Shalev Paller, a tank commander who served in the 2014 Gaza war explains why so many Israeli’s come to India to unwind and regain their sense of self
I wake up to the sound of laughing children, stare out the window at the blanket of clouds covering the valley below, and think of nothing. Finally, nothing.
Like many of those traveling to India, I have just finished my three-year army service. During my time as a soldier I served as a tank commander in various parts of the country. Toward the end of my service, in the summer of 2014, I participated in Operation Protective Edge (against Hamas in Gaza). After being released, when asked about my service, I’d end up summarizing an ocean of images, some of them difficult, with a single, inadequate sentence, “It was good.” There is a weight that comes with living in this country, a weight that many of us carry, a lost friend or family member, or simply the everyday stress of not living in the safest of places. One of the reasons I traveled to India was to discover what weight I might be carrying with me, and hopefully rid myself of it. Plus, I heard the food was amazing.
When I first arrived in India, I was a sponge. I stood in the middle of a busy market in Old Delhi, took a deep breath, and soaked it all in: the smells, the faces, the colours, the sounds, all so new and strange and intense. An entire road filled with mountains of books. An alleyway too spicy to walk through. A family of six on a single motorbike. A bony old man, with legs of an ox, pulling a massive vegetable-filled cart. A woman with grey tired eyes sitting with her children in the middle of a market.
It was during my first week of taking it all in that I met Chacha, Delhi’s most popular chai shop/laundry service owner. He had a contagious, toothless smile and kind brown eyes, his curiosity resembling that of a child and his wisdom that of a guru. Walking with Chacha through the markets was like accompanying the pope through the Vatican. Everyone knew Chacha, and he knew everyone. Chacha was proof that money has little to do with happiness, seeing as he was probably the happiest man I’d ever met and his salary was a tenth of what I made as a soldier. On my last day in Delhi, Chacha told me the story of how he once used masala spices instead of laundry detergent. I laughed, and he suddenly gripped my shoulder and said, “I see pain in you, my friend, you laugh with sadness. The next time I see you, I want you happy, yeah?” I nodded my head. “Okay, Chacha.”
‘Instead of arguing with the driver, or getting upset, the passengers made their way off the bus, sat on the side of the road, prepared chai, and waited. It took hours, and what could have been a bitter day turned into something sweet.’
On my way to the northern town of Rishikesh, my bus was delayed by a train that had broken down in the middle of the intersection. Instead of arguing with the driver, or getting upset, the passengers made their way off the bus, sat on the side of the road, prepared chai, and waited. It took hours, and what could have been a bitter day turned into something sweet. As the sun began to set, families, friends, and strangers alike sat, eating, talking, and most importantly, head-nodding. I remember thinking how people might react to such a thing back home, how much we dread the thought of wasting time. Yet somehow in a place where time is given such little value, it becomes so special. We reached Rishikesh by early morning, the birds and the street dogs beginning to rise, and I felt lighter somehow, even though I’d just eaten my entire body weight in rice and curry.
Weeks later, wandering along a river, I came across a group of boys skipping rocks. I joined them for a while, and when it came time to leave I handed each a small bar of chocolate. As the youngest of the boys opened the wrapper I remembered how my father used to bring us chocolate from his trips abroad, how so much happiness was found in the smallest of gifts. The boy took the first bite. His eyes lit up, and he ran off to join the others. Midway through his run he stopped, turned to me, and shouted, “Dhanyavaad” (thank you), then continued running. And so it went, every location a new face, a new story. I sat on a street corner with Rajaswa the shoe cobbler as he sang songs his mother had taught him. I went to a Hindu movie theater and witnessed two hundred locals scream and cheer as a father and daughter reunited in the film. I became immune to hot food and hot weather. And I rediscovered a thirst for life I’d been missing for some time.
I’d had three years of alarms each morning, of always having an assignment, of constant uncertainty as to when I’d be home next. Three years of my days not really belonging to me. Now that they did, once again, I was going to fill them with flute lessons, mantra-humming monks, and as much India as possible. Angita, Raju, and their two kids, Akansu and Likitha, lived in a small mountain village located a few kilometers north of the Himalayas. I spent a week living in a small guestroom Raju had built. Immediately, my heart was touched by this young family, by the way they all slept in the same bed, wrapped in each other’s dreams. The way Angita and Raju spoke each evening with hushed voices and listening faces. The way Angita stared at the sky as she collected large stones and logs. The dark red ties and stained white shirts Akansu and Likitha wore to school. The worn out flipflops Raju walked in as he went to help his neighbour build an extension for his home.
The first time I played cricket with Akansu, the boys laughed mockingly as I came up to bat. They were unaware, of course, that I’d been on the Israeli national baseball team. My first swing, and all laughter ceased. The kids fell silent and stared in disbelief as a small orange tennis ball soared through the air like an eagle, disappearing into the sun. That night over dinner, Akansu described my hit to the family with giant, enthusiastic motions. “Baseball!” he kept shouting. “He plays baseball.”
Chacha was sitting at the exact same spot where I’d left him, chewing red tobacco, making someone laugh. When he saw me he smiled, “You came back, my friend.” The next few days I spent mostly on my own, hiking and exploring the area. During one of my hikes I had stopped to eat on a grassy mountaintop when it began to drizzle, then rain, and finally pour. And suddenly it hit me, all of it. The weight I’d been gathering and carrying, that ocean of images, the pain in my laughter came flooding out and lifted, and I could see everything clearly: a giant soldier, who was really just a boy in a uniform, sitting beside me with tears in his eyes; a city in flames; the worried faces of summer camp children waiting in a bomb shelter; four men blessing the Sabbath in a small packed tank; a mother’s shaking voice on the phone. I saw, and accepted it, as part of who I was. And the rain gently washed away my burning.
The next morning I woke to the sound of laughing children. I stared out the window at the valley below, and thought of nothing. Finally, nothing. A few days before leaving India I went back to visit Chacha. It had been months since I’d seen him last, and it felt like years. Chacha was sitting at the exact same spot where I’d left him, chewing red tobacco, making someone laugh. When he saw me he nodded his head and smiled, “You came back, my friend.”
“I have,” I replied.
“And what a wonderful smile you’ve brought with you.”
When I finally came home resembling Tom Hanks from “Castaway,” a giant family hug awaited. Once again I was asked what it was all like, only this time an ocean of images, of warmth, friendship, beauty, kindness, laughter, and love flooded my mind.
I smiled like Chacha, nodded my head, and said, “It was good.”
This story was originally published in Times of Israel.