Tuesday, January 28, 2014

"Mom, you have no idea..."

This is a phrase my mom has heard or read countless times over the past 5 months.  A typical exchange could go something like this...

Mom: Sis! Where are you?!?  How are you?!?
Me: Moms! I'm in _______ (fill in the blank with most recent destination). 
Mom: Well... how is it?
Me: Mom... (long pause) 
Mom: I know, I know... I have no idea.
Me: Pretty much. 

She has come to understand that my mode of travel, while intriguing to her, is something that she will most likely never experience for herself.  There have been times where I'm not exactly sure how to describe the people I've met, foods I've eaten, places I've slept, sites I've seen or transportation I've taken.  And then I consider if I should even tell her in the first place.  It might be against my better judgment, but I usually divulge. As you may have learned, I'm pretty much an open book. 

And so, during my last week in Israel and Jordan, I kept thinking to myself... "Mom, you have no idea."  

Although I've enjoyed the experiences I've shared with Annette, I've found that traveling alone opens many more opportunities to meet interesting people along the way.  During these 7 days, I saw some amazing places, but my greatest joy came from the string of people I had the pleasure of sharing life with, sometimes for as short as an hour.  Here is an account of some of those exchanges. 

After my wonderful day at the beach in Tel Aviv, I headed back to my room at the Gordon Inn. I was staying in the 4 bed dorm at the top of the hotel. When I opened the door and overcame the smell of "boy" I was greeted by Garrett. I said, "Hey. How's it going?"  He says, "Where in the U.S. are you from? The Midwest?" I said, "Wow! You're good!"  He guesses, "Illinois?" My response: "Impressive!"  He asks, "Chicago?"  I said: "Do I really sound like I'm from Chicago??"  Granted, I had only uttered 8 words.  Garrett was from New Jersey, was 21 years old, and was in Israel to enlist in the military. He had actually been living in this room at the Gordon Inn, free of charge in exchange for some maintenance work, for the past 4 months. Garrett reminded me of a young, more disheveled David Arquette, without the confidence, but making his best attempt. He asked if I liked football. I was reminded the Broncos would be beating the Patriots at 10pm, local time. We ended up heading to Mike's Pub (conveniently located next to the American Embassy) to watch the game with all the other ex-pats who enjoy American football. Justin from San Fran and Ori from Israel, both guys who work at the Gordon Inn joined Garrett. Katz, my Camino Amigo and one of the few Israelis who play American football (he's on the roster of the Tel Aviv Pioneers team) joined me as well as a couple of his buddies.  It was a memorable evening of watching a great game, sharing entertaining stories and learning more of the Israeli culture.  I was definitely an outsider as the only Gentile in the group, a not-so-surprising trend that would continue for the rest of my time in Israel. But I felt welcome.  

The next day I took a train north to Haifa to check out the immaculate, yet peculiar, B'hai Gardens. I ate an amazing lunch near the port at a place called, Hanamal 24. My meal included pumpkin and butternut squash soup, goat cheese stuffed ravioli with liver pâté, and finished with truffle gnocchi.  I may sleep at the cheapest places in town, but I do have a knack for splurging on a good meal. For the sake of my budget, I wish I was not this way. C'est la vie. 

I then continued on to Akko for a wander around the ancient port city before the sunset. I really hadn't had much human interaction throughout the day and was feeling content, but reflective. But that changed as I was finding my way through the maze of streets to get back to the train. I passed Captain Sammy's house as he was on the doorstep cleaning out the coffee pot. "Where you from?" came his greeting. "U.S." came my response with a smile. As an aside, I had been considering that this announcement may not come as welcome news to some people in this part of the world.  But without exception, during my time here, my declaration of my nationality came with responses like "Ah! America! Good!" Or "America! Welcome!"  Sammy's was one of these followed by an invitation to join him for coffee. Annette had recently challenged me to accept the hospitality of others when traveling. I have typically turned down such offers, not because of concern for safety, but because I am typically thinking of where I need to be going next.  But, I'm also slowly adopting a slower pace of life that much of the world practices. So this time I took Sammy up on his offer. "Why not?!?"  As I entered his house, it appeared that there was some business deal being negotiated and my presence was largely ignored. I sat in Sammy's big leather recliner with my legs crossed at my feet, my hands folded in my lap and a "What now?" look on my face. The business deal came to a conclusion with hand shakes all around just as the coffee was being served. Captain Sammy took a seat and informed me that Akko is a "very, very important city."  Funny. I had never heard of it before. I asked why. He gave me a brief run-down of the long history of the city.  He then informed me that he is the captain of the port, hence his name. And, he makes drapes. Of course.  It also appeared that Captain Sammy considered himself to be quite the ladies man.  He did extend an offer to join him for the "best fish in the world."  I declined as I had a train to catch back to Tel Aviv. As a traveler, it's always nice to have the excuse of imminent onward travel at moments such as these.  But I was grateful for the hospitality of Captain Sammy. 

That evening, when I got back to the Gordon Inn, I had to switch rooms because of previous reservations. This allowed me the opportunity to meet Rickshanna. She was from London but of Bangladesh decent and worked in the oil and gas industry.  She was also traveling Israel solo, and is one of the few solo women I had encountered recently. I am well aware that many of my encounters seem to be with men. Annette and I have observed that most, if not all, of our destinations have been to male dominated societies and/or places that men are more inclined to travel to than women. We have given these places names like the CaMENo de Santiago, IstanBOYS, KathmanDUDE, Everest BOYS Camp, TanzMANia, AmMAN, JordMAN and JerusalMEN.  But I digress. Rickshanna had travelled to many places in the world that I had not, and vice versa. She was also planning a trip to the U.S. this summer. Her plan was to start in Chicago and work her way south, and eat the food her destinations were famous for. Examples: Mississippi Mud Pie, Jambalaya in Louisianna, and she was embarrassed to say, Kentucky Fried Chicken. I was happy to encourage her on that one.  After swapping travel stories, we both decided we would be good travel companions, but went our separate ways the next day. 

