A walk in his shoes

A wealthy executive trades in his high salary and fancy clothes for hiking boots and a backpack.

By LAUREN GELFOND
December 17, 2010 15:22
David Gal-Or

David Gal Or 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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By the mid 19th-century, American author Mark Twain had become one of the world’s most famous travel writers. Travel, he espoused, leads not only to adventure but also to a kinder and more generous spirit.

When local executive David Gal-Or gave up his way of life to be closer to the land, he would come to similar conclusions. He never would have predicted it, though, during the 20-odd years he left the house at 5:45 a.m. every day in a pressed shirt and tie to get a head start on his job as a senior marketing executive. Until 9 p.m., his workday was full of meetings, research and international marketing decisions that could have impacted his employers, Osem, the Nestle’s subsidiary, by millions or even billions of shekels a year.

One day, with a very comfortable annual salary, three cars in the garage of his renovated villa in Jerusalem and a wife and two teenage children to support, he quit his job, with no other position lined up. He had decided to pursue a dream instead.

Gal-Or, today a backpacker and guide who explores and chronicles the land of Israel with his son, says he doesn’t know if he will have any money left in his retirement fund in 10 or 20 years, but his journeys have created peace in his soul and charity in his character.

There seems to be an entrepreneurial spirit in your family. Your immigrant grandfather became head of the Bank of Israel; your immigrant grandmother ran a fabric and embroidery business. You have a master’s in economics and management and were a wealthy executive. Then you ditched your job and started over. Did you discover that you didn’t enjoy the business world after all?

I really enjoyed my job – the creativity, the authority, having a large staff and the accomplishments. Some of my plans became models at the Nestle corporation and helped it to substantially increase its earnings. I walk through the supermarket and I see product colors and placements that were based on my decisions and I feel proud. I loved my job, though it was painful to see how much more money I earned than poor people.

What caused you to start over in the midst of a very successful career?



Osem requires its senior staff to undergo annual medical exams, and in 2002 they found melanoma [skin cancer]. There was a spot on my chest that had to be removed. They told me that they found it just before it was too late. I recovered, but something changed in me.

I realized that there are no guarantees of life and I asked myself, What is the value of all this money? I was at the top of the company and had everything and it didn’t mean anything.

During Purim in 2003, we took a family trip to the Negev to the Ramon Crater, after I had surgery. I was covered in stitches. I thought, I want to do this all the time. I want to travel with my family and to do something different.

I cannot continue in the same way. I thought about it for three years. I looked up at the photo over my bed of my family smiling during a family vacation. It was like a puzzle. At Osem they told me, “Rest, go to the Western Wall, take a vacation; pick any job you want in the company.” But it didn’t help because inside, it was over.

So in 2006, on the eve of Rosh Hashana, you decide to leave your job and start fresh. Your wife is a teacher. How did she take the news that the family would be without your salary?

It was not easy in the beginning. She was really worried. She wanted to keep things the same. I was changing, and all of a sudden she was wondering how much I was going to change. Where was this going? And, of course, there were the fears of being without a salary and a retirement plan. But she encouraged me.

What did you do first?

I went on an eight-month trek from the Hermon to Eilat with my son Eran, who was 22, at the time. On my back I had a sleeping bag, tent, one change of clothes, soap, water, coffee, sugar, a finjan, gas burner, rice, tuna, herb tea, milk, Tupperware, metal plates, aluminum foil, etc.

It sounds like you knew how to feed yourselves out in nature.

Yes, we love cooking in the field and we ate very well. We would buy eggs and vegetables at every stop and bring fish from Kibbutz Dafna and grill it over an open fire with salt and pepper and huge amounts of parsley. We cooked in a simple pot or on aluminum foil. Eventually, we wrote a book about cooking in nature.

Did you bring your mobile phone on your trip?

I did, to talk to my wife, but there was no reception in many places. But I called home every night. And we went home to visit every weekend. I am a family man.

Usually 22-year-old Israelis travel with their friends to places like Southeast Asia or South America. How was it for father and son traveling together?

It wasn’t the first time: After my son’s bar mitzva I took him with me to Switzerland for two weeks, and it was one of the things you never forget. He was always a man, since the age of 13, an amazing, unique kid; not only with me but with everyone. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Every father would want to [travel with his son] but very few succeed. We were always close and we didn’t fight even once. It was so amazing; I can’t even explain how much fun it was. You have to travel with someone to be so close. We would write about our trips, plan them together, talk, go swimming together, walk up hills together. After eight months, we arrived finally at the Red Sea and jumped into the water together. After eight months, do you know what that is?

After that trip, you and Eran decided to continue planning and chronicling trips together. How did you decide on the locations?

Eran decided on Israel, not India. It was his dream to know about this country, every corner, and it was the best choice in the world. I could not have traveled like this around the world and stayed so close to my family.

