By Jemma Fadum
For those of you who haven’t yet had the privilege of watching the 1987 classic Planes, Trains and Automobiles, I’ll start with a brief synopsis… Uptight, type A Neal Page (Steve Martin) is flying home from a business trip in New York when his travel plans are interrupted by a freak snowstorm. In his quest to get home, he is joined by Del Griffith (John Candy), who Neal finds wildly annoying. The pair encounter all manner of unforeseeable detours and speedbumps on their way to Chicago, racing the clock to make it home before Thanksgiving. In addition to being one of the better holiday movies ever made, it also lends itself well to an extended analogy for how my experience with LOREX went. I’m Neal Page. COVID is the freak snowstorm. Del Griffith is the game of fieldwork planning red light green light. I even had someone swipe a taxi from me in Tel Aviv, but to my knowledge, that person was not Kevin Bacon. Really, the parallels, similes, and metaphors are endless, but more on that later.
I applied to be part of the second LOREX cohort back in 2019, during year two of my PhD program. After being accepted, I eagerly started making plans to go to Sweden in summer 2020. It goes without saying that June 2020 was not the time for international travel and all LOREX plans were pushed back to 2021. However, this delay coincided with changes in project timelines, the feasibility of fieldwork and other institutional barriers and by spring 2021, I learned that my original plan to go to Sweden was no longer possible. However, the beauty of there being multiple institutions within the LOREX network meant I still had the opportunity to participate in a research exchange if I could find another PI to work with. I contacted Dr. Yeala Shaked at the Inter-University Institute for Marine Sciences (IUI) in Eilat, Israel and she kindly agreed to host me in her lab.
Finally, in April 2022, I was on my way to Israel. I had a hard time believing I was actually going until I was on the plane. After landing at Ben Gurion airport, I spent one night in Tel Aviv before making my way to Eilat and IUI. Eilat is situated at the very southern tip of Israel and is a popular vacation spot for both Israeli and foreign visitors. With a boardwalk, large hotels and a tax-free mall, the city center was bustling for much of the time I was there from a combination of school holidays, Pesach, and Eid al-Fitr. Compared to the excitement of town, IUI felt like a perfect haven. IUI is a closed campus with labs, meeting spaces, classrooms, offices, and dive center situated right on the beach. I was constantly amazed by the tropical fish milling about below the dock and took every chance to go for a morning or afternoon swim.
I’ll save the summary of fieldwork for another blog post. Here, I’ll just leave a handful of favorite memories in hopes that it might encourage any would-be LOREXers to consider spending some time at IUI. First and foremost, the people. I cannot say enough good things about the kind and genuine people I met at IUI. If you are like me, you probably have spent most of grad school eating lunch at your desk. It’s not that you wouldn’t eat lunch with your colleagues, but there isn’t a culture that promotes a true lunch break. At IUI I found a group of people who made the time and effort to eat lunch together and chat over coffee. If there is anything I take from my time in Israel, it is the value of a coffee break and a lunch hour spent with colleagues.
One of the benefits of being at IUI were the classes hosted at the institute and the associated seminars- something of an unexpected educational bonus. One seminar focused on the salterns (salt farms) of Eilat and the associated microbial ecology. The morning following the lecture, we went on a ‘halophilic safari’ which included driving to pools of various salinities and admiring gypsum crust.
I’d be remiss to not give a bit of airtime to the food in Israel: the bakery that was all too conveniently adjacent to my morning bus stop, every falafel pita I encountered, the concept of a salad with breakfast, the produce in general, all of it. A personal favorite was jachnun, though the ambiance of a beach picnic might have created a slight bias there.
Before heading home to Colorado, I spent a day in Jerusalem and as luck would have it, my travel plans lined up with Independence Day. Having spent most of my adult life in Colorado, my metric for Independence Day festivities is a Fourth of July BBQ followed by the obligatory viewing of fireworks (fire bans permitting). I was wholly unprepared for the celebration that is Yom Ha'atzmaut in Jerusalem. Suffice to say, it will go down as an unforgettable night and a truly amazing way to wrap up my time in Israel.
Just as Neal Page eventually made it home, three years after submitting my application, I finally completed my LOREX trip. And much like Neal, I think I learned a few things along the way. I learned to roll with the punches, to pivot as required, and to meet new opportunities with a measure of both flexibility and determination (and to put some pep in my step if taxis are in high demand). While I wouldn’t wish a freak snowstorm on anyone, I think we could all benefit from time spent with a Del Griffith to remind us of the value of the journey as much as the destination.