Why We Flock to India
We got your “Israeli Phenomenon”, but Why???
Please give us the reasons you Israelis are so hooked on India
OK, we got it. You already wrote five long posts on “The Israeli Phenomenon in India”, but we still don’t understand the “Why”.
We’ve all seen these groups of young Israelis, families, singles, oldies, crisscrossing the sub-continent, climbing, hiking, hanging out, smoking pot, making music, making noise, sitting for silent retretats, filling up ashrams, making jewelry, studying Buddhism, making friends, keeping to themselves, haggling in the markets, socializing, shopping, wandering alone, partying. We’ve seen the Hebrew signs, the Israeli menus, the groupie hangouts. You guys are ubiquitous, and no pristine Himalayan valley or remote village are spared.
So please deliver on your promise and bring up your wild theories and speculations on what brings you guys here, at last!
OK. Noblesse oblige. I promised to attempt at an answer. I’ll try my best, though it gets into some “sensitive” territories. Those will be dealt with mostly in the sequel post:
The current post contains the more straight forward motives.
Deep? Shallow? It’s all intertwined
I try to list the motives/reasons from the light to the heavy, superficial to deeper, but they don’t submit themselves easily to this kind of categorization. Plus, “deep” and “shallow” don’t quite make it in this context anyway. Is a post-army trip motivated by “deep” or “shallow” causes? Is “escaping”? Adventurism? Learning a skill? Everything can be both, or either. “Shallow” reasons can actually be very deep. So I ended up sorting the motives as “more obvious” and “less obvious”, and still there’s a large overlap.
Just to clarify, I am no psychologist, nor sociologist. The most I can say about myself is that I observe. Obviously, that is subjective.
Those who go to India after the army are often following “the herd”, at least partially, but this initial exposure will for sure give them “a taste”. The majority will go on with their lives after the trip, carrying around their picture albums, stories and memories. Some, though, return for more. They get hooked on India, and always plan for the next trip. Sometimes it means after they retire… or – the new trend – with their young kids and teenagers! But often they come back the next year, or a few years later.
The motives for the returnees are often more “profound” and compound than those of the general “herd”. I list some of the factors I think are at play in the sequel post.
I’ll start “light”:
Israelis Come to India To Learn Crochet
And – jewelry making, Indian cooking (a reciprocal affair. We teach locals Israeli cooking…), tabla/sitar/flute, drawing, singing, Indian dancing, yoga, wood carving, and so on…
Such a rich culture as India has so much to offer!
I already elaborated on this in my post: The Israeli Phenomenon in India, Part 3 – The Case of Bhagsu.
Here, I’ll just add a side note:
Ironically, I discovered, the Indians actually learned crochet from the British (!). Indian ladies saw this craft as a status symbol…
It seems like the art underwent some major changes, though, from the original white lace doily to your average dream catcher, …
Why Israelis go to India? To Escape
Source: https://food-hacks.wonderhowto.com/news/food-tool-friday-cut-your-cooking-time-with-pressure-cooker-0160689/ Image by mr donb/Flickr
Israel is a pressure cooker. India is an escape valve.
Not only is our country super small, not only are we surrounded by hostile/semi-hostile neighbors, not only is the fear of terrorism/war always lurking in the background, not only do we have an extra load of 2-3 years of military service on our backs and often some reserve duty thereafter, not only are the prices so high nobody can buy an apartment (even yogurt is expensive!), not only do we spend half of our free time in traffic jams, but we also developed great ways of driving each other crazy on a daily basis: bureaucracy, impatient angry drivers, political arguments, ethnic/religious tensions, you name it.
When in a foreign country, the first source of relief is that the problems are “other people’s problems”(put bluntly: Brexit Shmexit…). We can take a breather.
Secondly, there is more space (just about anywhere unless we go to Liechtenstein…).
Thirdly, most people are more relaxed than us! Great help!
The need to get a breather is so big, in recent years the country literally emptied out during vacations. See my post, “The Big Escape”.
The sweet taste of freedom…
Traveling generally engenders a wonderful sense of freedom. In India there are the additional perks, listed below, of low prices, vastness, friendliness, shanti, adventure and more.
