Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Reflections on Living and Dying

This morning at 1:30 am, a car carrying ten Washington and Lee students was in an accident. One of the students, a fellow senior and pre-orientation trip leader, Kelsey Durkin, was killed in the accident. We weren't too terribly close, but I knew her through our leader training that happened a few days before most people returned to Lexington for the school year. Kelsey was the type of person who genuinely believed and practiced the Speaking Tradition. Every time I saw her on campus, she would greet me with her beautiful smile and genuinely ask me how I was. I am still in shock that I will never run into her again on the bridge as I'm walking to class, the parking deck, or the sorority houses. However, I shouldn't be surprised by this feeling. A high school classmate, John Clinton, passed away the summer after my first year of college. We weren't close, either, but I still sometimes think that he is somewhere around Clemson just living his crazy goofy life. Then reality sets in.

When a tragedy like this hits a small, close-knit community, everyone feels the impact. The atmosphere on campus today was gravely somber. Each of us grieving in our own way.

I found out about the accident when I woke up this morning. One of my housemates had a class with Kelsey, and the professor announced that a student had died but could not give her name yet. I was numb and in a state of disbelief. I secretly hoped it would be someone I didn't know. I went to my 8:30 yoga class not knowing what to do with myself. The yoga instructor was aware of the situation and gave us an easy class.

As I was laying on my yoga mat, trying to stretch, my mind was as far away from a meditative state as is possible. Why was I laying on my back trying to monitor my breathing when there is life to be lived?! Why am I wasting my time in this yoga class when there is so much to do in the world? Why am I spending four years of my life at college when all I want to do is help people? Why was I so upset by this death? Naturally, I know that I am affected because it hit so close to home. Why don't I have the same reaction when I hear of other deaths on the news? I would say I regard all human life as of equal importance, but I don't grieve every time I hear of someone leaving this world.

I managed not to cry during yoga, but I broke down when I got to my car. I had received a text that Kelsey was the student who had died. I went home and tried to wrap my head around things. I realized not for the first time that a long hot shower is one of the most therapeutic things in life. I contemplated skipping my voice lesson but decided against it.

During my voice lesson, I realized just how sad and depressing my pieces were. As an emotional artist, I channeled my grief into the music. I was on the verge of tears for most of the lesson, which sometimes led to a less-than-musical voice. After singing through pieces I have worked on all term, my voice teacher had me run through some pieces I will work on next term that come from a book of "Biblical Songs." The collection of Psalms included these texts:

Thou art my refuge and my shield: I await Thy word. Depart from me, ye evildoers:
so that I keep the commandments of my God. Give me strength, so that I shall be saved,
and that I observe your law always. My flesh trembleth for fear of Thee;
For I am afraid of Thy judgments, exceedingly.

Hear, O God, hear my prayer,
and hide not Thyself from my plea.
Attend unto me, and hear me, for I mourn in my lament,
and I am dejected.
My heart is sore within me, and the fear of death is fallen upon me,
and horror hath overwhelmed me. And I said: Oh that I had wings like a dove!
For then would I fly away, and find rest. Lo, then would I wander far off, and I would dwell in the wilderness. I would hasten my escape from the windy storm and tempest.

As a religious believer grieving, I struggled to sing the words that were so relevant to my emotional state. I left my voice lesson looking for my choir director who had sent us an email saying he was free to talk if we needed it. He wasn't around, and I couldn't help but to break down again. After a good hug from our lovely Dymph, I made my way to a secluded stairwell and just cried it out.

I went to the sorority house for lunch, and processed some with some close friends. After learning more details and calming down some, I returned to my choir director's office. We had a nice, healthy chat about the accident and so many other things.

For the first time, I think I truly understood the transcendent nature of music. How is it that something as basic as one Bible verse can become eight minutes of complex musical beauty? How can this same piece of music evoke so many emotions, different to each listener and performer? It is a concept that is impossible to understand, much like God. However, this beauty comes from the hands of humans. That is the miracle of it.

We are preparing for the Lessons and Carols service on Thursday, which obviously involves a religious set of pieces. Each of these pieces carries an entirely new weight after the events of today. I had emotion behind the pieces before, but this was an entirely new level of feeling that I put into each piece.

After I left Dr. Lynch's office, I went home and took a nap. When I woke up, it was 4:30, and I was completely disoriented. I thought it was a new day and had forgotten the events of last night and today. When I realized that the accident had happened and that Kelsey was gone, I was in a state of shock all over again. This time, however, I was pretty emotionally sterile about things. I thought I had dealt with my tears enough, and I could be strong enough for other people on campus.

Boy, was I wrong.

I went to choir rehearsal and almost immediately started crying again. I couldn't sing for half of our first piece because I was crying too much. This was the scene for much of the rehearsal, but I managed to pull it together for the second half. Then, we closed with Dan Forrest's "Entreat Me Not to Leave You," which is a piece I already associated with death, grief, and God's miracles of life. As if on cue, I completely lost it at one of the first big chords. I sobbed uncontrollably and was comforted by the hands of my fellow altos (who are the absolute best sectional family I could ever ask for). That rehearsal was definitely cathartic for me and truly helped me to grieve. As Dr. Lynch says, we are vulnerable and open up our souls when we sing, which allows us to have the passion to truly make music. I now have a fuller understanding and appreciation of my emotional ties to the music I sing.

Afterward, I was fortunate to attend the candlelight vigil held in front of Lee Chapel. Seeing the W&L community sprawling across the lawn coming together to remember and mourn the loss of Kelsey was powerful. It is wonderful to be reassured of the strength of our community, even though the circumstances are so tragic.

Throughout the day, so many have thoughts have been running through my head nonstop. Foremost has been the implications of this great tragedy. The lives of all members of the W&L community are forever changed by the events of the past twenty-four hours. Kelsey's friends and family now have an incredible void that this wonderful young woman filled. The other people who were involved in the accident are going through what I can only imagine to be Hell as they deal with survivor's guilt, as well as any other physical injuries. Nick, the driver, is left alone behind bars to wrestle with this situation and the consequences of his actions.

Yes, the accident involved drinking and driving. However, I do not think it is right to demonize Nick. Too often (and even once is too often) people get behind the wheel after having too much to drink or while under the influence of any number of substances. Those drives do not always end in accidents or deaths. This one just happened to be the one that did. Nick is not the only person to have made that decision. Many students choose to drive under the influence each weekend. Some get away with it. Some get a DUI. Unfortunately, some get into accidents that hurt people. Not that it makes it right at all, but unfortunately, it is not an uncommon event.

Dealing with such a sudden and untimely death always makes one reevaluate priorities in life. When we are aware of the incredible fragility of life and the brevity of our time in this world, we cherish every moment. We live in the moment. We live by phrases like Carpe Diem and YOLO. We take risks. Sometimes this is freeing and wonderful to the point of making us feel invincible. Other times it leads to severe negative consequences.

So do we live sheltered lives afraid of what is around every corner? Do we protect ourselves and eliminate all possible risks? Well, that would lead to paranoia, which isn't really healthy. Unfortunately, our society lives more toward the careful side of this scenario. We spend so much of our time and energy preparing for what is to come, but that time is never guaranteed, as we witnessed today. We work so hard to get a good degree so that we can get a good job so that we can have a good family so that we can finally live "the good life." Whatever that means. But is that truly living? How can you be alive and thriving if you are only focused on what is to come? You can't.

"These days come and go, but they say nothing, and if we do not use the gifts they bring, they carry them as silently away."-Ralph Waldo Emerson

No matter how many precautions you take in life, you are never 100% protected. I work in the prevention field. I'm paid to prevent risky behaviors and their negative consequences. However, I think we can all agree that you cannot prevent everything. Danger could come to you or your loved ones at any time and in any form. Even though this is true, it is not healthy to allow the reality to become a paralyzing fear that dominates life.

Knowing this, we should accept that we have a limited amount of time that has an unknown expiration date. We should live life to the fullest that we can. We should strive to live a balanced life. We must cherish the time we have with loved ones. We must take risks. We must be vulnerable. We must live!

