Welcome to mad nomad’s adventurous website! This site is about travelling the way I’ve been dreaming of as a child! When I took the decision to make my dream come true, it seemed remote and totally unfamiliar to me. Finally, after two years of profound research and intense preparation, I hit the road!
On the 14th of April 2007 I set off solo from Thessaloniki, Greece by my small motorcycle (Honda XR 250S), on a journey to four countries, for ten months’ time: Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and India. During my trip, however, there were many changes in my schedule, and, finally, I ended up returning to Greece after two years and two and a half months, having covered 73,000 km. (45,361 miles), after travelling to 14 Asian countries: Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh! That was my journey known as “greece2india“. You will find my trip reports from that time at: http://www.moto.gr/forums/showthread.php?t=38448
On July 18th, 2013, we hit the road for an even longer journey! Africa and Middle East were calling us and we were eager to explore those lands! Why do I use the plural form? This time, Christina, the she-mad nomad, was travelling with me for 10 months. Therefore, we were riding two motorcycles of the same type (Honda XR 250), travelling according to my usual recipe: innumerous detours, in order to visit everything interesting, years on the road, to catch the scent of the local societies we visit, always guided by the love for People and Nature. Since August 2014, I kept traveling solo, as Christina decided to fly from Zambia back to Greece because of personal reasons. I finally completed this three-year adventure on June 29th, 2016 having covered 96,000 km (59,653 miles) in 39 countries. That was the expedition called “mad about Africa“! You can check out our route on Live Trip Traveller and you can enjoy our reports at the Trip diary section.
I already analyzed on my previous article how Israel was formed in 1948 on Palestinian land but I hear from many people a basic question: “Is Palestine a country?”. Well, it depends who you ask but in practice it’s hardly a country anymore… It’s not absolutely recognized and the Palestinian authorities have little actual power. It is a country held by Israel under military occupation. Of course, Palestine doesn’t exist for most Israelis. All that area is Israel according to them. They are very offended and they become verbally aggressive when they hear words like: “Palestine”, “Gaza” or “West Bank”. What the rest of the world calls “West Bank” is Judea and Samaria for them.
There are only two little pieces of land left that somebody could call Palestine. The smallest of them is the Gaza Strip, a piece of land 45 km (28 miles) long and less than 10 km (6 miles) wide. About 1.4 million Palestinians live in this densely populated land, which is the world’s largest outdoor prison. Nobody can go in or out by land or by sea, except a handful of people who got special permissions by the Israeli authorities.
We went just next to the Gaza Strip but of course, we were not allowed to enter. We were determined to visit the West Bank, though. Entering the West Bank from Jerusalem, we didn’t even have to stop. We needed no visa and there is no border post, since according to Israelis this is the same country, their country… However, there is a new 712-km (442 miles) wall that separates Palestinians from Israelis and there are military checkpoints where people are controlled when exiting the West Bank. Of course, most of them are Israelis and usually the control is nothing more than letting the soldiers know that they are Israelis.
After the Oslo Accords in 1993, the West Bank was divided in three areas. Only Area A (18% of the West Bank) is under Palestinian civil and security control. Area B (21% of the West Bank) is under Palestinian civil control but Israeli security control. The majority of the West Bank (61%), Area C, is under full Israeli control over security, planning and construction. In practice, the Israeli army enters even Area A. Area A and B are made out of 166 islands of Palestinian towns in a sea of Israeli-controlled Area C, which is the only continuous area in the West Bank. That means Palestinians are restricted on their movements, even inside the West Bank. Their houses and farms are routinely demolished due to claimed “security reasons”, while building a house is almost impossible since in most areas they need permission from the Israeli authorities. Israel formally controls the West Bank’s largest area and most of its natural resources, including the water which is scarce and a main issue on the conflicts in Middle East.
Me and Stella were invited in a Christian Greek Orthodox Palestinian wedding in Bethlehem. We met again Spiro and his family, that we first met in Jordan. It was a cousin of Spiro who was getting married. The wedding took place in a Greek Orthodox church and the party in a modern wedding hall was really vivid with powerful traditional dances. However, what we remember with the sweetest memories was the informal party which took place the previous day in the grandma’s house… Like in Greece, the grandparents’ house is always the family’s meeting point. No appointments or arrangements are necessary. People get in the house whenever they are free, somebody plays music and the party starts in a moment. Blue-eyed Ms Sophie, 83 years old, got up and started dancing between her children and grandchildren. As they had told us beforehand, we had to forget what is happening in Palestine… Everybody is happy and celebrates in such an occasion!