On my last day in Tel Aviv, I started with the Sandemans tour of the Old City of Jaffa, a recommendation from Rickshanna. Sandemans offers free tours of cities all over the world. You just tip the tour guide at the end whatever you think it was worth.  By the end, I began to consider that this could be a job for me. (Too bad Vail doesn't have many historic markers tourists would be interested in.)  During the tour, I met Hope. My first exchange with Hope was to ask if she was from Colorado. I thought the REI backpack, SIG water bottle and especially the Danskos were a dead giveaway. She said no, but the stocking cap she was wearing (in the balmy Mediterannean air) was a gift from a guy from Colorado. Hope turned out to be from Vernon Hills, Illinois. She went to school at NYU, taught Special Ed for a year in Chicago Public Schools, worked on an "unsustainable" organic farm in California, and then did some hands on learning of herbal medicine in Oregon. To that, I said  "You mean..." She said, "no, but you are very perceptive."  Most recently she was working some land her brother owns in Maine. And now she was traveling around Israel before finding a kibbutz to live on. I shared with her about my sabbatical experience. By the end of the tour she was beginning to think the idea of sabbatical sounded pretty good. I didn't tell her I wasn't sure it counted as sabbatical if you have never really had a career, but to each his own.  Hope was a cool chick. 

I spent the rest of my day sampling the various culinary delights that had been recommended to me by Katz. I had a breakfast of shakshuka at Dr. Shakshukas in the flea market. I wandered through the Yeminite Market eating a cup full of pomegranate seeds. And I continued down King George street, trying to work up an appetite for an amazing ratotuille pita at a restaurant I wasn't sure was right as all signage was in Hebrew.  And then I rolled myself onto a bus bound for Jerusalem. 

I arrived back at Matan's house (the AirBnB host where our Jerusalem adventure began). I had ditched a bag there to lighten the load for the Jesus trek so I had to pick that up. And Matan graciously saved a bed for me as well. Upon arrival, I was greeted by Phillip, who was there our first night as well. Phillip was a tall, thin, ruddy-faced Brit, doing research for Cambridge on the Islamic faith as well as taking Arabic lessons in Bethlehem.  Florentine and his girlfriend were also spending the night at Matan's. Florentine was a bright-eyed, althletic Romanian eager to see as much of Israel as possible. I did not meet his girlfriend as she was already asleep when I arrived. Matan invited the three of us to join him for a drink in town. We headed to Mahane Yehuda, the old market, and enjoyed a piece of the Jerusalem nightlife. Matan was surprised that all three of us had an interest in gleaning a better understanding of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. But he was happy to share his perspective, coming from a 23-year-old, not long out of the military.  It was the perfect way to spend my last night in Jerusalem.  

Then it was time to head south. I made a quick stop for a float in the Dead Sea before continuing on to Mizpe Ramon, in the middle of the Negev Desert.

I arrived at the Green Backpackers Hostel (a place I cannot recommend enough for hostel-goers) just in time to catch the sun setting over the Mahktesh Ramon crater. 

I then took a 30-minute walk to the industrial part of town that was newly "revitalized" into an art district / restaurant locale. The vision is great but judging by the ghost town I walked through to get there, I'm not sure it's totally caught on. But I did enjoy a wonderful dinner of a healthy serving of bruschetta.  As I was leaving I began to consider that I wasn't really in the mood for the 30-minute walk back to the hostel. Considering that Mitzpe Ramon doesn't quite have the market to sustain a taxi business, my only option was to try to hitch a ride. (Ok... Please don't judge. First off... Israel has a thriving culture of hitchhikers. This seems to be the transportation method of choice for many of the soldiers trying to get from Point A to Point B. Secondly, my short time in Mitzpe Ramon lead me to believe this was the Mayberry of Israel. Additionally, I have never nor would ever hitch hike in the U.S.  And even though I may have an adventurous spirit, I also feel that I have a pretty good discerning spirit.  So with those things in mind...) I pointed my finger to the road as I walked in the same direction of the non-existant traffic. Three cars passed in 3 minutes. The fourth one stopped. I asked "Green Backpackers?"  Matan said "Hop in."  This is a different Matan. But I love that both of them explained to me that their name means "gift".  The first Matan was the last of 4 boys and was considered a "surprise".  This Matan was an only child. It seemed their parents chose their names wisely. After I told Matan what I was up to, he graciously invited me to join him for coffee.  Considering my Akko coffee experience didn't disappoint, I accepted this offer. And not much else seemed to be happening in Mitzpe Ramon this evening. Once I arrived, I met Yogi, Matan's friend from military days and "twin brother from a different mother".  Yogi was dishing up some schnitzel and pasta. It soon became apparent that I would be eating a second dinner in addition to coffee. The 23-year-olds regaled me with stories of their 5 month travels through much of Africa. Yogi expanded my musical library by offering some new suggestions in addition to cueing up some Trevor Hall. (This prompted the story of the time that I met Trevor Hall. It started with my desperate attempt to get tickets to his sold out show at the Belly Up in Aspen. I created a MySpace page (yes...this happened some time ago) for the sole purpose of getting in touch with Trevor to make a plea for tickets.  The next day my friend, Travis and I had the opportunity to thank Trevor personally for coming through for us as we chatted it up after his set. Random!). And then Matan had to go work the night shift at the hotel. Yogi invited me to stay and join some friends coming over to watch "Searching for Sugarman" (a mind-blowing documentary you should see if you haven't already). After the movie, I struck up a conversation with Shira. She was happy to give me recommendations for my next stop, Eilat. And she offered to walk with me back to the hostel. But first we stopped by the hotel to talk to Matan.  This turned into a two hour discussion on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  Although much of my desire to visit Israel had to do with enriching my faith journey, I have also had a long standing interest in the social and political turmoil in this part of the world.  I actually taught a short unit on the conflict in my Current Issues class, which required me to do some learning of my own. My one regret of my travels in Israel is that it didn't include time in the West Bank or Gaza, something Matan suggested I do to gain better perspective. Next time.  Shira explained her perspective coming from an orthodox family living in one of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. She recognized the controversy in this and admitted there are two sides to every story. But I especially appreciated the fact that she stressed the need for people to be educated in order for progress to take place in the peace process. Matan shared from his secular viewpoint. In the end, he sent me off with the following charge: "Send peace and love to the world!"  I'll do my best, Matan. 

