UK teacher bicycles through Israel in 8-month trip
Journey from South Africa to London skirts Syria and Lebanon; end of ride to coincide with 2012 summer Olympics.
Stuart Block stands next to his bicycle Photo: Courtesy Stuart Block
After more than 10,000 km. and eight months riding a tandem bicycle across some of the poorest countries in Africa and the Sinai Peninsula, Stuart Block finally broke into his emergency food rations when he arrived in Tel Aviv on Wednesday night. The emergency – it was the evening of Holocaust Memorial Day and the entire city was closed.
“It’s kind of funny, I finally use one in what is probably the most developed city I’ve been in yet,” Block said in Tel Aviv on Thursday.
The 33-year-old economics teacher from Surrey, England, is in Tel Aviv this week as part of his journey by tandem bike from South Africa to London, where he plans to arrive in time for the 2012 Olympic Games this summer.
The 33-year-old high school economics teacher started planning the trip after the financial crisis in 2008, which he said spurred him to launch the bike journey. At the same time, left his job at Citigroup after eight years as an economist in London for a job teaching economics at the Cranleigh School in Surrey.
His trip, which he labeled “Beyond the Bike 2011/2012 Livingstone to London: Cycling to the Olympics,” is dedicated to raising £100,000 for the Kawama school in Zambia, which has partnered with his school in Surrey. So far, the cycling tour has garnered over £81,000 in donations. In addition to assisting humanitarian causes, Block said that the trip satisfied his own personal wanderlust.
Block was also inspired in part by his parents, who for their honeymoon in the ’70s drove from London to Cape Town in a Volkswagen camper van.
Israel is the 12th country he has visited, and it hasn’t been without some exhausting and hair-raising moments. In particular he said the uphill stretch on switchback desert roads from the Dead Sea to Jerusalem carrying 80 kilograms of gear was one of the hardest stretches of his trip so far, and he was forced to camp halfway just to rest and recuperate.
Later, he felt a boost of adrenaline while racing across high-speed traffic on Highway 2 between Herzliya and Tel Aviv. “I was glad I couldn’t understand the Hebrew the drivers were shouting at me,” he said.
Block teaches economics to 17- and 18-year-old private school students, many of whom followed his journey by way of his blog (www.beyondthebike.org) and a Facebook page that chronicled the trip. Part of the motivation, he said, is showing his students different parts of the world.
The Israel portion of Block’s trip consisted of the Dead Sea to Jerusalem to Nablus and up and around the Sea of Galilee. From there, he cycled to Nazareth and from the Galilee, down to Tel Aviv.
Along the way, he couch-surfed with Israelis he’d met on his travels in Africa, including Hagai Mayer of Jerusalem, who met Block while backpacking in Tanzania. During Block’s stay in Jerusalem, Mayer hosted him for the family’s Passover Seder, another life event he can attribute to the worldly bike trip.
When planning the Middle East portion of his trip, Block faced the prospect of visiting either Israel or Syria and Lebanon. Due to the state of war, an Israeli passport stamp disqualifies any foreigner from entering the two countries. Block decided to journey to Israel, since the revolutionary upheaval in Syria impeded his cross-country cycling plans.
In order to skirt Israel’s neighbors, Block will fly from Tel Aviv to Athens on Saturday, where he will make his way from the site of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 to the 2012 games in London.
When asked to describe the more dangerous legs of the trip – such as the Sinai Peninsula, now seen by most Israelis as a no-go zone of armed gangs and human traffickers – Block downplayed disparate Western notions of safety. “A general idea I got from the trip is that the media perspective is not always what you get on the ground. They tend to sensationalize things a bit,” he said.
Block added that the same media distortion happens in Israel. As a child, he relied on television images to imagine “some British journalist in a flak jacket standing somewhere in the West Bank.”
During the months-long journey, Block felt a combination of surprise and bemusement, and he mentioned the warm hospitality by samaritan strangers throughout the trip. On the other hand, Block was robbed once on the Tanzania – Malawi border, when a duo of money changers used a slight of hand to steal $20 of his spending money, the only such incident in over eight months on the road.
The tandem bicycle has added a unique aspect to his trip, in that he has invited people to meet him on the journey along the way and ride with him for portions of his trip.
So far, Block said that more than 150 people rode with him on the trip, including locals he picked up on the road and friends who flew out to join him on legs of the journey.
Along the way, Block spent six weeks riding from Zambia to Luxor, Egypt, with an accordion-playing French couple, camped out in the desert with Nubian tribesman, and rode through the desert expanses of Wadi Rum in Jordan.
After thousands of miles and more than a dozen countries, Block said that the true value of the journey became evident.
“A trip is best measured in the friends you make than in kilometers.”