Most Indians are concerned with their own daily problems, usually with a philosophical or stoic attitude. The majority is not involved or interested in deep politics. A relief…
As a consequence, it is so easy for us to let go in India that a few days after our arrival, we, Israelis, come across almost as carefree…. The lid is off the pot.
Amendment to the above – Great Little Country
High on the happiness scale…
Just so nobody will get the wrong impression that Israel is hell on earth, I am planning to write a series of posts about simple day-to-day nice things about the country that the news will not tell you.
Until I publish the series, you can peek at my gallery, “Small is Beautiful”. I know I should balance the desert photographs with pictures of waterfalls and greenery from the north, and that I should do so quickly. If I’m not fast enough, people will get the false impression Israel is nothing but desert and we all ride camels, but things take some time. It is in the pipes! I love the desert, so photos from the south got a preference.
…as long as we can get out!
Yet, even with all these statistics and despite all the good things that exist, we still need to get out and away from our marvellous little country every once in a while to replenish. Actually, perhaps because we get out often and for periods, we can keep our famed happiness level. Who knows if otherwise we would explode or implode?
So thank you, blessed India, for the valve service.
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Why Israelis go to India? Shanti, Sweet Shanti
Following the above, it is natural that one of the primary reasons why Israelis go to India is TO RELAX.
Full relaxation in a “zoola” in Leh, Ladakh
Relax? In India?
It might sound contradictory. India is nothing but relaxing. The cities are noisy, crowded, congested. Getting from one place to another is a serious ordeal, as I will describe in future posts. There are problems along the borders. Still, it is perplexingly relaxing.
Hard to explain really. For example, even though the traffic in India is simply horrendous, the drivers for the most part are not nervous and angry.
Milennia vs. 70 years
India has been around for thousands of years, even if not as a unified, independent country. The ancestors of most everybody lived forever on this very soil. The culture has a continous existence in the same place despite conquests, colonialism, missionary activities, religious turmoil. Even with the Kashmiri situation and the recent terrorist attacks, India is still much more secure in its own continuity than Israel. Size itself also makes a difference.
In contrast, our country is always shaking at the foundation. Our life here had been cut in the middle, with 2000 years of Diaspora in between, and endless wars thereafter. As I elaborate in the section about our existential situation in the sequel post, the “situation” is ground for great creativity, but also for a non-stop state of anxiety.
A national PTSD
There is PTSD from army service, terrorism and losing loved ones through acts of violence. According to some statistics, PTSD is less prevalent in the Israeli army than in other active militaries, but it is nonetheless significant. Plus, I’m not sure I fully trust these statistics.
There is a lot of tension because of the need to compete and to achieve. There is tension because of the high prices. There is the milennial, inherited, Jewish PTSD. There is tension to keep our status as a developed nation. There is a general anxiety underlying our very existence, and there are “the little things”, like the beurocracy, that can drive one crazy.
An underlying relaxing philosophy
India, on the other hand, is not just its cities. So much space. Most Israelis end up in rural areas, small towns, villages, Nature. Here people are generally friendly and warm. Many are still rooted deeply in the land and in the traditions.
The yoga philosophy underlying Hinduism also has a very relaxing, calming element. The same applies for Buddhism. The monasteris, ashrams, yoga schools, meditation retreats, all offer relaxing, beautiful environments, an accepting approach and wonderful ways to calm the mind and the body. Many Israelis just travel from one to the other. Some, like a yoga teacher I know in Jerusalem, find a guru they connect with and keep coming back for teachings.
Shanti can take many forms, ranging from “Grass, music and the Spiritual Salad” to simply spending a week in a remote traditional village up in the Himalayas, or swimming in the fabulous southern beaches.
Army Aftermath - The Big Migration
All the above is especially pertinent to the post-army youth.
The Big Migration
This is the most well-known statistic and motive why Israelis go to India.
Forbes give the stunning numbers:
Each year, 75,000 soldiers are discharged from the Israel Defense Force. A third of them then travel across Asia and South America, supporting businesses at home and abroad.
Forbes quotes Issta’s Travel Agency Director of Marketing, Noam Ron, that 60 percent of Israeli backpackers fly to Asia, 30 percent to South and Central America, and the rest to Australia, New Zealand, and Africa. On average, they travel for six months, while ten percent travel for more than a year! Ron estimates that a half-year backpacking trip costs $9,000 in South America, $6,000 in Southeast Asia, $4,000 in South Asia, and $12,000 in Australia / New Zealand.
