Thursday, 26 November 2009

Back already?

Yes, that's right, I am already back in Ortal for a free weekend after spending one night in the Bakkum (army absorption centre) at Tel Hashomer base in Tel Aviv. I can now relax for a few days until Sunday, where we have been told to meet in Be'er Sheva at 10am, where will get the bus that takes us to the Bach Tzanchanim (paratroopers' base, where I will be for the best part of the next year). I will probably have to leave the Golan Heights on Saturday and sleep at a friend in Tel Aviv, in order to make it there on time, but hopefully, for future weekends, I will be given a later time to meet, so that I can travel down south from way north on a Sunday morning.

Well, I have been to the Bakkum and back, not much of a start to being in the army but there were some significant moments. On Wednesday, we arrived at Tel Hashomer as a group of 15 boys from my programme all going to tzanchanim. Since we had already done a lot of the things (due to being in this special programme) that Israelis need to do on that first day, there was a lot of sitting and waiting. Eventually, after not doing much the whole day, we were finally in the line to receive our uniform, I was absolutely buzzing and couldn't wait to get dressed. After signing for the madim (uniform), you're given a massive kitbag, then two sets of boots (red!) and finally, after looking at you and judging your size, two sets of madim aleph (nice uniform used for travelling), which includes trousers and the special tzanchanim shirt with four pockets. Then, you go into a football-style changing room and are told to change into uniform. I found a tiny cubicle and, after changing my trouser size two times to the smallest size there is, I was marvelling at myself in the mirror in full tzanchanim uniform; kumta (beret), skirt and red boots.

It was common knowledge that we were going to be given a free weekend before Sunday, but would have to spend the night at the Bakkum. While everyone else from my programme and the rest of the tzanchanim draft, 600 in total, went to some orientation and form-filling, I was told to stay behind. Due to a slight problem with my only child form, I needed to see a welfare officer on the following day, in order to be signed off for kravi. So, for the evening, night and following morning, I was split up from everyone and found myself in a group for people with some sort of problem, many of whom had nowhere to go in the army. On thursday, the following day, all of tzanchanim went home for the weekend at 8am, however, I waited from 9am until 6pm for the signature of the commander of the Bakkum. Don't even ask. It was a very hard day for me (and I haven't even started basic training!), mainly because I was alone, totally clueless regarding the situation, had missed out on stuff that they had told the other tzanchanim and, frustratingly, found it extremely difficult being in a completely hebrew environment without any help whatsoever. Anyway, I managed to get things sorted and returned here to Ortal for the night. Yesterday, was tough but I feel like I have really experienced the bureaucratic nightmare that is the army and I managed to argue in hebrew the whole day with officers and commanders.

Now I am just repacking my two bags: the giant tik aleph that we received and my own bag. In the tik aleph we got everything from a bomber jacket to a brand new Gillette fusion razor, from elastic bands for the bottom of your trousers to baby blue army y-fronts! It is said that you should pack for two weeks as there is the likely possibility that you are closed for two weeks before having the next weekend off. So now I will transfer two weeks worth of clothes into my tik aleph; green t-shirts, white t-shirts, underwear, special socks, toiletries and more. By the way, this is a video that our leader made of some soldiers' arrivals, definitely worth watching the start!
On Sunday, we will be taken to the tzanchanim base, nicknamed 'Lunar Bach', because it is modern and massive. While Givati and Nachal have to sleep in tents for the next four months, tzanchanim soldiers have dormitories, but don't start thinking that I am lucky as tzanchanim are also expected to do more, in order to live up to the reputation. On Monday there is another gibush, this time for elite units within tzanchanim, as well as two other units; Maglan and Duvdevan. This gibush lasts four days and is impossible to describe its diffculty, in terms of physical and mental challenging. I have not decided if I will do this, since it is not compulsory and I have always said that I preferred to be in a 'gdud' (regular battalion), rather than a more serious elite unit. However, I still may try out for it as there is nothing really to lose.

