Being a blonde Jew is a funny thing. People are always surprised to find out I’m Jewish—the light
hair, blue eyes, and extremely pale skin tends to baffle them. I have to explain that I am the albino version of my family
who all have dark hair and hazel or brown eyes. But it’s true that in the stereotypical sense, I don’t look the
part. My Jewish girlfriends have long, thick, dark, curly hair. In my most natural state I have light brown, frizzy, thin
hair. I’ve always been endlessly jealous of that stereotypical Jewish hair.
was eighteen when I went on a five-week, organized trip to Israel. We started in Jerusalem, worked our way from the Golan
to Eilat, visited Tel Aviv and Haifa, swam in the Mediterranean, worked in a kibbutz. It was a spectacular trip.
was the third day of our trip, and we headed to the Dead Sea. A day earlier, I had gotten a visit from my monthly friend,
and was annoyed like I am each month, but other than that, I didn’t think anything of it. As we pulled up to the Dead
Sea in our air-conditioned bus, one of our leaders told the girls if we had our period, we shouldn’t go in. This warning
really annoyed me—when would I be at the Dead Sea again? I wanted to float while reading the newspaper! There was no doubt
in my mind I was going in, no way I would miss out on this. Besides, what could be so bad about going in with my period?
I was about to find out.
Before we could go in the Dead Sea, we had to follow our strict itinerary that called for a walk in the forty-two degree
“Remember to take two liters of water with you on our little walk up the trail,” our Israeli guide announced.
The Israelis like to talk in riddles. The “walk” up the “trail” turned out to be a hike up a mountain.
And this hike, in forty-two degrees Celsius, is just as sweaty as it sounds. I mean, sweaty. There’s no beauty
or glamour to being outside in that kind of heat. It’s just hot. Especially when you walk off an air-conditioned bus. A literal wall of heat hits you. Suddenly that unattractive hat my mother packed looked
much more appealing—anything to find some shade in this desert.
We did our hike, and were surprised by a lovely lagoon at the top. Too bad it wasn’t secluded. Apparently every
North American tour group had the same itinerary and was on top of this mountain in the same lagoon. I was anxious for the
Dead Sea. It would be bigger, more spacious, and I was very ready to float. After some time we hiked back down and were lead
to the Dead Sea.
By this point, I had completely forgotten about my period.
I ran in and reveled in the buoyancy. I handed my camera to a friend and she snapped a picture of me with my hands
and legs in the air, smiling and waving happily. Suddenly I felt an odd and uncomfortable feeling creeping up inside of me.
I was in sudden pain. I knew I had to get out to try and stop the pain, but when you’re floating it’s very hard
to move quickly. I was bobbing back and forth, up and down, looking like a flailing, drowning animal, the pain increasing
with each second I spent in the salty water. I finally managed to get to shore and into an open shower where I tried desperately
to wash all the salt off of me, wondering how to get the fresh water inside of
“What’s the matter with you?” my Israeli guide asked.
“I don’t want to talk about it!” I shrieked.
“There’s always one that has to go in with her period,”
I did this uncomfortable dance in the shower for a good hour, all the while watching my peers happily splash around,
covering themselves in Dead Sea mud, taking group pictures of everyone floating together. The pain was starting to subside
as we were taken back to the hostel, which was close to Massada and was fairly decent, aside from the cockroaches in the shower.
I decided the cockroaches didn’t bother me anymore, and jumped in the shower with them.
I tried to relax, and after a few hours, I started to feel better. The awful burning sensation was gone and I would
never have to feel that way again.
I dressed up nicely for dinner, and we all piled onto our bus, returning to the Dead Sea area for dinner. Suddenly,
a biting pain returned, like there was salt water in the air and it was finding its way back inside of me. Dinner was shot.
For the second time that day, I watched my peers enjoy themselves while I bit back tears over the burning in my groin.
But at least I can say I’ve been in the Dead Sea. And I do have a cute picture of myself floating, hands and
legs in the air. I can see my naīve eyes, knowing it was my last moment of innocence.
