Israel - The
Promised Land or the Land of Promise?
-- Story by Erin--
land of complex beauty, history and, of course lots of turmoil. Chris and I were
looking forward to visiting Israel not just to see the country but more to see Chris'
mother, Gabi, who was flying in for a quick visit, and his many cousins there. We
arrived in Haifa, Israel by boat on November 4, at 6:30 a.m. Clearing customs at the
port was relatively easy (security didn't even ask us to open our saddlebags) and off we
went headed in the direction of Jerusalem. We soon found out that finding our way
south was not as easy as following the GPS. We stopped at several gas stations to try and
buy a map, and none could be found. We plotted the most direct course to Jerusalem
on the GPS and found ourselves at a roadblock, with a guard only checking vehicles passing
the opposite direction. We asked the Israeli guard if it was OK to pass, and he said
yes, but that he wouldn't recommend it. Apparently, this was an entrance to one of
the Palestinian territories.
We discussed our options between
ourselves for a minute or so and, not knowing the status of the current political
situation, decided to take an alternative (longer) route. As we later found out it
would have been perfectly safe to drive through, as many Israeli's do this on a daily
commuting basis. It took us only about 3 hours to reach Jerusalem (middle of the
country) from Haifa (in the north). Israel is such a small country that one can
cover much of it in a day.
Our little Bed & Breakfast
accommodation in Jerusalem was very cute and comfortable. It was a multi-level stone
house with a lovely flowered garden in the back, where the Israeli breakfast was served
each day. Gabi was arriving that same evening of November 4. Chris' cousin
Yael and her husband Eitan picked us up in their car and planned to take us to the airport
to meet Gabi. Her plane was delayed several hours though and we didn't pick her up
until 3:00 a.m.! As we waited at Yael's house we spent the time chatting, catching
up, and getting to know them and their 4 beautiful children, Lilach, Sigal, Chen, and Itay
(3 girls and a boy in all).
The next day, November 5, was
Chris' birthday. Gabi had planned her arrival especially for this occasion.
The three of us spent the day touring the Old City of Jerusalem, taking in the
sights of the 4 quarters (Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim), the Western (Wailing)
Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (where its said that Jesus was crucified), and the
narrow alleyways of the bazaar. The Old City is still completely surrounded by high
stone walls and you must pass through a gate (there are several to choose from) to
enter. It was fascinating to see the differences in architecture between the four
quarters, and also how they are changing demographically as time goes by. The
Armenian quarter is now the smallest and seems to only occupy a street or two. The
Christian quarter seems to be losing ground as well. The Jewish and the Muslim
quarters have spread further into these other two and are the biggest. Another thing
we noticed is the abundance of Israeli guards fully decked out in firearms, almost
That day happened to be Friday and
Shabbat, the start of the holy time of the week for Jews. Dinner on Shabbat is an
important thing for Jewish people and they make a point of being with family and friends
for a big meal. We spent our first Shabbat dinner at Yael's house with her family
and her parents, Elchanan (Wili) and Ruthi, who drove up from Beer Sheva. It was
made extra special because the two oldest daughters, Lilach and Sigal, had made a
delicious birthday cake for Chris.
The next day we walked around the
area near the King David Hotel (the nicest in Jerusalem) and the YMCA----yes the good 'ol
"Y". The YMCA here must be the nicest in the world. It occupies what
looks like an old monastery and has a huge tower, which you can get to the top of by
elevator and take in the stunning views of the city. We also walked around the
pedestrian shopping and restaurant area known as Ben Yahuda. That night Gabi treated
us to a special birthday dinner for Chris and we ate big, juicy steaks at an Argentinean
restaurant (sorry to all of our vegetarian and Hindu friends!)
Sunday we went to the Holocaust
Museum where Eitan and his company are doing work putting the Jerusalem stone on the
buildings and the walls. The museum is of course a haunting, educational, and
enlightening place all at the same time. It's very well done, laid out
chronologically and displaying countless graphic photographs and artifacts. It is
situated at the top of a hill. The land surrounding it is a public park area with walking
paths, stone monuments, and picnic areas. There is also a special place in the park
that is like a maze garden of huge, roughly cut stone pillars. As you walk through
this you see inscribed on the rocks the names of countries, cities, towns, and family
names of those affected by the Holocaust. The huge stone columns are laid out
geographically to represent Europe at that time in history.
After a short visit, it was time
for Gabi to fly back to New York. Again, Yael and Eitan were kind enough to pick us
up and drive us all to the airport. After Gabi left we stayed at Yael's house for
the next week or so. It was great to have a solid, comfortable base from which to do
some work. The family also made us feel like we belonged there. We spent a few
days investigating how to transport the bikes to India, where to get the bikes serviced,
updating the web site and planning what to do while still in Israel.
The following Thursday we drove
down to Beer Sheva to visit Yael's parents, her two brothers and their families.
Chris had met Yael and her brother Ronan before in New York and on a previous trip to
Israel some years earlier. But, he had never met the younger brother, Yoav.
Boy did Chris and Yoav hit it off. They were like two long lost buddies from
childhood. They have very similar personalities. We stayed with Yael's
parents, Wili and Ruthi, who also made us feel very welcome and more family than guests.