After a short night sleep, I made it a priority to take a hike through the crater before heading south. The views were amazing, but I was most thankful for the solitude that allowed me to reflect on the amazing encounters I had with people during the past week.  Well, for the last 5 months for that matter.  But the best was yet to come. 

I had planned to catch the 1:30 bus to Eilat. Shira suggested that I just hitchhike.  She explained that a 4 hour ride by bus was just 2 by car. I considered the success of the night before and with her pointers I decided to give it a shot.  And if I couldn't get a ride, I always had the bus for back up. I stood at the main thoroughfare and pointed to the road. After about 10 minutes, the first car pulled over. It was a family of three. The mom was in the backseat feeding the baby a bottle. (Does this help you see that this is a way of life?). The dad explained that they weren't going all the way to Eliat and they were stopping in a few minutes for coffee, but I was welcome to go so far. I was grateful for the offer, but decided to pass it up for a direct ride.  A few minutes later I saw a white utility van approaching. I'm not sure these vans have the same reputation they do in the U.S. and I hesitated in flagging this ride down. But at the last second I threw my hand out. The van pulled over. I approached it as a rather burly Israeli rolls down the window. "Eilat?" I ask. He nods to hop in. I throw my bag in the back and hop in. Quickly I realize that conversation will be limited as he asked if I spoke Hebrew and had to respond in the negative. Despite his limited English I figured out he was going to Eilat to visit friends for the weekend but could never determine what his job was and thus the need for the white utility van. He did tell me he had 5 kids ages 3 to 18, but didn't appear to be married any longer. Again, the language barrier proved to be the problem. And so we drove through the desert with only music to entertain us.  It started with Élan expressing disgust at the electronic music that kept coming on the radio. He finally resorted to the CD already in the player. I was immediately humored as Élan began to sing along with "Here Without You" by 3 Doors Down. But words he didn't know he substituted with whistling. Next up, Adele. Again, I was smiling to myself as the American and Israeli roll down the road singing "Someone Like You" together. I started to suppress laughter as Mariah and Celine seranaded us next. I began to wonder who made this playlist for Élan.  And then we came to a checkpoint right near the Egyptian border. There had been military installations on all sides for the past twenty minutes. It could have been considered a tense situation, but there's nothing like a little George Michel's "Careless Whisper" to lighten the mood. Ok. I was really laughing to myself now.  "Mom, you have no idea" is coming to mind. And then the icing on the cake: We had just crested a mountain when I see a valley below and get my first glimpse of Eilat and the Red Sea. I let out an audible "Wow!"  As if by cue, "Take my Breath Away" by Berlin comes on the radio. You know... the song in the sappy love scene in Top Gun.  I'm sorry. You can't make this stuff up. A few minutes later, Élan dropped me off at my hostel. I tried to offer him 50 shekels to pay for the coffee and water he bought me, the ride, and as a token of my gratitude for adding some great music to the ever-growing "Sabbatical Soundtrack". He would not accept.  As soon as I had checked in, I sent this text to my mom...

I made my way to the Red Sea just in time for sunset. (Are you seeing a pattern here?)  It's a good thing the Red Sea is world-reknown for their scuba diving and marine life, because the beach sure is nothing to write home about. But my time there again gave me a moment to appreciate the experience I just had. And then I got cleaned up for an early dinner at Eddie's Hide-Away, a suggestion from Shira AND Lonely Planet, a sure winner. I enjoyed my catch of the day with a sense of security as the table next to me was occupied by 5 Israeli soldiers... and their M-16s. Later, Lance, Eddie's son joined me and shared with me the REAL reason for the name of the restaurant and humored me with stories of his "problematic" soldier days. Entertaining!

And then, my time in Israel came to an end as I crossed the border into Jordan. I won't dwell on the horrible encounter I had with an extremely rude taxi operator who refused to let me share a taxi with 2 other American tourists heading to Petra. I was shocked as he slammed the trunk on me but even more so when he threatened to send me to the police when, how should I say, my fiestiness got the better of me. Luckily, a reasonable soldier who had just checked my passport came to my rescue. I left the scene, in a cab by myself, fuming... for hours. By the time I arrived at the Valentine Inn 2 hours later, I had mostly calmed down. But I made sure others in the tourism industry knew of my experience.  I do have to say that this has been my only truly bad situation I've experienced in 5 months of international travel. That is pretty amazing when you think of it. Thank you, Lord, for keeping me safe. 

But then, all was forgotten as I spent an amazing day exploring Petra.  This is a place I've wanted to see for at least a decade. And it did not disappoint. It also helped to have some great company in Clémon. He was a student from Grenoble just finishing up 6 months in Lebanon as part of his degree in Middle Eastern studies. We were both in awe as we rounded corners and were struck with scenes like the following: 

Seriously incredible. We climbed around the ruins, sat on the edge of the Petra "Grand Canyon" and talked about what is next for each of us. Clemon was about to head back to "real life" (well...the college version) and more and more my thoughts have been turining towards what I'll do next June.  We finished the day back at the hostel by watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade... set in Petra. 

And just like that, the sun set on my time in the Middle East and east of the Atlantic.  