The day before our Dead Sea escapade we climbed the sacred mountain of Massada. There are normal ways to be at the
top of a mountain, and then there is the You’re On a Trip in Israel! way. This meant being woken up at 3:30 a.m. by
your leaders and told to get dressed quickly, as we needed to start hiking. We were fed nothing but chocolate bars, which
thrilled me. I shoveled a few bars in my mouth, and gulped down the required two liters of water (I mean that literally—we were
required to have two liters of water on us every time we left any form of air-conditioned environment) and set off on the
hike, buoyed by the sugar. We started the long and steep walk up in the dark, and after a few minutes I became pretty bitter
about being forced up something ominously called the “Snake Path” when a cable car hung right above us.
“It’s worth it for the view,” our leaders kept telling us as we whined. It better be, I thought.
The sun started to rise and the inevitable pools of sweat gathered in every part of my body. I chugged some more water
and started to feel slightly queasy. We were warned constantly of heat stroke, and even though I was sheltered with my unattractive
hat and slathered in sunscreen, I knew someone as pale as me would succumb eventually. But it didn’t feel like heat
stroke. I kept climbing, complaining of course. Everyone complained on our trip so much that the t-shirts we made at the end
had the slogan “Bitching Cross Country”.
So I’m climbing and complaining and drinking my water, hoping the top is near. I could hear cheering—people
in my group were there. I could see the end in sight. I was so relieved. The sun was coming up. It was a beautiful moment.
That was when I threw up. On the sacred mountain of Massada. I shouldn’t have been surprised as the chocolate
and water came out. This is why you’re not supposed to have chocolate for breakfast and then drink more than two
liters of water. I mean, anyone could have thrown up. But of course no one else did. Just me.
I felt bad about disrespecting the mountain, but it hadn’t been my intention. People pointed and screamed, grossed
out by the way the heat made my vomit glisten. I didn’t care. I had reached the top. I collapsed and looked out over
the Dead Sea and neighboring Jordan, realizing I had never seen a more beautiful view in my life.
I like Mediterranean food. I’m a fan of olives, hummus, that kind of thing. I assumed I would be in food heaven
The first stop on our trip was Jerusalem and we stayed in our first Israeli hostel. We arrived jet-lagged, hot and
ragingly hungry. We were told to go downstairs to eat.
We went to the food area of the hostel, excited for the delicious goodness that awaited us.
We were confronted with goulash. A lot of goulash. For breakfast. Now, goulash is a lovely dish. My father makes an
excellent goulash, and my family is Austrian, so I am used to this kind of food.
But I was on a vacation to a tropical land. And it was breakfast. No one had ever tried to feed me goulash for breakfast.
We instantly walked right back upstairs.
“Why aren’t you eating?” one of our leaders asked us.
“That food isn’t for us,” we said.
“What do you mean, not for you?”
“It must be for someone else. Besides, it looks gross,” one girl piped up.
The leader looked us square in the eyes. “No. That’s the food in Israel. And it’s for you.”
We somberly trekked back downstairs. There was nothing less than 3 percent milk for our cereal, there was an array
of salad included in our breakfast, and there was veggie schnitzel, something I
didn’t realize I would see every day of my trip in Israel. Veggie schnitzel
was the go-to alternative for absolutely every meal. I would whine about having no vegetarian options and out of nowhere,
a box of schnitzel would appear. Literally.
Side of the road – box of schnitzel. By the ocean? Hungry? Why, somehow we
happen to have some schnitzel! By the end I was so sick of schnitzel that I started eating meat just for some variety. I mean, were there no other alternatives? It didn’t
seem so, and when I pressed my Israeli guides on the subject of schnitzel, their
eyes would tense up, as if I was offending a sacred delicacy of Israel.
Just when I thought the food was getting better, like a delicious fruit buffet, I would spend the next day in pain
with food poisoning. We were saved by nights out, where we usually ate Domino’s Pizza. A whole country of Mediterranean
goodness, and we opted for pizza.