Wili is a first cousin of Chris' father and they grew up together in Hungary.
On Friday night, Shabbat, Ronan and
his family and Yoav and his family came over to their parents house for dinner.
We met their wives, Ziva (Ronan) and Lamore (Yoav) and the children (Ronan has 2
boys and Yoav has a boy and a girl). It was definitely a house full of activity!
The next morning, Ronan and Yoav
picked us up by car and we drove to the Dead Sea area and Masada. The drive was
spectacular as we drove through the stark desert landscape. We passed many Bedouin
villages made of shacks or tents, and their herds of goats, donkeys and camels. As
we descended the mountain to the Dead Sea we passed several
sculpture monuments in the shape of motorcycles. We asked Ronan to pull over
so we could get a better look at them. We discovered that these sculptures are real
motorcycles that had been salvaged from deadly motorcycle accidents on this windy road and
had been put there as a reminder to all how dangerous the particular road can be. We
also passed signs telling us the altitude and saw our decent drop below sea level.
It's a strange sight to see a sign saying "Sea Level" while you feel you are
still high on a mountain. When we finally reached the bottom, we were 400 meters
BELOW sea level -- the lowest point on earth.
Before taking a plunge into the
Dead Sea we went to visit one of Israel's famous sights----Masada. This is a
settlement that existed thousands of years ago on the top of a table-shaped mountain.
It was occupied by Jewish settlers and came under siege from the Romans.
The settlers held off the Roman invaders for 2 years before finally committing mass
suicide in lieu of surrender. We took a gondola to the top. The ruins are in
very good condition and you can see much of what the old village must have looked
like----with it's baths, synagogue, general's quarters, palace, workshops, etc. Some
of the floor mosaics are still visible as well. This is a very special place for
Israeli soldiers because many of them take their oath of allegiance at sunrise at the top
of this mountain.
When the heat became too much we
decided to walk down the mountain. At the bottom we saw a heard of wild deer who
happened to be standing near a deserted orange juice stand. We thought that orange
juice was just what we needed and searched but found no vendor. However, there was a
crate of fresh oranges, plastic cups, and a juice squeezer just out in the open at this
stand. After a few minutes of not seeing anyone, we decided to help ourselves and
made several glasses of fresh squeezed juice----yummy! After we satisfied our thirst
we discussed whether to squeeze some more and sell it to the other tourists that came by.
We decided we had pressed our luck enough for one day and returned to the
After Masada we were hot and
hungry. We drove to the beach area of the Dead Sea, ate some Shwarma sandwiches and
took a---not exactly a plunge-- a float in the Dead Sea. I've always heard about how
the effect of the salt density of the water makes you float but I never could imagined
what it actually feels like. As you walk into the water, you only get about waist
high before your body wants to bob forward or backward, but definitely not vertical!
The best thing to do is to lean backward and let things take its course.
It's effortless to just lie there on your back. It feels more like
sitting in a recliner than stretching out flat on your back. Many people take a book
in with them and can stay that way for hours reading. Very near across the sea you
can see the mountains of Jordan. After playing around in the sea for awhile we got
out and showered with fresh water. The salt water leaves a oily feeling on your skin
and you must wash it off soon after exiting the Sea. The Dead Sea area is surrounded
by expensive hotels that cater to wealthy tourists who come for a week or so at a time to
get various mineral and therapeutic treatments and soak in the Sea.
The next day, Ronan and Yoav and
their families picked us up again and we all drove to a big, naturally formed crater
called Mitzpe Ramon. Again, the landscape is beautiful in that the hills and
mountains are striped with different colored minerals. We stopped first at an Alpaca
(lama) farm to feed the Alpacas and take a short camel ride. The kids (and us too!)
really had fun with it. Then we drove to the crater's edge to take in the views and
have a quick lunch. We then drove down a steep, twisting road into the crater.
After a while we pulled off onto a dirt road and drove into the desert for
some ways. We eventually came upon a picnic/camping facility complete with a huge
Bedouin tent. We took a break from the heat here and laid on the mats and pillows in
the tent. Bedouin men brought us sweet mint tea, freshly cooked pita, hummus and a
white soft cheese spread with olive oil. This was a delicious snack and a nice lazy
afternoon stop. As we ate we watched the various other people stop by, many on
4-wheel ATV's decked out with camping gear and GPS equipment.
After the stop in the crater we
headed back to Beer Sheva. We spent another two days there and then headed back to
Yael's house near Jerusalem. We stayed with Yael for another week, running errands
in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The biggest task was getting the bikes properly serviced
before we sent them off to India. Eitan knew a motorcycle mechanic with a good
reputation through a good friend of his. It turns out that the mechanic, Nadav, is a
KTM dealer with his own shop and races in rally's like the Paris-Dakar as well. He
was great to us, offering a very good discount on labor costs, the use of his space in the
work area to do some of the work ourselves, and supplied us with all the spare parts,
fluids, tires, etc. that we needed. He also arranged for us to meet a friend of his,
Mickey, who owns an R100GS/PD, travels around the world by bike and has made documentary
films about it. After a good day and a half of working on the bikes they were ready
to be tested out in the desert of the Sinai in Egypt!