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Here Goes Nothing!
Coping with COVID
My Trip to the Gaza Border
As one of the most turbulent and dangerous areas in the world, the Gaza strip is certainly a place myself and most Jews have learned about, at least in the context of its relationship with Israel. Before writing more about my experience learning about the conflict between Israel and Gaza, though, I thought I’d give a brief summary of how today’s circumstances came to be.
During the War of 1948, in which Israel won its independence, thousands of Palestinian refugees fled the war and settled in the Gaza strip. The territory ended up under Egyptian rule and stayed that way until Israel took control after the 1967 Six Day War. Over time, a number of Israeli settlements were built within the Gaza strip, but growing violent opposition convinced Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that it was t
oo dangerous to continue the Israeli civilian presence within the territory. In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, forcibly removing the Israeli residents from the settlements. After an election and military coup, Hamas, an extremist militant group, took control of the strip. Since then, constant rocket fire targeting Israeli civilians has led to several more violent confrontations between Gaza and Israel, leaving much of Gaza destroyed and in extreme poverty.
Until recently, my vision of the Gaza strip and its neighboring Israeli towns was largely abstract. Israelis have gotten so used to constant rocket fire from Gaza that it no longer seems unnatural, and because I had never actually met someone from Gaza, their reality to me felt like nothing more than a cautionary tale of what misunderstanding and unending conflict could do to a society. I felt almost numb to the fact that nearly 2 million civilians live in Gaza in some of the worst conditions on the planet and that the poverty and violence that exists there is so closely related to the reality I’ve been living for the past six months in Jerusalem.
This past weekend, my program took us on a tour of the towns neighboring the Gaza strip and introduced us to a number of people who’ve experienced the conflict on a more personal level. First we arrived in Sderot, a small city less than a mile from the border with Gaza. We heard from a woman who had lived near the border for over thirty years and also spent many years in Egypt, interacting with Arabs and learning about their struggles. After speaking about the need to work towards peace, she put us on the phone with a man named Ahmad who had spent his entire life in Gaza, unable to leave, and who spoke about the living conditions his community is faced with. As an academic who regularly interacts with Israelis and who’s attempting to lessen the tensions in the area, he is seen as a traitor to Hamas and has been arrested multiple times. Just being able to hear the voice of this man who many people see as an enemy simply because of the place where he involuntarily lives helped me see the urgency with which the conflict needs to be solved. After speaking to Ahmad, we took a tour of Israel’s defensive infrastructure with a Jewish man whose settlement was destroyed by Israel during disengagement. Throughout the tour, he didn’t hide his anger towards the attempted peace process and the Hamas terrorists who launch rockets into Israel every month. I was able to see inside Gaza through a telescope, and in one frame I could see farmers on the other side of the wall, with buildings with Hamas posters on one side of them and heaps of rubble on the other, and directly above the farmers high up in the sky was an Israeli balloon with surveillance cameras attached.
Apart from hearing about Gaza, we also visited a small kibbutz right on the border named Nahal Oz, and there we learned about the lives of the Israelis. Throughout our tour of the town, we saw tiny bomb shelters staggered around parks and sidewalks, and we learned about the PTSD almost all of the local children suffer from because of the frequent bomb sirens and the fear that at any moment their home could be hit.
After a two-hour bus ride, I returned to Jerusalem feeling incredibly privileged to have had the chance to visit this zone of conflict and to speak with people from all sides of the spectrum, and to have learned all that I did knowing I’m not in harm’s way. Spending this year in Israel has helped me make better sense of all that’s going on here, and it has pushed me to see the situation in Gaza as more tangible, as a conflict that today is impacting the lives of millions of innocent people, and as a conflict that is urgently personal and troubling.
An Unexpected Year
I knew that 2020 was going to be different. The respite from a grueling cycle of tests, projects and competitions was something I had anticipated since the start of high school, but I never expected it to be different in the way that it has been.
I made plans– lots of them– most of which have fallen through.
There were countless instances when I couldn’t help but lament, “Why, oh why now, of all times, when I am all ready to celebrate a major milestone in life and embark on the next and most exhilarating chapter?” The disappointment was palpable, much like being rewarded with a torrential downpour after an arduous ascent.
It all seemed so unfair.
In hindsight, I am glad that things turned out the way they did.
Still languishing in the belated fatigue of preparing for “A” Levels and applying to colleges, I was in no condition to maximise my educational experience a few months ago. What a waste it would have been had I sprinted mindlessly through the gates of college in August!
