topics: Intifada, security checkpoints, border crossing, leaving Egypt, environment, vegetation; jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: December 7, 1997

Breakfast: On our way out the door, we gobbled bread, juices, and cookies bought the night before, so we could get on the road as quickly as possible. Little did we know there'd be a delay.

Lunch: After crossing the Egyptian border, we had to rely on the kindness of strangers to point us toward Gaza City. However, we had to rely on our tired and HUNGRY bodies to get us there. Fed up with not being fed, andrEa finally hunted down a grocery store, but it didn't have much we could eat. The shelves were mostly full of foods that you cook, rather than take away. Regardless, she scavenged enough yogurts, toasted breads, and candy bars to get us by for a few more hours. Unfortunately, there was not enough water to be found . . .

Dinner: Once we'd had tea and juice to revive us after our journey in the darkness to the DIA office, it was Pizza Land time — for our stay, the wise and resourceful folks at DIA enlisted the sponsorship of the local pizza chain, and our delicious meal of salads and three kinds of pizzas were "on the house." What a welcome!

Food of the Day: Spinach rolls

Once inside Gaza City, when no one else could help us with directions, we called the DIA office for assistance. andrEa again used this time to investigate some of the local food options. She picked up a few flat breads, apparently called "Iraqi bread," and some spinach rolls. Spinach rolls are shaped like cinnamon rolls. A flaky phyllo (pastry) dough is wrapped around spicy cooked spinach, then shaped, and baked. Both new foods were served hot, which made us all very, very happy.

Word of the Day: Yah jazah — "to attack"

According to some (but not all) of our local sources, the word from which "Gaza" originates is actually a verb: the old rabic word is more or less pronounced "yah jazah," meaning "to attack." Due to the strategic seaside location of the Gaza Strip (see the Place of the Day), it has, throughout history, so often been under attack that the word became what the place was called. As time went on, the word/name was shortened, and became a noun — "Gaza."

Person of the Day: Emad Ahmed click to view a photograph

Emad Ahmed click to view a photograph now has two jobs. When he's not seeing to the needs of the BikeAbout team and facilitating our many meetings, exchanges, and tours — Emad is in charge of audio/video at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. A filmmaker, photographer click to view a photograph, media wiz, and all around great guy, Emad helped set up the DIA-sponsored "Diwan el Shabab," or "Meeting Place for Young People" in Gaza City. Since this type of youth center was not possible during the Israeli occupation, it had been a long time coming, and was a much-needed opportunity for Palestinian youth to spend time together and express themselves.

Place of the Day: Gaza Strip

The Gaza Strip is the band of land wedged between the Mediterranean on the west and the Negev Desert on the east. It is about 40 km (25 mi) long and only six km (4 mi) wide (at its thinnest point). Latest estimates are that it is home to more than one million people, of which some 4,000 are Israeli living in 20 protected Jewish settlements. Most Palestinians live in the cities of Rafah, Khan Younis, and Gaza, or in eight refugee camps (Rafah, Khan Younis, Deir el-Balah, Maghazi, Nuseirat, Bureij, Shati (Beach) and Jabalia).

Starting in 1948, the Gaza Strip was turned over to the Palestinian people as an area where they could make a home. When 200,000 refugees arrived, the first signs of two major problems became clear — terrible overcrowding as a result of dramatic population growth, and a political struggle between Palestinians and the Israeli government, the latter having repeatedly instituted policies that many Palestinians feel prevent and/or stunt their economic growth.

In 1987, Gaza was home to the Palestinian uprising, known as the Intifada, during which the citizens of Gaza (and the West Bank and Jerusalem) took a more active role (stone throwing and petrol bombing) in demanding recognition as a suffering people. Still today, the entire Gaza Strip is fenced in by razor wire. However, since the partial withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip, it has become a semi-autonomous zone under the management of the Palestinian National Authority, and has been able to start its own process of rebuilding and recovery.

