By the Book
Virtually unknown, and definitely unpublished, a series of handwritten underground travelers’ guides have shown the way for hundreds of trailblazing Israeli youth.
The pages in the Book are yellow now—not from time (what’s 16 years?) but from the careless caresses of too many readers. Thousands of grubby hands have pawed through them, used them as drink coasters and dribbled falafel crumbs into their folds. The corners are curled up, and the cover was long ago wrapped in butcher paper.
This Book—one volume in an uncountable chain—began over a decade ago in a restaurant in La Paz, Bolivia, when somebody with time to kill inscribed the first tip. Written in English, in a slightly unsteady hand, the author recommended the Hotel Torino as “probably one of the cheapest hotels in central La Paz,” despite a few drawbacks (“rooms don’t have windows…smelly and dirty”). Here in the very first entry were the muses that have dominated the Book before and since: Thrift and her handmaid, Squalor. There was one more piece of advice on that first page. Somebody had scrawled right over the earlier text: “The night porter ripped me off ASSHOLE!!!”
The Book has no one author, editor or publisher. Defined physically, it is a set of loosely connected, handmade notebooks cached throughout the vagabond meccas of Latin America and Asia. It is known sometimes as the Traveler’s Book, the Memory Book or the Israeli Book, because it depends mostly on Israelis—that new diaspora of young travelers who, with a mean age of 22 and some hard, mandatory military service under their belts, have given rise in the past dozen years to a global sub-tribe of poncho-wearing, sandal-sporting nomads.
Although the Book is scarcely known outside the world-within-a-world of the Israeli travel scene, it is hidden in plain sight. Four volumes are available in a certain laundry in San José, Costa Rica. In Peru, the Book is variously located in a travel agency; an upstairs watering hole in Huaraz favored by gringo trekkers; and the House of Fun, a Lima hostel that isn’t even listed in Lonely Planet. If you know where to look, the Book is everywhere. Otherwise, it is nowhere.
I first heard it mentioned in the early 1990’s, by an Israeli paratrooper who’d just arrived in Puerto Montt, in southern Chile. “So where’s the book?” he asked another Israeli. The answer, given in Hebrew, was: in a butcher shop run by a Chilean Jew. It took me a decade to understand what he had really said—not “Where is our book?” but “Where is our knowledge? Our community?”
I began to ask for the Book wherever I went, figuring that if anyone would know the best spots—or the least bad spots—it would be the Israelis. More than any other nationality, they have absorbed the ethic of global tramping with ferocity: Go far, stay long, see deep.
Sooner or later, every Israeli in Latin America drops a rucksack at a restaurant, hostel and social club called El Lobo, located 11,220 feet above sea level, plus one last, steep flight of stairs up into the thin night air above La Paz. El Lobo’s walls are lined with photographs sent by members of the backpacker nation, travel snaps of themselves taken all over South America, often engaged in stunts, especially when naked.
Owner Dorit Moralli’s family emigrated from Israel to Bolivia after the Six-Day War. As far back as the 1930’s, Bolivia welcomed Jewish immigrants (it welcomed some ex-Nazis, like Klaus Barbie, too), but the Jewish community never really took root. Today, Bolivia has only around 500 Jewish citizens, and Dorit did her part for La Paz by opening El Lobo with her Israeli-born husband in 1986, offering the best—well, the only—Israeli food in town.
The Book appeared “one month after we opened,” Dorit said as she settled into one of the restaurant’s picnic tables with a plate of meatballs and rice. Back in 1986, four backpackers came in, ate a meal and asked for “the Book.” Dorit had no idea what they were talking about. Elsewhere in South America, they explained, there were blank books where Israelis were writing down travel tips; they’d been in Rurrenebaque, a jungle town they thought other people would like. “They actually bought a book and brought it here for us,” she marveled.
