topics: opportunity for cultural exchange; Mediterranean beach; environment, refugee camps, Intifada, Palestinian daily life; jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: December 11, 1997

Breakfast: Since we hadn't biked in several days, and we've been eating dinner at a later and later hour, we needed somewhat less food this morning. We've also been so busy that it's been hard to find time for breakfast. So last night we bought some fruit, and that's what we ate on our way to our first meeting, at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) Department of Information (see the Place of the Day).

Lunch: Falafel and humus sandwich stands are found all over the cities of the Middle East, but rarely will one place serve both. So we grabbed a few sandwiches here and there. In one place, some nice young men click to view a photograph showed us the counter where we could choose our own ingredients! click to view a photograph click to view a photograph Of course this makes any sandwich taste just that much better. click to view a photograph In fact, our sandwiches were so good that Anthony tried to get a job there (so he could eat for free) by demonstrating his falafel-making skills. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph

Dinner: Tonight, Emad, the Palestinian Coordinator at the Diwan el Shabab, threw a huge "Farewell to BikeAbout BBQ and All Night Dance Party" with a bunch of his close friends. Why did it last all night? Well, our evening presentations and discussions took a while, and then we still had plenty of work to complete, plus, even after we had arrived at the party, the cooks were still preparing the feast. Also, since Thursday evening is the beginning of the weekend for Muslims (the holy day being in Friday), this was going to be a big deal, with lots of food and fun!

One great thing about tonight was the interesting gender-role switch that took place. While we were aware of the otherwise invisible women who made our amazing meal of maftoul, we neither saw them prepare it nor met them afterwards to thank them personally. Tonight, however, we delighted in watching Emad and at least five or six of his friends running to and from the kitchen of Pizza Land, which was closed to the public for the evening. During the introductions at the start of the meal, as the kitchen doors would swing open and shut with the service of drinks and colorful salads, we could see into the area around the stove. The men were all crowded around, deftly turning meat and vegetables over the fire, or slicing and preparing vegetable side dishes for our delight. It was an excellent meal. So good that, despite a momentary hesitation, even Anthony and Ethan had to admit having been satisfied by this "American Style" BBQ of grilled chicken, lamb, whole onions, jalapeños, and green peppers!

Food of the Day: Bananas

Not many people know what a complete food a banana really is. Like other fruits and vegetables, they are an excellent source of energy, but also low in calories, fat, and cholesterol. Thus, since carbohydrates (our primary energy reserves) are second only to water as the most important thing to cyclists, bananas have become a mainstay in our diet. In Gaza, many fruits and vegetables have to be brought into the refugee camps to be sold. Such is the case with bananas. Since our path was recently crossed by the most famous banana seller in Gaza (who rides around town, standing up all day, every day, in his donkey-pulled cart), we decided to give him, his trade, and the bananas themselves some due credit.

Word of the Day: "Freedom"

Some boys, aged 9–19, lingering at the Shati (Beach) refugee camp in Gaza City, were happy to help us record the kinds of Arabic words that are relevant to youth in Gaza. As we have traveled through Arab-speaking countries, we have sometimes had difficulty finding easy, fun, and interesting Arabic words to share. However, this was no problem for the boys. They overwhelmingly agreed that the most important word to young men in their refugee camp is "freedom"! click to hear an audio clip

Person of the Day: Huda Saldo

Huda Saldo is one of the few female regulars at the Diwan el Shabab — though their numbers are steadily growing! While she enjoys the debates and discussions which take place here, Huda mainly participates in the painting workshops click to view a photograph click to view a photograph, although she doesn't, and never has, studied painting. She likes to paint on her own as well — when the mood takes her — including the work she donated as a mural outside of a women's center, which, working on and off, took her two weeks to complete. click to view a photograph

Place of the Day: United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) click to view a photograph

According to material distributed by its Public Information Office, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)

"has been providing education, health, relief and social services to registered Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip for nearly 47 years. Beginning operations in May 1950, its task was to give emergency assistance to the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. The mandate of the Agency, deriving from a resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1949, has been renewed repeatedly, pending a solution to the Palestine question. The seventeenth mandate extends to 30 June 1999.

Today, UNRWA's largest programme is education, taking up 47% of the 1997 budget, followed by health at 17%, and relief and social services at 10%."