It is still crazy that twenty-four hours ago, Kelsey was still with us. She was talking to friends, catching up after break, living life. Then, it is gone in a flash.

This grieving/mourning/healing process will take a long while for each of us, but it is comforting to know that we are not alone.

Nunc Dimittis
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant
depart in peace according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared
before the face of all people.
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles,
and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son,
and to the Holy Ghost.
As it was in the beginning, is now,
and ever shall be, world without end.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Lexington Perspective

A few things have happened recently that have made me think twice and wrestle with a lot in this world.

Last Sunday I was sitting in Lexington Presbyterian Church (where I go when I'm at W&L). The service was already about 15 minutes in when a man walked in the back door. He was wearing dirty jeans, old tennis shoes, and a stained hoodie. He probably hadn't showered in a few weeks. His hair was long and dirty, his beard bushy and unkempt. Even though I am a poverty studies minor, even though I have much experience working with people living in poverty, even though that is a population I want to dedicate my life to, I was still disturbed by his entry to the service. You see, I was at a nice Presbyterian service with the congregation dressed in their Sunday best sitting in nice wooden pews within a purely white sanctuary. This man's presence disrupted the image and experience. I was immediately ashamed by my initial reaction to this man. I saw a group of W&L students sitting in front of me glance over to the pew he was sitting in throughout the service. I don't want to put anything into their minds, but I got the feeling they were sizing him up, passing judgment on him. Just after the man entered, a baby started crying. Loudly. During the offering, it sounded like someone stumbled in the balcony. The entire flow of the service was off.

I watched and listened to Rev. Bill Klein as he gave a wonderful sermon on the parable of the lost sheep and the woman who lost two coins. Yes, I was paying attention, but I was also pondering what he was thinking as he preached. As someone who will probably end up in his shoes one day, what do you do in that situation? Of course I know what you should do, what you have been taught to do, what Jesus says to do. But will your congregation actually do that? Will they step up when this figure literally walks through the door? Will they treat this Jesus-looking man as they would treat Jesus Christ?

Of course I know what the answers should be. That doesn't mean that I didn't struggle with the cognitive dissonance that was running through my mind. I had the Casting Crowns lyrics for "If We Are the Body" running through my head "A traveler is far away from home. He sheds his coat and quietly sinks into the back row. The weight of their judgemental glances tells him that his chances are better out on the road." Sunday morning church services are supposed to be a certain way. I show up for an hour, hope to have some good spiritually fulfilling time with God and in a like-minded community, and go on with my life. When things are out of the ordinary, it interrupts those expectations.

The sermon was completely appropriate for this man's ears. At least that's what I tell myself as I live my incredibly blessed life. I feared that the relatively well-off wealthy white families sitting in the congregation would have the same thought. Let me help this lowly man from my place of privilege. He obviously must be one of the lost sheep. However, I guarantee that every person sitting in that sanctuary was spiritually yearning for something more. Who knows? Maybe this guy is more in tune with God's will than any of us. Bill Klein told us that we must show God's love and truth to all we meet, to all the lost sheep who may not even know they are lost.

I walked out of the service after the benediction, shook Bill's hand, complimented his sermon, and went home. That night at my small group weekly Bible study, I told this story to the group when we were taking prayer concerns. His presence really touched me. We prayed for him, whatever his circumstances may be.

This week, I went to church again. I sat in the same place I sat last week, but this man did not show up. At the beginning of his sermon, Bill gave us a little update from last week. He addressed the fact that a "drifter" (his word) joined our worship service last week. He spoke about how he was eager to talk to the man after the service, which he did. He was also pleased to see so many in the congregation approach the man, whose name is Michael, and welcome him with open, loving arms to Lex Pres. He watched Michael walk away with a family that had invited him to lunch with him. Bill said he hoped that Michael truly felt God's love, warmth, and truth from the members of our church. It warmed my heart so much to hear that members really stepped up to the plate when a "Jesus-disguised" man walked through the doors. In reality, we are all Jesus disguised as normal, everyday people. Even if we aren't, imagine how much better the world would be if we treated each other as if we were.

Even though that story had a reasonably happy ending, I wasn't done being challenged for the day. If you didn't know, a Kenyan mall in Nairobi has come under attack by a Somali militant terrorist group with Al-Qaeda connections. This has lasted over 24 hours with 68 dead and 175 injured. The mall was packed with 1,000 people when the attack started, and the group kept many hostage. Luckily, most of the hostages have been freed now. This is just the most recent atrocity to happen in the world. Syria is a mess, and absolutely nothing is happening to improve that situation as the world sits back and watches. (I don't know what the answer is for that conflict, but I know sitting around is doing no good.) Kim Jong-un murdered musicians while we have been obsessing over Miley Cyrus and her shenanigans. Twelve people were murdered at the Navy Yard last week, and blind people can buy guns. The roommate of one of my high school classmates died last weekend. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still raging. Injustices are occurring on a daily basis in Nicaragua. Some of the children I worked with in Kentucky still don't know where their parents are. These are just a few stories that hit close to home with me.

Nevertheless, I walked out of my sorority house (read: palace) on campus today and saw the absolute beauty that is W&L's campus and Lexington on the first day of autumn. Normally, I take a deep breath to absorb as much of the natural beauty as I possibly can and allow it to make me optimistic about the day. However, today, I saw it as terrible beauty. How could I enjoy something as simple as a beautiful clear sky and sunshine when all of this tragedy is happening all over the world? It doesn't seem fair. It's not right. I shouldn't be in such a place of privilege when so many people are hurting. So much bad is all around, even near me in Rockbridge County (or on campus, for that matter). I know God is always present, but how can we live in such a bubble when everything changes for the worse outside of that? How do we deal with that cognitive dissonance? How do we truly grapple with the issues in the world? I don't know. I have a feeling I will be working to try to figure that out for a very, very long time to come.

Friday, August 9, 2013

10 Things I Learned in Israel

Yes, it has been a while since I returned from the Holy Land (2 months, 2 days to be exact). This has been the first time that I've actually had time to sit and let my mind wander since then. I spent the summer volunteering at a camp in Eastern Kentucky for the second year in a row, and it was amazing. More to come on that later.

This is a list that I’ve compiled in processing my time in Israel since I’ve been home. It is by no mean an exhaustive list, as I’m sure I will still realize what I have learned from my time abroad months, even years, from now. For now, here are the top 10 (in no particular order) that I came up with in June:

1.         Hebrew is hard.
            I am amazed by how quickly I learned two new alphabets and a new set of pronunciations in just 4 months. Even though it was a struggle at first, I am now much more interested in learning other languages so that I can communicate with people wherever I travel in the future.

2.         Jesus loves me.
            I have had enough experiences in Israel to know that I either have a lot of luck, a guardian angel, or some of both. I have had plenty of experiences that were high risk but also high reward. I know that I would not have been as fortunate without a bit of Providence.

3.         Yes, people are different, but they are also more similar than we often realize.
            Despite the fact that I come from a different hemisphere and different culture than many of the people with whom I interacted, we had so much in common that is simply a part of humanity. While I was in Jordan, we talked with our Bedouin hosts about everything from relationships to politics to life advice. Even though our experiences were with different parties, we drew the same conclusions and learned many of the same lessons from our different lives. Humanity is more connected that we like to imagine.

4.         At the same time, everyone is shaped by his/her unique background and experience.
            This may sound contrary to #3, but they are both true. The lessons we learn and conclusions we draw depend on our individual background and experience. It is also possible to group people’s reactions and beliefs into different groups, which is a very basic description of psychology (my major).

5.         Along the same lines, everyone has a unique narrative. No matter how much that narrative is based on factual truths, it is important because it is the truth for that person.
            It is all too easy for us to dismiss someone’s point of view because it does not agree with ours or we can’t put it in a nice, neat box. That’s not the point, though. By dismissing a narrative, we are refusing to engage with it, refusing to be challenged by it, refusing to deal with it. I’ve learned that it is important to take each narrative within its context and address it and process it as such. Many of the narratives of the conflict are the result of life experience, familial beliefs passed down, and exposure to the conflict. Even if narratives are formed by lies or misrepresentations, they are still the narratives of those individuals and are just as important as everyone else’s narrative.