That original 1986 Book, entirely in Hebrew, is now safely tucked away in storage. El Lobo’s second volume, a mix of English and other languages, began in 1989. Over the years, this version grew to become a kind of master edition, with up to 16 regional volumes describing most of South America; it remains the oldest circulating example that I could find. Dorit—warm, zaftig, practical—became a den mother to the Israelis and other backpackers. El Lobo expanded in the 1990’s, adding 20 rooms and a sort of clubhouse. Today, a global crew of Israelis, Austrians, French and even the occasional American can be found sitting there on ratty sofas, playing board games, drinking and watching Israeli comedians on the VCR. Lonely Planet finally discovered this back room, advising travelers in the 2001 fourth edition of its Bolivia guide to visit El Lobo and “take a look at their books of travelers’ recommendations in both English and Hebrew.” That single sentence is the only published reference to the Book I’ve ever seen.
To get to El Lobo’s Book, an Israeli staffer named Yiar led me over to a chaotic shelf. With a grunt, he extracted a heavy notebook. Then another and another—six in all, each preserved in hard binders and butcher paper. The oldest was the crumbling, venerable 1989 volume.
The title page read:
livre international pour les voyageurs
international travel book
And so on, through Japanese and what looked like Welsh, down to the last line, where someone had added, BOOK OF THE SMARMY, CONCEITED BEEN-THERE-DONE-THAT-SO-I’M-GROOVY-WANKERS.
The entries were random, frustrating and beautiful, a carnival of ideas, boasts and obsolete phone numbers. One page recommended the “beautikul girls” (sic) in a certain disco; the next tipped a particular ice cave as “a must” (until someone scrawled “NO!” over that entry). This was followed by a half-page in Japanese and a dense passage in German, with bar charts of altitude and diagrams of plants. After that was a full-page scrawl devoted to buying a canoe in the rainforests of Peru’s Manu National Park, with seven parentheticals; a warning against so-and-so’s couscous; and an ornate drawing of a toucan named Felipe.
What differentiates the Book from other travelers’ message boards is what Yiar called “the warnings,” special alerts about anti-Semitism. In an overwhelmingly Christian continent, the young israelitos are a welcome curiosity, but small skinhead groups do exist. The El Lobo Book sounded an alarm about a hotel in Peru run by admirers of the Third Reich. Another entry cautioned anyone with “a shred of conscience” to avoid a hotel in Sorata, Bolivia, run by an alleged arms dealer, a man linked in police reports to, as the scribbler put it, “the shadowy rule of that great philanthropist Klaus Barbie.”
A special CUIDADA page (“BEWARE”) covered regular crimes and cons, bogus policemen in Bogotá and grifters in La Paz. One sponger was always just a few dollars short of lifesaving surgery. (“Careful,” someone added two years later, “he is still around.”)
That touching up of a two-year-old tip reminded me why reading the Book is an experience fundamentally different from surfing message boards online. Israelis do use Web sites such as www.lametayel.com (For the Traveler), the portal of a popular chain of gear stores, to post some of the tips they used to carve in the Book. But the Net’s strengths are its weaknesses: The Web can be too broad, too accessible. Plucking wisdom from its infinite bramble of white noise can take all night. For the young Israelis, raised almost from the cradle with cell phones and computers, all that technology is just one more thing to escape. They search out online information until the day of departure but turn to the Book—in all its handmade glory—once their travels begin.
A journey of a thousand miles often begins by shifting five feet. I started by popping over to one of El Lobo’s picnic tables and three days later found myself out on Bolivia’s southern altiplano, stuck in the mining town of Oruru, my backpack and my Israeli companions missing in action.
It was a simple question that got me in this trouble: “So where’s the Book?” I’d asked at El Lobo. The answer from two Israelis named Avi and Elad was also simple: Follow us. Avi was 22, with long hair and a poncho. Elad, 24, was unshaven, with dark curls. Both had just finished military service. Fresh from tense checkpoint duties and patrols, their fondest goal was to live normally for a while.
These veterans travel for a year or more, hitting the beach, climbing mountains, dropping out, hooking up and blowing their minds—and then repeat, month after month, all over the world. Places like Bolivia are perfect for this: exotic, cheap and full of people who’ve never heard of Ariel Sharon.