We met briefly with Mr. Lynn Failing, Head of the Department of Information (DOI), who obliged us with a welcome folder and earful of basic information and statistics about the situation in the Gaza Strip and elsewhere. He also told us about some of his experiences after ten years living in Gaza. He brought us into the UNRWA's DOI library of over 400,000 still images that chronicle the Palestinian refugee struggle since 1948. While admitting that some conditions have improved for some of the population in recent years, he let us know that in many ways the circumstances are still desperate.

Tech Fact of the Day: Communicating by regular mail

The truth of the matter is that as great as the Internet is (and we should know, it's pretty swell), when people don't have access to it, it just doesn't help them very much. However, we were told that most local post offices still do a pretty good job at delivering regular mail. Curiously though, here in the refugee camps of Gaza, instead of the postman trying to find individual homes in the maze of unnamed streets, mail is addressed to a local "corner" store where locals can pick up your mail while shopping. We decided to add our own private services and hope to help the correspondence between kids in Gaza and in Israel.

Here is the text of our first piece of mail, as collectively written by the young people at the Beach Camp Sports Club in Gaza:


11 December 1997


We are interested in becoming friends with Israeli students our age. We would like a postcard or letter from a school or sports center in Israel.

We are curious about the struggles of children there, and how they solve their personal problems. We are often feeling terrified, expecting explosions and conflict. Are you?

By the name of God, we are not against Jewish people. We are for a comprehensive peace, which guarantees our rights, so that we can live on our land in freedom, and not as slaves for anybody.

We would like to know what your dreams are. We dream to see Jerusalem free, and to live with you as independent people.

We also dream to play basketball as well as Michael Jordan, and play tennis as well as Boris Becker. One boy dreams he has a magical hat to make him invisible, and able to travel anywhere and everywhere, whenever he wants.

Thank You,

Beach Camp
Sports Club Youth

Group Dispatch, December 11

picture of Corinne

This morning, we awoke completely exhausted from the very lively on-line chat held last night in two different locations. After involved political conversations about hard moral questions click to view a photograph — in several languages to boot — we sure needed the sleep!

Regardless, we pulled ourselves out of bed and went off to our first visit of the day at the Gaza headquarters of UNRWA's Public Information Office (see our Place of the Day). click to view a photograph The UNRWA was formed as a result of a United Nations resolution made in December 1949. Its mission is and has been to provide crisis assistance, general education, and vocational training facilities for the growing population of registered refugees in Gaza and other refugee hot spots. It also works to document everything that happens in and around the camps and then to keep the world apprised on the refugee situation.

We were able to meet with Mr. Lynn Failing, Head of the Public Information Office. He spoke to us at length about the wide range of UNRWA activities in Gaza and the many analyses of the present and future situation.

For more information and a great deal more data about UNRWA activities in Gaza and elsewhere, please write, call, or fax:

Public Information Office
P.O. Box 371, Gaza City
Tel: +972 7 677.7333, +972 7 677.7525
Fax: +972 7 677.7555, +972 7 677.7697

After this meeting — and for the first time during our stay in Gaza — we had a few hours to ourselves with no obligations or escorts. We used this time for a short exploration of Gaza City on foot click to view a photograph, a modest but filling lunch click to view a photograph, and a visit to our friend, the Mediterranean Sea. click to view a photograph We could never have imagined what we would find here when we first looked at the sea from Spain, far at the other end at the start of our Mediterranean journey . . .

It struck us that the rocky, garbage-strewn stretch of beach we found click to view a photograph — spread out as it was before the sea click to view a photograph — was the sole force lining our past Mediterranean experiences with this place. It had almost seemed that since Gaza is such a completely different world, the sea would be alien to us as well. But the sea was the same as always — roaring now in the wind and slight chill of the winter air, with high white crashing waves, and the same serene sounds we had heard in Morocco, Tunisia, Sicily, and Egypt — despite the struggle and oppression on the shore. It was a quiet moment of contemplation for us all. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph

As we made our way, without a map, slowly back up to the Diwan el Shabab to prepare for our afternoon meetings, we strolled through the Shati, or Beach, Refugee Camp. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph We hadn't seen it yet, and it was definitely a point of interest for its present-day value in understanding the quality of life of the majority of Palestinians in Gaza. We realized that throughout Gaza, the kinds of visits we had made were unlike those during our stays in other countries, where we had made a point of also experiencing the usual ruins or historical museums. In fact, many of the ancient or historic sites that might have been worth visiting in Gaza for an understanding of the moving past in this important part of the Mediterranean are long destroyed, to be recalled only in books and legends.

