A bit of cycling and a lot of encounters – through Israel by bike

by Benni

This report is little about cycling and much about encounters along the way. That’s a good thing, as this exactly was my plan: at least until March, I want to stay in Jordan and Israel and bridge the cold season. Since both countries can be travelled quickly by bicycle, I would like to spend much time alongside the road. Especially for Israel, that seems to me to be appropriate: One could traverse this country from north to south within a short week; how many interesting places, stories and people would you miss though!

Start in Tel Aviv

The plan for the next weeks stands. But where exactly should I meet the people, where to stop? At least I know with my arrival in Tel Aviv, that I can spend the first few days with Lewin and Nathanael, friends from Switzerland. In addition, my sister-in-law made contact with a family in Haifa where she worked as an au pair (this “I know someone who knows someone strategy” should prove itself several times). I would also be able to visit them. Nothing else is certain yet. But I am quite relaxed. The experience of the past few weeks has taught me that new contacts quickly arise and doors open when I just get myself on my saddle and meet the environment open-minded.
First I spend two days with Lewin and Nathanael though. They are staying for a week in an apartment in the middle of Tel Aviv and discover the country with a rental car. For one day I accompany them. We travel together to the Sea of ​​Galilee, have a look at Caphernaum and afterwards visit a friend of Lewin, who is currently doing a voluntary year in a home for Shoa survivors. Together with her we drive on and up to the very north to the Lebanese border and enjoy the sunset by the sea.
By car you can visit quite a lot of places within a short time. For me, it is a strange feeling to be traveling with a car after the slow but steady progress you achieve with a bike. It’s okay, later I will cycle all over the country, I‘m telling myself.

On the way to Haifa

After the very nice days with friends, I set off to the north to explore Israel not only from the car window, but also from the “Velospektive”, the perspective from the bike. The next destination is Haifa and my sister-in-law’s au pair family. I plan to cover the 100 kilometers in two days and be open for any stopovers.
I first follow the coast of Tel Aviv. This city is amazingly vibrant and modern. I share the well-developed bike paths on the promenade with many joggers, cyclists and all sorts of other modern companions – especially electric scooters (with which you do not have to step, however) seem to be the latest craze.
Briefly after leaving Tel Aviv behind, a man stops me while parking his car.
“Where are you going?”, he asks me very directly.
“To Haifa,” I answer.
“And where did you start?”
“In Switzerland.”
“If you want, you can stay overnight at my place.”
“Where do you live?”
“Near Netanya.”
This is about half way between Tel Aviv and Haifa, perfect. Aric describes the way to his house, three hours later I arrive there, spend time in his garden, before he comes home from work and we cook together and have dinner.
Aric is an artist, divorced twice, finds Donald Trump great, rejects any religion and has seen the whole world. We heartily discuss the evening over all this and much more. What a nice, first encounter with an Israeli, who with his very own views and life story certainly exemplifies this colorful country and its uncategorizable population.

Christians in Haifa

In Haifa, Tina, Simon and their three children welcome me. At their house I can wash my clothes again. I also accompany them on Saturday (Sabbath) to worship in their congregation. What a special experience! The church is made up of many “Messianic Jews” (Jews who believe in Christ as the Messiah) as well as Christians from all over the world. They sing songs in Hebrew, and also the sermon is in the local language, but translated into English by headphones. I can finally follow a worship service again.
In the afternoon, Simon spontaneously takes me to a workshop for German volunteers. He was asked to talk about his life and Arab Christians (or what he prefers to call them, “Christians who speak Arabic”). I gain a good insight into the world of this group, which in Israel is a minority within the minority (Arab Muslims). In addition, I get into conversation with some German volunteers, who live for one year in Israel and work in social institutions. For me it is quite a special feeling after such a long time to be surrounded by so many German-speaking people.
The night I spend in Beit Scandinavia, a guest house very close to Tina and Simon – what a fascinating house! It was founded many years ago by Norwegian Christians and should offer Scandinavian travelers a home-away-from-home. Meanwhile, it is open to travelers of all nationalities. Something very special: you stay here for free.
With some Scandinavians, South Africans and South Americans I spend the Friday night here, together we celebrate Sabbath. What an international and cordial evening! We sing songs in Hebrew, exchange travel experiences in English, and with the Latinos I indulge in reminiscences of South America.

Gasoline for my bike

All these encounters would overwhelm me after a short term under normal circumstances. But I realize that after the time in solitude and the many days on the saddle, I am particularly receptive. As I tell this to Simon, he expresses it with a picture that I like: loneliness prepares me for meeting people, these encounters in turn provide for “gasoline” and more miles on the bike; all the faces and stories keep me busy for hours as I pedal monotonously.
I would love to keep this principle even after this trip. I hope that in the future I will be able to find times of loneliness and tranquility that prepare me for meeting people. Maybe I should just look for work that is 20 kilometers away from my place of residence and then cycle there every day.


