanced down at my clock. I assumed that I must have taken far longer than I imagined the get ready. But the clock read 8:08. When I walked into the kitchen, my host was still making breakfast. And even though I was technically late, since no one was working or even eating, I could not figure out what the big rush was about.
Estonia and I ate in the restaurant area. Despite all the struggles there was one upside to this place—the food. It was by far the most delicious hummus that I have ever eaten. In addition to hummus, there were tomatoes, pita and olives on the plate. A meal as Mediterranean as it gets. I mentioned to Estonia that it was probably the healthiest breakfast that I had ever eaten. She smirked and replied that she didn’t consider white bread healthy. It was then that my suspicions about this girl were confirmed—she was a huge bitch.
Read about what happened next in part 2 next week.