Friday, February 29, 2008

Jerusalem 3

Friends: As I was about to mount my bike outside the thronged Damascus Gate after negotiating my way through the clogged Arab quarter of the Old City, an older couple rushed up to me and gushed, "We're so glad to see you're alive. We were worried about you." It was a pair of Ohioans I had spoken to at the Israel-Egypt border almost a week ago. They were part of a Christian tour group on their way back to Israel after a visit to Mount Sinai.

They told me an American had been killed in a flash flood two days before outside Ein Gedi where I had gone into the Dead Sea. They knew I was camping in the desert and feared I might have been caught by the storm. They said the road was a mess along the Dead Sea from the deluge of water that had come down from the gorges and cliff sides.

They would have also been concerned about my safety if I had been heading towards the Gaza Strip, as the Palestinians have stepped up lobbing their Kassam rockets into Israel. There were 55 a couple of days ago and one death. They have a range of twelve miles or so. I had come within ten miles of Gaza on my second day in Israel and was headed to the town of Sderot, which has taken the brunt of the attacks, but turned away when I saw the black clouds of a storm moving in and took a turn in the road to the east away from Sderot trying to race the storm to safety. Sirens are perpetually going off in Sderot warning locals to take cover when radar picks up an incoming Kassam. People only have a few seconds warning to dive under a desk or rush to a save place.

The Ohio couple reported they had had their Bibles confiscated when they entered the Temple Mount, the Muslim holy site with the Golden Dome Mosque in the Old City. If they hadn't been carrying them in plain view they could have easily smuggled them in. When I entered I had to put my pack through a metal detector, but no one looked inside it, nor were there any signs saying no Bibles allowed. I had two books with me, my guidebook and a book by Paul Theroux on traveling China by train. I sat in the plaza and read Theroux for half an hour and no one bothered me. The Ohioan's guide should have warned them. But they were able to reclaim their Bibles on the way out.

I accompanied Evey on her weekly visit to the Jewish market. We had our bags checked going in and out of the multi-level parking lot and had to pass by a pair of armed guards into the market, though they weren't perusing bags and were barely paying attention, both engrossed in cell phone conversation. That was a little upsetting to Evey, but things are much safer than when she moved to Israel eight years ago just as the second intifada started and suicide bombings were a regular occurrence. She never took a bus during those years and was much more wary than she is now.

Evey is trying to establish herself as "the plastic bag lady," as she brings her own recycled bags to the market for all her purchases. Even though she patronizes the same vendors week after week, she has yet to condition any of them to remember not to grab one of their own bags for her purchases. If she doesn't have a bag at the ready, they quickly plop whatever she's selected and they've weighed into one of their bags. Most roll their eyes when she hands them one of her
own crumpled bags, as if she is some brand of new religious kook, though she looks as non-religious as they come not covering her head, wearing slacks and wearing a dab of makeup. Still, she managed to use close to 20 of her own bags for her lemons and carrots and fish and egg plants and squash and crackers and all else.

One of Evey's inspirations is a woman who managed to start a country-wide plastic bottle recycling program. There are six-foot high cages all over Jerusalem and the rest of the county for people to deposit their bottles. The tops are caged as well. There is a hole to pass the bottles through, though not big enough for large detergent containers. Solar panels atop just about every residence and building in the country are another hopeful sign. They are used primarily for heating water. Adjoining all those panels are white water tanks, sprouting up like headless mushrooms, giving the skyline a unique look especially at sunrise and sunset with the light
illuminating them.

Many of the vendors in the market wore kippas, a greater percentage than I've seen out and about, indicating they were religious. There was a mini-synagogue in the market, barely large enough for the necessary quorum of ten men necessary to conduct a service. I've hardly seen any of the arch-orthodox Hasidics other than at the Western Wall. The men are easily identified by their black attire, distinctive, sometimes bizarre, hats and the pair of curly sprigs of hair dangling well below each ear. Evey said they descend upon the market Friday afternoon of Shabbat when all the sellers are eager to clear out their produce and prices are slashed. The Hasidic tend to live at the poverty level, devoting their time to prayer and study rather than work. Evey recommended a couple of neighborhoods where I'd find them, places I hadn't stumbled upon yet.