But, given the recent history of Gaza, contemporary issues matter much more to the Palestinians who live here, and the evidence was all around us. As with many refugee camps, the roads and buildings in Shati needed work (although not as much as what we had seen at Jabalia). click to view a photograph And so do the people. The rapid growth in population levels in Gaza has far outpaced the potential for economic and industrial growth, so unemployment levels are very high.

At one point, a handful of obviously very bored and restless small boys started throwing sand clumps and small stones at us. At first, this was not a big deal, but it continued. We turned around to ask them what the problem was, and the reason was obvious. Right behind these boys, and just next to us, were two landmarks from the Intifada. The first was a large drawing of a young man throwing a stone. Next to it was a plaque that resembled a war memorial and may, in fact, have been one (since it had a list of dates and what may have been the names of "martyrs"). The second was an intersection monument with crossed guns probably from the same occasion. We had already been told that sometimes any white people represent a threat to these kids who are unable to distinguish between friends and enemies.

Back at the Diwan, we had a few minutes to catch our breaths before the afternoon meetings began. Ethan decided that his afternoon would best be spent working on backlogged dispatches and correspondence, and andrEa admitted that the emotional pressure of the past few days had taxed her limits. So, Anthony gave another presentation at the Diwan and moderated more intriguing discussions about the restraints and harassment all (and especially young) Palestinians face when wishing to cross their borders.

Meanwhile, Corinne and Emad went back to the Shati Beach Camp together, and introduced the Internet to a group of boys at the local sports center. All the young people outside — about 15 boys between nine and 19 years old, as well as one adult observer — playing basketball were invited inside. Also disturbed by the BikeAbout team's ability to travel so freely, the boys in the group discussed using the Internet as a tool for communication with the outside, as well as for educational purposes, since the school system in their refugee camp leaves much to be desired.

When asked what statement they would like put on the Internet about their lives, here's what they said: "The youth of Palestine suffer a lot, and are trying to build a country that wants to live in peace, without violence, and in cooperation with the rest of the world. We are teenagers, but we were never children; today we aren't educated because the streets were closed and we couldn't attend school. Until recently, we couldn't even come to this sports club. The occupation destroyed everything in our land: the culture, the economy, and the people's pride and dignity."

Corinne then suggested that everyone collectively write a letter for Israeli students. She will carry it on her computer to a BikeAbout classroom or sports club in Israel, and use it to start a correspondence. After much discussion, a few statements and questions were devised, aimed at school children under age 11. See our Tech Fact of the Day for more about the interests of the youth here, and the letter itself.

Once we reconvened at the Diwan, it was time to eat and party. A wonderful BBQ bash had been arranged for BikeAbout's departure, starting with a delicious "home-cooked" dinner courtesy of the Pizza Land crew. At this time, we were honored to meet Emad's closest friends, whose occupations ranged from performance art to aviation, and everything in between.

After eating and drinking in true feast fashion, the tables and chairs were removed, the music was turned up, and the dancing began. Conga lines, Arabian dance, modern music, and good old fashion funk had the entire group up and grooving at one point or another. In all the madness, one of our Casio digital still camera was damaged, so unfortunately no pictures from this event are available! No, really — there's no evidence (aren't we clever . . . )! But we did salvage one quite goofy preparatory photo of Corinne and Emad, before the festivities began. click to view a photograph

Before we knew it, it was late, and we knew we had to bike the next day, but the opportunity to cut loose couldn't be passed up. It was hard to think of leaving our good friends from DIA and the Diwan el Shabab, and none of us wanted the evening to end. It took almost an hour to say goodbye to everyone and drag ourselves away from the warmth and welcome of our friends. Gaza holds many memories for us, both fond and frustrating. It will forever hold a place in our hearts.

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Internet access while in Palestine was provided by PalNet. Internet access while in Gaza was arranged by PalNet's representative in Gaza, Modern Electronic Company (MECo.).

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