May 31, 2013

We're on holiday...and we live here

There’s something about beaches that brings out the holiday spirit.  As we were in need of a break last Sunday, we jumped on our mountain bikes and headed west towards the sea.

There’s also an element of excitement living in a tourist destination and when we feel like getting away from it all, we simply leave our town with no major investment and no jet lag.

And when we combine beaches and touring with our mountain bikes, we end up with sixty-five fascinating, beautiful kilometers, a lot of adventure, tired calves and a mild sunburn.

Our first view of the sea was in Herzeliya Pituach, where we followed a dirt road that hugged the cliffs above the sparkling Mediterranean. Sunday in Israel is a work day, so the beaches were empty save for some surfers gliding atop the white caps.

We rode past Sde Dov airport, where prop planes practically scraped our helmets before touching down. Old men sat patiently watching their bobbing lines. I swerved away, terrified of being the next hooked halibut, as a fisherman eagerly reeled in his rod,.  The days of solitary fishermen are numbered as I heard this area is slated to be Tel Aviv’s new Riviera with luxury Cannes-style hotels, galleries, restaurants and performance halls in the plans.   

The Namal, once an old port with warehouses, is already a sophisticated shopping area with sleek restaurants and upmarket shops and a wooden boardwalk that undulates like the sea. Large waves crashed onto the walkway, spraying me with a salty mist. People quietly lounged outside on café couches sipping their morning coffees.

Continuing south into downtown Tel Aviv, the energy picked up. Crowds of tourists spilled out of hotels and onto the beaches. A small sign posted on a large wooden fence announces that it was “Yom Nashim,” women’s day at the separate beach.  There is a place for all in this city as at the neighboring beach, dogs chased Frisbees into the surf on their very own “Doggy Beach” while a yogi perfected a downward dog stretch atop the warm sand.

We pedaled down the boardwalk onto a specially designed bike line that rode alongside the cars. As traffic signals with a red and green flashing bicycle cautioned us to stop for pedestrians, I envisioned entire cities with dedicated bike lanes. In fact, these bicycle lanes were so popular, I had to ‘check my blind spots’ before changing lanes or pulling out.

The path carried us south past beach and parkland with rolling grassy hills. Soon we were in Old Jaffa with its cobbled roads and art galleries tucked behind stone archways. We parked our bikes beside Arab men leaning over a serious game of shesh pesh and sipping strong coffee.

After a filling meal at the Tripolitarian Doctor Shakshouka restaurant, we were invigorated. The restaurant was packed with close to 100 tourists, part of a federation group from the U.S., a reminder that we live in a hot tourist spot. And as we retrieved our bikes, we ran into another large group: sari-clad Indians getting the Jaffi lowdown in Punjabi.

Leaving trendy Jaffa behind, we cycled downhill to the old port and a transitional part of town where centuries clashed; roosters cock-a-doodle-dooed from ramshackle gardens outside old tin-roofed homes (it was a scorching afternoon so their internal clocks were certainly off), while gleaming mansions with uninterrupted sea views clung to a bougainvillea-clad hillside. The gowns in the bridal stores notified us that we were in the Arab part of Jaffa. Yet a few ‘pedals’ away were the beaches of Bat Yam. Arabic turned to Russian in a single breath, while shesh pesh transmigrated into very serious games of chess.

We parked our bikes and went for a swim in a protected inlet. Here the water was warm and we swam along a man-made reef to popular Russian tunes on the local radio station. I was forced to trade in my Tolstoy association of Russia with snowstorms and fur hats for sunny beaches and bikinis.

As the sun started a lazy descent and school children flocked to the beach holding their parents’ hands, we knew it was late and time to head back. We had biked 30 km and had to return via the same route. Picking up speed, we flew northward, catching a more Israeli crowd hitting the beaches; young guys clacking madkot balls, diving across the sand to return a tricky shot; and teens arrived on bicycles, surf boards tucked under their arms, eager to catch the afternoon waves.

The muezzin called and we stopped, transfixed. It was four o’clock. We were in Jaffa and as the sounds wailed from the mosque, we watched a group of children playing in the park, swinging on the monkey bars, flying down slides and shrieking as they played hide-and-seek. They were speaking Arabic; they were Israeli citizens, they were free to play and practice their religion and have fun and imagine in their own language. They were free to have higher education and be part of an advanced medical system that treats everyone equally—and they were living a life that many children in this world are denied.

The sun glistened atop a shiny sea behind these happy children, the sky was still a deep blue, and as we felt the breeze on our arms, we too felt free. And thankful. 

There’s just something about beaches that brings out the holiday spirit.  

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