Cycling In The Holy Land – Journal

I don’t like putting my bicycle on an aeroplane. I’m not very fond of flying, and I don’t like airports. Similar to motorway service stations and shopping malls, their laid out, air-cooled, controlled environment leaves me feeling totally out of control. I get lured into shops I would never normally visit; I sniff at headache-inducing perfume samples I will never wear, and I find myself wondering into imitation Irish pubs that on a normal day I would avoid like an approaching gang of drunken football fans.

What is the allure of Irish Pubs? I have nothing against the Irish, almost, and a mock Parisian Bistro I could understand, but Irish Pubs? Perhaps it’s because they make us feel reassured, at home. They provide a safe corner in an otherwise strange place, a sanctuary where everything will be OK and where one can eat chips, drink stout and the Pouges are always number one.

Almost succumbing to a little taste of ‘Ireland’ before flying to the Holy Land, I found I had subconsciously wondered into one of these temple to Irish culture in Terminal Three at Heathrow, before logic got the better of me. How I wished I had packed a sandwich before rushing out of the front door, because looking around what the terminal had to offer my other options for killing a pestering hunger and the two hours, the airline insisted I needed before departure, were equally as depressing. McKentucyFriedPizaaKing all had disturbingly long queues, but I thank the Lord it was Sunday and TGI Fridays was closed. The swanky seafood bar, the place where the ‘well-to-do’ travellers hang out sipping at flutes of chilled champagne and nibbling slivers of smoked salmon while slurping down oysters, was full of continental looking men in black polo-neck shirts, thick rimmed spectacles and beige jackets, perched on high chrome stools next to their over-made-up, chemically-enhanced WAGS, already clutching bag fulls of Duty Free shopping.

Why anyone is willing to risk eating a live oyster in an airport before sending the next part of the day crammed in a metal tin, thousands of feet in the air, with ten deep queue for the toilet the size of a kitchen cupboard is beyond me. After all what could possibly be more unglamorous than eating oysters in Terminal Three at Heathrow at 3.35 on a Sunday afternoon. “You look like the rugged type sir, perhaps you would like to try our new scent …” My father was right – I should have shaved before leaving home. My stubble had attracted the attentions of a zealous sales girl wielding a smelly strip of cardboard at me as I walked through the scented part of Duty Free, the sales charms of this tight faced lady nearly forced me to part with the best part of thirty quid for a of bottle noxious, urine coloured liquid call ‘Explorer’ or something equally pointless but thankfully I escaped with my reputation in tact but with my senses exhausted I fled for a quiet corner of the terminal and sated my hunger on a tube of Wine Gums and a bag of Salt and Vinegar crisps and waited. Rule Britania!

Seat 15, B. Turkish Airlines to Istanbul. My previous journey on an aeroplane before this trip to Israel, was 15 months earlier coming back from my last trip in Brazil. After two and a half years living on a bicycle, good fortune had sat me next to a more than friendly, blonde violinist from London. But this time I wasn’t so fortunate. Seat 15 A, was occupied by an overweight middle-aged man with a clammy and pallid complexion. He already had his trainers off, revealing a pair of sweat-stained once-white socks, the tops overflowing with black hair. I took my seat next to him, he turned his back and I cursed myself for being nosey. Flat tummy, firm breast, erect nipple…

Geared for sound the man in 15A was totally focused on the three inches of virtual pleasure beaming out of his Iphone. I did my best to distract myself with the safety video now playing on a small video screen behind the bald head of the man in the seat in front. Understandably Mr 15A wasn’t interested in the soporific emergency tutorial that involved a family of cartoons showing me what to do in case of mid-air disaster. Accompanied by a soothing backing track of a string quartet, no doubt designed to pacify the passengers into thinking that should the plane come down in a ball of flames and fuel, all would be calm. A strangely appealing smell wafted from the galley kitchen, and doing my best not to think about the man in 15 A I shut my eyes and drifted to sleep to the sweet, sweet sound of violins.

Turkish Airlines know how to run an airline. They get you in your seat, they take you in the air, they give you some food and then they bring you back down again, and my flight from Istanbul should have been as efficient and calm as the one from Heathrow. Expect for one thing – it was full of Israelis. On other flights passengers have done as they are told. We drink when we are told, we eat when we are told, we sleep when we are told and we get up when we are told. Israelis have a different idea. Once in the air this short flight to Tel Aviv was bun fight, a free for all, a smash and grab and however much the patient crew tried to install order behind their metal trolleys they were fighting a losing battle.

