Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Horseback riding on the Mediterranean

Sometimes, the (potentially) cheesiest adventures turn out to be the most rewarding.

When Alysa’s grandmother generously paid for Alysa’s plane ticket so she could go to Israel with us I was excited, but also a bit trepidatious. She and I would be spending our days together, just the two of us in a foreign country. We get along just fine, but I’m an anxious individual and Alysa had never been out of the country, I wanted us both to get something out of the trip and our interests do not always overlap. When one of the guidebooks I was reading mentioned a chance to ride horses in the Mediterranean surf, I looked for more information because Alysa loves horse back riding, and I certainly enjoy it on the rare times I get an opportunity. I was worried that it would be totally cheesy because I’ve been on group horseback trail rides that were pretty awful, where there were 20 tired horses all tied in a line and a bunch of awkward tourists who had never been on horses before. I was worried we’d move at a snail’s pace and spend the whole time feeling so sorry for the horses and not enjoying the limited time on the beach. Our experience was the exact opposite of those bad experiences; our ride was wonderful.

Sunday there was a rain storm. Israel does not get many rain storms, so when we asked our hotel staff to call the ranch on Sunday night about getting reservations, the folks on the other end of the phone were very reluctant to guarantee we could go out riding, but Monday dawned clear and sunny, so the hotel desk called up and got us a 9:30 appointment at Cactus Ranch. They also gave us directions. They told us it was not on any maps, did not have an address to type into a GPS and was a ways off the road, but said there were signs and we should call on our way in. Alysa and I hopped in a taxi to a car-rental place, then rented a car and sped out of the city. Okay, we did not actually speed, it took us a while to get a car reservation, a while to pick up the car, and then the GPS got us lost trying to get out of the city, so we were already late when we arrived in the village, saw the little sign for Cactus Ranch, and pulled off the paved road. Many turns and a few miles later Alysa and I were hooting with hysterical laughter as we dodged puddles the size of small ponds and hollered every time we saw a sign with a little horse on it. We were almost an hour late, but when we pulled up everyone was happy to see us, seemed to be expecting us, and spoke enough English that we could all communicate.

The place was pretty muddy, but they told us the rainstorm had been very fierce on the coast, and all the horses were acting happy and well-fed, just, well, muddy. We watched as only three horses were groomed and saddled; apparently the off-season meant that there were no other tourists, and the weather had scared away all the Israelis. It was just the two of us and a guide. Since we both had some riding experience, verified by the fact that we mounted up, sat up strait and held the reigns without being taught, our guide Itsak was willing to give us a lot of leeway.

We trotted through fields of wild flowers, down dirt roads, and up on to the beach, where we splashed in the waves and gazed out over the big swells of a winter-time Mediterranean. I gave Itsak my iPhone and he took photos of Alysa and I smiling and laughing as we tried to urge our horses further into the waves (Alysa’s horse was afraid of the water and mine thought he was king of the herd.) The beach part was a blast, but the rest of the ride was even better.

After the beach our guide led us up the dunes and along the top of a cliff. We had great vistas up and down the coast where industrial smokestacks and glassy high rises were encroaching on the lovely brush and bramble covered seaside, but I was able to ignore the signs of civilization to enjoy the amazing land and sea. The Med was rough, with plenty of big whitecaps, but it was still warm and green. It looked so much more inviting than the North Atlantic has ever looked. Even to a land lubber like me it looked like a body of water on which to have adventures. As we made our way up the coast I could not help but imagine Odysseus, Jason, the Phoenicians, all adventuring on that wild but enticing sea.

Even when the cliffs blocked our view I could not help but feel like an intrepid traveler, like one of my ancestors making her way across the arid, but lovely land. Maybe Sarah or Miriam, or even Mary on the back of a donkey, because surely on the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem she travelled through the same land, gazed at the same plants, and I’m sure some of the days of travel might have been sunny and bright. I know that is totally romantic. We spent a few hours on horseback on a bright clear day in a lovely setting, very far from the experience of those in the past. But surely my ancestors must have had some bright moments when they took some delight in the road, the location, and that circumstances were, for the moment, just about perfect.

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