There they were in abundance, some walking along reading the Torah, others reading and semi-chanting as they stood at bus stops. Now I truly knew I was in Israel. Evey said if I wanted a genuinely unique Israeli experience I ought to return for one of the two days when Israel honors its Holocaust victims with three minutes of absolute stillness. A siren sounds at ten a.m. and everyone stops wherever they are and stands in silence until the siren sounds again. People in cars get out and stand wherever they might be. Evey said I would also appreciate Yom Kippur, as it is a day when no one drives a car. It is a tradition to give children a bicycle on that day, as with no motorized vehicles on the roads, it is the ultimate day for bicycles.

The "Jerusalem Post" reported with approval that Jon Stewart led off the Oscar telecast with a Yom Kippur joke. The Oscars were of heightened interest in Israel this year as for the first time in 23 years and second time in history, an Israeli film ("Beaufort") was one of the five nominees for best foreign picture. Though it didn't win, the "Post" took some consolation that a Holocaust feature, "The Counterfeiters" from Austria, was the winner. The sub-headline of the Oscar story read, "Jewish creative talents prove their worth at Sunday's Oscars." Besides the Coen brothers with their three Oscars for best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay, they could also take pride in Daniel-Day Lewis, "son of Jewish actress Jill Bacon."

The Bible Lands Museum hosted a lecture by an archaeologist on the early days of Jerusalem that Evey had been looking forward to. She knew quite a bit about the subject herself having participated in three digs in the region over the years and having served as a guide at Chicago's Oriental Institute. We accompanied a tour of the museum along with six graduate students that preceded the lecture. The guide stopped asking us to guess what certain artifacts were as Evey had the answer before the guide could complete her question. We had to skip one room, as it had been taken over by a bunch of young boisterous children. Evey said out-of-control kids are typical of Israel. Parents don't discipline their children, because they know the army eventually will. The only kids that have bothered me are young Arabs. They like to grab hold of my rear rack as I'm walking through the market. If I ignore them, they just become more flagrant. It can be irritating.

There was a large turnout for the lecture, as anyone who lives here can't help but be fascinated by the thousands of years of rich history all around them. Jerusalem has been invaded and captured 33 times over the centuries, the last in 1967 by the Israelis when they regained the old city and their holiest of sites, the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, as it was a place where Israelis went to mourn the loss of loved ones dating back to the Ottoman Empire.

Evey has occasionally asked, "Doesn't Jerusalem seem small?" With 700,000 people tightly packed amongst its hills, its doesn't sprawl like some cities. After five days of bicycling all over, getting lost and unlost, I have finally learned my way around well enough that I can now agree that, yes, it is manageable and nothing seems to be more than ten or fifteen minutes away, even with all the steep hills. I asked at the tourist office how many hills were in the city proper and no one could tell me. They wondered if that was something bicyclists needed to know. "Only to put it in perspective for friends back home," I explained. Nor did they know what the highest point in the city was. There are many high vantage points, but none more pronounced than another,
nor are there any skyscrapers. They are in Tel Aviv, less than 50 miles away, down on the coast. I'll be there in a week-and-a-half after making a circuit of the northern half of the country.

Later, George

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Jerusalem 2

Friends: I was glad I left my pump attached to my bike when I visited the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. There is no telling what reaction it might have provoked from the guards inspecting my backpack. It was by far the most thorough inspection I've been subjected to in my time here. My detachable head-light utterly befuddled the guards, occupying them for several minutes. The pump could well have drawn bomb experts from all over the city.

