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

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