Friday, June 15, 2007

And Thus it Concludes - June 3rd

Well, here it is. The end of our glorious trip. We all knew the inevitable would happen but who allowed it to sneak up on us so soon. A few of us (ok, maybe only you, Jeff) were looking forward to going home. The rest of us dreaded leaving this magnificent place and returning back to life and reality. Alas, our own beds and clean clothes were calling…

We began our final day bright and early at the Western Wall. We divided the group in two and headed under the city through the dark tunnel that ran the length of the Western Wall of the ancient Temple Mount. The tour came complete with high tech city models, highly informative Israeli guides, Herodian stones, close proximity to the ancient Holy of Holies, and an exit greeting by armed Israeli soldiers.

After emerging from the underground, we snagged some long anticipated pictures of devout Jewish worshipers at the Wall and walked up to the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock. The Islamic Holy Shrine marks the spot from which Muhammad ascended for a night-long journey to heaven accompanied by the angel Gabriel. We were then left on our own to snap most photos, ward off postcard salesman, and envision what the place was like when Christ would journey there to honor His Father.

…Pause for an essential Magnum break…

Our next stop was the Pool of Bethesda where Christ healed the lame man who had waited 38 years to be healed. Near the pool was St. Anne’s Church where we paused to remember our Savior. A group sang “Oh Savior, Thou Who Wearest a Crown” whose Bach written melody resonated in the cathedral acoustics. Following that, Elizabeth played a beautiful arrangement of “Nearer My God to Thee” on her oboe. It was a wonderful moment to stop and reflect on why we had come and on our immense gratitude for the Savior who for us had given His life.

We then began the path of the Via Dolorosa. Traditionally, it is considered to be the path that Jesus walked on the way to His crucifixion. It is marked by nine of the fourteen Stations of the Cross. The last five stations are inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Church is shared by six religions and is held by many to be the location of Golgotha and the sepulchre that briefly held Christ’s body after His death.

…Long Pause for another lunch of falafels and shopping, which today included the BYU man…

After lunch we crossed the city (all the while having to resist the gripping urge to shop) to the Upper Room, the traditional place of the Last Supper. And, as is tradition, we spent more time in line for the toilets then in the room itself. So many girls! We then exited the city at Zion’s Gate, a gate marked with bullet holes left by centuries of war-- a tangible reminder of the struggles of the Holy City.

We quickly boarded the bus to Bethany, the town where Christ stayed the last week of His life. We were able to enter the tomb where Christ performed the great miracle of raising His dear friend Lazarus from the dead. Afterward, we were able to satisfy our need to shop and were treated to a demonstration of David’s Sling, nearly ending in Tyler’s decapitation.

And finally, on this whirlwind day, we arrived at Hezekiah’s Tunnel. The tunnel, leading from the Gihon Spring to the Pool of Siloam, was designed to act as an aqueduct to provide Jerusalem with water during a siege by the Assyrians. According to an inscription found in it, the tunnel was excavated by two starting at each end of the tunnel and then meeting in the middle--an incredible engineering feat! We splashed our way through in the dark, singing “Row, Row, Row your Boat” as we went, and emerged unscathed, though a few were claustrophobically weary.

Then here it was…the end. We gathered together on our celestial bus and Allan said his goodbye and release. Dorian delighted us all with awards that included such things as “Contortionist” “Dead Sea Diva” and “Stink Pink Queen”. And then the dreaded parting, each heading out in his own direction--some continuing the endless shopping quest with Roley, others beginning the puzzle of fitting all the purchases into the suitcase, many heading to the Jerusalem Center for a choir concert, and others nomadically wandering the city. It was a wonderful end to a magnificent, life-changing trip. Shalom! שָׁלוֹם Peace Be With You!

Friday, June 8, 2007

Shabbat in Jerusalem - June 2nd

We began the day with a visit to the peaceful and serene Orson Hyde Memorial Garden on the Mount of Olives. After a short meeting, we moved over to Mount Scopus for a tour of the spectacular BYU Jerusalem Center facility and stayed for Sacrament meeting with the Jerusalem branch. It was an unforgettable experience to view the Temple mount and Old Jerusalem through the floor to ceiling windows that backed the speakers.