I’ll add that usually Israelis who go to Australia work there for a while on farms, and then go from there to India, Cambodia, Vietnam.
“Money poor but time rich”
The post-army Israeli backpackers represent a $150 million annual income for the global tourism sector, especially in developing countries. They, as well as other young travelers, are “often money poor but time rich,” so they tend to take much longer trips and eventually spend almost three times more than the average international tourist!
It is common for Israelis to work for up to a year to scrape together additional funds for backpacking: “None of my friends will not go because they don’t come from wealthy families,” says Weiner. “You earn your own money, you choose how to spend it.” (Forbes, quoted above)
It became norm – you finish the obligatory army service, then you work for a while to save or just take your army “discharge bonus” and then off you go into “the world”. The army discharge bonus can range between $1,500 to $3,300, depending on the length of service and whether one was in combat service.
“The world” usually means Latin America or India. Cheap, beautiful, wilderness, adventures, lots to do and many other compatriots for company. Usually nice, friendly, warm locals. Existing Israeli infrastructure makes travelling easy. And you are at the top of your physical fitness with all of life open in front of you.
With our parents emotional support
Parents do not usually support the trips economically, but they support their children’s trips emotionally. Everybody understands that the youth need a break after the service. Plus, we are already used to being worried…
And there is no lack of reasons for worry – car/bus/jeep/motorcycle accidents, trekking accidents, earthquakes, avalanches, floods, crime, political turmoil, etc. The parents, like the children, brave it and support each other too. There were numerous tragedies, but I don’t want to elaborate about this here.
The total need for “a break”
I did my “post army” trip after I completed my masters degree, that is 6 years later than the majority. In those times, it was not yet established as the norm, but was something some people did. Specifically, just as I was released, in 1973, the infamous Yom Kippur War hit us unprepared. I volunteered at a kibbutz, then went on reserve service as a medic, taking care of wounded soldiers. From there, it was straight to a delayed first year in the university, and on I went non-stop for six years.
Burned out and exhausted, my luck brought me a stipend to perform some marine research in Mexico. Twenty months of heaven on earth in Latino America, partially as a student, partially as a traveller, constituted my Grand Trip, and then the Integral Yoga Institute in San Fransisco – another marvellous kind of journeying. All my girlfriends were already married with kids…
Lifting away the weight of 3 years – Shalev Paller
In my time, girls did not do combat (now some do). Therefore, there’s no comparison between my army service and what most Israeli guys undergo, so I’ll better let the wonderful Shalev Paller speak for himself and for thousands others. In a Times of Israel article, aptly called “Lifting away the weight of 3 years: Why we Israelis go to India after the army“, he describes the wonders that India did for his soul. Recommended read!
Why Israelis Go to India? The Herd
Birds of a feather flock together
One of the most noticeable things about the Israelis in India, at least as seen through European/American eyes, is the groupiness. Somebody asked me if we arrived in groups. I said: no. We usually arrive as singles, pairs of friends or couples, sometimes as families, like everybody else. We group later, on the go. Powerful methods of communication, including Facebook groups, Whatsapp groups, Chabad houses, Israeli hangouts, and simply recognizing each other on the roads, help us aggregate.
Some groups are created for a specific trip, like my jeep tour around Udaipur. Seven other Israelis were also interested. Some stay together for the long run. A few keep grouping because their English is not good enough, or because they like it.
The herd effect
Once the trip to India became the “in” thing to do, I was suprised with the reactions I got from “regular” people in Israel.
Recently I went to get my third hepatitis shot, with the thought in mind of going back to continue my trip. When the nurse, a lady in her thirties, heard I might be heading to India, she got all excited. Everybody in the room expressed jealousy of my trip and their wishes to follow on my footpaths. They asked for details of where, when and how I did my first trip.
Now this is “middle Israel”, not army graduates, not great adventurers, not people on a spiritual path – just regular folk. By now, apparently, India got a reputation of “the” thing to do among sub-populations that were indifferent to it previously, or even apprehensive.