Ms Sophie surprised us when she talked to us fluent English and French! She is a well educated old lady and it was very interesting for us to hear her childhood stories from Jerusalem, before the Israeli occupation. She showed us old, black and white photos. I noticed a little girl with the Star of David, a Jewish symbol, on her necklace. I asked who is she. Ms Sophie told me this was Judith, her best friend, a Jewish little girl. Before the occupation, Muslims, Jews and Christians were living together for centuries in a mostly peaceful situation. Jews were few and other Palestinians were taking pity of them and helping them, since they were poor.
It was in 1948 that the First Arab-Israeli War started… The word was spread to Palestinians: “Go seek a refuge in the West Bank and after a few weeks, when the conflict will be over, come back.”. It was a good plan to get rid of them… Initially the family of Ms Sophie rented a simple room in Bethlehem. The time was passing by but the news were not getting any better… When they tried to return to Jerusalem, they realized their houses were confiscated by Israelis and Palestinians were feeling foreigners in their own country… That’s how thousands of Palestinians moved to the West Bank and elsewhere. Ms Sophie lost track of Judith, her Jewish best friend and now she cannot even set foot in Jerusalem.
One of the worst obstacles on the way to peace and the re-establishment of a legitimate Palestinian State are the Israeli settlements. The Israeli government has built hundreds of settlements inside the West Bank, which are illegal according to international law, since a nation’s transfer of civilian population into land it occupies is illegal. Of course, Israel doesn’t accept that, since they don’t even consider the West Bank occupied. Thus, they keep building new settlements and expanding the existing ones.
These settlements are strictly protected either by the Israeli army or by the armed settlers themselves. There are 520,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank! Some of them are secular Zionists who benefit from the subsidized prices, while most of them are religious Jews who think this whole land was promised to them by God and God wants them to take it even in blood.
When I was still in Israel, a friend of mine took me in his car for a drive. Before I even knew, he let me know we’re in the West Bank. Since he was Israeli, it was very easy for him to enter even in a settlement. We stopped at the top of a hill to see the area. An armed settler came immediately on a patrol car to check who we are. These settlements own also vast amounts of farmland. Having access to better technology means they can use most of the area’s water resources while the Palestinians need impossible-to-get permissions just to make a simple well… Without water they cannot farm and without farming they cannot live.
This situation is what drives Palestinians crazy. Imagine that Israelis benefit from being under civil courts jurisdiction while for the same crimes (e.g. attending a peaceful protest) Palestinians are under military jurisdiction and are detained for months even without any charge! A few hopeless Palestinians end up resisting the occupation in a violent way. A much bigger number of them are fed up and leave this mess for a decent life in the West. After all, that’s one of the Zionists’ goals: to get rid of Palestinians in any possible way…
We walked around the Old City of Bethlehem which is picturesque with its narrow streets and the houses made out of local stones. Visiting the Church of the Nativity, which is believed to be the place where Jesus Christ was born, we were wondering if all these popular religions born in this area brought peace or war finally… There are many monasteries around and some of them are located in gorgeous, remote places, like Mar Saba Monastery.
We had to be courageous and visit the town where the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis gets at its worst. That’s Hebron in the southern part of the West Bank. There are thousands of Jewish settlers living in several illegal settlements around the town. Things get much worse in Hebron because armed settlers, each one protected by Israeli soldiers, live even inside the Arab town, between the Palestinians! Palestinians, obviously, are arrested, tortured and jailed even for having a knife. That sets the Jewish settlers free to insult and abuse Palestinians, under the protection of the Israeli army which usually turns a blind eye… However, sometimes Israeli settlers get so radical that they clash with the Israeli army which tries to stop them.