To end, I want to say how I have such conflicting emotions at the moment. On one hand, from Sunday, it all starts; the discipline, the exhaustion and the general 'shtuyot' (army nonsense). The first week is always the hardest (apart from maybe 'war week' and the weeks in 'shetach' (field) but I don't have to worry about that right now) and I just want to get through this period. I know I am going to be missing home terribly at hard moments and the lack of space and sleep are normally the main causes of the inevitable shock. However, this is what I came here to do and if it was any other way, then it would not be the Israeli army. The hell of basic training is what makes it basic training and what makes scared boys into trained soldiers. I will always have my passion, determantion and knowledge of loved ones to try and bring me through in those really hard times. I also need to try and enjoy it because, in some aspects, the army (and basic training) can also be fun, especially for boys in combat units. I'm looking forward to writing the next blog as that means this week (and maybe next week) will be out of the way, but at the same time I am excited start this totally one-off, incredible and rewarding experience.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

This is it!!!

Wednesday afternoon. 3:15pm. Chilly weather. The Golan Heights. This is the where I am at the moment, on the eve of the biggest challenge I will ever take; enlisting into the Israel Defence Forces and completing a full service as a combat soldier in the paratroopers brigade.

This is not your regular nerves and excitement before doing something; like starting school, going on holiday or moving house. This is signing your life away for three years and joining an army that is continously protecting its borders and citizens from dangerous terrorists, set out on murdering innocent Jewish civilians. For the next year, the army is going to put me through hell and back, in order to train me into a soldier, capable of following on with the task of defending our one and only piece of land on this earth, where we, the Jewish nation, can call home. As you might notice, I am feeling particularly zionist and ideological at the moment, but can you blame me? After the months and years of talking about this moment, I can finally put some action to the talk, and contribute, as best I can, to doing what I truly believe in.

Tomorrow, I will travel from Ortal to Tel Aviv in the early hours of the morning, and go directly to the 'Bakkum', where hundreds of tzanchanim mothers wil be waving away their sons at the infamous gate. There, after some logistical procedures, I will be given a kitbag (approximately the same size as me), which will contain my uniform, boots, t-shirts etc. We will then have to take off our civilian clothes (!) and get changed into uniform. This is one of the many moments that I have been waiting for, since pondering my future in far-away London. Learning more and more about the army, and constantly seeing soldiers and fellow garin members in the olive green uniform, has only made me more excited for the instant when I see myself in the mirror. From tomorrow I will be the lowest of the low within the army, a true 'tzair', however, my red boots and untucked shirt (customary to look like a skirt) will at least show myself in public that I am a tzanchan. Despite that though, my uniform will have absolutely no pins, no patches, no coloured beret (just the olive green primary beret), nothing, a true sign of being young in the army. The first thing you receive is the basic training shoulder badges, which often cause constant harrassement and bullying from more distinguished soldiers. I guess you have to start somewhere!

So that's it then, only 15 or so more hours of civilian life. It's sad to end my time with the garin here at the kibbutz (in terms of being together, doing activities for 24/7) but I will be back on most, if not all, free weekends, along with others who also aren't 'closed' for the weekend. As I've said before, I have had an incredible three months with my garin and also with the kibbutzniks. Learning hebrew, touring the country and just having so much jokes, has been a perfect way to start my life in Israel and get ready for the army. Although it's sad to end, I also feel ready to move on with this next (and massive) part of my life, I mean this is what I came here for.

At the moment I can't describe the excitement that I am feeling, partly because of getting into tzanchanim, but generally because, although there will be extremely hard times ahead; the army, especially for kravi (combat) soldiers, is a truly fantastic, meaningful and fun experience. I can't wait to get in that uniform and, although this sounds crazy, start one of the many masaot (hikes consisting of running, sprinting and carrying stretchers that range in distance all the way up to 70km!) that one does in basic training. That sensation of being a soldier and making solid friendships, performing tasks, having your life timed to the second, not sleeping more than 6 hours a day, doing guard duty in the middle of the night, running until the blisters pop, making your uniform absolutely spotless and much more, is only around the corner and I am just relishing it. Maybe I won't be saying this tomorrow night!!!

My host dad wil take me and my fellow tzanchan roommate, Omri, to the Bakkum tomorrow. My host family, the Shoshana's, have been amazing and I want to mention them and thank them for all they have done for me so far, and will continue to do.

I would like to end this blog with the two most important people in the world to me, my mummy and daddy. My dad has actually been quite ill recently and there was a point where I might have needed to go home, just in case. Luckily though, he has come through, coincidently after hearing about me becoming a paratrooper, and is going to be ok. I know that both my parents are immensely proud of me and of everything I do, but getting paratroopers was just the icing on the cake, and will give them eager anticipation to coming to my first ceremony: the swearing-in and receiving of gun, which, for paratroopers, is performed at the Kotel. They both miss me with all their hearts and, while I am having the time of my life out here, life is sometimes difficult for them, partly because I am not with them and they just miss me so much, especially regarding the circumstances of our situation. But, of course, they support my decision to be here and are just beeming with pride as to what I have achived so far.

