Saturday, February 16, 2008

Eilat, Israel

Friends: Israel is no place for one with a phobia for guns. Young soldiers with automatic weapons dangling from their neck are a common site. I see them at bus stops, often gabbing away on a cell phone. They join me at roadside cafes, grabbing a burger or a falafel, plopping down at a table, their weapons on their lap performing napkin duties. I see them in towns quietly going about their business, their weapons as much a part of their appearance as a woman with a satchel. I've become so accustomed to seeing soldiers and their standard issue automatic weapon, if I notice one without a weapon, something seems amiss. I haven't seen or heard one put to use though, not even in the occasional "firing zones" I pass through in the desert. I dared to camp on the fringe of a forested firing zone, figuring it was safe when I didn't notice any evidence of spent shells.

There were "no gun" signs on the doors at the airport, sparing arrivals an immediate dose of what might freak out some. The ultra modern Tel Aviv Airport was most welcoming in every way. The customs officials did not stamp my passport nor did they query me about what was in all those bags on my bike or even take a peek. I was fully prepared to lay all my gear out for them and explain the purpose of each of my many bicycle specific tools and all else I require for a month long bike tour. I wondered if I could do it in under an hour.

I passed through customs so quickly that it was nearly an hour before my friend Evey arrived to meet me. She had bused down from Jerusalem, less than an hour away, to welcome me and pick up a few items I had brought her, including some silk long underwear and  half of the books I brought to read along the way. I'll pick the books up when I swing through Jerusalem in a couple of weeks after visiting the southern half of the country.  We had a fast hour chat and then went our separate ways, she back to Jerusalem and me off into the Negev.

It wasn't until my second day in Israel, when I was well into the Negev Desert, which comprises 50% of the country, that I roused the suspicion of an authority figure. I was flying along with a nice tail wind when I heard a siren behind me. I had feared such a sound for my first 50 miles out of Tel Aviv, much of which I spent on four-lane divided highways. There were no signs barring cyclists as there are on such Interstate-type roads in the U.S., but still I worried that it might simply be understood that bicyclists aren't allowed on such roads. But with no better alternative, I dared to ride on their shoulders as gobs of traffic whizzed past at ungodly speeds. If it had been Germany, I would have had motorists blasting their horns at me or slowing to tell me to get off the road.

At last, beyond Beer Sheba, the largest city in the Negev, the road narrowed to two lanes and the traffic greatly diminished. So this siren came as a surprise. I was maintaining a decent clip, but I doubted I was exceeding any speed limit. The officers remained in their car and beckoned me to approach, as they didn't care to go out in the rain, a light drizzle, though it had been a hard downpour just minutes before and I was soaked. The officer in the passenger seat rolled down his window. "What are you doing?," he asked.

That was a good question. It was 40 miles to the next town and an hour until sunset and the sky was thick with dark clouds. I simply said, "I'm bicycling around Israel."

"Where are you going?," he next wanted to know.

"To Eilat," I said, the southernmost point in Israel, less than 150 miles away.

"By bicycle?!" he asked, as incredulous as if I had told him I was rushing to a hospital to give birth to a hippopotamus.

"When's the rain going to stop?," I asked.

"Maybe tomorrow," he said, then rolled up his window and was off.

As I continued cycling in the cold rain I kept hoping a kindly soul from a kibbutz might pull over and offer me refuge, though there was no evidence of any kibbutzim in the empty desert terrain. That didn't happen until the next day. But the kindly soul wasn't from a kibbutz. He just had friends who had a campground in the town of Mizpe Ramon. He drove me to their compound on the fringe of the town. It was early in the afternoon and I doubted I would take advantage of it, but I obliged him, responding to his friendliness. The price of 80 shekels ($23) made it easy not to be tempted, even though I could have used a shower.

The guy then led me to the fringe of the giant crater the town is nestled up against, the largest crater in the world that is a cross between the Grand Canyon and lunar landscape. His apartment overlooked it. It was Friday afternoon, with Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath, imminent. I had stocked up on food for the next day, as most businesses close from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. But I needed a loaf of bread for the two pounds of hummus I had bought and my peanut butter. My benefactor sent his wife to his apartment for a loaf while we chatted. He had traveled by bike across France and Thailand, so knew full well how much appreciated food can be to a touring cyclist. I was the first touring cyclist he had ever seen in Israel, however.

We pored over my map. He suggested a quieter, less-traveled route to Eilat. He also assured me that a gas station/cafe at an intersection 60 miles down the road would be open tomorrow on Shabbat. I was counting on it. When I arrived there I was down to one water bottle. It was another 40 miles to Eilat from there. But the facility had a sign saying it wouldn't open until 5:30 that night. It was 10:30 and it was beginning to warm up. Mizpe Ramon had been at 3,000 feet elevation, high enough for there to have been snow the week before. I was very happy to have brought my down sleeping bag with night-time temperatures dropping into the low 40s. But as I descended to Eilat, a resort city on the Red Sea, I no longer needed my tights nor even a long sleeve shirt. I was rationing myself one sip of water every mile for the 40 miles to Eilat. But miraculously, about 15 miles down the road after I turned on to the main artery linking Eilat with Jerusalem, I came upon a big-time kibbutz that had one of the largest dairy productions in the country and a store that remained open on Shabbat. It was the only place that day with food or water in the 95 miles between Mizpe Ramon and Eilat. Now its off to Egypt for a couple of days before returning to Eilat and a quick swing into Jordan. Then it will be on to Jerusalem and the northern third of Israel.

Later, George

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