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. 

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