ISRAEL: See it for yourself, then say mazel tov.

Click on images to enlarge them.

We did not post the Israel blog until we were through the Muslim lands;
had it been noticed, places like Syria, Iran, Saudi, others,
would not have granted us visas, on the been-to-Israel basis alone.

Israel visas are accordingly stamped on a loose piece of paper,
not directly in your passport.

MAP of TRIP: For approximate 1200 km Israel itinerary

SLIDE SHOW of our Israel pix, with music,
by fine artist Bill Anderson [slide show link].

Israel prejudices versus reality. We get to Israel's real-world challenges below.

However just going there is interpreted by some as 'un-PC,' judging by raised eyebrows and uncomfortable silences we occasionally encounter; in Arab lands we often get propaganda-fed fictional rubbish. So perhaps we should get that out of the way up front.

Israel is beyond dispute a remarkable, albeit physically tiny country.

Also a great human accomplishment during our lifetimes; one of the world's most important museums of a few thousand years of well-preserved, brilliantly restored, multi-cultural, multi-faith history.

Not just anyone's history either; Europe's, America's and the world's Judeo-Christian history. Plus some Arab/Muslim history of less importance, even to them.

The preceding is factual truth – regardless of your politics or with which perceived underdog you may side.

It is also likely the greatest, most successful experiment in 'from-scratch, new-nation' building of our lifetimes – especially because it's in a difficult locale for various human and geographic reasons. Please correct me if there are any superior comparables during the last half century: Only city-states Singapore and Hong Kong spring to mind as parallel successes.

And bottom line, Israel exists legally by global standards, is recognized by the vast majority of the world, is an economic-military-political fact – an important one in geopolitics. So all arguments about ‘right to exist’ sixty years ago are for the historical academia world to debate when they have time. It ain't goin' away.


That aside, it's also a nice place to visit and highly educational about the past and present. Every traveller ought to see it at least once. Some parts are great. Jerusalem is especially mind-blowing for its historical sights, beauty and the diversity of people. Ditto what Israelis have done elsewhere – quite astounding in parts.

Such a human accomplishment, created with sweat equity, by decimated, largely refugee/immigrant peoples, from so many nations of the entire globe, in every skin color – all in recent decades. Hats off to them for actually doing it.

Israel certainly hasn’t done everything right, no nation has. Some things they did quite wrong (no specifics or opened worm cans) – but no nation is above bad reversible decisions.

Their biggest failure is to me, quite clearly, in PR: Israel has lost the optics war and continues to do so even when it does the right things correctly.

Many evidently love to believe the worst about it, even in the face of contradictory fact. Israeli success stories are seldom told; seldom are Jews cast as underdog, victim or the good guy, even when they are.

Where are the humanitarian or economic success stories, the positive hype? (Jews also work successfully in Hollywood I hear.) I credit this PR failure to bad self-image management and media handling by Israel itself. If I could fix one Israeli thing, that would be it: The spin is awful. It's bad for business, politics – indeed bad for the success of the entire neighborhood.

Like every nation we have visited, Israel looks very different explored in situ, than it does on CNN or BBC.

Israelis know it too. When we told a few who asked that we like and admire their country, most were surprised and flattered – even border guards. They said and believe ‘everyone outside hates us.’ In fact it's not everyone; and not often for good reasons. But there is an unfortunate gram of truth there.


Seeing it in context: This was Wheezy's third multi-week road trip bottom to top there in 30 years, Thao’s first, yet we had similar impressions. Neither of us went there with any sense of mission; just open-minded interest, as with some 80 other countries toured.

This time, we were lucky to drive neighbors Syria, Jordan, Egypt in almost immediate sequence. It is all the more educational to do sequential apples-apples comparisons on the ground.

Indeed we did both Syria and Jordan twice, quite thoroughly, in both October 2008 and March 2009; plus Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan. Although we do not pretend to 'know the neighborhood,' we sure saw it thoroughly in seven months of touring.

To be clear on our prejudices, it's not all love: We do not adore the ‘Israeli personality’ if there is such a thing – neither of us. Jewish Israelis are not the warm-cuddly types as a norm, kinda tough and stand-offish, perhaps a bit brusque. There is a hard edge, with an underlying softish Jewish underbelly – but one must dig deeper for the soft stuff. Indeed we found Iranians, Turks some others, more open, warm, friendly from the get-go.

Of course every stereotype is confirmed by the many exceptions ...

The 1968 Czech joke, after the invasion by allegedly 'friendly' Commie neighbors, was about Israel after the ’67 war:
“Why is Israel the safest place in the world to live?
Because it’s surrounded only by enemies.”

The truth beneath the irony, applies not just to the necessarily tough national character where serious military service for both sexes is obligatory – it also applies to the economy, which in context is doing well.

Necessity and adversity often are a mother. Israelis may not be cuddly as a consequence, but they somehow get major stuff done.


Go ahead, hate us: It's fashionable-PC, especially in Euro-Academia circles, to be anti-Israel and pro-not-sure-what.

