In Europe, you huff and puff your way up spiral stairways in cathedrals. In India you huff and puff your way down crooked pathways in hill stations. All in search of a view. A 'mountain view' to be more precise. Is it worth it? Usually not. The mist has all but obscured the mountains in this particular instance.
You pause for a while, inhaling the fresh and fragrant Kodaikanal air. Time to trudge back up. Yes, you are now hungry. Very hungry. Which is why little thatched huts have sprung up every 200 metres. Omlet sandwiches and chai form the standard menu.
But wait, there's a more enterprising lady towards the top of the trail. She'll whip up a mean Maggi, a frothy fresh lime soda. Even a falafel or a 'sabich' . Uh oh, wherever there's sabich, the Israelis follow. Rather, wherever there are Israelis the strange stuff they eat finds its way on the menu.
And sure enough, two rugged, dark haired young men and a pretty, blonde haired woman enter the humble restaurant. They want sabich. It's not available. They settle for rice with mix vegetables. One of the guys enacts anti-masala theatre.
"No this one (picking up a green chilli).. last time you put it and I go.. in and out.. in and out.. toilet." Ha ha, the cooking lady laughs. Almost like she does it deliberately.
"How much time you take?" asks the draamebaaz. "We... very hungry.. fifteen minat? I very hungry.. I (rolling eyes) eat this pole." His companions laugh and go sit on the plastic chairs outside.
We're still waiting for the Maggi. Ordered more than fifteen minat ago. I strike up a conversation. "Yes.. we are from Israel," he says in a thick - for lack of a better word - Israeli accent. "We travel across India for one year."
I've been to Goa recently, I say to him. "Many Israelis there."
Actually, I am surprised to see Israelis in Kodai. I thought they essentially came to Goa - for the sun, sand and rave parties. A good - or at least visible - number seem to have adopted the 'dual' lifestyle. Six months in Israel, six months in Goa. In fact, there seem to be numerous Israeli owned businesses - the kind that sell yummy food and other interesting goods at the Saturday night flea market in Arpora.
But Goa does not agree with Dramabhai. "I no like Goa... " he says emphatically."I like Varkkala.. you go Varkkala?"
"Where you from?"
"Oh," he shakes his head." I no like Bombay.. people.. poor people, sleep on road. Very bad."
I agree, yes, it's not a good thing.
"You no feel afraid.. poor people.. they come in your house at night?"
I am a little peeved now. Uh..no, that does not happen. We are mostly safe.
"Very bad .. this poor peoples... what people like you are doing for this?"
I am... getting angry now. I mean, maybe we aren't doing anything - or at least not enough. But it's not like I'm asking what he's doing about the Middle Eastern peace process. Here he is - bumming around my flawed but fun country instead.
The maggi arrives and we get busy slurping it up. It's New Year's eve and I am in no mood to slug it out with this jungli Israeli maanav. We go our separate ways, taking leave abruptly.
Minding your manners
So usme kya galat keh diya usne, you may ask. Well nothing, perhaps. But there are certain unwritten rules when you are a visitor in a foreign country. You try to appreciate the local culture. You find good things to say to random locals. You hold your tongue when you sense unkind words rolling out.
Ah, but these Israelis aren't here for the 'incredible India' experience. They are on quite a different 'trip'. Although it may be wrong to stereotype, cheap drugs are one of the big attractions for young Israelis making their way to India. That may hold true for other nationalities as well, but with Israelis there's another peculiar feature. They tend to form 'communes'.
And I'm not saying this based on a couple of casual encounters, the phenomenon has been well documented.
An interesting article titled 'Israelis invade India' follows 23 year old Shai Levy's post-military service pilgrimage to India. Writer Dikla Kadosh notes:
Levi, 23, came to India to unwind, relax, and forget the horrors he witnessed during the height of the Palestinian intifada, when blood stained the streets of Israeli and Palestinian neighborhoods on a regular basis. He came to escape responsibility and the stress of Western life....
