Sunday, March 9, 2008

Tel Aviv

Friends: And thus is my circuit of Israel complete. I finished it off with the least strenuous pedaling of the journey along the Mediterranean for 100 miles from the northwest corner of the country at Rosh Hanikra just below the Sulan Ridge dividing Israel from Lebanon to Tel Aviv via Hafia and Hadera and Naharyna. Some of it was on quiet two lane roads besides empty beaches and some on divided four-lane highways surging with traffic.

Israel is a country of four seas--the Red, the Dead, the Med (-iterranean) and the Galilee. I have now taken a dip in each. All are salt water except the Galilee, which supplies the country with half its water. Its 13 miles long and a couple miles wide, about the size of Manhattan. I could see it in its entirety from the hill that has been designated as the likely spot of Jesus' most quoted sermon.

I am very happy to be back on the flats and to have all the climbing, or rather descending, behind me. A slight fracture in my rear wheel has degenerated into a blip that catches my brakes, causing the bike to skid when I brake hard. The bulge in the rim has also caused the rim to overheat from the extra, uneven braking, as the brake pad on the bulging side hits it harder and more frequently. I've had two harrowing flats at close to 40 miles per hour on prolonged steep descents, both inner flats from the overheating.

I only had 2,000 feet of descending left back to sea level when I suffered my second flat, five days after the first, on my long plunge out of Jerusalem. The blip had only been a minor, nagging issue earlier in the ride. The stress of all the steep hills in Jerusalem exacerbated it more than I realized. The wheel has over 30,000 miles on it and has served me well on some perilously steep descents in France, Scotland, Wales, Ecuador, Japan, the Rockies and elsewhere the past three years. I am looking forward to Joe of Quick Release building a new one on my 48 spoke hub so I can once again let it fly down the mountains without having my skin crawl.

Both flats announced themselves with a fizzle rather than a pop, otherwise I could have been
startled at the possibility of an explosive. Bombs and gun fire are a fact of Israeli life, with matters escalating in the past week not only in Gaza but Jerusalem itself. I just learned of a suicide bomber in Beersheba in the Negev who killed two along with himself just two weeks before I had passed through, an item that didn't receive much notice.

Winds have been more of a factor on this trip than just about any place I've biked. Winds are created by turbulence. That sums up this region. Israel celebrates its 60th birthday this year. From its very inception the country has had a knife at its throat and it remains there. It takes a while for it to sink in, but after several weeks of all the reminders of the decades of tension and violence, the monuments and memorials to the martyred and the ubiquity of the young soldiers and the tales of personal unrest, I know that whatever calm and normalcy that seems to prevail can be shattered at any moment. Personal bomb shelters and gas masks are a fact of Israeli life.

"Why did you want to come to Israel?" is the predominant question of this trip, especially when I'm off the beaten path away from the pilgrimage sites that draw all the tour buses. Even Evey was curious to know what drew the friends I made at the hostel in Jerusalem to Israel. I had an easy answer--to visit a friend who moved here eight years ago. Many of the travelers I've met came because of a cheap flight or pleasant weather for this time of the year. The Swedish school teacher at the hostel had a one-week vacation. Rather than going skiing as most of his students were doing, he chose a warm place. A German engineering student came because of a bargain $200 airfare from Munich. A guy from Odessa likewise took advantage of a cheap fare. There are many Israeli immigrants from Odessa resulting in frequent bargain flights between the two places. All were ardent travelers and happy to go anywhere and were as happy with their time here as I have been.

I was able to slip in to Tel Aviv on Shabbat when there was hardly any traffic on the four and six lane highways feeding the city. There were almost as many cyclists riding their shoulders early Saturday morning as motorists on the roadway. I biked along with a triathlete for ten miles who only bikes on Saturdays when there is little traffic. But the beaches of Tel Aviv were thronged. They continue for four miles along the heart of the city.

I concluded these travels with my one of my best, or at least most unexpected, campsites, in an orange grove half way between Jaffa, the ancient Arabic city just south of Tel Aviv, and the airport, 13 miles from downtown Tel Aviv, sparing me from having to fork over twenty dollars to sleep in a communal room of desultory sounds and odors. Instead I had the luxury of my own
private abode five miles from the population-choked Mediterranean strip where a large percentage of Israelis reside.

I have the option of spending my last night in the same place or in a grapefruit orchard just a few hundred meters from the international terminal on the airport grounds. That would certainly top off another exhilarating and fulfilling month of biking and camping. Days on the bike and nights in the tent are as good as it gets for me.

