Friday, December 03, 2010

Jerusalem, Israel

Jerusalem's most iconic

I was told to not bother visiting Jerusalem unless I had a thing for God. I am not religious, but I think the first word out of anyone's mouth if asked to associate Israel with something would be Jews or Jerusalem. I felt like I had to visit and give myself ample time there so my visit to the Negev desert in the South didn't happen. I wanted one good visit instead of cramming in two shorter visits.

I was assured by a number of non-bikers that the road to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv was not bad. I didn't believe them. They are the two largest cities in a country. How could the road not be incredibly busy? I tried to find side roads. I couldn't. I ended up back on the main highway fighting a headwind most of the day. The shoulder was big and the traffic was non-stop. The headwind slowed me down enough that I didn't even make Jerusalem by dusk. As the sun was setting, I found the big Judean Hills. They were not what I was looking for at the end of a very long day of riding. These were just like the other hills in Israel. Straight, no turns, and steep. They weren't fun to bike up, but I did hit a trip high of 73.6km/h on one of the descents. When I was finally in town, trying to find a hotel wasn't fun. I was tired and just wanted to be done. The first two places that I went to near the trendy Ben Yuhida street were both full. Every restaurant was closed in the area. It didn't look promising.

Ben Yehuda street, a pedestrian mall

I went down to the Old City, entered through the Jaffa gate, and found myself in the Christian Quarter. Christian's Sabbath is on Sunday and they still had people working and restaurants open on Friday. It can be convenient that the three major monotheistic religions chose different days to rest. Within ten minutes of entering the old city, I had a place to stay. I didn't shop around. I saw the Christchurch guesthouse and was immediately drawn to it due to my affinity for the city by the same name in New Zealand. The hotel's regular clientele choose it for more religious reasons.

A rainbow over the Dormition Abbey clock tower

I missed a great experience by passing out from exhaustion instead of heading over to the Jewish Quarter for the Sabbath. I'm not sure what I would have encountered, but I am sure it would have been good. It also would have been better than waking up really early and being locked in the hotel. When I finally got out, the streets were still empty. I tried to get to the Western Wall, but got lost in the Armenian Quarter, crossed through Zion Gate, and ended up on Mount Zion at the Tomb of David. I don't know if it is a proper synagogue, but they use it as one on the Sabbath. I didn't get too close. I didn't want to intrude. It would have made a great picture, but no pictures are allowed on the Sabbath. It is always interesting to see what rules I, and others, will choose to follow or not. Someone in my past told me a fun quote that those who need rules will never follow them those who don't need the rules will follow them whether they exist or not.

My second night in town, the Sabbath ended and a lot of the closed restaurants opened back up. However, they didn't have any bread because the bakeries were closed all day!!

Dormition Abbey

While at the tomb, I chatted with a couple folks on their way to synagogue. Two questions were prevalent. Are you Jewish? Are you considering moving to Israel? They didn't seem to have any resentment that I was breaking Sabbath. They were very welcoming. As I started back to the Old City, I arrived at the amazing Dormition Abbey, built on the site where it is believed the Virgin Mary died. While I was there, I experienced a quick rain that gave way to sunshine and a rainbow. Just around the corner from the abbey is the room where the Last Supper was held. There is so much history in such a small place.

City walls overlooking one of the Judean Hills.

Reenacting the Stations of the Cross, Jesus' final hours.

Jerusalem is a major city for all three monotheistic religions. It is number one for Christians and Jews and maybe number three for Muslims. At every turn, you are likely to be encountering a historical and religious x, y, or z. I can't imagine keeping track of them all. Most of the tours just concentrate on a few. One of the most amazing tours that I saw was a small group reenacting Jesus' final hours. They carry a cross from where he was condemned to where he died. Watching that was a little weird.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

That group's final stop was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Some Christian groups think this is Golgotha, where Christ was killed. Others just think it is where he was buried and resurrected. It is supposed to contain Jesus' tomb, but the tomb is surrounded by marble so it cannot be verified. No matter what the church is, Christians have made it a pilgrimage site for over 1500 years. When I visited the site, it was incredibly crowded, but it did not have the religious fervor that the pilgrimage sites in Damascus had. I am guessing that secular tourists dilute the fervor and there are more tourists due to the perception that it is safer to visit Israel than Syria. Maybe it is the way Christians embrace their religion, but that does not seem as likely.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Aedicule inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the supposed site of Jesus' tomb.