Elad was three months into his trip, with nine to go, which he hoped to divide between Asia and Latin America. He’d read the Book before his trip, beginning with a volume in a Tel Aviv bookstore. Since it was summer, he and Avi told me, many Israelis were heading to the cooler climes of Patagonia, and they invited me to come along. When I asked where we were going, Avi pulled a scrap of paper from his jeans, smoothed it on the table and slid it across.
It was a list of places between here and Tierra del Fuego. The route ran south to a hostel called Marith on the outskirts of Uyuni, near the end of Bolivia’s southern rail line. From there, the Book recommended crossing into Chile with Cristal, a tour agency specializing in Bolivia’s salt flats. In Chile, the main stops were the Hotel Indiana, a flophouse in Santiago, and Pucón, the adventure-sports capital of southern Chile, where there was a hostel previously owned by Israeli expats named Edi and Shay and therefore called “the place that used to be Edi and Shay’s.” In Argentina, we could find a place in the alpine town of Bariloche called Room 1040. Or was it Apartment 4010?
Though we knew where we wanted to go, getting there was something else. The trip south from La Paz was a disaster. I loaded my backpack on the wrong bus, and while I waited two days in Oruru for it to arrive (it did), Avi caught the train south to Uyuni. Elad, meanwhile, abruptly changed course—he’d met these five sisters in La Paz, he explained. By the time I reached the Marith guesthouse, Avi had departed, leaving me a note on the bulletin board urging me to catch up. For four days I bumped south and west over Bolivia’s vast salt flats, climbing toward Chile in a jeep that seemed to collide with Israelis in the wilderness.
At a wind-formed rock outcrop, I met Hanit, a skinny Sefardic woman who’d just come from El Lobo. The next day, atop a cactus-covered island in the salt pans, at about 13,000 feet, I stumbled on a couple of guys from Haifa tricked out in ten-gallon Stetsons. They’d bought the hats while passing through Boulder, Colorado, a few months before. We’d been talking for two minutes when one of them said, “You mean Avi with the long hair? Sure, we know him.” Avi was “somewhere out there,” he said, pointing toward the snowcapped 20,000-foot Andean peaks along the Chilean border.
After crossing the border and dropping into the desert oasis of San Pedro de Atacama, I ran into Hanit again. But this was a tourist town—too expensive for Israelis. The bus station was crowded with her sticker-shocked countrymen. Hanit and I took different buses south—I paid an extra $11 for a sleeper—to Santiago. Twenty-four hours of rumbling down Chile’s desert highways dropped me in the gritty capital.
It was easy enough to follow the Israeli trail, even without Avi and Elad. One Jewish person on his own is lonely, “like a candle in the dark,” Elad had said. They gravitate together, adding “another candle over here, and another candle over there,” until the world grows less cold.
“You put them all together,” he’d said, cupping his hands, “and you have a warm fire.”
Exile is the Jewish condition, so perhaps it is no surprise that travel away from Israel has become central to the Israeli identity. The origins of this itch, as well as the origins of the Book itself, go back to the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, in 1973, when the country defeated the combined armies of Egypt and Syria. For the first time, Israelis could venture abroad knowing their country would still exist when they returned. “You didn’t have the Rough Guides translated into Hebrew,” notes Tal Muscal, former tourism correspondent for The Jerusalem Post. “People were xeroxing their notes from trips, and you could find them in cafés in Tel Aviv or on university bulletin boards.” Thirty years later, Israelis can buy guidebooks in Hebrew, but the Book is still widespread, a grass-roots Talmud of travel.
For Israelis, travel is therapy. “There is a sense of a mental prison living here, surrounded by enemies,” explains Yair Qedar, editor of the Tel Aviv-based travel magazine Masa Acher. Every moment is pregnant with menace. And there is the claustrophobia of tight-knit families in a miniature country hemmed in by ancient social traditions. “Suffocation is a constant feeling,” Qedar says. “When the sky opens, you get out.”
In the early 1990’s, the sky opened. Israeli and Palestinian leaders signed the Oslo Accords, the economy boomed and airfares dropped. Masa Acher grew into Israel’s largest monthly magazine. A tiny nation—now almost seven million people—churned out enormous numbers of travelers.