6.         IT’S COMPLICATED!
            There is a reason this conflict hasn’t been resolved for over 65 years. The vast number of parties and perspectives on all sides of the issues must be taken into account in order to move forward with any sort of resolution. The conflict is regional, as well as global, as it is a conflict of religions, cultures, and peoples. So many parties from all over the world have a stake in it, which makes it so difficult to move forward. Up to this point, it has been nearly impossible to make progress of any kind without approval from all parties.

7.         Constantly search for the nuance.
            This has become a kind of life motto for me. I’ve seen a lot and learned a lot, especially during my time abroad. So much of what I’ve seen and heard requires me to use my critical thinking skills so I can most fully evaluate what I am really experiencing and the context within which it lies.

8.         It is amazing to feel so connected to people you don’t personally know and to be a part of something greater.
            Being in a region of the world where Christianity, particularly Protestantism is not in the majority caused me to feel so grateful when I stumbled into a worship service or celebration, even if I didn’t know what exactly was happening. Additionally, visiting any ancient site made me realize how connected I was to people of today and so many years before who had seen the same place.

9.         It’s also a surreal and unreal feeling to be completely disconnected from people and the rest of the world.
            Stargazing in the middle of the desert in Jordan with only seven other people anywhere near to you with no way of contacting anyone outside of those seven people is so freeing. Yes, it takes a lot of effort to become so disconnected in today’s age, but it is possible and wonderful. It is the ultimate “me” time.

10.      Silence is ok. Being alone is ok. Doing nothing is ok.
            We live in a society that is always moving and shaking. If you’re not being productive, you’re being lazy. You could always be doing more, better, faster. Sometimes we need to disconnect and have a personal day doing absolutely nothing. And that is all right. We shouldn’t punish ourselves for taking some time to do that every once in a while.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Week 17: Majesty and Mystery in Jordan

It has been way too long since I last updated my blog. One of the main reasons for the silence on my blog is the fact that my computer was out of commission for about three weeks of that time (another story for another post). The other reasons are that I'm simply living life in the Holy Land, meaning I don't have time to devote to blogging (and I may have developed an obsession with watching Criminal Minds online). Nevertheless, I have recently completed one of my most adventurous trips since I've been here (perhaps even in my life).

Last week was the holiday of Shavuot. What I have gathered about the meaning of this is that you eat dairy food, study Torah 24 hours straight, and I had Tuesday and Wednesday off from class. My friends Mollie, Brittany, Violet, and I decided to take advantage of the break to go to Eilat, Israel and Jordan for the week. Mollie and Brittany have recently become big fans of Couch Surfing. Basically you make a profile on a website and find other profiles of people willing to host travelers for a night or two for free. It's actually a fantastic way to travel on a budget (being a student abroad is hard).

Our plan was to take the 7:00 am bus from Jerusalem to Eilat and stay with someone in/near Eilat Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Thursday morning, we would head to the Jordan border, cross into Aqaba, stay in Jordan Thursday and Friday nights, visit Petra, and return to Israel Saturday in time to catch the bus from Eilat to Jerusalem after Shabbat ended. Like I said, this was the plan. What actually happened is something completely different. Providence must have had a hand in all of this for reasons that you will see.

Tuesday morning, we rose bright and early (5:30 am) and headed to the bus station. We didn't end up leaving until 6, and we didn't want to miss the bus to Eilat (we knew it would be busy), so we took a cab to the bus station. We stood in line with about 100 other people who were all trying to go to Eilat on the first day of this holiday. No one had told us that we needed to buy our tickets online beforehand. Even with the two buses, we were not able to board because everyone else had bought tickets. We decided that since both the 7 am and 10 am buses were booked (the next bus wouldn't be until 2 pm), we would try to hitchhike to Eilat. Disclaimer: Hitchhiking in Israel is much different than it is in the States. Mollie and I had multiple successful hitchhiking attempts over Pesach break. That story will come in another post. I promise.

So the four of us walked from the bus station to the streets to try to get to the highway going south that would take us to Eilat. We asked everyone we saw which highway we wanted to get to. Each person gave us a completely different answer, which was super helpful. We were successful in hitchhiking a few times; however, we literally hitchhiked from the Central Bus Station back to the Kfar by 9:00 am, where we had left at 6:00, earlier that morning. Three hours into our journey, things weren't really going as planned. We were all tired, moody, and hadn't had our coffee. We didn't know where we were going or how to get there. I, being my mother, had packed a huge pack full of anything anyone would need on our trip, including lots of food and about 4 liters of water. I was tired of walking around carrying this pack. I just wanted to go to bed, especially since it was so close. We decided that hitchhiking to Eilat wasn't really going to work. So we went back to the Central Bus Station to buy tickets on the 2:00 bus before they sold out.

We arrived back at the bus station around 10:30, just after the 10:00 bus had departed. We bought our tickets and spent the next 3 1/2 hours sitting on the cold bus station floor napping, eating, and being delirious. It was ridiculous. We boarded the bus for Eilat at 2 and were finally on our way.

About three hours later, we got off the bus at Kibbutz Ketura, our lodging for our time in Eilat. We had struggled to find a couch surfing host in Eilat, but Mollie found Jake a few days before. Jake is from Chicago, visited Israel, and never left. He made Aliyah (became an Israeli citizen) and has been living on this kibbutz for four years. He was a fantastic host. We arrived just in time for Shavuot dinner, which was an amazing feast. Everyone was so impressed by the communal lifestyle on the Kibbutz, as they all come from basically a big city lifestyle. For me, I recognized what I have come to know and love in my time living, working, and volunteering in intentional communities at Bethelwoods and with Christian Appalachian Project. It was amazing for me to watch my friends become entranced by the lifestyle that I have already fallen in love with. They kept saying that this is the Israel that people fall in love with. This is the reason people stay. I believe that a large part of the reason for that is that the kibbutz lifestyle is so isolating from the rest of the country, particularly the conflict. In Jerusalem, we see it every day. On the kibbutz, it is so distant and invisible.

Wednesday morning, we slept in late, got lunch in the dining hall, and began our trek to Eilat. Kibbutz Ketura is actually about 30-40 minutes away from Eilat proper so how did we want to get there? We had to try our hand at hitchhiking again. It is much easier hiking to Eilat from the middle of the desert than it is from the middle of Jerusalem. There is really only one way for people to go on this highway. In less than 15 minutes, a woman in a van pulled over. She said she only had room for one, but Brittany, Violet, and I said we could ride in the back. So we did. This woman was from the Ukraine originally. She didn't have seats in the back of her van because she has a goat who normally rides in the hay that we were sitting on. She had just dropped her goat off at a party (interpret that as you wish) and was going to visit her boyfriend who lived in Eilat. She drove us all the way to the middle of Eilat and asked for no payment. It was great.

We then took a cab to meet our friends who had also come to Eilat the day before on one of the south beaches. The day ended up being a pretty lazy beach day. We sat on beach chairs, floated on rafts in the Red Sea, and snorkeled. I've been snorkeling before in Hawaii, which was absolutely amazing. At least where we were, the snorkeling wasn't anything to be absolutely amazed by. It was still fun to watch the fish swimming with you. I saw plenty of rainbow fish and Dory from Finding Nemo fish, which brought back great childhood memories.

Jordan and the Red Sea, as seen from Eilat

Late in the afternoon, our friends left to go back to Jerusalem, and we started to trek back to our kibbutz. We decided to walk back to the center of Eilat where our first driver dropped us off. This ended up being a much longer walk than we had anticipated. By the time we got there, we realized it was too late to get dinner at the kibbutz, and our stomachs couldn't wait that long, anyway. We decided to get dinner at Paddy's Irish Pub and Restaurant. Little did we know that we had to go to Eilat to get back to America. We had just sat down when two Navy men started talking to Mollie and Violet. Then I heard music to my ears: a Southern accent. It turns out that a U.S. Navy ship was in Eilat for four days so that the members of the Navy and Marines on board could get some free time after being on the ship with each other for six weeks. The Southern accent belonged to a member of the Navy from Texas. Somehow Americans always find Americans. We started talking to them, and they convinced us to go to a nearby bar. We learned a lot about the differences between the Navy and the Marines that night. A group was going on a tour of Jerusalem the next day, so I decided to impart some of my knowledge and experience onto them. I described the Old City and all the sights that Jerusalem has to offer that a Marine from North Carolina probably hasn't seen before. After I felt like I had given him great advice, he said to me, "Are there Muslims there? Because I really don't like Muslims." Ladies and gentlemen, these are the people we have serving in our military and representing us overseas.