I hadn't noticed the grapefruit camping on my arrival, only when I dropped by the airport before going in to Tel Aviv to find out if British Air provided plastic bags for bikes here or if I would
have to scrounge up a bag or worse yet, a box, for my bike. The woman at the check-in counter had to make a phone call to find out, but it was what I was hoping for, sparing me a lot of grief and expense. I had to wait a couple of hours at the airport before the British Air representatives arrived, three hours before the second of their two daily flights was scheduled to depart. While I waited, my reading was interrupted every 15 minutes by a recorded announcement in English and Hebrew, though Hebrew was all that was necessary, saying, "Attention please. Carrying weapons is prohibited in all terminal halls. Thank you."

I also had a nice chat with the German engineering student. He had spent his two-week spring break bicycling Israel. He had flown in on a minor airline that wasn't as bike friendly as British Air. He paid $60 to have his box stored at the airport left luggage department and had to retrieve it the day before as it wasn't open on Shabbat. Nor was there bus service to the airport on Shabbat, so he had to pay for a taxi to get his boxed bike back to the airport. But the biggest hassle of his trip was entering Jordan. He didn't attempt it by bike, as he didn't have the time to bike the 100 miles to and from the ruins of Petra that everyone wants to see. He left his bike at Eilat and took a cab to the border and then a bus to the ruins. At the border the Jordanians
wouldn't allow him to bring his knife into the country. He walked back to the Israel side and buried it in the desert. The Israelis wanted to charge him a second 64 1/2 shekel departure fee. It took him an hour to get them to relent.

He pitied me for having two days in Tel Aviv before my departure, but I have so far found it most pleasing. There is a long bike trail along the Yargon River that I have only partially explored, through park lands unlike any in Jerusalem. There is a vitality to this city with people engaged in all sorts of out door activities. There was volleyball and surfing and paddle ball along the beach. The grid of streets makes for pleasant meandering on the bike, unlike the steep windy hills of Jerusalem. The various skyscrapers of distinctive architecture make for good landmarks. While it took several days to orient myself to Jerusalem, I've gained my bearings in Tel Aviv in less than half a day and feel as if I don't have any worries of getting lost for too long here. It is a new city without the history of Jerusalem, but a tolerable place for an urban environment, and not a bad place to wrap up another noteworthy trip.

Later, George

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Zefat, Israel

Friends: At last, after three weeks of wild-camping all over Israel, even on the outskirts of Jerusalem, a group of Israeli soldiers on patrol stumbled upon me in the middle of the night. Having been undetected until now I was concerned they had let their guard down.

I was camped along the Syrian border on the Golan Heights, an area that Israel had annexed during the 1967 Six-Day War and defended in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and as recently as the summer of 2006 defended against assault. I had set up my tent behind a cluster of bombed-out buildings. I had chosen the site as a defense against the winds, strong and consistent enough for there to be a string of wind generators nearby, never a good sign for the touring cyclist.

The wind can blow from four directions and only one is favorable for he who is pedaling. This was not one of those occasions when it was even close to being in my favor. I had earned every one of my miles before I set up camp, not only from battling the wind but also from climbing up from the Sea of Galilee, below sea level to nearly 4,000 feet, the highest I'd been on this trip. I was drained enough to stop the earliest I had, a couple of hours before dark, unable to resist
the shelter these buildings offered, actually doubling back to them when I saw the terrain ahead
remained rugged and rocky with few trees and the wind growing colder and more formidable.

I opted to camp behind these buildings so I wouldn't have to listen to my rain fly flapping against my tent all night in the wind. I was closing in on Mt. Hermon, at 7,000 feet the highest mountain in Israel, up in its northeast corner. It shares the mountain with Lebanon and Syria. Its highest peak is 9,000 feet in Syria. It is Israel's lone ski resort. There was a dirt road near where I was camped and I heard an occasional vehicle rumble past before and after dark, though none interrupted my sleep. It was the bright flashlights of the soldiers blasting through my tent that woke me. My bike was by my tent, a signal of neutrality like the UN plastered on all sides of white vans and cars that are evident all over the country, so the soldiers were in no great panic.
They were more curious than anything, wanting to see my passport and wondering if I knew I was so close to Syria. They also asked if I had been in any Arabic countries. Otherwise I was neither scolded nor reprimanded nor ordered to be gone.

The wind died during the night and remained calm the next day. The only strain was some more climbing. Five miles away was the Valley of Tears, a monument to a cataclysmic battle during the Yom Kippur War where the Israelis destroyed some 500 Syrian tanks and vehicles, the heart of the Syrian assault. Particularly honored was an Israeli commander who stood off three tanks. A couple of the Syrian tanks remain at the site. There was also a small grove of trees planted around one, each with a plaque honoring a fallen Israeli. The two mile recently paved road to the site was surrounded by acres and acres of vineyards with a few bunkers and pillboxes scattered amongst them. Clouds drifted past the snow-streaked Mount Hermon in the near distance.