The backpackers call this mass movement gal, or the wave. “Everyone goes the same route,” explains Darya Maoz, who teaches sociological and anthropological aspects of tourism and backpacking at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. “Depending on the seasons, it’s Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and certain places within each country,” she says. Maoz backpacked all over the world, off and on, for eight years, interviewing Israelis for her Ph.D. thesis, “Aspects of Life Cycle in the Journey of Israelis to India.” Many societies, she notes, encourage their youth to drop out for a period of self-discovery. (This is called a “gap year” in Britain, “walkabout” in Australia and “wasting your life” in America.)
No nation can flee its stereotypes—think of Japanese shutterbugs and solipsistic Americans searching for someplace exotic with all the conveniences of home. Israelis are criticized for…well, maybe Maoz should say it: “They tend to be rude, to curse the locals, to ruin things if they are not satisfied,” she sighs. Living on a shoestring budget, they will argue over the price of anything—even, she recalls, a cup of tea costing five rupees.
This can feed the very stereotypes Israelis are hoping to escape. “Personally,” one scowling hotelkeeper told me in Chile, “I would not deal with the Israelis.” I asked why. “They are not reliable,” she said. “They will always try to get the best bargain from you. They are not all the same, but still, I don’t recommend you go with them.”
Lametayel has started a program called Good Will Ambassadors to teach Israelis to be polite while abroad. This can be hard when you’re traveling in a pack. Military life and thousands of years of anti-Semitism have taught Israelis to rely on tight, strong units, and they tend to create their own ecosystems wherever they go. El Lobo, for example, is now surrounded by shops, travel agencies and even juice carts equipped with Hebrew signage.
The wave was in the Hotel Indiana. The place was a peerless dump. The rooms were airless cells. The foul mattresses were lit by bare bulbs swinging from wires. It cost 4,000 pesos, or about $7, a night.
Hanit arrived shortly after me, the Jewish cowboys the next day. A dozen Israelis were in the front room, watching television. A muscled kid, released from the Israel Defense Forces days before, ripped out 20 pull-ups as beardless boys and blooming girls compared notes on Gaza and Jenin, suicide bombers and outpost sieges. Most of them had been drafted in 2001 and sent into the maw of the latest intifada. Several confessed to having done things in battle they were ashamed of or to having strong sympathy for Palestinian nationalism, yet they were universally proud of having served. “When I was a child someone protected me,” the pull-up champion told me. “Now it is my turn.”
No wonder they loved travel. On the road you could wake up in the morning with the one thing you never got in the Middle East: a fresh start.
At sunset, I climbed one of the small peaks that loom over downtown Santiago. On top, an Israeli tapped me on the shoulder. His name was Yaniv, and he recognized me from the Indiana. Yaniv overcompensated for years of military haircuts by sprouting everything: His chin was a wispy scruff and his sun-bleached hair twirled into a mix of short dreads and Orthodox earlocks, all swept up into a kind of werewolf do.
Yaniv had been in the infantry, making incursions into Palestinian areas. “I actually looked at it as travel,” he recalled with a wry smile. “I couldn’t go to these places—Nablus or Ramallah—as a traveler. But with a gun in my hand, I could. It’s nice there in Nablus. You should go.”
I’d been, I told him.
“Yes,” he said, with sudden sadness. “You can go there.”
IDF soldiers are paid a bonus at demobilization, and Yaniv, as a combat veteran, got close to the maximum: about $3,000. That was his budget for an entire year. In seven months he’d visited France, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Chile. “One thing I can say,” he told me, “is that I am more tranquilo here than in Israel. I don’t know if it is the war, or just a tense society, but being here has changed me.”
To save one of his combat-pay dollars, Yaniv and I walked to the Indiana, halfway across the city. He used the time to coach me on blending in with the Israelis—a tall order for a Scotch-Irish 40-year-old. First, he said, I should hide my guidebook. He relied on the Book where he could.
Second, I had to bargain hard. “It is part of our culture to bargain, a Middle East thing,” he said. “Don’t come out freier.”