These café latte experts have never set foot in the region, yet noisily and hypocritically hate and boycott, while being so fundamentally wrong. It concerns me, this neo-anti-semitism, precisely because it has become widely PC, is so self-righteous – plus is lacking factual foundation. The 'big lie' has become fashionable in some circles, not for the first time in history.

A tiny example of fashionable anti-semitism even in our relatively un-racist home town: Recently the well-known Le Select Bistro in Toronto used its paid advertising to slur Israel, with cribbed nonsense claims about the Dead Sea Scrolls, the 2000-year-old Hebrew-Aramic-Greek Old Testament, currently on a charity-education display in the Royal Ontario Museum. Picking on a museum exhibit? Get a life. Only the restaurant owner's bigotry was being outed, it contained no valid facts; he quickly withdrew his ad because it was backfiring fiscally, costing him business. Oops, money talks.

Shallow, fashionable hypocrisy: Where are Le Select Bistro or others' anti-Africa ads for example, contra their fine historical artifacts often on display? As we all know, millions have been (still are) brutally slaughtered by machete 'n gun for African tribal reasons; classic slavery is today practiced there in the millions; its own multi-billionaire leaders have corruptly screwed up most of the continent in the last 40 years (1969 was when the first democratic change of government took place in Africa, I was living in Ghana during this election.) Given the modern-era continuing failure of many/most nations there, the $500 billion [sic] of our aid money secretly stashed in Switzerland et al, why not be loudly anti-African-corrupt-dictator-genocidal-thief then? Oh, I see, Bono and forgiving their stolen debt is cool; it's not as PC to be labelled 'anti-black' in a coffee klatch, eh?

Alternatively, if so human rights minded, how about being anti various brutal Oriental regimes; or some highly-racist Arab dictatorships, Sharia law and their women issues; Latin ones; some of the '-stans' ... etc. Way more righteous 'injustice' fights exist – if you truly insist on picking one.

Yet Israel is the biggest horned demon the boulevardier set can name? Oh puleeze.

Get on a plane, and instead of seeing Paris again, go visit your favorite cause célèbre in context for yourself. Then speak out, having some first-hand observations and knowledge to speak of.

It is upsetting to witness fashionable ignorance, especially in one's own home town. This is not a huge instance sited, just a current one drawn to my attention and perhaps an indicator of what one successful restauranteur considers currently trendy.

We're neither naive prudes nor ideologues. Non-religious. No axe to grind except economic growth. Just travelin' as mixed-race European-Asian biker trash, looking at 'what is.'


In several chapters of this blog, we name bigots observed in action, only where it may be indicative of a bigger problem. Most people encountered are anything but. A very small number en route demonstrate antipathy to whites (me), are anti-Asian (Thao), anti-foreigner (us), anti-Christian or Jew or Hindu or Muslim (let 'em guess) – even stoopud white youths 'self-expressing' insensitively in India. We name 'n shame 'em; free speech cuts both ways.

In Israel we recall not a single instance of prejudice against us, even as the unusual, biracial, age-difference couple that we are. Contrary to some current popular noise, it stands out in one's memory as a especially un-prejudiced country.

Arms-length generalizations about various cultural groups is one thing – we all share that and it's not wrong. Opinions about groups actively trying to kill you and your family, is quite another thing. Fashionable, overt, activist bigotry is yet another.

Same with the not-been-to Africa opinions so often heard; sure, whatever. Been-to-Africa hands, left-and-right leaning ones equally, say very differently than the armchair experts. Same story with the majority of been-to Israel and been-to-Middle-East types.

And been-to other places.

Travel any region, try understand it a teensy bit in context, then tell us all what the better answer is. Until then, end the big pronouncements with a question mark.


It ain't so simple folks – and although I don't agree with everything they do, Israel is far from totally wrong how it deals with a difficult situation and some unreasonable, and very real, 'kill-every-last-one' type enemies. If fate put you in their shoes, would you do better? Likely not. Me neither.

It simply deserves, has earned, more empathetic support.

But that's enough about politics and bigotry.

We're just passin' thru and looking objectively at 'what is.'

'What is' – is different than what some would have you believe.


Middle East economy: So obvious it sounds naive, but is not: They should, could and will make more business in that difficult neighborhood, when it stops wasting energy on war. Business is what the neighborhood needs. Jobs and money.

Jews you may have heard, like to do business among their skills – and they know better than most that war is very bad for business.

Borders aside, it's no land of milk & honey. Not in the entire neighborhood is there one – the oil kingdoms temporarily aside. Mainly it's hard core desert that has trouble producing sufficient food. Everyone in the region needs to manufacture and grow things for global markets, so their kids may live decently.

Arabs are unfortunately making a lot more kids than they are making jobs; literally breeding long term demographic/economic trouble for themselves and for us, with no let-up in sight.

An important factual regional quote: [souce link]:
. . . . ."With 65 percent of the region’s population under the age of 25,
. . . . .the Middle East has the fastest-growing labor force of any
. . . . .part of the world. Just to keep pace ... the Middle East must
. . . . .create 80 million new jobs over the next 15 years ... it must
. . . . .create 100 million new jobs by 2020—a near doubling of
. . . . .today’s total employment.