I'm still enamored by life. Maybe even more so as I consider the time I've had since I hit Paris in September. Spain, Istanbul, Nepal, Germany, Tanzania, Israel and Jordan. Are you kidding me?Just today I had the thought that I've had a lifetime of travel in a few months. And I can't believe I'm just over halfway done. 

In addition to being enamored by life and the place I've been and people I've met, I'm blessed to have spent 2 days in Peoria with family. Zack and Carolyn both took Monday off work to spend with me. Seriously?  I said it was like Christmas, a month late. We missed Luke and Rachel but we had no shortage of entertainment by Hudson, or "The Bob" as he's going by these days. Love him! And his amazing parents. And my amazing parents...who braved white out conditions to get me home from Chicago, made my favorite meal and continue to be my greatest encouragement on the journey. Blessed indeed. 

Mom, you have no idea. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Pondering Israel

I'm trying to figure out a way to wrap up my experiences of the last week into one cohesive story. I seem to be at a loss. It may be the diversity of places I've seen. Or the range of emotions I've felt. Or the cultural differences I'm trying to understand and somehow relate to my own world view. So I guess I will share some of the stories and maybe by the end I'll be able to come to some clarity of mind. 

I last wrote on a plane from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to Doha, Qatar. I spent half of a night and day in the airport and then left for Amman, Jordan. Annette's friends from Gypsum Creek Middle School were our gracious hosts for the night. Amy Nelson and her family moved to Amman over a year ago to teach at the international school there. Listening to her stories and meeting some of her friends piqued my interest for the international school vibe. But I'm not sure it will go much further... We spent the better part of the day at a Turkish bath before leaving for Israel.  That was an experience! The end goal seems to be to rid yourself of dead skin. I had no idea how much of my skin was no longer alive. It was somewhat disturbing but cleansing and relaxing as well. 

As we were about to leave the spa, a teacher friend advised us that the border crossing to Israel from Amman closed on Saturday afternoons. We had to go to Plan B. I was eager to start our Israeli adventure so Annette graciously agreed to make the longer journey to cross over at the lesser-known northern Jordan River crossing. This experience could be an entire blog post in itself. The Cliffs' Notes go something like this: We take a 2 hour taxi to the border crossing entrance. We wait 20 minutes for the official border crossing taxi to take us to the customs stop and Jordanian passport control. (This was slightly unsettling because it was just getting dark, our first taxi driver had left and we were in the middle of nowhere... But were with about 10 other people doing the same routine.)  Our official taxi drops us at a customs office where our bags are scanned and we get back in the taxi who takes us a few minutes more to passport control. Once we arrive there, our passports are stamped and we buy a bus ticket to get us across the 2 km of no-man's-land to the Israeli border. When we are about to disembark there is a mad dash for the Israeli border crossing. It seemed that we were some of the first to get off the bus but after getting our bags from underneath, we were the last in line. Clearly the Israelis knew something we didn't. This was also the last bus to cross the border before the checkpoint closed for the night. Nothing like cutting it close... When we were almost through, the border patrol officials pegged us for Westerners and tried to expedite the process for us as cabs would be few at this hour. Amy and friends had coached us on what to say and not to say as getting an Israeli visa is no guarantee.  We passed the "test"... one of which was asking us our fathers' names... twice.  I guess Stephen and Bruce are approved names for Isreali entry. We were officially in Israel. Sigh of relief. But now we needed to get to Jerusalem. A bus was the preferred mode of transportation, and cheaper. But we needed a taxi to get to the bus station. Lucky for us, a driver dropped two passengers off at the border, right after it closed (unlucky for them) but he gave us a ride (for free) to the bus stop. The bus we needed came by a minute later. Lucky for us!  But since we had just entered the country, we had no Israeli shekels to pay for our 2 hour ride to Jerusalem. I could offer Euros, Dollars, Jordanian Dinars and a credit card but the bus driver was not taking any of my offers. We had to exit the bus and walk back to the original stop as our unsuccessul haggling was done while the bus was moving. It was also Shabbat (or the end of it) which means there are no functioning ATMs. But where there is a will there is a way...  There was a small soda shop open with two lively Arabic men out front. Through translation from a helpful Israeli named Boaz, we were able to exchange my Euros for enough Shekels to get us to Jerusalem.  Now we just had to wait another 45 minutes for the next bus.  In the meantime I learned that Boaz studies the Torah in Jerusalem during the week and comes home to share Shabbat with his family of 10 siblings!  He was the second oldest at 20 and mom had number 10, three months ago. That was worthy of a "Lord have mercy!"  Boaz was trying to hitch a ride to Jerusalem. I asked if we could hitch a ride too if he was successful. He said he would try. He was successful but we were not. A bus to Jerusalem it was! 2 hours later we were at the steps to our home for the next 4 nights, Matan's house. Annette found it on AirBnB and it was by FAR the cheapest place to stay at $15 a night. Score! You could say we were in a bit of a daze at this point at about 11pm.  And our only sustenance for the day came from the McDonald's breakfast that was delivered to the Nelson's house (for free) that morning. (Apparently every restaurant has free delivery in Amman. Sweet!)  Matan quickly served us tea and made some popcorn. Annette made the comment that she was grateful for the popcorn as we hadn't eaten dinner. She was by no means fishing for food but within minutes, Matan was serving us a lovely salad and vegetable soup. Amazing!  Matan's House is the business!  

Ok... Sorry. That wasnt the Cliffs' notes. I'll try to do better for the rest...

Sunday in Israel we spent at Masada, Herod's Dead Sea fortress and site of Jewish resistance against the Romans in 66 AD. We were in awe of the complex, the excavations, the views and the stories that are told of the history here. And the hike to the top was nice as well. 