“Don’t come out freier” is a crucial expression in Israel, translating as “Don’t be a sucker.” As an example, Yaniv cited the Indiana: “They told me the room was 4,000 pesos. Now, I thought, I can get a better price. So I argued, and now I am paying 3,500 pesos. That’s O.K. But I think that maybe some of the other Israelis are paying only 2,500 or 3,000 pesos. So if they find out what I’m paying, then I’m freier.”
I, of course, was paying the full 4,000 pesos; it hadn’t even occurred to me to bargain.
Yaniv stopped walking when I told him this. “My friend,” he said with pity, “you are freier already.”
I rolled south on an overnight bus, passing through an increasingly green and rugged landscape. In Pucón, I bunked at “the place that used to be Edi and Shay’s.” It was yet another dump, but there was a new Book at the tourism office.
I took the next bus out, motoring up curvy roads to the Argentinian border. Watching as passports were checked, I realized that I was the only American. There were several Latin Americans, a few Koreans. There were nine Israelis.
“That’s because there are 500 million of us,” the guy behind me said, exaggerating by a factor of 71. His name was Amatsia. Next to him sat Ayala, a dark-haired physics and math double major who’d delayed her military service until after university. They both got out to join a group of Israelis standing in the road. They opened their notebooks and quickly swapped hotel names and addresses.
Back on the bus, Ayala shared her list of the spots ahead of us. “Apartment 1004,” she said, reading the Hebrew glyphs. Aha. So that was the real name of what Elad called “Room 1040.” She gave me the address.
That night in Bariloche, the address Ayala had given me looked dubious. The building was a half-abandoned office block. The lobby was deserted. On 10, the highest floor, I found myself in a dank, silent hallway, following numbers beneath burned-out bulbs. At the end of the hall, at the last door, there it was: 1004.
Inside was a funny, five-dollar paradise. Hostel 1004, as I finally learned it was called, was beautiful, with wraparound views of Lake Nahuel Huapi and the Andes from a carpeted lounge. The rooms were nice and the bathrooms clean. At a sun-drenched picnic table on the terrace, two Israelis were quizzing a Frenchman about the skiing. It was the best crash pad I’d ever seen.
Here was a reason to follow the Book. Though Hostel 1004 does appear in guidebooks, you would never have picked it from the foolscap wilderness of low-rent listings. But as they had throughout history, the Israelis passed knowledge along, mouth to mouth, ear to ear. The Book learned what they learned.
“So where’s the Book?” I asked. “We don’t know,” confessed the manager, a rocker-tressed Argentinian named Juan. They had had a good volume with five years of entries. But in October, when they were repainting, the Book had been casually shoved into storage, only to disappear.
“A lost treasure,” Juan said. But he didn’t doubt that eventually the guests at 1004 would start a fresh one.
I didn’t doubt it either. People would make the Book anew, because they needed it. The Book was an analog artifact in a digital age, diminished by Web updates and e-mail, but never obsolete. Back at El Lobo, Dorit had suggested that it’s golden age might be over. “Before,” she said, “the Book was like the Bible. Now, almost nobody asks for it.” She had opened a cybercafé and encouraged guests to post on El Lobo’s Web site, www.lobo.co.il. “This is history,” she said, slapping the soft brown paper.
If so, then it is history that’s still being written. The Book shouldn’t exist, yet it does. And if it shrank in one place, that was only because the wave had moved on. It flourishes at a laundry in Costa Rica; it is blossoming in some cheap hostel you and I have never heard of.
A few days later I set out, alone this time. I never saw Avi or Elad again. Elad would write from various ports of call: Boulder, Israel, New York. With the clarity of distance and time, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seemed “silly, unnecessary,” he wrote. Although Israelis had every material advantage, they were still trapped in a narrow view of the conflict, unable to imagine a way out. “If that is the situation in Israel,” he said, “just imagine what is going on in Gaza and the West Bank,” where Palestinians lived in an even narrower bubble. Elad suggested sending leaders from both sides on a world tour, just to open their minds.
The last time I heard from Elad, he was on his way to India. Maybe he’d see me, here or there, or somewhere. The trip wasn’t over yet. There were always more pages in the Book to fill.
First published in Outside Magazine © 2005 by Patrick Symmes, reprinted with the permission of the Wylie Agency.