In Jerusalem, I had a great chat in a bagel shop with an American who had recently moved to Israel. She had moved around a lot in her life and wanted to finally settle down. I wondered why not NYC where she had lived before, but she wanted something that only Israel offered, a virtual guarantee that the boys she meet will be Jewish. Also, Israel makes it pretty easy to immigrate if you are Jewish. The Law of Return (1950) grants every Jew, wherever he or she may be, the right to come to Israel as an oleh (a Jew immigrating to Israel) and become an Israeli citizen. For the purposes of this Law, "Jew" means a person who was born of a Jewish mother or has converted to Judaism and is not a member of another religion. They can give you language classes, grants up to $10,000, help finding housing, help finding a job, and who knows what other perks. I'm told they are doing this to try to balance the explosive growth rate of the Arabs from their high birth rate. It is jaded thinking, but it does make sense. They don't want an even smaller minority ruling a majority.

I liked that this ornate door tied in basketball.

A bunch of shops in the Western area had famous political names that I recognized.

The most important site in Jerusalem to Muslims is the Temple Mount. It is where Mohammad ascended to Heaven. The Dome on the Rock is a Islamic shrine built over the actual rock where it is believe Mohammad ascended from. The Jews refer to this rock as the Foundation Stone. It is the most important site in Judaism. It is the center of heaven and earth, the point from where the world was created and expanded. Historically, it is also the location of the Holy of the Holies for the Jewish First and Second Temples.

Dome of the Rock

After the 1967 war, Israel had control of the Temple Mount, but returned control to Muslims. To this day, many Jews feel that was a mistake because the Third and final Temple is supposed to be built there. Some Christians agree because the building of that temple is a requisite for the Second Coming and Armageddon. Given the controversial nature of the site, destroying the Dome on the Rock and building the Third Temple would be a very likely cause of another World War which could be the Armageddon.

Western Wall close up

Due to the importance of the Temple Mount and the ban of non-Jews praying there, the Jews have found a place as close as possible to pray, the Western Wall. Half of the current wall is remnants of an ancient wall that surrounded the Jewish Second Temple's courtyard. Some Muslims, trying to discredit the Jewish claim to the wall, say that the wall is only part of the Al Aqsa mosque that is on the Temple Mount. Jews have been using the site for prayer and pilgrimage for over 1500 years. However, that same small group of Muslims say that have only been doing it since 1917 for nationalistic claims and so the arguments go on and on and on.

Western Wall inner tunnel

Whatever the reality, the Western Wall is now the holiest accessible site in Judaism. It has been turned into an outdoor synagogue. Jews can be found there praying every day. Tourists can be found there everyday taking photos except on the Sabbath when cameras are forbidden. Conservative dress is required of anyone who wants to enter the site. When I stood at the wall, I felt peace and contentment about the place where I was in time and space, which is what I think the presence of God would be, not a sudden fulfilling sense of enlightenment. Maybe this feeling came from standing still after a long day and trip of being inundated with new sensations and ideas. Maybe it came from God. The religious would support one answer. The secular would report another. I can only guess and I'm not going to.

Western Wall overhead

Jewish Quarter

Abutting the Western Wall, is the Jewish quarter. The area seemed like the cleanest and most well maintained in the Old City. I will remember is most fondly as the place where Betty's 'best falafel restaurant' does not exist. I spent 2-3 trips looking for it. In its place, I found a lot of other Kosher favorites from my childhood. Potato latkes with apple sauce anyone? I don't normally walk between neighborhoods and see the differences, but they were drastic enough in Jerusalem that even I could appreciate them.

Where brooms come from.

After a single night at the Christchurch Guesthouse, I had to move. They were fully booked. I went to the Petra Hostel where I met an old guy there who used to live in the hostel. He had spent 5 years living in a communal dorm room for free in exchange for doing the hostel laundry each day. He said the laundry took him over 8 hours, but there was also a lot of down time. I like a free place to stay as much as anyone else, but I can't imagine living in a 6-8 person dorm room with the people changing every night for so long. Crazy.

