Sarel – Private Benjamin

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“Things turn out best for those who make the best of the way things turn out”

Art Linkletter

A useful quote for those of us with expectations and particularly those of us mad enough to do voluntary work abroad, in this case I have joined the Israeli army, the IDF for 3 weeks. As you may guess, certain things are a little challenging!

It is a unique experience (unless you are an 18-21 year old Israeli) and  we have the same uniforms, the same food, the same accommodation and the same rules as any other soldier, except of course we are not called upon to defend the country.

This is my second Sarel.  I was here last year in March when it was freezing in the Galilee, the North of the country where I was sent. Sarel is the volunteer  organisation founded by a great man and hero General Davidi  which brings people of all ages from 18 to 90,  all  religions and  from all corners of the world to spend time working  on an army base here in Israel.

Did you see Goldie Hawn years ago in a hilarious movie called Private Benjamin? I loved that film and it contained two of the funniest lines  which still make me smile….. the first was at the beginning of the film when Goldie’s husband has a heart attack on their wedding night. At the funeral his grief stricken mother asks the young widow “please darlink will you tell me mine son’s last words”  and Goldie answers her, they were………. “Oh God I’m coming”……. :-) I love it!

That is apropos of absolutely nothing except it appeals to my slightly warped sense of humour! The second line is more relevant to my new persona. Goldie joins the US army and when she sees her quarters she  goes to her CO and tells him “there has been a mistake sir, I joined the army with en suite bathrooms and drapes!”

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Of course I  wasn’t in cloud cuckoo land quite like the first Private Benjamin and all volunteers receive a lot of information as to what to expect. Except no sheet of paper no matter how much it uses the word basic quite prepares you!

The base I am on now seems to be big, it is 10 minutes brisk walk from the barracks to the canteen and so that makes an hour’s walk each day not counting the walk to work, which is a good thing because the food is surprisingly good and I am very ready for every meal. I just know I am going to regret all those chocolate puddings and 3 slices of toast with breakfast!

I am living in a cardboard hut  basically. I assume its cardboard because we can hear clearly every word the ladies next door  from Noo Joisey say! I am sharing with two women  and we are like the three bears! Lucille from Oz is a hot person and needs fresh air (fresh cold air!) to sleep. I would happily live in a sauna and one night was reduced to sleeping in my huge army coat.  It was not easy trying to wriggle into a snug sleeping bag wearing a huge green padded coat.Like trying to put a sausage back into its skin. I wore the hood up ! Jennie Bear finds any temperature just right. She is a night owl so stays out later than us and comes in  all bubbly and chatty and needing the flattering fluorescent light on when we are trying to go to sleep. Lucille disappears under her blanket straight after dinner and “activity” at 8pm most nights so far. I am the bear saying “just right” being fairly cheerful at any hour.  I knew all this when I signed up so I am definitely not complaining, what, me complain? :-)

Its fun being all girls together, like boarding school. Men and women are segregated of course and even married couple volunteers are not allowed into each others quarters or we are expelled and not allowed back! The other cardinal rules are no drugs, no alcohol and no internet which is most certainly an addiction for me I now realise. Words with Friends and Letris are an essential part of my day at home and no email or Facebook is akin to torture!

We are twenty volunteers in total and it was a little daunting at first to be thrust into close proximity with all these strange strangers. There was a moment where I thought what the ****  and I did feel a little lost. That feeling doesn’t last and the best thing about the army experience is the people you meet.  We have quite a few Americans, a Russian, a Swiss, a man from Norway, one from Finland, a Doctor from Canada, an Australian and two of us from England.

We wear uniform of course. The uniforms come in two sizes. Too Big and Much Too Big which is also not helping the over-eating as my trousers would fit two of me into them and the shirt  would fit a 20 stone body builder so of course I feel quite sylph like with all that room to grow into! We are also issued with a coat, a belt, one grey blanket and a pair of sheets obviously left here by previous volunteers. I have got a pink flowery one, quite cheery really! Some bases give you boots, thankfully at this one we can wear our own shoes but not sandals or flip-flops which is going to be challenging next week  as summer has just arrived and it was 33 degrees today.

We get up at 6am, breakfast is at 7am and then parade ground at 8am and work starts at 8.30. I almost forgot to mention the bathrooms and for those of you who have not read my posts from India, bathrooms matter to me! In this case, to visit the loo in the night is a tad hazardous. So one has to go out our cardboard house, turn left, onto the rocks which serve as stepping-stones, a walk  past more huts and then up another alley which has a strange row of bricks across its width on the ground (why? is it an obstacle course?), turn left again, a short flight of stone stairs and there you are, in the toilet block.Not en suite then. At night there is usually no loo paper left so half asleep remember to take tissues, but this base is 5 star they tell us so we do have shower curtains and two of the showers have even got shower heads! Luxury……

It is not the Ritz that’s for sure and yet many people come halfway around the world at their own expense, leaving lovely homes to spend 3 weeks doing menial and dirty factory work basically and many of the volunteers do this more than once a year….one of our group was on her 24th Sarel. It’s quite amazing because as I said before, many of the volunteers are not Jewish but just want to support this little country.

This is the last night of my weekend break and I have to be up at 6am to make the journey back to base by bus and train ready to start work again so  I will continue this next weekend but first tell you about my job which is the purpose I am here for. I am sanding mud and paint off helmets with a big electric sander some of the time (who would ever have imagined!)  and cleaning great big iron THINGS, I think they are engine parts from tanks which involves wire brushes, stanley knives to scrape with, dry brushes to dust with and then we tape up all the screws prior to painting. And this is voluntary for a person whose most hated job is cleaning the oven!

At close of day we are all shattered and indescribably filthy. It is so satisfying!

One last snippet of information which I really like. On our base there are perhaps 20 or 30 handicapped young soldiers. Some have Down’s Syndrome, some seem to be mildly spastic,they are clearly challenged. But here in Israel, if they can and want to, they are accepted into the army and are included and valued and taught some skills which will help them in their civilian life. It is the loveliest thing to see how they are accepted and helped where needed. It is such an enlightened thing to do and good for everybody. The able-bodied youngsters have proximity to those less fortunate which can only be a good thing and how wonderful it must be  for the kids with problems to not feel “different”  from all their peers at this vulnerable age.

The other best thing here  is that the shekem (the camp shop) sells Magnums and the most delicious watermelon ice creams!