This blog post is about a surprise little trip one Sunday morning a few weeks ago, a trip of educational and fun purposes for our platoon. Our trip destinations were to the Bahai Gardens followed by paintballing, both conveniently located in Haifa. We boarded the base’s army bus and then drove to the other side of Mount Carmel to visit the Bahai Gardens, the huge terraced garden that marks the side of the mountain for all to see from miles away.
I had visited the Bahai Gardens twice before, taking the daily 12 o’clock tour of the first seven or so uppermost terraces, but our trip was to the next terraces down – a section I thought was closed to the public. We entered the gardens and walked down a shaded tree-lined path taking us to a junction with a nice stone house marked “Private”.
We stepped into the particularly hot sun and headed for the Shrine of the Bab, the morning feeling extra-hot, heated from a desert wind known as “sharav” (or in Arabic: “chamseen“). These desert winds, usually coming from the east, can even carry large amounts of sand and smother the country in heat for several days at a time. Despite the heat, the Bahai gardeners were working full steam ahead and there was even one guy working on the exterior of the shrine.
As I have already written about the Bahai, and their Haifa gardens, as linked above, I will only briefly touch on some of the details. This shrine, the crown jewel of the garden, is a golden-domed tomb of the forerunner of the Bahai faith, the Báb who was born in Persia in the year 1819. The Báb was executed in 1850 and in 1909 his remains were smuggled to the Holy Land and he was buried on Mount Carmel. The shrine was completed in 1953 and the expansive gardens we see today were begun in 1987 and have only been completed and opened to the public in 2001.
Several of the soldiers in my platoon entered the shrine, removing their shoes as required. Nearly all who entered were either Muslim or Druze and I didn’t feel comfortable entering – I’m also a little unsure of its status in regards to Jewish Law, although it seems to be fine because it isn’t even a house of worship. I did, however, take a photo through a keyhole but it didn’t come out too interesting looking. We then proceeded to the observation section of that terrace, and then I took this photo as we walked back, looking out at Downtown Haifa (note the yellow haze coming in from the east, the aforementioned “sharav“).
Sweating buckets, we got back on to the bus and drove over the mountain, heading back to the Carmel Coast. There, we disembarked at the paintballing place outside the Congress Centre, near Castra. I had never been paintballing, so I was justifiably looking forward – itchy trigger finger and all. We entered the site and began donning protective gear: camouflage overalls, imported Russian flak vests and JT X-Fire masks. I made two decisions as I dressed; one, to leave my phone behind and two, not to wear my glasses under my mask. In retrospect, I should have taken a video of the battle that followed but the glasses situation wasn’t as flexible. We grabbed our Tippmann 98 paintball guns and headed up to the final staging area.
The first thing we all noticed was the incredible heat. Then we needed to choose teams – I heard a lot of suggestions such as “Bedouins vs. Druze” but in the end it was colour-coordinated and at random. We loaded up and entered the arena, forefingers caressing the smooth metal trigger. I mourned the fact that my visibility was limited – I could merely see heads and torsos on the far end of the field, broken up by tall dry grass and old oil drums. I spotted an easy target and sent some paintballs to him, not knowing if I had made contact or not. Then, bam! I watched a paintball hit my gun and then ricochet onto the far left side of my mask’s goggles. With the wet yellow paint just resting on my mask, I slithered my way to the next cover, occasionally firing at enemy troops.
What made the experience so interesting was that it was exactly like “Call of Duty” (or any similar FPS game): there was tall grass, assorted metal barrels and containers to hide behind, the sound of “bullets” pinging off said barrels and containers, and most importantly, a cacophony of Arabic yells – battle cries. The only language I heard during the gunfight was Arabic, talk about realism… I snapped out of my reverie, let loose some more paintballs and leapt behind some cover. I fired more and then realised I was shooting blanks. I turned to the man next to me and saw Ali Na’al behind the mask. “I’m out!” I cried, my voice muffled through the mask. Firing blanks himself, Ali admitted the same and so we sulked back to the last staging ground. I had thought that we were to reload and reenter the fray but I was wrong and the intense battle lasted mere minutes, as everybody ran dry. Examining myself, I found wet paint splattered in two more places, although indirect hits: my left thigh and right ankle. In summary I’d say that paintball is amazing and I’m really glad to have had the chance, but that corrective eyewear is a must, as well as smaller, more organised teams. With that, we shed our borrowed clothing and sat down for lunch before heading back to the base.