A journey is so much more than the destination, or even the varied waypoints along the road. It’s the companionship. It’s the sights, the sounds, the smells. For an Irishman who loves his food, it’s definitely the tastes. It’s the people you meet along the way. The very texture of the ground beneath your feet and beneath your wheels. Here I am, almost three decades on from my first visit to the Nazareth Hospital as a medical student in 1993, a veteran of five Nazareth Challenge bike rides, and still captivated by this scruffy jewel of a town and its remarkable people.
Tel Aviv buzzes with e-bikes, scooters and regular bikes. Our 14-strong team of Nazareth Challenge bikers have over 340km and 5000m of climb ahead of us over the next five days. Cruising the Mediterranean beachfront, past joggers, volleyball players, dog-walkers and strollers, we weave through a thoroughly modern bustle. We head up the Yarkon River valley, a combination of road and track that will eventually bring us to Neve Shalom Wahat-as-Salam (“Oasis of Peace”) – a joint Jewish-Arab community on the fringe of the West Bank hills. It’s a place that seems to embody the hope many of us have for reconciliation and co-existence in this land.
The climb to Jerusalem presents challenges such as punctures, chain breaks, water hazards (these were mostly fun) and the occasional mild tumble. We arrive up the old railway route with some energy still left for exploration. The Old City teems with fascinating Christian, Muslim and Jewish conservatism – quite the contrast to Tel Aviv’s modernity.
Leaving Jerusalem the following morning, we pass through the checkpoint and the forbidding Separation Barrier wall, beyond which the large sprawl of the “little town of Bethlehem” lies draped over the parched hills. The Church of the Nativity has been extensively restored, the relics and mosaics meticulously polished and refreshed. We reach the ancient Mar Saba Monastery, clinging to a dizzying ravine on the border of the desert. Our path will take us along dusty, treacherous tracks at breakneck speed down into the Dead Sea valley, bouncing past trucks laying pipelines, military bases and abandoned tanks. At the historic mosque of Nabi Musa a late lunch of delicious traditional Palestinian Maqloubeh (“upside down” chicken and rice) restores our energies for the day’s final push towards Jericho, the lowest – and oldest – city on earth.
By now, we Nazareth bikers are in our rhythm, bonding as a team and unstoppable. The next day we head north through the dry hills of the West Bank, eventually to the crossing into Israel, for a relatively easy ride to our next night at Bet She’an, accompanied as always by our amazing support team providing bike repairs, food, and gallons of water.
The conical prominence of Mount Tabor comes into view on our final day, and we know we are within striking distance of Nazareth. There are steep climbs to come, working up through the Churchill Forest and into the town itself, dodging its hectic traffic. One last push up through the narrow passageways of the old souq (market), and we emerge to pass through the gates of the hospital.
The skirl of the bagpipes from the local Scouts band, the rapturous reunion with our hiker friends from the Jesus Trail, the joyous welcome from the hospital staff and friends from the town – everything combines to create an intoxicating finale, tinged with perhaps a little sadness that our pilgrimage on wheels has ended.
Our friendships, however, will continue. Nazareth’s own journey goes back over two millennia, and I’m certain it will continue for many years into the future as more pilgrims and locals come and go. People of all faiths and none, with their individual challenges and dreams, each writing their own piece of the Nazareth Story.
Shane McKee (Northern Ireland)
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