. . . . .To put this into perspective, the Middle East must create jobs
. . . . .at twice the pace of the United States, in an increasingly competitive
. . . . .international environment that is already accommodating the rise
. . . . .of India and China. Without making deep structural reforms,
. . . . .Middle East governments will never be able to meet the
. . . . .employment needs of its increasingly disaffected youth—
. . . . .a stark fact that, left unaddressed, leaves an entire
. . . . .generation ripe for radicalization."

Rx: Abundant capital, technical expertise and ongoing management. Given no wars for a while, Israel and its western friends could/would elevate the entire region. I emphasize this point, because the Arab neighbors, have done precious little to help.

What Arab industries are thriving in the region? Oil and olives aside, please name one in agriculture or manufacturing that competes well in world markets. Bet you can't. Me neither.

That's no one's fault but their own.

The regional peace dividend would be huge; however we are all becoming impatient after decades of waiting for it.

But there ya go. Not an easy place to run. Nor an easy neighborhood to live in.


Milestone: A minor hi-five; made it from UK –> Israel by land, a self-test and warm-up for the yet unplanned second leg, hopefully ending up as a round-world.
..........- 15 countries
..........- 4.5 months
..........- 20,000 km
..........- 1 set of tires consumed and
..........- 0 substantive issues.
..........- Bike and us 100%.
Decent first round numbers.


Fears of crossing Syria: Apprehensions were exaggerated. Turkey-Syria-Jordan were mostly a cake-walk of paved roads and welcoming people.

We just couldn't talk or blog about Israel as a destination – in Syria, and several countries afterwards, there’d simply be no visa.


Travels: It's a small country anyhow, but intentionally starting the Israel travels midway through the trip in an Arab town.

Stayed in the superb Akkotel [link] hotel in Akko [map link] – Acre is the ancient name, a UNESCO world heritage site [link.] If/when you come to Israel, this is the hotel to base yourself in for run-outs to explore the NW, highest marks in every respect. It's part of the old city wall just inside the Land's Gate, fabulously restored, about C$100 a night (after negotiation) and worth every penny – go there.

Akkotel owner at front door, a splendid historic place.
Seaside wall of Akko fort. No white faces in sight.
It's by coincidence Prophet Mohamed's birthday party for a week, so this 2000+ yrs old town is one big Arab street party. Jews live in the suburbs, which are a modern North American style yawn as far as we saw.

In the old city where we are: Due to the 'Muslim Christmas party' ongoing, lots of horses, wagons, ponies, camels, kids, candy floss, made-in China toys, cool hats, street food (i.e. shwarma, kebab & pomegranate/orange juice). No visible booze. Also Hajj the annual pilgrimage to Mecca is ongoing. So it's a big fun street party time.

This guy had 2 trained pythons, an African Grey and Macaw.
No obvious bad taste Freudian python jokes from me.
Horsey rides non-stop into late night, for three days of celebrations.
This horsey just didn't want to be ridden.
We watched his owners chase him, toss stones at him –
so he escaped into the ocean.
Very few non-Muslims like us wandering the old town's streets – too bad, they should have helped the Arabs celebrate. Local Jews were missing a friend-making PR-op, yet again, and some fun too. Jews' absence bothered me, some shoulda, coulda been out making friends and having fun with Arab kids and their own.

Bad Israeli PR at play again, right at home. Get the chip off your shoulder, celebrate Mohamed's birthday schmuck – it won't hurt you and the Arabs will appreciate you for it.

A trio of kids joined us for pita sandwiches at an outdoor table, best felafel and shwarma we ever had.

Best shwarma on earth, this kid agrees.

Almost no women with faces covered, indeed many uncovered heads and tight revealing clothes. Not many Moslem men in serious religious garb either. Islam Lite?


Religious/political/economic co-habitation: Credit where it’s due. ‘Not an easy country to govern’ is a laughable understatement, but somehow they do it imperfectly; but then so do we, the ‘imperfect governance’ part I mean.

Islam/Christianity/Judaism ‘Lite’ is not true everywhere in Israel, as it evidently is in Acre.

Especially so in Jerusalem where the fundamentalist Born-Agains and moderates of various faiths walk the narrow streets in loudly eloquent religious uniform statements about whose Prophet is more right ... but still, Islam, Christianity, Judaism in dozens of shades and flavors, seem to co-habit well regardless of what we read.

The UN conferences on racism, Durban and more recently Geneva, that turned into anti-semitic hatefests [good Economist article link], are fortunately failed attempts at the Big Lie.

Israel is far from racist. Just go there and look. It is in fact the most racially and religious-diverse nation I know of. Name one better. It beats Canada, an extremely diverse place – Toronto I love to brag, is 50% non-white with no serious race problems. But in Israel – every race and religion often in full traditional costume is a daily fact of life, so routine to see it's not even a head-turner.