We were walking carefully between the Israeli soldiers with our cameras lowered, of course… Hebron is where the Cave of the Patriarchs is situated. That is believed to be the collective tomb of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their wives. The patriarchs of the three most well-known monotheistic religions make this place sacred to Muslims, Jews and Christians. As you would guess, this brings serious conflicts… The worst of them was the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre in 1994. Baruch Goldstein, a prominent Jewish terrorist, opened fire on hundreds of Muslims who were praying in a mosque during their holy month of Ramadan. If you are already shocked, wait for that: Jewish settlers made even a memorial tribute to their hero, Goldstein and they still celebrate that day!
We hit the road to visit Jericho, the oldest fortified city on earth. It happens also to be the lowest one, at 258 m (846 ft) below sea level. Most of the West Bank was cool, since it sits on higher elevation. Jericho was hot but we wanted to visit a farm and witness ourselves how the Israeli settlers and government make the life of Palestinians ridiculously harder. On one hand, illegal Israeli settlements are everywhere in the West Bank and they use most of the area’s water. The Israeli authorities almost never issue permission to Palestinians to pump water out of their own field. Palestinians, however, are persistent and they even drive to carry water from elsewhere in big tanks. Then they meet an Israeli checkpoint and the soldiers force them to empty all the tanks because they say they want to “make sure there is nothing illegal in the tanks”…
If they ever succeed to get a harvest, they have to struggle to sell it. The Israeli army often doesn’t allow them to use the roads and transfer their products for alleged “security reasons”. When this happens for a few days in a row, the produce is not fresh anymore and the farmers cannot sell it at all or they have to sell it much cheaper and forget about any profit. At the same time, for the Israeli farmers in the illegal settlements the highways are always open and they export their produce all around the world.
On our way north, we had a walk in the vibrant Old City of Nablus. It was easy to enter the West Bank but we knew it wouldn’t be so easy to exit towards Israel… We were ready for detailed checks of our luggage and extensive questioning about ourselves, our itinerary and our acquaintances in Palestine. However, we didn’t even imagine what would happen…
We approached the checkpoint north of Jenin. This is not a real border, so the border post reminds of toll gates. We queued behind the cars but we immediately heard an Israeli soldier from the control tower yelling through the speakers. It was in Hebrew, so we couldn’t understand anything. A fully armed soldier from a distance made clear to us that we should disappear immediately! Obviously, the Israelis were scared of the motorbike and they thought we may be Palestinian terrorists. I had that before… In no time, I turned the bike around and ran away.
The Palestinians saw what happened and they gave us some advices. The worst thing was that we didn’t even have the chance to talk to somebody and let them know we are not Palestinians. Stella removed her helmet and started walking towards the soldiers with her hands raised. She was holding her red passport to make them understand we are Europeans. Fairly enough, Stella was absolutely stressed out but as Palestinians told us, she was the one who had to do it, since I would be much more suspected as a male. She was very brave to do that… The Israeli soldier was still yelling in Hebrew through the speakers. Stella from that distance shouted as loud as she could: “English, please!”. The soldier, pointing his machine gun towards her, was ordering her to go back!
We had to be extremely careful… A wrong movement of our hands at that point could result to our death! If, for example, I would try to put my hand in my pocket and get my passport out, they would shoot me straightaway thinking that I’m a Palestinian terrorist who tries to activate a suicide bomb. They got the power and the order to shoot and they don’t do it just for scaring people. Their shooting has to be exact and effective in putting the enemy down before he can do anything. When they kill somebody that they shouldn’t, it seems they always find an excuse to make him guilty.
Stella stopped walking while she was yelling that we are tourists. The soldier talked to his officers and finally two other soldiers walked towards Stella. She showed her passport and she explained that we are tourists who just travel around “Israel”. They questioned her a bit and then they gave me the green light to approach by my motorcycle. They asked me the same questions, to cross-check what Stella said and when they were convinced, they finally allowed us to pass through the checkpoint…
With the adrenaline rushing in our blood, we entered again Israel. We rode a bit further and we stopped at the roadside to think what happened and recover our heartbeat. After all, we had just a small glimpse of what Palestinians regularly face. It turned out to be risky in the end but it was definitely an important lesson to witness ourselves how is life in Palestine…
You can check out the map with more photos and reports at: Live Trip Traveller
There are a lot of objective resources on internet to learn about what is happening in Israel and Palestine. Some of my favourites are:
5 Broken Cameras – Academy Award Winning Documentary by a Palestinian, co-directed by an Israeli filmmaker.
Gaza, We are coming – An awarded Greek documentary about the first foreign boats since 1967 that broke Gaza’s naval blockade.