Ok... The next part of our Israeli adventure I'm still marveling at. For years I've been wanting to go to Israel and my parents often suggested connecting with a longtime friend through Asbury and the Methodist Church, Bob Tuttle. When I finally connected with him a month ago, it turns out that he was guiding a group while we would be in Jersualem. We joined up with Bob and his group of 24, mainly with Asbury connections. They graciously let us share in their Jerusalem experience for the next two days. Not only were we blessed to be seeing some of the most important sites in the Christian faith, we were also blessed to hear the testimony of many of our fellow travelers at these sights as well. 

We sang "O Little Town of Bethlehem" at the Church of the Nativity (built on the site where Jesus was born). 

Rob shared with us the 23rd Psalm in a cave at the Shepherd's Field where it is believed that Jesus' first visitors came from. 

Becky shared with us at the Garden of Gethsemane that her best friend (a Taylor grad!) prayed for her from this very place more than 10 years before. 

Jake read from Hebrews 9 from the Temple Mount (a place where it is illegal to bring the Bible, let alone preach from it).  

Joy challenged us from the "Teaching Steps", the one place we can be sure is the very place Jesus stood as he taught outside the temple. She posed the question: "When you have the undivided attention of your biggest critics and worst enemies, what is your response"?  

Peyton shared from her heart in the Upper Room. 

Eric read to us from Psalm 88 as were stood in a dungeon below the House of Caiphas, who accused Jesus of blasphemy.  

Sharing these places with these strangers but brothers and sisters in Christ (and amazing students of the Word) made Jerusalem and the Bible I've been reading all my life, truly come to life. Wow. 

And small world... Caroline Palomo Gober spent two weeks in Peoria in high school and visited the farm!  Her husband is the VP of the Florida Campus of Asbury. Their family were hosts of the trip. Love!

And then there is Bob.  

Bob is truly a living legend. He would share these amazing stories of his life on the bus between Bethlehem and the Mount of Olives, over shawarma in the Arabic quarter of the Old City and sitting on the Teaching Steps outside of the Temple Mount. He was a student at Duke. He has taught at Northwestern, Fuller Seminary, Oral Roberts and Asbury. He has managed a 6 month sabbatical ever 3 years (I have a new goal...). And students estimate he has traveled within 500 miles of every spot on the globe, except for Antarctica, which he will be visitng this spring!  He tells me of stopping in the house of a woman in North Korea and sharing with her that the  Son of God's name is Jesus. Her face lights up and says "That's his name?? I've been praying to him all my life and I didn't know his name!"  He shares that he followed a monk into the Church of the Holy Sepluchre late one night and spent 30 minutes alone in Jesus's tomb and then slept on the site of Jesus' crucifixion. He was giving me travel advice for Machu Pichu and my next visit to Israel. He has driven the Camino de Santiago but has plans to walk the last 100km from Leon to Finesterre in the next year. And our last night together he gave us this reminder: The Holy Spirit was not sent to compensate for Jesus Christ's absence but to guarantee his presence. Amen! Thank you, Jesus, for sharing Bob with me in Jerusalem. I'm not sure what strings had to be pulled, but I'm sure it was a work of The Lord. 

And then we were on our own for one more day in Jeruslem. We went back to the Mount of Olives, had an amazing experience at the Israel Museum and finished with the Western Wall Tunnel Tour before getting a bus to Nazareth to begin the next chapter of our Israeli adventure... The Jesus Trail. 

Oh... The Jesus Trail. Let's just say its no Camino. Don't get me wrong... it's really cool to go by foot from town to town that we know Jesus went to. But the promoters of the Jesus Trail have some work to do before the masses should decend upon the Galilee region for this experience... namely... ensuring there is "room in the inn." We did have a wonderful morning in Nazareth. We toured the Basicilica of the Annunciation built upon the site of what is believed to be Mary's childhood home. The church is the largest in the Middle East, and newly recreated in 1969, and Annette and I agreed it was the most beautiful church we had ever seen. It was extremely well done and awe-inspiring. 

Before departing the city, we stopped for katayef made by Abu Ashraf who told us he is world famous for his little pancakes filled with goat cheese and walnuts. 

And the guide books and articles sitting on the counter proved he was not a liar. But, he didn't give us the best directions to begin the Jesus Trail on the way out of town. An hour after leaving our hostel, we were back at our hostel and officially on the trail!  Let the adventure begin!

A couple hours into the trek we had a field trip to Zippori National Park. Zippori was the ancient capital of Galilee and the ruins are still being uncovered today. It was amazing and I imagine an archeologists' dream!  

As we headed out on the trail again we passed through Mash 'had, an Arabic town where all the kids eagerly greeted us with "Shalom"!  We loved the effort they made and were encouraged that Arab - Israeli relations may have hope in improvement with the next generation. 

Next stop, Cana!  We ended up staying at the Cana Wedding Guest House as this was the only option, but a bit more expensive than we wanted to pay. It turns out that the family that owns the guest house, also owns the pizza place we ate dinner at AND the grocery store we had breakfast at. Can we say "Monopoly of the Jesus Trail"?  I believe so. We stopped in the church known to be the site where Jesus performed his first miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana. We were told 1000 people visit the church every day. And judging by the one ceremony we happened to witness, about half of the visitors also renew their vows here.  

Interesting little town. By the way, it's slightly difficult to imagine how these towns might be during Jesus' time. Today, many of the streets and trails are strewn with trash (including entire living room sets) and large cement homes are being constructed. But there were moments of inspiration looking out across the hills and olive groves along the way. 