It had taken such an effort to gain entrance to the Knesset, I felt obligated to prolong my stay in the visitor's gallery, even though I couldn't understand a word of the proceedings, entirely in Hebrew. There were just two others in the gallery, what appeared to be a couple of high school students looking very serious in their all black attire and black yarmulkes. We were behind a glass partition, in a balcony overlooking the proceedings, so I could have asked them what was being said without causing any disruption, but it was obvious it was nothing of significance. Someone at the rostrum appeared to be filibustering or just stating some case for the record. The handful of legislators in attendance were mostly in pairs huddled in conversations of their own, paying no attention whatsoever to the speaker.

I could have left after three or four minutes and have had as much of an experience as I was to have. But it was late in the afternoon and I had time to spare before I was due at Evey's for another dinner with her and Dan and their friend Lynn, who had moved to Jerusalem a few months ago from Chicago. The benches were padded and my legs could use a rest after spending the better part of the day roaming the Yad Vashem (Holocaust Complex) and some further exploration of this city of steep hills on my bike. I tracked down the hall where the the Last Supper is said to have taken place and the Cinematheque and a few other sites.

The interior of the Knesset, like the exterior, offered a simple, yet magisterial elegance. It was a long walk back through its huge, stately plaza to the high-gated entry where I had left my bike. And then a long wait before I could rouse someone to return my pack. That was something I was getting used to. I was kept waiting nearly five minutes at the Yad Vashem for my pack before someone returned from their break.

The Yad Vashem (taken from the book of Isiah in the Bible meaning monument and memorial) resides on 46 acres just below the summit of Mount Herzl. The upper part of Mount Herzl is the grave of Benyamin Herzl, an Austrian who in the later 1800s was the first to propose the creation of a Jewish state. Also on Mount Herzl are the graves of many of Israel's heads of state, including Golda Meir. It was Herzl's book, "The Jewish State," written in 1896, calling for the establishment of an independent state for the Jewish people, that led to the creation of Israel. He died in 1904 and was buried in Vienna. It was his desire to be buried in Israel when it became a Jewish state. His wish was fulfilled in 1949, a year after Israel came into being. He is honored every year on the anniversary of his death.

Yad Vashem wasn't established until 1953. It has grown considerably over the years. There are more than half a dozen buildings and memorials, each stunningly powerful. The complex attracted the biggest crowds by far of any place I've visited here in Israel. There are vast and grand memorials all over its grounds. The centerpiece is a lengthy pyramid of an arcade opened in 2005 tracing the history of the Holocaust with dozens of exhibits and video presentations. It was mobbed with groups of school children and recent recruits to the IDF (Israel Defense Force) in packs of ten to fifteen each with their own guide. Most were speaking Hebrew, but there was an occasional, non-military, English speaking group as well. The soldiers arrived with their M16s, but had to check them somewhere. Wherever that was could have provided quite an arsenal for anyone contemplating a revolution. I thought for the first time I might see one of those machine guns fired when I saw a guy point his M16 to the sky out in the plaza before entering the complex. But he was only checking to make sure it wasn't loaded. It was probably a good thing his commanding officer wasn't looking.

All these boy and girl soldiers, fresh out of high school were learning further why they had been conscripted. One exhibit traced the history of anti-Semitism highlighted by Hitler ranting that the Jews are a "sub-human race that must be destroyed." But long before Hitler came along, they are told, "Christianity developed a hatred of the Jews for rejecting Jesus as the Messiah." Questions are raised why the world allowed the Holocaust to happen when it well knew what was going on. A statement on one wall asks, "Why wasn't Auschwitz bombed?" Accompanying video footage shows the bombing of sites in the vicinity of the crematoriums. They could have easily been bombed as well, or, at the very least, the train tracks leading to Auschwitz, putting the operation out of commission. Another quote on a nearby facade from someone at Auschwitz laments, "All of us, dying here amidst the icy arctic indifference of the nations." But a following exhibit documents some who did come to the aid of the Jews.