Tech Fact of the Day: Security checkpoints

Security checkpoints are found at many places throughout both Palestine and Israel, sometimes as close together as every five km. We crossed many of them, but as we went deeper into the Gaza territory, it was obvious that not all were the same. Sometimes we had to show our passports; other times we didn't even have to stop. Some did not even have a barricade, and often the uniforms of the men had a color and style different from the one before or after it. It was confusing . . .

We were later told that there are at least 13 known security agencies operating in the Gaza Strip, and that each of these has three divisions, one each for south, north, and middle Gaza. These agencies include the police, a secret police, the four departments of the National Army, the Special Service, Force 17 (the President's personal security service), and a number of privately-managed services. The word on the street, heard only in a whisper, is that there are so many security services because everyone is constantly checking on everyone else!

Group Dispatch, December 7

picture of Corinne

On Sunday we awoke with the sun — just after the first call to prayer — ready to tackle the distance before us, but less sure about the border crossings. Today was the day when we would tackle the event about which we had been thinking for quite some time: the trip to Gaza through a famously long border control that we had heard would involve three checks — one by the Egyptians when we left Egypt, one by the Israelis when we entered Israel, and a third by the Palestinians when we crossed into the territory under the administration of the Palestinian National Authority (the Palestinian Government). We decided to leave Al Arish extra early so we would have plenty of time at the borders and still arrive in Gaza by early afternoon, thus making the most of our day. If only life were so easy.

Ethan's bike was the first one totally packed, so he went to the hotel reception with the money for our two-night stay in Al Arish. The price agreed to two days ago by andrEa and Corinne with the receptionist was a total of 86 Egyptian Pounds (about US$25), but Ethan came back outside to announce that he was being charged 86 U.S. dollars, a price three times the agreed terms! In a heartbeat, both Corinne and andrEa were inside. Unfortunately, the gentleman at the front desk was not the person with whom they had originally spoken, and it took quite some time to convince anyone that we wouldn't pay the new, increased price they were asking.

The struggle lasted about an hour, and involved a call to the other desk person, then the owner of the hotel, and finally the front desk manager. (Of course Corinne was ready and willing to wake up the Prophets themselves to state her case, but she's a little uppity that way.) The point is that they faced a simple, though crucial, misunderstanding. When Corinne and andrEa had originally asked how many Egyptian Pounds rooms in the hotel cost, the person behind the desk answered with a number. He meant to say that number was in US dollars, but neglected to do so. So, since the BikeAbout team had budgeted a very modest amount of money for the hotel and border crossing, they did not have enough money to pay this new price!

As the argument persisted, Padraic decided to visit the local travel agent. His travel plans — which involve an early departure — may be affected by a labor strike in Israel that has closed the airport there. He needed to decide from where he would be able to fly back to the USA during the break, first for a wedding, and then for the holidays. He and Anthony promised to catch up with us by the time we reached the border later that day. They had plenty of time, since Corinne and andrEa were in the middle of descriptive analogies in an attempt to explain the situation to an increasing number of men at the front desk.

First Corinne asked what these men would do if they ordered a restaurant meal that they were led to believe was one price, but, once they had eaten it, were told it was triple that price. Would they pay the new price or the old? They had no answer. Then andrEa asked if they honestly thought we would check into a hotel we didn't have enough money to pay for. Of course not. Who would? Again, blank stares. A good amount of bartering had to take place, but in the end, we gave them all the money we thought we could spare while still holding enough to get through the border. We thought that that was mutually fair, given that the misunderstanding was essentially no one's fault. We finally hit the road well over an hour and a half behind schedule, no longer certain we would make it to Gaza City by dark.

The road to border was flanked by more sand and shrubbery, and increasingly hilly, for about 42 km (26 mi). andrEa joked that it sure would be nice if the road after the border was a continual downward incline, but none of us were fools enough to be that hopeful. At least the road was quiet, as had been the case when biking across the Sinai. In fact, the road was so quiet that not far from the border, in one tiny town we paused in when looking for a small lunch, we got our first tiny taste of the plight of border refugee areas. There was one abandoned gas station, and neither of the two family-run stores had any bread or water for sale. We tried to buy fruit, but had money in bills that were too large, so no change could be made. That meant delaying lunch until after we crossed the border, which we expected to take several hours. And it was already 11 a.m.