The General’s Son – The son of an Israeli general talks honestly about the current situation.
B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories
Here you can watch a live interview from the studio in Thessaloniki, Greece about the completion of “mad about Africa”! It was broadcasted at the show “City Break” with Maria Anagnostidou in TV 100 on July 1st, 2016, 17:10.
Every traveler knows that entering or exiting Israel (former Palestine) can be quite complicated, especially if you are on a suspicious, multiyear, overland trip… It was the first time that I had to unpack every single thing from my motorcycle. Fairly enough, everything passed through an x-ray check and some officers opened my bags and asked more specific questions about my luggage. Then I had to reply many more questions during the passport control:
– What does “Elias” mean? (Unfortunately for me, this is a name Arabs use…)
– It’s just my name, sir!
– Why are you traveling 3 years non-stop? Why did you choose dangerous Africa??? What were you doing in Sudan? How long did you stay there? Do you know anybody there?
and the most important of all…
– Have you also visited our big enemies: Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan?
– No sir, of course not! I know it’s extremely dangerous in those demonized countries, I watch it everyday in the news…
After a couple of hours at the border, I was finally allowed in the country. It was not that difficult after all. I got friends who spent five hours at the border and a couple of them spent twelve hours before the officers could ensure that the couple was not harmful to the people of Israel…
I think we have to make a few things clear about Israel… There are plenty of stereotypes and most of them don’t describe the truth accurately, as it is usually the case with stereotypes. In the land called “Palestine” various people used to live since ancient times. Judaism is one of the oldest monotheistic religions. Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew himself. He was but one of many orators critical of the materialism and decadence of the wealthy Jerusalemites. He was also contemptuous of the Roman authority over Palestine. After his baptism and his 40 days and nights in the desert, he started his ministry, marked by numerous miracles. When he became too popular, he was accused of sedition by the Jewish authorities and ordered to death by Judaea’s Roman prefect Pontius Pilate. The followers of Jesus Christ came to be known as Christians. That’s how Christianity was formed and became distinct from Judaism. A Greek-speaking Christian community emerged in Jerusalem and to this day the Greek Orthodox Church is the largest Christian denomination in the region. Islam came to Palestine much later, in AD 683, a few decades after Prophet Mohammed’s own preaching.
So, where Israel came from? Over the centuries, Jews faced waves of prosecution. The last, worst and most famous one was conducted by Nazis. Before that, after 400 years of Ottoman rule, the British had taken over Palestine. The British government was in favor of the establishment in Palestine of a “National Home for the Jewish People”. Thousands of Jews started migrating to Palestine and Arabs were already worried about that. Fighting erupted but it was hard to oppose to superpowers… By 1947 the British government turned the problem over to the UN. The UN recommended partitioning the land between an Arab and a Jewish state. That’s how Israel was established in 1948.
Israelis decided to drop the image of coward and miserable Jews and to become a strong and aggressive military power. Today Israel is one of the largest arms exporters. The decades that followed the establishment of Israel were full of wars. After each one of them, Israel was founding itself having grown larger than before. UN assigned a small piece of land to the newly-formed country but it eventually occupied land belonging to Palestine, Egypt, Jordan and Syria.
Eager to learn and experience myself what is happening in this bloody Holy Land, I was traveling with all my senses open… I rode north through some great off-road routes in the desert. The route in the Big Crater (Makhtesh HaGadol) was rough at some parts and I had to descend a huge rock by my heavy-loaded enduro bike. I enjoyed a lot the scenery. On my way to Jerusalem, I was just detouring wherever I could see some interesting dirt roads penetrating the forests.