There were stools here and there, and benches too, so one could sit and watch the many videos. Visitors are welcomed by an exceptional ten-minute film just after the entrance. It is projected on the full length of a towering triangular wall that forms one end of the building. It depicts the seemingly idyllic life of European Jews in the early '30s. It was a continual pan of rural and urban folk in archival footage dancing and skating and singing and conversing and waving to the camera, but with eerie, foreboding music in the background. Just after this introduction one is assaulted by the rise of Hitler and the Nazis and the hell that was to follow. There was more archival footage of all that (goose-stepping and heiling and life in the ghettos and cattle car transport and concentration camps and war footage), as well as contemporary survivors recounting the horrors of the time. As one can well imagine, it is the ultimate of the Holocaust museums around the world.

Another building is devoted to the one-and-a-half million children who were victims of the Holocaust. It's a nearly pitch black experience walking into a nearly pitch-black cavern solely illuminated by the dim flicker of seemingly distant candles on all sides and above and below. One loses perspective and it almost feels as if you're floating through the cosmos as you follow a circular path. A woman's voice continually recites the names and home towns of victims. I emerged from it to the site of several people clutching each other in tears. It was a truly intense, deeply haunting experience. Similarly haunting is a monument to the deportees--a cattle car mounted on railroad tracks that end abruptly fifty feet in the air amongst a clump of pine trees. Large slabs of rocks arranged in a quarry-like maze paid honor to entire towns that had been wiped out. Another exhibit pays tribute to those who came to the aid of the Jews at the time.

There hardly seems reason to stick around Jerusalem after absorbing all that Yad Vashem had to offer, but there are still many other museums and holy sites to visit. The prime attraction for me though is Friday's Critical Mass bike ride. It takes place in early afternoon rather than in the evening, as in most cities around the world, as sundown marks the start of Shabbat when everyone gathers for a meal with loved ones. A friend of Evey says it only attracts 25 or 30 riders, not a great deal, but more cyclists than I've seen in my three days here so far.

I've noticed a couple of signs for bike routes along main thoroughfares on the sidewalk, but nothing on the streets. Nor have I seen a bike rack anywhere except outside the Knesset, a skimpy low-lying loop rack good only for locking a wheel, not a frame, unless one had a long cable lock. I am eager to hear what the local bike activists have to say about the state of bicycling in Jerusalem. I have two weeks left in the country. Since it is less than 200 miles to its northern extremity, I don't need much more than a week to complete the northern circuit of the country up to Lebanon and then back to Tel Aviv. Another reason to prolong my stay in Jerusalem is to enjoy the company of the ardent, veteran travelers I'm sharing a dorm with at the hostel. One is a 55-year old American who has lived in Berlin the past 34 years, presently working as the private gardener on someone's estate. This is his fourth visit to Israel. Another is a 30-year old Swedish high school teacher and former bike messenger, who likewise has traveled the world, though never by bike.

Later, George

Monday, February 25, 2008

Jerusalem

Friends: The hostel I ended up at in the old walled city of Jerusalem is just a few steps from the seventh station of the cross, the second of three places where Jesus fell while lugging his cross on the way to Calvary Hill. All day long pilgrims in groups and on their own retrace Jesus' final trek, many singing or chanting. The route is through narrow, alley-like, centuries-old cobbled streets lined with shops selling all manner of goods--rugs, spices, watches, olives, rosaries, freshly butchered meat and fish, underwear, fabrics, sweets and on and on.

I had no clue I was in such close proximity to this hallowed route when I made my selection of a place to stay. I felt like I was lugging a cross myself, walking my loaded bike through the narrow confines and mobs of people to reach it. My legs were sore the next day from the effort it took going down the ramped steps and over the cobbles and having to push it up various inclines. My map didn't indicate these were more walkways than streets. If I'd known, I would have entered the Old City through the Damascus Gate rather than the Jaffa Gate, cutting my walking distance by two-thirds. But it gave me a good taste of what a hive of activity and market place the Old City is. The Old City is divided into Jewish, Christian, Arab and Armenian sectors.