And it is the world capital of several religions; important for Islam too, albeit not a capital – the Baha'i branch below excepted. All variety of free speech and right of worship is defended by law and police, paid for by public (mostly Jewish) funds. And these faiths are actively practiced, with public pride. The UN Zionism = Racism thing is the worst of rubbish; food only for the willfully bigoted and ignorant – which USA, Canada and most of Europe abhor.

Buddies stopped and asked us to take their picture.
This gent didn't.
If many are unhappy, or un-free, it sure does not show on their faces, garb or lifestyle – they live relatively well and just do their thing, evidently have some fun, fully protected in their free speech, faith and houses of worship by the cops/army. Credit where it’s due.

Old Jerusalem Arab spice shop, typically well organized
artistically stocked/displayed – that's thyme we believe.

Yes, they wish to remain the only predominantly Jewish democratic state in the world. So what? That is neither abnormal, nor a crime. Name one country on the planet that does not try to maintain a certain cultural-religious identity. Try making Bolivia predominantly Hindu through immigration, or Canada primarily Muslim, or Denmark Sikh, or China any religion – see how warmly any nation welcomes a tidal change in culture. Most Muslim nations are extremely sensitive on that very subject – let them be so.

Israel actively protects all faiths on its turf, but the voting majority will remain Jewish. Duh. A non-issue, as normal as anywhere.


Economy: Biz happens with surprisingly good numbers: $28,800 GDP per capita (Purchasing Power Parity = PPP) [source link].

Here is an easy bar chart [link] definitely worth seeing: The Middle East neighborhood on per capita productivity. Israel is doing far better than anyone nearby, except the small-population oil giants Qatar, UAE and Kuwait. Israel's per capita productivity is about the same as Bahrain, but 47% better than Saudi Arabia's. It is doing 1,300% (13x) better than Egypt, 600% (6x) Iran.

Israel has virtually no oil/gas. It does the obvious Business 101: Make and grow stuff in domestic and global demand, much of which it either invented or improved substantially. (Not so many nations do that.) It does not compete on a 'cheap labor outsource' basis as many developing nations do; rather competes largely on a quality/creativity basis.

Meanwhile it is also the newest nation in the region, in constant and costly self-defense mode. Credit where it's due – it's hard to pull off the business and military magic in parallel.

If oil prices stay low, if world demand levels due to greener technology, the oil-dependent neighbors will be in ever-deeper trouble, compounded by the quite serious demographic catastrophe they are actively breeding. Meanwhile, Israel will hopefully continue to manufacture and grow stuff it can sell. Then the neighborhood economic contrast and tensions might be even greater.

Per capita GDP in Israel is 38% less than USA's $46,000 – but still darn good and growing at 5% a year in recent years. Like others, their economy is flat or shrunken during the global recession, however as a small export-driven nation, they are likely to benefit from the next world trade recovery.

Main exports are cut diamonds, high technology equipment, and agricultural products. Weapons exports ($4 billion in 2007, the vast majority of which went to USA) are 8% of total Israeli exports – again necessity is a mother.

Some random snippets of Israel's economic good news:
- In 2007 Israel became the first non-Latin country to sign a free trade agreement with the Mercosur (Latin American) trade bloc.
- It has free trade agreements with the EU, USA, Canada, Turkey, Mexico, Jordan and Egypt.
- Conservative investor Warren Buffet's Birkshire Hathaway, made its first investment outside USA in Israel's ISCAR Metalworking.
- The first-ever R&D centers outside USA for both Intel and Microsoft are in Israel.
- It is a world leader in software and computer hardware development, has become known as 'Silicon Wadi'.
- Israel is 2nd in the world among foreign nations with USA stock exchange listings.
- It is largely self-sufficient in food production, agriculture being it's primary export.
- It is energy 'green' – 90% of Israeli homes for example use solar water heaters; it is a world leader in solar technology. In 2009 it is also starting to set up a network of battery-charging points for electric-only cars.
- Unemployment in 2008 was about 6%, not bad in the context of a world meltdown.
- Median household income at $37,000 (PPP) in 2006, is close to that of Ireland and Australia, just $2,000 behind Switzerland.
It is expensive to travel in Israel though; many prices are about like Toronto's, itself an expensive city, except Israel has lower wages and huge military supported, with just 7 million people.


The country is clean, well maintained, feels safe, excellent western-level infrastructure, people seem to do just fine.

No sense of war in daily life; but plenty young guys/gals carrying machine guns by obvious necessity. Ditto in most other countries of the region, except in other places it’s almost only men in uniform. Highly visible machine guns are a basic cop ‘deterrent tool’ almost everywhere away from our relative Amero-Europe paradises.


Travels cont’d: We rode Israel South to North in three weeks which is ample time, especially for a third visit.

Crossed from Aqaba Jordan to Eilat Israel [map link] with no issues except time; one must allow a couple hours for the polite Israeli guards to do a thorough check, they emptied the bike's luggage, X-rayed it and searched every cranny for our first real search on this trip. Just business.