Notwithstanding the ample opportunities for exploration in college, researching and interning at institutions that sit squarely at the intersection of my dual interests of engineering and medicine has refined and reaffirmed my aspirations. Through interactions with professionals from various backgrounds, I have come to discover what truly excites me and learned about the diverse career pathways down which I could eventually venture .
Taking a gap year has also gifted me with additional time to rekindle bygone relationships and strengthen present ties. During my unexpected prolonged stay in Singapore, I have forged many memories with the people I love, all meticulously preserved in my camera roll so that I feel a bit less lonely when I am 9860 miles away from home.
With 2021 looming on the horizon, I wonder what surprises the new year will bring, but if 2020 has taught me anything, it is better not to harbour any expectations. Let’s just wait and see.
A List of Things I’ve Learned So Far This Fall
1. How to scrape frost off a car
2. What it feels like to have your ears pierced
3. The best recipe for baked oats
4. How to drive through a twice-a-century fire storm
5. How to use a Cryostat to cut 5-micrometer sections of mouse tissue
6. How to cancel plane tickets to and from Vietnam
7. What a “direct deposit” is
8. That four-wheel-drive doesn’t work on a beach
9. How to buy a stock
10. That apparently I’m a Gemini rising sign, whatever that means?
11. The definition of the word “orthogonal”
12. How to survive an afternoon with 12 crazy elementary school students
13. How to fill out a ballot
14. That I can apply a tourniquet to my own leg in under 30 seconds
15. How to drive a Subaru
16. How to make crème brûlée (and properly wield a blowtorch)
17. The perfect formula for iced coffee
18. How to proofread college essays (that aren’t mine, obviously)
19. That Whole Foods makes a great Thanksgiving dinner
20. How to climb outdoors
21. Where to find the best Indian food in Portland
22. That it’s possible to read a 1500-page medical textbook in five weeks
23. To appreciate time with family when I get the chance to see them in person
24. That naming Spotify playlists is basically a hobby
25. That double stuf golden Oreos are far superior to regular ones
26. What a crag dog is (a dog that hangs out at the base of outdoor climbing routes and
provides welcome distraction from tough climbs)
27. Why setting a goal to run at 7AM every morning is an awful idea in the Pacific Northwest
28. All the words to “Betty” and “Mind Over Matter” and approximately a thousand other
29. How to cope with cancelled holiday plans
30. That I actually enjoy perpetual rain
31. That “donuts” is a scientific term
32. That I love Alaskan malamutes
33. The number of votes in the electoral college
34. That videos (rather than pictures) are the best way for me to document my gap year
35. How to present a slideshow over Webex
36. The best way to decorate Christmas cookies (hint: it requires a toothpick)
Pandemic Adventures: The Great Outdoors
I live in South Carolina, where we have 47 state parks throughout the mountains, the midlands, and the coast, and visiting them is one of my mom’s and my favorite pastimes. During the pandemic, we have been visiting more frequently because this is one of the few ways to get out of the house, have fun, and still stay safe. Most recently, we visited Chimney Rock State Park in North Carolina and the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area in South Carolina, which includes Caesar’s Head and Jones Gap State Parks.
On our last trip, we had finished looking around Caesar’s Head and hiking a trail across the road, and we decided to hike a trail that was further down the mountain on the side of the road called Wildcat Wayside. It’s a quick and easy trail with beautiful waterfalls and an interesting backstory. Wildcat Wayside, originally called Greenville Wayside Park, is one of a series of six Wayside Parks built in SC in the 1930’s by the CCC and the National Park Service. They were meant to serve as rest sites for those driving motor vehicles along the roads of the state. At the turnoff, you can climb up past the first waterfall to the ruins of one of the original buildings, which is missing its walls but still has its foundation, a working fireplace, and the remnants of a few drinking fountains. If you’re ever in the Greenville, SC area, it’s definitely worth the drive.
Not only have these trips been a lot of fun, but they are also a great way for me to prepare for the program I will be doing starting at the end of February. I’ll be heading up to New Hampshire for Gap at Glen Brook, where we will be learning about and experiencing a variety of different activities, including orienteering, canoeing, and more. Over the next couple months, my mom and I will hopefully be trying out some more challenging trails and exploring more parks and wilderness areas before I head up north!