As for the connections they make with the Indian culture, Levi characterized them as mostly superficial. Although he found the people to be very open and easy to get along with, he noticed that Israelis tend to keep to their own kind, only interacting with Indians in matters of business. They communicate with Indians in English and barter, sometimes aggressively, over goods.
...Ramesh Choudharg, a room service attendant at the Hare Rama guest house where the Chabad center is located, had mixed feelings about the Israeli guests he encounters. "Sometimes they make big balagan,” he said, using a Hebrew word meaning 'mess'."
Naresh Fernandes, the editor of Time Out Mumbai wrote an article exploring the relationship between Indians and Israelis some years ago. He says:
Driving a hard bargain at the bazaar, he said, is the least of Israelis’ offenses in India. According to him, the perception Indians have of Israelis is that they are only interested in drugs and parties. The post-army twenty-somethings alternate between being lazy idlers, he said, and violent aggressors.
A Britisher whom I chatted up at Goa's Anjuna beach - practically taken over by Israelis - had an interesting observation. 'Norman' is a guy with tattoos all over his body, sitting at a beachside restaurant in an obviously elevated state. He loves to talk - in 10 minutes flat you know his entire life history (or at least the version he finds convenient to share).
Yes, he does drugs, but only to take away the pain of his 'broken back' and his wife who left him for another man and other life issues which require 'herbal medicine'. Given his propensity for story telling, we may have another Shantaram in the making.
But, I digress. The point Norman made about Israelis was this,"They're so aggressive.. so brazen.. they just sit around here with their chillums .. huge ones.. smoking pot in broad daylight." Whereas, we Britishers at least keep up appearances. "We're not so open.. almost inviting trouble.. I don't know how they do it.. how much they pay the cops!"
What's in it for them?
A young rabbi who runs 'Chabad House' in Mumbai, where young Israelis camp en route to Goa or Rajasthan explains...
“They need relief...They come here to do everything the army didn’t allow them to do. Their shoes had to be polished and tied – here they wear sandals. They had to cut their hair – here they grow their hair long.”
Holtzberg is not excusing their behaviour. He just understands the reasons behind it better than the Indians that come into contact with the hordes of escapists.
And here's what another fellow Israeli has to say:
Itzick Sabag, a 23-year-old Israeli who came to the United States after completing his army service and now lives in New York, is not surprised that Israelis have such a negative reputation in India. The type of person who goes there, he said, has no ambition or direction and is mainly interested in doing nothing. India is the perfect place to do just that.
“People go to different places for different reasons after the army,” he said. “They go to South America for hiking, climbing, outdoors stuff. They go to America to work or go to school. And they go to India to do drugs.”
So how many Israelis visit India anyways? In 2003, 32,157 visas were issued to Israeli nationals, making it no 15 among countries sending in maximum tourists to India. I could not locate a figure for subsequent years - as our Ministry of Tourism now tracks only the top 10 countries.
Israel is not one of them, yet its touristss are creating ripples...
Not sheer numbers but the tendency to congregate in a few places is the problem. Daria Maoz chose to complete her doctorate thesis on Israeli backpackers in India. She observes:
The Israeli backpacker population is concentrated in a few small and clearly defined regions. "In some places the Israelis make up 90 percent of the tourist population...and when hundreds or even thousands of Israelis are concentrated in one village or neighbourhood you just can't ignore their very striking presence."
That's what happens in places like Bhagsu and Dharamkot, two not very large villages near Dharamsala, and in Bashisht and Old Manali, two neighborhoods of Manali, which like Dharamsala lies in the north of India. The situation is similar in the south of the country, especially in places like Goa's "Tel Aviv beach".
More Israeli enclaves include Kasol in Himachal Pradesh, Hampi in Karnataka. And where these enclaves spring up, here's what happens..
"The Israeli backpackers take over these areas and set up their own colonies," says Maoz. "In the last eight years they've turned those places into Israeli enclaves and in peak seasons they are flooded with thousands of Israeli backpackers. Some of them stay for long periods, even several years. Most of them stay a few weeks or months, but when they leave, other Israelis take their place creating permanent Israeli settlements with transient populations."
