Tuesday, September 2, 2008

So long, farewell ...

Well, I'm just about ready to leave for my mission. I have about an hour before we are going to the airport and I am still taking care of last minute things - thats just the kind of person I am I guess. I fly into Salt Lake City tonight and then tomorrow I will be reporting to the MTC (Missionary Training Center). I will be there for approximately one month and then I will be shipped off to Temple Square. I'm very excited for this opportunity to serve the Lord and teach people a little bit about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I won't be able to access my blog personally, but I plan on sending a few "updates" which my mom will post for me, so check back every month of so if you like.

Thanks for reading the blog!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Lions and hippos and bears ... oh my!

As it turns out, you don't need to travel to Africa to have wild animals in your backyard. Last week we had a mamma bear and her two cubs pay our backyard a visit. Unfortunately I didn't actually get to see them. We only found out the next day when one of our tenants (who live in the basement suite which is accessed through our backyard) told my dad. It made more sense then why they had been banging pots loudly at eleven o'clock at night when I was trying to go to bed. I guess it was their barbeque that attracted the bears in the first place, but they successfully chased the bears away.

The only evidence that we had bears is a claw mark they left in the plastic foam that covers the legs of our trampeline. So maybe it wasn't the barbeque, but the trampeline that lured those little baby bears over the fence! But seriously, it's not really a good thing to have bears frequenting your backyard. If they've come once, they are likely to come again and can be rather dangerous. Just within the last few weeks there have been some bad bear attacks in the area; one lady was attacked in the middle of the day with she was gardening and barely made it out alive.

Last summer I had a bear encounter of my own when I was going for a morning run. I guess I must have been "in the zone" because I was listening to music and looking straight ahead when I found myself just across the cul de sac from a big black bear. The bear, who was standing up tall eating from a garbage can, had had the advantage of watching me run up the road. When I noticed him, he was looking right at me. I had never really been scared of bears before. Usually when I saw them I was in a car, or at least at a safe distance away. But this was too real and I was terrified. At first I was frozen not knowing what to do and we stood there looking at each other, but when his ears twitched I decided very quickly what to do. I turned round and ran as I have never run before not stopping until I made it back to my house. That's not true. I stopped once at the bottom of the street to inform an Asian lady of the bear up the road. I hope she understood me; I don't know how much English she spoke.

Later on when I told people what had happened someone said, "but you aren't supposed to run away from a black bear are you?" I looked it up and found that if you happen to encounter a black bear, the best thing to do is play dead. To be honest, I acted on instinct and the thought never crossed my mind. But who in their right mind is going to lie down and play dead in a situation like that? I guess I'm just lucky that the bear didn't decide to run after me, because I don't pretend to believe that I could have outrun him.

Anyway, enough on Canadian wildlife. The real reason I am blogging is to post a video my brother took of the wild African lion we saw eating a Kudu, so enjoy!

P.S. I have also added links to my newest facebook photo albums.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Plastic-wrapped suitcases

Probably the main thing that stuck out to my family during our visit to South Africa was the increase in security. Safety was already a concern when we lived there; burglar bars and security gates covering our windows and doors were a normal part of my childhood, as were the big walls that surrounded people’s homes.

Even though we’d heard reports of how it had only gotten worse, it was still a bit of a shock coming from Canada to see all the precautions that need to be taken to stay safe. For example, almost every home or property is surrounded by an electric fence. At the shopping centres there are guys who are employed to stand in the parking lot and watch the cars. Because they each have their own area to protect, they eagerly direct you to a parking stall when you arrive and then direct you as you back out in hopes of a good tip. And along the highway there are even signs that indicate where the “High jacking hotspots” are. (We had to take drive-by photos of these because of course it would have been unwise to stop there even for the sake of a picture.) Almost everyone has a story of how they were hi-jacked, robbed or held at gunpoint but in spite of this, people adapt and life goes on.

Luckily we came home with only one safety related story and it is a humorous one. At the airport in Johannesburg it has become a “trend” to have your suitcase plastic wrapped to ensure that the items in your suitcase are intact when you collect them at your destination. Before checking in your luggage you visit a wrapping station where you can have your luggage secured at 35 Rand (approximately five dollars) per case.

Unfortunately, on the evening we flew out, the only machines that were working were operated by a particular airline and were for their customers only. After asking a few people if they couldn’t help us anyway, one “wrapper” beckoned for us to follow him. When we were a little way off, he explained he could help us (at 30 Rand per case) but he could only take one suitcase at a time so that he wouldn’t be caught. This airline, you see, offered this service to their customers free of charge, and by doing us this favour he would be earning some pocket money. (His money-making scheme was not unique – all of his co-workers were making similar deals with other people and were trying not to get caught themselves.)

We agreed to the deal, but said that one person needed to come with him to make sure he didn’t walk off with the suitcase. He refused because he didn’t want to get caught and lose his job, however, my Uncle Mark quietly walked to a place where he could keep an eye on our new friend, so we agreed to his terms. Just before he walked away with the first suitcase he said, “Ok, just pretend you’re sitting around or something.” I thought this was quite funny because we were a very large group and therefore we were very conspicuous.

After wrapping each suitcase he tried to be very stealth; he would walk by wheeling the wrapped suitcase and without looking at us, he would leave it in front of us. A few feet further he would turn around and walk back, and as he passed I would have the next case waiting in his path so that he could grab the handle and take it without stopping.

When four of our six bags were wrapped he wanted my Dad to pay him, but we said no, we would pay him when he had finished the last two. He wasn’t happy about that – he wanted to make sure that if he got caught he would still get the money for his efforts. We agreed to pay him part of the sum when all of a sudden he walked off. At first we just thought he was trying another decoy (earlier he had taken one of the bags up to the check-in counter before bringing it back to the machine to try and look less-suspicious), but when he didn’t come back we started to get confused. After a few minutes I looked up and saw him beckoning to us from behind a column a few feet away. Thinking he wanted his half-payment, my brother went to give him the money. But when Kent got there, the guy, obviously distressed, asked him, “Who’s that man?” Kent didn’t know which man he was talking about. “Who’s that man over there?” When Kent realized he was talking about my uncle it took a while to convince him that he was family. He must have seen my Uncle Mark watching him, and he had assumed that Mark was his boss and he was going to get fired.

In the end, we got all six suitcases wrapped, he got his money and I assume he kept his job, and I must admit I was very amused by the whole thing. Not only did no one steal anything from our suitcases but we were able to easily recognize our bags in Detroit and Seattle as they came round the conveyor belt. For some reason no one else had plastic wrapped their bags. And our shuttle driver was quite disgusted that the airline had managed to destroy all of our bags until I explained to him that the bags were fine – we had just flown from South Africa.

Protective electric fences surround most properties.

This photo speaks for itself.

Negotiating with the plastic wrapper at the airport.

The result - my securely wrapped suitcase.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Beware of Hippos

After fourteen years and three months (and two very long plane rides) I am finally in my homeland of South Africa again. When we first arrived almost two weeks ago, I found things to be familiar yet foreign if it is possible to be both at the same. Now I am getting quite used to being back, although naturally there are many changes both in myself and in the country after such a long absence. For one thing, I’ve discovered how thoroughly Canadianized I am -- asking for ketchup instead of tomato sauce or fries instead of chips, pronouncing my “R’s” like a North American, and having to get used to driving on the “wrong” side of the road. But it’s been such fun becoming reacquainted with family I haven’t seen for more than half my life (which is a little surreal actually) and we’ve also made sure to have a true African experience.