Descending from the Golan Heights I had a spectacular vista of the upper Galilee valley, a great
agricultural belt of apple and peach and pomegranate orchards. From the city of Kiryat Shomona I climbed five miles to Metula, the northern-most city in Israel on the Lebanon border. The border crossing, called the Good Fence, has been closed since 2000. Metula is a small resort city where Israelis can go to escape the summer heat. It was founded by the Rothschilds. There are quite a few buildings and projects around the country funded by the Rothschilds, including the Parliament in Jerusalem. The word Rothschild is synonymous with extreme wealth in Israel. The Hebrew lyrics to the song, "If I were a rich man," from "Fiddler on a Roof" are "If I were a Rothschild."

The country's largest ice rink is in Metula, donated by a Canadian couple. It is called the Canadian Center. There was also a basketball court in the center with a locker room where I was able to get a shower. I had been denied earlier in the day at a national park camp ground, as it was too early in the season for it to be open. I haven't had success in being allowed to shower in some hostels without paying for a full night's lodging, as hot water is an expensive commodity.

A guy at a service station recommended a new, better graded road to the town of Zefat, the highest town in Israel overlooking the Sea of Galilee. I had one of my better campsites of the trip in an open cow pasture full of blooming wild flowers. I had to climb over a gate to reach it, something I did quite often while biking through Texas. But it was at dusk and there looked like little evidence that the dirt road was much used. I just hoped for no rain during the night,
as such a dirt road could turn into a quagmire, as I had suffered a couple times on this trip.

The guy who recommended the road was wearing a pink rubber bracelet with Hebrew on it. I asked him its significance. "Have you heard of Lance Armstrong?" he replied, easily the most stupid question I have ever been asked in my life. I simply raised my sleeve and revealed my yellow Livestrong bracelet. His bracelet had nothing to do with Lance or cancer, only that this
guy knew that Lance had inspired a zillion spin-offs for countless different causes. This one had to do with bus drivers paying attention to traffic. The roads are full of buses--not only tour buses, but the Israeli version of Greyhound, Egged, the second largest bus service in the world after Greyhound. Every traveler I have met has raved at how good its service is. There are frequent buses everywhere and reasonably priced. Still, I've seen more hitch-hikers here than anywhere I've been, and frequently in the act of being picked up, as they don't appear to have to wait very long to get a lift.

Later, George

Monday, March 3, 2008

Tiberius, Israel

Friends: Out of the cluster of cyclists gathered for Jerusalem's monthly Critical Mass ride stepped a guy wearing a bright red "Chicago Critical Mass" t-shirt. As he approached me I frantically searched my memory to see if I could recall having met him in Chicago, as he appeared to have recognized me. But he only wanted to welcome me and to solicit my email address so he could give me notice of Critical Mass events in the future. I was the only one who had signed his sheet in non-Hebrew.

He explained the t-shirt was the gift of a friend who had attended Chicago's tenth anniversary ride last fall, a ride I had also been on. His friend returned with a handful of these Chicago t-shirts. No one else was wearing the Chicago shirt on this ride. One guy though was wearing a
self-made t-shirt with the number 50 on it and some Hebrew. This was Jerusalem's 50th Critical Mass ride since its first a little over four years ago. The guy wearing the t-shirt asked me how many Chicago had had. Ten years of twelve a year and a few more put it at about 125.

Chicago's tenth anniversary ride attracted several thousand. There were about 50 of us gathered here in Mish Bar Square on King George Street in downtown Jerusalem. But that was a good number for Jerusalem. We were a motley bunch when we set out at 12:30. About half of the group had balloons attached to their bikes or packs or helmets. We ranged in age from ten-year olds to 60-year olds, with most in their 20s. About 90% of the riders were male. Half of the group had whistles that they blew in a synchronized manner, just a part of the cacophony of sound that heralded our passage.

We made an initial half-mile loop through the heart of the city beginning with a stretch down a pedestrian mall before heading off towards the semi-affluent Germany Colony where Evey lives. We biked at a crawl through the thick traffic, but still had a hard time keeping together. Riders were reluctant to go through intersections after a light had turned red, even when one or more cyclists were corking the intersection and shouting for people to stay together. There was a lot
of waiting to remass. In all we covered four-and-a-half miles in a little over an hour.

One guy had an amplifier and speaker on the back of his bike. He repeated over and over "Bike Paths for Jerusalem" in Hebrew. Another guy towards the back echoed the chant without a speaker in Hebrew and English. He told me Jerusalem has only three kilometers of bike paths and they aren't even bike specific, just very very short stretches through a couple of parks and on sidewalks along busy thoroughfares, that hardly counted as bike paths. Many in the group were handing out small squares of paper, as participants of Chicago's ride do, to passersby explaining the purpose of the ride as a means to promote bicycling.