After a lunch of shwarma and falafel, we started the afternoon by visiting what is believed to be location of Caiaphas’ house where Jesus was brought after being arrested and where Peter denied knowing the Lord three times. We then drove a short distance to the Garden of Gethsemane where olive trees, some hundreds of years old, still grow.

We finished the day with a visit to the Garden Tomb, one of the possible locations of Christ's crucifixion and burial. Unlike so many other location of significance to the life of Jesus, this one is not covered by a massive church, but instead appears to have been carefully excavated and preserved as much as possible in its original state. Our host at this site, Bob McLean, provided a detailed description of the sites features and some arguments for why this was likely the actual place where Jesus' body was laid to rest.

Following the days activities, many of us took time to explore more of the Old City. Some found more they bargained for!

Friday, June 1, 2007

Olive Wood Overtakes Papyrus - June 1st

Drawing strength from unknown resources, our intrepid bunch got off to a good start with a group picture on the Mount of Olives. No dawdling, as usual! Next we visited the Museum of Israel, featuring wonders like the Dead Sea Scrolls and a model of the city of Jerusalem around 60 A.D…and let’s not forget the “cultural moment” witnessed in which two loud old ladies nearly threw down with a harried security guard checking tickets.

The mood was subdued as we visited the Vad Vashem Holocaust Museum, an awesome architectural structure containing a wealth of information. The reality of the pain and anguish suffered by the Jews sunk in as we gazed upon rows and rows of black binders containing names of victims. Upon exiting the exhibit, we paused for a beautiful moment of peace. Here, two Jewish boys gazed at the countryside of Israel. The stark contrast between the exhibit and the view below symbolizes the strides our world has made towards peace since WWII. We left the museum on a happy note.

Jumping on the bus (ok, limping) we headed for Bethlehem. For lunch we stopped at the Christmas Tree Restaurant that came complete with a tidal wave of vendors selling everything for “one dollar.” Brad attempted to take on the salesman’s mantle but couldn’t hack it in the end.

The Church of the Nativity held some great surprises, as we wound down narrow steps to spot commonly accepted as the birthplace of Christ. Of course to celebrate that awesome experience we needed a shopping fix, and headed to an olive wood shop (olive wood nativity sets have now outstripped legendary papyrus purchases). Making great strides in U.S.-Palestinian relations, Raymon and a few others joined the local boys playing soccer in the parking lot.

After vast amounts of money exchanged hands at the shop, we headed toward what is commonly referred to as the Mormon Shepherd’s Hill. After we got past the new housing developments, a scenic hill opened up complete with gentle terracing and olive trees.

The view was fantastic, and we all sat and sang and heard scriptures in the gentle cool breeze…and at exactly the right moment a local goat herder came onto the scene with his flock!

Loading the bus again, we all witnessed something gruesome and shocking as Raymon and Tyler took to heart the beauty of the landscape and used a well-placed rocky mound to water the natural flora.

Next we were off to the Western Wall to observe the beginning of Shabbat. As the evening grew late, Orthodox Jews came pouring around us and down to the Western Wall--separated into a men’s section and a women’s section.
The barrier between the sections did little good as a myriad of old (and young ladies) peaked over, doing whatever they had to...even standing on chairs. We did note—for once—that the men (including our male group members) had to cover their heads instead of the women! A hungry group returned for dinner and after dinner another surreptitious visit to the local olive wood store where…well, you know the rest.

Descending the Jordan River Valley - May 31st

Alas it is time to leave our little oasis on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. We awake at 6:30am and have our usual buffet breakfast (thankfully, unlike in Egypt, meals are no longer simply diarrhea/vomit fodder). After breakfast, Rolli takes us on a tour of the Kibbutz were staying on. For all intents and purposes, a Kibbutz is a mini communist community with two differences 1) it hasn’t failed (they actually thrive) and 2) its voluntary. Kibbutz members work long and hard and share all things in common with the other members of the community. Many notable Israeli politicians and generals in the army are products of the Kibbutz communities including: Prime Ministers Ben Gurion and Golda Meir.

