Hidden Treasures: An Israeli in China (and then elsewhere)

Joel Carillet's picture




I was in China, and I was bald as a basted turkey.


Here's what happened:  While in the city of Guangzhou on Thanksgiving Day, I had, for the first time ever, asked a barber--she was horrified--to remove every trace of hair from my head.  A day or two later I boarded an overnight train and whisked my bald head to another part of China, the fairytale landscape of Yangshuo, where for the next three days the newly bald head would bob up and down.  it would do this because I would spend very full days bicycling on dirt roads--one of the best ways to see the area around Yangshuo.


Joel Carillet

Thanksgiving Day 2003 (Guangzhou, China)


But this isn't a story about my bald head.  It's about Efrat, the young Israeli woman I met during my first day biking.

On this first day I was part of a four-person bicycle tour (two British students and a Chinese guide).  Near the end of the day we stopped at a modest restaurant for a meal.  Across the room I heard the distinct sounds of Israeli and Scandinavian accents.  I looked up and saw Efrat for the first time.   Only later in the evening would we actually meet though; as chance would have it, we were all staying in the same hotel.


Joel Carillet

 Efrat in Yangshuo, China


Over dinner Efrat and I talked about Israel--she was from there of course, and I had recently been working in the West Bank--and then talked about our travel plans.  Her friend, she said, was about to return home, and Efrat herself was thinking she would head north from Yangshuo.  “It will be very, very cold in northern China with winter approaching,” I said.  “If you were wise, you'd join me as I go to Vietnam in three weeks.”

I was mostly joking when I said that.  She wasn't going to change her plan, I thought, and I wasn't really convinced I wanted company as I headed south.  Hence my surprise the next morning at breakfast when I see Efrat again and she says, “I've been thinking about Vietnam all night; I'll join you.”


Joel Carillet

Breakfast in Sapa, Vietnam


Efrat and I spent that day on bicycles together, covering nearly 30 miles of countryside.  We talked more about life, the conflict in Israel/Palestine, and how terrific it was to have the ability to wander parts of the world, meet complete strangers, and become friends.

A couple days later we said goodbye, arranging to meet again in three weeks in the Chinese city of Kunming (we wanted to cover different territory till then).  From Kunming we would take a bus ten hours south to the Vietnamese border.   The following day, on December 22, we would cross into that magical land of conical hats--Vietnam.



Joel Carillet

Halong Bay, Vietnam


Efrat would shape my experience in Vietnam in many ways.  Not only was she gracious in allowing me to direct our route since for my writing there were certain towns I needed to visit (which most travelers didn't), she was also kind.   I'll always remember waking up on Christmas morning to find a stuffed reindeer near the foot of my bed (she had bought it two weeks earlier in Hong Kong, knowing we'd be together on Christmas).  And I still have the moving handwritten letter--such a rarity these days!--that she gave me five weeks later in Saigon when it came time for us to part.


Joel Carillet

Efrat and a Vietnamese woman preparing to depart for a visit to a kindergarten in Saigon


Often journeys that are not shared seem less real once they are over.  But Vietnam feels very real, largely because my experience there was shared with another person--someone with whom I would later be able to relive memories, who would remember things I had forgotten, whose continuing presence in my life testifies to a bond that was formed on the far side of the world.   Vietnam, then, will always be intertwined with memories of Efrat: cups of Milo or milk coffee at local food stalls, her delightful way of saying “Go to hell!” when I made a bad joke, the lit cigarette in Dien Bien Phu that fell through a crack in the ceiling and might have turned our room to flames had we not been there to put it out.


Since saying goodbye in Saigon, Efrat and I have had the chance to see each other again twice, both times on my visits to Israel.  I've enjoyed fresh orange juice on her kibbutz, have met her family and friends, and have enjoyed a meal or two together in Jerusalem.


Joel Carillet

At the kibbutz (Gan Shmuel, Israel)


Many friendships on the road do not last.  But I suspect--as does she--that we'll share this one throughout our lives.  And that's a pretty nice feeling, a feeling whose roots stretch back to the limestone hills of southwestern China. 


Joel Carillet

The last time I saw Efrat was December '06. We went for a walk around the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, doing something we both love: taking photographs.



Joel Carillet, chief editor of wanderingeducators.com, is a freelance writer and photographer based in Tennessee. His most recent project is 30 Reasons to Travel: Photographs and Reflections from Southeast Asia. To learn more about him, visit www.joelcarillet.com.  




Comments (1)

  • Rossie Indira

    11 years 7 months ago

    Hi Joel,

    We meet again here! This is so touching! Friends that we met along the way can be our best friends and they are scattered in many parts of the world. I hope your friendship with Efrat last forever!

    Rossie Indira


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