One of the most hallowed sacred sites of the Christians, Jews and Muslims are within short walking distance of one another in the Old City. The Western Wall of the Jews is on the eastern fringe. One must past through a metal detector to enter. The devout kiss or place their hands upon it. Some stand praying, bobbing their head repeatedly. Others sit and read from the Torah. As one enters, there is a stand of cardboard yarmulkes to cover one's head. There is a men's side and a much smaller women's side.

Above the Wall is the Dome of the Rock, a mosque built over the rock that the Prophet Mohammad launched himself from to heaven in 632 A.D. to take his place besides Allah. I was thwarted several times in gaining entry, as there is only one entrance open to non-Muslims and only from 12:30 to 1:30, none of which I was aware of. The golden dome is one of the prominent landmarks of Jerusalem. My hotel overlooks it.

Just a little ways beyond the Dome is the Via Dolorosa, Way of Sorrows, the route of Jesus' final
trek. It culminates at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus was nailed to the cross. Groups from all over the world, including many Hispanic with badges bearing their country's flag so they won't get mixed up with the wrong group, are among those retracing the route. One from the Philippines was carrying a cross. There were clusters of nuns of many nationalities and a handful of clerics. Whether or not one is moved by these sites, it is hard not to be effected by the rapture and devotion of those who are truly moved by being here, some falling to their knees overcome by their emotion.

Before settling into Jerusalem I made a slight detour to Bethlehem, birthplace of Jesus. As I closed in on Jerusalem after making the hard climb up from the Dead Sea, I was hoping to see signs to Bethlehem. Not coming upon any I asked someone at a service station the way. He was alarmed that I might not know that Bethlehem was part of the Palestine Territory. "Aren't you afraid of the Arabs?" he asked. "Should I be?" "Absolutely. They're terrorists and would
love to get their hands on someone like you. You'd be crazy to go there by bike."

I thanked him for the warning, not bothering to tell him about the Arab motorist who had stopped to offer me water as I made the long climb up to Jerusalem. He no doubt would have been aghast, hoping that I hadn't accepted it. I hadn't, but only because I had plenty. I was surprised myself by the offer. When the somewhat struggling car pulled over ahead of me and the gray-bearded gentlemen with a head wrapping got out of his car, I thought at first he was asking me for water for his car, having noticed the three bottles mounted to my frame. But he pointed to his trunk saying he had water in there if I needed any.

I ventured into Bethlehem after reaching the fringe of Jerusalem, just skirting around its
periphery for the several mile side trip. I was waved through the Palestinian check point. There was a sign saying no Israelis allowed. After several blocks on Yasser Arafat Boulevard I turned down Pope Paul VI Street and was immediately swallowed up by swarms of pedestrians as it turned into a narrow byway similar to what awaited me in the Old City of Jerusalem. The guy at the service station would have been freaking, as I was the only non-Arab among thousands, any of whom could have grabbed me and shuffled me away. I had to walk my bike nearly a mile past all manner of little stands and shops selling all the necessities of daily life. It was a bonanza of food and luxury after ten days in the barren desert.

I was eventually spilled out into Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity just beyond it, built over the site where Mary gave birth. I was at first denied entry into the church since I was wearing shorts. A guard told me though that I could tie my windbreaker around my waist, which would be enough to cover my knees and allow me in. There were tour groups in all sections of the church being lectured to in Japanese, Spanish, Greek, French, English, Italian and languages I couldn't identify. Three blocks further was the church of the Milk Grotto, where Mary and Joseph and Jesus hid out. It is constructed of a distinctive milky white stone, the color thanks to a spilled drop of Mary's milk. The church included a graphic painting of Mary breast-feeding.