Eilat at the southern tip has become in recent decades the Miami Beach of Israel, big western-style hotels galore, you go from 4-5 star room to a beach, not our thing. We gave it one night, in a big nice furnished apartment-for-rent with swimming pool and parking, run by Asher Suites phone 052-271-6140, it's in the suburbs, was a great deal at around $30. For longer stays, very negotiable and a nice place where you can cook.

Our first stop after finding digs, was at a SuperPharm (kid sister to Shoppers Drug Mart in Canada, run by Leon Koffler over here) to stock up on necessities – what a tired travelers’ luxury, and this is not a mere plug for friends. We get spoiled by great stores and miss them … we were kids in a candy store. Thao got contact lenses off the shelf! Then we went and had a decent steak – wow, a steak! Enough shwarma for a while.


Next day, north thru the Negev desert. A great craggy mountainous twisty desert ride, a joy.

Lonely Planet photo.

Stopped in mid-Negev for the night in a little town and nicest boutique pensione in Mitzpe Ramon [map link] a town of some 4200 population. This is a holiday destination for Israelis and foreigners alike.

Where we stayed: In a house with various accommodations including an outdoor shelter for low-cost backpackers, is owned by the charming and artistic French-born Jocelyne Lahiany, phone 054-457-7700. What she did with the house and rooms is fine folk art, charming, artistic, in the best of taste. It was about US$60 for a private room with small stove, fridge and shower, a big balcony with great view, and a bargain. Her little place is not easy to find, ask at the tourist office on the edge of town as we did; they set us up with her and provided directions.

Mitzpe Ramon off-road tours are available by AWD in the awesome Negev wadi canyon the town overlooks – and there are great public viewing points. Do not miss it if in Israel, one of our trip’s highlights – it's worth staying a couple days or even a week of exploring and relaxing.

We visited the Mitzpe Ramon Community Centre to use their internet. The internet room was closed until next day, but the ever-so-kind Director, Irit Berebi [email:] insisted we could use her own computer, she insisted so helpfully and hospitably, cleared her desk so we could sit there – and to boot gave us some free bars of soap! Money offered was not accepted. What a nice lady and what a fine centre, operating obviously on a meagre budget. This was 'community spirit' in action. And some touching stories went along.

Next day the internet room was open and I regrettably lost the man's name, but he ran a splendid operation, with perhaps ten computers running, while he patiently tutored the all-woman group how to use them. His previous profession was he owned a small hotel or B&B, and sadly lost his savings on it. This computer set-up was not his first choice of career but he did it smiling and skillfully. I was touched.

Mitzpe Ramon


Unfortunately we missed remarkable historical Masada [photos link] this time. Black Bike's tires were becoming dangerously bald and new ones were waiting in Tel Aviv [map link] so we bee-lined it. All-important tires had been kindly reserved by Leon Koffler, being a local, since the Honda dealer has a Hebrew-only website [link] where I was helpless. They speak English, it’s an excellent outfit, but you can't even get a phone number from their web site. Call ahead to assure parts: Mayer's Motorcycle, phone (972) 369-66991.

The tires were at double Canada prices, they installed Metzeler ME880s – it suddenly felt like a new bike with the Avons totally gone at about 15,000 km. Mayer's gave Black Bike a thorough go-over and two thumbs up after 30,000 km total on clock; the last service in a long time.

Tel Aviv is just a modern, clean and well done business city of 3.5 million in the greater metropolitan area – Israel's business capital. It has been labelled 'the Mediterranean metropolis that never sleeps;' tourists evidently love it, the abundant hotels in all classes, its great culture and museums (Jews are among the world's major culture vultures and philanthropists), night life and excellent restaurants – evidently some 100 sushi bars for example. It is also the 14th most expensive city in the world.

We were not so enamored however; modern cities are just not our thing. We did our business, rode the lovely oceanside a couple times, and moved on after three days. Not much to say.

A reasonably priced hotel we liked and would go back to next visit: The Bell Hotel [link] at 50 Hayarkon St at the Allenby intersection. Not the fanciest part of town but convenient with excellent underground parking across the street. Very nice inside, clean and by Tel Aviv standards a good deal at US$100 including a great breakfast. Very nice friendly owners too – highly recommended for the under-$250 crowd. Of course the sky is also the limit here ...


But Jerusalem an hour away – there's too much to say. It's amazing. We stayed just inside the Jaffa Gate a nice (and rare) reasonably priced place, interestingly owned by a Palestinian Moslem who decorated the place with much Christian stuff. The New Imperial Hotel [link] is an old building with wi-fi in the room, and comes highly recommended on reasonable price, quality, convenience, a very nice owner and safe bike parking right across the street.

Western (Wailing) Wall and square.
In Jerusalem this sign is next to the Wailing Wall.
A hundred yards away, on the same site, is where Mohammed apparently ascended into heaven on a winged horse. The Koran does not mention Jerusalem by name; since it is pretty specific in most other regards, this is not an insignificant omission for religious history-debaters. The Umayyad period [factual link] mentioned in the sign below, took place starting 661 AD, thirty years after the death of Mohammed in 632.