We were slightly concerned about lodging on Day 2 of the trek. The logical stop at 15 km was Kibbutz Lavi. The next place to stay was another 15 km away. I wasn't feeling up to a 30km day so I was praying for favor at what appeared to be a budget breaking stay at the kibbutz. There were many stories during the day but our one hour on the kibbutz might take the cake. First off, the entrance wasn't exactly on the trail which proved a challenge. And then we had a big uphill, in which we were left in the dust by tour busses of Orthodox Jews trying to check in before Shabbat began at sundown. We were informed this kibbutz is one of the few that remains true to the faith in observing Shabbat... and not working. Unfortunately, we never got to experience how a hotel/resort functions if no one works because... there was no room in the inn.  We decided to abandon the Jesus Trail and take a bus to Tiberias. Thankfully, the cheapest hostel in town had room.  (Are you seeing a pattern here? This helps explain how I'm making the savings last during the sabbatical. Please don't have images of me resting my head in swanky places. My standard for "clean" have been abandoned but tolerated by the use of flip flops and a sleep sack... two "must haves" for budget travelers.). And then we set out to experience the seaside tourist town of Tiberias...that turns to a ghost town in Shabbat. We ate fish at one of two restaurants not run by observant Jews and called it an early night in T-town. 

The next morning, it was pretty cool to see the sun rise over the Sea of Galilee and look to the north to Caprenaum and know this was the center of Jesus' ministry. 
And then... I got to meet up with some if my Camino Amigos!  

If you recall, I had the joy of walking a few weeks with 3 Israeli guys who had recently finished their military service.  Tomer and Katz drove over from Tel Aviv to hike with Annette and I for a day. We abandonded the traditional trail and let Katz drive us to the top of Mount Arbel which is also a national park, known for its fortress built into the cliffs below the mountain. 

The guys did not disappoint when they busted out their coffee pot to make coffee on the trail using the fire made by burning the oil from the top of a can of tuna. 

They make me smile. 

Our couple hour hike ended back at the car where they drove us to what was believed to be the home of Mary Magdalene.  The guidebook nailed it when they said it was a "tiny white-domed shrine, overgrown with vegetation."  

It was not anywhere near the official "Jesus Trail".  And then we asked Katz to take us to Capernaum so we could find a place to stay for the night. The 4 hotels/hostels we stopped at were either full or 5 times our budget at $150 a night. And an hour later we were back at the Tiberias Hostel (same place we stayed in the night before).  I can't imagine our frustration had we walked to each of those places on the trail and have been turned away. Thank you, Jesus, for Katz and Tomer. At this point, I was a pretty much over the "Jesus Trail." With Annette's blessing, I left the trail and hitched a ride with Katz and Tomer back to Tel Aviv. 

And here I sit, on the Mediterannean Sea, trying to wrap my mind around where I've been and what I've experienced during the past week.  Two hours after starting to write this blog post, I have no more clarity. Maybe the next week will help. I'll let you know. 

If you've read this far, you deserve a prize. I'll pay for a night for you at the Gordon Inn. At 70 shekels, it's the cheapest place to stay in town. I could tell you why, but then you wouldn't want the prize. 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Kili Killed Me. Ngorongoro Revived Me.

Day 2 on Kili: Shira Rock - Amazing sunset, even more amazing stars

A year ago, I was at my parent's house, celebrating Christmas with the Wagoner side of the family (my mom's side from Fort Wayne) and talk turned to my cousins Owen and Colson wanting to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. At the time I was planning on spending 3 months or so in Africa (which later became 3 months in Nepal) and so I thought I would join them and we could do a Wagoner/Weaver cousin climbing adventure!  Luke was in. Zack was out. Olivia was on the fence.

One year later, I set out to climb Kili without any family members but had two great trekking friends in Annette and her friend from Washington D.C., Laura. I had only exchanged a few emails with Laura prior to the trip, but when I met her at the Doha airport on New Year's Eve, I knew she would make great company.

We arrived at the Kilimanjaro airport near Moshi at 10am on New Year's Day, "bright eyed and bushy tailed" after a red-eye from Doha, Qatar.
View from the plane. Kili is behind the clouds 
We were greeted at the airport by Honest with a sign that said "Ashley, Annette +3". We were hoping the "+ 3" just included the 3 of us. We didn't know who Honest was but with a name like that and a sign with our names, we got in the van that drove us to our hotel. We were in Africa!  What?!? (It turns out Honest was the owner of the company we trekked with... but we didn't figure that out until we got back from our trek.  Which brings me to the point that traveling for months on end makes you way more laid back about traveling in general. You know you are going to have a place to lay your head. You know you can figure out a way to get there. So I've planned way less and gone with the flow way more. This may come back to bite me in the butt later, but for now... it's working.)  We got cleaned up and rested up and then ventured out into Moshi. We quickly learned there is not much to "do" in Moshi. We also learned that Tanzanians want to teach you Swahili. Honest taught us "Karibu" means "welcome" as soon as we got in the car. And then our impromptu tour guide / enterprising young man looking to earn "something small" by taking us to the Masai market taught us "Mambo" means "How's it going?" and one replies with "Poa" which means "cool". This became invaluable knowledge over the next 8 days as we used this exchange with virtually everyone we encountered.  

Back at the hotel, we met our guide for the trek, Dismas.  He asked what gear  we had, what we might need for the trek (just a couple of sleeping pads for camping) and we made arrangements to meet him the next morning at 9. We also clarified how many would be in our crew. He estimated that we would have 9 porters depending on our stuff. This was in addition to our guide, an assistant guide and a cook. This would mean that we would be employing at least 12 Tanzanians for the next 6 days to attempt to get 3 girls to the top of the highest point in Africa. Somehow, I found this embarrassing.  I guess it seemed excessive or ridiculous or ... I don't know what. I think I was comparing this experience to our Everest Base Camp trek which only required a guide and one porter for an 11 day trek. But then again, on this trek, there would be no tea houses for food and beds. So this crew would be carrying our food for 6 days and tents for ourselves, and themselves as well.  