I returned to Jerusalem via a route different than I exited, along a main highway with a towering, recently-constructed wall separating Palestine from Israel. The wall has effectively eliminated the suicide bombers that plagued Jerusalem up until a couple of years ago. Suicide bombers are regularly caught trying to enter the city at the various checkpoints, according to my friend Evey, whose partner writes for the Jerusalem Post. He was working late on a story last night, so I was able to accompany Evey to a lecture by Churchill scholar Sir Martin Gilbert. His 90-minute lecture was mostly drawn from his book "Churchill and the Jews." Churchill was a long-time advocate of an independent Jewish state and was such a strong supporter of the
Zionist cause that some didn't think he was fit to be Prime Minister. There were some 500 of us packed into a suburban synagogue for the lecture, the most people the synagogue had seen since Yom Kippur. I was one of the few not wearing a kippa on my noggin'.

Later, George

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Dead Sea, Israel

Friends: Neither the setting sun nor the rapidly declining temperatures deterred a bus load of
Austrians and I from a baptismal bob in the Dead Sea at Ein Gedi, one of the few free public beaches along its 40-mile western Israeli shore with accompanying showers. With a salt content ten times greater than the ocean, washing off that chalky residue after a dunk is highly advised. As inviting as the blue-green water of the Dead Sea was as I biked along its shore after my climb up to Masada, one of Israel's premier shrines, twelve miles back, caked in a thin layer of my own salt, I resisted taking a plunge until I came to a place where I could rinse the thick Dead Sea salt from my skin.

Masada, Hebrew for fortress, resides on its own private plateau, rising most imposingly some one thousand feet above the valley floor. Back in the year 70 A.D. its Israeli inhabitants committed mass suicide rather than be slaughtered by the besieging Romans, who had surrounded it. The plateau had originally been a Roman stronghold, but the Israelis claimed it in the year 66 A.D. during their revolt against the Romans. It took the Romans four years to put down the rebellion and reclaim Masada. There were close to 1,000 Israelis residing atop Masada with enough food and water to hold out for months when more than 8,000 Romans began their assault. When the Israelis realized their cause was lost they committed mass suicide. Masada has now become a rallying cry to the Israelis, that never again would they allow such a thing to happen to them. Many Israeli Defense Force units conduct their swearing in ceremony atop Masada.

Most visitors pay to be whisked up to the plateau in a cable car rather than submitting to the strenuous, steep, two kilometer climb up the Snake Path carved into the cliff face. In the summer months the path is closed by ten a.m., as the heat is too intense to allow people to go up it. I didn't arrive until after noon, but there were no such restrictions this time of the year. An orange juice stand at the foot of the trail was still doing a brisk business. There were more people descending than climbing when I arrived, snaking their way slowly up and down its many switchbacks.

If these had been the summer months there would have been throngs at the Ein Gedi beach cooling off and cavorting in the Dead Sea when I arrived there at 4:45. But not this time of the year with the temperature barely 60 in the shade. At first, I thought I was going to have a private swim. The official bath house showers with hot water had closed at four, though there were still cold showers out on the beach. It was a steep descent down to the water and just a sliver of a rocky beach at its shoreline. There were two or three souls finishing up their swim as I prepared for mine when a troop of Austrians came frolicking and dancing to the water from the distant parking lot having changed into swimming attire in their tour bus. They were in such a rush, so obsessed with getting to the water, they could have been a colony of nymphs engaging in a nightly ritual of returning to the sea for the night. They surprised me as I was slipping into my swim suit behind the semi-privacy of my bicycle.

The water was comparatively warm, so no one faltered in their rush to the water, other than
stepping gingerly on the rocks. The water didn't deepen very fast but its buoyancy factor was so great with a 30% salt content, one barely had to lift their feet to be afloat. One of the Austrians brought along a newspaper so he could lay back, poke his feet up and deliver the classic Dead Sea pose. I was happy to discover no cuts or abrasions on my legs or feet, as the strong salt content would have immediately pin-pointed them. The water was choppy, so no one ventured far, nor swam with face down. Everyone seemed to have been alerted to keep their face out of the water, as it would sharply sting one's eyes.

