Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Shalom Y'all!

Right off the bat I would like to apologize for the delay in updating my blog. I realize I haven't posted anything since February 3rd. I'm sorry I have taken so long, and because of this time lapse the next few blog posts will be particularly long. On February 6 we left for a 10 day trip to Israel. I am planning to write three posts so I can break up those very dense 10 days. Without further delay, here is ISRAEL POST #1.

February 6th we landed in Tel Aviv, Israel around 1pm. Security is extremely intense when traveling in and out of countries over here. Two member of our group were detained and taken to interview rooms to check out their stories and explain their respective backgrouds. One of the girls on our trip is half Persian and her dad is from Iran so she gets stopped at every airport checkpoint. After waiting in several lines and clearing customs we met our tour guide for the trip, Yossi. He is by far the most knowledgeable man I have ever met. He hold doctorates in multiple fields, teaches university classes on comparative philosophical and religious theory, speaks 5 languages (that I heard while on the trip), plays the flute, and knows more about the bible than I can ever hope to. I am incredibly grateful for the amount of time we were able to spend under his direction. Throughout the 10 day trip we were shown amazing things, and not just stops on a typical tour. We would often go to "Yossi spots" that are either little know or off limits.
On the bus we had a whirlwind summary of the Holy Lands and the history of the Judean area that we would experience over the next week and a half. Our first stop was in Jaffa (of Acts and Jonah fame). We looked out over the Mediterranean. We meandered through the back alley and rooftops of the beautiful port city. We ate our first authentic Israeli meal of shawarma (a delicious round pita filled with grilled chicken or pork and hummus). After a quick walk through the city we left to settle in at the hotel in down town Tel Aviv. It was about a block from the water and was surrounded by high rises, neighborhoods, and shopping strips. The fisrt day in Israel was a whole new experience for me. It is hard to explain the feel of the places we went. I can take pictures and try to describe it, but so much is lost in translation because you can't experience the smells or sounds. The culture and feelings are so unique and distinctive. We met one girl at the hotel with a gun strapped to her back. She is a guard for one of the tourist groups that stayed at the hotel. She is an American from California and moved to the Holy Lands two years ago after high school to join the Israeli army (like all the other 18 year old in the country). She finished her two years of duty a few months ago and is now working as a guard for tours around Jerusalem. We got to talk to her for a really long time about her story and interesting things about the country. She is the same age as me and grew up just a few minutes from Disney World and yet here she is in a hotel in Israel with a rifle slung over her shoulder. This was just the beginning of a world of things I would see and experience over the course of the trip.
The view from a roof in Jaffa

February 7th was a wonderful day. We went to Caeserea Maritime, Mount Carmel, and Nazareth. Wow, can you believe that last sentence? In the course of our 9 hour day we saw three distinct things from three great times in the Bible. Mount Carmel, the place where Elijah called on the dominating power of God over the hundreds of prophets of Baal. Nazareth, where Jesus spent 27 years of his life. Caeserea Maritime, the port city of Herod the Great where Paul stood in the stadium infront of Agrippa and Festus. I stood on that mountain side and had falafel for lunch. I walked the streets of Nazareth and stood over the excavated main street of Jesus' hometown. I sat on the marble stones in the theater at Caeserea and pictured what the city must have looked like in its glory days and what it must have felt like to stand before the crowds of people professing faith in Jesus and spreading a new thing called Christianity.
This trip changed my view of the Bible. I now hesitate to call the scriptures "Bible stories". They are more real to me now. Calling them 'stories' seem distant and diluted by fantasy or time. After standing on the sites, seeing the artifacts, and learning the history, the Biblical accounts are so much more real to me.
One things that really stood out to me during our trip is the human desire to be close to something holy. One thing I had not expected was the amount of churches and monuments set up at all of the sites. When I say churches I don't mean an auditorium with pews, a youth room, a gym and lots of purple carpet. These churches are the most ornate buildings I have ever been in. In the Church of the Holy Sepulcher there are 42 different churches! All 42 different groups clamour to grab a piece of  real estate at the place where they think Jesus was in the tomb and was raised. Thousands of people flock to this place every month and wait in lines to kiss a spot on the ground or say a special prayer. I found some of the displays difficult to grasp and appreciate. I was stirred as I tried to understand this human need to dwell in the presence of God. For many, this is their one shot to be in front of God. They wait their whole lives to come to these lands and have access to God. I could not help but feel overwhelming gratitude for the sacrifice of Jesus and the relationship he opened to us. While I don't think this was my one shot, I can appreciate the power and reassurance of seeing these places in person.  
A Muslin billboard in front of a Catholic Church in the center of Nazareth.