Swabians in Israel

After the many encounters in Haifa it is therefore necessary to burn petrol, that is: to cycle. Yet I don‘t have a lot of distance to do so, already in Zikhron Ya’akov only 30 kilometers south of Haifa new hosts are awaiting me. Simon told me about Christians from Korntal, who immigrated to Israel since the 60s and live there in a kind of kibbutz. “That sounds exciting!”, I say, which makes Tina and Simon immediately calling friends in the kibbutz who cordially invite me.
From Haifa I drive up the Carmel (a clear detour, but I want to burn “gasoline”) and then back down to the coast. In the evening I arrive in Zikhron and land first in the shop of Bet El, that‘s how the Germans call their community. Here they sell wholegrain bread, jam and many other products, which come almost exclusively from the domestic production and from their own fields. The Israelis obviously love these German products called Berta, the store is busy.
A little later Roland appears and leads me directly through neighboring production halls. I’m not out of astonishment: I already knew that Bet El Industries has become the market leader for air filtration systems over the years, selling thousands of filters for bunkers and vehicles at home and abroad every month; but still I didn’t expect such large production facilities and such a wide range of products. In addition to the approximately 800 Germans meanwhile over 1000 Israelis are employed here.

“We are just thankful to God,” Roland responds to my amazement. I like this attitude. It is their Christian faith and not the profit that has led them here. Their concern has always been to serve the country with their work. Filters seemed appropriate for that, especially because there was no competition in the country.
Roland and his family warmly welcome me. I gain a good insight into their family and kibbutz life. I‘m also able to participate in a prayer meeting. The way in which they pray and sing and also their dress style the “modern Christian” would label “ultra-conservative”, the German newspaper „Spiegel“ refers to them in a 1998 article even as a sect. But I’ve learned not to take such lurid articles seriously and also not to be scared off by outward forms. In conversing with people, I find that Jesus Christ and His grace are the center of their faith. One hundred percent of this belief I share with them, so I know myself among like-minded people and enjoy the fellowship.
The next day, a daughter of Roland invites me to the community‘s school, where she is the Vice-Principal. Quite spontaneously, I am allowed to design two lessons and talk about my journey. The students listen attentively to this strange man, who has cycled from the German homeland to their community.

Unscheduled stopover

After three days among Germans I have fueled a lot of “gasoline”. I plan to cycle directly to Jerusalem via Tel Aviv to finally set a longer distance. Halfway to Tel Aviv, however, something happens to me I have never experienced before: Somehow a small piece of sand makes it under my right eyelid and does not leave even after repeated rinsing. My eye hurts increasingly, soon I can only drive with one eye opened. In addition, rain sets in.
I spontaneously contact Shai, a musician whom I met on the street in Zikhron. At first I had filmed two songs of him (view it in this video), then he invited me to sing along, in the end he was very enthusiastic about testing my bike. “You are always welcome in Tel Aviv“, he says. And indeed, five minutes after I contact him, he warmly welcomes me and sends me his address in Jaffa. A little later I am with him and can free my eye of the grain of sand.
The night it is raining without interruption. The next three days, a lot of water keeps falling from the sky, in some parts of Israel it is up to 250 millimeters. Even some roads are flooded and must be closed. The unplanned stopover becomes a stay of three days. Shai takes pity on me by looking out of the window. We spend three musical evenings together, discuss a lot, on Saturday we go to the service of an Anglican church just around the corner.

Religion everywhere

For some visitors of this country it might be self-evident, but I am only now becoming aware of it by looking back: With cycling through Israel, I am confronted with my own beliefs and convictions in a variety of ways. I meet many Christians with whom I can sing and pray along, but because of very different cultures and biographies, they do so very differently than I am used to. I try to verify everything and keep the good.
All those people along my path who do not consider themselves Christians still have strong convictions or even religious beliefs. It seems to me that you are inevitably confronted with religious questions in this country, you can‘t escape it. I love to learn from those people as well. However, I think that consistently articulated Christian faith leads very soon and inevitably to confrontation: either you accept Christ and his words, or you reject them. He has spoken of himself as a cornerstone, that makes you stumble. My discussions with the people here are therefor mostly controversial, but that’s exactly what I appreciate about this country: People here are coming straight forward to the heart of the matter.

Holy Land Challenge

Back to cycling: After the forced but nice stopover in Tel Aviv, I finally get back onto my bike to cycle to Jerusalem. As I already did from Haifa, I plan to follow the Holyland Challenge Bikepacking route. This track leads you over rough paths 1400 km from the Hermon in the north to Eilat in the south.
However, I have some doubt as to whether the route would be passable after the heavy rains. After only 20 kilometers my fear comes true: my bike sinks downright in the mud, in many places I have to carry it. I make slower progress than walking.
Unfortunately I have to return to the big street. After all I find a nice picnic spot in the woods, where I can ignite a campfire before driving into Jerusalem the next morning. Suddenly, out of the dark, a car approaches me. Oded has seen me in the evening with my packed bike. He is an avid mountain biker as well and brings me beer and some food. We spend time around the campfire talking about good routes and the growing bicycle scene in Israel.
So you think that after two weeks you would finally spend an evening alone next to your tent and a campfire, but no – out of nowhere another encounter appears. What a sociable country!


The first big goal is achieved

The next day the time has come: I drive into the old city of Jerusalem. After two and a half months, the first big goal is achieved. I had looked ahead to this moment in Basel, but just before the start I could hardly believe that my bike would really take me to this city. But it’s just as I said to myself at the beginning: a journey around the world starts with the first pedal stroke. Anyone who dares to undertake this first stroke and does it every day anew will in the end be surprised at how far he has come.
However, I am aware that it was not just my constant pedaling that brought me here. Countless people have helped me – whether they have written to me from afar or helpfully met me on the way. At this point I would like to thank all of you for your support!

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