By the time we escaped the military infestation at the bar, we could only get a taxi back to the kibbutz. The next morning, we had another late start and got ready to go to Jordan. Again, we hitchhiked to get to the border. This time, a very nice man named Nathan who was on his way to go scuba diving in Eilat picked us up. He drove us all the way to the border crossing and helped us with all of our bags.

We crossed the border from Israel to Jerusalem seamlessly. Our only slight hiccup was exchanging money. We assumed that we would have access to an ATM near the crossing, but that was wrong. Instead, whoever had money exchanged shekels to Jordanian Dinar, and we decided to live communally while we were in Jordan.

Mollie had found a profile on Couch Surfing of a Jordanian Bedouin who had many positive references (almost 40, which is a lot). So we decided we would have an authentic Jordanian experience and stay with this Jordanian Bedouin man in Wadi Rum. Little did we know what we were actually getting ourselves into. We took a cab from the border to the village of Wadi Rum, which was about a 45 minute drive. The views out the window during the drive were absolutely amazing. We had all seen the Jordanian mountains across the Dead Sea and past Aqaba, but we didn't realize just how beautiful they really were until we were driving through them. Even though, there is only a sea and a tectonic plate separating the two countries, it is obvious that the landscapes are very different. I don't really know specifically what makes them different. I just know that they are.

We arrived to the village of Wadi Rum and met our host for the next few days, Tasir. By this point, we have probably been asked about 10 times where we were from and then given a warm welcome by all of the Jordanians with whom we came into contact. Tasir got us coffee, and we sat down to talk about our plans for our stay in Jordan. At first, it seemed as though he wanted to charge us for a tour of Wadi Rum, which we immediately shut down. We, as a group of friends, are pretty against the whole touring/tourist thing, and didn't want to spend any money; hence, the couch surfing. It was slightly uncomfortable because we still really didn't know what we were getting into. We decided to stay in Wadi Rum Thursday and Friday nights and to go to Petra Saturday. Then, we changed our plans and decided to go to Amman Saturday night so that we could get up early Sunday morning to cross near Jerusalem so people with Sunday classes could get to class.

We piled all of our stuff into Tasir and his friend's cars, got into the two cars, and headed into the desert. Brittany and I were in an SUV with Abdou, who wore traditional Bedouin clothing of a thobe and kaffiyeh, and Ali. Brittany and I were still wary of the situation as we drove into the desert. Being a desert, it has no roads, but these men drove, and they drove fast, over the tracks of previous cars. I have no idea how they knew where they were going, but they did. We first stopped at a traditional Bedouin camp, and they picked up mattresses and blankets from the tents. We drove on to one of the popular tourist spots in Wadi Rum, a natural bridge. Now I've spent a lot of time in the mountains and in nature, but I have never spent much quality time in a desert. I was amazed at the ease with which I was able to climb the sandstone structure to get to the top.

Tasir and Abdou (in traditional Bedouin clothing)

Bedouin tents

Natural Bridge #1

After playing on the natural bridge, we got back into the cars and headed to our next destination. By this point, Mollie and Violet had talked to Tasir and were much more comfortable with the whole situation so Brittany and I were also more at ease. We drove to what seemed like a random place in the desert to watch the sun set. We gathered wood, and Abdou made the quickest fire I have ever seen (without using lighter fluid). While they prepared tea for us, we took advantage of the free time to explore the mountains around us. We were able to walk through the sand barefoot without worrying about sticks, rocks, or animals, which is unlike the nature I am used to. In fact, wearing shoes was harder than going barefoot because all of the sand would weigh your shoes down. Again, I decided to go climbing on the sandstone nearby. Next thing I know, I have climbed to the top of a mountain and can't see Violet and Brittany at the bottom. As I was on top of the mountain, I admired the view and absolute silence I heard. It was in this moment that I finally found the Middle East I had come here to see. I felt the feeling that only comes a few times in a lifetime: inner peace. I realized what my purpose was for being in this part of the world for this semester. My mind was suddenly clear. A refreshing breeze was constant as I sat on the mountain contemplating processing the beauty I was experiencing. Eventually I climbed back down to join our friends for tea. Since I had climbed so far away, I was last to return to the group.

As I was returning, Violet, Mollie, and Brittany were receiving their Bedouin names. Violet was named Gemra. Mollie was named Nwara, meaning beautiful moon. Brittany was named Sharuq, meaning the most beautiful place to watch the sun rise. Due to my adventurous spirit and ethnic attire, I received the name Lawrence (i.e. Lawrence of Arabia). Mr. Palmer, my high school history teacher who showed the movie in class my senior year, would be proud. In fact, where we watched the sun set was where Lawrence of Arabia had actually traveled during his time in the Middle East. Later, Tasir decided that I needed a better Bedouin name (because Lawrence is English), so I was renamed Fatima, who was the daughter of the prophet Mohammed. Apparently Bedouin women strive to be like her in all parts of life and it was more suitable with someone who obviously "had such a romantic personality," according to Tasir.

Desert sunset

After tea and sun set, we drove through the desert to our final destination for the evening. It was a small cave-like structure in a mountain. We unpacked the mattresses and blankets as Abdou made another fire in record time. We sat around the fire talking as our food was prepared and cooked. We had only been with these men for about 4 hours, but we already had such a strong connection. It was the kind of connection that you have with someone because you are sharing an experience. No one else in the world will ever have the exact same experience that you are having with that group right then. It was a very surreal feeling. We opened up conversation with the expectation that it was a safe place where everyone could be completely honest. We all gave our first impressions of our companions and told how much we trusted each other already. By this point, Mollie, Brittany, Violet, and I had realized that our experience was not one that could be bought with money. Ours was truly authentic.

You see, Tasir had actually forgotten that we were coming until Mollie messaged him the day before. The four of them had already planned on spending the weekend camping in the desert. We just got to tag along for their vacation. It wasn't a tour, and there wasn't the expectation that they had to show us the exotic nature of Wadi Rum. Instead the four of them shared a little part of their home and paradise with us.

Later in the night, I wandered to a rock a little ways away from our campsite and laid down to look at the stars. I have done plenty of stargazing in my life, but this was a completely different experience. Even though I would say I live in the country, the city has grown around us, as my dad would put it. You can see a lot of stars from our driveway, but the light from our yard and the distant Charlotte lights make the sky hazy. Even at Bethelwoods, the stars are dimmed by the pinkish city lights from 30 minutes away. As I lay looking at the stars, I heard Mollie and Tasir talking around the fire. She was amazed by the fact that even though our lives are so completely different (four college girls from the states studying in Jerusalem, four Jordanian Bedouin men who were born and raised in Wadi Rum, a world and culture away from each other), as humans, we share the same feelings and reactions to certain situations. No matter our background, our similarities might outweigh our differences. It made me think of the Gender Similarities Hypothesis that I studied in my Gender Role Development class last term. For some reason, that paper has stuck with me. Basically, we focus so much on differences between groups rather than taking into account the obvious basic similarities. No matter our upbringing, religion, socioeconomic status, gender, race, or abilities, we are all connected on the level of humanity.

