Farwell to the Middle East
March 23, 2014
The last few days have been absolutely crazy, and now I am going on close to 48 hours of no sleep. Israeli security at the Tel Aviv airport is so difficulty that I almost wasn’t able to catch my flight back to Bosnia, for anyone who plans on bicycle touring Israel fly in and out of Jordan, and don’t wrap your headscarf around your fathers ashes. The marathon 48 hours began when I departed Hebron and pedaled the expressway into Tel Aviv. It was the day before my flight to Bosnia and I needed to get bike box and find a place to sleep somewhere close to the airport. The road into Tel Aviv was busy and I met a bike messenger who invited me to stay with him and his friends in his apartment downtown. Pumped, I decided that I would go all out and figure a way to pedal to the airport the next day.
Tel Aviv has a very Pasadena like feel. Riding around I could feel the ocean breeze, and was thankful to be away from the deserts of the east. I befriended the owner of a pizza restaurant, and was quickly invited to drinks and food. I go so carried away that I almost forgot about getting the box and barely made it to the bike shop before closing. Planning on returning to the shop en-route to the airport, I stashed the box in the recycle bin, then pedaled to my new friends house.
Great company and lots of interesting conversation, hours passed while we talked of religion, politics, psychology, and even touching the subject of woman’s Buddhism in Burma! We stayed up till sunrise and smoked the local tobacco. I has been an ongoing challenge of mine to figure out a way to get to the airport under bicycle power, I had several attempts in the past but always got intimidated by the size of the bicycle box. I first thought about carrying the box under my arm, but with all the luggage on the front rack it takes too much muscle to keep Gaby straight. With a little jerry rigging I was able to figure a way to rope and bungee the box to Gaby and pedaled an insanely busy 30 km on the expressway to the airport.
A slow ride, it took me over an hour to get to the airport riding mostly on the shoulder of the busy highway. On several occasions I had to merge through traffic, on busy interchanges, but all in all I was never honked at or the subject of any rage. To keep my mind off of the traffic, I would constantly remind myself that everything would be easy and stress free once I arrived at the airport, but things turned out quite the opposite. Pulling up to the departure terminal I was the only man with a smile, and it quickly faded. On suspicion that I was carrying a bomb, Gaby was quickly confiscated and I had to wait close to 30 minutes for the police to go through all my stuff, then… I left Gaby unattended for close to 30 seconds while I tried to get some tape, and had her confiscated a second time. After 10 minutes of verbal abuse, she was given back to me a second time, “You can not be more than 5 meters away from your luggage”, these guys were so strict about their rules I wouldn’t be surprised if security walked around with tape measures. While packing Gaby my Allen wrench tool broke, and I was in despair for close to 45 minutes!! None of the security or personnel would even talk to me anymore, and when I asked them to call maintenance to see if they had any tools, they refused and gave me the cold shoulder. To make things worse I was literally guarded so that I could not walk away from the bike and gear, I was trapped with a half dismantled bicycle in the Tel Aviv airport. Finally I borrowed a cellphone, and was told by the airline that the next available flight to Bosnia was in 3 weeks and that I would loose all my frequent flier miles if I missed my scheduled departure. I took a deep breath and accepted the fact that I was pretty much screwed, without proper tools I could not get Gaby to fit in the box, and I only had 30 minutes to check the box before departure. I called my bike messenger friends and then said they could bring tools but it would take them close to an hour to arrive. My thoughts returned to Saudi Arabia, if I don’t make this flight, I told myself I will just pedal to Saudi Arabia and forget about ever returning to Israel. Just then a Bedouin man passed driving a floor waxer and strangely enough…. he had a few Allen wrenches with him.
I raced, taking off the fender, front rack, stem, front wheel and pedals and packed everything together in the box. I dragged the box, my bags and panniers through the busy airport to the check-in counter, but before I could check in I was met by a different team of security guards.