Following the tour we loaded the buses for our next stop...the ancient Roman city of Bet She’an. Outside the city we de-boarded the bus briefly to get pictures of the ruins of an amphitheatre that once served as a makeshift diner for hungry lions that enjoyed a hearty breakfast of toast, jam, over-easy Christians...mmmm good. After arriving at the ruins of Bet She’an, we were told by Bro G, that we absolutely must be back by 11:30 or he would jeer [Br G cringes face and hisses] and growl [Br G puts hands in into claw position and goes “ggrrrrrr”] at us. It was scary; there were no stragglers, even Melissa made it back (no shopping available).

Next on our stop…the ancient city of Jericho. Jericho is the oldest city ever to be discovered by archeologists. The city is located in the West Bank and is under Palestinian control. We made it through the Israeli and Palestinian checkpoints without event. Shortly after arriving on the outskirts of Jericho, we get a glimpse of the Mt of Temptation where the Savior was tempted by Satan to throw himself down at the conclusion of his 40 days of fasting in the desert.

Moving along, we had lunch at the restaurant on the Mt of Temptation. We were served our choice of Shwarma (much like gyros) or falafel with French fries and lemonade…emphasis on the “lemon” as one sip was enough to make your bellybutton pucker.

Following lunch we went up the Mt of Temptation to get a view into the city of Jericho and to view the ruins of an ancient city believed to be 10,000 years old. The view of Jericho was beautiful. It was good to see that the city has been recovering from the two intifadas in the past eight years. In general it is surprising how normal and peaceful life appears in much of Israel and the Palestinian territories despite much of what we hear in the news all the time.

Next, we travel about an hour down the western bank of the Dead Sea to the city of Masada. Masada is one of the more interesting cities that we have seen on our tour as it is perched several thousand feet up on a cliff over looking the Dead Sea. The city was founded by Jews…or was it the Romans…anywho, some ancient people. At one point, the Jews had control of the city when the Romans decided they wanted it back. For three years the Jews fought off the siege until the Roman completed a ramp that allowed the use of a battle ram to blast into the place. The Jews in the city decided that it was better to commit suicide rather than face enslavement at the hands of the Romans. The whole story ends much like Custer’s last stand with everyone dead save a mother and two small children who survive to tell the story.

Moving on to happier subjects, our final official stop of the day is in Qumran where a Bedouin boy found the Dead Sea Scrolls by accident back in 1947. The park was closing when we arrived, but we were allowed get some pictures of the caves.

Before heading to Jerusalem, we made a stop at a little public beach on the Dead Sea. Thanks to a phone call by Rolli the beach stayed open longer to accommodate our late arrival. The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth—approximately 1,300 feet below sea level. It boasts a 30% salination level, which is about eight times higher than ocean water. Due to the weight of the water, the human body is light in comparison and therefore floats with ease. We all enjoyed getting in the water and floating on our backs and stomachs and getting pictures with our hands and feet out of the water. The Dead Sea water is not only high in salt but also in many other minerals and oils. After giving ourselves mud massages with the clay off the bottom we would rinse in the water, which leaves your skin soft, silky and slippery as snot on a brass door knob. It was quite fun.

After our swim we boarded the bus and headed to Jerusalem. We arrived in the city just as dusk was twinkling away. Alas, we have arrived in the city many of us came on this trip to see. It was hard to describe the feeling of seeing the walls of this ancient and historical city for the first time as our bus approached from desert. No doubt this is a special place unlike any other city in the world. We are all excited for the next three days here.

We Ran Where Jesus Walked - May 30th

Every day has been a phenomenal adventure that none of us would trade for even a great week at work; we have seen things up close and personal that before seemed like unreal places from Sunday School class or places where Aladdin and Indiana Jones were the only spring boards or reference points for our imaginations. The Bible is certainly no more true to us today than it was two weeks ago, but the words and stories will forever have more color and life than they ever did before. Each day seems to get better and better, however today began the leg of our trip that our pilgrimage is all about.