As I lay there, Ali came to go for a walk. We walked about twenty minutes until we got past the mountains where you could see the moon. It was there in the middle of nowhere in the desert in Jordan that I understood the true value of moonlight. It was less than a half moon, but all of the open space between the mountains was illuminated so that you didn't need a flashlight to see the way. We lay in the sand watching the stars and saw about five shooting stars in twenty minutes. In the hyper-busy, over-connected world in which we live, it is impossible to experience absolute silence. You always hear traffic, an electronic device of some sort, the heat or air conditioning, animals, or a breeze. But not here. In the middle of the night in the desert, nothing is moving. There is no breeze. There are no bugs. You can hear the slightest noise from so far away. I'm pretty sure that was the first time in my life I have ever truly experienced absolute silence. And it was great. My ears didn't even know how to process no stimulation so they were ringing for the first part of the silence.

It was also the first time in my life that I felt completely disconnected from the world. When I was in Rome last month, I felt disconnected because I couldn't use my phone to find the people I needed to find. But in that instance, I was in a huge city full of people and places. Here, I was completely disconnected from the world, save the seven other people who were in the desert with me. It was a new concept for me to think about being basically absolutely alone in the middle of the desert in the middle of the world, hundreds and thousands of miles away from friends and family. But it was a pretty cool feeling, too.

Ali and I walked back to the group to find some of our friends asleep. We ended up pulling some of the mattresses out and sleeping under the stars, fully exposed. I suddenly had a full appreciation for Bedouin culture. This experience was beautiful and amazing. How could I feel anything but love about it? I have been trying to get to Jordan many times since I arrived in the Middle East, but it never seemed to work out. Now I know why. Had I gone at any other time, I would have had a completely different experience with different people. That's not the way it was supposed to happen. I am so grateful to have had this incredible experience. I can only hope that I have been able to convey it to you in as real a sense as I can.

The next morning, we awoke to the sun peeking through the morning clouds coming up over the mountains. We ate a small breakfast, packed up our site, and headed off into the desert again. We drove to a tourist spot of a desert well. I honestly didn't really understand the importance of it. We drove to another natural bridge and climbed on it as is necessary.

As we drove through the desert, we saw Tasir's brother Abdu sitting on top of his jeep while Abdou drove. Brittany, our token climber, decided that she also had to take a ride. So she also took a ride on the roof of the jeep through the desert while holding onto Abdu or Abdou (whoever wasn't driving). That's definitely not an experience you get if you're on a tour...

Brittany and Abdu on the Jeep

It was nearing midday when we drove to another spot in the desert where we would relax for the hottest hours of the day. Apparently this is the only place that has shade at noon. Some of our hosts drove back to the village to get more water and food for Friday as we napped on mattresses in the shade of the mountain. It was a pretty lazy day for us. We watched the sun set from another location and then drove to another site for Friday night dinner and camping. This one was at the base of a huge mountain that was one of many around the area. (Fun (or maybe not-so-fun) Fact: We were camping less than 10 km from the Saudi Arabian border.) It had another great area for climbing, which I had to do barefoot, again. If you have ever seen Aladdin, I'm pretty sure the artists got their inspiration from this site. The outlines of the mountains during the night looked just like the mountains in the beloved Disney movie. Even though we hadn't done much, we were all tired from being in the desert for two days, so we fell asleep almost immediately after dinner.

Desert sunset site

Camping site

Saturday morning, we woke up bright and early again as the sun is ruthless in the desert. Tasir drove us back to the village so that we could catch the 8 am bus from Wadi Rum to Petra. As we were waiting for the bus, a cab from Petra dropped off some tourists in the village. The cab driver was already heading back to Petra and would charge us the same as a bus ticket. Tasir arranged all of this for us, and we were on our way to Petra. When we got to Petra, our driver told us he had a hotel in the city of Petra where we could leave our bags for the day at no cost. We were hesitant to leave our things at this random hotel in Petra, but it was better than the prospects of carrying them on our backs all day. Our cab driver gave us his card and told us to call him when we were done. He would pick us up, take us to get our bags, and take us to the bus station so we could take the 5:00 bus to Amman. He then drove us straight to the gates to Petra.

After spending two days basking in the natural beauty of the desert of Wadi Rum, Petra was honestly kind of disappointing. None of us really knew the historical significance of the city or why it was hidden for so long. We only knew that it was in Indiana Jones, and everyone takes a picture in front of this one cool-looking old building thing. The rock was beautiful, but we were skeptical about how much was natural and how much was manufactured to add to the aesthetics of the tourist attraction. It also didn't help that we saw children as young as four selling post cards and jewelry around every corner. Eventually, we got to the Treasury (that famous place, which actually never was a treasury but a tomb) and took the obligatory "We're in Petra!" picture. Our photographer was this delightful older Australian man who was on a Christian pilgrimage tour from Sinai through Jordan and to Jerusalem. If I've learned anything, it's that you meet the coolest people for the briefest glimpse of time while traveling.

Violet, Mollie, me (Lawrence of Arabia), and Brittany at the Treasury
As we continued through Petra, we reached a place where people were trying to get us to take a donkey ride up the mountain to go to this "high place." As soon as you enter the gates, people are hassling you to take a donkey, camel, or horse-drawn carriage ride through the site. We decided we would try to get to this "high place" just by climbing. We didn't know what we were really getting into, and we thought that it was a broken English phrase (the "high place) and that we would reach the top in about five minutes. That was completely wrong. Violet and I climbed all the way to the top accompanied by Rami and Sami, our new Bedouin friends who had tried to convince us to buy a donkey ride to the top. By the time we got to the top, they were telling us where to go to get the best view and to take the best pictures. They even took pictures with us. As it turns out, this "high place" is actually the High Place of Sacrifice, which is a real historical place that has a pretty basic name. From the peak, you have a panoramic view of Aaron's Tomb, a Bedouin village, and Wadi Musa, a village near Petra.

Rami, me, and Sami, our new Bedouin friends who accompanied us all the way to the High Place of Sacrifice
High Place of Sacrifice
Violet and I climbed back down the way we came to get Brittany and Mollie. We were hot, tired, and not really interested in seeing much more of Petra, so we walked back to the entrance. We called our cab driver from earlier who picked us up within a half hour. He drove us back to the hotel to pick up our bags. We were still planning to take the 5 pm bus to Amman when our driver told us he had a friend who was heading to Amman and was willing to take us for the same cost as the bus. Again, we found ourselves getting into a car with a stranger Jordanian man who was just a friend of a friend of a friend who we met via Couch Surfing. At this point, we had had access to wi-fi (and thus our phones/internet) for about 30 minutes since we had entered Jordan two days earlier. We hadn't had time to find a hostel and figured we would find one when we reached Amman.

Nevertheless, we put our bags in the back of the truck of a man who looked like a Jordanian cowboy. He didn't say much, wore cowboy boots, blue jeans, a crisp white button-down shirt, and a black cowboy hat. His facial hair looked as if it were painted on, as is the Jordanian custom. They know how to sculpt a beard, mustache, and side burns like no man I have ever seen before. We piled into the truck and saw the sticker across the top of his windshield, "Desert Wolf." We still did not know this man's name. So he was (and will forever be) known as Desert Wolf.

At this point, I invite you to listen to this song as you read this next section. As we drove to Amman, we did not listen to the traditional Arab music that we heard blasting from the speakers as we drove through the desert. Instead, our mystery man put on some American tunes, one of the first of which was the song that you should be listening to right now. I didn't really know the song, but Brittany sure did. She was singing like we were on a road trip in the States. After this song, we listened to a variety of American oldies (Hotel California), 80s power ballads, reggae, Adele, Nickelback, Alan Jackson, and even some Backstreet Boys. I didn't realize that I had to come to Jordan to feel like I was home.

Throughout our trip to Amman, we stopped twice, and our driver bought each of us cappuccino in a cup (like noodles in a cup, add water), which was the best coffee I've had since I left the States. He bought us bottles of water and even a box of Kleenex when we had runny noses. I haven't seen such matched hospitality since I left the South. Jordanians are beautiful people. Jordan is an absolutely beautiful place. In three days, I fell in love with the country and the people.

After about three hours, we reached Amman and stopped in the parking lot of a Burger King. I normally despise Burger King and don't eat there in the States. However, when you are presented with an opportunity to have American food, you don't say no, especially when cheeseburgers (non-kosher) are involved.

