Back in 2006, Robert Port thought the trip simply sounded like an interesting way to see Israel. He’d recently taken up riding a bike for exercise and the idea of cycling across the Israeli countryside sounded appealing.
“I’d never been to Israel before ‘06,” he said. “I like adventures like this. I don’t like sitting on a tour bus.”
So the Dunwoody lawyer set off to join a cross-country bike tour that started in Jerusalem and ended at the Red Sea. By the end of the five-day ride, he was hooked.
“I loved it,” he said. “I’ve said this before and it’s true: Within 10 seconds of getting on the plane to come back after the first [trip]. I thought, ‘I want to do this again.’”
And he has. Five times now.
In 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010 and again last year, Port’s joined other cyclists from around the world for a fundraising ride through the Israeli desert. Along the way, he figures he’s raised $20,000 to $25,000 for the Arava Institute of Environmental Studies, an academic program that brings Jordanian, Palestinian, Israeli and western students together at a kibbutz on the Israeli side of the Arava Valley, which runs along part of the border between Jordan and Israel.
“We go very close to the Jordanian border,” the 56-year-old lawyer said, “and we can wave at the guards, who wave back and wonder what all these crazy people are doing riding along the border.”
He likes that ground-level view of the country. “I’ve ridden over 1,500 miles, 1,700 miles, on my bike in Israel,” he said. “You see things you wouldn’t see otherwise. You get up close and personal. It’s a whole different experience than taking a tour bus,” he said. “It’s like what people say about backpacking. You get to really experience the place.”
And since that first ride in 2006, his trips have taken on deeper meanings, he said. Part of the meaning comes from his involvement with the institute the rides support. The program brings together students from different countries and cultures to work together on common problems.
“The idea is that although that part of the world has a lot of strife and issues and complexity and political intrigue, the goal is to understand that a lot of the environmental issues come together,” he said. “The goal is to have students of all these different backgrounds come together and try to find some commonalities dealing with these issues. The goal is to foster some cooperation and understanding on the environmental side and in other areas as well.”
But the trips have taken on a personal meaning for him, as well, he said. “I’m Jewish,” he said. “I had always wanted to go to Israel. … Because of these trips, I’ve become more attuned to my Jewishness, in terms of tradition and history, and sort of like the long view of time.
“When you go to Israel, there are sights that are hundreds of years old. … It is important as an educational experience to me to understand and to understand an area that’s in the news a lot. It’s helped me in terms of my Jewish identity.”
He’s also learned a lot, he said, about the conflicts in the Middle East. “Frankly, you see things aren’t black and white,” he said. “There are lots of shades of gray. I think it’s given me a greater appreciation that there’s a lot more nuance than [is expressed by] some of those talking heads on TV.”
At the institute, “you have a Palestinian living with a Jordanian living with an Israeli in dorms, and they become friends and they have heated debates,” he said. “They are trying to figure out how to get together in this environment. It’s such an amazing thing because if you look at the media, you’d think people there are at each other’s throats. … It’s made me reflect a little more deeply on those issues.
“There’s a lot more nuance. There’s a lot of history on both sides, issues that need to be sorted out. It’s made me at best a more intelligent observer of what’s going on in that part of the world.”
Besides, he said, the ride is fun. He likes the challenge.