We spent our first week in Hazy View, which is right near the Kruger National Park. We took one day to visit the park and while driving in our car we spotted all sort of animals including rhinos, giraffes, warthogs, and elephants right up close to our car. But we soon found we didn’t even have to visit the Kruger Park to see some animals. We were very amused at some of the warning signs posted around our resort warning us not to swim in the river due to the presence of hippos and crocodile and warning us that a fed money was a dead monkey. Our chalet backed right onto the river and although we were never fortunate to have any monkey visits, we did have some hippos grazing in our backyard after dark. I’m not even joking -- I watched from our patio while a hippo only a few feet away nibbled on the grass. It was quite remarkable. With that said, I was a little nervous to wander along the banks of the river in the day time because a hippo could easily nibble a person in half.

That was not the end of our adventures with animals. One afternoon we went out to Thorny Bush, a private game reserve, and went on a three and a half our safari ride from 3 - 6:30 p.m. Half the fun was riding in the open air Landrover over bumpy dirt roads and through the bush. I had to dodge all sorts of thorn trees and low hanging branches or I might have been knocked out several times. As it was I got stabbed by several thorns and today while I was hanging some clothes to dry I discovered holes in the shirt I was wearing. But I suppose it was worth it because our guide successfully tracked four of the Big Five, though at first I was sceptical. After fifty minutes we had only seen a handful of buck, a pocketful of monkeys, and a whole lot of very large animal droppings. But eventually we found the animals.

One of the highlights was driving slowly right into the middle of a herd of elephant. The elephants were quite comfortable with us and the one kindly showered us with dust as she was cooling herself off nearby. We even got to see her baby suckling. Then just as the sun was setting we watched a white rhino with her two children -- it doesn’t get more African than that. The last animals we saw were three lionesses who were feeding in shifts on a Kudu that they had evidentally just killed. That was pretty amazing as well -- we were only a few feet away! I could even hear the sound of flesh tearing as she ate from the carcass. I admit I felt a little nervous when she paused and looked straight at me because there was really nothing in between myself and a wild lioness. Anyway, watching her I partly lost my appetite, but at the same time I realized I was very hungry as well. By then it was dark and our safari was almost over. When we got back to our own car, our own animal instincts took over and we quickly devoured the rest of our Biltong (South African dried meat).

We are currently at the coast staying at Umhlanga having our relaxing African seaside experience. I have lots of photos which I will post as soon as possible -- unfortunately internet access is limited.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Please Mr. Postman

Well, the big white envelope finally came, but not without teaching me a little patience. I had calculated approximately how long the mail would take from Salt Lake and I started checking on Monday. I wasn’t too put off when I found nothing there; after all I wasn’t sure exactly what day it had been sent. On Tuesday, I didn’t even bother checking since it was Canada Day and I knew the mailman (or woman) had the day off to engage in patriotic activities. I took Wednesday’s empty mailbox in stride, but by Thursday when there was no sign of the letter I looked for I started to feel, I admit, a little impatient.

In the end, Friday turned out to be a happy Fourth of July, though thoughts of American Independence never crossed my mind. The evening before my dad decided that my mom had better luck and so I should let her check the mailbox. Call it childish, but I wanted to be the one to collect the mail when my call came and so I refused. In the end, my mom secretly checked anyway and then came back to tell me (while jumping up and down) that I should probably check the mail. Whether or not my mom is really good luck, I can’t say, but my call was certainly there waiting for me.

The family quickly assembled (my dad came home from work especially) and I reached my moment of truth. I opened the envelope and found that I have been called to serve as a representative of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Utah Salt Lake City Temple Square Mission. Naturally, I will accept.

My assignment, although I had joked about it, was a little unexpected. I lived very close to Temple Square and worked in the Church Office Building in 2006 when I did my internship with the New Era, and so I am surprised to be going back. Surprised, but very excited. Salt Lake City is not an exotic land, but the Temple Square mission is unique in that I will be able to share my testimony of the gospel with visitors from all over the world, and I can’t wait. I’ve posted a link (below) to an Ensign article about the Temple Square mission that my friend Andy wrote in case any one is interested in reading it.

Finally, I’m sure that everyone is as excited that I will be able to use my hair straightener as I am. (See previous post)

"Tours and Testimonies" (July 2007 Ensign)

Could today be the day?!

Yes it could!

Oh the suspense ...

Too afraid to look!

"You are hereby called to the Salt Lake City Temple Square Mission ..."

Salt Lake Temple

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Where in the world?!

The most common question I get when I tell people that I’m going on a mission is, “So where would you like to go?” And my typical response (which I’m sure has been slightly frustrating to the inquirer) has been, “I can’t answer that question.” But let me explain:

When I decided to go on a mission, I knew that I had to be prepared to go anywhere. Those who know me understand that this meant being as willing to go to Nebraska, as I would be to hop on a plane bound for the deep jungles of darkest Africa. For others perhaps it is the other way around. A mission in essence is completely unselfish. Therefore I have tried to take my will out of the equation, and I can honestly say I am excited and ready to go wherever the Lord sends me.

With that said, I will answer the question as best as I can. I don’t have ONE particular place in mind, but I love being able to live in foreign places and immerse myself in new cultures (so far I’ve done that in Russia and Israel, besides South Africa, Canada and the USA, of course). Also, I have always wanted a second language and so a foreign speaking mission would be quite convenient. To be more specific, somewhere French or Russian speaking, since I’ve had a start in both languages. But, as I said, I am prepared to go to Nebraska and I believe that God has a sense of humour and so he may well send me there.

I’ve even compiled a list of reasons why I would be happy going Stateside. Here it is:

1. If I open my call and see that I’m going to Nebraska, then I’ll know that’s where the Lord wants me to be.

2. The voltage and plugs will be the same so I will be able to use my Chi hair straightener. (My friend Kristin pointed out that if I went to Russia, I would have poofy hair in all my photographs, which has happened before.)

3. I am quite comfortable using the English language (in fact my career of choice depends upon my ability to communicate in this particular language) and it would be an asset as a missionary to speak in my native tongue.

4. I guess one could argue that for a South African Canadian like myself, the US of A is in fact a foreign country. And depending on where I serve, I may very well have to learn “another language” and celebrate the diversity that is the United States. I have already had one person guess Alabama (though I won’t list his reason since this is a public domain and it wasn’t exactly PC).

5. The mail would be quicker and more reliable. You see, for the most part, snail mail is a missionary’s link to the outside world, and in places like Cambodia or Peru it could very likely take three to four weeks for a letter to arrive. I’ve also heard stories about missionaries arriving at the post office to pick up a package only to find the postal worker wearing their new shirt. (In one case it was a shirt from the missionary’s girlfriend and it had her photo on the front!)

This list is by no means complete. And in fact, if you have any other ideas to add to it, please leave me a comment! As far as a status update goes, according to the Internet my assignment has been made and is probably now in transit.

Example one of poofy hair in Russia.