As we entered Amman, our driver asked us where we needed to go. We had kinda sorta looked up some places to stay but hadn't fully decided on one. This guy had even more tricks up his sleeve. He told us that he was staying in a cheap hotel for the night before he picked up a tour group from the airport and that we could get a room there. It was perfect. We went to the actually quite nice hotel and got a room that cost less than $15 USD per person. We were all able to shower for the first time in days. After I got out of the shower, I felt cleaner than I had in my whole life, but it's all relative.

We went downstairs after we had showered to find our Desert Wolf sitting in the lobby watching Sherlock Holmes. He said he was going to take us out to see the town. He drove us to a very modern, and American-looking restaurant called Books@Cafe. We sat and talked to Desert Wolf for a while. Then his friends/family showed up. You never know if people are related or just friends. As we were chatting, we learned that Desert Wolf did have a real name, Mahmoud, which kind of takes away from the mystery of his persona. However, it would have been weird for us to spend so much time with this guy and not know his name. We were exhausted and got Mahmoud to take us back to the hotel at around 12:30.

The next morning we got up and caught a cab to take us to the border crossing by 8:00 am. We were in the first group to get there. You have to take a bus from the Jordanian to the Israeli terminal, and we were on the first bus. We assumed that meant we would get through the border fairly quickly. However, when we arrived at the Israeli terminal, we saw a long line of Muslims already ahead of us. We still don't know how or why that happened, but we eventually got through. The King Hussein/Allenby Bridge crossing is only for Palestinians and foreign passports. No one with an Israeli passport can enter Israel there because it actually crosses into the West Bank. All of the signs were in Arabic and Hebrew so we had no idea how to navigate through the terminal. Eventually we crossed and took a sheirut (van taxi) back to Jerusalem where we were able to catch the light rail home.

And thus ends the adventure that was our Shavuot vacation. It was a life-changing adventure that I will never forget. Together we made many memories that only we will share and experiences that will connect us forever. It was an amazing way to lead up to the end of my time in the Middle East.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Weeks 7-9: Walking All Over God's Green (or Brown) Israel!

(Chag Pesach Sameach, Happy Passover Holiday) חג פסח שמח
Happy Holy Week and Easter, y'all!

So it has been about 2 weeks since my last post. I am now on Spring (or Passover, or Pesach, or פסח) Break. I have 2 weeks off of class, and am really enjoying the break. Having to get up for Hebrew at 8:30 three days a week is not so fun.

Since I last updated this blog, I have had quite a few educational adventures. Last Thursday, March 14, I went with my Christianity and Judaism in Late Antiquity class on a field trip to the Old City. We first went to the Coptic Orthodox Church, which is located above the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We took a side staircase up to the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and walked past the Coptic monastery, through two chapels, and into a gathering room. As we walked into the room, one of my friends and classmates whispered to me, "Look at the idols." He comes from a non-denominational church, and I from a Protestant (Presbyterian) background. It's true. The room was full of ornate decorations, from the chairs, to the prayer stations in front of each chair, to the throne and canopy that sat at the head of the room. The most obvious of "idols" were the many pictures around the room of anyone from Jesus, to Mary, to the Archbishop himself. In fact, in one of the enclaves of pictures, the Archbishop's picture was in the center with a picture of Christ to our left (his right in the picture). He talked to us about the beginning of the Coptic Church and its separation from the Western Church in the 4th century CE, which was basically what we had learned from our readings in class. It was very interesting to hear it from the mouth of a practicing believer today, though. All of us in the class come from the West, whether we are Jewish or Christian. I'm not sure if you've noticed, but the West doesn't talk about Eastern Christianity. Anything besides Protestants and Roman Catholic (with maybe a tad bit of Greek Orthodox) is off-limits. So even though most of us know at least a little something about Christian history, it is amazing to see how the religion developed in the East into something that is so different yet still similar to Western Christianity.

The Coptic Archbishop in the center with Jesus Christ on his righthand side

After the Coptic Church, we headed to the Syrian Church, which is also located in the Old City. We met with a priest of the church in another gathering room. This room also had many different embellished chairs. We later learned that the throne in the middle was for the Archbishop to sit in only during the ceremony establishing him as the Archbishop. For the remainder of the time, the throne remains empty to symbolize the presence of Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit, or maybe even Elijah in meetings of the patriarchate. Only when the Archbishop dies is the chair used again in a practical manner. The Archbishop is buried in or with his chair. Then, a new chair is made specially for the new Archbishop. The priest told us about the origins of the Syrian Church and how it also developed from the split between the Eastern and Western churches in the 4th century CE. Both of these churches shed some light onto Christian traditions that I had never learned about or experienced before this time.

Our field trip ended at noon, but I wasn't in the mood to return to the Kfar quite yet. As I walked toward the gate, I ran into the pastor at the Church of the Redeemer whom I had met the Sunday before on my first visit to the church. Once we had finished chatting, my class was nowhere to be seen. I knew I was on my own and that I had some errands I needed to run in town before I went home so being alone was okay with me. I walked to Ben Yehuda, which is one of the main commercial streets in Jerusalem. I needed more Kleenex because my runny nose had depleted my supply and showed no signs of stopping any time soon (It still hasn't figured out how to turn itself off, unfortunately.).

About a month ago, Luis, who was one of the guides on my trip to Nicaragua last April messaged me on Facebook. He is Jewish and asked me to say a prayer for him at the Kotel and to send a Star of David necklace to him. I figured this would be the perfect opportunity for me to do this. I walked back to the Old City and bought the necklace. I had no schedule constraints so I decided to wander through the Old City as I made my way to the Kotel. I ended up getting lost (which is not difficult) and found myself in the Muslim Quarter. Whenever I had visited the Old City before, I had mainly been with Jews who were uncomfortable venturing into the Muslim Quarter. I had never been fully in the Muslim Quarter, nor did I know where Damascus Gate was (which is the entrance to the Old City that leads directly to the Muslim Quarter).

I wandered around in circles about three times in the Quarter where everything was in Arabic. I know absolutely no Arabic so it's almost like being in another foreign country. For the first time, I actually felt like a traveler, as opposed to a tourist. I was experiencing this place all on my own without having anyone else bias my perception of this place and the people. It was exhilarating. I was just exploring this new place with nowhere to be and nothing to do. I did a few random acts of kindness to people I saw who needed assistance. I joked with the salesmen who wanted me to stop in their stores. I chatted with some Arab children who wanted to practice their English.

However, it was not all fun and games. I'm not sure if I was actually in the Muslim Quarter when I saw a man dressed in a traditional Muslim robe. Literally every person he walked past heckled him in some way. I saw young shop owners spit in his face. I saw men walking by him touch his chest. I saw children chase after him just to bother him. At one point, he walked into a side shop and talked to the owner and some children who were there. I couldn't tell if he was joking with them or angrily complaining to them. The children started to follow him, and he quickly turned around as if to chase them so that they would leave him alone. Unfortunately, I believe I witnessed explicit racism and unjust treatment of an Arab Muslim by Jews in the Old City. Absolutely no one deserves to be treated this way. The only reason this man received this kind of attention was because of his dress that identified him as a Muslim. It is sickening to me how someone's attire can dictate the attention they receive.

Eventually, I found my way back to the Kotel, where I prayed for Luis and wrote my own prayers for my family and friends. My plan after that was to go back to Damascus Gate and take the light rail back to the Kfar. After getting turned around another three times, I finally found Damascus Gate again. I tried to find the light rail station that I knew was right near the gate. I turned right out of the gate and followed the light rail track. After walking for quite some time, I thought that maybe the track went into the nearby neighborhood like the stop at Jaffa Gate turned onto a different street (even though I should have remembered that Damascus Gate light rail stop is directly in front of the walls of the Old City). I turned into the neighborhood and kept walking. I managed to get myself very lost at this point. Again, I was surrounded by nothing but Arabic. I realized I was a woman completely alone in a brand new place that I didn't know, and no one knew where I was. I feel comfortable in the Old City, no matter where I am. I think that simply knowing that the Old City is confined within walls and that many major holy sites exist within the walls leads to this sense of security. In this open Arab neighborhood, I felt a sense of unease and slight anxiety about my situation. My thought was that if I just keep walking, eventually I will find either a light rail station or a neighborhood I am more familiar with.