On the morning of January 2, I crawled into the middle of the van where 7 porters were crammed in the back. 
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I gave them a round of knuckles and tried out my "Mambo/Poa" skills.  Soon Rafael joined the crew.  When we took off for the park gate we made a quick stop at a shop with a few carcasses hanging in the window. Rafael asked if we ate meat.  "Yes" was the answer all around but we may have all been wishing we were vegetarians at the moment, especially considering eating meat after it's been carried on the backs of men for 4, 5 or 6 days. But we ate it without incident, even on night 4 before our summit attempt...even though a serious discussion took place about the chances of this hindering our ability to accomplish our goal in the morning. 

When we arrived at the Machame Gate we were directed towards the "Tourist Shelter" where we sized up the other trekkers and tried to figure out their stories. 
We were in the company of some Canadians, Aussies, French, Israelis, Chinese and Russians... and others. Although we saw the same people many times throughout the week on the trail and at camp, we found that tents didn't quite lend themselves to creating the social atmosphere I had experienced on my base camp and Annapurna tea house treks.  This was slightly disappointing but our crew did enjoy countless games of "Cow/Bull" and "Whist" (both games taught to me by Ash on the Annapurna Circuit).  

We seemed to be slightly delayed in starting our trek for reasons we never fully understood but finally took off around 2pm after the porters bags were weighed.  None could be more than 20kg... a great attempt to ensure they were not given ridiculous loads to carry... the likes of which we did see in Nepal. We did chuckle though as once we were out of sight of the park rangers at the gate, many porters redistributed their loads.  Dismas had some paperwork to finish up so he sent us off with Rafael, whom we thought was our cook but turned out to be our assistant guide. This may have been a surprise to Rafael as well.  In the end, Rafael did good work, despite many things being lost in translation. Our actual "guide" left much to be desired in terms of guiding.  I'm pretty sure he logged more minutes talking on the phone or texting than he did in talking to us...but we made the most of it. 

I could give a play by play of the next few days but I'll give you the short story. We trekked through the rainforest, moorland (whatever that is), desert, alpine desert and back to the forest over the course of 6 days.  It was all beautiful in different ways. 
We were well-fed by our cook Jalilu and served by our kind waiter Elinema who saw a Bible sitting out and was excited to tell us he reads his everyday.  We were absolutely enthralled by the stars.  I've never seen a more magnificent night sky in my life.  We were very cold at night. On night one we drew straws to determine the order of who got to sleep in the middle. I only got it one night out of five so I negotiated to ensure I got the middle on the coldest night. We may have only slept for 4 hours that night, but I think it was worth it. 

And then it came to the summit "day" which actually started at 11:30pm. We had gone to sleep at 7 that night wearing almost all the clothes we would be wearing for our 5 hour trek to the top. Earlier that day, I got a bloody nose which I have experienced before at high altitude. It came back again at dinner. This was on top of the cold that I had been fighting since I left Frankfurt. No bueno. I adopted the technique of rolling toilet paper and sticking it between your front teeth and upper lip (a succesful trick taught to me by my Aunt Laurie back in the day... Thanks, Lo!) to stop the bleeding. I also decided to prevent future nose bleeds as I continued to ascend by keeping toilet paper in the same place as I slept that night and trekked in the morning. This is as gross as it sounds.  Sorry.  Just being honest. It really is kind of amazing the things people do at high altitude when you have a clear goal in mind.

We finally got on the trail at 12:20am. Yes...that is 20 minutes after midnight.  Our hike started at 14,927 feet.  Officially it was about 20 degrees but windchill and darkness made it feel colder than I've ever been. I pulled out my bandana about an hour after we started because I didn't think inhaling the cold air would be good for my lungs and I wanted to avoid my cold turning to a cough... especially right now.  The bandana became a frozen snotty mess. There are no other words to describe it. I couldn't believe I let it touch my face. I'm grossed out even now.  

And so there were a mass of headlamps zig-zagging their way towards the summit. As I looked ahead, the summit seemed unattainable. So, I kept my head down, following the boots in front of me, Annette's. Rafael was behind me and was a champ. He was encouraging and understanding.  We stopped often but consistently seemed to be ahead of the pack and even passed several groups.  But if the unofficial national phrase of Tanzania, "pole, pole" (pronounced "po-lay" and means "slowly, slowly") applied at any time during our trek, now was the time.  Despite all that I was experiencing my legs still felt good.  And then at about 4am, I was beginning to doubt. I started to think that if I turned around now I'd be satisfied. I would have to say I made it two hours from the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.  But that's still pretty good, I thought. I plodded on. Then I started to recount the things I was thankful for to change my mindset.  My inner monologue went something like this. "Thank you, Jesus, for your love for me. Thank you, Jesus, for my family. Thank you, Jesus, for giving me this opportunity. Thank you, Jesus, for your provision. Thank you, Jesus, that I have a warm bed.  A warm bed would be really nice right now. Jesus, I am really cold right now.  I can't feel my toes. This bandana is frozen to my face. I don't want to do this anymore."  So thankfulness worked for a few minutes and then I was back to my reality.  But I tried again awhile later.  The monologue was exactly the same as my sleep deprived, high-altitude brain was not quick in recalling other things I was thankful for at the time.  

What I was really holding out hope for was for light in the sky. It happened at about 5. I saw light on the eastern horizon, and I knew I could make it. Unfortunately, the wind began to pick up as well. Then around 5:30 we made it to Stella Point, just 45 minutes from the summit. I knew we could do this. The sun was beginning to rise. Warmth was imminent. I could see the sign at the summit.  And a few trekkers were already beginning their decent.  The peak was not far. We reached the ridge where wind blew across the crater at the top of Kili and looked down at the amazing glacier on our left. The sun was rising at our backs.

Finally we reached our goal of Uhuru Peak,19,340 feet, at 6:18 on January 5th.  A small group cleared away from the sign and we took the stage to snap our pics.  

