[This is part of a series of posts chronicling a walk across Israel. For the how’s and why’s, you can read The Time We Walked to the Sea. For the first segment of the hike, read The Day We Failed to Walk and for the second, The Day Storks Changed My Mind.]
One of the unexpected joys of being a perpetual expat is seeing something written in your own language.
When your language is Greek and is spoken in few corners of the world, the joy doubles. Cana greeted us in Greek:
Αγοράστε εδώ το κρασί του γάμου!
Christians believe Jesus performed his first miracle at the wedding of Cana, where he transformed water into wine. Entrepreneurial souls in modern-day Cana beckon to religious pilgrims and romantics alike to renew their wedding vows, or – like the Greek sign requested of us – to buy some Cana wedding wine.
Elijah and I were more interested in the water part of the miracle. Having walked thirteen and a half kilometers that day, we needed to refuel and be on our way. A butcher shop was the only open establishment and Elijah stood by a slaughtered cow as he refilled our water, fully aware that this drink may have been E.coli’s free ride into our bodies.
For some people, hiking is effortless. They casually trot to the top of a mountain, shake the dust off their aerodynamic jacket or other Necessary Hiking Gadget and express their amazement that they are here “already.” I am not one of those people. I look like my effort, beet red and hunched over. A man drives past us in a pick-up truck. He whistles, honks, winks. I roll my eyes.
Two steps later, Elijah and I stop at a fruit stand. We buy apples for the road and Elijah asks the owner how much they cost. The owner says something, Elijah asks how much they cost again, in Arabic. The owner repeats, slowly, “Free. They are free for you.” They continue to chat and I do not understand their conversation, so I prefer to lean against the stand and catch my breath in the company of strawberries and pears.
“The apples are free because you are so pretty,” Elijah says, planting a kiss on my cheek and inviting looks from the boys dragging a horse up the hill. I attribute the gift to the strain on our faces and packs on our backs. Just as I am about to argue, the man in the pick-up truck drives past us one more time. He whistles, honks, winks and gives Elijah a thumbs-up.
Even though I am walking behind him, Elijah knows I am rolling my eyes. “You really need to learn how to take a compliment.”
A sound comes from behind us. “Tooth extraction,” Elijah decides. “Definitely a tooth extraction without anesthesia.”
The sound grows closer and a young boy on a bike overtakes us. He is wearing a Barcelona soccer jersey and turns around to look at us. We attract a lot of attention on the road. Among the hijabed women, my auburn hair, sleeveless shirt and leggings stand out. The backpacks, tents and sleeping bags are not the typical fare of Cana. There is a particular demographic with which we are popular: The Barcelona fans.
Soon, we meet the ‘tooth extraction’ screamer too. He is wearing a jersey with Messi’s name on the back. Pique, Iniesta, and David Villa join him. Five boys on bikes, five Barcelona jerseys. Half a soccer team is towing us. I have cheered on Barcelona in four continents. I have shared Messi’s delight in a dusty Be’er Sheva bar and wished for Iniesta to be playing in the Champions League final in a Cuban restaurant. The New York Times recently profiled Lionel Messi, but in Cana, away from digital subscriptions and the sports section, he already has his junior fan club.
The Barcelona Bicycle Gang follows us all the way until the entrance to the forest. That would sound ominous had they not all been twelve years old. Elijah greets each of them in Arabic, using the names on the back of their jerseys.
At the edge of the trail, “Messi” is spotted by a screaming parent. He instantly becomes Ahmed, turns around, and speeds home with the rest of the Barcelona Bicycle Gang.
“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!”, we hear in the distance.
Elijah had pitched a tent in the living room in four minutes and forty-eight seconds. It took only a touch more than that to set it up on twigs instead of living room tiles. Our temporary home seems to be pitched in the social crossroads of the youth of Cana and the surrounding villages. In the rocks above the trail, we find a lone shisha coal and bottles – the remains of a good night. Two women pass by and greet us, saying that they drink their coffee daily at ‘our spot’. We eat a dinner of white chocolate macadamia cake and salami and throw night essentials into the tent: toilet paper, flashlight, rolled up sweaters.
The sun has barely set, but Elijah and I are fading. In the distance, there are sounds of celebration: music, fireworks, a gunshot here or there. I quietly worry about the forest burning down because of the fireworks. I worry about a bullet piercing the paper-thin tent.
Elijah does not worry. He puts his arm around me and, in the blue glow of our tent in the twilight, he falls asleep.
I stay up all night. At 4.15 AM, the call to prayer echoes across the valley. No sound except that, and the crackle of a loudspeaker. This hike was not a Christian, Jewish or Muslim religious pilgrimage for us, nor a way to make a point about co-existence. Yet, at 4.15 AM, camped safely between Arab towns in the heart of Israel, I cannot sleep because my heart swells with the beauty of it all.
I make fun of my own corniness, letting out a chuckle that startles the insects on the tent tarp. Beauty beats cynicism or fear any day. I succumb to it all and wait for the sunrise.
Next: “Do you think a Crusader died right here?”