Example two - proof that I need a hair straightener.

Example three.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Choosing my own adventure ... almost

When I was a kid, I used to love the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. My mom would read them to my brothers and me before bed, and we took turns “choosing.” If my brother chose poorly and died a gruesome death then it would be my turn to determine my fate through a series of 50/50 choices. The idea of being in control was, I think, very appealing to a kid who had little else to decide besides who to play with during the day and what game we should play (Ninja Turtles or school)?

However, as I grew and had to make decisions of more consequence, that series started to lose it’s appeal and I came to prefer a good old novel, which despite a few troubles along the way, generally ends in happiness for the main character. There lay the real appeal – knowing that after so many life-changing decisions things can turn all right, at least in fiction anyway.

I recently reached a four-way stop of sorts in my life. By returning from Jerusalem and graduating from BYU-Idaho, I had completed my five-year plan and had not yet planned beyond that. The obvious next step was to get a job, but even that presented me with many different options. Did I want to work at a newspaper or a magazine? Did I want to stay in Vancouver or try somewhere else in Canada, the US or Abu Dhabi (where they are apparently in need of journalists)?

And yet somewhere in the back of my mind, another option lingered – I could perhaps serve a mission. A mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lasts 18 months for women, during which time I would be a full-time representative of the Church. Specific assignments – that is where in the world I would be asked to serve – are made by inspiration.

So I had to decide: missionary or career woman? I thought about it and prayed about it for a while and finally reached the conclusion that I was trying to choose between two good decisions and that I had to choose one and act on it. Unlike a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, neither would lead to sudden death.

Finally, I have made a decision … come back next week to find out what it is! Just joking. I have chosen to serve a mission, but you really will have to come back later to find out where I’m going. My mission papers are currently in Salt Lake City for processing and when the assignment is made, I will receive a big white envelope in the mail telling me what that assignment is.

I feel very good about my latest “choice” and I am excited to find out where that choice will lead!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

An Epilogue to My Jerusalem Tales

I’ve been home from Jerusalem for exactly two weeks and five days now, and I don’t have a job yet. As a result, I have had plenty of time to reflect on my experience in the Holy Land. I have come to the conclusion that Dr. Seely, my Ancient Near Eastern Studies professor said it best. Wearing his Canterbury Tales tie on an Easter day in Jerusalem, he told us that pilgrimage is not so much about the destination as it is about the journey, the relationships you form and the people you meet along the way.

My journey certainly was a wonderful one, although in the end it was not my own, but a journey I shared with about 80 other people. We started out as complete strangers when we arrived at the airport in Salt Lake City, but somehow within our first few jetlagged, sleep deprived days we became bonded. And over the next few months exploring the Old City together, visiting the pyramids together, studying the scriptures on the shores of the Galilee together, and of course living together, we became more like a family than merely travel companions. (And I have a feeling we will be Facebook friends for life!)

But some of my favourite memories happened when other people’s pilgrimages intersected briefly with ours. (You see, in the Holy Land we like to call other visitors pilgrims rather than tourists.) For example, after waking up at 2 a.m. and hiking to the top of Mount Sinai to see the sunrise, we found we were not the only group seeking a mountaintop experience. As we sang the very appropriate hymn, “How Great Thou Art,” Korean pilgrims sang along in Korean and shared our absolutely spectacular view with us. And we had similar experiences with other people from other lands at other places.

Then of course there was Palm Sunday when we joined with Christians from all over the world and carried palm branches together from Bethphage to St. Annes, remembering Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem all those years ago. On that day, for a few hours, our journey ran parallel to theirs. It happened again on Easter morning when I sat with hundreds of other Christians near the Garden Tomb and sang “O Happy Day,” rejoicing with them that the tomb sat empty and sharing in the knowledge that Christ truly had risen from the dead.

Often we brushed shoulders with those of other faiths as well. Jerusalem is after all the Holy City for more than one religion. There were several Friday nights where we sang and danced with the Jews at the Western Wall to welcome in the Sabbath. I watched them bow towards the wall and touch it and kiss it and I could feel their faith. In the same spirit we had the chance to celebrate Passover and participate in a Seder meal, where we remembered the Exodus from Egypt and the covenant that Jehovah made with the ancient Israelites.

But we also listened five times a day to the Muslim call to prayer and walked with reverence on Al Haram Ash Shariff past the Dome of the Rock and the Aqsa Mosque. And we learned about the Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, and ate a Ramadan feast.

It was through these experiences with other people that my Jerusalem friends and I were able to better understand what it means to be Christ-like. Jordan put it into words when he said that with Christ it was also more about the journey than the destination. As we walked together in the Holy Land where Jesus walked, we learned together that it was more important to walk as Jesus walked, which in essence was taking the time to stop and show compassion to people along the way.

And so concludes my pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Thank you for indulging me by reading my stories and reflections. I hope that in a small way, you (whoever you are) were able to journey with me. Although, this is by no means the end of "Journeys With Jade."

Sunset by the Sea of Galilee.

Jumping for joy in the Mediterranean Sea.

Real Roman roads! (walking where Jesus walked)

Saturday, April 26, 2008

"Special discount for the Mormons"

Before we arrived in the Holy Land, we were given strict instructions not to talk about our church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) or to share our beliefs with those we came in contact with. This restriction is part of the agreement the Church has with the Israeli government – they allow us to have a presence in the Holy Land and to study there and we agree not to proselytize. Sometimes this has been difficult – we are after all encouraged to share our beliefs with people from a very young age – however it has taught me that often actions have power to stand alone.

The people in East Jerusalem certainly know who the Mormons are. I remember how strange it was the first day we walked through the Old City and the merchants greeted us happily with, “Ah, Mormons! Welcome! We give special price for the Mormons.” Granted they knew they could count on our money and so naturally they were happy to have the students back in town, but the fact is they can easily distinguish us from the mass of tourists that walk the streets of Jerusalem daily.

For example, there is Shabaan, a shopkeeper that specially caters to the Mormons by selling leather Jerusalem scripture cases and Hebrew CTR rings among the other general things people look to buy in the Holy Land. Whenever we stop by he quickly passes around plastic cups and pours us each some fruit juice. He told me once this is because he usually offers people tea or coffee, “but for the Mormons we give juice.”

One afternoon a group of us walked into his store and he turned to a customer (from the US) who he was chatting with and said, “These are the Mormons!” She laughed and said, “That’s because you knows them right?” And he said, “No no, we just know.”

After she left the store somewhat confused Shabaan told us about another instance where he surprised someone by being able to point out the Mormons. This person had seen a group of people walking and said, “Ah there are the Mormons.” But Shabaan knowing better had told him they weren’t Mormons. When the group of people approached, the man asked them if they were Mormons, and they said they were not (I wish I could have seen their reaction to such a random question). A few minutes later Shabaan pointed to a group and said those are the Mormons, and by the same test proved he was right. Shabaan then explained to us, “We can tell by your faces.”

On another occasion I had an experience that would make every missionary jealous – a man asked me for a copy of the Book of Mormon. Unfortunately I had to pass up this once in a blue moon moment.

