Outside Magazine, August 2005
Sunday, July 31, 2005
You can't buy it in any store, can't send away for it online, can't meet the author (there are thousands), and you probably won't be able to read it if you do find it, since much of it is written in Hebrew. PATRICK SYMMES follows the trail of an underground global legend: the everywhere-and-nowhere travel bible of Israel's combat-fatigued, footloose vagabond 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 pressed their oily fingers on these pages. The drunk, bored, pissed-off, and horny of many nations 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, as if it were porn.
This Bookthis one volume in an uncountable chainbegan the seventh of October, 1989, in a restaurant in La Paz, Bolivia, when somebody with time to kill inscribed the first tip. Written in English, with 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... dark and dingy... 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!!!"
There are other strange, obscure, and clandestine guidebooks and traveler's compendiums out therethe Appalachian Trail is dotted with eccentric registers, the Web bursts with blogs and tip sheets on every kind of travel. But none can claim the same global reach or high standards of gripe, rant, and insight as the Book, the best unknown guidebook in the world.
The Book has no one author, editor, or publisher. Defined physically, it is merely a set of loosely connected, handmade, decentralized notebooks cached throughout the vagabond meccas of Latin America and Asiaa collective, disorganized stash of travel tips, phone numbers, discount deals, crazed illustrations, conspiracy theories, backbiting marginalia, and boozy reminiscence, penned by and for the deeply broke backpackers of the world. It is known sometimes as the Traveler's Book, or the Memory Book, or the Israeli Book, because it depends mostly on Israelisthat 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. For the Israelis, the Book is a fluid concept, a kind of viral hypertext flitting from cork bulletin board to pocket notebook, as much an oral tradition as a written one.
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 laundromat in San José, Costa Rica. Four at an unheralded youth hostel in Bogotá, Colombia, called Platypus. 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 1990s, 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 saidnot "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 spotsor the least bad spotsit 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 least once at a restaurant, hostel, and social club called El Lobo, "the Wolf," located 11,220 feet above sea level, plus one last, cruelly steep flight of stairs up into the thin night air above La Paz. El Lobo's walls are lined with photographs sent by grateful 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, the 1967 victory over Syria, Jordan, and Egypt that bestowed on Israel the dubious prize of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and other soon to be occupied territories, with their Palestinian populations. As far back as the 1930s, Bolivia welcomed Jewish immigrants (the country welcomed some ex-Nazis, like Klaus Barbie, too), but the Jewish community never really took root. Today Bolivia has only around 500 Jewish citizensas compared with Argentina, which has over 200,000, more than half the Jews in South America. Buenos Aires remains the one big city on the continent defined by a large Jewish presence, but Dorit did her part for La Paz by opening El Lobo with her Israeli-born husband in 1986, offering the bestwell, the onlyIsraeli 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 '86, four Israeli 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 that they thought other people would like. "They actually bought a book, and brought it here for us," she marvels.
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 that began in 1989, remains the oldest still-circulating example that I could find.
The Book got its start back in Israel in the early 1970s, and by the early 1980s it was spreading around the world. Over the years El Lobo's version grew to become a kind of master edition, with up to 16 regional volumes describing most of South America. Doritwarm, zaftig, practicalbecame a den mother to the Israelis and other backpackers. El Lobo expanded in the 1990s, adding 20 rooms and a sort of clubhouse, which used to be entered through an unmarked door in the kitchen. Today a thoroughly global crew of Israelis, Austrians, French, and even the occasional American can be found sitting back there on ratty sofas, playing board games, drinking $2 shots of Johnnie Walker, 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, a dark-haired Israeli staffer named Yiar led me past a pile of used camping stoves for sale and over to a chaotic shelf. With a grunt, he extracted a heavy notebook. Then another, and anothersix in all, each carefully preserved under hard binders and butcher paper. Five covered, respectively, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and Peru and northern South America. The oldest of the six was the crumbling, venerable 1989 volume.