It took a very long while for this to work out for me. In the meantime, I took various turns and found myself on smaller, residential roads. I noticed as I walked the differences in the conditions of the streets and utilities in more Jewish neighborhoods and this Arab neighborhood. The main streets had crosswalks but didn't have the lighted signs that told you when to cross in correspondence with the traffic lights. When I would have expected about two or three light rail stops in the distance that I walked, I found none. The bus stops were only for Arab buses, not the Israeli Egged bus line. All over the streets of Jerusalem is trash, particularly broken glass. In this neighborhood, though, I saw corners and lots that were simply dumping grounds. As I walked past a Muslim school, I watched a boy climb out of a rusty dumpster that had holes in the lid from where it had been set on fire before. It became obvious to me the difference in allocation of resources between the Arab and Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem.

As I kept walking, I passed the French Institute, the East Jerusalem Baptist Church, the Seventh Day Adventist Community Center, and the Jerusalem District Court. I was about done with this adventure (by this time I had been walking 6 hours since I had left for the field trip at 8:30 am) when I spotted St. George's Cathedral. I recognized this name as one that Douglas Dicks sent me in the list of churches I should check out in Jerusalem. Being the carefree adventurer that I am, I decided to wander into the church. It was a guest house, a school, and an Episcopal Church all on one campus. The property was incredibly open and easily accessible. I wandered to the sanctuary and all the way through the beautiful garden on campus without ever being questioned. Once I had finished exploring the beautiful scenery, I decided to stop by the office. What's better than doing some real life social networking in the Holy Land when you're living as a minority? Nothing. I wandered into the office looking for the pastor. Apparently 2:30 pm on a Thursday is "late in the day" because the secretary informed me that he had gone home for the weekend. I could come back on Monday or call/email him (she gave me his contact info).

Even though I wasn't able to connect with any clergy, that visit was still a success. As I left the church, I saw the Leonardo Hotel that I recognized from my travels on the light rail. I knew that if I walked toward the hotel, I would find a light rail station. Once I got to the light rail, I realized that I had meandered to one stop closer to home. I got back to the Kfar only to realize that I had lost my keys to my apartment, room, and mail box at some point during this excursion. Luckily, I was able to replace them that afternoon for a nominal fee.

On Friday, March 15, I went with Julia and Brittany to Herzliya to celebrate my roommate Shira's birthday. It was a perfectly relaxing day on the beach in Herzliya. I'm becoming a huge fan of naps on the beach and chill day trips to the beach. Even though the sky was gray, it was still warm enough to validate the trip.

Saturday, March 16, I had the opportunity to view a screening of Five Broken Cameras at the French Institute in the same Arab neighborhood that I had wandered into on Thursday. (Click here to watch Five Broken Cameras online for free.) Every room was packed. By the time we got there, it was standing (or sitting on the floor) room only. Five Broken Cameras is a documentary by a Palestinian man, Emad Burnat, who lives in the West Bank village of Bil'in. All of the footage comes from the five different cameras that Emad has used since 2005. He documents every non-violent demonstration that the village participates in at the separation barrier after the Friday prayers. The story follows the childhood of Emad's youngest son, Gibreel, as he grows up in the occupied West Bank. Although, I know that the movie presents a very specific perspective to the conflict, there are certain pieces of footage that cannot be faked. For example, Emad films his brother getting arrested by the IDF at a demonstration. His brother is in handcuffs and blindfolded near an IDF armored truck. A soldier takes his gun and shoots Emad's brother in both knees. No matter what Emad's brother may or may not have done to warrant his arrest, this was a completely unprovoked action.

After the screening, we had the opportunity to have a Skype call with the Palestinian director, Emad Burnat, himself. Even though the call quality was not good and his accent was difficult to understand in a crowded room, it was interesting to hear him talk about this movie and his life. He told us a story about how he was supposed to go to an awards ceremony in the States, but he and all of his family received extra questioning and searching upon their arrival to the airport in the US.

Once the Q&A session was over, a group of 16 students from Rothberg went to a coffee shop in the area. We pushed four tables together and had a great processing discussion about what we had just seen. We had many different perspectives and opinions represented around the table. We established a very mature set of guidelines to facilitate the discussion. It's like we were adults having a mature discussion about an issue that is important to all of us, and we could respect each others' viewpoints without getting offended or defensive. Huh, that's weird. I didn't think that could happen. But actually, it was really nice to be accountable to each other and to make sure that we didn't interrupt each other, as can happen so easily in everyday conversation, as well as important discussions (read: peace negotiations).

Even though everyone took something different from the film, it was really interesting to hear the different perspectives and reactions each person had. One of my friends saw it as a ploy similar to the Kony 2012 campaign that became really popular for about a month last year. If you humanize children and show the film to an American and European audience, they are more likely to sympathize with your cause and donate money...for the children. All of us struggled with the direct exposure of the children to the conflict as was depicted in the documentary. The conversation then moved to questions of agency within the IDF. How much do the soldiers get to decide their own actions and how much is simply following orders? Most members of the IDF have come through the Israeli education system (which is anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian) and join the IDF before they have had any college education. The soldiers are my age. For me, it is nearly impossible for me to imagine having that kind of power (or lack thereof) at that age. I have learned so much in the past three years of college, but none of that has come from direct exposure to a military conflict and my participation in it. Just think about it. On both sides of the conflict, young kids who haven't even reached their full development are the ones on the ground dealing with the conflict.

As a poverty minor, I have learned a lot about poverty in the US (causes, interventions, systematic exacerbation, etc.). I have also observed poverty in Nicaragua when I spent a month traveling around the country and taking a class. One of the key buzzwords when talking about poverty is upward mobility, or the ability one has to improve one's socioeconomic status or standard of living. From watching Five Broken Cameras, I didn't see much opportunity for upward mobility. Emad's children have been born into the conflict. That permeates their lives as an ever-present white elephant that they just live with. I could not see any real hope or opportunity they have in the West Bank (although, I am fully aware that in no way, shape, or form did the documentary show all aspects of life in the West Bank). Emad's family lives by working the land and harvesting the olive trees each year. Some of the olive trees must be removed in order for the construction of the separation barrier. Some olive trees are burned by settler violence. If this is what Emad's family knows and loves doing, then more power to them. However, the destruction of the land takes away their way of life. If they don't have that, then what are they left with? What legacy can Emad leave for his children? I am amazed by the hope that the Palestinian people show amidst a seemingly hopeless situation. No matter how dismal their situation appears to be, the people of Bil'in maintain their commitment to non-violent resistance each week.

Last week, there was a music festival called Music in the Old City. On Tuesday (3/19), I went with Mollie, Brittany, Julia, and Melissa, Julia's sister who was visiting. Basically there were different stages with two or three different groups that rotated 6-11 pm Tuesday-Thursday night all around the Old City. Everywhere you walked, you could hear all kinds of music. The first stage we came to was a Jewish gospel choir from Africa. We heard the last three songs of their set which were a Hebrew spiritual, Akon's "Right Now (Na Na Na)," and Santana's "Why Don't You and I." It was an amazing eclectic set of music, to say the least. As we walked through the city, we found Arab, klezmer, Turkish, traditional Israeli reggae, and a combination of all sorts of Middle Eastern flavors of music. We enjoyed it so much that we came back again on Wednesday night to celebrate the beginning of Pesach Break. In the Christian Quarter, we found a soul band and Carmi Shimron who sang "Georgia" during her set. I was convinced I was back home when I heard her start to sing it. As we were leaving the festival, I was struck by how similar this festival was to Come-See-Me in Rock Hill. It's crazy to think that one of the holiest cities in the world has families and community events just like my hometown.