We are staying in a Kibbutz on the Sea of Galilee so naturally we were all excited to actually “walk where Jesus walked” – however our sweet guide Rolli wants to be sure we walk everywhere He walked and still have time for a watermelon bust in the afternoon so today we ran where Jesus walked. We got it all in and all the same it was incredible.

The day began with a morning ride on a real, authentic, Jesus Boat complete with a certificate to hang on our fridge or wall when we return. All jokes aside, the time on the Sea of Galilee was impressive. The water was still and calm, the morning sun continued to make its way up to heat the day, and the fisherman were bringing in their nets just as they did in Jesus’ time. As a result, it was easy to imagine how things might have been on a similar morning 2,000 years ago. From the Sea of Galilee --which truly is just a very large lake -- we could see the different places where Jesus walked and taught such as the Mt of Beatitudes and Capernaum. While on the boat, Bro. Gunnerson shared from both Matthew and Luke the different events that happened right on the water including the calling of Peter, James, and John; the calming of the sea; and when Christ walked on the water.

About seventeen years ago the water in the Sea of Galilee had dropped considerably and two fishermen came across an old nail in the mud. As they looked further, they discovered a boat that had been buried under water and mud for 2,000 years. In a museum for the “Jesus Boat” a cute little man named “Heim” told us the incredible story for how they recovered the boat and restored its integrity. The process which included foam and fish took over 10 years before it could be displayed as it is today. It is 10 am now, but before we leave the museum many take care of their ice cream on a stick habit. Apparently the cravings are starting earlier each day.

Back on the bus, “Fast Eddie” kept us on schedule by quickly navigating the obnoxiously large tour bus through the small, narrow, streets of Galilee as if racing the Grand Prix in Monaco. Nevertheless, we arrived safely at the Mt. of Beatitudes and “Fast Eddie” has duly earned all of our respect. Once off the bus, many get their second ice cream of the day and are glad that Christ did most of his teaching and/or miracles by gift shops and restrooms.

The traditional site for the Mt of Beatitudes is ran by the Catholic Church and the cute little nuns opened up a special garden just for us to sit in and have a testimony meeting looking out over the Sea of Galilee. The view was a bit obscure due to heavy dust blowing in from the Sahara Desert, but the experience was unforgettable. Katie sang “I Walked Where Jesus Walked”, a song she has sung many times with her father before, but never actually in the Holy Land. It was obvious the opportunity touched her and without a doubt it touched all of us. Michael, Amanda, and Mandy each shared their testimonies and insights that gave voice to the feelings we were all experiencing. We could not stay long, so it was difficult to really let it sink in as we had to hurry back to the bus to continue our trek.

From here we took a little detour off Christ’s footpath and went up to the Golan Heights and the Gadot Lookout previously held by the Syrians. On the way there, Rolli pointed out the signs that warned of field mines and did her best to help us understand some of the conflict and unrest in the region. We had plenty of questions and she did a remarkable job answering them in a very objective way. She is a fascinating lady, born Hindu, raised in a Catholic School, became a born-again Christian, speaks seven languages and has lived as a converted Jew in Jerusalem for the last 20 years.

During the conflict when the Syrians used the bunkers they would randomly shoot the Israeli farmers and even children in the marshy valley below. An Israeli spy had befriended Syrian leaders well enough that the Assyrian General took him up to see “the boys” up on the hill. Once there, the spy commented to the General that the boys looked very hot and that it was a shame they had no protection from the sun. The spy suggested they plant fast-growing eucalyptus trees by each of the bunkers so the boys would have protection from the relentless sun. The General thought it was a fantastic idea and they did just that. The spy went back to Israel and reported that soon anywhere there was a eucalyptus tree there would be a Syrian bunker. Very clever – Israel eventually won back the Golan Heights, but they spy was later captured and hung.

