Alone in the Desert with Camels
As a fiercely independent woman, it felt odd when my husband and I packed up and moved to Be’er Sheva, Israel so he could attend medical school. I had always been the one leading the travel charge, packing up to travel through India or China or drive cross-country with friends. But since we were moving for him, I suddenly became a wife in people’s eyes.
To me, living in a foreign country for a few years was a dream come true. A native New Yorker, I knew I needed to spend some time out of my beloved city. I also knew that it would take a serious tug to pull me away. This seemed like the perfect solution. While I got to follow my dream of living abroad, my husband would be able to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor.
Although I was happy with the decision and had in fact urged it, I could tell that even my closest friends and family thought that I was giving up a successful career to be a housewife in a war zone. “But I’m a writer,” I kept reminding them, “I can work anywhere.” Not convinced, they would reply, “Yes, but what will you do all day?”
Once in Israel, I thought the indicting questions would stop. In fact, they only amplified. Israelis are aggressive and upfront in nature, so they have no qualms asking deeply personal questions about how we manage to pay our rent (and how much it costs), why we live in Be’er Sheva, and what I do with myself. Not living in the bustling, hip epicenter of Tel Aviv seems to be a crime above all else.
All of this was whizzing about in my head the day I went out for a bike ride. It was one of the first gorgeous days of spring, a sunny and warm Friday that only hinted at how oppressive the heat would be come summer. Friday mornings are the liveliest in Israel. Men crowd cafes to drink thick, dark coffee, people flock to hummus restaurants to get their fill of the creamy chickpea paste for breakfast or lunch, and the markets are brimming with shoppers stocking up before Shabbat. By late Friday afternoon the stores all shut down, public transportation stops, and everyone, whether secular or religious, retreats to their homes to be with family.
My husband was away and all I knew was that I couldn’t be cooped up on such a stunning day. I had already been to the shuk, or open-air market, to do my shopping, but that wasn’t enough. I wanted to explore. I took out my well-worn map of Be’er Sheva to plot out my route and noticed a path encompassing the entire city called “Surrounds Be’er Sheva,” which claimed to be a 26-mile bike path. Since college I have relied on lone bike rides to clear my head, and at this particular moment my head needed some clearing.
I didn’t plan on biking into the Negev Desert by myself. The map made it seem as though there was a paved path just around the edge of the city. I should have known. Although I’ve only lived here a short time, I have learned that most things in Israel take unexpected turns. And so when the paved path ended and a rough off-road dirt path took its place, I decided to follow it.
I continued, biking away from the city and into the desert. The silence and solitude became more pronounced as the distance between the tall buildings and me greatened, and I realized with a mix of apprehension and exhilaration that no one in the world knew where I was. I texted my husband “am in the desert,” realizing that this gave him very little direction.
Two men on ATVs zoomed past me, interrupting the immense quiet, but then they were gone. A Bedoin family drove by, the car slow moving and bumping over the rough terrain. The children in the backseat waved and smiled to me as they passed. I stopped to take in the beauty of the area surrounding me, this other world that I had stepped into.
When I came across a herd of grazing camels I got off my bike, struck with a sense of wonder and awe. Dozens of them in shades of brown and white, babies and mothers, drank at the modest desert stream and noshed mindfully at the dry grass. There is something majestic about these oddly shaped beasts, beautiful in their asymmetry. And while I’ve seen plenty of camels in my day, locked up in zoos or pulling carts on the streets of Jaipur, this was different.
I sat and watched the scene, feeling as though I had been transported to a different time and place. I was grateful to be able to witness this way of life, which I’m sure will change in the not-too-distant future for both the Bedoin herders and the camels. Open spaces don’t seem to stay open for very long anymore, and land is at a premium.
Meditating on the camels, with the vast, still desert in the background, I began to ruminate on all that had led me to this point. Picking up and leaving my job, friends and family, my beloved New York. And yet here I was, alone in the desert with a herd of camels. Tears welled up in my eyes. For a moment I was sad that I had no one to share this moment with. But then I relished the solitude, closed my eyes and tried to imprint this scene in my memory forever.
And in that moment I was reminded of how comfortable I am by myself and in my own skin. I remembered how happy I can be alone, and was glad that it was just me and the camels. And cheesy as it sounds, it gave me a sort of inner strength, a recharge if you will. I realized that although the impetus for moving to Israel was my husband, the reason I did it was for me.
I also understood for the first time that what I perceived as judgment on the part of my loved ones was just fear. Fear of the unknown as I veered so completely from the status quo to move to a country I had never even visited. Fear that I would be unhappy and bored, a city girl out of her element. I always knew in my heart that they were wrong, and that it came from a place of love, but it had been hard to make such a monumental decision and feel the doubt. In this moment I regained my confidence and all doubts fluttered away. I live in Israel, in the desert, and I get to see the beauty of camels. I made the right decision.
As I biked home, although it was still light out, Shabbat had set in and the streets were empty. I smiled and I reflected on the fact that my little journey had been a mini exploration, a much needed reassertion of self. I am an independent woman – a writer, a traveler, a sister, and a daughter – who is also a wife.