Thursday (3/21), I got up bright and early for our 4-day Yam le Yam (Sea to Sea) trip across the country from the Mediterranean Sea to the Sea of Galilee (Or Kineret). Typically, you would hike the entire way on different trails from the Mediterranean to the Kineret. Because this was a school trip with about 80 people doing the hike, we would do a hike for part of the day and then drive to our hostel for the night. We drove to Achziv Beach in the North to truly start at the Mediterranean. Then we drove to the Nahal Kziv hike. It was beautiful. We saw an old Crusader castle at the beginning of the hike in Montfort, hiked down to the river bed, and crossed the river many times as the trail wound through the valley. The end of the hike was basically scaling the mountain as it felt like we were going straight up the whole time. This was my first time going to the North, and I didn't know that Israel had such lush vegetation in its landscape. I have only really seen the desert in the South and from a distance in Jerusalem. The mountains in the North remind me of a place I like to call home: Appalachia. Growing up going to Montreat, going to school in southwest Virginia, and volunteering in eastern Kentucky means that I have spent a significant amount of life in the Appalachian mountains. They are beautiful and close to my heart. As we hiked through the mountains, I felt transported 7,000 miles away to where my heart lives.

The Crusader castle at Montfort

When we had all finished the hike, we drove to Akko, where we would stay in a hostel for the night. Thursday night, we took a tour of the town of Akko, which is primarily Arab. We saw the main mosque in the town and walked to the marina. Across the Mediterranean, we could see Haifa.

The next morning, we went to Mount Maron, the second highest peak in Israel. We started about halfway up the mountain so the ascent wasn't too bad. This hike was beautiful and full of vegetation but felt more like a shepherd's pasture than the first day's hike. At the various lookouts, we could see the many villages below the mountain. At some places, we could even see the mountains of Lebanon! I'm still amazed by how small this country is compared to the US and its high visibility on the peaks of mountains.

We then drove to the village of Peki'in, which is a bit off of the trail of Yam le Yam, to celebrate Shabbat. Saturday morning, we went on a walking tour of Peki'in. This village is fairly unique in Israel. 80% of the inhabitants are Druze, which is a secretive religion that branched off of Islam around the 11th-12th centuries CE. Its esoteric nature is probably the reason you've never heard of it before. Even secular Druze don't know anything about the religion. If you're religious, you must lead a religious lifestyle, and you get to know all of the secrets. If you aren't, well then you're not in the cool kids club. 18% of Peki'in's residents are Arab/Muslim, and the remaining 2% are Christian. Now you may be asking yourselves, "Isn't Israel a Jewish State? Where are the Jews in this village?" Jews have lived in this village as early as the Second Temple Period (just pre-Jesus time). Over time the families have left, and now there is only one elderly Jewish woman living in all of Peki'in. She is paid by the government to stay and operate the town's synagogue, but she would stay even if she weren't paid. A few years ago a group of Jewish settlers came into the town and displayed a banner proclaiming "Peki'in Forever." This really disturbed the delicate coexistence that has thrived in the village for many years. Although the settlers left and the situation has returned to its peaceful state, that instance has scarred the village. It is uncertain what will happen to the Synagogue after this woman dies. Will the government find someone else to carry on the Jewish tradition? So much of Jewish culture revolves around the family and the community. I couldn't even begin to fathom how lonely it would be to spend every Shabbat dinner alone in your home. Either way, once this woman dies, it will be a very delicate process to decide who will live in Peki'in to take over the synagogue.

After visiting the synagogue, we walked further up the mountain to Cave of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, which is supposedly where the Zohar, a book central to Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), was written. You can read the story in the picture below.

The description of the cave where the Zohar was supposedly written
The Cave of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai

After seeing the cave, we continued up to a lookout of the city and the entire surrounding valley. At the top was a map of the town that highlighted 7 tourist sites to visit from the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Druse faiths. Interestingly enough, we only visited the two Jewish sites on the map. I understand that the two Greek Orthodox churches in Peki'in aren't really super significant to the Christian tradition or built on historic sites. However, Hebrew University's Office of Student Activities (OSA) has a history of demonstrating bias toward the Jewish faith at the expense of others. I fully understand that the vast majority of people in my program are Jewish, and that's fine. It's just that when you claim to want to attract more students to your program, you should provide opportunities for them to experience their culture in the Holy Land. For example, there are countless ways to get set up with an Israeli family for Shabbat dinners. That's fine. There are plenty of extracurricular activities involving the various colors of Jewish studying, but only the one Christian group that I found earlier in the semester. Additionally, I believe they should offer more extracurricular religious opportunities for the many Muslims on campus (just in case people thought I was whining because I'm in the minority).

People who come here to learn about the conflict can learn about it in the classroom, but it's more difficult to experience both sides in their respective contexts. We have been warned not to cross the green line into the West Bank (even though it is a 15 minute drive away from campus), and our health insurance through the school does not cover anything that may occur in occupied territories. (Don't worry. I'm covered by literally 4 other types of insurance.) On OSA trips (such as Yam le Yam) we have to drive all the way around the West Bank because the school won't allow us to be there. I could understand this if the Israeli bus line Egged didn't travel through the West Bank to get to destinations.

I have read many a not-so-pro-Israel articles that claim that Israelis only acknowledge sites and events that are important to Jewish history, while ignoring the centuries of culture and history that occurred on this land between the first centuries CE and the establishment of the Israel in 1948. I don't believe that it is right for anyone to say that any one culture is better or more important than another, especially when it comes to preserving the history and retelling future generations of a culture.

However, I realize that this is probably just a really liberal, post-modern, hippie-esque, pluralistic view that I have. After struggling with this issue for about a week, I came to realize the opposition to my argument. Throughout the history of this land, I bet the ruling parties didn't care about what had come before. The Byzantines didn't care about the Israelite Period. The same goes for the Muslim Period and the Ottoman Empire. History repeats itself, and the victors are the ones who own history. It just so happens that we are in the times of Israel as a Jewish State. All of the streets in every major city have the same names of important founders in Zionism (Yafo, Ben Yehuda, Allenby, Rothschild, Ben Gurion, etc.). However, my point remains that we should respect the history and cultures of this land's past. Humanity has advanced ideologically, technologically, and economically. We are changing. So why not change?

Back to Yam le Yam after that slight intellectual detour. After the walking tour of Peki'in, we returned to the hostel for a restful day of Shabbat. After Shabbat ended, we drove out to a campground where we would cook our dinner (yes, all 80 of us). Different groups made different dishes, such as salat (salad, which is not just tossed or chef. Israelis actually don't really use lettuce in their salads, but they love putting just about any other vegetable with the staple diced tomatoes and cucumbers.), side dishes, homemade pita, and, my personal favorite, poyke pot. I was on the poyke pot crew. We cut up vegetables of all kinds, potatoes, and beef. Then we threw it all into a pot with seasonings of all kinds. It was basically an Israeli dutch oven style of cooking. The pot sat in the fire for 1-1 1/2 hours with various seasonings added periodically to make a scrumptious stew. Once everything was cooked, we all dug in to all of the delicious dishes each group prepared. In my humble opinion, ours was the best, hands down. After the satisfying meal, we returned to the hostel for our last night.

The best poyke pot

On day four of Yam le Yam, we drove to this field off the highway. It looked and felt like an actual shepherd's field. We actually had to strategically maneuver around gates and fences that were supposed to keep cattle, sheep, or goats in the pasture. The trail eventually led to a wadi (dried-out river bed) called Nahal Amud. During the rainy season, the river bed fills with water. The pastures gave way to steep cliffs with many caves on both sides. It's fascinating how the Israeli geography and landscapes change so quickly. At the end of our hike, we came to the namesake of the stream, the amud.

The amud (pillar) of Nahal Amud
After we finished hiking, we took the bus to Bora Bora Beach on the Sea of Galilee. We were all able to hang out by the beach and enjoy the sun (and extremely cold water) after our four-day kinda sorta hike (more like walk). It was a great way to spend Palm Sunday even if I couldn't go to a Palm Sunday service.

The Sea of Galilee from Bora Bora Beach

So I know I haven't updated to right now. It has taken me a week to finish all of this, and I just want to publish it! Also, this would be about twice as long if I included this past week in this post. Basically, my point is, look out for the Holy Week post sometime soon!