Tomorrow is the big day but it is likely that I will be coming back to Ortal on either Thursday or Friday for my mandatory first free weekend. So I will do another blog this weekend despite maybe not having that many experiences to tell so far, as I may not even go to 'Bach Tzanchanim' (paratroopers' base, where I will be situated for the next 8 months). Nonetheless, tomorrow, I go into the army, ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!

Friday, 20 November 2009

Tzanchanim here I come...

So as I sit here in Ortal on my last weekend before going into the army, I finally have some closure as to where I will be going. I found out the other day that I had been accepted and chosen into the tzanchanim brigade following the gibush last week. As I mentioned in the last blog, I was accepting the fact that I would be going to Nachal, a great unit, but I was gobsmacked to hear that I passed the gibush!!!

I can't explain how happy I am. Firstly, from the start of making aliyah I always knew that I wanted to be in tzanchanim (paratroopers). I wanted it for many reasons, especially as the time got closer to my draft, and I expressed these reasons in the interview at the gibush. I told them how I know that tzanchanim is one of the proudest units with a phenomenal history, and to become part of that is amazing. Another cool thing is that the tzanchanim uniform is slightly different to other combat units, with its red kumta (beret) and red boots; and also it is custom not to tuck in the shirt, which although makes it look a little like a dress, is considered very cool in Israeli society. The paratroopers have a fantastic reputation, and the thought of being a tzanchan is an enormous honour for me and will give me a fantastic reputation. Also, to be in the same unit that captured the kotel is a specific priveledge to me. The tradition of paratrooping won't happen until another four months, once basic training is finished, but the thought of jumping out of an aeroplane (with full combat gear and the gun) is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. However, for tzanchanim, you get to do it five times!!!

Tzanchanim in full uniform!

Getting this unit is such an honour and it is one of the biggest achievements that I can claim. Not only was the gibush highly competitive, since there were so many new immigrants and lone soldiers there, but also, the fact that this is something I set my sights on a while ago, worked hard towards and have actually achieved, is really rewarding. I know that is has made my parents and close family extremely proud, since saying that your son is a paratrooper in the IDF is no small thing. What's more is that my roommate also managed to pass the gibush, which is really important for me, as having my really good friend (who's fluency in hebrew will help me) with me, even for the just the first day, is really reassuring. So on Wednesday, I go to Tel Aviv for my draft day but I will explain more in my next blog, the last before I go into the army!!

This week was full of achievements for me. I also managed to pass my driving test and will be able to drive as an Israeli, without any sort of restrictions, once my license comes in the post. The test went fine, I drove really well and, depsite the awful parallel park, I gave the instructor no reason to fail me. It was really important for me to pass, as it becomes quite expensive if you have to start paying for more than one test, but, more importantly, I don't know when the next time I could have taken another test. Not everyone from my garin who took the test passed, in fact I was the only one who passed manually, probably due to my calmness before the test started. Anyway, that's another step that I have taken in fully integrating myself as an Israeli, I just need to learn to beep more.

Wow, what a week it was and on this Wednesday coming up I actually go into the army properly and start basic training. I want to do one more blog before Wednesday, but I want to take this time to say how I have had the time of my life here in Israel and in the Golan Heights these last three months. Living here with 18 other soon-to-be soldiers has been amazing and I have made some extremely strong frienships that I know will last. It is sad to say goodbye to this part of my aliyah journey but I am very excited (and nervous) to start the next bit, which I can safely say is the biggest point of my life so far. This week, I just need to buy some things for the army and relax before the torture of basic training starts!!!

Monday, 16 November 2009

The gibush

Last Tuesday and Wednesday was the gibush tzanchanim at Tel Hashomer base in Tel Aviv. I managed to finish and complete the gibush but do not feel confident at all, if I impressed them enough to obtain a place in the paratroopers unit. We find out the results any day now and if I don't get in, which is probably the case, then I will be joining the Nachal unit, which I am more than happy about.