A tractor in old city

Cookies at the Yuhida Market.

I enjoyed my time in Jerusalem, but I definitely agree with the girl who told me it is all about God. It wasn't my favorite time in Israel and while I am happy to have spent as much time as I did there, but I wonder if a visit to the desert might have been more what I was looking for. I'll just have to add it to the Next Time list. That list is getting bigger and bigger.

A Kipa for every day of the year.

Tel Aviv, Israel

Getting to Tel Aviv was frustrating. I had a great plan to take the train down the coast, skip the busiest road in the country, and maybe give myself an extra day to explore some stuff south of Tel Aviv. It didn't work out that way.

As always, I was up before sunrise and start riding for Narahiya, the northern terminus of the train line. When I got there, I found out the train was not running, but no explanation why. I headed for the bus station. There was no ticket office, just a bunch of separate lines where the buses stop. When the bus comes, you get on and pay the driver. They don't accept credit cards. I didn't want to spend the little money I had left so I decided to look around for another option.

I biked south to Akko, an Arab town. It reminded me more of the towns outside of Israel than the towns in Israel. The train was also not running from Akko, but they were busing people to the next town where the train was running. I sat down to wait until the bus came back. When it finally did and I tried to get on it, they stopped me and said that no bikes were allowed. Why they didn't tell me that when I rolled up on a bike to ask about the train? I have no idea. Well, I do. They probably didn't see the bike, but who can be sure. So much for the train idea.

At this point, my thinking was fixated on getting to Tel Aviv that day and I couldn't do it on the bike. I also wanted to get there by a certain time to get my Jordanian visa. I would need a new one in advance to reenter at the border crossing I wanted to use. I checked out the bus station, but it looked the same as the last one. I didn't see a central ticket window where I could use my credit card and I was worried about missing my deadline while I biked around the city trying to the find the embassy. Somewhere along these lines, I came to the terrible conclusion that a taxi was the way to go. Looking back, this was a poor choice. As I said, I was fixated. Unfortunately, no taxis would take credit card, but universally they offered to take me to an ATM to get money which I couldn't do. In order to get a taxi, I would need to exchange some money.

The one exchange I was told about was not open. An hour before they opened, there were people waiting in line. I got bored waiting so I went to explore town. I found an old citadel to explore and some hummus to eat. I was told that the hummus in Akko would be the best I would find in Israel. Either, I found a bad batch or I just don't like Arab hummus. The hummus I had in Akko tasted just like the hummus in Syria. When I finally got back to the first exchange, they were open and handing out numbers. There must have been 50 people inside. I don't understand why it was so busy or why what they were doing took so long. While walking around I had seen another exchange at a jewelry store and they opened before in less time than it took to wait at the other one.

I found a cab and jumped in. I didn't ask about the price. A hotel had told me what to expect to pay and I had that. It wasn't enough. The cab driver said he would take me most of the way there. At that point, I should have just gotten out. He dropped me off 10km from town and I biked the rest of the way in.

A weekday morning in Tel Aviv.

The embassy was not a single building. It was an office in a skyscraper and was definitely run in that casual Middle Eastern fashion. When I arrived, there was no security guard. The guys behind the door waved me in and I started to walk in. As I was walking in, the security guard showed up to screen me and threw a tizzy. I figured if it mattered, he would be at his post. As it was, on this occasion and future ones, he was socializing. I've mentioned a bunch of times that no one seems to work alone in that part of the world. Even if only one guy is getting paid, he has company.

When I finally got in to the visa office, I was prepared to pay in Jordanian dinars. I had saved the exact amount. They didn't accept it. They only deal with Israeli shekels. I didn't have enough. I had to go get some, but no one seemed to know where an exchange was. They all said just go to a bank. There were a lot of banks. None of them offered exchange services. I finally found one next to a diamond exchange.

Part of the Israeli diamond exchange.