It was a cold and somewhat rainy day in Jerusalem and I stepped into a little coffee shop and ordered some hot chocolate. While waiting for the shopkeeper to prepare it, chatted with a man who was sitting at another table. He asked if we were Mormons and then asked us if he could have a copy of our holy book. With much regret we had to tell him that we weren’t allowed to give him one. He kept pushing though and asked us why not. I tried to explain that we had promised the government that we wouldn’t and therefore we couldn’t share our book with him. People always have a hard time understanding why we are not allowed to talk about our church, and of course it is hard for us to refuse to share our beliefs especially when they try to coax us into disregarding the agreement, but as representatives of the Church we can’t afford to do so.

All we could do was apologize to the man in the coffee shop that day. As we got up to leave though, another man stopped us at the door and looking at the cup I held in my hand, he said, “I thought Mormons don’t drink coffee.” Luckily I was able to assure him it was hot chocolate. Here was proof that even though we couldn’t share a Book of Mormon, we could represent who we were by our actions because we were certainly being watched.

As of Thursday night, I am home in Canada with no more restrictions on what I say to people but already I miss the greetings like the one shopkeeper who sang to us as we walked by, “Hello Mormons, we support you, don’t forget us, I’m the man for you.”

This is Abdul - he owned the corner store down the street and was very nice to us Mormon students.

Shabaan owns the Ali Baba BYU Store in the Christian Quarter of the Old City.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

BYU-Jerusalem Students Go to Hell

I can officially say that I have been to hell and back. Ironically I met some of the kindest people in hell and it was a rather pleasant experience. But lest you start to worry about my eternal salvation, I ought to tell you that hell is a very real place in Jerusalem.

Just below Mount Scopus (where I live) lies the Kidron Valley, and if you follow it the Kidron Valley meets with the Hinnom Valley at the base of the City of David. Our English idea of hell corresponds to the word “Gehenna” which is the Greek equivalent of the “valley of Hinnom.” According to the LDS Bible Dictionary, the Hinnom Valley is “a deep glen of Jerusalem where the idolatrous Jews offered their children to Moloch” (a pagan god). Later this glen was used as a place for burning garbage and thus it became symbolical of torment. You probably have never considered where the term hell-fire came from, but now you know!

And so partly out of curiosity and largely to earn the bragging rights, I set out with eight friends on a journey to hell. As a side note, we thought it would be funny if we all wore the soccer jerseys we bought in Egypt and so we all matched and took some team photos along the way.

In the Holy Land, you cannot go anywhere without finding reminders of the past, and so as we walked through the Kidron Valley we stopped to explore some tombs that we found along the way including the tomb of Absolom (son of David). I always feel like Indiana Jones when I’m feeling my way through small dark space though I generally turn back when I start to feel cobwebs. (Don’t worry; these tombs are usually empty of their former inhabitants.) Juxtaposed with the tombs, there was also much to indicate that life goes on in the valley. Herds of goats grazed on the hillside while the goat herders reclined lazily in the shade watching them and further down the path kids played games near a corner store. And to complete the picture, a group of Americans (and two Canadians) wearing matching Egypt jerseys walked by snapping pictures as they went.

When we finally got to hell, which was surprisingly hard to find, we met a very nice Palestinian man named Ahmud. He asked us where we came from and told us a little bit about himself and then invited all nine of us to come to his house, which was across the street – keep in mind that most Palestinian homes are very modest in size. Outside his home, Ahmud introduced us to his grandkids and then showed us around his garden, breaking off shoots from one tree for us to take home, which he gave to us in a potted plant. Unfortunately his wife then came out with little cups of tea for us and we had to refuse and try to explain in broken English why we couldn’t accept it. They both looked a bit upset and he said that for an Arab it is forbidden to turn down something like that when you are at someone’s house. We tried to explain that we don’t drink tea for religious reasons and I hope that he understood.

He soon cheered up again and we sat on chairs outside his house and listened to him tell us about his family. He also told us why he did not like George Bush, which we tend to hear quite often. He also told us that the Arabs are good people and that their hearts are white and not black and asked us to tell people when we go home (and so I am telling you now). He also said the Jews are his brothers and that the conflict was originally because of outsiders interfering in the Middle East. Before we left we sang him a song and thanked him for inviting us to his home.

On our way home, we took a short cut through the Orson Hyde Garden on the Mount of Olives and then through a field above the garden. There under some trees we found a large group of Palestinians sitting on blankets having a picnic. They called us over and invited us to eat some meat as they asked us where we were from. We didn’t stay long but we did share some of their food and a few friendly words in broken English and a few hearty “thank you’s” in Arabic (it’s one of the only words I know).

It amazes me that these families would stop a group of strangers passing by and invite them to share their food. Granted we were wearing matching clothes and probably looked a bit unusual, but at home that would never happen. I have been very impressed at the generosity of the Palestinian people. They don’t have very much – Ahmud in his run down little house and the family with their blankets and old barbeque – but they are willing to give so much. I think that we, who have so much in comparison, have to learn to be more like these Palestinians who have a true sense of who their neighbours are. I hope that through our interactions with them, the people here in Israel will also sense our sincerety.

Overall, I think our PR tour for the Egyptian soccer team turned out to be largely successful.

P.S. I have added the links to my Facebook photo albums so that those without Facebook can view more of my photos. Just click on the album title and it should take you right there. One of them includes photos from my trip to Galilee. Enjoy!

The team next to Absolom's tomb.

Walking through the Kidron Valley.

Our new Palestinian friend Ahmud.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Easter in Jerusalem

Spring is finally here in Jerusalem and it is gorgeous! (Actually, the spring weather here is more like summer weather at home in Vancouver and so I am quite content). Yesterday halfway through our Ancient Near Eastern Studies class, our professor took us outside to the lawn overlooking the city and invited us to sit down and take in the view. While we sat on the grass among pretty purple and red poppies he told us how lucky we were to be here in Jerusalem during the springtime and for Easter. (Yesterday of course was Good Friday.)

Easter in Jerusalem is beautiful – the weather has warmed up and flowers are blooming. I can even smell that sweet smell of spring in the air that is like pressing your face up to a fresh bouquet of flowers.

While we were taking in the sights and sounds and smells, Professor Seeley reminded us how symbolic everything was. Spring is a time to celebrate life and so is the Easter holiday. Though at Easter we solemnly remember Christ’s sacrifice, we also rejoice in the resurrection and the knowledge that he lives, which is very easy to do when we are absolutely surrounded by new life.

And really this experience is not something that can be duplicated. For example, yesterday my friend pointed out to me that from where we stood outside, we had a view of Calvary (both possible spots actually) where at that very hour so many years ago, Christ would have hung on the cross. And to our left was the Garden of Gethsemane where Christ would have prayed the night before. It all took place right here! I still can hardly comprehend it.

Then at three o’clock yesterday as I was outside studying, the church bells began to ring loudly from the Augusta Victoria Tower behind our building, signalling the hour of Christ’s death. You know I didn’t get any chocolate this year or go on any Easter egg hunts, but experiencing this time of year in Jerusalem will make all my Easters to come far more meaningful.