February 8th was one of my favorite days! We stood on top of the Mount of Beatitudes, hiked down the muddy paths and a Roman road to the Sea of Galilee, toured Capernaum and the house of Simon Peter, stood on top of Mount Tiberius, and drove through Gennesaret. The Region of Galilee is beautiful. It is not at all how I had pictured the land of Israel. I guess I never really thought about the climate and landscape of the biblical times and lands. I think the false assumptions I had stem from early on in life. When ever we colored pictures in Sunday school or watched flannel graph stories about Jesus or David and Goliath there was always an abundance of desert . I remember searching for the brown and tan colored crayons so I could color the land around the bible characters. I never thought about the areas of this land that are beautiful and fertile. I never thought about the Jordan River, or the seas, or the Mediterranean. I can't tell you how many times people in our group would exclaim "Jesus walked in mud!" or "Look at all the trees. Were these here 2000 years ago?"
The Mount of Beatitudes was the first place I really understood the area where Jesus lived. The Galilee region is amazing. We hiked through the mud down a mountain to a spot that would be similar to the place where Jesus preached to and fed the masses. As we looked out over the valley and the Sea of Galilee I tried to picture what it must have been like to sit in the crowds of thousands straining to hear everything Jesus said. As we were walking, our guide pointed out some yellow flowers and asked a few people to pick them to eat. What Yossi was pointing out to us were mustard seeds. When Jesus spoke to the crowd about faith as small as a mustard seed moving mountains they were sitting in a field of mustard plants at the base of a mountain. How cool is that? How great is our God? I love it.
Standing in the Sea of Galilee was one of my favorite things. Jesus totally controlled this water. He told the disciples to cast their nets on the other side and to catch "many, many fish in the nets in the hands of the men in the boat on the Sea of Galilee" (as the song says), he calmed the storm, and he walked on the surface of the sea. There was no question of Jesus' power when it came to this body of water. He showed time and time again who he was and what he controlled. Wading into the water was such a wonderful experience, and soon after we visited a small Bizantine church built over the "Resurrection rock" on the shore. In the center of the small chapel was a rock said to be the place where Jesus had breakfast with his disciples after the resurrection. I sat in that church and read in John 21 where Jesus sits and eats with his friends and followers. This is when he restores Peter for the three times of denial. He sits and asks "Peter, do you love me?" To which Peter responds "Yes, Lord, you know I love you." They repeat this three times and Jesus calls Peter to follow him. This resonated with me. I imagined what it must have been like to be Peter. He denied Jesus, his Lord and friend, three times in a row. He must have been so guilty and ashamed. I wonder how many times I deny Jesus with my words or actions. I question how loyal a friend and follower I am, and yet like Peter, I am forgiven, restored, and called. What a relief Peter must have felt to have been given the chance to tell Jesus how much he loved him. That redemption and love shown by Christ is indescribable and perfect. I will always be thankful for these moments of clarity whether they be by the Sea of Galilee or sitting in my room in Texas.
Later in the afternoon we ate a fish lunch by the sea. Galilee fish! I picked the bones clean. However, I was not in the group of students who tried the eyeballs of the fish... too far for me.
The last thing of the day was a boat ride on the sea. We rode out to the middle of the water and sat in the silence and stillness. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be in the middle of the water during a huge storm and then for the sea to calm just like how we viewed it that afternoon.
After our long daym we headed for the kibbutz where we would stay for the next two nights. If, like me you had never heard of a kibbutz until now, you should google it. The way our guide described it to us was as a compound with an ideal communist society. Everyone works as much as they can and consumes as much as they need. We stayed at one hotel on a compound which was formerly a kibbutz, and we also stayed on a fully functioning kibuttz later in the desert. If you have watched the show Lost, I can give you an explanation of how it felt to stay on the property. I felt like I was in the Dharma Initiative tucked away in 70s style compounds full of palm trees and armed guards.

