How a Self-proclaimed Geek Fought Off an Attacker on Colombia's Open Seas

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: An athlete-turned-doctor returning from Hungary gives life advice, and a Belgian-Israeli couple recounts a frightening experience on a Colombian island

Shani Gur.
Tomer Appelbaum

Shani Gur, 31, from Yehud; arriving from Hungary

Hello, where are you from?

I grew up in California, then Yehud. I did my undergraduate degree in Be’er Sheva, and I also took a master’s there, in medical engineering. Afterward I went to Hungary to study medicine.

Where are you coming from now?

Hungary. I went to sit for a final exam in internal medicine, and in the meantime I’m in Israel ahead of doing an internship here.

What’s it like to come for an internship in Israel after med school in Hungary and not here?

I feel that the burden of proof is on me. The disparities between Hungary and Israel are such that I will have to bridge them, because we’re second-best, and that’s fine, but we have to prove ourselves and not stay that way.

Sounds like you’ve basically understood life and are rushing ahead.

Yes, but still. Family and children is something that has to be done. It’s important. The time has come for something that isn’t just me, myself and sports.

Is that a realization that suddenly came to you – that it’s time to raise a family?

It’s something that happened to me in Hungary. During my fifth year there, I saw that people around me were starting to start families, have children. Until then, I had thought I would be able to be only with myself for all time, but I want to give of myself externally a little, and it’ll be hard if I don’t do it now.

Why will it be hard to do later?

Mainly because of the issue of female fertility. There’s an age range of 30 to 35, and I want to be a surgeon, so it’s best if I have a child soon. From the career viewpoint, men and also women marry during their studies, and it’s better to have children when you do the internship. If you come to the internship before becoming pregnant, they might not take you, they prefer someone who’s already a mother, because she’s already done it and won’t disappear on them.

It’s so unfair that despite all the progress, in the end the body dictates the timetable.

There’s nothing that can be done. Medically, there’s a stage at which the body changes, the tissues change. It’s like an air conditioner that hasn’t worked for a long time. It’s important, otherwise it could be a pregnancy at risk, and it’s also better to be a young mother. But those are just fantasies, and I’m not a fantasizer. I like to get things done. And it’s also something of an area that I’m not yet completely certain how to function in.

I have a feeling that you’ll do everything the best way. What made you want to become a doctor?

As a girl I always wanted to look. I really wanted to see into sores. Then my grandfather got sick, and I was there a lot to take care of him.

Something in the therapist-patient approach, and the subject of the human body, looked to me like perfection, and not to know what goes on in the machine we walk around in seemed wrong to me. 

Where do the drive for success and the ambition come from?

From tennis in childhood, and from triathlons, all the way to Iron Man, which was actually my swan song. After ten years in competitions in Israel, I registered for a competition in Austria – 3.7 kilometers swimming, 180 kilometers cycling, and then a marathon. 

And did you get support from your family? 

The toughest training I did a little in secret, as my mother thought it was a little unhealthy, and that bothered here. She said, “Better that you should deliver newspapers in the morning than do seven hours of training on the bicycle. In the end, though, my mom decided to loan me to the competition, and she even convinced me to have a tattoo made with the logo of the competition. 

Could you see a difference between yourself from before and after the competition?

Yes, and it’s something that’s remained with me, also during my medical studies.

It’s really obvious that you have plenty of energy.

After I started CrossPit, I only managed to enjoy about an hour a day of sports. It’s the idea that something big and far away seems impossible, but you need to keep your eye just on the step ahead of you, and restraint and willpower. Not to run toward the impossible, but to look for points just in front of you, and to keep going for the little victories, until you reach the end. 

Gabi and Alain Strassberg.
Tomer Appelbaum

Gabi and Alain Strassberg, both 47, from Herzliya; flying to Australia

Hello, can I ask where you’re headed?

Alain: To Australia, for a two-week trip. We’ve already been there three times.

Gabi: We’ve been everywhere in the world – it’s a problem. (Laughs)

Is there a reason for your nonstop trips, or is it the joy of travel?

Alain: We’ve been to 115 countries together, because that’s my job. I organize trips to Latin America. I’ve been back to Argentina 50 times. And I’ll tell you more than that – until the age of 18 I hated flying. The stuffy air, the lines. And it’s not that I really love flying today, but my job is to make people’s dreams come true. My work starts when you stop working.

But is there still work for tour organizers in the age of the internet?

Alain: Good question. I deal with Latin America, not Burgas and places like that, and not all the information is available online yet for those destinations. 

Gabi: These are people who travel for a specific amount of time, not trekkers who have time on their hands.

Alain: But to say that I’ll have work in another 20 years? I don’t know.

Do you feel safe in South America?

Alain: There was one case. We thought that nothing would happen, because we’ve traveled a lot. We went to San Andres, a Colombian island. A year before we had jet-skied in Antalya, and Gabi said she would never get into a jet ski again. So I rented one alone. I come back from the sea and suddenly see a two-meter-tall guy with Gabi, and she tells me she’s going for a 20-minute spin on the open sea, and she’s driving. I ask myself: Who is this mountain of a man? Half an hour goes by, 40 minutes, an hour. Gabi doesn’t come back. After an hour and a quarter he arrives at the dock, pushing the jet ski, and runs off. Good thing Gabi did kickboxing.

What happened there in the heart of the sea, Gabi?

Gabi: You think you’re smart, and that it won’t happen to you. You think everyone is nice, and you understand that not everyone is nice. It was on the open sea, he wanted me to navigate to a secret ship. He was behind me. I didn’t want that, so I drove and I kicked him, because I knew that if I went there, that would be it. I told him that if he wanted something, he would have to kill me. He still kept going. Since then I don’t go on outings alone, and I don’t do anything on the street, either, if Alain isn’t with me.

That’s a terrible experience, and your boldness is astounding. Would you like to say what you do, Gabi?

Gabi: I’m an analyst with a private investment company that has a branch in Israel.

Alain: She has a Ph.D. in applied mathematics. Mathematicians are very smart people, and incredibly modest.

Gabi: I’m not modest, I’m geeky.

Do you feel geeky?

Gabi: Yes, on the inside.

Alain: She’s also the Israeli champion in the 5,000-meter run, above the age of 45. She broke the record two months ago.

So you’re the mathematician runner and Alain is the traveler?

Alain: I immigrated from Belgium. After we met, in South America, we lived in Belgium for 15 years. I was an accountant there, and was bored by it.

Gabi: The running is from Alain: He’s run 15 marathons.

What do you think about when you run?

Alain: About everything. About traveling, about Gabi. I kiss my wedding ring. When the running gets tough, I kiss the ring five-six times.

How did you meet?

Alain: We met 25 years ago, on a post-army trip, on the Peru-Bolivia border. Gabi was in a group of six girlfriends, I was in a group of three male friends. It was at Lake Titicaca. 

Gabi: In the guesthouse. And Alain had a really gorgeous friend.

Alain: Better-looking than me. Another friend got a job in Africa, and the two of us were left, with six girls. My friend started up with one of them within two hours, and I was left with all the others.