It all starts with a quick safety check. A beautiful, young woman checks my passport and asks a few informative questions. To make sure I don’t drown in her beautiful eyes there is a man standing next to her with a big machine gun and a very serious look on his face. Joking is definitely not allowed at the Israeli border post. After the first check they need to check my passport. That’s where all the troubles starts. First of all my phone fell out of my pockets so when I arrive at the immigration desk they send me right back to pick up my lost item, which makes me look already very nervous and suspicious.
Once I’m back the interrogations start. My immigration officer clearly has Ethiopian roots (the Beta Israel are Ethiopian Jews and they were literarily airlifted from Ethiopia at the end of the eighties after prosecution by the government.) So I start to ask her if she has Ethiopian roots. She smiles and nods. Finally, I’ve broken the ice! She even starts to be friendly and nice just until she asks me to explain the route I followed to get from Rwanda to Israel. I start with Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, …. then very quick and silent I murmur: “Sudan, Saudi Arabia”. I see that a frown has appeared on her forehead. Sudan’s relationship with Israel is just slightly better than Iran but it poses according to the Israelis a big terroristic threat. “I’m sorry sir but I will have to ask you a lot of questions now, be prepared!” she warns me. Very nice that she warns me but than we set off on a quest to answer her whole list of questions: what was the first name of your grandparents? They’re all death. I can barely remember the name of my mother’s father, he died when I was six and I never called him by his first name. Just in time I can remember his name before it becomes suspicious. Do I speak Arabic? No, I wish I could (wrong answer, idiot! Stick to the basics, stick to your story) Why am I getting nervous? I’m completely legitimate. I have nothing to hide. I get the feeling I’m deemed to be guilty of something I haven’t done. I don’t even know what exactly. It feels a bit like Kafka’s “The Trial”.
After a while the interview ends and I can send my luggage through X-ray scanners. My motorcycle is being checked in a garage, they close the doors so I have no idea what they’re doing to Kermit. After a while I can take my luggage and my motorcycle is released. I have to wait inside the immigration building. It’s Friday night and Sabbath has already begun. Some bored security officers are hanging around in the entrance hall. A few female officers are watching movies on their smartphones and laughing in Hebrew. After a while I ask how long it will take to get my passport back. “maybe one or two hours” one of the officers tells me. “what?” The Sudanese visa rang some alarm bells and now they’re verifying every single detail of my story. I have no idea what they’re doing in that backroom with my passport. One of the girls sees how desperate I am and asks me if I want a coffee. I gladly accept her offer. It’s already a long time after sundown when an older lady, the chief of security gives me my passport. She says she will also help me with my temporary registration and insurance for my motorbike. We arrive at a registration desk with two bored girls who don’t seem very pleased with the extra (only) work they’re getting. The older registration lady is very kind. She’s a big lady with a loud laugh and the type that gives orders to everybody all the time. Which makes sense because she seems to be the boss.
The two desk girls are not able to register my bike. The chief rolls with her eyes and makes a gesture at me to show me that those two stooges are not the sharpest tools in the shed. I think she might be right. After one hour of trying all different kind of things to register my bike the verdict is clear: the main server is down, (he’s also having Sabbath), you need to come back first thing tomorrow morning. The security chief apologizes and proposes me to come back at nine the next morning. They allow me to pitch my tent on an abandoned gas station just behind the border post but I have to leave my motorcycle behind.
They first want to inform the border patrols so I don’t get in any trouble. I pitch my tent at the very end of the gas station just next to an abandoned Mercedes truck engine for some extra shelter. I’m lucky, I still have one package of noodles left. After a good night of sleep I wake up with the sun shining and a bright blue sky. Full of good spirit I head back to the border and to my motorcycle.
The chief of security lady greets me with her abundant smile and a coffee. After a few hours the problems are solved and I get my temporary import permit and insurance. I’m a happy man when I finally can leave. I’ve made It one step closer to home!
I’m riding towards Haifa, which is one of the most important ports of Israël. I will try to ship my bike from there to Europe. I also have an old friend (Adrian) from Leuven who lives in Haifa, but he will only arrive home around 9 o’clock at night. So I decide to make a detour and watch what this famous lake of Galilee is all about. Israel and Palestine are full of these biblical places where I’ve heard from way before I ever knew what Barcelona or Berlin was. The lake of Galilee, Bethlehem, Nazareth, the Jordan: they all sound so familiar to me but I’ve never seen those places. (Apart from some drawings in the children’s bible, I got quite a Catholic education the first years of my life).
Then it happens. After a few months a woman accepts a ride on my motorbike. She’s standing next to a burger place where I had lunch with some friends. They’re hitchhiking and apparently only Liora (because that’s her name) needs to go to Tiberias, about 10 km further to catch her train.
It’s not that I look like a potential rapist, although my longer beard and hair could indicate the opposite, but I still think you need to posses some degree of fearlessness to accept a ride from a complete stranger as a woman. But it’s clear that this daughter of Israel doesn’t worry. And why would she? After a two year obligatory military service she probably know how to knock me over in a split second.
We don’t talk that much. With the same speed and finesse she got on the bike she jumps off once we stop in Tiberias. I can take a quick picture and then she’s off. I strikes me that a lot of woman in Israel a very natural, no extreme high heels, no abundance of make-up, everything just quite modest.
Tiberias is a small city on the west side of the lake of Galilee, famous for its hot springs. It’s still Sabbath so a lot of people are having picnics on the shores of the lake. Adrian sends me a message to inform me there’s still some snow on mount Hermon (the highest mountain of Israel) and that it’s definitely worth a visit. It’s also the only ski station in Israel, he informs me. I’m quite surprised, I never expected to see people ski in the middle east. I decide to visit this magical ski place and drive up north right through the Golan Heights. I stop and take pictures from time to time. This piece of land has been the scenery of some furious fighting in the past. Israel conquered it from Syria after the six-day war in 1967 and since the eighties official annexed it. Internationally, it’s still seen as Syrian territory.
As I stop to take a picture off the beautiful landscape a car stops in front of me. Four Asians get out of the car. Just as I wonder which Asian nationality these men would have, one of them solves my problem by introducing himself as Chinese. I smile and we shake hands. Then the whole things takes a weird turn.
“Do you know where we could find some big military installations?” he asks me.
“what?” I answer.
“Yes, big military camps, you know” and he starts to give an impersonation of guns and artillery. “pang, pang, pow” All of this without losing his smile.
I tell him I’ve seen an artillery battalion down the road, a few kilometers back. He thanks me with a big smile, yells something, seemingly less friendly, to his comrades, they jump into their mid-range rental car and speed off. They leave me behind confused and worried. What are their plans? Are these the worlds worst spies? Or just strange tourists who love to takes pictures of military installations and get into trouble for that? (Because that’s what happens when you take pictures of military installations.)
I didn’t give any state secrets to this gentleman. I mean not that I know off. And even if I did, there are only a few cows that witnessed our conversation. At least that’s what I hope… .
Mount Hermon lies just on the border with Syria and Lebanon. But some of its’ slopes are on Israeli claimed territory. It’s already late in the afternoon when I want to drive up to the ski lifts but the road up to the mountain is closed. For certain security reasons the road closes after 3 pm. It makes sense to me if you have a ski resort just next to a country in the middle of a civil war. I’m a bit disappointed. I try to ride up the mountain through other roads but it’s just not possible. I give up the fight and forget all the disappointment when I see a beautiful sunset.