Surprisingly, I am not into diamonds. Who would have thought that? Because of that, I didn't really have an appreciation for where I was exchanging money. There were a bunch of people having their photo taken in front of the exchange. I didn't understand why until I got to a computer and looked it up. It is the world's largest exchange. The very little I learned made it sound like the exchange makes out like bandits because buyers/sightholders "can only accept or reject an offer as is, including the asking price. In addition to requiring sightholders to accept the bundles allocated to them (which often include smaller, less valuable stones), the Israeli diamond exchange sorters expect sightholders to undertake and be proficient in marketing and distribution so as to increase general consumer interest in purchasing diamonds. Failure to adequately sell and market diamonds can result in a sightholder being prohibited from engaging in future transactions with the Israeli diamond exchange." (Wikipedia). This doesn't sound like a great deal for the buyers, but I imagine they make out just fine anyway from what I hear about the diamond business.

Fun Fiat (edit, I thought this was a mini).

Tel Aviv is only 50 years old. It is a modern city. It has bike lanes! It has all of the Western influences that I talked about in other modern Middle Eastern cities. This isn't really a surprise since so many of the people living in Israel immigrated from Europe. The one Western influence that it had that other Middle Eastern cities did not have is fear of theft. When I left my backpack at my table at a restaurant to use the bathroom, the waitress sternly said it wasn't safe and to never do that again. Bikes were locked up with high end locks. While I am sure there is theft in every Middle Eastern city, the signs guarding against it just weren't as prevalent as they were in Tel Aviv. I'm not sure if it is due to the disparity between social classes, how theft is treated in the Muslim world, or something else entirely.

Morning beach.

Tel Aviv is right on the beach. They do a great job of keeping the beach usable. Every morning, there were runners, bikers, surfers, kite boarders, and dog walkers on the beach. It reminded me of Hawaii. Generally, I don't associate beaches with cities. I associate them with vacation which is the only time I see them so I love seeing my poor mold broken as the city folk use the beach the exact same way I use the mountains before work, during their lunch break, and after work.

Kite boarders at the beach.

Tel Aviv was the first city in the Middle East where I saw sex being advertised. Whether it was business cards for escort and massage services, night clubs, or sex toy shops, it was prevalent. It was not over the top, but it was definitely a change of pace from what I had been seeing. That kind of exposure should have prepared me for my evening surprise, being hit on by a rich gay Mexican Jew. I am sure there are plenty of rich gay Mexican Jews, but when I put them all together, it makes it seem a little more ridiculous.

Exercise at the beach.

I met the guy at the hostel and we had hit it off just like I hit it off with so many other Jews around Israel. It was like there was something inherit between us. It was unexpected. Maybe it is kinship, maybe it is crap. I don't know. In the States, I have hit it off with a lot of Jews too, whether or not I knew they were Jewish. I can't explain it. Anyway, I am an idiot for not realizing what was going on. The clues were there. He asked what I did about sex on the long road trip and harped on how hard it must be. I wanted a massage the next day. He talked about how he loves to give massages but hates getting them. are a couple other red flags, but since I don't exist in the hook up world normally, I didn't have a clue.

I have never seen a slide like this.

While I didn't get taken home by him, he did teach me factoids about Israel. According to him, they sell larger containers of beverages to promote sharing. Every store will have a coke for a $1, but if you get twice the amount it is only a $1.25 or so and they have plastic cups for free at the register so you can share.

On the food front, mint water is fantastic. I had an Israeli give it to me once in New Zealand and it was great. I have never seen it for sale until I was actually in Israeli. Though, you might as well make it yourself. It takes 2 seconds to drop the mint leaves into your water.

Date palm.

When I was in Tel Aviv, I came across something new in Israel. Fear and prejudice. When I was talking to people in the city, they were adamant against me visiting the West Bank and the other Arab countries I had visited. They thought it would be way too dangerous or not worth my time. When I talked about going south, they said that was Bedouin territory. Since it is Bedouin territory, by tradition, they will choose to greet you and protect you or not choose greet you and kill you. I know this is Bedouin tradition, but I can't believe (or find anything on the Internet) of that last time Bedouin people chose not to greet someone. Yet, this woman working the hostel harped on it. I didn't like this new attitude. I liked the open and welcoming attitude to all people that I had encountered in the north. I guess it just depends who you meet.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Northwest Israel

After busting out of Hula Valley , I was heading for the resort town of Rosh Pina, up to the university town of Tsfat in the mountains, across the northern border with Lebanon, and finally to Rosh Hanikra on the coast. Leaving so early in the morning, I had a pretty quiet ride, which was nice. I was on a major road so it could have been a lot worse. Israelis are very fast drivers. They might follow the rules, but don't slow them down.