The more “regular” people undertake the trip and the more mainstream it gets, the higher the chance of meeting my next door neighbor or the guy from the grocery store in a falafel stand in Dharamkot…
Plus, yes, admittedly, we are…
quite herdish to be truthful. Perhaps it is:
the familiality (I invented this word to describe this)
the high school friendships
our existential unique stand in the world that pulls us together and marks us as different from other tourists
just a curious national characteristic,
Or: all above answers are correct.
For the sake of accuracy…
There are also many Israelis who do NOT want to meet, or socialize, with other Israelis when they travel. Some avoid this at all costs, and prefer joining with tourists from other countries, keeping each other’s company as a couple or a pair of friends. Some travel all alone in “authentic” Indian “unspoilt” areas.
In Har Eitan, near Jerusalem, I met a beautiful guy in his late 30s, with dreadlocks and wrapped in shawls. I immediately identified him as an “India-graduate”, and, indeed, he goes to India about twice a year. When there, he hikes alone among Indian villages where no Israelis nor other tourists reach, and fully enjoys the locals’ company as well as the abundant nature around. It doesn’t hurt that with his looks he can easily pass as a local….
The Hummus Trail
It is now fairly easy, relatively speaking, for an Israeli to travel in India and other Third World countries (or emerging economies, if you will), thanks to the solid infrastructure set up by those who ventured before us. Thousands of other feet have treaded trails, visited guesthouses, taught locals how to make shakshukas, checked out and verified the best and the cheapest, the most interesting and the friendliest, before we got on the scene. The famous Indian Hummus Trail evolved over the years, like its counterpart in Latin America. A new one is shaping up in Africa.
In some places, it borders on the ridiculous. Hebrew signs everywhere, the vendors all speak our language, you can get falafel, hummus and Israeli salad in every corner. In other places, less crowded, or on a trek somewhere, it is nice to meet another Israeli soul, share experiences, join forces on the trail, share music and stories.
Bringing it back home
Hummus Trail by air
The Hummus Trail continues by air all the way to Israel. I’ll here describe the outstanding package-sending machinery. By now, the apparat for sending packages back home is so-well “oiled”, things just “tick” from both ends of the continent.
“Lala Parcel Paker” is affiliated with Shiva Travel Agency in Pushkar, and sends packages directly to Israel. They have ready on hand all the necessary equipment for the task. I sent 7 kg of new clothing, jewelry, crystals, longies, my old clothes, my Buddhism books and my new flute – all for 3120R, that is ~150 shekels, or roughly $45. I got my package in about a month’s time, and could easily track it back, call the agency and verify the details.
Shiva Travel Agency itself is run by Shiva and his brother. The clocks on the wall show Rajasthani and Israeli time (see pic above). Hundreds of passport pictures of satisfied Israeli customers are displayed under the working desk glass (see pic below). Enthusiastic letters of recommendations are posted all over the walls. This place is set for a very specific sub-set of tourists!
Specializing in Israelis
A non-Israeli tourist for sure wouldn’t be turned away at the door, but I haven’t seen any in my multiple visits there. I had a difficult train itinerary problem, that necessitated several visits, but Shiva ultimately solved it brilliantly to my uttermost satisfaction, and I added my recommendation to the “Wall”.
Places like Shiva’s “specialize” in who we are, how we behave, what we need, and how to supply those needs. Everybody on both sides of the deal is applying the “sahbak” culture and all are happy – a total win-win.
Why Israelis Go to India? It's Cheap
Bonanza for the long-term traveler
Nothing helps traveling, especially long-term traveling, more than good prices. India is wonderfully cheap – wonderful for us, less wonderful, naturally, for the Indians.
Israeli salaries are low, prices are high – the ratio is really bad, but the exchange rate with India is advantageous for us. A young person wishing to see the world, especially somebody who has just finished their army service, will not usually head to affluent Norway or Japan, but to India, Central America, Africa, Vietnam.
Some Israelis, seeing their prospects for buying a house as dim at best, opt for a life of rental and traveling instead.
From personal experience I’ll say, low prices make traveling so much easier and lighter. It takes the weight off decision-making and time management (OK, I’ll stay here another week, no big deal, only R2100…).
