Farwell to the Middle East

Yasser Arafat mausoleum Ramallah, Palestine

Yasser Arafat mausoleum
Ramallah, Palestine

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.

My Rabbi host for the Purim festivities, Danny Cohen, Hebron West Bank

My Rabbi host for the Purim festivities, Danny Cohen, Hebron West Bank

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.

Islamic art found on the Jewish only settlements in Hebron

Islamic art found in the Jewish only settlements in Hebron

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.

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It is possible to get to the airport with a box under pedal power, even in Tel Aviv

It is possible to get to the airport with a box under pedal power, even in Tel Aviv

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.

Mihrab, place of prayer in the Abraham cave, Hebron

Mihrab, place of prayer in the Abraham cave, Hebron

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”

 By far the best thing in Jerusalem, Temple Mount hanging with my homie Ariel

By far the best thing in Jerusalem, Temple Mount hanging with my homie Ariel

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.

Border between the Muslims and Jews, Hebron

Border between the Muslims and Jews,
Hebron

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.

Mor

Morning prayer

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.

Location of Jesus' birth, Bethlehem

Location of Jesus’ birth,
Bethlehem

Entrance to the cave of Abraham, Mosque Hebron

Entrance to the cave of Abraham, Mosque Hebron

Banner in the Jewish Settlement, Hebron

Banner in the Jewish Settlement, Hebron

Another blocked walkway between the Muslim and Jewish districts in Hebron

Another blocked walkway between the Muslim and Jewish districts in Hebron

A modern day apartheid, rooftop in Hebron

A modern day apartheid, rooftop in Hebron

Stone work in the Mosque of Araham

Stone work in the Mosque of Abraham

Secrets of the Dead Sea (Qumran, Ein Gedi, Masada, and Jerusalem)

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Worst mosquitos ever!! I am camping about 20 meters from the Dead Sea, and can’t for the life of me figure out why there are so many mosquitos. Their appetite rivals the mosquitos in Alaska, and by the time I set up my tent I have bites on top of bites. Too scared to leave the tent I eat a cold meal of cucumbers and pita bread and fall asleep to the buzz around me.

Gethsemane Church, Mt. of Olives Jerusalem

Gethsemane Church, Mt. of Olives Jerusalem

I am pedaling the beaches of the dead sea again, this time on the Israel/Palestinian side. The northern beaches are long a flat and mostly fenced off by the Israeli military, fearing that Jordanians will swim across to the Zionist state. Border checks are ever so present, as it is illegal for almost all Palestinians to leave their home city! (Literally an open air prison). After being stopped and interrogated about why I am carrying a bag of tea with Arabic writing, I head south to the historic city of Masada, the last Jewish settlement during the second temple period.

Ancient Mountain city of Masada, this is the location where the Romans lay siege to the city

Ancient Mountain city of Masada, this is the location where the Romans lay siege to the city

The historic story of Masada as told by a recently sponsored archeological study: It is the middle of the first century C.E, Jerusalem is in flames and the temple has just been destroyed by the Romans. The Sicarii, one of the last groups of Jewish rebels, fled the holy city and relocated at the top of a nearby mountain city, Masada, built earlier by the Roman leader Herod the great. 30 km north of Masada, on the coast of the Dead Sea, lay the famous Roman Perfume factory of Ein Gedi. The Perfume produced in the factory during the time was world renown, and so famous that even Cleopatra had commissioned her own scent from the perfumer. It is hypothesized that 1/3 of the entire Roman Empire fortune came from the sale of Ein Gedi perfume! In an attempt to incur as much damage as possible to the Roman empire the Masada rebels burned down the factory and kidnapped the perfume maker . Rome then sends over 100,000 soldiers to attack the small city and return the perfumer. It takes the Roman’s several weeks to engineer a method of attack for the mountainous city of Masada. Completely surrounded and outnumbered, (the total rebel population at Masada was about 1,000), the Jews decided upon mass suicide. When the Romans breached the city walls in 73 CE there was no one left alive.

Salt beaches on the Dead Sea

Salt beaches on the Dead Sea

Hiking to the top of Masada, I spent several hours exploring the ancient city and returned to my bicycle to find a nice Bedouin admiring my “smock”. He invited me to dinner with the owner of the restaurant and I spent a nice evening listening to stories of the middle east and central Asia, (I am completely pumped on cycling through Georgia, Azerbaijan, and the Stans). After dinner, Gal, the owner, gave me two large grocery bags and told me to “loot” his buffet and restaurant. I ended up pedaling away from Masada with fresh pomegranates, grape fruit, curried potatoes, sweet rice, bread and humus. Thanks Gal! I pedaled to a local hangout on the dead sea, and soaked in hot springs and floated in the saturated waters of the sea. What a strange feeling being in the Dead Sea, I felt like I was the oil in a salad dressing mixture, never really able to mix with the water. When floating, I felt like I was sitting in a bean bag chair, or lying in a recliner chair. The beach had more salt than sand, and while walking to the deep sections of the sea I discovered islands of salt in the shallow waters near the shore. Cutting your feet on sharp salt rocks hurts!! The water was cool but lacked any sense of refreshment.  The hot springs were just as salty as the sea, but the warmth felt better on my skin. At 400 meters below sea level, I was too far from the sun to get burned. Without any fresh water to rinse off I was covered in a thin layer of salt for the next few days.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a816WO2UNoc&feature=youtu.be

Popular local hangout, Thermal pools near the Dead Sea.

Popular local hangout, Thermal pools near the Dead Sea.

I then pedaled to Qumran, the city where the dead sea scrolls were found, and slept near a large canyon. Later in the evening, a storm flew in and a flash flood began. I huddled in my sleeping bag for 45 minutes, during the biggest rain storm I have encountered while camping. During the down pour, it was as if I had pitched my tent under a waterfall! The next morning the road was washed out and traffic was halted for a few hours on the Dead Sea highway.

Palestinian girl loves my headscarf!

Palestinian girl loves my headscarf!

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Crosses carved into the stone during the Crusader period.

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A long step climb of over 1,500 meters brought me to Jerusalem. Arriving in the late afternoon I planned to sleep in the Jerusalem forest, but met some locals at a bike shop who invited me to stay with them. Jerusalem is a fantastic city and it is amazing to have so many district cultural districts in close proximity to one another. Tonight I walked through the Jewish Orthodox district only minutes after being in an Arabic neighborhood. In the 3 days I have been here I have visited almost all of the religious sites, from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Jesus’ Tomb) to the Western Wall (Jewish holiest of holies) to the Dome of the Rock (3rd holiest place for Muslims). Today I marveled at the Dead Sea scrolls in the Israel Museum and talked with the Curator about the difference/similarities between the scrolls found in the Dead Sea and those found in Nag Hamadi.

Tomb of  Jesus

Tomb of Jesus

Crucifixion site, this stone was repeatedly kissed, every 10 minutes a lady would wipe it clean with a rag and disinfectant

Crucifixion site, this stone was repeatedly kissed, every 10 minutes a lady would wipe it clean with a rag and disinfectant

I am now headed north to the Palestinian cities of Ramallah, Nablus, and Jenin before pedaling south to Bethlehem and Hebron.