My family was never very observant. We lit the candles at Hannukah and joined with family friends for Seders at Passover,
but we weren’t religious. I knew about Shabbat, but I didn’t really understand it.
So, on our first Friday afternoon, when we were told to get some food at a market, I loaded up on rugelach and other sweets because I didn’t have my parents around telling me not to eat junk food.
We got to sleep late on our first Saturday, which I really needed since I was still foggy from jet lag. My stomach
started to rumble, so, like I do when sweets are around, I ate everything.
We got word to go downstairs for a meeting. I was wondering when breakfast would be served, but assumed we would be
fed soon enough. Probably after the quick meeting, I thought.
The quick meeting was actually a three-hour long discussion about Israel and the theoretic aspects of being a Jew in
the Diaspora. It would have been interesting if I had paid attention, but I was having trouble because I was wondering when
my next meal was. My sugar high from a breakfast of rugelach had worn off and I
“Where’s the food?” I asked my friend Jordana. She was also from Montreal, and even though I was
now living in Vancouver, we had friends in common. We had became quick friends, and later in life, sorority sisters at the
University of British Columbia.
“Um, there’s no food till sundown,” she replied.
“SUNDOWN?” I yelped.
Nobody told me this. I would have rationed my food if they had. Actually that’s a lie. I have no self-control
around sweets, so I would have ended up in the same predicament regardless of ignorance.
Nobody told me that the elevators wouldn’t
work properly either. It’s called a “Shabbat elevator,” and it stops on every floor. I was on the 20th
floor of the hotel. I got pretty irritated when the elevator stopped at every floor, so I turned to the stairs. That was a
long, long walk up.
I was learning a lot on my trip to Israel.
A lot of our trip took place on bus rides. Israel is so small that you can cross the country easily in a day (and by
easily, I mean a quick six-hour drive, plus traffic). I would listen to my Discman, with the only tape that hadn’t burned
up thanks to the heat. It had Dave Matthews Band “Under the Table and Dreaming” on one side, and Moby’s
“Play” on the other. I can’t hear either without picturing the landscapes of the country. I didn’t
mind spending hours with my music, watching the scenery pass me by. I did mind the bathrooms we stopped at in the middle of
random little towns. One time I was in a bathroom stall with no roof, and a camel’s head peered over from outside. I felt both violated and at one with nature.
There wasn’t always time to get to a bathroom. And the bus driver was rarely willing to pull over on the side
of the highway. But when you have to pee, you have to pee. Once, a girl with an especially whiny voice, started complaining
about having to go badly. The leaders told her to wait. She continued to complain. They told her to sit down and be quiet.
We had Canadian leaders, but we also had two Israeli soldiers as part of our leadership team. When Israeli soldiers
are telling you to stop complaining, you should listen. After all, they’d been through more than we could ever imagine.
But the girl had to pee. Fair enough, it’s human nature. But we couldn’t pull over. So a bottle was produced,
and on some highway, heading north into the mountains of Israel, she peed into that bottle. The entire bus smelled like a
dirty alley for the rest of the ride. She might have been relieved, but were disgusted.
Since it was so hot and since we were on the Mediterranean, we tended to swim a lot. Then we would get onto our bus.
We were always given enough time to change into dry clothes, most of us knowing we didn’t want to sit on a bus for hours
in damp clothes. But some people didn’t care, or were too lazy. Either way, they didn’t seem to realize what would
Since it was a trip of learning, I learned boys could get yeast infections. I bet many of the guys on my trip also
made this discovery, as they sat for hours in their wet bathing suits one day, only to be in writhing discomfort the next
day. The first time it happened it was funny. They would assume a spot at the front of the bus by a Canadian leader, and jump
off quickly at the rest stops. There were quick visits to the grocery store, and warnings to change after swimming.
By the fifth time it wasn’t funny at all and in fact, it was slightly worrisome that the boys paid so little
attention. I felt a bit better about my Dead Sea experience. And about throwing up on Massada.
