5 Star Camping

by Brian on May 10, 2007

in Only in Israel

I don’t get what people like about camping. The tents are small and stuffy, the ground is hard and bumpy, and the sun rises too early, leading to sleep deprivation in most people I talk to. Everything gets dirty when you’re camping and if you’re near the beach, sticky too. There are inevitably mosquitoes and various creepy crawling bugs.

The last time we went camping was a total disaster, for me at least. Three years ago, we took the family on a camping trip to the Dor Beach south of Haifa for Independence Day. The beach was a sea of wall-to-wall tents, and merry makers partied into the wee hours of the night playing loud disco and trance while grilling up a pasture full of steaks and burgers.

So when my wife Jody proposed that we go camping again, at the very same Dor Beach, I was less than enthused. But this wasn’t just regular camping: this was camping for a cause – in order to participate in the three-day “Hike for Hope” sponsored by the Tsad Kadima non-profit organization which helps kids with cerebral palsy.

Marc and Ellie Render, long time friends of ours, co-founded Tsad Kadima to bring the work of Austrian-Hungarian physician Andras Peto to Israel. Peto developed a concept called “Conductive Education” to help chronically ill and disabled children “take their lives into their own hands.”

Peto believed that motor dysfunction becomes deeply rooted in CP children through a combination of “over helpful” surroundings and a lack of “success” in achieving small development steps, like reaching out for a rattle and having it make noise. This negative learning experience ultimately leads to apathy, Peto felt, who proposed a central figure, called the “conductor,” to replace the existing plethora of medical therapists and help guide the child to finding his or her own solutions to overcoming limitations. Marc and Ellie, along with their daughter Miriam, traveled to Budapest and, says Marc, “within 3 months, Miriam was talking, sitting independently and beginning to practice standing alone.” Eventually over 200 Israeli families uprooted themselves to spend long periods of time in Budapest.

Tsad Kadima as a parent-run organization was founded in 1987 and initially sent 10 Israeli students to Budapest for four years to learn (in Hungarian) how to be “conductors.” The program is now run mostly in Israel and today there are Tsad Kadima centers all over the country treating some 250 kids and young adults on a full time basis. A practice apartment for independent living set up recently is an Israeli innovation and the only one of its kind in the world. Tsad Kadima is a finalist for this year’s Education Ministry Prize.

The Tsad Kadima “Hike for Hope” is a fund raising effort like those from Alyn and Akim where participants either bike or hike and others sponsor them. Our goal was to raise a minimum of $1,500; we exceeded that thanks to all the generous individuals who responded to our email request.

And so it was that last week, 40 of us (we left the kids at home) set out for a three-day tiyul. We stayed to the Israel Trail, which stretches in its entirety from Tel Dan in the Golan Heights to Eilat at the tip of the Negev desert in the south. Our segment went from the Movil Junction, near the ancient ruins at Tzipori in the lower Galilee, up one side of Mount Carmel and down the other, and then continuing south around Zichron Yaakov finishing up on the beach at Caesarea. The route was scenic but also challenging, and we walked an average of 20 kilometers a day. We were up at 5:30 AM and on the trail by 7:30 AM, hence the need to camp nearby.

Tsad Kadima helped take some of the sting out the prospect of going camping again by making it a truly “five star” experience. Catered meals awaited us each lunch and dinner. Our repast included prime rib one night and a lavish barbeque another. When we returned weary from a hike, there was hot soup and beer to greet us, not to mention cake and coffee. Marc told us that despite all the walking, many people actually gain weight during the trip!

When we first arrived, our tents were already set up with numbers affixed to each – the whole thing was like a camping version of a moderately-priced hotel. To make matters even more comfortable, every tent had a couple of thick mattresses upon which we placed our sleeping bags – a far cry from the hard ground I remembered from my previous time. There were hot showers and, one night, a team of four massage school students came to give us all a rub down or a foot massage. The way I figured, if you have to camp, this is the way to do it.

Imagine then my disappointment when I learned that on the third night of our trip, the Dor beach was also to be the home of a massive festival with thousands of revelers. Unbeknownst to the Tsad Kadima coordinators, the “Sagol Festival of Meditation and Love” was booked for the same time slot. Already on our first night, the Sagol crew had started hammering away to build the tents and enclosures that would house the festival. My mind shifted into overdrive: this was going to be even worse than our previous trip – last time was just amateurs compared to the noise that Sagol would undoubtedly generate.

Nevertheless, I did what I could to make the best of it. I hit the sack early on the first two nights and focused my attention on the stunning views of Haifa Bay from the top of the Carmel Mountain range. I schmoozed as we hiked and got to know some great new people, even practicing my ever-flagging Hebrew a bit. I thought about the good cause for which we were willingly blistering our toes.

When we returned to our campsite on the third night, the place was packed with Sagol-ers. To make matters worse, the hot showers had been enclosed in the festival grounds. The good news: as a result, we could wander the fair grounds freely if we wanted. Which is exactly what we did.

Sagol is part of a trend in Israel to cater to the post-India post-army backpacking set who will do whatever they can to recapture the free and easy days sipping hot chai masala and feeling the warm embrace of doing absolutely nothing. The festival “movement” in Israel attracts some 50,000 participants a year. Sagol has tai chi workshops, yoga classes, performances of dance and alternative theater, and lots of music. Festival goers range from dread locked new age hippie types to died in the wool middle aged Israelis who have somehow got the India bug. Although we didn’t see it, there’s apparently a lot of nudity too.

When Jody and I arrived, the opening “circle” was going on – a guided movement and dance celebrating the four seasons followed by a rousing performance by the Sagol Group, the festival’s in-house band that plays Eastern-tinged rock and roll set to lyrics from Jewish sources. Jody and I grooved to the beat and soaked in the unique atmosphere, a slice of a very different Israeli life. The audience danced and hugged and sang. It was actually quite magical. I was taken back to my own India days, sitting by the lake in Pushkar watching the sun set while chowing down on paneer tikka.

By 11:00 PM, we headed back to our campsite and were shocked to discover that it was actually…quiet. Sagol’s campers were, apparently, also interested in a good night’s sleep. All that worry had been for naught. We settled into our tent and in the morning, set out for the third and final hike, culminating in a wheelchair/walking tour of the ruins at Caesarea with some 20 of the kids from Tsad Kadima who had been bused in for the event.

It was, all in all, about as good as camping gets, for an important cause and with the added bonus of an impromptu visit to a festival from another world. But the next time Jody and I go camping, I think maybe we’ll try to find a secluded campsite on the top of some mountain, just the two of us, with no festivals, massages, or 5 star meals for miles around.

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