The title page read:
livre international pour les voyageurs
international travel book
And so on, through Portuguese, 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 polyglot entries were random, frustrating, and beautiful, a carnival of ideas, pleas, 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" (at least until someone else scrawled a huge "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 various plants; then there was an outpouring of druggie philosophy, which was daubed with retaliatory graffiti (SAD HIPPY WANKER).
After that there was a full-page scrawl devoted to buying a canoe in the rainforests of Peru's Manu National Park, with seven parentheticals and a postscript that wrapped around the margins sideways; a warning against so-and-so's couscous; and an ornate four-color drawing of a toucan named Felipe.
What differentiates the Book from other travelers' message boards from Kathmandu to Chiang Mai is what Yiar called "the warnings," special alerts about anti-Semitism. In an overwhelmingly Christian continent, the young israelitos are a welcome curiosity from the land of the Bible, but, as anywhere, small skinhead groups do exist in Argentina, Chile, and Brazil. 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, citing rip-offs in Rio, 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 themselves do use Web sites like www.lametayel.com ("For the Traveler"), the portal of a popular REI-style superstore, to post some of the tips they used to carve in the Book. But anyone who has ever bogged down in Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree site knows that 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 when they hit the road. They search out online information until the day of departure but turn to the Bookin all its handmade gloryonce their travels begin.
A JOURNEY OF A THOUSAND MILES often begins by shifting your ass five feet. Mine had started by popping over to another of El Lobo's picnic tables, and now, three days later, I'd found myself out on Bolivia's southern altiplano, stuck in the rainy 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 around at El Lobo. The answer from two Israelis named Avi and Elad was equally simple: Follow us.
Avi was 22, with long hair and a poncho. Elad, 24, was unshaven, with untamed dark curls. Both had just finished their military service. At 18, virtually all Israelis are drafted into the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF); men serve three years, women two. Fresh from the tense duties of checkpoints and patrols, their fondest goal is to live normally for a while. The IDF was "great," Elad said, but "there's a lot of pressure. Everyone runs away after that."
These veterans travel for a year or more, hitting the beach, climbing mountains, dropping out, hooking up, and blowing their mindsand then repeat chorus, month after month, all over the world. Places like Bolivia are perfect for this: exotic, dirt 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 even before his trip, starting with a volume kept in a bookstore in Tel Aviv. Since it was summer, he and Avi told me, many Israelis were heading south to the cooler climes of Patagonia, and they invited me to come along. When I asked where we were going, Avi pulled a crumpled scrap of paper from his jeans, smoothed it on the table, and slid it across. It was their list of Israeli places between here and Tierra del Fuego. The spots weren't just for Israelis, of course: The same network attracted a random assortment of Canadian climbers, German ethnospelunkers, and Swedes who'd worked on kibbutzes. For all of them, 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 that specializes in the Bolivian salt flats. In Chile, the main stops were the Hotel Indiana, a flophouse somewhere in Santiago, and Pucón, the adventure-sports capital of southern Chile, where there was a hostel previously owned by two 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 swish 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, in the desert. Elad, meanwhile, abruptly changed coursehe'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 ("It means Spear' "), a skinny Sephardic woman who'd just finished her service in the IDF ("of course") and had just come from El Lobo ("of course"). The next day, atop a cactus-covered island in the vast salt pans, at something like 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 up ahead, "somewhere out there," they said, pointing toward the snowcapped 20,000-foot Andean peaks along the Chilean border. On my last night in Bolivia, in the guest register of a tiny village museum, I saw that Avi had signed out that morning.
After crossing the border and dropping down into the desert oasis of San Pedro de Atacama, I promptly ran into Hanit again. But this was a tourist towntoo expensive for Israelis, she said. The bus station was crowded with her sticker-shocked countrymen, including a dreadlocked couple with a baby, five years into their global ramble. Hanit and I took different buses southI paid the extra $11 for a sleeperto 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 told me. 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, the 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 Lonely Planet and other guidebooks in Hebrew, but the Book is still widespread, a grassroots Talmud of travel, a commentary without beginning or end. If it has a home in Israel, it's Lametayel, the chain of gear stores, which offers lectures and detailed notebooks filled with trip reports from returnees.