Tomorrow we are going to wake up very early and make our way to the Garden Tomb so that we can participate in the sunrise service. After that we will be boarding a bus and heading off to Galilee for ten days. And so, with that, I should probably go to bed, but I hope that everyone reading this has a wonderful Easter!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Palm Sunday, and a little town called Bethlehem

On Sunday, I joined a Palm Sunday processional with Christian pilgrims from around the world. Together we walked from Bethphage to Jerusalem to commemorate Christ’s entry into the city the week before he was crucified. The weather was absolutely gorgeous and sunny – even hot – and as we gathered to start the processional Palestinians sold palm fronds to carry as we marched. Among our group at least, it became somewhat of a competition to see who could find the biggest branch. Mine was not very large, but it braided and crinkled, and I thought it looked unique.

There really were a lot of people, many of who had come to Jerusalem for Easter and to participate in the walk. It was fun to try and pick out as many languages as we could. I heard Russian, French, Polish, Spanish and English among others. Some groups wore bright yellow caps to recognize each other as many tour groups do, and others just blended in as we did. But no matter what language or denomination, it was special to be with thousands of people who have a similar belief in Christ.

The walk, which takes about half an hour under normal circumstances, probably took about two hours with the crowd. We walked down streets that were sometimes narrow and all I could see around me were people’s heads and palm branches – that’s the trouble with being short – however as we rounded a corner and the road sloped down I got a glimpse of the beautiful Dome of the Rock and the Old City as well as the throng of people snaking towards it.

The processional was definitely a joyful one, just as it would have been joyful when Christ rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and the people welcomed him as their Messiah. Our walk ended at Saint Anne’s church, which is along the Via Dolorosa and we mingled and danced to the live music that was being broadcast over loudspeakers. Someone described it as a Christian version of Woodstock, which I thought was rather accurate (minus the drugs of course). Nevertheless, my Palm Sunday experience in Jerusalem will be one that I will never forget.

After celebrating the last week of Christ’s life on Sunday, today we went back to the very beginning in Bethlehem. We weren’t sure at first if we would be allowed to go to the West Bank because there have been strikes in response to the four political leaders that were recently killed in Bethlehem, but security decided we would be safe.

We started by visiting Bethlehem University with our Modern Near Eastern Studies teacher, Professor Adnan Mussalam who works there. Bethlehem University is fairly small – just under three thousand students – but it is internationally accredited and serves both Muslims and Christians. My favourite part of our tour was a question and answer forum with four of the students. It was definitely eye opening to get their perspective and to hear what daily life is like in Palestine. For example, for those who have to commute from say, Hebron, it can take up to two hours with checkpoints, which are always unpredictable. Overall, though it was clear they have grown up under occupation, they say they have to be optimistic.

We then went over to Nativity Square where we visited the oldest standing church in the Holy Land, built in the traditional spot of the grotto or stable where Christ was born. To be honest, at first I was a little bit disappointed. The church is very orthodox in style and when we went down to the grotto I felt nothing. They mark the spot where Christ was born and where the manger was but I couldn’t help but feel sceptical that that was the place. On the other side of the church is another small cave that felt a little more authentic and we had a chance to sing a few hymns – Christmas carols actually – and that made it a little bit better. I had also passed a mass and heard the congregation singing hymns, and I realized that it wasn’t so much about where the exact spot was where Christ was born, but that his message was still very much alive and that people are still coming to know him.

To conclude our day, we went to a little shepherd’s field where we ate our picnic dinners and then heard the Christmas story in approximately the same place the shepherds would have been when the angel appeared to them and declared to them glad tidings. Then shivering, because it was very chilly at night, we sang Christmas carols by starlight on a Judean hillside – not an experience many people get to have. Normally I refuse to sing Christmas Carols out of season, but tonight was well worth making the exception.

We had to buy some palms for Palm Sunday! I didn't win the tallest palm contest, but looks like Dave came close.

I made some new friends, including a priest from Tanzania who is here studying the bible.

A nun singing as she walked in the procession.

A crowd of Christians.

Look closely and you can see Jerusalem in the background.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Visiting Jordan

For those of you who have heard about the shooting at the yeshiva in West Jerusalem and are curious about our security situation, we are currently on “lockdown” at the Jerusalem Center until further notice. Our security and administration will assess the situation on a day-by-day basis and let us know when they feel it is safe for us to once again roam the city by ourselves (in groups of at least three that is). However we are still allowed to go on approved outings. For example on Friday we went to Eilat to go snorkelling in the Red Sea (which was lovely) and tonight we are still going on our tour of the Cotel Tunnel (an archaeological tunnel underneath the Western Wall). So we are safe – and we have plenty of homework to keep us busy in the mean time – but we are praying for the peace of Jerusalem.

On a happier note, last week we went on a four day trip to Jordan and so now I can cross another country off my list of places to see before I die. As in Egypt there were many ancient sites to see and activities to do, so here is my list of highlights:

1. Touched the River Jordan. As usual my River Jordan experience would not have been complete had I not got my fingers wet. For some reason just looking in not satisfying enough – I could see as much by watching a documentary – but by actually touching the River Jordan or the rocks of the Great Pyramids my experience becomes tangible. Luckily my Ancient Near Eastern Studies professor feels the same way and he secretly encourages us to touch as much as we can, though today he told us that paintings were off limits. But to get back to the point, I did dip my fingers in the Jordan River and stand on its banks at the place where it is very likely that Christ was baptized by John the Baptist. Almost everywhere else in Jordan it was brown, but by the river it was green, which is somewhat symbolic I suppose.

2. Stood at the top of Mount Nebo. The view we had from the top of Mount Nebo was the same one Moses had when he had his first glimpse of the Promised Land. Unfortunately for Moses he was not allowed to enter the land of Canaan himself. From that point we could see straight across the Jordan River valley to Jericho and even to the mountains near Jerusalem. Overlooking the desert, the land didn’t exactly look like a land of milk and honey, but luckily I have also seen the green valleys of the Shephelah.

3. Followed the footsteps of Indiana Jones. Unfortunately this ancient Nabatean city carved into rock – one of the world wonders – is best known for its appearance in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Nevertheless it was exciting to walk through the ancient gorge and view the magnificent carvings, which showed Greco-Roman and Egyptian influence. One of my highlights of Petra – and maybe the whole trip – was my donkey ride up the mountain to view the monastery. That was five dollars well spent if you ask me. Donkeys are such sorry looking animals and at first I was scared I would break my donkey’s back but it carried me all the way to the top of the mountain. I walked back down and on the way I stopped to barter for jewellery and talk to the cute little Bedouin kids. And finally to end my Petra adventure, I got to ride a horse like good ol’ Indy himself.

4. Wrestled on the banks of the River Jabbock. This was where Jacob wrestled with the angel of the Lord and with the Lord’s help was able to prevail. Naturally we all had to take pictures wrestling on the banks of the same river. Unfortunately the photos will have to suffice because this time we were expressly warned not to even touch the polluted water.

5. Visited the ruins of Jerash. I’ll be honest, I didn’t really know what Jerash was until we got there, but I discovered it to be an old roman city in very good condition compared to others. We explored the ruins, which included temples to Zeus and Artemis and got to play in an old Roman theatre. We then paid eighteen dollars to watch a gladiator show in the old Hippodrome. They demonstrated army formations, staged a few gladiator battles, and rode chariots around the stadium. To be honest, it was a little over priced and I would have to say that watching Ben Hur is more exciting, BUT I was in Jordan and I had fun.

