Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Holy Land - Part 1

--Há uma versão em português logo abaixo--

Oh Leandro, you did it again!!
I always promise myself that it's going to be the last time until it happens again. I'm talking about my mismanagement of travel arrangements. I've always been horrible at organizing a departure, and when it's a trip inside another trip things get even worse.

I didn't miss my flight from Athens to Tel Aviv only because it was my lucky day. Even though my flight was at 22:40, I managed to arrive late at the airport. Having so many things to do that day, I headed to the airport 3 hours later than my original optimistic plan, and thank God I was allowed to take my bike on the subway. Arriving at the airport I still had to organise my stuff and to dissemble part of the bike and pack it.

Guess what? I broke all of my records! For a flight that was scheduled to depart at 22:40 I arrived at the check-in desk at 22:15. The attendant couldn't believe that I was on the Tel Aviv flight and she said: "You are late. You are VERY late!" I was so nervous that the only thing I was able to do was laugh.

After all the procedures, I sat relieved on my window seat, and at 23:15 the plane took off for the 1 hour and 35 minutes flight to Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv
While contemplating the lights of Athens viewed from above, I thought about my trip and how everything in Europe, since Amsterdam, had gone just as planned, and how glad and thankful I was for that. It was time to end this chapter and to begin a new one with other challenges on this adventure.

Arriving in Israel, I slept at the airport and next day reassembled my bike and headed to Giv'atayim, a city next to Tel Aviv, where I had a CouchSurfing host waiting for me. I stayed there for three nights and during the day I went by bike to enjoy the beach and cycle around Tel Aviv.
Bahá'í gardens - Haifa

On leaving Giv'atayim, my plan was to go to Nazareth, but at the place I stopped to sleep, Bat Shlomo, I heard about the Bahá'í gardens in Haifa, which I thought were in Jerusalem. The next day I changed my route and headed to Haifa.

My boss in Brazil was Bahá'í, and he had a big picture of the Bahá'í gardens on the office wall. And then you can see how life is a box full of surprises and craziness, I always admired that picture but never in my mind did I imagine that one day I would have the opportunity to visit that place. Thanks crazy life - the day had arrived!

So I slept two days in Haifa, where I had CouchSurfing hosts, and I went to visit the amazing gardens (a holy place for Bahá'ís) and learned more about the Bahá'í faith.

40 km from there and I was in Nazareth, the city where Jesus grew up. I spent three nights at a French Monastery where the sisters treated me very well, even feeding me. Because I know that institutions like that aren't free hotels where you arrive, eat and leave, I always offer to help with something as a way to thank them for such kindness. And there I went to help in the field, harvesting grapes and clearing tomato beds.

Together with a French lady, I was helping a sister from Ivory Coast, who has been living in Nazareth for 13 years. She said that it's a small world, as not long ago she had read in a Catholic newspaper about my meeting with the Pope, and now there I was as her assistant.

Being in Nazareth was such a special experience. The city is mentioned in the Bible as being the place where the angel Gabriel visited the Virgin Mary to announce the birth of Jesus, and also the place where Jesus spent his childhood. I visited the Basilica of Annunciation and cycled around the city, wondering if Jesus had walked on the streets I was cycling.

After leaving Nazareth I headed to the Sea of Galilee, another special place mentioned in the Bible. It's called "Sea" but it's actually a huge lake. At this point I decided I wasn't going to use the internet or search for places to sleep, but I would camp around the lake and enjoy the silence and the experience of being in such an amazing place.

Sea of Galilee
I visited Capernaum, the city where Jesus and some of His disciples lived and many of His miracles took place. Capernaum is now an archaeological site, but it's no longer a city. You can visit the remains of the city, which include the remains of a synagogue from the 4th century which is built upon the remains of the synagogue where Jesus used to teach, a chapel built on the site of St. Peter's house and the banks of the Sea of Galilee. Next to it there is a property belonging to the Orthodox Church, with a nice church to visit, and next to that is Capernaum National Park. I didn't know it was a National Park until the following day when I also found out that camping is forbidden in that area. Oops, too late!

I would describe my camping in Capernaum as the most special evening of this trip - nothing around, the Sea of Galilee in front lit by a wonderful full moon, and me wondering whether that was the scenario when Jesus walked on that waters.

I then camped for two days on the other side of the lake, where I only rested and swam. I completed the ride at Tiberias where I camped and spent my last day at a water park.

At that park something interesting happened. I left my bike with the security at the entrance and only took a bag with my camera. Then I asked some ladies if I could leave my bag with them while I was in the swimming pool. They agreed, and when I went to get my bag they asked me where I was from. When I said Brazil, they were surprised and immediately asked me to sit down. They gave me something to eat and told me that someone in their family was married to a Brazilian guy, who they immediately called.

Remains of the Synagogue in Capernaum
He was not only a fellow Brazilian, but also from my state, in the south of Brazil. When he learned that I was leaving Tiberias for Jerusalem he invited me to stop in at his place, less than 40 km from there. How could I say No? The city was Beit She'an, and I stayed there for two days. He and his wife's family, a big Palestinian family, treated me with such hospitality it left me speechless. Amazing people!

Leaving Beit She'an I headed to Jerusalem, camping in Mansura, Elyashiv, and Ben Shemen.
Camping in Capernaum

August is said to be the hottest month in Israel, and I was expecting to face very tough days, but fortunately it wasn't as hard as I'd thought. I cycled in the heat, but nothing different from what I had faced in Greece or Italy. The difference was more about roads; there aren't many options and most of the time I was cycling on fast roads or even on the highway.

Israel is a modern country and sometimes I forget I've already left Europe (especially when it comes to prices). And it's different from what I was expecting as it's not only in Tel Aviv that progress has arrived, even the Biblical cities nowadays don't differ much from cities I've been to in Europe or Brazil. And also about the security I can say I feel the same as being in the old continent. I know about the movements of the army and the tension with the situation in neighbouring Syria only by the News, because the country is (at least up to now) very quiet.

On the next post I'll write about Jerusalem, since I'm still visiting the holy city.