-Where have you been? “Egypt, Jordan, the West Bank and Israel”
-Have you had any relations with Arabs or Palestinians during your visit? “No” (I lied)
-Are you Muslim? Why are you flying to Bosnia? “No”, “Vacation”
They let me pass and I was able to get my ticket, however just before checking the box security steeped up and wanted me to open the box and remove all the contents out. Fuck!! I took me close to ten minutes to tape the shit out of the box and now you want me to unpack!! I humored them, what else could I do. They went through everything and even asked me why I was carrying Egyptian products, tea and spices. The flight was to have already departed but the head of security made a phone call, (This was the best thing other than the Allen wrench from the Bedouin that happened to me all day). Finally done with the bicycle box I proceed to security, and put my bag through the x-ray machine, just as the bag comes out I hear the words “Keffiyeh” (Headscarf). Damn, this never ends!! I had slipped, and I was either too tired or my brain just wasn’t functioning because I wrapped Baba’s ashes, out of respect, in Jordanian headscarf, and now nothing was more suspicious the contents of my bag. Again, the same interrogating questions, “its only ash”, I said, “there is nothing dangerous in my bag”. Three separate chemical tests are done, and I wait, “I am never flying into or out of Israel again” I tell myself. Security asks me again about the contents found wrapped in the Keffiyeh. Inside the box of ashes there are several images of my father and an image of the Buddha. I am tired and ready to give up, I just want to go home!!! I look them in the eye, my eyes are watering from frustration “This is religious ash sacred to my belief in Buddhism, it is not dangerous or harmful in anyway, and I am ready to board my flight”. They spoke amongst themselves for a few minutes, then let me go.
I was the last one on the plane, and everyone was a bit frustrated about waiting for a sole person. Fuck it, I made it!! I quickly stopped the stewardess and ordered a whiskey on the rocks and passed out!
Earlier on: I had a great time partying on “Purim”, the Jewish equivalent to Halloween. In January, I connected with a Rabbi in Hebron and was invited to join his family and friends for the holiday. Hebron, a city in the West Bank (Palestine) has a small settlement of about 800 Jews. The city has a history of violence and I knew that by staying in the settlement I would get an interesting perspective on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Arriving at mid-day, I pedaled through a parade of orthodox Jews dancing and swigging bottles of wine and whiskey. Huge meals of chicken, meat balls, hummus, egg plant and bread were prepared. Women and men sit at different tables, and it is improper for me to shake hands with a women. I felt very welcome, and got an interesting view of what it is like to live in a settlement. The Jews here are very close with one another and at times I almost felt like I was staying with a sort of tribe. Not a common site in California, everyday I watched them wrap their arms with tefillin and pray. Prayers are done in the direction of Jerusalem, and many bob side to side and front to back when praying, almost as if listening to dance music.
The drinking went on for two straight days, and I had several heated debates about the treatment of Arabs in Israel. It is not surprising to see civilian men carrying guns on their belts and automatic rifles stacked in the corner of the room. Israeli checkpoints are found throughout the Jewish settlement and randomly cars with Arab license plates are pulled off the highway for inspection. Neither Jew nor Muslim is allowed to cross into the other territory, and there is very little communication between the two groups. On one situation, while departing the settlement I was asked by a Palestinian boy what it is like in the settlement. The cave of Abraham (one of the most religious places to both religions) lies between the two districts, and a retaining wall splits the building into Synagogue and Mosque.
Bethlehem is the hilliest city in Israel, and pedaling to a remote monastery in the desert I constantly climbing steep hills only to find myself descending and climbing again. I camped in a valleys and listened to Hyenas and Kalashnikovs throughout the night. I really enjoyed visiting the St. Saba orthodox monastery, and when visiting the Nativity Church I lucked out and was able to visit the place of Jesus’s birth without waiting in the long line.
I am back in Bosnia and headed for Northern Montenegro and on to Kosovo. Currently resting an ear infection and hope to be on the road again in the next few days.