This week's blog post is written by Alana, a Yahel fellow living (and biking!) in Lod.
Like so many others, I decided to take up cycling during the pandemic. There were a few reasons for this – I was laid off from my job at a university, and wanted to channel my free time into something healthy and productive. Additionally, my main physical activity, partner dancing, isn’t exactly the most pandemic-friendly activity. At the end of March 2020, I found myself suddenly adrift, and with a lot of time on my hands – what was a girl to do? Once I applied for and was accepted to Yahel in April 2020, I knew I’d have 6 months of free time before the program started, and I wanted to use it well, while also responsibly social distancing. I set myself a few goals – I wanted to learn Spanish, become good at a sport, and do something to help people. I started learning Spanish from my neighbors and watching La Casa De Papel, gathering donations from grocery stores and students leaving town and distributing them to 49 homeless adults in Providence, Rhode Island, and I committed to cycling for at least an hour every single day. I’m proud of the fact that I was able to use my period of unemployment to contribute to the lives of others, and to reach some of my own personal-improvement goals.
Between March and October 2020, I went from a casual cyclist riding to work, to an obsessive one – biking 200km a week, slowly accumulating miles on my Trek 3700. Increasing my mileage each day and each week felt incredibly satisfying – and I loved the tangibility of being able to count how many miles or kilometers I could ride. When I first started biking, I set myself the goal of being able to bike to my parents’ house (about 4 miles or 7km) away from me. I imagined that I’d be so tired after, I’d have to take a bus back, or get a ride home. Within only a month, I could easily bike there in less than 20 minutes – only 3 minutes slower than driving! Eventually, I set myself the goal of completing an imperial century (100 miles, 160km) before leaving for Israel. I’m happy to say I did this in September 2020, with my friend Katy, and it was incredible!
When I first arrived in Lod, I knew that buying a bike would be a high priority for me. I obsessively combed Facebook Marketplace for used bikes – messaging people back and forth with a LOT of help from Google Translate. Fortunately, I checked out a bike shop while visiting Jerusalem, and found a bike that was affordable and just the right size from me; I bought it without really thinking twice. Unfortunately, biking in Israel is incredibly difficult compared to biking at home in Rhode Island. There aren’t usually paved bike trails, and most of the roads have minimal sidewalks, narrow roads, no bike lanes, and angry drivers. I have to be very thoughtful about when and where I choose to bike, and I wear all my safety gear most of the time. Especially when I’m biking at night, I usually attach a portable disco light to the front of my handlebars (it definitely makes me seen on the road!)
I’ve always been a strong proponent of discovering a new city on foot whenever possible. When you travel on foot, you learn about your surroundings in ways you never do by car – it’s even better when you’re wandering without a schedule. The freedom of moving around without worrying about parking enables me to stop wherever and whenever I feel like it – sometimes this attitude leads me down new streets and weird little alleys that I’d otherwise never think to discover. On a bike, I see a city from new angles (literally – have you ever gone down a street a different direction than you normally do, and discovered something new?) In addition to that, multi-modal transit is surprisingly effective. Nothing is quite as fast as driving, but biking to a train or bus stop that allows me a direct route to my destination (rather than having to use the closest bus stop, which sometimes means changing lines) is very efficient.
Having a bike allows me to be impulsive, to not think too much about going to see something new, and to always say “yes.” I always have the chance to see things I would not normally see by virtue of the fact that I can move faster. A few weeks ago, I took a train to Beer Sheva, and biked all around the city, seeing a lot more than I would have if I had to carefully plan my day out traveling on foot or with the bus. I saw the tiny trickle that is the “Beer Sheva River,” the amazingly large and diverse shuk, and the Old City. I also biked 6km out to Tel Sheva, a historical ruins site, and wandered around for an hour or so. Upon leaving the site, I saw that my bike had a flat tire (something I should have anticipated but somehow didn’t – the desert is full of sharp thorny things). Feeling both sad about my flat tire, and immensely bummed that I never bothered to learn how to change one, I had to figure out how to get my bike back into town. A family sitting nearby saw the disappointment on my face and invited me to sit and have lunch with them. Their son helped me call bike shops in Beer Sheva to ask who had the tire size I needed in stock. I wandered out to the street (carrying my bike slung across my back) and a group of 5 Bedouin kids saw me and immediately tried to help. They were trying to direct me to a gas station air pump down the street (though it was hard to understand directions with 5 boys all talking over each other, in Arabic, and all at once), while I tried to explain that what I needed was a bike shop. Before I knew it, a police officer was there, questioning us – he thought the kids were trying to steal my bike. I’m not really sure what happened that day; I’ve asked the Yahel staff if they thought what happened was racial profiling, but it’s tough to say without having been there. The boys eventually helped me flag down a van that was traveling to Beer Sheva and I made it to a bike shop for repairs.
During the current seger (lockdown), we’re restricted from traveling more than 1km from home except for a few permitted activities, exercise being one of them. Over the weekend, one of the other Yahel fellows and I wanted to explore Ben Shemen, an artificial forest a few kilometers from our apartments in Lod. We biked out there (on the highway, no less) and wandered around the forest, chatting with locals. We met a group of volunteers cleaning up trash, and a friendly young couple who invited us over for a future Shabbat. We learned that some of the land surrounding Ben Shemen Forest is privately owned farmland when we saw a family get chided for sitting on a farmer’s freshly planted wheat. We learned that the forest is mostly pine trees, not native to Israel, planted by the Jewish National Fund. The pine trees growing right next to cacti were definitely interesting, and apparently the pine trees are not very good for the local ecosystem. We found some beautiful flowers with bulbous roots that bloom only in the middle of Winter. We saw an Israeli family park their car directly across the hiking trail, and then get yelled at by a cyclist – who told them off for their entitled attitude. We found out that there is a network of dirt roads connecting the forest to Ramla and to Tel Aviv, but only the locals really know them.
Part of service learning, at least for me, is approaching everything in an open-minded way, and through the lens of a student. Both in my experience with Yahel, and my experiences living and traveling elsewhere (I also previously lived in Malaysia and India), I find that most learning happens when I’m least expecting it. Zipping around Central Israel has allowed me to discover so many random things in Lod and beyond – from a small Indian market in Lod, to a giant bicycle statue in Be’er Yaakov, to a wet market in Tel Aviv. Every time I visit a new place, I try to treat it like a learning experience, because it usually is! At the Indian market, I met some Jewish immigrants from Maharashtra, the same state in India where I previously lived (and the owner also used to live in Pune, the city where I lived in 2013). I ended up getting into a long conversation with other customers at the store, who told me about their journey of making Aliyah from Mumbai and Pune, and how they ended up here. Biking through Ben Shemen forest taught me about local ecology but also about people’s attitudes towards nature and towards each other. I always try to give myself plenty of time when planning a bike journey, because I truly never know when a learning opportunity might present itself. My bike is always with me, so much so that it feels like an extension of my body. Because of it, I feel so much more connected to Lod, and to my surroundings, and I am constantly discovering.