This country, the land and its stories, are our life. To travel the world is great for a week or a month, but it is not for us. For us, there is travel in Israel and it is all the time. Generally, it is not in cities but only in nature. Fifty percent of the trails were already marked, and we used maps. [Gal-Or mapped the rest].

How have you afforded to support your family and new lifestyle?

We decided that this is what we are going to do with our lives and we’d write books about it together and that would be our livelihood. When we realized that, it was a high moment.

How has your business developed, aside from the book about cooking in the field?

We started a publishing company, wrote books, created walking paths and maps. We call the series “Falling in love with Israel again.” The first of the series was published in 2006 with 120 trails from the Hermon to Eilat: 40 in the North, 40 in the Center and 40 in the South. In 2007, we published Havarot, areas with new trails and more detailed maps than any other travel book had. In 2008, we produced a travel book with 100 trails for families with small children. In 2009, we published 20 walking tours around Tel Aviv, for the 100th anniversary of the city. Since then, we have focused on travels in and around bodies of water, including natural pools, waterfalls, rivers and lakes.

Is this a lucrative business?

I spent a lot of our savings, and our quality of life went way down. I have not made one shekel of profit since I left Osem. I make only enough to cover our travel expenses. But now we are starting to generate income and to pay salaries. We hired a graphic designer, printer and editor. But I don’t have a salary.

What did you discover about yourself on the first trip?

I wasn’t sure I’d be in shape, but in terms of energy it was like I became a young child again.

What experience during your travels was especially memorable?

When we finished a hike to the Red Sea. We were very high in the mountains and saw the water and realized we had arrived. It was so exciting. Then the question was, ‘Now what?’ The whole family came to meet us that night at Um-Rashrash, a place in the Bible, and we raised a glass of champagne. Our friends also joined us for a day or two.

Were there funny moments?

Right after the Second Lebanon War, in Tel Hai, our mattress fell off my pack without our noticing. Suddenly from a high hill, I saw the mattress at the bottom of a valley. It had been burnt black from Katyusha rockets.

I had to crawl under bridges, and my whole body became black with soot. When my son saw me, we couldn’t stop laughing.

Did you also try traveling by bicycle?

We rode from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv but it was not so interesting, so we tried riding from Jaffa to Latrun and realized that bicycling is just not for us. We love to walk, and we feel strongest with our feet on the ground.

How has this experience of traveling influenced your way of thinking and behaving?

First of all, I relaxed. When you live in the business world, you are stressed out all the time. Some stress is healthy, but stress all the time is not. Traveling, you suddenly realize that there is absolutely no stress in your life. I turned into a relaxed person – more patient, quieter, more easy-going. I laughed more. And I also cared less about how I look. I gave away all my nice clothes and now only wear jeans and T-shirts with Crocs or walking shoes. I found inner peace.

What advice would you give to someone who hates his job or feels it isn’t his life calling?

It really depends on the person. Not everyone can handle this kind of choice and take so much risk, to give up a salary. I was lucky to live well, but what about the future? Some people can’t live with this question, and some have faith. I have faith in my ability to succeed. Everyone has to consider his own financial and physical abilities and character to see if he can do what he loves.

People say that this is a small country in terms of places to travel. What have you discovered in your travels?

The reality is different. I keep discovering new paths, and you discover desert, mountains, rivers, forests, history.

It is not like Europe with stories from the Middle Ages; the history and stories here are about all religions and peoples. There are stories for all people.

People who do these trips will realize that they didn’t know Israel. People tell us it changed their life. A Tel Aviv University professor who is studying water quality in Israel ordered the series because he had never heard of some of the places we mapped out.

What is the next trip?

We’re not telling, but every year there will be a new book.

Why is it important for people to walk the land here?

Living here is like marriage. You fall in love and discover so many difficulties – political, economic, weather, traffic, war, cars honking, people screaming. You ask yourself how to keep the love alive. But when you travel the land, you smell, see, feel with your legs. It is like working on a marriage. It renews the love.

I think a person who loves what he does is a happier person, a more patient person, a less angry person.

If a person is unhappy, he should do what will make him happy and then he will be easier on himself and on others.

A recent study found that being in green areas has an almost immediate effect on a person’s happiness, but it seems your connection to the land is not only about appreciating nature. You come from a family of Holocaust survivors and grew up in an Orthodox community. Does part of your connection to nature come from your relationship to Judaism and Jewish history?

You don’t see me wearing a kippa [anymore], but I live my life the way I do, and that is what strengthens my faith. I’m interested in what is internal. I believe in people and not just in God. People are cynical, but most people are good and you need to know how to bring out their good side; how to be at peace with them, to respect them, how not to upset them. If you don’t bother people, they won’t bother you. If you love them, they will love you. Everything a person does has an influence on everything else in his life.

David Gal-Or and son Eran are authors of a series of Israel travel books in Hebrew. Information about their books and travels can be found at www.maslulim-israel.co.il.

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