We (Alejandro, Omri and I) arrived to Tel Aviv on Tuesday morning and for about two hours we filled out forms, were dictated the rules of the gibush and got our tent ready for where we slept. If I haven't explained already, a gibush is an elimination process, whereby the army tries to pick the right people for specific units based on their perfomances on physical and mental challenges. We had lunch and medical checks, followed by the Bar-Or test, once our food had gone down. The Bar-Or test is a 2km run, which the army uses on a general basis to test fitness. Surprisingly I did quite well within my group of 40, coming 4th and feeling fairly strong and fit. Although I probably got a reasonably good time, they only use this score to place us into appropriate groups for the real physical stuff the following day. Also, I haven't properly explained how this gibush was made up of 200 eager boys; 40 from my specific programme, about 100 from Michve Alon (the army ulpan i.e. immigrants from all over the world, mainly Ethiopia and Russia) and the rest were Israelis. This meant that the majority of people had really high motivation and could claim leaving their parents behind, which explains why the competition was so intense.

Anyway, that was pretty much the first day. We went to sleep at about 8:30pm, the reason for it being so early is because they legally have to give us seven hours sleep, which means..... yes at 3:30am the following morning we wore woken for the physical part of the gibush. We were put into groups of about 25 and were given a number (mine was 22), which was constantly being written down by the 'scouts' for all the good and bad things we did during the following four hours. Those four hours were physically the hardest four hours of my life at the time, but looking back at it now I really feel that I could have put in more effort towards the end, which is why I am not feeling confident as to whether I got in. The gibush was made up of four 45 minute long excersizes:

1) Firstly, sprinting 20 metres and back, on a narrow trail with 24 other guys pushing you in order to get back first and have your number jotted down. Between each sprint, we were ordered to take a heavy sandbag and raise it above our heads until the next sprint. This was unbearable. We did about 15 sprints, which meant about 15 minutes of sandbag lifting. Hell.
2) Didn't get much better, around 12 crawls across sandy rocks. Apart from the pain of elbows and knees hitting the stones (both areas show the scars, with scabs everywhere), it was the sheer effort of dragging my body time and time again that really was tough. More hell.
3) Sprinting again. But this time, trying to finish first, in order to get the 7 sandbag-filled stretcher, which although was heavy, looked good for the 'scouts'.
4) A hike with multiple stretchers and jerry cans (massive water bottles).

Between these excersizes, there were a number of team games, which was hard for me to show any sort of leadership skills because of the language. However, in one acitivity I definitely excelled and was about the only point during the day, which I did well in. Our mefaked (commander) randomly picked people to talk in front of the rest of the group and scouts for 30 seconds about whatever they liked. The first people who spoke were quite boring and stuttery, so I sort of moved forward so the mefaked would pick me next to speak. It worked and, after getting permission to speak in English, I spoke for about 2 minutes to everyone all about Tottenham. It was brilliant, everyone seemed interested and it would have definitely impressed the scouts. I found it funny how White Hart Lane managed to get a mention in the gibush for the paratroopers of the Israeli army. Also, JFS made an appearance at the gibush, as I wore my JFS P.E. shorts to do the 2km run (the rest of the time we wore uniform).

Towards the end of the physical part of the gibush I felt like I was trying to finish rather than trying to succeed, which may cause why I don't get in. It finally finished at around 8am and after getting changed, everyone is given an interview, which went OK for me. So, I've had another taste of army life, this being very similar to what I'll be experiencing physically and mentally during basic training, and I can at least say that I survived. As I said, I will find out what happens in the near future.

Tomorrow, I have my driving test, which is another milestone of my aliyah journey. I've had about 3 lessons and feel fairly comfortable driving in Israel and Tiberias, which is where I will be taking my test. I still find the difference between the English and Israeli style of learning so funny. For example, in today's lesson, the instructor encouraged me to cross hands when turning the wheel and even suggested that not crossing hands could cause me to fail the test. Wish me luck for the test, hopefully I can do the double, and pass first time in both England and Israel. Will do another blog soon with results from the gibush and the driving test.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Things are changing

Time is moving on at a rapid pace and in a months time I will already be a week into my basic training. This week I have the tzanchanim gibush, which is a overnight elimination process in order to get into the paratrooper unit. I am going to go into the gibush with a positive head, I know that I will try and give everything I've got; both physically and mentally, while selling myself as best as I can in the interview. If I don't succeed, either by falling at the physical challenges or simply because I am not what they're looking for, then I will not be depressed. If I don't get into tzanchanim, it is highly likely that I'll go to Nachal, which is also a good combat unit, with lots of new immigrants and kibbutzniks.