I was several days early to the Dead Sea, as I was turned away at the Jordan border, preventing me from a couple day detour to see the ruins of Petra. I'd already paid the 64.5 Shekel departure fee and changed 200 Shekels into 35 Jordanian dinars at the border, when a young woman Israeli customs official asked me, "Hasn't anyone told you, they won't allow you into Jordan on a bicycle here. They'll send you back to us if you try to cross over."

That was news to me, though it made perfect sense that an oil-producing country wouldn't want someone transporting himself via a non-oil consuming vehicle, especially one as simple as the bicycle. The powers-that-be certainly wouldn't want some cyclist demonstrating how easily and pleasurably and cheaply one could travel under one's own power, almost as if by magic. Such a
revelation could undermine the foundation of their society and economy. It could provoke a revolution of people abandoning their car- and bus- and taxi-dependencies, as well as their
slave-labor jobs, and start pedaling to all those places they wanted to go. They'd be overwhelmed by how free they could be. They'd soon learn there is no limit to what can be achieved via the bicycle.

Those who travel by bicycle are a further menace to a closed society such as Jordan's, as the bicyclist is easily accessible, not entombed in bus or auto, and the bicyclist likewise has easy access to all and sundry along the way. A bicyclist can, and will, stop anywhere for a rest or a chat. He is liable to preach a doctrine unapproved by the established order. The touring cyclist is aglow with an aura of freedom and sense of accomplishment, and exhilarated by seeing and
experiencing so much. The touring cyclist exudes an aura of rapture and is a threat to influence others to follow. There is no telling what else he might reveal that would be contrary to the regime's doctrine. Better to keep all outsiders confined to sealed boxes so that the locals can't have any contact with them.

It is further understandable that Jordan wouldn't welcome cyclists, as they don't spend much money and prefer to camp free in the desert rather than pay to sleep in some hotel. These Arabic countries for years have been bent on suppressing the nomadic nature of their forebearers and rounding up the desert-dwelling Bedouins to live in cities forcing them to get with the program of job/permanent residency/becoming a consumer. The touring cyclist is a reminder of their roots and their natural inclinations, just what the powers-that-be want them to forget.

If I'd gone to Jordan I might have continued north along the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea and crossed into Israel at Amman. If I had done that I would have missed Masada, but at least would have been spared seeing the much more developed state of the Israeli side of the Dead Sea. There is a huge potash factory at its southern tip employing 35,000, and also a cluster of high rise hotels and spas. Still, most of the shoreline is undeveloped and rapidly receding. The water evaporates at a high rate in the torrid summers. It is 1,350 feet below sea level, by far the lowest place on the planet. The oxygen content of the air is 10% greater than at sea level, which will make the huge climb up to Jerusalem from the Dead Sea--nearly 4,000 feet in less than 25 miles--a little less difficult than if it were in the Rockies.

Later, George

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Nuweiba, Egypt

Friends: For three nights in the Sinai I've scrounged to find a strip of sandy gravel for my tent and sleeping pad in this rocky, rugged terrain. I was happy for the rocks last night though, as I needed to line the inner perimeter of my tent with the biggest rocks I could find to keep the fierce and swirling wind from sending my tent into the Red Sea. The wind was so strong it caught the two panniers, one front and one back, that I'd left on my bike, blowing it over onto the tent. The non-stop flapping of the tent's rain fly was so noisy I didn't hear the crash. When I awoke at one point to full consciousness and discovered the handlebars poking into the side of the tent near my head I thought the tent poles had finally snapped, something I feared at any moment as one gust outdid another. It was the most severe test these poles had ever been subjected to.

The flapping was so loud and distracting, I contemplated removing the rain fly and letting the
wind blow through the mosquito mesh of the tent, but then I would have been imperiled of being smothered by sand. Even with the fly blocking the netting, a fine layer of sand was penetrating the tent and covering all my gear. I could feel it gathering on my face. As inhospitable as the Sinai can be, there is a striking beauty to its stark and desolate landscape, rugged mountains on one side and the winding coastline of many quiet coves on the other.