When translating rupees into shekels, it is a real boon – R2100 equal approximately 105 shekels! So you can stay a full week in a simple, but reasonable, guesthouse for a price that will barely get you into an Israeli youth hostel with bunk beds for one night! Bonanza!
This trip I paid on average R500 a night (range: R300-800), and had my own room with a fan, barred windows, double bed, shower with boiler. That’s 25 shekels. You go back to Israel and one night in a zimmer up north will cost you NIS 600-800… On the high end, for a wonderful room in Jaipur’s Hotel Kalyan, with service (people opening the elevator door for you, filling up your water jar, getting you hot water for tea), ornamental rooms and lobby, I paid R700 – NIS35 !!!
Looked at another way, renting my place in Israel could easily pay for my expenses in India, and perhaps even cover the air ticket.
The same for food. When I still had the energy to do it, I wrote down some prices: meals: 50R, 100R. A meal for a 150R was an extravaganza. To get my Aloo Parantha breakfast at a dhaba – R50. That is less than 3 shekels. For 3 shekels you can get a small cookie In Israel. Breakfast at a restaurant starts at 40 shekels (~R800), for a basic.
When you talk thousands it sounds like a lot, so the brain gets confused, but every time you divide it into the 20, you see how little everything costs, even equipment. I bought a quality rainhood at a camping store in Dharamsalla for 1350R (~ 60 NIS). The wonderful travelling, multi-pocket pouch I got cost 400R=20 shekels!
As in our Middle East, you can bargain some prices down, as long as you don’t overdo it. That applies also to room prices. It’s really important to keep people’s dignity in mind, and even the simplest folk are sensitive.
On the other hand, thanks to Indian law, everything packaged and factory-produced has a “maximum price” posted on it. That takes away a lot of shopping anxiety.
Why Israelis Go to India? Shopping
From cheap prices to shop-until-you-drop, the road is short and well-travelled. Today there are people who, thanks to cheaper air fares and the new direct routes, go to India solely to shop! (or for medical/dental treatments).
Some buy to sell (see below – business), but most shop for their private consumption and to give gifts to friends, family, co-workers. Even jeans, even sneakers!
A woman I met bought R3000 worth of Himalaya cosmetics and health products and took it all with her on the plane, as well as a huge Buddha!
Other people sent 60Kg packages of clothing, jewelry, etc.!
And it goes without saying that there is so much great stuff in India to buy, nothing like it! Temptations everywhere. Everybody is trying to sell you something, and there’s a lot that is quality and special. I bought some silk shirts for example. The designs, the colors, everything is gorgeous. And a belly dance belt made in the shop, super high quality, excellent sewing, decent price. Silver jewelry made on location in Pushkar – uncontestable prices and quality. Scarves and shawls in Leh, all the way from gross yak wool to the softest pashmina, … I can go on and on.
And then there are other tempting distractions like massages or:
Henna art – very popular with Israeli girls.
I think I made myself clear on the topic…
If I could wear a sari…
Oh, yes, one more note. The most gorgeous textiles to buy are, of course, the saris. But there’s no way to wear those in Israel. Only one time I saw an Israeli girl walking with a sari in Jerusalem. She and it were gorgeous and totally head-turning, but… Some things are simply not in the lexicon. I wish they were, since saris are just so much more feminine and beautiful than anything we wear, but that falls outside the cultural perimeter. It is more acceptable to see a mohawk or punk than an authentic Israeli woman in a sari…
Why Israelis Go to India? Business
Yes, there is also plenty of business. I will not get into that, just say that I met Indians working for Israeli subsidiary companies, and Israelis working for Indian companies. Much of this was connected with the military and aircraft industries.
Interestingly, the guy sitting next to me on the plane worked for an Indian company, but this time he was coming for a two-week organized jeep trip to the Indian north. Even middle-aged Israeli business people have the travel bug.
In the small business bracket, money always flows in one direction. There are plenty people who opened cheap shops of Indian textiles, stones, jewelry, longies, etc. in Israel, and they make nice profits.
Guys like the “Prince” want to start a mini business on a small scale. He made a connection with some Indian crystal sellers – those who walk up and down Bhagsu’s trails and mountain steps. These merchants look very simple, carrrying their merchandise in a bundled piece of cloth. When you show interest, they roll the cloth on a rock or on a step, and pull out a few crystals at a time. It is surprising what treasures these peddlers carry. It is even more surprising that they have web pages. Prince was buying a bunch of crystals when I met him, and was intending to buy much more online when he reached Israel. There he would sell them for a profit, mostly to people he knows.