A park in Rosh Pina.

I rolled into Rosh Pina just after the town had woken up. Rosh Pina is one of the oldest settlements in Israel. According to Kaballah tradition, it is the site where the Messiah is supposed to reappear at the end of the world. I didn't really see anything that grabbed my attention, so I just kept biking through until I saw something I had not seen in a while. I saw a big grass filled park with a couple shade trees. I had only been biking a couple hours, but I couldn't resist taking a break in the grass. I had wanted to lay in the grass so many times through Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon but there just wasn't grass available when I got the urge. I love how the little things can mean so much.

Harvesting olives. Shake them off the tree and then pick up the tarp.

After a nice break, I set off up the hill to Tsfat/Safad (and a hundred other spellings). It was a quiet 600m climb up a winding road with a number of false summits. There were very few cars and the views over the Sea of Galilee and surrounding mountains were great. However, the ride up might have been the best part about going to Tsfat.

I don't know who this guy is, but there was a ton of pictures of him.

Tsfat was a curious mix of orthodox Jews and university students. In the United States, university towns tend to be more liberal so it was curious to see them beside each other. A friend tried to hook me up with people he knew there, but I couldn't find them. Town was a labyrinth that I never figured out. The main street was a loop around a hill. After that, I have no idea. I just didn't connect with this town, but I did find another great grassy park where a lot of students were to eat lunch and dry out my tent before heading along the northern border towards the coast.

Signs letting you know that you were at the Lebanon-Israel border.

Beautiful mountains and fabulous downhills.

The border ride was probably my best ride in Israel. There were even less cars than when I went up to Tsfat. Other bikers must have agreed because mixed in with the 'Beware of Mines' and 'Do not proceed, border ahead' signs there were 'Watch out for cyclists' signs. It was great. I climbed brilliant hills of coniferous trees. I descended into farmed valleys. In Israel, I don't think they believe in switchbacks. These climbs and subsequent descents were some of the longest and straightest of my trip. I was clearing 60km/hr without trying or tucking. Along the way, I saw military personnel every couple miles. At one point, I was close enough to the border that I could see a Lebanese border guard.

A Lebanese border guard. I was on the Israeli side.

At the day wore on, I was racing the sun to Rosh Hanikra. I wanted to visit before they closed up so I could get an early start in the morning. Rosh Hanikra is a small grotto on the Lebanon-Israeli border. You can't go any farther north. When you look out on the Mediterranean Sea from there, they have a long string of lit buoy markers so that no one accidentally strays across the maritime border. Israel has a Navy ship permanently moored near there to patrol the area.

The Israel Navy boat that is always near the maritime border.

This gate is as far north as you can go in Israel.

The other way to travel across the border here was by a railway built by the ANZAC army during World War II to facilitate getting supplies to Europe from Cairo. However, the bridge between tunnels at the border was destroyed by Israel at the onset of the Arab-Israeli War to make sure Lebanon could not transport troops into the region. It has never reopened. You can still explore the tunnels.

Rosh Hanikra grotto.

Rosh Hanikra grotto.

The grotto is composed of a large limestone cave that emerald colored sea water has eroded over time. There are a number of small openings from the cave into the sea. The area is so steep that it is only accessible via cable car, but it is definitely worth the trip. Go down, take a stroll, and enjoy.

The outside of the Rosh Hanikra grotto.

Limestone caves.

After visiting the grotto, I needed to find a place to stay. My first stop was under another military base. That was a no go. Then, I went down to the beach to find a spot. I set up my tent and got ready to go to sleep. When I got in for the first time, I put my hand on the bottom of the tent directly on top of a pile of goatheads, those wonderful plagues of Colorado bike trails, also known as puncturevine. Ouch. It hurt. I moved the tent and finally settled in for the night.