Al Asqua Mosque AKA Dome of the Rock [interesting link]
oldest still-standing Moslem building in the world.
Right atop Temple Mount. Important for Christians too. Oops.
But its fully protected by Israel as a Mosque.
This sign is from the Tower of David museum (see below.)
relates to the above Mosque.
And a couple hundred or so yards from that spot, is Church of Holy Sepulchre [photos & facts link] where Jesus allegedly was entombed a couple thousand years back, rose to heaven and other major things apparently happened. This impressive old church is shared by several Christian orders who take turns with their religious services – quite a sight. And quite a sound, three services overlap in their music and incantations.

Ceiling dome Church of Holy Sepulchre
Next to Wailing Wall, rent-a-tefillin [definition link]

Another Jewish self-deprecating joke.
. . . .- Smith asks his friend Goldberg, 'What do you pray
. . . . .for when you go to the Wailing Wall?'
. . . .- 'I pray for family health, wealth and peaceful friendship
. .. . . .with Israel's neighbours.'
. . . .- 'How does it feel?'
. . . .- 'It feels like for years I've been talking to a wall.'

Visiting the well-marked Stations of the Cross; seeing how narrow the streets were and are while the to-be-crucified struggled through the crowds; visiting various religious-culturally grouped neighborhoods; the markets; avoiding the tourist touts; countless historical spots for any faith – hire a professional guide is my best advice. In 1994 we had one for a day, and it enhanced the experience immensely. By the way to get a guide license in Israel, it's not just for wannabes – you must be a true pro, have studied history and languages for years, pass government tests, etc. [Guides link.]

One more Jerusalem discovery by Thao is highly recommended; just inside the Jaffa Gate is the Tower of David [link] – a perfect restoration of a huge old fortress which features the best multimedia history of Jerusalem I have seen, favoring no one. Lots of good facts I did not know about the city's history – for example the substantial Jewish demographic majority there since the 1860's [facts link].

The big cherry on icing is an outdoors Sound & Light show after dark that was artistic entertainment genius by Skertzo of France. It had kids and adults mesmerized, is one of the trip's highlights. Museum Director Shosh Yaniv is to be congratulated – he should go fix the Negev Desert museum/home of Ben Gurion which has one of the worst multimedia shows; Ben Gurion deserves the same quality treatment.


By the Dead Sea, we slept in a Bedouin style tent for a rapacious $100/nite. And for that we even got a swim in the pretty remarkably dense salt water, where you bob to the top like a cork. And if you cut your toe on a rock as I did, damn the salt burns. The Dead Sea is great thing to experience once anyhow.

But find better accommodation than we did. If you are in the tent when it rains, you get wet; nothing covers the roof but spaced boards. Hence insects get through, a cat even peed on my shoes from above. Luckily we had no fellow tourists in the tent, that would have been unpleasant. No towels, one sheet. It was cold we covered ourselves with bike jackets, lying on a dirty cushion, on a dirty carpet, on a gravel floor ... vastly over-priced, with the Moroccan-Israeli woman owners’ aloof attitude thrown in pro bono. But another adventure.

Inside the tent, charming when weather is good, bugs luckily absent.

No idea who the woman is, but nice balcony view of Dead Sea.


Drove up thru the West Bank from Dead Sea, to become Palestine eventually, right alongside the security fence below – but did not stay overnight as advised by some soldiers. Not much to see actually, just desert. But agriculture is still happening, somehow they irrigate; the Jordan River is more of a creek by Canadian standards.

West Bank security fence and road.


In Church of Heptapegon, also called the Bread and Fish Church, [map link] is at Tabgha at the top of Sea of Galilee; there is a rock under the altar, the very rock Jesus is said to have broken break/fish and fed 5,000. Not a fancy church, but it has some famous and lovely very old mosaics.

Indeed in all of Israel, the churches are humble compared to what European kings & Popes built – much more consistent with Jesus' teachings of humility.

At the church we encountered a busload of Indian Christians.


In Tiberias [map link] outside our hotel, we encountered Orthodox Jewish students below, from UK, USA, elsewhere.

An easy-going group of guys on holiday.


We spent a day driving the circumference of the Sea of Galilee, very pretty, historical and a fun easy ride.


Top of Golan Heights overlooking Syria, Mount Bental

In Coffee Anan
(known also as Kofi Annan)
The fortress open air museum at top of Golan Heights won in '67.
One can see barely see (or easily target) Damascus from up here.
Beautiful area, Israel will likely give back one day.
At the edge of the fortress, hiking discouragement.


Nazareth [map link].
Home of Ron Factor's famed dairy business: 'The Cheezes of Nazareth'


The very northern tip, right on Lebanon border [map link].


In Tsefat (Safed), a mobile selling-something-religious van ...
on a prayer break ...


The tiny town of Ein Hod [map link] just south of Haifa is an artists' village with fine handcrafts and some actual art.

Nice walking-around town of charming little houses, most of them being retail artists' studios [nice photos and info link.]

A creative, well made and comfortable bench in Ein Hod.