“Give me wine – no the red one”

“Some ice” “You have tonic, no in a can not a bottle”.

“Lemon.”

“Give me another bread roll.”

“Coca-Cola”

“Coffee”

“Water”

“Yalla, Yalla”

It was crazy, like a mid-air street bizarre but after less than an hour in the sky, the wheels thumped and rumbled on the tarmac of the Holy Land. Seatbelts clicked open, people rushed from their seats, overhead lockers swung open, and I was swept up in a climbing barging, pushing current of people. “Yalla Yalla”, “Yalla Yalla” Welcome to Israel…

At seven a.m. the next morning, after little over four hours sleep, I put my bicycle together and by nine I was cycling through the traffic clogged streets of Jerusalem. Even here in the Holy Land they have succumbed to the evil of bendy busses that snake their way up the steep pothole-infested roads connecting the white stone communities of this city that sprawls and clings to the steep, arid hillsides. Jerusalemites wait at crossings for the lanes of dirty traffic to subside before rushing to wherever they are going and we continued downtown to a hotel to pick up Stewart.

Amir, my great friend from cycling in Mexico and Central America runs cycle tours in Jerusalem and was taking an American client for the day on a bicycle around the city. Stewart was Jewish, 57 and from Washington State. He appeared from his hotel in all the gear and his healthy, strong and enthusiastic persona was in complete contrast to my tired, post-flight staleness. Having been to Jerusalem cycling five or six times before and having taken in all the sights, on this tour he wanted to see of the back streets and the different communities of Jerusalem. Or as he put…

“I wanna see the guts of the city”

As a son of a vicar it would be fair to say I have had a little contact with religion in my time. I went to church as a child, (under duress) I attended a religious school where I had to attend chapel every evening; (under duress) and I go to church at Christmas (almost under duress) and taking a trip to Jerusalem, The Holy Land, the epicentre of the worlds three main monolithic faiths, I was expecting to come across a little faith. But after riding past a couple of nonchalant cigarette smoking soldiers, in ill-fitting green army fatigues, automatic weapons strung over the shoulders, we entered the backstreets of Western Jerusalem, the home to some of the most Orthodox Jews living in the city and I was in for a surprise. This was religion on a whole new level. Turning corners we rode into tight alleyways hung with drying black and white clothes . Electricity wires exposed and bundled together lead up walls and ran from windows, displaying tatty flags bearing the star of David. Children with loose curls of hair hanging from the edge of their scalps hurried in the street. A group of men of three generations barged past us in the other direction, each clutching a book under one arm, mobile phone in the other, their black fur coated hats sitting a-top solemn bearded faces that peak out above long black coats. Each hat shape, garment, tassel and pattern determining their attachment to the Jewish faith. In a T shirt and shorts the heat was oppressive and my clothes were sticking to my body. A group of younger men hurried along before turning sharply around a corner and walking up a tight alleyway. A few women walked past in uncomplicated full length dresses. They kept their eyes down. Amir pointed out a dented metal sign above the street covered in unknown symbols that said this side of the road was not permitted for women to walk on. Perhaps its an obvious thing top say but here in Jerusalem religion is big, big deal.

The smell of bread mingled of street corners, where customers picked over piles of golden pita, and fresh laffa. Everybody was walking somewhere with purpose, head down, not smiling, or acknowledging you. Everyone moving with purpose, with intent. Even at the traffic lights while pedestrians wait for the traffic a slow steady beat clicks from a speaker for the aid of the death.

“Tick… Tick….Tick…”

Everybody stops. Then the beat changes its back to normal….

“Tickticktickticktick…”

The crowd moves at a frantic pace. Leaving the tight alleyways of Western Jerusalem a dusty trail carried us along the steeps of Mount Scopus, past the university and the pristine well kept flowerbeds of the British Cemetery. Under the shady bows of twisted olive tree on the Mount of Olives that look out over the white slabs of a Jewish cemetery that lines the hillside like a stone-cut circuit board, toward the heavy beige walls of The Old City of Jerusalem. Through the haze of exhaust fumes and dust, suspended in and around the arid valleys that surround the city, the golden dome of the Dome of the Rock perched on temple mount shine in the sunlight. The sacred ground where Muslims believe Mohamed ascended into heaven to have a chat with the man upstairs. Next to it the roof of the church of the Holy Sepulchre, the multi denominational Christian church erected at the point where Jesus was processed after being taken down from the cross and in front of that a gateway of the Western Wall, all that remains of King Solomon’s Temple.

