ix Decades of Life


Northern Israel, February 14-15, 2002

Gerry at Avis Office
Gerry at Avis Office

To celebrate Gerry’s birthday we rented a car for two days to see some of the north of Israel. We had booked a car at Avis via the Internet. Since they opened at 8:00am we got up at 7:00 and walked the few blocks to their offices on King David St. While there doing the paperwork the clerk told us that Visa and Amex would not cover CDW — only Gold Mastercard would do. Only Jan was carrying a Gold Mastercard so we said we'd use that; but the clerk said then she'd have to be the driver. As it was his birthday treat, Gerry was to get to do all of the driving (and pick the places to go) so he went home to get his Gold card. Fortunately that only took 10 minutes. But all in all, it delayed our departure until past 8:30.

After adjusting the car a bit we left the Avis office and went north past the Jaffa gate and turned east to go past the north side of the Old City. As soon as we passed the Damascus gate we were in “new territory” for us — the Arab part of Jerusalem. Before choosing this route we had wondered about the safety of it. Could there be any hotheads who would throw a stone or, even worse, shoot something at us? The farther we got into Arab areas and the farther we got from West Jerusalem and Jewish areas the more this seemed a concern. A knot of tension was developing in Jan's stomach. But for Gerry he also simultaneously got more assured. The world outside our cocoon seemed quiet enough and there were plenty of other vehicles on the road. Why would anybody pick on us? [Later we read about two U.N. observers who were shot at while driving in the West Bank. The gunmen thought they were Israelis.]

We made our way east and down off the heights of the Jerusalem hills, often having views of the Jordan Valley and Judean desert ahead of us. Beautiful and impressive. Our city street met Hwy 1 and, passing a one lane security constriction, we were on real highway, heading toward our junction with Hwy 90. Twenty or so km later we were at the junction, but upon seeing a sign for the Dead Sea, we went a few hundred meters beyond it, parked, and climbed a small mound to get a view of the sea. The panorama was wonderful, but the Dead Sea itself was more lost in mist than not. This, unknown to us, was a harbinger of things to come: natural haze obscuring what at their best would have been spectacular views.

Jan by this time had developed quite a bad stomach ache from the self-imposed tension of the departure. At this point she decided that conscious efforts were needed to counteract the effects of her fear. As the day wore on, she managed to gradually overcome her nerves, banish the stomach ache, and settle down to enjoy the day. It reminded her so much of the days in Iran when she had so feared the knock on the door that would bring the police to arrest Gerry because of his visa problems. The knock never came, but the fear and the memory of the fear have lasted.

Israeli Army Check Point
Israeli Army Check Point

We got back into the car, made a U-turn, and turned right onto the start of our drive north on Hwy 90. Immediately we came to our first true road block. All very casual, but there it was: another constricted section that only allowed one vehicle to pass at a time, with half a dozen young soldiers standing about, apparently very relaxed. We just slowed and rolled by; no close inspection for us. We thought of this place and a half dozen others like it when we read three days later that Palestinian terrorists had attacked a similar post and killed one soldier and wounded another. In outward appearance it was much like the roadblocks we had passed so often in Egypt, except that somehow here it seemed so much more serious.

Hwy 90 makes a big by-pass loop around Jericho. In 1985 coming south from the Galilee on a bus we went right through the center of the town. Now security didn't allow that. At the Avis office we were told we shouldn't/ couldn't (which was it?) go into town. Out to the left we could see some of its buildings; behind it we could the see the Judean Hills. Along the road were fields including what seemed to be a new palm tree plantation.

We were now in the Jordan Valley on a meandering road semi paralleling the meandering Jordan river, wondering when we would see it. Finally, there was a conjunction of a small rise of the road and a closeness of the river and Gerry got a glimpse of it. Jan missed it, being unprepared. Not surprising as, although very famous, it is a small river as such things go.

After the Judean Hills (and especially after the Egyptian country side and the Sinai desert) the Jordan valley seemed to us like the biblical land of milk and honey. Such green had long been absent from our eyes. We recalled to mind how Iranians and the Qoran paint heaven as being a vast garden with abundant waters and easily understood this choice of imagery. Now much of the greenery came from irrigated fields. We saw many date plantations and banana tree plantations. Both had a novelty for us: the fruit pods were encased in plastic bags. We had never seen this on banana trees in south-east Asia. Some bags were blue, like the blue bags we use for packing our clothes while traveling and we jokingly asked ourselves how these growers managed to get so many bags discarded from the Sunday New York Times.

West Bank Arab selecting tomatoes
West Bank Arab selecting tomatoes

Most of the land though was devoted to market vegetables. Perishables for the cities. In Israel, like most of the world, the majority of people are urbanites, living crowded in cities and the countryside is open with relatively few people. As we went on, perhaps near Mehola and 20 km south of Beit She’an, to which all of the traffic signs pointed, we stopped to buy tomatoes from a road side stand. In fact, we had tomatoes in the fridge at home, but Gerry wanted the opportunity to talk to someone who lived and worked here and was not averse to spending a few shekels in the process. The very friendly young Arab men only had flat boxes for sale (maybe 10 kgs) and we just wanted 2 kgs. So they ran and got a bag and gave us what we think is 4-5 kgs for the price of 2 kgs. We also let ourselves be persuaded to buy some wonderfully fresh tasting broad beans. They seemed happy to learn that we were Americans and even happier when Gerry agreed to take their photos. Hardly down the road from there we stopped to take a picture and another young Arab man came running out of the field with a handful of tomatoes. We declined to buy them and he indicated they were a gift. The overall impression was of course that they were starved of customers. Certainly before the intifada, there would have been lots of Israeli vehicles here buying their vegetables. What a terrible disaster this intifada has been for everyone concerned. Six weeks later we still had some of these tomatoes in our refrigerator. They proved very tasty and long-lasting.

After leaving the Jordan Valley we went on north for a day in the Golan and a night and morning in the west Galilee. The rest of the day was spent on the north Mediterranean Coast. It was an easy drive to Akko, except that we detoured to Nahariya, where we walked along the modern beach front and ate the rest of our sandwiches.

Then we had to get home. We hadn't any real idea where we were or which direction would lead to Tel Aviv. We asked and were told “go up the hill - and up and up.” So we started that. In just a km we were lost and were pondering if we should turn left, when a taxi driver stopped us, and asked in broken English, “How do you get to Jerusalem?” We might have said, “Follow us” but he was gone before we had that idea. We did turn left and went up and up and up. At the top of the hill we still didn't know where we were, but assumed that we had climbed the north side and should now descend the south side. We turned left, hoping it would lead to Hwys 672 and 721 and take us down the hill. Instead it went higher and higher and we were more and more on a remote part of the hill. But, voila! A sign — we were on Hwy 672 and shortly thereafter we turned right onto Hwy 721.

From there it was easy. Over to the superhighway, Hwy 2, and head south among mad Israeli drivers. This was the first time we'd driven at high speed and we were doing it at night. In fact, they weren't too mad and Jan, suprisingly, got comfortable enough to take a catnap. With only a little trouble, (the signs seemed to give very little time to react) we followed the signs to the Jerusalem turn off, got to Jerusalem, and again, with no trouble navigated its streets in a car for the first time straight to our door. It did help that we had walked all of them before. And, final pleasure, we found a parking place just down the street from our apartment. If we had been more trusting, we would have taken the car 150 m farther and parked in front of our door at the empty space waiting for us.

August 21, 2004