We hurried back on the bus and next learned about the Druse with whom we would be having lunch. “Fast Eddie” called ahead to make arrangements while Rolli told us that the Druse were a secret religious group that was really a conglomeration of nearly every religion on the earth today. Their roots originate in Islam, but they believe in the Jewish and Christian prophets. The very orthodox Druse wear all black with white head coverings and only those committed to living the religion really learn all of the secrets. They were very kind people and our lunch was a choice of Falafel or a large crepe-type Iraqi bread filled with goat cheese and Zatar (an olive oil hyssop) or others ventured to fill it with chocolate. Mmmmmmm. It was a hit with all those brave enough to try it.

After lunch, we went to Capernaum. Considering the purpose of our pilgrimage, and the amount of time that Christ spent here, this was to be the real highlight of the day. It was amazing to be in the place where Christ performed more miracles than any other city, however we were maintaining our sprint pace and it was difficult to really digest it.
Many of us can feel the days winding down and our jobs and real lives looming ahead. We crave the opportunity to really absorb all that we have taken in, but are so grateful to even have the chance to see what we have seen. And we admit that we have been going so hard that we appreciate the efforts made by Rolli, “Fast Eddie” and Alan to get us back to the Sea of Galilee in time for a little watermelon and fun in the water. Many, like Jessica, did tricks off the pier and awaited their scores from the judges. Jodi successfully learned to dive, but got a black eye from her last belly flop. Don’t worry, it is healing nicely. Others were content to take photos of themselves walking on the Sea of Galilee.

We finished the night with a trip to a diamond factory. Some tried on jewelry worth up to $40,000 dollars, but disappointed the clerks when they took out their cameras instead of their wallets to capture the moment. Finally, we finished the night off, with yes, you guessed it . . . one last round of ice cream!!!

Thursday, May 31, 2007

On To The Holy Land - May 29th

At last, after several hours of waiting, truckloads of ice cream bars, and searching through luggage (no body cavity searches this time—thank goodness) we made it through the border crossing from Jordan into the Holy Land. It’s the second week now, and those who have burned the midnight oil can often be seen tipping over into the isles of the bus or face down in their falafel.

Sergeant Gunnerson (we love him) commanded yet another 6:00am wake-up call today, for a 6:30am sacrament service (is the spirit up that early?) and 7:30am departure.
The sacrament service was beautiful—it was held on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and included a beautiful choral number accompanied by Elizabeth on the oboe.

After inhaling some breakfast, now with more fiber since the Egyptian heebie-jeebies have left us, we scurried off to the first stop where Jesus was raised—Nazareth. Rolli, an amazing India-born Jewish convert, has taken the reigns as tour guide, and our fearless driver, Adnan (aka--“Fast Eddie”), who has been driving BYU students for 17 years, takes great care of us and secures us great deals on lunch. In Nazareth we visited a well excavated Nazarene village from the time of Christ, and there saw a wine press (FYI—done with bare feet as to not crush the bitter seeds), a garden watchtower, olive oil press (Scott P. made a great….…donkey), a large underground cistern, and a rebuilt ancient synagogue. In the synagogue Brother Gunnerson read some beautiful excerpts from the New Testament when Christ declared himself as the Messiah in the Nazarene synagogue and was subsequently thrown out.

Another highlight for many was holding a tiny white baby lamb.

Next stop (of five), Mt. Tabor, believed by many to be the actual Mount of Transfiguration, situated along the fertile Jezreel Valley. After a taxi-ride up a series of 5 mph switch-back U-turns, (not driven at anywhere near 5 mph; it seemed our driver’s principal goal was to get our van up on two wheels) we reached the top. There we enjoyed many spiritual moments and time to contemplate the sacredness of the area as Brother Gunnerson read multiple excerpts from the scriptures and then concluded with a short but powerful testimony meeting. Upon leaving the top of Mt. Tabor, Shay, straggling behind, was trapped by the electric gate in the Catholic convent. We barely rescued her from the nuns who had slapped a habit, robe, and knee-highs on her and were about to make her take her vows of celibacy.

Our third stop was Tel Megidda, or what we know as Armageddon. We first pounded down some falafel sandwiches, then proceeded to see the ancient ruins (dating from before the days of Solomon) through sweltering heat wondering why 25 civilizations had chosen this spot to build upon. We descended into a blissfully cool tunnel built underneath the city to link the outside water source into the city for times of war, quite an amazing feat.