The landscape was even more dramatic when the road turned inland after 40 miles. It rose sharply out of Nuweiba, climbing to 2,800 feet in eight miles. After ten miles on this plateau I had the choice of continuing down the coast to the traveler's resort of Daba or heading inland to the 7,000' high Mt. Sinai, where Moses transcribed the Ten Commandments. It was 55 miles away, a little further than I had time for, since I had to double back, but I chose to head for the highlands for at least a glimpse of that high peak. After 15 miles of more climbing and winding around gargantuan, spectacular pinkish rock formations unique to this region, I decided to turn back.

It was closing in on noon and I had not passed a restaurant all day. I had been counting on a service station/cafe at the intersection, but all that was there was a police checkpoint. They told me there was no food or water until I came to St. Katherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai, 55 miles away. That wasn't entirely true, as there were a handful of Bedouin hovels offering tea and soft drinks. I stopped at one just as a place to escape the sun and headwinds and hoping to get some food. The woman kept wanting to sell me water. When she finally understood I wanted some food she nodded yes and went off for some twigs to light a fire. I had no idea what I might get. Half an hour later she placed before me a couple of freshly baked pitas and a bowl full of chopped up tomatoes. While she prepared the meal her barefoot five-year old daughter snuggled up against me intently staring as I read a book seated on a couch of carpets.

As enticing as Mt. Sinai and the monastery were, the winds and climbing would have required four to five hours of riding time to cover the remaining 40 miles, almost until dark, on minimal food and drink. If I had truly been determined to go all that way I could have accepted the offer of a van driver who stopped alongside me earlier in the day when I was on the long steep climb from the coast offering to drive me there for 100 Egyptian pounds, or $20. Not even an offer of a free ride would have been enough to entice me to being cooped up in a suffocating van isolating me from such spectacular terrain that I could so easily be out in and enjoying on my own terms.

There is hardly a sprig of vegetation to be seen anywhere in these parts. Just a couple minutes after crossing into Egypt I came upon a quartet of camels foraging in a dumpster in the town of Taba. I saw the similar site of a lone camel with his head poking into a garbage can a day later, also at dusk, on the outskirts of Nuweiba.

For 40 miles from the border to Nuweiba the coast was lined with a variety of resorts, some grandiose with casinos, including the Hilton that was bombed a few years ago, and simple clusters of small cabanas for the budget set with names like Escapeland, Paradise and The Getaway. Most were closed though, as it is the off season, just patrolled by watch dogs.
They won't open for another month or so and then plane loads of Germans, Italians and Russians will pack the beaches.

Its good biking weather with the temperature in the 60s, though it feels much warmer sitting in the sun out of the wind. With the sun beating down relentlessly on the Red Sea, its waters are pleasantly warm. I've taken advantage of it several times. The water is clear and known for its snorkeling and diving. One had to wade a considerable distance before it deepens. Jordan is on the other side of this bay of a sea, not that distant. It seems perfectly plausible that it could be parted, though I wouldn't want to try.

I was tempted to take a ferry from Nuweiba to Jordan and save myself from having to double back to Eilat to cross into Jordan, but I missed the one ferry a day I could have taken my bike on. Bypassing Israel would have saved me the $20 exit fee Israel imposes for crossing into Egypt and Jordan. All Egypt demanded was a ten dollar toll a couple miles past the border.

I had my best meal of the trip at a two table locals cafe in Nuweiba. Two of its walls behind the
counter were plastered with the front pages of yellowing newspapers celebrating Saddam Hussein. The cook let me sample several items before adding them to the falafel he prepared me. Nor would he let me peel the hard-boiled egg I had as an appetizer. He swirled it between the palms of his hands crumbling away the shell. I was treated to similar hospitality at the local grocery store. The owner shared half an orange with me. People regularly go out of their way
to have a word with me, many hoping to avail me of their services. Several have tried to talk me out of going to Jordan, but that is next up.

Later, George

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