In 1971, I made my fifth journey through Israel; purpose of journey, a book that never jelled. Tired of being serious and taking notes, I went to Eilath to swim. Outside Eilath, on the bare hills and wadis by the Red Sea, the travelling young of the world congregated, the new-style travellers, the hippies, the young who roam as a way of life, a vocation, I was very interested, hoping for “insights” into travel, and spent much time in a discarded water tank which housed seven of them, and in shacks made of cardboard and tin scraps, and beside campfires, listening.
I was convinced that they smoked hash, a commodity traded by Bedouins, because they were bored nearly to death, and didn’t know it. Hash soothed the gnawing ennui and induced giggling or dreaminess. They talked of little else. Like their bourgeois elders, who swap names of restaurants, they told each other where the hash was good. It is impossible to escape a painful amount of dull conversation in this life but for sheer one-track dullness those kids took the cookie.
They had been everywhere. Their Mecca was India and ashrams and the pure soul-state of the spiritual East. Some had actually made the journey, a tough one without money through Iran and Afghanistan; they deserved respect for guts and grit. I do not intend to go that road (God willing) and asked about the terrain; the name, Khyber Pass, singing its predictable siren song to me. Great, gee it’s great, they murmured. Three words sufficed for the experience of travel: great, beautiful, heavy.
Why, why, I kept asking, bribing them to talk with groceries and Mount Carmel wine. Why did they travel? I wasn’t prying, I only wanted to understand. Yes, I can see why you ran away from Long Island and lovely Copenhagen and Tokyo—who wouldn’t run from Tokyo?—if your parents were heavy. But after you have fled your homes, what do you find? What is it? As their basic rule is live and let live, they were patient with me and my questions.
Only two young Israelis lived in this settlement, taking a holiday from life. And I met only two foreign Jews, Americans. It was a Gentile drop-out transient camp including the Japanese. The Japanese kept to themselves, kept their hillside startlingly neat, kept fit by fierce exercises. They grew their hair long, smoked hash with bright-eyed wonder—the joy of crime—and were in a state of beaming happiness like kids let out of reform school. Which is what they were, all scheduled to cut their hair sadly and return to careers in the Tokyo rat race.
Books were either nonexistent or a hidden vice. No one expressed any interest in man-made beauty; art and architecture were for old squares. They littered the landscape (superb landscape) while condemning Israelis for doing the same. People who foul landscapes do not take their sustenance from the natural world. I decided that what they found were companions of the road but their code forbade them much conversation apart from long-winded stories about how stoned somebody was. Either they despised words or hadn't yet dominated their use. Did they communicate like birds who manage all right with a limited range of notes?
Alone with me on the beach or sitting in a wadi, they were less chary of speech. In their view, they were travelling to find themselves, rather as if oneself were a missing cufflink or earring that had rolled under the bed. They admired those among them who meditated in the lotus position for a fixed period of time each day. Like I mean he’s really into meditation. The meditators were closer to finding themselves. I couldn't imagine any of them ten years hence, having never known such shapeless people.
I asked about their parents; nobody came here from stately homes and filthy riches. A few disliked their parents but most pitied the poor slobs who spent their lives working to make money, for what? Well, to rear these children and give them all the little luxuries like food, clothing, shelter and as much education as they would take. Money orders from home were welcome but accepted as due; the old man worked, he could afford the cash. Work was a four-letter word meaning slavery. They were not going to be slaves of the system.
I can now hear young voices telling me to knock it off, the kids were putting me on. (Did Margaret Mead ever suspect that the Samoans were putting her on?) True, someone who smokes nicotine not hash in such company is like a teetotaller in a saloon. I explained that I had tried pot once, before they were born or anyway lapping up baby food, and once was enough. For twelve hours I lay like a stone statue on a tomb, unable to move or sleep, while a few flies circled round, as loud large and terrifying as bombers. They said probably the vibes were bad. I said the vibes were first-rate, the trouble was me, I was allergic to pot and besides Mount Carmel wine did for me what joints did for them.
They thought I was crazy to smoke cigarettes, didn’t I know cigarettes gave you lung cancer? I said I was living dangerously, like them. In fact, apart from their hash and sex intake, they were living like a Boy Scout’s dream of camping, but much rougher than Boy Scouts’ well-equipped excursions. I think they hardly noticed me, being half sloshed most of the time. In the water tank, daylight filtered through a small square hole in the roof; I was also hardly seen. When a hump of blankets started to hump energetically, I wondered whether the blankets were due to my presence but, after further study, decided that this was daytime style for copulation.
They had no cliques or sets. Even if they thought someone heavy or otherwise a nuisance, they never shut anyone out. Children learn and adults perfect the social tricks for making a fellow being feel unwelcome. They did not practice this sort of unkindness. They were generous; whoever had anything spread it around. These are the good manners of the heart and altogether praiseworthy. I couldn’t tell whether a diet of hash explained a general lack of intelligence.
The girls surprised and amused me by confirming that the secret of success with boys is the same for hippy chicks as for debutantes, has always been the same for all girls: appreciative listening, tender care of male vanity, keeping your place in the background. How to be popular in a water tank. Poor little girls. Physically less resistant than the boys, they were often wrapped in a lonely blanket, coughing their heads off, shivering with fever, weak from diarrhea. If attached to one man, they seemed like Arab women, permanently bringing up the rear. If unattached, they still did the cooking and washed the pots and plates under a distant spigot.
Like birds, they had all winged their way south to the slum they created at the tip of Israel, remarking that it was a pretty good place in the winter, as warm as you'd find. They knew nothing about Israel and didn’t approve of it; the fuzz was heavy. At least they knew something of the cops wherever they’d been, which is one way to learn about a country. At the end of a week, they began to make me nervous; I was afraid I might grow up to be like them.
Thinking of those kids at Eilath has given me a new slant on horror journeys. They are entirely subjective. Well of course. If I had spent any time analyzing travel, instead of just moving about the world with the vigor of a Mexican jumping bean, I’d have seen that long ago. You define your own horror journey, according to your taste. My definition of what makes a journey wholly or partially horrible is boredom. Add discomfort, fatigue, strain in large amounts to get the purest-quality horror, but the kernel is boredom. I offer that as a universal test of travel; boredom, called by any other name, is why you yearn for the first available transport out. But what bores whom?
The young hippies had not been condemned to an indefinite sentence of aimless hardship travel. They believed they were living; the rest of us were merely existing. At their age, I travelled around Europe with a knapsack too but would have thought their doped and dirty communal drifting a horror journey then, as I did now. At the opposite extreme, people enjoy grand culture tours with an attendant charming scholar lecturer to inform and instruct. They are guided round the antiquities of Greece, the Coptic churches of Ethiopia, the mosques of Persia, and other splendors. The companions of the road are civilized and coumiers spare them the trying aspects of travel. I would die of it.