Then off to the beautiful coastal city of Caesarea, the Roman capital of the area during the time of Christ. This huge metropolis, built predominantly by Herod the Great, provided numerous ruins, including a large theater and hippodrome, as well as beautiful costal views and breezes.

We had a cultural smorgasbord in the ancient Roman theater, started off by a monologue of Romeo and Juliet by Dakon, followed by an inspiring rendition of Bon Jovi by Brad, and then the grand finale, a duet to Greece’s “Summer Lovin’” by Brad and Jodi.

Alas we concluded our day by driving north up the coast to Haifa, and were finally able to frolic in Mediterranean Sea, engaging in a game of tag, Frisbee, and just a little chillin’ in the sun for some much needed R & R.

Scott P. sported his ‘Mediterranean bathing suit’, looking suspiciously like a pair of Hanes, and even received some gasps from the Europeans. On our way home ‘Fast Eddie’ made sure to show us the B’Hai gardens, driving the round about not once, not twice, but three times, to make sure we got some good shots………Thanks, Adnan!

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Phosphate Miners - May 28th

The large portion of our day was spent riding/sleeping on the bus as we trekked from Petra in south central Jordan (known as “The SC” to locals) to Tiberius in northern Israel. The desert stretched away in all directions to the horizon--gravel crusted, arid and barren except for power lines. It was beauty unrivaled in the U.S. except for certain large airport parking lots. The tour guide pointed out two sights during the four hour journey. First, he woke our group of sun soaked travelers to inform us the train tracks on the east side of the road were used to carry phosphates from local mines to the coast.

Some time later he motioned to the distant horizon to some small piles of dirt. These, he informed us, were phosphate waste piles. Other than these Jordanian tourist attractions The SC offered very little in the way of sites.

The road on which we drove was once a major trade route known at times as the Desert Highway or the Kings Highway. Thousands of years ago it served as the backbone of a vast and complicated series of roads connecting merchants in China and the Middle East. In its current iteration it was built in 1978 as a joint venture between Jordan and Iraq to serve their joint military needs while fighting against Iran. Today we use it as travelers have for millennia—to get through this area in as direct a route as possible.

Our guide, Hasan, entertained us with the story of meeting his wife. It was the classic Jordanian love story. Boy meets girl, er, boy’s sisters meet girl. Boy’s sisters obtain girls phone number. Boys mother and sisters visit girl and check (among other things) whether she has strong teeth and real hair. They also check the cleanliness of her bathroom and kitchen. Upon passing all tests the girl is then given the OK to serve coffee to the boy and his parents. Apparently this is an important step as the two potential lovers are able to steal their first few glances of one another under the watchful eye of parents. When the parents have determined that the young couple might make a suitable match, the fathers make preliminary arrangements for an engagement. As described to us this is much like any business negotiation—boy will rent apartment, pay the rent, buy food, etc. When this contract is signed the boy pays the first dowry of $3,000 in order to allow the girl to go shopping for new clothes. For the boy’s part in this scene, he then drives through the girl’s neighborhood with fifty of his friends honking their horns and flashing their lights. This informs the neighbors that the girl is now engaged and the neighbors are now on the look out for other boys in her company.

Now that the engagement is complete the couple may date openly until the wedding. At this point in the story our guide committed us to secrecy. The following detail apparently should not be shared outside of Jordan. After the wedding, the bride and groom drive to a prearranged destination in order to consummate the contract. The mothers of both parties tag along. Once the bride and groom are in the bedroom, the mothers sit outside the door facing each other until the groom indicates to them that the contract has been consummated.

We made a short detour in order to visit Mt. Nebo.

This location indicated in the Bible as the spot where Moses first saw the promised land of Israel is located in northern Jordan. It has a cobble stone path to the top and is maintained by some Franciscan monks.

On a side note, this is also the supposed location of the biblical incident involving Balaam and the “talking ass.” (Num 21:21-31) After a smooth and quick border crossing, we arrived at our Kibbutz in Tiberius.