The beach I camped on.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Avocado harvest and the Hula Valley

Avocados at Kibbutz Dafna.

After leaving the springs, I was off to visit some recommended kibbutzes. Most kibbutzes were founded as a utopian/socialist collective community that supported themselves through farming or another industry. Over the years, many have broken. One that I visited has basically become student housing for the university next door. One of those students was nice enough to show me the avocado and orange orchards at the back of kibbutz. I have learned to love avocado in the past few years. I had no idea it grew on a tree and I certainly have never had any as fresh as the ones I picked directly from those trees. Yum! When I left my gear was substantially heavier. I had enough to last into Egypt!

Avocado picking for B-Nelson.

Almost ripe oranges at Kibbutz Dafna.

I had hoped to spend the night soaking up good music at a venue in one of those kibbutzes, but I got there on the wrong day. I could wait another day and lose a day of biking or be a slave to my schedule. I chose the slave route. In Syria, I had gotten back on a workable schedule, but losing three days in Amman had put me on the brink again. I set out for the Hula valley where I would be in time for the bird migration.

Hula Valley morning fog.

Hula Valley first movement.

At the meeting point of three continents, Israel is an ideal location migrations. Five hundred million birds migrate through Israeli air space twice a year. The quantity is so large that the Israel had to come up with solutions to reduce the number of bird to plane collisions. The Hula Valley is a major stop for some of the birds and it happened that I was there at the right time to see them. Each day, 20,000 birds pass through. The trick was that the birds are the most active at sunrise, 6am, and the park did not open until 9am.

Hula Valley land critters.

When I arrived at the park as they were closing, I asked about getting in early. One ranger trying to help me out suggested that the birds migration was like my own from Austria to Cairo. The supervisor was not buying it even though she acknowledged the birds are more active then. I asked about going in with the morning farmers that a ranger had mentioned earlier. She gave the open answer that, the park does open until 9am and they could not let me in until then. The ranger who was trying to help me out gave me the key piece of information that I needed. He said that the farmers started showing up at 5am.

Farm equipment silhouetted at sunrise.

I camped less than a kilometer from the site. In the morning, I was up early as always and ready to go. I packed up quickly and headed for the gated site. As I arrived, a truck was passing through, but I was too slow to talk to him or follow him through. I waited about twenty minutes before another truck came. I waited out of sight on the far end of the parking lot. When I saw the truck start to go through and the 7m gate started to close, I sprinted for it. I only had to go 60m, but it seemed a lot farther. I got there with a 2m to spare. The gate detected me and opened back up which worried me because the truck wasn't out of sight yet. He kept driving.

Two more of the unnamed mammals at Hula Valley.

A canal at the Hula Valley.

I was in! It was dark. It was foggy. I had been told to just follow the road around, but I couldn't see anything in the fields. Eventually, I saw a couple cars which made me nervous. I didn't know if they were also in there without permission or if they would toss me out. I didn't want to test the waters, but there didn't seem to be anywhere else to go. There seemed to just be one main road. Eventually, I found a tourist golf cart trail which took me closer to the birds and away from the other visitors.

Morning in the Hula Valley during the bird migration.

Shrouded in the fog, I waited for sunrise. There was never any single major lift off of all the birds. As I rode around, I watched as one small group after another took to the skies. It was amazing. It was incredibly noisy. Noisier that you would ever think birds could be. It reminded me of the noise at the Cape Royds penguin colony. It was not any where near as bad as the honking cars in Damascus.

Birds in the Hula Valley.

As I wandered, the sun came up. The fog burned off. Then, I saw something weird. I saw a couple other bikers cruising through the park. They were there for a morning ride. I am not sure if they snuck in or were allowed to be there. They just cruised by and waved. As the sun got higher, it was time to go. The ranger who had helped me just told me to make sure to be gone by 9am. The trick was that the rangers started showing up at 7:30am and I needed a truck to open the gate for me on the way out again. Neither one was an issue. A truck rolled up just as I got back to the gate and I followed him right out to the main road over the mountains and down to the coast.

Great scenery on my bike ride to the coast.