Monday, March 7, 2011

I'm lovin' it... McFalafel


February 12th, on the Sabbath, we entered the Holy City... Jerusalem. The remainder of our trip would be spent in Jerusalem or right around it. After visiting the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane, we approached the 'Old City' on Mount Zion. After a brief tour of the four different quarters of the city within the walls we went to a place just outside the main walls to the "Garden Tomb." This day was extremely busy and packed full of memories. It was very beautiful, confusing, enlightening, and frustrating all at the same time. I think one of the biggest struggles of this journey has been the amount of questions that arise everytime we find one answer. I had expected to come on this trip and see and learn and experience things that would become firm foundations of my faith. I had foolishly expected to enter this holy land and gain immediate clarity and assurance about some big stories and questions in the bible.

At the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane we maneuvered through crowds of people from all over the world. In one of the spots overlooking the Old City, a German group was singing 'God is so Good'. I loved being in the middle of the crowd and hearing all of the people, because it gave me a new perspective. It doesn't matter where you are from, or what you believe, or what language you speak. This place matters to people. This place, while full of disagreements and struggles, still brings people form all over the world to worship and love our God who is so good.

In Jerusalem there are four major groups; Christian, Jew, Muslim, and Greek Orthodox. All of these people live within the same four walls. They are all striving to protect and take control of the holy lands that are so important to their religions. It was difficult to understand this struggle. Four completely separate groups are all seeing and living in the same place, yet they believe such different things. Everywhere we walked in Jerusalem was a new world. Every door and alley opens to vastly different languages, cultures, and beliefs. It was unlike anything I have ever experienced.

February 13th we made our way to Bethlehem, to the Shepherd's Field, to the Church of the Nativity, to the Museum of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and then were set free to make our way around the markets and crowded alleys of street vendors. We concluded our day in the Hasmonean Tunnel underneath Jerusalem.

The "spot" where Jesus was born at the Church of the Nativity

Passing the wall between Bethlehem and Jerusalem
(Bethlehem is Palestine territory)

February 14th was our last day in Israel (insert reflective sigh). We concluded our time in Jerusalem at Temple Mount next to the golden dome, standing by the wailing wall, and then exiting the city for a half-day tour of the Judean Lowlands and the Valley of Elah (you know, the place where David and Goliath fought).

Februrary 15th we left Israel and made our way back to Greece. Leaving the hotel at 2am, we got to the airport in Tel Aviv at 3am. Security took a few hours and then we finally made it to the gate at 6am for our 7am flight back to our home away from home. While I was waiting at the airport I got some good news from back home... My friend Lacey and I were voted by our club at school to be the Vice Presidents next fall. The ladies of Chi Omega Pi nominated and voted for us to lead the plegding process next semester.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Yo momma so old, she was born when the Dead Sea was just getting sick.


