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

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