At the border, we confirmed our strategy to try not to get any stamps in our passports. Since, after Palestine and Israel, BikeAbout will be pursuing its trip in Lebanon and Syria — two countries that will not allow people who have traveled in Israel to travel within their borders — a passport stamp from the Egyptian/Israeli border at Rafah could mean that entry would be prohibited elsewhere later. We were prepared to explain this to everyone. And did. But, despite our efforts, we all got stamped. We decided we would have to keep our fingers crossed at the Lebanese border, and hope that the guards there would be more sympathetic.

After our luggage was checked (by an x-ray machine) and then re-checked (by hand), we scraped together our last remaining pounds and piastres to come up with the 80 Egyptian pounds (16 each, for a total of about US$25) necessary to leave. Due to the financial set-back we suffered earlier at our hotel, we all had to empty every pocket and purse to come up with exactly the right amount. Whew. We all shrugged and smiled charmingly, and the baffled but amused money collector shook his head. It may have been the first time he's seen such poor Westerners. It seemed our luck was increasing already.

We intended to cross the official barbed-wire border on our bikes, but some men operating a bus shuttle across the border insisted that it was too dangerous for us on bikes, even indicating with gestures that we were sure to be machined-gunned down in the no-man's-land. They tried to convince us to take our bikes on their bus all the way to Tel Aviv, and didn't seem to believe us when we told them we were headed to Gaza . . . to stay in Gaza. However, after they started helping us take the luggage off the bikes and told us that it would cost 20 Egyptian pounds, we promptly told them that we had no money, at all. Stunned, they backed off, and directed us to bike through to the gate and the border crossing. Which is what we had wanted to do in the first place. This was just the first of a series of events that made the whole border crossing experience completely surreal.

So, after having out passports checked at least another five times, we were finally at the line near the border gate itself. On bikes, we are fortunate since we can always scoot past idling cars, freight trucks, and full-to-the-gills buses. At the gate, we were asked a few more questions from various uniformed officials. And then we were out of Egypt and in the baking sun of the no-man's-land for entry through the Israeli gate system, which was automated, rather than manual.

The standard barren dirt trench of the no-man's-land, plus the endlessly stretched hoops of razor wire fencing, was normal. Even the security and guns — which we never would have thought a person could get used to, but we have — were not too shocking either. But the strangest thing happened as we made the short ten-meter (33-foot) gate-to-gate journey: EVERYTHING changed! After the mostly unbecoming atmospheres of the many border areas we have thus far encountered, the Israeli zone was bizarrely welcoming. We felt as if we had arrived in a small paradise. Most of the border police and customs officials on the Israeli side were female, and still more, they were all under the age of 25. Lush, flowering bushes, grass, and tall trees — remember, we are still in the desert! — flourished in the mist of what seemed to be a 24-hour automatic sprinkler system.

Inside the customs and immigration building, after countless questions, more forms, more unfortunate stamps (which will definitely make it absolutely impossible to go to Lebanon and Syria unless we completely replace our passports), and another go-around with packing and unpacking luggage, we were ready to enter Israeli territory. The entire process had taken only two hours, total. We all thought that we had made good time. Except that we needed to change money, we were still behind schedule, the sun would go down soon and fast, we hadn't eaten, we were fading mentally and physically, and there were no road signs indicating how to get to the Gaza Strip. In other words, our day had really only just begun.

It took us another 15 minutes of aimless cycling around the border facility before we finally located the gate leading to Palestinian territory. Most people coming through the border in our direction carry on straight through to Israel proper on a road that skirts along the gate enclosing the Gaza Strip. But we were trying to find a way in. When we found the gate, we pressed a buzzer and just waited and waited and waited until mysteriously, without any warning, it opened and passed through. We had been expecting a Palestinian passport control, but never saw anyone official.