6. Bought some cheap DVDs. A strange thing to add to my list of highlights I know, but I think for many people this was definitely a highlight considering how many movies were purchased. Word got around the group that a little shop in Amman sold pirated movies (this is not illegal in Jordan by the way) and I think every body paid them at least one visit. Personally I only purchased five movies – others probably bought close to twenty. I would be interested to see how many we bought collectively. We gave them good business anyway and now we have something to do during lockdown!

Touching the River Jordan.

A little Bedouin kid trying to sell me a rock for a dollar at Petra.

I rode a donkey up a mountain to see this monastery at Petra.

At the Jabbock River we weren't allowed to touch the water so we re-enacted the Bible instead. But really Russell is beating me up because I'm wearing that silly blue pouch.

The rest of my class dancing in a Roman theater at Jerash. It almost looks like a pagan ritual.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Getting both sides of the story

** Unfortunately being a student and a traveler means not having very much spare time and since budgeting my time wisely has never been a forte, I haven’t been able to update my blog as often as I would have liked. So I apologize. **

One of the purposes of our Near Eastern Studies program here in the Holy Land is to educate us on the current conflict here – in addition to our biblical studies – by exposing us to each of the different narratives, both Israeli and Palestinian. Before we left to come here, our program director Jim Kurl said that he has been coming here for many years and he still can’t seem to take a side. He concluded by asking us to be open-minded, and that has been my goal. What I am finding is that it really is impossible to take a stand on one side over the other. Every time I have insight into a new narrative I find the pendulum of my opinion swinging back and forth.

For example, we recently visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial here in Jerusalem. As the museum walked us through the Jewish experience from pre WWII through the terror of the Holocaust and concluded with the story of Zionism and the creation of a Jewish national homeland, I couldn’t help but sympathize. In fact it was very emotional to watch a video of children singing Hatikva, the Jewish national anthem while I was standing on the soil of a real Jewish state. And yet, in that moment I forgot that before Israel was Israel it was Palestine, and the Palestinians who still live here, no longer have a state of their own.

The media in North America tends to be rather biased with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the picture we get of the Palestinians is not very favourable. But here at the Jerusalem Center, it is the Palestinians who are our neighbours since we live in the Palestinian east side of Jerusalem. The majority are very friendly and welcoming and a number of students have been invited into people’s homes for meals.

Every now and then we have speakers visit our campus to give a forum and so far we have heard from the American perspective, the Israeli perspective and just recently from the Palestinian perspective. It was very interesting to listen to Dr. Sabella, an elected member of the Palestinian Parliament speak to us. What he focused his talk on was helping us understand that Palestinians are real people concerned about getting on with their daily lives and that what they want is peace. He also stressed that Palestinians are very educated people, which I have noticed myself. The little kids who live across the street speak Arabic but they study Hebrew, English and French in school. Already they speak more languages than I do (which is not hard since I only speak one).

Unfortunately Dr. Sabella was not very optimistic about a resolution to the conflict, which by the way he stressed was political not religious. He said at the moment they just don’t have the right ingredients for peace. Finally he said, “If you want to work for a better world, you need to understand both sides.” And that is what I am trying to do during my stay here in this conflict-riddled land.

I believe that in order to understand both sides it is necessary to move beyond talking merely about political ideologies and get to know the people, who they are and what they believe. This week I had several chances to do that. On Thursday night we celebrated Ramadan – at least we simulated a Ramadan meal since it isn’t really Ramadan. We had a speaker come in and talk to us about how Muslims fast from dawn until sundown every day of the month. But it is more than just abstaining from food – rather it is a way to develop discipline as they renew their contract with Allah. It was nice to learn more about the spiritual aspect. After the speaker we feasted on traditional food and then learned a traditional Palestinian folkdance.

Following our night of Muslim feasting, I went to a Friday night synagogue service the next evening. Our Jewish studies teacher had kindly arranged for us to attend. We dressed in our Sunday best, and the boys wore yarmulkes out of respect, and we made it there just in time as the sun was setting. During the service, which consisted mainly of hymns from the prayer book (sung in Hebrew of course), the men and women sat separately. It was very nice to finally get to participate in a synagogue service. It would have been nicer if I had been able to sing along, but alas, I cannot read Hebrew (yet).

I guess what I’ve discovered so far is that it’s not necessary to take a firm stance on one side over the other, but as Dr. Sabella said it is necessary to understand both sides of the story. I hope to continue to do that through first hand experience.

Me and my little Palestinian friends.

Ramadan feast - and the reason I am getting fat.

Me and my friend Lyle of Arabia.

Heading out to the city.

Dave and I after synagogue. We thought we fit the part quite well.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Snow Day

This morning we woke up to an almost white Jerusalem. It seems the weather report was accurate because the snow they predicted definitely came. Not that were was much snow – it was rather slushy actually – but it still snowed none the less. Yesterday we were warned that even the lightest snowfall shuts down the city because it is such a rare occurrence in Jerusalem, and they are unprepared for it. As a result we had a snow day today.

For all students (elementary through college) snow days are extremely exciting, exciting except when you live in the same building as your teachers of course. Luckily (or unluckily, depending on how you look at it) Arabic and our Palestinian studies classes were cancelled because those teachers couldn’t make it but our Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Studies classes were not.

Some people were very excited to see snow, but I could have done without it. It certainly is a novel experience to see snow in Israel, but it is cold and wet and as close to miserable as it can get in the Holy Land. Unfortunately we have to walk through outdoor corridors to get to our rooms and so I have to splash through puddles and get dripped on if I want to go back and forth. However, it gave me a good excuse to stay inside and catch up on things that need catching up such as my homework and my blog of course.

I did make it out beyond the walls of the Jerusalem Center yesterday though. In the morning I went with three other people to see some Bar Mitzvahs at the Western Wall, which we found out from our Hebrew teacher happen every Monday and Wednesday morning. We had to be back for class at 9:30 a.m. so we left early and got there just after 8 a.m. A Bar Mitzvah is a coming of age ceremony that indicates boys (or girls) are now responsible for their actions especially in regards to keeping the commandments.

At the wall, James was the only one who could go to where the Bar Mitzvahs were, however by going down to the women’s side of the wall and looking through the fence we could see most of what was going on. There were some boys, I assume they were 13, who were at a table tying on their tefillin and then they started praying or reading Torah with the Rabbis who were wearing prayer shawls. There was a woman next to me also trying to look through the fence and she said it was her son’s Bar Mitzvah. She was from Las Angeles and it sounded like they had traveled to Jerusalem with the Bar Mitzvah in mind, which I thought must have been quite special for the boy. We couldn’t stay for long because we had to get back for class but it was nice to witness and I always like visiting the Western Wall.

I woke up this morning to find Jerusalem snow outside on my patio.

I wasn't very happy about having to walk outside in the slush to get to class.

Prayers at the Western Wall.

A boy is getting ready for his Bar Mitzvah.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

"And the walls came a tumblin' down"

I’ve been thinking about it, and I think that our educational experience here at the Jerusalem Center is very much like a “Magic School Bus” experience. It’s been a very long time since I watched that show, but I remember each episode the students got to experience firsthand whatever subject they were learning.