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 Avivbased travel magazine Masa Acher. Every moment is pregnant with menace. A trip to the pizzeria can end in the flash of a bomb. 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 1990s, the sky opened. Israeli and Palestinian leaders signed the Oslo Accord, the economy boomed, and airfares dropped. Masa Acher grew from a minor rag into Israel's largest monthly magazine. A tiny nationnow almost seven million peoplechurned 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 a class at Jerusalem's Hebrew University called Sociological and Anthropological Aspects of Tourism and Backpacking. "Depending on the seasons, it's Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and certain places within each country," she says. "So if they start in February, they start at Carnival in Brazil."
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 stereotypesthink of Japanese shutterbugs, Germans in socks and sandals, 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 anythingeven, she recalls, a cup of tea costing five rupees. After venting for several minutes on the flawed character of her compatriots, she concludes with the indictment that "they don't respect local people, they party all night, they take a lot of drugs, and if people say something, some Israelis call them Nazis."
This can deepen grudges and 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. "Not trustworthy. 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."
"We are not so nice," concedes Kobi Tzvieli, a manager at the Tel Aviv branch of Lametayel, who himself relied on the Book in Colombia and Thailand. 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. In India, a whole village called Kasol is wall-to-wall restaurants serving hummus and matzo.
There's a popular joke in Israel that Maoz was the fourth person to tell me. It always begins with an Israeli backpacker walking into what he thinks is a remote village (in India, Thailand, Chile, or Guatemala, depending on the narrator). He puts his passport on the counter and the hotelkeeper asks, "How many are you?"
"Seven million," the Israeli replies. The owner nods and says, "And how many back in Israel?"
THE WAVE WAS IN THE HOUSE at the Hotel Indiana. The place was a peerless, spectacular dump. The rooms were airless cells. The foul mattresses were lit by bare bulbs swinging from wires. The shower gave me an electric shock. 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 usually in the front room, watching TV, with another dozen in the courtyard. A muscled kid, released from IDF service 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. Kids shot at them and they shot back. Several confessed to having done things in battle that 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, with fatalism. "Now it is my turn."
There was a shadow in the courtyard for each of them, the Palestinian in every traveler's memory. No wonder they loved travel. On the road you could wake up every morning with the one thing you never got in the Middle East: a fresh start.
The Indiana's version of the Book consisted of dozens of notes in Hebrew and English, covering the walls. They offered discounts at a certain laundromat (I got a dollar off), requested travel partners, and inquired after members of the opposite sex. Mating rituals like this were once a staple of the Book, but here, alas, the tracking abilities of Hotmail were proving far superior to bulletin-board flirtations.
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, he said, and he recognized me from the Indiana. Like a lot of young Israelis, Yaniv had overcompensated for years of military haircuts by sprouting everything he could: His chin was a wispy scruff and his sun-bleached hair had twirled into a mix of short dreads and Orthodox earlocks, all swept up into a kind of werewolf 'do. "The hair is because of the army," Yaniv admitted. "First the hair, then the travel."
Yaniv had been in the infantry, making incursions into Palestinian areas. "I actually looked at it as travel," he explained, with a wry smile. "I couldn't go to these placesto Nablus or Ramallahas 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. The trip was healing him, he said, closing wounds he'd never acknowledged even to himself.
"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 dewy Israelisa tall order for a Scotch-Irish 40-year-old. First, Yaniv said, I should hide my guidebook. He relied on the Book where he couldthe one at the Platypus Hostel, in Bogotá, was the best he'd seen, and there was a good one in Quito, Ecuador. Cuzco, however, was a nightmare. "Too many Israelis," he said. "If you are going to Cuzco, practice your Hebrew. Even the drug dealers speak it."
Second, I had to bargain hard. This was a stereotype but a true one, he insisted. "It is part of our culture to bargain, a Middle East thing," he said. "Don't come out frayer."
Pardon? "Don't come out frayer" 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 OK. 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 frayer."