In a teensy no-electricity village called Klil [map link], 45 minutes from where we stayed in Akko [map link], we visited Maxi Katzir at sunset, so photos are not clear. Maxi is dear to all of us who did the 2-week tour in 2004 for Alex Boyman's Bar Mitzvah organized by mom Tiana, dad Marc and uncle Leon.

This was the trip of lifetime and Maxi is the expert guide of a lifetime; if you hire a guide in Israel, which is advisable because there is so much history and culture to be explained – choose no other. He was also part of the fabulous Entebbe Uganda hostage rescue raid which also became a movie, not long before I was there coincidentally; Maxi speaks so many languages, Turkish and Arabic included, knows so much history ... and he runs deep. Great guy, who taught us all so much.

Maxi at his kitchen table.
His house is isolated, up a rough gravel road, Thao walked the last 100 yards. Self-sufficient in electricity, solar mainly, not even on the national grid. He lives on a hill surrounded by olive trees he grows himself, in a historic paradise.

Simple but very green digs he built himself.
Not even on the electrical grid.
But he spends 90% of his time being a guide and lecturing internationally; I think he said he had three weeks at home this year. We had tea, sat out a rain shower and headed home in the dark. Just wanted to say hi and glad we did. The way he lives, surrounded by glorious nature, and thousands of years on-premises history....

On his property are 2000+ year old olive pressing rocks, actually designated as national treasures he looks after. How they made olive oil, they crushed olives and let the juice run into the wells, the good stuff floated to the top. Lots of work but the tools still sit there today. Also ancient dwellings in caves under the rocks, and graves cut into the rocks ... and other things it was too dark to photograph.

Ancient rock olive oil pressing carved from rock.
Maxi stands on the run-off circle where olives were crushed.
Back to ancient nature for Maxi, who is living a great life.


Netanya [map link] is just north of Tel Aviv on the endless white sand beach. It's condo heaven for Israelis, hotels galore, and if you are into beach towns this may be your thing. It didn't do much for us, but the Netanya Park Hotel [link] was a reasonably priced deal for a good room overlooking the beach and town form the balcony, do not recall the price but fair. Being a weekend with not much to do, we spent two nights, rode the town and beach developments – it was just OK, not our style, a bit like Miami suburbs or Ft Lauderdale?


Travels cont’d: Haifa [map link] is a big quite modern container port city winding up big steep Mount Carmel. The best thing we found to see is the remarkable Baha'i Gardens & Temple.

My former arts client Dizzy Gillespie told me he was a Baha'i 25 years ago, I had no idea what it meant and didn’t care. All I knew is he smoked weed, loved women, had a great sense of humor and was such a laid back humble no-attitude guy, especially for one so famous. Oh, and he played the horn pretty well and invented Bee-Bop. So I assumed Baha'i must be a good thing. (He passed away on the same day as Nureyev.)

So, in Haifa decades years later, I learned that Baha'i [link to their web site] is a Muslim-derivative faith started in 1844, so is the world’s newest religion, with some 6 million faithful in 75 countries, even without Dizzy. Their prophet is buried in Haifa (Jewish, remember) Israel and their huge grounds are maintained by some 600-700 volunteers. It’s free to the public.

Louis XIV bow your head in respect, albeit on a different scale than Versailles, the Baha'i grounds are artistically stunning, flawless, not a pebble out of place. I believe the grass must be cut by hand, no lawn mower could get up that steep slope and each blade of grass, each leaf, seems manicured.

Baha'i Gardens, Haifa


A final 'racism' note:
- Last two nights in Haifa, we stayed in a Catholic Nun-owned hostel with crucifixes on the walls, bedside Bibles included.
- That followed Israeli-owned, Moroccan-Arab-owned, Palestinian-owned, French-owned, Lebanese-Arab-owned hotels.
- Some supplied Bibles in the rooms, some supplied a Koran/Quran. Most were non-religious, didn't care less what you happen to believe, they just want your business.
- We ate Vietnamese food at a Chinese-Christian-owned, UN-sponsored refugees restaurant.
- We toured the Haifa Arab quarter and bought (red) keffiyehs for Christmas gifts.
- Visited the new-Muslim Baha'i Gardens.
- Boarded an Indian-Greek-Egyptian 3-religion staffed Greek freighter which does regular Israel trips, and it had a Christmas tree.
- That was after 3 weeks of visiting major churches, synagogues, mosques.
- Name a race/creed and we met it.
- Zero prejudice noticed against this mix-raced couple.
Such a racist country, eh? The least prejudiced, most-diverse race/religion country we have visited this trip. Name one that is more diverse – consider this is a factual challenge for any skeptics.


Its real-world issues. We're not trying to paint a paradise. It's not.

