He insists that it must be cold in Alaska. “Yes.” I resist divulging any further details. My computer is plugged into an outlet shared by a machine stirring an iced drink across the plaza. A plastic bag containing a 1 kg tub of hummus and a pile of pita bread sits on a bench next to my bike. Small shop windows encircle the plaza. This public space is borrowed from a Soviet urban planning guidebook, or from community college design. The man keeps a shop full of junk best described as a hardware store, but he is offering herbs procured from Arabs over there, looking to a rocky grassy landscape beyond a security fence. This side of the fence is an orderly collection of homes and a managed pine forest. The herbs are claimed to cure almost anything, he jests, or so they say. I ask if he ever goes over there. Only when going to Jerusalem. It is 40 minutes this way, much longer to go around.
I ask, in exact words, “What’s going on over there?”
“They live with the sheep, the goats.”
Now he’s trying to sell me a bottle of 100% alcohol. I inquired; my own fault. I’ve never seen 100% alcohol and I can’t read the Hebrew label and the price is kind of high. I return the bottle to the counter. Ethanol reaches a 96% equilibrium with water at standard temperature and pressure, bolstered only by the presence of benzene or other exciting additions, as I recall to myself.
I continue asking, and he continues to describe the life of Palestinian Arabs with an obsessive focus on the animals they tend, as if the practice of our forebears is anymore admonishable in light of microwavable chicken nuggets and foil-sealed yogurts. At a high point, he exclaims, “they eat the eggs from the chickens!” Lael and I look at each other knowingly.
We pass an unmanned gate, like a toll booth, just north of Meitar. The HLC route circumnavigates Palestine. To Israelis and much of the world, this is the West Bank. To Palestinian Arabs, especially those living in the West Bank, this area is unquestionably Palestine. However, Areas A, B, and C are all administered differently. About 70% of the West Bank is wholly secured and administered by Israel and the IDF. This is Area C. Jewish settlements in Area C of the West Bank are rapidly growing and are encouraged by Israel, creating a Jewish majority in a region which is largely off-limits to the Palestinians living in Areas A and B. Those areas, on the other hand, prohibit Israelis and are administered by the Palestinian Authority. In some cases, such as with the security of Area B, the PA and the IDF work jointly.
Every map of Israel I have seen includes the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights without question. One map included the land area of Sinai, formerly under authority of Israel, although at least that map indicated the area is part of Egypt. It reminds us of the tourist map we received when arriving in Serbia. Where is Kosovo?, we wondered
We continue uphill on a secondary paved road. Men stand alongside sheep and goats on the roadside as promised. Unsanitary water flows downstream toward Israel. Half-built homes, similar but different than those in Israel, stand tall on the hillside. Certain adornments and features connect them to homes I’ve seen in Egypt. We pass a steel gate onto a disused paved road. A dirt mound blocks the road beyond the gate. I ask a shepherd if this is the way to Dahariya. He agrees, repeating the word as it is pronounced locally.
We enter Dahariya past dozens of auto repair shops, men with greasy hands standing in amusement and awe of two tourists arriving from a closed road by bicycle. Tourists visit placed like East Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron, but not Dahariya.
Our eyes focus on the light traffic ahead, our minds peer out the corners at fruit stands and homewares sold in small shops. Mops and colored plastic buckets are remarkably common in Muslim countries. Cleanliness, especially clean floors, are a homemaker’s obsession. The camera remains hidden. When stopped, I make obvious gestures toward beautiful fruits and taller buildings. I do my best to act like a tourist. Everyone wonders, suspects, supposes we are Israeli. I photograph the street and obvious things, and slide the camera back into the pouch over my shoulder.
At a major intersection a man confronts us. He is obviously asking where we come from and where we are going, through basic English. I pretend not to understand several times to decide how to respond. I first insist I am from Alaska, from America. He continues with the exact query. I admit we have come from Meitar, which doesn’t please him but doesn’t surprise anyone. A group aged from young boys to old men congregate, each and all with a more polite and positive demeanor than our surly captor. The next question I don’t understand. Each time he repeats it I hear the word evrit, which I repeat as a question. Satisfied at my inability to answer, we are told to come inside.
We cross the street into a coffee shop, a covered open air space nicely kept with far more space than patrons, printed murals of fresh fruits and cooked meats posted to the walls. We sit, the two of us and the surly man and another man by my side. I hate it when Lael is cordoned away from me in a group like this. She and I sit diagonally from one another, each sitting next to and across from strangers. It feels like a strategic move, but it couldn’t possibly be the case. We relax into the absurdity of the situation.
Four coffees arrive in paper cups, boiling water poured over fine grounds with sugar, the smell of cardamom light but present. The day reminds me of those cool Sundays in autumn when a sweater is necessary. It is already late afternoon, springtime in Palestine. As I finish the first cigarette, a second man offers from his pack, offering fire from his lighter. Two bottles of water arrive at the table. The older men inform us apologetically that they do not speak English, in English. We deny any reason to apologize. Young men near to my age come and go through the door; most are a little younger, carrying smartphones in their hand. Someone is fishing the stream of pedestrians on the sidewalk to see if anyone can speak English. A string of unenthused men arrive and politely ask us where we are from. We exchange names. “Welcome”, they say before they exit. It is a pleasant charade which continues for some time, as the third round of cigarettes are drawn. Two non-alcoholic malt beverages are brought to the table. A teenage boy takes the place of the man next to me. The surly man across from me has lost interest and the round of questioning restarts. The boy to my right opens the strawberry flavored drink and pours it into two plastic cups. At the wave of a hand, two packs of chocolate wafers arrive at the table.
A boy, perhaps thirteen or fifteen years old, is given a smartphone to bring to me. A Facebook application is blank, awaiting my input. I type my name, selecting the image of me and Lael in front of our bicycles with the subtext listing my high school. The boy scans the page and reads the title of a past blog post on my Facebook wall, but all I hear him say is the word Israel.
Lael returns from the bathroom and we stand, shaking as many hands as we can find. Two boys want to ride the bikes. They throw a leg over, manage not to fall off as the seatpacks wag side to side, and skid to a stop after a short tour. They point to the bottle of wine rising from Lael’s feedbag and say whiskey. “Wine”, I reply. But the word whiskey comes back at me again and I give up.
Leaving the coffee shop. I am Facebook friends with the young man in the black sweater on the right, and with shepherds in Lesotho, young boys who love Mercedes cars in Albania, and a soldier in Egypt who frequently posts selfies of himself in front of sand colored tanks. One young boy in Kosovo casually tells me he loves me whenever we chat, but I think the translation is imprecise.
We turn the corner and stop to consult the GPS. First, let’s ride out of town. Then, we’ll figure out where to camp for the night. It may be easiest to pass back into Israel if we can find a gate.
Rowdy, but friendly. Lots of skidding tires.
From Dahariya, we descend back to Israel.
The unmistakable skyline of a Muslim village, punctuated by the minaret of a mosque.
We pass a small security gate manned by two young soldiers. We show our passports and are allowed to pass. Just a few kilometers away we make camp amidst ruins on a grassy knoll. Tonight, Israel is a quieter and simpler place to camp.
Sunrise over Palestine.