It is something unique to be sitting in class discussing how King David established his capital in Jerusalem, which Solomon expanded to include the temple and then to look out of the window to my left and be able to see the Old City of Jerusalem and Temple Mount. Granted of course the city has been rebuilt several times, but the general landscape is the same, and if you know where to look (or have archaeologist professors to point things out for you) you can still find remnants of the past.

But my studies have not been confined to the classroom. Last week for instance we boarded our “mobile classrooms” as Brother Draper likes to call our buses, and went on two different fieldtrips to places that corresponded to what we are learning.

On Wednesday we visited the ancient tell of Jericho. (A tell is a hill or I suppose an archaeological mound.) Among other things we studied the story of when Joshua’s army surrounded the city and the walls came tumbling down. There wasn’t much left to the untrained eye, but once again we were lucky to have professors who helped us “feel the magic of the tell” and showed us remnants of buildings from various civilizations that were visible in the layers of the trenches. We even got to see what may have been the remnants of the wall that fell during Joshua’s time. In any case we got to blow the rams horn and sing “Joshua fit the Battle of Jericho” which was fun. (By the way, as a side note, Jericho is both the oldest city in the world and the lowest city on the earth.)

On Friday we went on a Judges/Philistines fieldtrip and visited the five valleys in the south western hill country of Judea. The highlight of these would have to be the Elah Valley where David fought Goliath. Once again we discussed the biblical account and then we had a re-enactment. The two Jordans in our class were Goliath (one sat on the other’s shoulders) and Davey was David. It was fun to be there in the field right next to the creek where David found the stones, and to watch Davey defeat Goliath (and with an authentic David sling). After that we all got to try our hand at the slingshot, although forty students with bad aim all slinging rocks at the same time sounded a bit risky to me. As far as I know, only one person actually got hit.

And so there you have it. The only way to improve this experience would be to travel back in time and actually watch the events take place. As it is, thanks to our magic school buses we’re experiencing the Bible as close to firsthand as possible.

Emily and I at tell Jericho. If you look closely behind us you might find some stone remnants of the wall from Joshua's time.

Our David and Goliath battle in the Valley of Elah.

Bethany is sacrificing me at Tel Lachish. Lachish was one of the Israelite strongholds that was defeated by the Assyrians.

James and I entering the ark two by two. This was not from our fieldtrips, but on an outing at the zoo.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Into the Mummy’s Tomb (and Other Egyptian Adventures)

I remember one summer just after we moved to Canada when almost every book I took out of the library was about Ancient Egypt. My fascination with this ancient civilization continued throughout elementary school, middle school and high school. My particular favourite was the story of Tutankhamen and Howard Carter’s discovery of his tomb. I even dressed up at Tutankhamen’s wife for Halloween when I was in grade five (unfortunately most people confused me with Cleopatra). Since that time, visiting Egypt was very near the top of my list of places to visit before I die, and last week I crossed it off my list. We spent eight glorious days in Egypt including Cairo, Luxor and Sinai, and I was able to cross many more things off my subcategory list of “things to do in Egypt before I die.” Here are the highlights:

1. Looked upon the face of Tutankhamen. While we were in Luxor one of the places we visited was the Valley of the Kings where many of the ancient pharaohs were buried. The valley lies on the west bank of the Nile which was symbolic to the ancient Egyptians since the sun rose in the east and set in the west each day. The Valley of the Kings was especially exciting to me because it was here that the tomb of Tutankhamen lay hidden for thousands of years until Howard Carter’s water boy discovered the first stone step, and now finally I was able to descend those steps myself. The tomb looked a little bit different from what I expected only because in the pictures it was still full of treasure and now it is empty except for a class case containing the mummy and one of his gold coffins. Apparently we were very lucky to be able to see Tutankhamen himself since it was only just recently that they moved him back into his tomb. He was such a little guy (compared to the other pharaohs such as Ramses II who I saw in Cairo) and yet the discovery of his treasure was perhaps the greatest archaeological find of all time. I also got to see all of his treasure including his famous gold death mask at the Cairo museum and it was even more beautiful to see it in person. It is probably because of this chance to see Tutankhamen and all his glory that I can now die happy.

2. Stood beside the Great Pyramids of Giza. When we first arrived in Cairo it was evening and the sun was just setting. I remember at one point I looked up and I thought “oh, there are the pyramids.” Then I realized that the great pyramids were actually in front of me and I got very excited. It was beautiful and quite fitting to watch the sun set behind the pyramids on my first night in Cairo. The next morning we actually went to see the pyramids and we got to go inside one of them. As I was hunched over descending the dark tunnel of the pyramid, I stopped to quickly kiss the wall, so now I can say that I kissed the pyramids! I also touched the ancient stones on the outside of the pyramid. Before I came to Egypt there were people who told me the pyramids were a bit of a disappointment but I wholeheartedly disagree.

3. Got caught in an Egyptian sandstorm. First let me start by saying that it only rains in Cairo about twice a year. So naturally it rained on one of the days that I was there. When it wasn’t raining that day it was as windy as anything, which of course means a sandstorm in the desert. It was particularly windy when we were visiting the step pyramid at Saqqara, which is why I was wearing a headscarf and sunglasses to keep the sand out of my eyes. Even so I managed to get sand absolutely EVERYWHERE. I won’t go into details, but that night as I was getting ready for bed I was still finding dessert sand in my clothes.

4. Rode a felucca down the Nile. While we were in Luxor we got to take a lovely boat ride on the Nile. The Nile River itself is not quite as clean as it once was and we were expressly warned not to jump in not matter how badly we wanted to tell people back home that we had swam in the Nile (one professor told us to think of our first born child and refrain). I did however lean over and touch the Nile (for the same reason I kissed the pyramid) but I made sure to use hand sanitizer afterwards.

5. Rode a camel in Egypt. I actually rode two camels in Egypt. The first one was at the pyramids and was a very short ride. The guide walked the camel a few steps, took some pictures for me and then glared at me when I only tipped him a dollar. Those guys can be pretty tricksy. I have a few photos of me with an Egyptian guy who jumped in the photo, posed and then had the nerve to ask me for a “baksheesh” or tip. Anyways, the second camel ride in Luxor was a lot more enjoyable. Madison and I rode a camel named Bob Marley and we were led by a kid named Ahmet or something like that. The ride took us through the more rural areas of Luxor which was very interesting to see. My favourite was greeting all the little kids who and come to the roadside to see the “Americans” ride by. I was a little sore the next day though.

6. Climbed Mount Sinai. On our last day in Egypt we followed the path of the Exodus back to Jerusalem and we stopped overnight in Sinai. We then woke up at 2 in the morning in order to hike Mount Sinai in time to see the sunrise from the top. It really was an amazing experience. We hiked in the dark and the stars above us were absolutely brilliant – probably the brightest I’ve seen in my entire life. We also visibly watched the moon rise over the crest of the mountain. And I can’t adequately describe the sunrise from the top, but it was gorgeous. As we waited for the sun to rise completely we sang some hymns and were joined by some Korean tourists who sang along in Korean. (I loved the fact that there were Asian tourists even at the top of Mount Sinai.) I had lots of favourite experiences in Egypt but Sinai was probably my most spiritual experience.