It wasn’t only the lack of bathrooms; it was the state of the bathrooms. Every traveler knows it’s hard
to find a good, clean place to pee. There’s nothing worse than being in a completely touristy area and knowing there
is either no bathroom nearby, or a grungy McDonald's. I pretty much panic every time I leave my house, wondering where my
next bathroom will be, will it be clean, will I find one quickly if I really need it. So as a traveler, I zone in on the bathrooms.
From all my years in London, I can name specific pubs on certain streets that are cleaner than others, and whose bartenders
don’t scowl at you when you rush in, pretending to look for a friend, then nip into the bathroom quickly.
But I was eighteen and hadn’t really been anywhere alone. I didn’t yet understand the importance, the urgency
of knowing where your next bathroom would be.
So, on a sunny and beautiful day, our group went to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the last stop after touring other
historic sites in the Old City of Jerusalem. I had been powering back my two liters of water, happy for some shade inside
the church. We visited all the chambers and tombs and compounds, avoided getting our money stolen by gypsies, and had a really
Then came the question.
“Who needs to go to the bathroom?” a leader asked.
I did. I really did. I had started to have the feeling that I needed to go very badly, but we were being led around
the chambers and tombs and compounds and I didn’t want to be rude. I raised my hand and followed the leader.
On our way to the bathroom, I mistakenly assumed three things. The first was that the bathroom would be clean, since
it was a church and all. No. This bathroom was the stuff of nightmares. The second was that the women’s bathrooms
would be separate from the men’s. No. Men and women were lined up, waiting for a stall. The third mistake I made was
assuming there would be toilets inside these stalls.
I waited my turn for a stall, but when I went in, I saw a hole in the ground. I thought maybe I had accidentally wandered
into a stall that was out of order which is why there was no toilet. I opened my door and looked for Jordana. She was peering
into a stall, and shot me a desperate look. There was no mistake. This bathroom had no toilets. Then, despite the two liters of water that needed to get out of me, despite how badly I had to go, I turned
and left my stall. I could not do it. I would hold it in. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was I escape the hole
in the ground.
Time might have tainted the memory. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad. I was in a different land, trying new
things. But in all my travels, this bathroom has stuck out as the worst one I’ve ever visited.
My friend Noah was on a similar, parallel
trip, and ended up having his own trauma, near the Red Sea. Noah’s a very funny story-teller.
I once asked if he wanted to go to the beach, maybe have a swim, or just lie around. He replied, “I would, but
I don’t want Greenpeace to pull up and roll me back in the water.”
I wish he would go into comedy.
As we regaled stories of our trip, he told me about one day, when his group went hiking by the Red Sea. Somehow, they
ended up very, very, lost and with very little water. This was before every twelve-year-old owned a cell phone, and the one
phone their leader had on them was dead. Distraught and fearing their impending death by dehydration, the group went a bit
hysterical, wandering around for hours in the desert. To be fair, it must have been really scary.
So imagine their relief when they were finally found, in tears, their designer outfits in tatters, their lives having
flashed before their eyes.
“Our leaders did the only thing they knew would help us after such a traumatic experience,” Noah said.
“They took you to the hospital to make sure you were OK?”
“No,” Noah scoffed. “They took us to the nearest mall.”
So, remember this: When traveling to a foreign country, never use the bathroom in churches, change out of your wet
bathing suits, do NOT consume chocolate and water in the wee hours of the morning before doing a strenuous hike in the heat,
and by all accounts, girls, stay away from the salty water if it’s your time of the month. Oh, and get ready to gain
a few pounds from pizza in case the local food makes you ill, or you just get so darn sick of schnitzel.
Katie Inlander is a writer and actor from Canada. She graduated with a bachelor's in
politics, English and drama from the University of British Columbia and holds a master's in drama, acting and screenwriting
from Drama Centre London, part of Central Saint Martin's College, University of the Arts London. Katie has two non-fiction
essays published in the current edition of Pear Noir literary journal, does a series of webisodes called "The Megan
Show" about a perpetual and dillusional bridesmaid, and writes screenplays. She is an avid lover of film, theater and literature.
Katie currently resides in London, UK.