February 9th was our 4th day in the Holy Lands. We visited Mount Bental, the Golan Heights, Tel Dan, Caesarea Phillipi, and a museum with the "Jesus Boat".
Mount Bental is a mountain in the middle of the Goshen Heights. It is an area with a double portion of political and religious strife. The Goshen Heights are mine fields. Active mine fields. Miles and miles of land just sitting there with high powered explosived lying in wait. After years of Syrian and Israeli conflict the fields were handed over to Israel. Yay lots of land... oh wait. There are thousands of mines underneath the ground? Perfect. Don't worry or anything. It's not like we walked through them or anything. We just drove on the high way by the fields up to Mount Bental. From the top of the mountain we could look over into Syria and Lebanon. There was a coffee shop, lookout point, and tourist shop on top of the mountain as well as military bunkers and a camp for UN soldiers who are stationed to keep the peace in such a volitile area. At one of our stops on the tour of Tel Dan we looked out over a valley toward the border of Lebanon. Two years ago there was a war here. Two countries that despise each other sent young men to kill each other in this field just two years ago. And there we were, 30 college kids from America standing listening to facts, taking notes in a moleskin journal, and snapping pictures with out digital cameras. It is difficult to understand the hate and strife in this area. It is difficult to understand the conflict, nevermind any possible solution.
Our next stop after Tel Dan and seeing the head waters of the Jordan River was in Caeserea Phillipi. I was really looking forward to this stop. Several years ago I heard a lesson on this place and the biblical account in Matthew 16:13-20. When Jesus took his disciples to this place it was the equivalent of your Youth Minister taking the youth group to Las Vegas... Can you say fired?! This place is a Pan worship site. There are carving in the stone where idols used to sit and where people would gather for pagan rituals in worship of the god Pan (the god who's name gave us the term panic). This place was evil. The spring that flow out of the mouth of a cave in the rock was thought to be the gates of Hades. Jesus brings the disciples here and asks who people say he is. It is probably here that Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ to which Jesus replies "on this rock I will buld my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it." Woah. Right? Can you imagine sitting at this place thinking about how much trouble you would be in if your mom found out your'e here, and then Jesus declares that he can build his church and kingdom over such a place and that the gates of Hades don't stand a chance. I love it.
As if that weren't a great way to end the day, we headed back to the Galilee region to a museum with the "Jesus boat". In this museum they have a boat found and excavated from the Sea of Galilee in 1986. It is dated back to the 1st Century AD. It is amazingly well preserved. It is made of 12 different woods imported from around the middle eastern region. Archaeologists say it is a miracle that this boat exists in such good condition after such a long time. After seeing the boat, we had a Yossi moment (extraordinary moments in the tour, that because of our guide Yossi, we get to experience unlike any other 'normal tour'). Yossi snuck us down into the basement of the museum into the head archaeologist's workshop. They are close friends, and even though he was out of town, Yossi 'broke into his office' and gave us a tour of the different project that are in progress. There were shelves and shelves of pottery and boxes all waiting to be sifted through and pieced together and catalogued . I touched pottery from the 1st Century BC. And to conclude my day I skipped rocks on the Sea of Galilee. All of the posts get increasingly surreal.

On top of Mount Tabor overlooking Syria and Lebanon

Last night by the Sea of Galilee

February 10th we moved out of the fertile land of Galilee and into the desert. We started our morning by the Jordan River and continued to Mount Tabor (of the Transfiguration), the valley of Armageddon, Bet Shean, a passing glance and Jerico, and stopping for the night at a Kibbutz by the Dead Sea.  My tow favorite things from this day were Bet Shean and Mount Tabor. On this portion of our tour I was not in the best mood, because I had a cold which later spread  and made its rounds through the rest of the HUG group when we returned to Greece. Despite the sore throat, stuffy head, and punding head ache I really loved this day in our trip. Bet Shean is the second oldest city in Israel (behind Jerico). It is a huge ancient city with more ruins than any place we have seen thus far. It was the capital city of the Decapolis from the biblical times. It was the center of Roman culture and entertainment in this part of the empire. There is a huge bath house, a beautiful theater, an amazing central road lined with gigantic columns. Being the math nerd that I am, I was so impressed with the science and ingenuity that went into building such amazing structures that are flawless and long lasting. The massive excavated city we walked around is only estimated to be 20% of the ancient city. I was so impressed by only 1/5?! I can't imagine what it must have been like in its glory days. That would have been an astonishing thing to behold.
My second favorite site of the day was Mount Tabor. This is the Mount of Transfiguration. From the top we could look out and see Nazareth, Galilee, and the Valley of Armageddon. I tried to imagine standing there when the Lord tranfigured and conversed with Elijah and Moses. I pictured Peter saying "Let us set up tents for it is good for us to be here." Then looking around as if to say, "Can I get an Amen?!" The view alone is prime real estate and makes me want to spend more time there. Then add the presence of Jesus, Elijah, Moses, and God's perfect glory... yeah, I think I'm with Peter.
In the church on top of this mountain there was a beautiful grate floor, and inside this space in the floor are thousands of prayers written on scraps of paper. I think people leave them here, like at the wailing wall, because of this places' past connection to the presence of God. It was another step on the journey that made me feel the yearning of humanity to feel connected to a divine presence. It was on top of this mountain in the serenity of the high altitude and surrounding nature that I tried to understnad how it must have been to stand in front of Jesus as he let his fully divinity shine through.
Bet Shean central road

