I am a yoga practitioner and a yoga teacher, so an announcement about a training in the Arava desert caught my eye. What better place than a desert could there be for meditation? There are many stories of the sages who, throughout known time, took themselves off into the desert to be still and to reflect. And so, after some research on logistics, the weather and current affairs, I booked – my destination Israel.
Two flights adding up to nine hours, including a stop in Addis Ababa, took me from Nairobi to Tel Aviv. It is a fascinating port city, merging tradition with modernity. It consists of the ancient town of Jaffa, or Yafo, new skyscrapers, and many technology businesses. For thousands of years, this port played a crucial role in bringing in materials to build and support Middle Eastern towns – the most famous of them, Jerusalem, 60 kilometres to the east.
To the north of Tel Aviv there is nothing but sand dunes, and the trails of camels carrying the ancient city’s famous oranges to far away markets. In the last decades, water has transformed these dunes into a landscape covered by greenhouses and fields, growing a huge variety of fruits and vegetables. Lovers of Middle Eastern food can indulge in hummus (chickpea paste) and tahini (sesame paste), with olives, tomatoes and cucumbers for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The Old Jaffa Hostel, in the heart of old Yafo, near the flea market, turned out to be the perfect starting point for exploring the city. Bunking in the dorm (15 dollars – with breakfast!) brought back memories of my young self, travelling through various continents and quickly making new friends.
I teamed up with Joanna, and we walked for hours admiring the old houses, many now converted to craft shops or art galleries, such as the Ilana Goor Museum. We absorbed the smells, sights and sounds of the Camel Soukh Market, sampling fresh juices and sticky honey-dripping baklava pastries.
We were a bit caught out when the shops closed for the Sabbath between 4pm on Friday and 4pm on Saturday. Even the excellent public transport system comes to a halt. So everybody has time to relax. We joined the hundreds of people (most of them with dogs), who went down to the beaches and the shore sidewalks, enjoying the winter sun – at 22°C!
And then there was my day in the old centre of Jerusalem. This is 0.9 of a square kilometer of our planet, seeped in history, which, for thousands of years, has influenced – and continues to influence – religious practice, world affairs, and political dynamics. There are multiple layers of buildings, above and below street level: houses, hostels, shops, churches, mosques, walls – most of them built with the local lime stone. And many of them have stories to tell.
In the Old City of Jerusalem there are, of course, several sites of key religious importance: the Temple Mount and Western Wall for Jews, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for Christians, and the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque for Muslims. The area was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site List in 1981.
Of course, I spent plenty of time in the desert for the yoga training! We were hosted in Tzukim (Hebrew for ‘Cliffs’), 300 kilometres south of Tel Aviv. It is a small community settlement with an economic focus on tourism, education and art. The guest houses, built from straw bales and mud, merge perfectly with the yellow, grey and black shades of the surrounding hills. At first, I missed the green landscapes of Kenya, where even the driest of terrains still have some evergreen shrubs or trees. But gradually I began to appreciate the beauty of the stark rocks and stones. There were no distractions – there was only peace.