Although you can't see it very well, my sign says "Baby Drake Leibfried: This summit is for you!"  As I have talked about before, one of my best friends, Gretchen, told me she was pregnant as I was driving out of the Vail Valley last summer. She was due January 3rd. My first thought was that I would welcome Gretchen and Eric's little miracle to the world a few days after he was born by unfurling a sign on the top of Kili. Well, Drake was born on November 22, and he's been fighting ever since. Gretch: You, E and Baby Drake have been in my thoughts and prayers nearly everyday and especially on this trek. I'm so sad I've missed out on this time in your lives. But I can't wait to meet your little man in June!  And so, I'll say that tiny Drake is what got me to the top.

Unfortunately, not all our pics turned out.. As evidenced here. 
Even worse, not one of Annette's solo photos turned out even though the shots she took for me did. (So sorry, girl!) But she took this news like a champ.  

I may have been on the summit for 3 or 5 minutes. Then I hustled down a ways with Dismas to get out of the wind and wait for the girls.  

To get a better idea of the view from the top, check out the movie: http://www.magisto.com/video/PA8NPVIUGCBvQ0RnCzE

We regathered and began our decent back to Barafu Camp (base camp).  The decent was basically like sand-skiing... or ash-skiing as I think that would be more likely atop an inactive volcano. It took us 2 hours to get down what it took 5 to climb up. When we arrived at camp, Jackson gave me a congratulatory hug and high-5 and took my waiters off for me.  Elinema brought us "hot water for washing" (which we got every morning when we woke up and in the afternoon when we got to camp) and took a brush to my dusty boots. I crawled back into my sleeping bag for an hour nap (the best sleep of my trek) before brunch and our nearly 5000 foot decent to Mweka Camp and our last night on the tallest free standing mountain in the world.

As our heads began to clear, we began to share what we were each thinking during those bleak, early-morning hours. I know I wasn't alone in deciding this was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life... well... 6 of the hardest hours of my life. If it wasn't for summit day, the trek would have been a "walk in the park" ... but maybe that is the Marangu Route which is also known as the "Coca-Cola" route. For reasons I don't totally recall, we chose the Machame Route... also known as the "Whiskey" route. Sweet.  And not to mention... this was Laura's first time camping!  Rockstar status confirmed!  Who decides their first camping experience should be Kilimanjaro?!?  Laura!  Amazing!!

In the end, it was an amazing experience and I'm glad I was able to accomplish what I set out to do. I had read that the summit day of Kili is harder than any single day on the Everest Base Camp trek. I will testify that these accounts would be true.  But I still thought I could kick Kili in the tail. I think the opposite would be a better description. 

Thank you to these 14 men (we thought it was 12 until 5 minutes before this pic was taken at the end of the trek) who made it possible for us to have a successful summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. 
They are a good group of guys. I wish I could have known each of their stories, but language was a pretty significant barrier. I was able to hike the last hour with Elinema after he caught up with me after leaving camp an hour after us. He said "Twenday" which means "Let's Go!"  I said "Twenday pamoja!" which means "Let's go together!"  He is 20, the youngest of 13, has a girlfriend who he will marry after she finishes school but he has never been to school himself because he didn't have money to go. And after the trek he will go to work as a mason until the next trek comes along. This was the extent of what we were able to communicate. But that night as I say down to dinner 30 minutes from the Ngorongoro Crater, I decided I missed Elinema and him peaking into our tent to bring us our food. 

I also missed Jifte. All I knew was that he claimed he was 19 and all he knew was my name but he had a brilliant smile every time I saw him. 

But now we were on to our next adventure.  Yusef, our driver guide for our one day safari in the Ngorongoro Crater picked us up at the gate leaving Kilimanjaro. During our first 5 minutes with Yusef, we learned more about Tanzania than we had from our previous guide during the last 6 days. And we were happy to tell him so.  This was going to be an amazing experience. 

We had a 5 hour drive to our hotel. During our drive, Yusef taught us about Masai culture (fascinating would be an understatement), gave us a pre-safari safari when he pulled over to let us see the zebras Annette had spotted on the side of the road, and taught us the "nia" from "Tanzania" means "together we can do this."  The showers at the hotel were glorious after several days of a little bowl of "hot water for washing."  I maybe washed my hair 3 times. 

We set out for our safari at 6am on January 8th. We knew we only had one day for safari and we wanted to make the most of it. Yusef was more than happy to oblige. He promised "breakfast with the lions" but clarified that the lions would not be eating us for breakfast. He also promised 100% chance to see almost every animal we asked to see. I asked him if he knew what "100%" meant. As we were gazing out ahead of us at 3 male lions, Kings of the Jungle, he mockingly says "Do I know what 100% means"?  

We saw it all: giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, buffalo, gazelles, warthogs, the rare black rhino, hippos, pink flamingos, lions, hyenas, elephants, sable cats... 

And here is the movie version: http://www.magisto.com/video/PE0BPl0VQ2trUgBhCzE

Simply amazing. If you have one day to do a safari, go to the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania with Multi-Choice Tours and ask for Yusef to be your guide. You won't be disappointed. (Thank you to Jordan Linscombe for giving me the same advice!  You were right, friend!  I was thinking of you throughout the day. Now I know why.  Praying for you and Mindi.)  

And so, I leave Tanzania feeling like this will be a country on the journey that didn't seem like I was really there. It was all a whirlwind and I'd love to come back again, but outside the "tourist bubble" (being picked up at the airport, taken to hotel, to trek, to hotel, to safari and back to the airport).  I'm thankful for all I learned from Yusef, but wish I'd had a chance to learn more about Tanzania from others as well. It's a beautiful country that is a perfect example to display the creativity of our creator... From unforgettable sunrises on mountain tops to craters where almost any animal you can imagine lives in harmony. 

Thank you, Jesus, for 9 days in Tanzania. 

The next 12 will be a dream come true. I can't wait to share them with you.