...According to Maoz, most Israeli backpackers treat the Indians as if their sole purpose in life was to serve them. They ignore the locals' needs and feelings, treat them and their traditions with contempt and regard the Israeli enclaves as playgrounds where they can do almost anything they desire. Uninhibited drug use is a prime example.
While writing her thesis, Maoz needed to 'observe' her subjects closely. She made several trips to India and adopted the backpacker lifestyle. She describes the enclaves as describes as a 'complete Israeli takeover of the local culture and space'.
"When you arrive at the Israeli enclaves in Dharamkot or Manali you feel as if you were in Israel itself...All you hear walking down the street is Hebrew and everyone you meet is Israeli. Even the rickshaws have signs posted in Hebrew advertising trance parties..."
Maoz believes the phenomenon creates a neo-colonial situation in the enclaves. The Israeli tourists, she says, reject the local culture, aren't interested in Indian food, in Indian traditions or the local lingo.
Even their interest in 'spirituality' is very superficial.
Two days after arriving they are already dressed in white and telling each other that the `energy is flowing' that they are living `here and now' and that their `chakras are open'. .. When it comes down to it, says Maoz, they are a lot more interested in trance parties and smoking drugs then in spiritual practices.
One of the strangest phenomena Maoz came across occurred at the Chabad House in Dharamsala.
Maoz visited the Dharamsala Chabad House on Rosh Hashanah and saw hundreds of Israeli backpackers taking part in a prayer service and festive dinner. She also saw how after dinner the backpackers headed off to a nearby site for a trance and drug party that lasted some 42 hours. A week and a half later she met them again at Chabad House where they had come for the pre-fast Yom Kippur meal. After dinner Maoz saw the backpackers pass a joint.
They called it the pre-fast joint.
All this doesn't go down well with the locals. But, it's paapi pet ka sawaal. Tourists bring in much needed business, so they grimace and bear it.
A restaurant owner in Dharamkot told her of an Israeli who drank five cups of tea, but when asked to pay the bill, which came to some five rupees or half an Israeli shekel, he refused claiming he had only drunk three cups. In the ensuing argument, the Israeli threatened the restaurant owner, telling him that he would organize a boycott of the restaurant...
An amusing form of 'resistance' is Indians who pass themselves off as spiritual teachers.
"The Israelis are looking for spirituality," one such spiritual guru, who worked as a schoolteacher in his home town, told Maoz, " so we sell them spirituality." Maoz says that during the peak seasons, Indians flow to the Israeli enclaves selling themselves as masters and babas (holy men), teaching Reiki, yoga, meditation and anything else Israelis care to learn.
And, her final conclusion:
One of the main findings of Maoz's research is that Israeli society has an interest in sending its young people to India. "Israeli society understands that after long, hard and frustrating military service and before integrating into society, Israeli youngsters need avenues to let off steam and to challenge accepted norms. Instead of having them do this it in Israel, they are sent to India."
Ah, cheaper and more effective than mass psychotherapy. Sow your wild oats and float on ye wild grasses in yon Himalayas. Come back a little more civilized!?
Well, as long as we can all live and let live. It's in the best interest of Israelis to be a little better behaved. Or the party may well get wound up... I mean, even Al Qaeda has taken note of the Israeli fancy for India. Although so far - thankfully - there have been just empty threats.
Let me conclude by saying that I have the greatest regard for Israel and the Israeli people. I would love to visit the country one day... Despite a horrific encounter with a snake shaped bread calld 'ziva' on Anjuna beach. I am sure it was about as authentic a representation of Israeli food as 'balti' cuisine is of India.
Until then, I shall continue chatting up Israeli backpackers, in part awe and part envy of their year long drifting voyage. To places in my own country I have never seen. But hope to find time to visit - someday.
And hey, if questions about the eradiaction of slums come up, I'll be ready with an inquiry into the resettlement of Palestinians... Peace be with you all. Shalom.