A trip to the Middle East is a must for anyone with the time and money to do so. Whether it's for the beaches, the food, the history or the amazing scenery there is something for everyone. Matt Scott suggests working on a kibbutz for a while is a perfect base to enjoy all of this and meet some great people with whom to enjoy it with.
The Kibbutz movement has been in existence for almost 100 years. It was an 'experiment that worked' was how philosopher Martin Bauber put it; it worked so well it's still going strong.
They have come along way since the first Kibbutz was set up on the banks of the Jordan River; now over 200 kibbutzim exist in the state of Israel, real socialism that works as part of a capitalist society. It transformed the desert of Israel into a society which produced over 50% of its countries' needs.
Each year thousands of foreigners, from every corner of the world visit Israel to work on a Kibbutz. Some stay just for a few days, others for many years.
For me it started on the shore of the Mediterranean. I was told of a small office only minutes away from the coast which could see me going to any corner of the county. After a hot and sweaty morning waiting, I was offered two places; one sheet of paper showed me neat gardens and trimmed palm tress, offering numerous activities and outings; the other just showed an address. I chose the latter. Places can also be arranged in Britain, with others, or alone, depending on your sense of adventure.
The sun was setting as I arrived later that day at Kibbutz Geva; in the north of the country, just minutes away from the Jordan River, where it all began.
I was introduced to my fellow volunteers, most of who were from Scandinavian or Korea; some had been there a few days, others many months. The international language was English, so at least I had one thing on my side. After the introductions and polite conversation, several beers followed with a night down at the local club: an attic room with a stereo and fridge, the best club I have ever been to!
There is a huge range of work on all Kibbutzim, ranging from farming, cooking and cleaning to hi-tech electronics. I was placed in an almond and date plantation, the largest in Israel. For the next six months, for six hours a day, six days a week I would climb palm trees to prune branches, pick fruit, clear land and any other job they saw fit to practically kill me before the day was through. It was more than worth the effort
My day started at 4.30 am when I would wearily put on my work clothes and set off for the fields, my head knocking back and fore as I tried to stay awake. Even before the sun came up I was sweating and it would get worse as the heat of he day progressed into the high thirties. A good three hours work would be done before we went back to the communal dining room for breakfast - each morning I would eat as if it was my last. The day would finish at about lunchtime, sweaty and dirty I would trudge into lunch, down a few pints of water and sit with my co-workers as we discussed the day. We had finished work before the day had even begun for many people.
The remainder of the day would involve lying in the sun, which there was always plenty of, eating, drinking, sleeping or watching satellite TV (well there's a down side to everything). With thirty other volunteers, all about the same age, all wanting to get way from it, it was not difficult to get on. Someone said it was like university life, just without the lectures, work, money problems, and bad weather. In a way I suppose it was.
Everything is taken care of by the Kibbutz: laundry, accommodation, health care, we were cooked three meals a day and given a full fridge for any time we were peckish and beers were often brought from the volunteer lounge. We were even paid ten dollars a week for the privilege of having this lifestyle. The Kibbutzniks themselves, the permanent members of society, are given further perks.
We went on many trips, paid for by the Kibbutz; to Eilat the Golan Heights and on more sobering trips to the West Bank and Gaza, just to remind us that our trip has, in many ways, been at the expense of others.
Even if this socialist ideal and the politics don't interest you, or you oppose it completely, the experience in this unique and amazing country is worth the stay. For the price of a flight to the Middle East the rest is yours for the keeping, for a few days or the rest of your life. If the huge range of sights and places to go does not keep you occupied, Israel borders on the Red sea which enjoys not only brilliant weather but amazing water sports and nightlife. A short hop across the border can see you in Jordan, an incredibly cheap country with Petra - an ancient city carved out of stone- as one of its many highlight. On the other side is Egypt, with its amazing sights and activities that could last a lifetime. In the Sinai Desert there is also Dahab, the Amsterdam of the Middle East: A small resort on the Red Sea, a resting place for many weary Kibbutzniks which is away from the hype and pressure of this tourist obsessed country. The down side is that an Israeli stamp in your passport or border stamps from Egypt or Jordan will deny you access to many other Arabic countries.
The Middle East can be a dangerous area. However, most Kibbutz are far away from any major cities or trouble areas and mostly keep themselves devoid of any of the political and humanitarian troubles the rest of the country is facing; so much so in fact, you could believe you were somewhere else.
Kibbutz Volunteer by Vacation Work is the best guidebook on the subject. We also like Beer And Bagels For Breakfast by John Carson, a contributor to this site. Though not a guidebook his book is very popular both with reminiscing ex-kibbutzniks and with those travellers looking forward to the experience for the first time.
The latest editions are available from amazon.co.uk
Image courtesy Reuben Stanton