Wednesday, June 02, 2004 Style

Our friends are uniformly incredulous when we tell them we’ve never been camping. Oh sure, our kids have been out on scouting and school trips. But we’ve never gone away as the whole family – alone in the woods with just a barbeque and a bagful of burgers, shmores and insect repellant.

So when friends called and said “we’ll take care of everything – the tents, sleeping bags, choosing the campsite...” well, how could we refuse?

Now, there are two parts to every camping trip – the camping itself…and the getting ready part. Before we started to pack, I had no idea how much junk we were going to need to go away for the night. There were clothes to sleep in, clothes to hang around the campfire in, clothes to hike in.

And then there was the food - buns and pitas and cereal and pound after pound of red meat. I swear that by the time we’d packed up the car, there was more in that trunk than when we take off in the summer for vacation overseas.

Six-year-old Aviv apparently thought just that. Taking one look at the car, he duly informed us, “When we go on the airplane, I want to sit by the window so I can look down.”

Now, don’t take my complaints for disinterest: some of my very best childhood memories come from the two weeks I spent every summer as a teenager camping with various youth groups in the California redwood forests. Places with impressive sounding names like Sequoia National Park, Humboldt Redwoods, Yosemite...

We’d throw our sleeping bags down under a tree and try out best to smooth out a place on the ground free of pine cones and needles. Tents – those were for wusses. You wanted to smell the forest, not block it out with some synthetic protective bubble.

After ghost stories and a couple rounds of spin the bottle (did I mention it was a coed youth group), it would be lights out. Miles from civilization, the only lights we could see were the stars peeking in through the thick tree cover; the only sounds from the occasional bear and raccoon (and our lead counselor’s deafening snoring).

It was romantic. It was majestic.

And nothing could be further from our first Israeli camping experience.

Instead of redwoods, our campground consisted of a large patch of grass – not much more than a lawn, really – a few meters from the beach at Moshav Ein Dor.

And we were not alone.

The place looked like Woodstock incinerated. There were hundreds of tents lined up bumper-to-bumper in large groups of merry-makers, each with their own barbeque working round-the-clock to supply a sufficient supply of steaks and spuds.

Darkness? Forget about it. The place was lit up like a Hanukah menorah on the eighth night, with each group stringing up tens of tiny bulbs between concrete poles to demarcate their turf. Gas and electric generators kept the party humming while boom boxes provided the soundtrack.

About the only thing that reminded me of my childhood camping experiences were the mosquitoes.

OK, maybe it was the particular campground we’d chosen (although many friends have told us Dor Beach is the best). Certainly, picking a holiday weekend didn’t help.

Just the same, I was determined to have a good time. We barbequed like the best of them and, after six burgers, three hotdogs, five chicken wings, a plate of shishlik, and seven chocolate chip cookies, I felt good and Israeli.

Not quite Israeli enough, apparently.

There, in the middle of one of the larger groups, it stood: a 27-inch TV. The so-called “campers” were gathered around. And they were channel surfing! Talk about style!

I turned to our friends with a look not so much of shock but betrayal. They laughed and said, “Usually it’s worse. There’s only one this time.”

Still, all this would have been OK if we could have gotten some sleep. But by the time Aviv, Jody and I bedded down in our small smelly family tent, it wasn’t the TV that kept us up. Rather it was the disco on one side of the camping “lawn”...and the outdoor karaoke bar on the other.

The disco didn’t quit until close to 3:00 AM, and then there was a steady stream of teenagers who passed our campsite, which we discovered to our chagrin, was on the all important trade route between the bathrooms and (yes) the refrigerators.

Whatever happened to roughing it?

Somehow, though, we fell asleep, managing to steal a few hours from the cacophony of camping culture shock Before we knew it, the sun was up. The plastic tent was already overheated. I opened a bleary eye and caught Aviv’s. He was lying quietly in his sleeping bag, waiting for some sign of life from us.

He immediately sat up. “Can I go out now?” he whispered.

“Of course,” I whispered back.

Because despite our first camping trip in Israel being more akin to flying in a packed jumbo jet than getting back to nature, this was still Israel. And Israel means our kids can, for the most part, run around free and unencumbered.

Jody and I slipped on our sandals and, then, there we were – at the beach with Aviv. And it was only 8 in the morning! No need to get in the car and drive for a couple of hours through heavy traffic. The air was still cool, as refreshing as the night had been, um, stimulating. The other kids quickly joined us, jumped into the warm Mediterranean Sea and were so, so happy.

As the kids dragged me into the water, I realized it’s all a matter of expectations. Camping in Israel is not about nature and the stars and the night. No, it’s about the morning – and in particular waking up and avoiding the rush hour.

As we ambled back for a late breakfast, the TV was still on, tuned it appeared to an Israeli version of Dr. Phil. But it was OK now. I’d made a sort of tentative peace with my cranky internal monologue. You know, we might even do this again. Camping as a family, I mean.

But next time, let's make it in Yosemite...

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