I, of course, was paying the full 4,000 pesos. The Indiana was such a dive that 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 frayer 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: beds piled into rooms, gear everywhere, a cybercafé with Hebrew keyboards. Israelis on paragliding outings were landing in the pasture out back. Edi and Shay had recently decamped to the Holy Land, but there was a new Book at the tourism office, with the usual temperate observations in many languages.
I took the next bus out, motoring up curvy roads to the Argentinian border. Watching as the passports were checked, I realized that I was the only American. There were several Latin Americans, a couple of Canadians, even 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 cluster of Israelis standing in the road. They opened their little notebooks and swapped hotel names and addresses, everyone writing quickly.
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. "In San Martín," she continued, "it's Naum's."
San Martín was our next stop, a resort town surrounded by forests and lakes, just a few hours into Argentina. We piled off the bus at dusk, just as a hefty man on a scooter pulled up: the owner of Naum's himself, Jorge Candel. The ten of us donned our packs and shuffled across town as Jorge puttered ahead. Naum's was easy to spotit had a menorah in the yard and an electric Star of David hanging over the street.
Jorge had neglected to mention that the hotel was full. There was now a polite discussion, Israeli style: eight people crammed into the office, shouting demands at one another, waving their arms, marching back and forth, and emitting vehement displays of disgust. Apparently several alliances were built only to crumble, and ground was taken, lost, and then regained. After ten minutes there was a sudden eruption of amity, and handshakes all around.
Ayala emerged from the scrum looking stunned. "I had no idea I was going to meet so many Israelis," she said. "I just ran into a guy from high school."
As usual, the deal was cheap and lousy. We paid $5 each to sleep on mattresses in a hallway, between the bathroom and a heater. In the morning we packed into a van to Bariloche. As we pulled away, Jorge reached through the door with a Swiss Army knife.
"Patrick," he said, "if you are really ready to be a Jew, then we have a certain operation for you."
I rolled the van door over his toes.
THAT NIGHT IN BARILOCHE, the address Ayala had given me looked dubious. The building was a half-abandoned office block. The lobby was deserted. The elevator shuddered and then stopped between floors four and five, where some plumber-commandos out of the movie Brazil crawled aboard. On ten, 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. There were two big fireplaces. The rooms were nice, with good bunk beds, and the bathrooms were clean. At a sun-drenched picnic table on the terrace, two Israelis were quizzing a Frenchman about the skiing in Bariloche. It was the best crash pad I'd ever seen.
Here was a reason to follow the Book. The Book knew. Though Hostel 1004 does appear in guidebooks, you would never have picked this one dive 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. The manager, a rocker-tressed Argentinian named Juan, sucked in his breath. "We don't know," he confessed. They'd had a good volume, five years of entries kept up by Israelis and everybody else. But in October, when they were repainting the place, the Book had been shoved into storage, casually, only to disappear. (Indeed, on the message board, a huge note read "EL LIBRO?")
"A lost treasure," Juan said. But he didn't doubt that eventually the guests at 1004 would start a fresh one.
I couldn't doubt it. People would make the Book anew, somewhere, somehow, because they needed it. The Book was an analog artifact in a digital age, diminished by Web updates and nomadic e-mail, but never obsolete. Back at El Lobo, Dorit had suggested that the Book'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 her guests to post their entries on El Lobo's Web site, www.lobo.co.il. "This is history," she'd 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, a counterintuitive survivor like the underground postal system in Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. And if it shrank in one place, like El Lobo, that was only because the wave had moved on. It flourished in four volumes at a laundromat in Costa Rica; it was on the rise at the House of Fun, in Lima; it was blossoming anew in some cheap hostel you and I have never heard of.
A few days later I set out, south as always, but alone this time. I never saw Avi or Elad again, not in Patagonia or anywhere else. Elad would write from various ports of call: Boulder, Israel, Manhattan. South America had been great, he reminisced, calling the experience "the first time I was really free."
With the clarity of distance and time, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict suddenly seemed "silly, unnecessary," he wrote. Although Israelis had every material advantage, they were still "blind," 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 six-month 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.