My muddy feet in the Sea of Galilee

A fishy lunch by the Sea

This trip is so full of unique experiences and I can't begin to share them all here, but I hope some of these details will give you a glimpse of one of the greatest adventures I will ever have. 

Thursday, February 3, 2011

"Give me a word, any word, and I show you that the root of that word is Greek."

Wow. The days are all blurring together. I should really try to blog more often so I can distinguish the days from each other. It is hard to blog and sit on a computer when friends, homework, coffee shops, bakeries,  and Greece are calling my name. I have neglected this blog and updating facebook pictures in favor of building relationships, exploring, and making memories. I think most would agree I have chosen the more rewarding path, but I am sorry that my days might run together.

Saturday we had class day number five. We had class on a Saturday to make up for Thursday when we went to the Archeological Museum, and because we leave for Israel in four days. As my friend Evann mistakenly puts it, "You take some.You get some." Her intention is correct, and I am happy to give and take for the sake of this whole semester's worth experience. After class I had the chance to skype with some friends and family during the day. I talked to mom and dad for a while before dinner. It was the first time we got to talk together as a family unit, and face to face at that. It was so good to see them. I am so thankful for the technology that allows me to stay connected to all the people I love and miss. We made our 'skype date' with the intention of talking about an opportunity for me to go to Barcelona for a travel weekend in March. I am so excited to say that my parents encouraged me to go and join the group of 10 already going! Later that night we booked our tickets. I am beyond thrilled to get to spend 4 full days in Spain in the beginning of March. As my dad said "What a way to celebrate your 20th birthday...in Spain!"
After dinner in a wonderful local taverna down the street, we headed back to the Artemis to hang out and relax. The entire group played Sardines for a few hours, and it was so much fun. Sardines is a game of backwards hide and seek. One person hides within set boundries of the the Artemis and its outside campus. After a few minute all the other players search for the solo player. Once they find their mark, they have to slip away, unseen, and hide in the same spot. This continues until the entire group is hiding in one place and only one person is left seeking. At this point the round is over and the last person left seeking becomes the person to pick the new hiding spot. In the third round Kelcey and I tied for last place and were then tasked with the hiding job. In a moment of kismet, we simultaneouslly locked eyes on the cabana roof on the back patio. We hopped up onto a stone wall and hoisted ourselved onto the rooftop where we would end up laying for close to an hour. We layed there in the silence and cold for what seemeed like forever as the rest of the group proceeded to wander around searching high and low, but not quite high enough. It was only after Victoria climbed a fire escape ladder were we discovered. We climbed off the roof and defrosted ourselves by the fire place before heading for bed and calling it a day.

Sunday I slept in until 1:30pm. I know you are probably asking "How could you sleep that late when there is so much to do in a place like Greece?" Well, I will tell you. I am a night-owl. Curfew is at midnight and then I staty up an additional few hour each night catching up on homework or talking with people back home. It is difficult to get all the homework I need to get done during the day when there are more fun things to do, so I stay up late and get it all done. Sunday is our only day to sleep in. We leave for church at 4:30pm, and the rest of the day is ours, so I spent mine catching up on all the lack of sleep. I love my bed here. I am no longer worried about sleeping soundly this semester. I am so comfortable each night, and I find that the only thing I dread is the moment when I have to get out from under my covers and take the first step on the cold marble floors in the morning. I suppose it is a good thing that this moment begins each day and that the day's events can only become more pleasant as the time passes.
After waking up and getting ready for church I had a few hours to grab lunch and do some homework. But while putting off that homework, I made a very tenative plan for free travel at the end of the semester. The people I am thinking of traveling with made a list of ideal places we hope to visit. We then pulled up Google maps and plotted a rough estimation of our route and calendar days of locations. It was so fun to talk about all the great places we will soon be seeing. On the tenative list so far we have Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Czech, France, London, and maybe Ireland if flight prices permit. Wow. Can you believe that last sentence? Do I really get to go to all of these places? All of this, not to mention the sites we are about to see in Israel in less than one week. At 4:30pm we loaded the bus to go to church. I love church in Glafayda. The singing is wonderful, and we even sang two songs in Greek. Hopefully with more practice I will be able to learn what they mean and maybe be able to pronounce the words.