Climbing the hill, the road moved to Eastern side of Al Qudz, the Arabic name for Jerusalem, and the Arabic half of this ancient city. Curious children run after us along he litter strewn streets. “What’s is your name… What’s your name…. “ Men sit in the shade outside shops smoking and sipping at small glasses of thick black coffee. Following a series of broken dirt paths we rode through peoples back yards, past dogs slinking in the litter. Scrawny cats hurried from their shady spots to get out of our way, plastic rubbish littered the hillside, the stench of burning plastic mingling with the odour of a dead animal hidden somewhere in the mess. Jeans and T shirts on the men, but the women are ore covered up. Their heads wrapped in shawls as they step delicatley around the litter. “Welcome Welcome “ they says from behind the material that covers their faces.

The whine of the Muslim call to prayer screeches from the conical horns on top of a supermarket, this haunting and yet romantic noise fits my surroundings perfectly reminding me where I am and the Muslims of this quarter of the city that it is time to turn to Mecca and pray. For me its lunch time. A donkey laden down with gas ganisters is lead up the road by an old man with a grey galabaya and a red and white head scarf. At the top of this dusty hill a large pickup truck with blacked out windows screeches as its tyres tear at the gradient of the lose stone track we are descending through a half built community bursting with rods of construction steel and unfinished walls. We cycle up to a heavy concrete wall, built in the last four years by the Israeli Government. Constructed to battle terrorism it is covered in multi-lingual graffiti. It cuts ruthlessly through the landscape across once busy roads, through communities and back yards. A shop come-restaurant-come-gas station, would once have been on a busy road, bustling with commerce. Now it sits at a dead end and it has no custom. It’s lunch time and Amir asks if they have any falafel. The man replies in Arabic.

“We don’t have falafel. But we have a wall”.

Whining snake-like music, the kind I normally here in kebab shops or in the back of late -night mini cabs screeches from a broken and oil stained stereo. Behind a glass fronted counter a man with a head of short, black shiny hair sings the words to himself in Arabic. His cubby teenage son or nephew works tirelessly and with great pride next to him, bagging freshly fried falafel into brown paper bags that stain on contact with this middle Eastern staple. Stewart, myself and Amir take a seat at a small table made from a rough slab of marble crudely cemented to a breeze block wall. Amir and the owner exchange a few words in Arabic and we wait.

The food arrives. A shallow ceramic bowl of creamy humus doused in syrupy, yellow olive oil arrived. Another of tabaouleth, the tomatoes, cucumber and parsley, each ingredient diced within one slice of becoming mush. Next babaganosh, the creamy beige dip, made from grilled aubergines mixed into a smooth paste with tahine, lemon juice and garlic and sprinkled with parsley. A smaller bowl of hariff, a fresh green dip, similar to salsa verde, made with punchy chopped green and red chillies. And of course a basket of round pita bread. Soft, malleable and warm to touch. After four hours cycling through Jerusalem’s back streets, up steps, down dirt tracks none of us waste anytime on etiquette.

“In my country the polite go hungry”

advises Amir and all three of us begin dipping, pinching and wiping with torn pita at the bowls of Levantine food on the table. I rip at a warm pita, its warm dough malleable and stretchy in my fingers as I tear it apart. I dip it in a little humus, spoon on some tabbouleh and before it all falls on the floor direct it to my mouth. The smooth nutty humus, like nothing I have ever eaten back home. The refreshing tabouleth a perfect foil, to the strong taste of tahina and smokey eggplant that has filled my mouth. Another torn segment of pita; swiped in the babaganoush and topped with a half teaspoon of harif. Through a mouthful of pita and humus topped with ful (boiled fava beans) Amir explains the origins of the energy packed humus, a staple for workers in the area, packed with protein and slow releasing energy, barley finishing his sentence before another babaganoush topped shred of pita goes into his mouth. This is real eating. With your fingers, no manners, no airs and graces. Just fresh. delicious, healthy, hard working, communal food.

Arabs and Israelis will both argue to be the rightful owners of this simple Levantine meal, but one thing is for sure whoever has rightful ownership of this meal knew just what they were doing. I had little to no idea what to expect of Jerusalem but after only a day pedalling in this ancient city I know I can expect two can things while im here. Plenty of religion and plenty of humus. Shallom

“Charge nothing and you’ll get a lot of customers.” Yiddish Proverb