In order to try and get us ready for the gibush and the army in general, we have a weekly training session with one of the kibbutzniks. They have gradually been getter harder and the last two were the worst ones yet. These sessions happen on a Monday night and normally last 45 minutes. The one last week was particularly difficult, involving sprints and the dreaded 'matsav shtayim' (press-up position) on hard rocks. That last excersize is always the final bit of the session and it really pushes us mentally, as for 30 seconds at a time, we have to hold our already tired bodies above the floor, with our knuckles facing down onto these sharp stones. Although the cuts on our hands and heaviness of arms are painful, its the pure agony of trying to not fall, which pushes us. Especially since the guy counts down like this: 30 (four second gap) 29... and towards the end, 3 - 2 - 2 - 2 -1 etc. Anyway it is all good fun and when, in this week's session, we were lying on our backs raising our legs in the air and the rain just started pour, I got that feeling of being in Eretz Yisrael.

Some of us boys after the latest training session.

Which leads me onto another thing that has dramatically changed, the weather. From wearing shorts and flip flops every day to ulpan, I now need wear a coat when leaving the room and a dressing gown at night. Although it rained everywhere in Israel this week, here in the Golan Heights and Ortal in particular it is entirely different, considering that there was a mini tornado at the kibbutz the other day, which made it into the news! On top of the miserable weather, last weekend wasn't made any better by the fact that Spurs fell apart at the end of the first half to the scum of North London. I managed to watch the whole game here in my room, but would have preferred not to as my Arsenal roommate would not let it go for the rest of the day. The win over Sunderland has not really eased the wounds.

A typical ulpan lesson, which have now finished, as our three month programme comes to an end.

The army was always a serious issue but now things are just getting too scary to deal with. One girl from our garin, Yael, has already been drafted and has since returned on the fortnightly free weekend, in uniform. Seeing one of our fellow garin members in her 'aleph' (travelling/nice uniform) without any badges or pins, due to the fact that she had only completed one week of 'tironut' (basic training), just enhanced the reality of it all. Not only that, but also her gruelling stories of how hard it has been so far, what with the time limits, poor conditions, shouting commanders, physical punishments and more, only terrified everyone. Rememeber, this torturous period will only last 3 weeks for most girls but for us combat boys, 4 months of more intense levels, not including the 4 more months of advanced training. I have still got a couple of weeks before I sign away my body and soul, but the thought of, literally, one whole year (but really 3) of phsyical, mental and psychological hell sometimes makes me question why I left the luxury of university life. But then I think how not only does every Israeli have to do this in order to protect his fellow Jews, but also why I, ideologically, am putting myself through all this change and harship, in my attempt to fulfill my dreams. That is what will keep my going.

Interrogating the garin's first soldier!!!

On a more positive note, the other day I had my first driving lesson in Israel. As an existing holder of a foreign license I am entitled to some benefits regarding the changing of my driving license; mainly, not having to do as many lessons, cheapers prices etc. Anyway last week, about 6 people from our garin went out in two cars with two instructors as part of our first lesson (I'll probably have two more lessons in inner-city Tiberias, where I will hopefully be ably to take my test before going into the army.) So, in the two cars, we drove from Ortal to Haifa (to register our driving licenses) and back again, all in all, I drove for about an hour and a half through the picturesque Northern Israel. First of all, I had to get used to driving on the other side of the road, sitting on the other side of the car and using the other hand to change gears, nevertheless, after a couple of minutes it all seemed normal. The funny bit of the day, for me, was how travelling at 80kmh down the side of some sort of cliff, all I can hear, is the instructor shouting 'ten gaz, ten gaz' (which means accelerate more). Typically Israeli, can you imagine an English instructor saying that to you during a driving lesson? Also, I don't think he once told me to look in my mirrors and, during several moments, nudged me to overtake some relatively fast cars.
So, as you can tell, things are starting to get wrapped up here at the kibbutz. Ulpan has finished, some of the girls have gone or are soon to be going into the army and us boys have about three weeks to mentally and physically prepare ourselves for the biggest shock and most intense, but also rewarding challenge of our lives. I still don't quite believe how quick everything has happened and also how I actually went through with what I actually always dreamed of. Next blog I am sure will all be about the gibush that is happening on Tuesday (!). Wish me luck.