Monday, after class day six, I used a lot of the iTunes money I got for Christmas to buy a few new albums. I made a playlist of all of my new songs and proceeded to knock out 4 hours of homework. It was a very productive day and overall pretty relaxing. Ten people from our group left for the evening to work with a local ministy that provided meals, showers, and laundry services for refugees in Athens. Since Greece is widely considered the gateway to Europe, ther is an overwhelming population of undocumented refugees from many of the surrounding countries. One of the members of the church we attend in Glafayda is a missionary in charge of this ministry on Monday nights. The rest of the group who did not get to go this week, including myself, remained at the Artemis and enjoyed a relaxing night of watching the Lion King.

Tuesday, we had a quiz over the Greek alphabet. I now know how to write and pronounce the entire alphabet. This is a big step, because now I can sound out most words. Our Greek teacher likes to point out everytime we use an English word that has Greek origin. It reminds me of the dad from the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding (hence the title of this post). Over the past few days we have learned almost 80 words, all of which sound just like the English word. Being able to read and sound out words is a big step toward understanding and feeling more comfortable here. After dinner our group went to the beach of the Aegean sea to hang out and built a campfire. It was a very cold night, but by the fire we had a great time. After most of the group made their way back to the Artemis, those of us still at the campfire had a little devo. We sang some praise song and as we were wrapping up two men walked up and asked where we were from. They recognized our use of English and stopped to say hello. They were from Florida and in Greece on a mission trip. What are the chances? It was definitely a cool moment. When I got back to the Artemis I got a chance to call my aunt and cousin. With all the ice and snow back home they were out of school and it gave me a chance to call during their afternoon. My cousin is seven years old and when he found out I was leaving for Greece he became curious about the language. My aunt has been updating me about his interest in Greek over the past two weeks. He bought a conversational Greek book and is learning phrases he thinks I might need while I am here. He is so sweet and I was anxious to call him to trade the words we have learned. It was nice to be able to answer all of his questions and tell him about new words and cultural difference here. I am definitely impressed by his curiosity. We talked until right before curfew and I had to explain to him that I had to go because it is 8 hours later here and I had to go to bed.

Wednesday, after more classes and lunch time, I played ping pong for a few hours. Part of the group went into Athens to the mall. Another group climbed "HUG mountain" for a few hours, and I went with a group to some local stores and to a coffee shop. At a local bookstore we found lots of popular American titles in all Greek text and we found some really cute children's books. Later in the afternoon we studied and worked on a project for Humanities. My partner, Jill, and I were assigned a city in Israel to connect to its biblical origins. Today in class we presented and heard lots of information about the many cities we will see next week.
My roommate, Victoria, almost got to go to a Greek fashion show but discovered at the last minute that tickets were sold out. In order to cheer her up we put on a HUG fashion show. We turned the disco ball on and set up a runway in the dinning room. Victoria's (secret) Fashion Show was a success! It was so much fun that our professors joined in on the catwalk.

Today I woke up to a very dreary scene outside. It is pouring rain and the mountain outside our window is covered in low clouds. After class and lunch concluded the group settled in for a movie day. We just finished the Disney classic, Hercules and now we are watching The Mummy. Tonight I will start packing for our ten day trip to Israel. Today marks a full two weeks since arriving in Greece.

A lot has happened in the past week. Things are always changing. With the situation in Egypt escalating daily it is doubtful that we will be allowed to go. The directors here are working hard to find the safest situation for us and they are currently working on a contingency trip to Turkey if the problems in Egypt do not resolve in the next 4 weeks. Things in Egypt are very dangerous and unsettled right now. We are all praying that things calm down and the government is able to stabalize for the sake of all the citizens. I am really hoping to go to Egypt, but if it doesn't work out I am sure Turkey will present other great opportunities and amazing experiences. 

For now, we go to Israel and wait to see how things pan out in Egypt. Sorry this is such a long post, but I hope I gave a good account of what is going on over here. I also hope you have a great day and that you stay warm in the midst of the crazy cold weather blasting lots of the United States.