Some rubbish non-issues brushed aside, we all know that Israel does have serious problems, succinctly summarized in The Economist [source link] in it's 2008 wrap-up:
- A poll-confirmed deep decline in public confidence in the institutions of state – the courts, police, Knesset and army included. Apathy and mounting disaffection are creeping in.
- High-level corruption has been successfully prosecuted/jailed but more is under the carpet.
- A 'seriously sick system of democracy'; a fractious proportional representation system which is 'a plethora of amoeba-like parties frequently splitting and regrouping, fragmented coalitions and short-lived governments that serve at the mercy of a few fickle politicians.'
- The Palestinian issue and their civil war between fundamentalist Hamas and more moderate Fatah, making two-state negotiations even more complex, and the hoped-for resolution less likely in the near term.
- Iran is close to building a nuclear weapon, it could even happen in 2009.
In addition, Hamas (Gaza), Hezbollah (Lebanon) plus some smaller extremist groups, were/are almost daily lobbing rockets from their civilian areas into Israel civilian population centers, versus from-to military targets. Numbers are in the range of 7,000 rockets from Gaza – perhaps 10,000 combined from north and south. Human deaths and psychological harm add up.

Clearly they are 'baiting' Israel for PR reasons, while winning political brownie points at home – knowing they cannot conquer Israel with mostly home-made rockets. Both groups are backed by various foreign powers.

Israel is constrained and condemned for both its proportional and its disproportional response – it depends how one choses to define what is fair and smart in their shoes.

One wonders how 'proportional response' would be defined if rockets were fired daily from anywhere into anywhere else: From any European nation into any another; from Georgia into Russia; from Mongolia into China; from one Latin American or African country into another. Germany used a similar tactic against UK in WWII with V2's – Dresden being firebombed and between 25,000-40,000 dead Germans was part of the British retaliation. Anywhere except Israel, the response would happen in days/weeks not years, and would be relatively unconstrained. The western café latte experts would say nothing.

These are, to our knowledge, Israel's most pressing real-world issues.


The departure: We left Israel by boat from Haifa [map link], which isn’t so easy, the boat part I mean. You don’t just find a boat online; it takes hopeful phone calls to people who claim in web ads they do not take passengers, finding in fact that one does. Rosenfeld Shipping [link] is the only one we found. With bike it cost €950 = C$1600 approx; very expensive, you can buy a pair of return plane tickets America-Israel for about that. In any case, it is a 3-night, 2-day uneventful freighter ride when calm seas cooperate. There is also a freighter to Italy but the cost/hassles nearly double. So it’s Piraeus, next to Athens, and then wherever.

Alternatively, you can drive to Egypt or Jordan, but then what? No boats out of those places either. As we subsequently found out (see ‘Getting to India’ blog) – there are few transport choices in this part of the terror-ified world. No more crammed passenger ferries exist like the one I took from Israel to Greece 30 years ago, then with a VW camper. For whatever reasons, the market has spoken. Maybe Intifada had a say as well, dunno.

Only one other passenger was aboard the near-empty freighter, a Russian-Israeli with a slobbering pit bull that stayed in his Audi – the taciturn Russian was not planning on going back I gathered, it was Russia-bound for him. Crew on Cypress-flagged ferry were very friendly Greek, Egyptian and Indian guys. Accommodations and food were quite adequate.

Meanwhile there were well-publicized big riots in Athens, which concerned us unnecessarily regarding cancellations. But we skipped Greece anyhow, see the Italy blog for 'bad attitude bureaucrats' reasons.


A lot like home: There is a huge to-see and to-understand in Israel, but at times in urban areas, driving excellent roads surrounded by modern high rises, ocean resorts, malls, gas stations – a few times we said on the intercom ‘this is almost like being at home.’

Towards the end of our three weeks we were getting bored, perhaps overdosed on history and had seen enough. Two weeks would have been ample. The modern city stuff, well, we don't need to visit Israel to see that.

We were quite ready to leave.

Amazing Jerusalem is quite another story of course, as is the Negev, many Arab, Bedouin, Druse towns, so many races, religions, shades of religions, their attires, the Golan, the mountains, the West Bank … and it’s all so well maintained, so clean, and is mostly totally safe both day and night.

Even in Arab sections we wandered, in Arab-only towns we visited this time and over the years, one sensed little if any hostility. Sometimes quite the opposite, a warm curious welcome from smiling well-fed faces. We saw no beggars or true poverty here.

Even as a minority, Arabs and other groups are better off than their brothers elsewhere – likely they even know it. Many Arabs want to get in, hoping to find work.

One does not get that side of the story on CNN or BBC.

Intrepid biker babe, on the ferry to Greece.

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  1. An absolutely beautiful set of photo's and travel log. I always shocked to learn that certain governments will prevent someone from entering their country if they recently visited Israel. Shame on them. Keep on trucking.
    Mark Borkowski
    Mercantile Mergers & Acquisitions Corp
    (416) 368-8466 ext. 232

  2. Great blog! It's nice to have the 'man-on-the-street' perspective of a country that is so highly disproportionately covered and commented upon in the public media. I think the only times that Israel enjoyed some form of widespread support (Western, of course) was at its inception in 1948 and subsequent to the Six Days' War in 1967. Inordinate criticism and invective spewed upon it at all other times, especially now, beggar rational thought. I have yet to see a reasonable explanation for why this occurs, except for the usual fallback of anti-Semitism. Could this really be?