Jerusalem is the epicentre of the bloody conflict between Jews, Muslims and Christians. Within a short walk of each other, you can find Christians praying in their holiest church, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jews dancing by their holiest site, the Western Wall and Muslims prostrate before Al-Aqsa Mosque, their third holiest place, after Mecca and Medina. I spent more than a week exploring the ancient neighbourhoods of Jerusalem: the vibrant Arab old city, the historic Christian Quarter, the contemporary, posh city and the extremely conservative neighbourhood of ultra-Orthodox Jews, Mea She’arim…
It’s not easy to wander around Mea She’arim, since its inhabitants don’t welcome curious visitors, especially if they happen to be females not following their dress code. People on the streets are all dressed similarly. You see women carrying several kids and babies, while men go to synagogues and religious schools. Many of them don’t work, since they have dedicated their life to religious studies. They live out of government subsidies and donations from Jews from all around the world, who feel it’s their duty to support their compatriots back home… If you are struggling to fulfil the Ten Commandments, maybe it will encourage you to keep in mind that Jews have to fulfil 613 Commandments! They shouldn’t travel, drive, cook, write or even turn the lights on during the holy day of Sabbath (Saturday). On any day they shouldn’t touch a member of the opposite sex, except if they are family, of course and they must not eat meat with dairy products (yes, cheeseburgers are forbidden!).
One of the things I was surprised to realise was that solidarity between Israelis is not evident in everyday life. There are many different sects in Judaism and arguments are common between them. I was astonished to see that there are even sects of Jews, like Satmar and Neturei Karta, who believe that the State of Israel should be founded by the Messiah and not by humans! Thus, they want this land to return to Palestinians. Zionism was shaped by Jews around the world who were dreaming to form the State of Israel. Zionism, however, is not tied to religion. On the other hand, most religious Jews believe that this land was promised to them by God and that’s why the “Promised Land” belongs to Israel and not to Palestine!
When I was too concerned and sad about the situation in Jerusalem, my Israeli friends were telling me: “Don’t worry, you’ll go to Tel Aviv and you will forget all that…”. Indeed, Tel Aviv is a more liberal city full of skyscrapers and modern buildings, green parks, vibrant parties and lots of drugs, a common thing in the Israeli culture. A visitor there tends to forget that he is in Asia. He would most probably guess he is in coastal U.S.A.. I happened to be there during the Gay Pride Parade. I had to be careful… Last year during the same event in Jerusalem, a Jewish extremist stabbed six and one of them was killed. He was just released from prison, since he had committed the exact same crime back in 2005!
Well, Tel Aviv was not my cup of tea… Happily, Boris was sent to save me from the city. He is another nomad, who got a normal job but lives in the forest during the whole year! I went there just for a night, not knowing what to expect but I ended up staying five days there. During the day I was with him in the truck he drives all around the country, while in the evening we were returning to his beautiful, hidden camp in the forest. Sitting around the fire and cooking on it, we were discussing until late and sharing our tips to escape the ridiculous ban on wild camping…
Unfortunately, in Israel I met the biggest percentage of nationalists than in any other country. Happily, there are exceptions. Boris is so similar to me that he became one of the best friends I made during my wanders around the world. We have a similar ideology but we grew up in different circumstances. It was precious to me to listen to his experiences and put a few more pieces on the puzzle.
Another thing I wanted to do in Israel was to visit a kibbutz. These are agricultural communities that established by Jews who bought land in Palestine at the beginning of the 20th century. That was the largest non-governmental collectivist movement ever attempted. Today most of them have been privatized but I visited Kibbutz Be’eri, which hasn’t changed its values much since the old times. It was formed in 1946 and it was a relatively poor farming community. That changed in 2003, when the small printing industry of the kibbutz signed a contract to print the governmental documents, bills, IDs etc. The kibbutz became rich and thousands of people want to become members now but that’s impossible. Even if somebody is born in the kibbutz, he lives there but he’s not a member of it until he becomes thirty years old. At that point he can make a choice. About a thousand people live in Kibbutz Be’eri today and almost none of them is religious. Actually, there was not even a synagogue in the community until recently.
Some members of the kibbutz work there but a lot of them work out of it. No matter if they are doctors, lawyers or carpenters, they have to hand over their whole salary to the community, which gives the same amount to everybody. Except the fairly good amount of money they get, they are also provided with housing. There is a large, free restaurant with a big variety of food every day, free laundry and ironing service, bicycles and cars that anyone from the community can use. Actually, members are not even allowed to have their own private car. This way everybody is focused on his job and he doesn’t need to cook, wash dishes or clothes, fix his car or his house.
Before exploring the north part of Israel, it was time to have a look on the other side, the West Bank and that little piece of Palestine that has been left…
You can check out the map with more photos and reports at: Live Trip Traveller