The Feta Five in the theater at Bet Shean

Prayers in the floor in the church on Mount Tabor

February 11th was spent in the desert. It was the day in which I experience the Israel I have always pictured in my mind. We started the day outside En Gedi, continued on a desert walk, visited a Muslin mosque, took a tour of Qumran, swam in the Dead Sea, and I rode a camel named Charlie.
The desert is beautiful. It is expansive and breathtaking. There is so much going on in this place named for its desertion and emptiness. The colors alone are enough to write a blog about. Pictures can't do it justice. It is amazing how small I felt on top of a desert mountain standing over a cliff looking out for miles over the land and Dead Sea. During our desert walks we met Bedouins offering donkey rides and arm-fulls of jewelry. We were advised to avoid eye contact and not stop for anything otherwise we would be harrassed by these men for the remainder of our tour. In the middle of the desert we stopped at a Muslim mosque. The load speakers around the compound were playing the Friday prayers. We went to the entrance of the mosque where Yossi asked if we could go inside for a tour. After a heated exchange in Arabic and some violent gesturing, the offended Muslim man turned us away in disgust, so we retreated back to the tour bus and on to the Dead Sea for a float.
The Dead Sea is a surreal place. The water is slimy and gritty all at the same time. The mud on the bottom of the floor is used around the world in expensive washes, creams, and makeups because of its unique mineral composition. I will advise you to go look for one of those creams or something, because the mud itself is gross. The weirdest part was walking out to deep enough water to wade and float. A few people lost shoes in the mud because of its slimy quicksand qualities. The one plus side of this mud is how soft my skin was the next day. I don't know if my skin has been that soft since infancy. It was amazing. Now on to the water. I have never been able to float very well. I don't think I ever really mastered the art of laying stiff as a board in the swimming pool and rising to the top of the water. In fact, I am always envious of the little kids who do it so efortlessly. This was my shot to float with the best of them. I know it is cheating, but let me have my moment. Sitting in the water feelings like reclining with your head and feet easily bobbing above water. The head above water part of this equation is key, because if you were to get just one drop of water in your eye... game over. I was lucky enough (or maybe I have incredibly fast eyelid reflexes) not to get any water in my eyes. I did watch as many other swimmers ran out of the water searching and feeling around for a towel, clean shirt, or fresh water to soothe the burning. This also happened when unprepared swimmers neglected to adopt a no-shave policy in the hours leading up to the dip in the sea. I did not experience any negative effects from my float in the Dead Sea apart from one foul tasting splash of water that landed on my tounge. After rinsing off and changing clothes, my freind Brooke and I got our turn riding Charlie the Camel. Did you know that camels are huge? Their size is staggering. The whole time we were riding I was astonished at the size and power such a weird looking animal. By the end of this trip I will have experienced many differnet modes of transportation: airplane, car, bus, train, bike, ferry, cruise ship, donkey, camel, and I'm sure I am forgetting more. This trip is full of boundless new experiences and opportunities. I am incredibly grateful for the things I get to see, hear, and feel on this journey. More than that, I will always be thankful for the relationships I am forming with my HUG family. Being together each day, all day has been a blessing and has given me the sense of what it might be like to have brothers and sisters. I would not trade this adventure or the people in it for anything. My only wish is that family and friends from back home could be here too.

In the desert overlooking the Dead Sea
Me and Brooke riding Charlie the camel

In the Dead Sea... weirdest feeling ever!