Why Israelis Go to India? Love of Adventure
Hooked on adventurism
That’s a BIGGIE too, and it overlaps with the post-army stat, but not exclusively. Israelis of all ages are hooked on adventurism. Some are even big on extreme sports, like a 20-year-old girl I met in Leh. We sat together at a coffeehouse street table, and she described how she bunjeed in the Philipines, did omega over running rivers in Thailand. Rafting, diving, everything: “I like extremes”. She described a very supportive, loving family.
On the whole we, Israelis, are a restless people who need something to happen all the time. Often, we throw caution to the winds. For example, I could not stop an Israeli group from “doing” the hike up to the Dharamkot Falls. The afternoon monsoon was already churning and it was getting late, but that did not hinder the two guys and the girl. I and one of the guys quit and went down after reaching the small temple. The others continued, unfazed. I checked later to make sure they arrived back in one piece. They did!
Do I “Have to” go to Turkmenistan?
We have a tendency to “outdo” each other in adventurism, or pull others to adventures we have undertaken:
“What, you haven’t been to….?”
When an Israeli tells me how s/he went to Turkmenistan or Azerbiijan, and how incredible the views, mountains etc. were, my national genes start kicking in, and I feel like I “must” go there too. If I don’t, somehow my life will not be complete….
We are attracted to third world countries not only because of the prices, but also because of what they have to offer in terms of wilderness, country folk, cultures, adventures and challenges. Europe “can wait” until we are old. Young we “must” do certain things we won’t be able to do later.
Though, as you can see, some keep doing them into a ripe age
Why Israelis Go to India? The Incredible Allure of Non-Modernity
Wheat harvest at Likir village, Ladakh. Family of all ages and friends pull in, completing the job in one morning.
Things are rushing around us at a mind-boggling pace. Catching up and keeping up to date is a full time job. Most of us need some time off moderna.
Going back “in time” to places where people are more simple and less digital, where time is slower and conversation uninterrupted by phone calls, where deadlines do not exist and modern luxuries did not yet take their full toll on bodies and minds, is an existential necessity and a healing…
Few of us will actually choose to live that way again – move to a Himalayan village, cuddle by the fireplace lit by cow dung in winter, grow wheat, or rice, but there is the allure. Something is always lost as something is gained. Perhaps more than anything, it is the close-knit family, the home rituals, life with Nature.
Not only was Likir, the Buddhist Himalayan village where I was lucky enough to have a “home stay” beautiful, it was quiet. Blissfully quiet. And simple. blessedly simple. And the people were heartful. Wonderfully heartful.
For me, such experiences made my whole trip worthwhile.
Last, but Not Least: Incredible India!!!
And, yes, of course, like all other tourists (and travelers), we come to see and enjoy “Incredible India”.
And incredible it is indeed.
I haven’t seen the Taj Mahal as of this writing, but I did see some amazing palaces, forts and temples in other places.
The history here is so rich that the imagination works extra hours trying to reconstruct what it was like at different periods.
To make things even better, India is SO large. There are 29 states, each with its own character, its own set of “attractions” and a unique culture. Size-wise it is the seventh-largest country in the world, after Russia, Canada, United States, China, Brazil and Australia. But with the exception of China, it is the only one continuously inhabited by highly developed civilizations with great architecture, art and sciences for millenia.
No wonder an Israeli, living in one of the smallest countries in the world, is left dumbfounded at the sights and comes back for more.
Why Israelis Go to India? The Synergic Effect
In the next, and last, post in this serial about the Israeli phenomenon in India, I will venture into more complicated motives for travel – conscious and perhaps subconscious. These will include cultural similariteis between Israel and India; the attraction to the forbidden; the religious quest; time, light and magic; our unique location between the first and the third worlds; our existential situation; the need for love and the need for peace.
I list “the less obvious motives” in the sequel post:
Various factors are always at play for each and every individual before the Israeli takes the final decision to come to India. A certain synergistic effect between various factors is often also at play.