The Silence of the Desert
The silence of the desert was so powerful that I could hear the blood rushing through my head. Only a single fly would occasionally steal my attention away
from the awe-inspiring sunset over the canyon. Once finished with my accustomed ritual of squatting like an animal to relieve myself, I turned to walk up the hill from where I came. The purple orange sky faded behind me as I ascended, my footsteps crunching softly over the untouched soil.
Then, in the very instant that I reached the summit, the canvas shifted. The sound of a training Israeli fighter jet breaking the sound barrier above me shook the earth beneath me. I noticed that the ground was now firmer, having been compacted by hundreds of feet before mine. The sky no longer seemed so illuminating, as the artificial lights from the truck at the center of our campsite penetrated the dimming atmosphere.
The laughter of my fellow campmates echoed through the desert valley. My sense of smell returned to me as I descended the hill; the chicken stir fry was almost ready. Soon after my hunger returned as well. The remaining tents were up and I saw everyone lining up to serve themselves, so I turned my saunter into a scurry and quickly rejoined the group.
When I planned this three-night hiking trip to the Negev for my program, I hoped it would allow us all to catch our breath and to explore a new part of Israel. Yet I had no idea how impactful a transition from pandemic city life to open nature would be. Finding myself alone, with no sounds, no lights, no mask, in a vast open desert gave me the change of perspective I needed to appreciate both the wild and the civilization from which I came. Leaving my isolation in the desert, I felt a sincere loss of peace that I had not found for many months in Jerusalem. At the same time, however, I felt comfort in reentering the semi-civilization of my campsite and was reminded of how brutal and indifferent the wild can
be. I returned from my trip understanding the need for balance. The fast-pace lifestyles many of us live can be invigorating and full of purpose, but we also need to create time for ourselves to be unplugged from such chaotic routines and to appreciate the beautiful world we call home.
Structure, Flexibility, and Spontaneity
For the first two months of being in Israel, each week felt like a new adventure. My time in Israel wasn’t like my life back home where I had a daily routine. Instead, I spent two weeks in quarantine, one week living at a hostel near the old city in Jerusalem, and a few weeks learning remotely due to the nationwide lockdown.
The program I am on has finally landed on a steady routine that will likely last the rest of the year. I volunteer at a daycare for children from low-income backgrounds on Sunday. I spend Monday and Tuesday taking classes on ancient Jewish texts, philosophy, and US-Israeli relations. I intern at a Jerusalem-based think tank based on Wednesday. On Thursday I spend the day taking classes and wrapping up the week. Friday and Saturday are my favorite days because I get to celebrate Shabbat with the rest of my group. I now know that Monday and Tuesday are my most busy days and that Wednesday is fun but requires a lot of focus for me to be productive.
Having a routine reminds me of life in high school. Back in high school, I learned to dread Monday, love Friday, and spend my weeks looking forward to the weekend. Being so far from home, my new routine has given me stability and a sense of normalcy, but it’s also been a challenge learning to view routine as a guideline and not a restriction.
To ensure that we don’t have to keep to a restrictive routine, my program allows us to plan day trips, encourages the Americans to spend the weekend at the homes of Israeli participants, and lets us spend time in different parts of the country for a few days each month. It has been a wonderful way to understand Israeli society and come back to the program excited to learn and think more freely.
During the first weekend I spent away from the program, I traveled to my Israeli friend’s house in Ramat Hasharon, a suburb of Tel Aviv. After living in a dominantly religious city for almost two months, it was a bit shocking to experience a weekend visiting a city where people drive on Shabbat and the beach is lively with young people enjoying the sun.
The next weekend, I traveled to my roommates’ house in Kfar Adumim, a town in the West Bank. It was a wildly different experience. I decided to observe Shabbat experience it the way her family does, without using electronics and without creating anything, in order to truly rest. For one of the few times in my life, I spent a day without turning the lights on, writing, and texting my friends in the United States. After each weekend away from my apartment in Jerusalem, I felt more relaxed than I used to in high school after a weekend spent relaxing at home.
Although it’s important to have a routine in order to be productive and maintain a sense of stability, I’ve found a lot of value in switching up my routine while on my gap year. This is a year where I am striving to live each moment intentionally and understand the meaning behind how I choose to spend my time. Choosing to wake up earlier to go for a run and see Jerusalem early in the morning or even going to spend a weekend in the West Bank has allowed me to experience Israel in an authentic way. Each time I push myself outside of my routine I feel more engaged in my classes and my daily experiences. So far, my gap year has given me a balance between structure and flexibility while allowing room for spontaneity. I now know that this balance is important for me and something for which I will strive once at Duke.