I mentioned to several people that I was surprised to have seen only one bike rack in Jerusalem. One person was shocked that there was even one and wondered where it was. Another guy instantly knew the rack I was speaking of outside the Knesset and said that a member of the Critical Mass had campaigned for over a year to get the rack installed. He acknowledged it was a pretty pathetic excuse for a bike rack though.

I commented that this was more cyclists than I'd seen in my six days in Jerusalem. He was surprised I had seen so few, as he said their numbers had increased significantly in the four years of the Critical Mass, and he seemed to think there were bicyclists everywhere. One guy asked me if many children ride Chicago's Critical Mass. There were several on this ride, as there is no school on Friday, the first day of the Israeli weekend. He said his six-year old used to
come along, but now that he's nine, he has more important things to do.

We ended up in the court yard of an organization devoted to the preservation of nature. A table with punch and cookies awaited us. Someone invited me on a day-long ride the next day. Unfortunately, I had checked out of my hostel and had all my gear packed and ready to mount on my bike. After six nights in a bed I was eager to be back in my tent, sleeping out in the middle of nowhere. If he had offered me a place to throw down my sleeping bag though, I would have accepted. But most Israelis live in cramped quarters and have only so much hot water to share this time of the year, so one simply doesn't receive such offers.

When I mentioned I was headed to Jericho, a Palestinian city on the way to the Sea of Galilee, he, like everyone else, strongly advised me against it, suggesting a detour of several miles around it on a road that is considered a safe corridor through the West Bank. I had passed Jericho on my way to Jerusalem and was tempted to visit it then, as it is considered one of the oldest cities in the world dating to 7,000 B.C. It lies just beyond the Dead Sea. I had to plunge back down the road that I had climbed to Jerusalem, back down to below sea level, to follow the Jordan River Valley to the northernmost point of Israel beyond the Sea of Galilee.

As usual, I was happy to have ignored everyone's warnings. All through Jericho people along the road called out "Welcome," as I passed. When I thanked someone for telling me which way to go at an unmarked intersection he said, "No need to thank me for nothing." I camped a few miles outside of Jericho before I returned to the safe zone of highway 90 which eventually returned me to Israeli occupied territory about 40 miles south of the Sea of Galilee. Whenever I have traveled among the Arabs on this trip and others I have been accorded a measure of warmth and respect unlike any I have received elsewhere. The nomadic nature of the touring cyclist evidently connects to the Arabic DNA. In Morocco I was told, "You have a white heart, you would make a good Muslim." In Egypt people repeatedly expressed an extra level of cordiality and curiosity.

One of the Arabic managers of the hostel I stayed at in Jerusalem was so entranced with my means and style of travel and uncharacteristic Western values commented, "You are the most perfect person I have met," a rather hasty and ridiculous presumption. I hadn't even been to Mecca, as he had, nor did I prostrate myself three times a day in the direction of Mecca, as he did. He regarded traveling by bike and camping just anywhere as an ascetic exercise that earned me considerable merit. He seemed almost dumbfounded that I didn't have a car or wife or house or respectable job, yet seemed to be content. Nor could he imagine that I was simply being true to myself and not suffering for it. I'm accustomed to others expressing wonderment at the path I have followed. The usual Western reaction by those who are impressed, rather than indignant, is "You ought to write a book." The Arab's comment was just a reflection of his values and what is high praise in his sphere. Once in India someone who didn't think I was wasting my life commented, "You are a very evolved person," though he too was someone who hardly knew me.
One of the biggest perils of traveling by bicycle is the accolades one receives along the way and
taking them too seriously. I have traveled with others on their maiden tours who after several days of such recognition think they are indeed a superior being and think they know everything. The veteran touring cyclist takes such an inner satisfaction from the riding, he merely smiles at the attention he receives, not letting it puff up his head. If only more people were doing this, it wouldn't be regarded with such awe. Instead, all fellow touring cyclists could bond over the great joy and liberation we know we are experiencing.

Meeting a fellow touring cyclist is always one of the highlights of my tours, as they are such rare
events and there is invariably an instant strong feeling of kinship. I met a retired Norwegian in the Negev headed to the Sinai who had biked all the way from Oslo. He had been biking since August and was doing between 30 and 50 miles a day. I was the first touring cyclist he had spoken to in his six months on the road. He had passed only one other going in the opposite direction, who hadn't stopped to talk. He was aglow. This was his first significant tour and he was loving it and in no hurry for it to end. He was flabbergasted at the paucity of people doing this.

Though I know I am winding down this tour, I am not sad, as I know I will be off to France soon enough after this one and many many more await me. But now I am off to a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee where the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes were delivered. I look forward as well to a dip in the Sea, a body of water that has been walked upon. It is 700 feet below sea level, but is fresh water, so I can give myself a full dunk.

Later, George