I'm actually a descendant of the Sphinx. Can you tell?

A lovely camel ride past the pyramids.

Caught in a sandstorm by the step pyramid. See how windy it is?

Admiring the Karnak Temple.

Trying to fall into the Nile.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Hogwarts - Jerusalem Style

I suppose I should paint a bit of a picture of the BYU-Jerusalem Center where I live, eat, attend school and church, and where I hang out in general (when I’m not exploring Jerusalem). It is because the building functions in all these capacities that I often feel like I’m living at Hogwarts – only here we study religion instead of sorcery. I mentioned this comparison at dinner a few nights and everyone at my table laughed and agreed with me.

It began the first night we arrived when the buses pulled up to the Center and the lights of Jerusalem shone before us (much like those of Hogsmeade did for Harry and his friends). Granted we had no horseless carriages, but the building before us with its limestone arches was just as magnificent as the medieval castle of Hogwarts.

The Jerusalem Center sits at the top of Mount Scopus, right next to the Mount of Olives and has eight different levels, which means lots of stairs, although luckily ours like to stay put. The bottom five levels house the living quarters, teachers and service couples on the fifth floor and students on the third and fourth floors (the bottom two are currently empty). The first floor houses the main auditorium where we hold our church meetings. However, this is also where the center holds concerts once a week for the community. The seventh floor has the administrative offices and the sixth floor – our favourite – has the classrooms, computer room, student lounges, gym and most important, the Oasis, our student cafeteria.
The Oasis, our Great Hall equivalent, was our first stop that first night in Jerusalem where they fed us generously (and where they continue to feed us generously three times a day). Our food does not appear mysteriously on the tables, but it appears in abundance and variety in the serving area where the cooks always try to give us more than we want. One day after lunch one of the cooks asked me if I liked the food and I told him that I did and I was going to get fat. To this he smiled widely and said, “Good!” Luckily I’ve been walking my feet off around Jerusalem.

After dinner that night we were “sorted” into our two religion classes. This is the group that we travel with on field trips, and if there was such a thing as Quidditch here in Jerusalem our classes would most certainly be rivals. But since there isn’t we get along just fine (which is a good thing considering all three of my roommates are in the other class).

Now that we have been living here at the Center for over two weeks, though it seems like we’ve known each other for a lot longer, we have comfortably settled in. When we are not in class or eating or sleeping, I can most often find people hanging out in the “common room” area doing homework or just relaxing. The common room has a loft, a movie area with comfy beanbag chairs, a few tables for homework and our snack bar, which has been dubbed the Holy City Hot Spot. Luckily the snack bar is only open for one hour each night. Unluckily, they allow us to buy things on tab. I try not to get anything unless I have my shekels with me, because it can be dangerous when I crave chocolate at night and they are willing to hand it over to me for “free.”

It is quite a new experience being with a group of 80 students who practically live together and do almost everything together. We all have the same homework and you can tell when there is a test the next day before everyone is up late in the student lounge/computer rooms, but even that is nice because we are all going through the same thing. At meals, I usually sit down at the first seat available, which means I eat meals with different people, all the time and this has been the best way to get to know everyone. Even more unusual though is the fact that our professors live here as well and so we are able to interact with them beyond the classroom. If I feel this close to everyone already I can only imagine how it will be at the end of four months especially because we are exploring the Holy Land together.

I suppose it wouldn’t really be like Hogwarts if we didn’t feel secure. Instead of spells though, we have a wonderful team of security guards and practical security measures that keep us safe. Whenever we leave the grounds we have to swipe an ID card, which indicates that we have left and when we return we do the same thing to check in. We also carry cell phones with us whenever we leave, which allows the Center to contact us in case of an emergency or for us to contact them if we run into trouble. They are also very strict about rules such as not being allowed in East Jerusalem after dark, which means that you have to be careful in your calculations of how long it takes the sun to set (believe me I know) but this are all good things. So, although we do live in a troubled land, I feel completely safe and secure.

So far, I love my “Hogwarts” experience and I’m excited about our first “Hogsmeade” trip to Egypt, which will start very early tomorrow morning.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


They say when in Rome do as the Romans and so here in Jerusalem we do as the Jews, that is we observe the Sabbath or “Shabbat” as we call it, on Saturdays. It takes a little mental adjusting at first, but otherwise it's the same – one day out of seven reserved for worshipping and rest. Since Shabbat is on Saturdays we do have class on Sunday which seemed a little strange at first, but now that we have done it a few times we are growing accustomed to it.

For our first Shabbat in Jerusalem last week, we went to the Western Wall to welcome in the Sabbath with the Jews. We got there just in time as the sun was beginning to set and the plaza was filled with people, some visitors like us, and others preparing for their Sabbath worship. The wall is separated into two sections for prayer: the right side for the women and the left hand for men. So to honour their customs, our group split up and we were able to go down to the crowded area near the wall. (We had to be sure to turn off cell-phones and put away our cameras because to use these things would be to break the Jewish Sabbath.)

There were quite a mixture of people, many had prayer books and were praying softly towards the wall. Some people had obviously come early to stake out their places next to the wall because they were sitting in white lawn chairs right up close to it. I made my way slowly towards the wall and waited my turn to squeeze in and touch the wall, where I said a little prayer. The stones at the bottom of the wall are the original Herodian Stones from Herods’ Temple Mount (about two thousand years old). Anyway, after that I made my way backwards into the crowd as I saw the other Jewish women do and then joined a group who were singing and dancing – I believe they were part of a Birthright Israel group which brings those of Jewish blood to the Holy Land. It was quite an experience to visit the wall, which has come to be one of the holiest sites in the Jewish world, attracting Jewish pilgrims from all over and to celebrate their Sabbath with them.

Though the Jews begin their Shabbat on Friday night, we just observe the Sabbath like normal from morning until night. We meet for our church meetings in the upstairs auditorium, which has enormous glass windows overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem – definitely a beautiful backdrop to the meetings. After church we have a few hours of free time before dinner and so for the last two weeks I’ve gone out and visited some of the Christian sites. Last week I visited the Garden Tomb – one of the possible places where Christ was buried and resurrected. They took us on a little tour and pointed out the hill they believe was Calvary, where Christ was crucified. After the tour, we just took some time to sit quietly in the garden, which was surprisingly peaceful considering the city outside was so noisy.

Today after church we visited the Orson Hyde Park, and the Garden of Gethsemane. The latter is of course where Christ prayed and atoned for the sins of the world. (All of these places are within walking distance by the way. We live on Mount Scopus, right next to the Mount of Olives where these two places are.) I’m falling in love with the landscape here and I especially love the olive trees. The ones we saw today in the Garden of Gethsemane were so thick and gnarled I don’t even know how old they are, but they are beautiful. We stood in the little garden that they open to the public and sang a few hymns, then one of the guys was very nice and let us into the other garden across the street, which is larger and more natural looking. We spent some quiet time there reading scriptures and reflecting by ourselves until it was time to leave.

I suppose the conclusion to this post is that the Sabbath should be the same no matter what day it is on. Maybe I have learnt to appreciate it a little more seeing how full of praise the Jewish people were at the Western Wall and then being able to give thanks at the places that are sacred to me.

P.S. We are off to Egypt in one week! More adventures to come soon!