While we had hoped to take the seaside route to Gaza City — a much more direct road through less populated areas — we were both advised against it by locals. But we still felt the need to give it a try . . . until we were stopped at a heavily armed Israeli military roadblock. A Keanu Reeves look-alike Israeli soldier (we wanted to take a picture but it's sort of illegal) explained it in no uncertain terms: They wouldn't let us onto the road without knowing who we were, what we were doing there, and why we had come without prior permission. Indeed all non-military vehicles that crossed in either direction through the mass of sandbags and soldiers had a military escort on both ends, so the prospect looked bleak. Our explanation — a plainly statement that we were on our way to Gaza — immediately raised suspicion, so after at least 15 minutes of listening to Hebrew walkie-talkie banter, we were asked to turn around and take the longer, more complicated internal road. Oh well.

On this main road, it was quickly apparent that despite the Israeli fašade at the border crossing, the new land we were to encounter here would be one of settlements and refugees, of a poor and struggling people, a land run by men and men only. It was also one of many security checkpoints (see the Tech Fact of the Day).

While no one at any of the security checkpoints or border crossings was ever rude or mean spirited, everyone, Everyone, EVERYONE was cautious. We still had no idea what to expect — other than the normal curiosity about is and concern that we're all crazy — and were full of trepidation. So, we were glad to be welcomed without too many additional questions or delays. The things that took getting used to were the constant security checkpoints and never knowing at which one we would be required to stop, or show passports, or do nothing but wave and smile from our bikes.

From far away, as we approached Gaza City, we recognized the familiar smog you see in any big metropolitan. And though we kept a swift and steady pace (with andrEa's realized premonition of a downhill second leg after the borders), still hoping to beat the sun, the rural areas never seemed to evolve into the urban. And the gory haze we could see maintained its distance and intensity. It was really very odd.

Our final destination always seemed like it was 12 km (7.5 mi) further than we realized, which is a pretty significant difference when we were fast running out of sunlight. But once we were in the city, there was no mistaking that it was, in fact, Gaza City. We hit the strange haze as if we hit a wall. We could see it, smell it, taste it, and feel it in the air. The cars' headlights were all on in order to cut through the dust like a flashlight through fog. With so few bike lights, we were grateful that the drivers would be able to see us — grateful except when we were blinded by the beams, which had been so infrequent and unlikely in Egypt.

All of Gaza seemed to be under re-construction and the streets were full of dirt, sand, cement dust, and grit — all adding to our blindness. Fortunately, it was just as we lost the last wisps of light in the sky that we were far enough into the city for the streetlights to appear, and the roads themselves broadened to boulevards.

Because we had no city map, we again began our never-ending quest for information at every crossroads or road fork. Despite this inconvenience, the locals were extremely helpful and pointed us almost directly to the address for which we were looking. When we ran out of people to ask, however, we called it quits and decided it was time to find a phone and some food. Ethan convinced a shop owner to call on our behalf, and andrEa found two new treats for us: Iraqi bread and spinach rolls! (see the Food of the Day).

Thankfully, our new friends Emmanuel and Emad (see the Person of the Day) from the DIA-sponsored Diwan el Shabab, or Meeting Place for Young People, met us at the corner where we had stopped and then escorted us to the DIA building. Once inside the large yard and complex, we were all served both tea and juice, given the run-down of our jaw-dropping but exciting agenda for such a short stay in Gaza, and then taken to dinner at a new downtown pizza place called Pizza Land. We will certainly need the energy.

When we arrived back at the DIA building, our bikes had been safely stored inside and two special rooms had been readied for us to sleep in. The Internet Room was appropriately chosen for all our luggage and computers and gear, and we would sleep in the Audio/Video Room. Comfy foam mats and scrumptiously warm blankets were laid out in neat rows on the floor. We were asleep in no time at all.

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