A podcast interview with Salah Hanoun

This podcast interview was recorded in front of a live audience in Beit Sahour, Palestine. In this episode you can enjoy the stories of Salah and Nynke about their cross countries bike ride from Holland to Palestine in 200 days.

A bike packing adventure from Holland to Palestine

It’s not the same as backpacking, but the concept is the same. You put your bags on your bike and you have a general idea of where you are going, but you are flexible to change plans. With everything you need for a long trip fixed to your bike. You can sleep in your tent and prepare your own food, or you are lucky to find a bed and a shower on the way with friendly welcoming hosts.

Salah and Nynke decided to leave Holland and drive their bikes for six months. Originally they wanted to go for three months but while they were planning and organizing they realized that three months would not be enough. Salah dreamt of traveling across Europe on bike and if it would be possible to reach his family in Palestine, that would be the final goal.

How do you decide for such a long bike trip?

Salah’s family is originally from Jaffa. His family was forcibly displaced in 1948 when the State of Israel was created. They ended up in Balata refugee camp in Nablus. Salah grew up in the camp under harsh circumstances. He studied arts and theater in Syria and that’s where he met his wife Nynke. They married and they lived in Sweden before they moved to Holland. Although life is easier in Europe and there is freedom of movement, that does not exist for Palestinians in the Westbank, Salah felt something important was lacking in his life. He was working as a bike mechanic and he used to find most joy in going on bike rides in the forest. When he started to experience panic attacks, the doctor advised him to take pills. He refused the idea of taking pills. He talked to his wife and they decided that something had to change radically in their life. The idea of going on a long bike trip was born.

Preparations for the bike ride

Salah built the bikes from scratch. He knows every single part of the bikes and he knows how to fix them. “The bikes were my responsibility” he says. “Nynke took care of getting the right sleeping bags, the tent, important and useful equipment for cooking and surviving.” We had everything organized in different compartments so that it was easy to find our things while we were on the road.

Salah and Nynke’s first goal was to reach Turkey. From there they were hoping to get on a sailing boat and reach Egypt. That turned out to be impossible so eventually they flew from Istanbul to Cairo with their bikes. From there they rode through Egypt and Jordan. In Egypt they were forced to accept the continuous presence of a police car following them and a police man staying with them in the accommodation.

But most of the time Salah and Nynke slept in their tent. They would leave early in the morning and use specialized maps for bikers to decide the route. In the early afternoon they would cook their own warm lunch and have a break. Then they’d continue for another couple of hours. When it was around five they would start thinking about a place to stay. If they were not deep in the nature, they would ask locals if it was alright to put up their tent somewhere. In many places they would find friendly offers to put up the tent in a garden. Sometimes they were even invited inside the homes to take a shower and sleep in a real bed. Salah was happily surprised by the kindness and hospitality of people.

Special encounters during the bike trip

There were many special encounters during the trip. Some of them were full of laughter and easy conversations. Other times they had to use Google Translate to communicate. A Croatian woman who did not speak English, managed to tell them by the translation app on the phone that her husband had recently died. She told Salah and Nynke that exactly ten years ago two French bikers had asked for a place to stay. Her husband had allowed them to stay in the garden. She was very emotional when she could offer Nynke and Salah a place to sleep. It brought back memories. She couldn’t hide her tears.

In Srebrenica they were invited in the home of two Muslim women who lost all their male family members during the genocide. Salah thought it was better if Nynke would not say that she was Dutch, seeing the role of the Dutch NATO in allowing for the genocide to happen. “But Nynke doesn’t know how to lie” so when the women asked her where she was from, she said it, from Holland. And the women hugged her in a very emotional way. They shared some of their experiences and it was confronting for Salah who also grew up with a lot of violence in the camp.

In Turkey they ended up staying at the house of a single man who was obviously drinking heavily. They decided to lock their door from the inside. At 2 AM Nynke wanted to go to the bathroom and accidentally broke the key of the door. Now the door was still locked and they couldn’t open it. The only solution was that they climbed out of the window and entered the house from the exterior. The man, who was pretty drunk by now, was not upset, but insisted to try and fix the door immediately. It was quite an awkward situation and we all laugh as Salah tells us the details of this story.

Life changing experience

Biking is like meditation. When you bike you are in the now. You enjoy the moment. You also learn to trust yourself, your gut feeling, your conscious. “I was surprised about how I got so connected with myself. I knew where to put up the tent, which place was safer than other places. And I really learned to judge situations and people. I also realized that fear is just an idea. That if you understand that it’s an idea, you can control yourself and you can win everything.

During the last part of the trip Nynke applied for an entry permit into the Westbank. The Israeli Covid travel restrictions made it impossible for her to join Salah on the very last part of the journey. So eventually Salah had to cross the Allenby bridge alone and he drove the last stretch from Jericho to Nablus without Nynke. He was excited to see his family but also scared. He had not seen them in 3,5 years and he changed a lot. Especially during the bike trip. He had also decided by that point that he did not want to stop cycling. And he was not sure if his family would understand that.

Seeing them again was of course very beautiful and emotional. Salah spent several weeks with his family in Palestine and we recorded this podcast episode two weeks before he returned to Holland to organize a few things. He will be flying to Erbil to join Nynke who found a job with Cordaid in Iraqi Kurdistan. And from there he is going to continue biking, probably to the East. Salah doesn’t know yet. But he is sure about one thing, he wants to live on his bike, for now. It is the most liberating experience he had in his life.

If you want to follow Salah on Social Media check out his Instagram and YouTube channel.