Gone Awhile

Dear friends,

I apologize for my long absence here. I did not bring a laptop abroad with me to save space, but that has made posting photos almost impossible and posting text cumbersome. We have not had reliable internet access. When we have, it's been slow, limited to hotel lobbies (in Jordan), or available at a time when I was too exhausted or ill (see below) to write coherently.

We finally have gotten internet access here in Rome. I won't bore you with the rigamarole of that process. Soon, I will post some photos, although I still need to use Adam's laptop for that. I've posted photos on my Facebook page, though (again, apologies, but it's so easy to do via a cell phone), and I hope to have some here soon!

For now, I'm just going to post text because it's faster.

Our experiences in Israel (mostly Jerusalem) and Jordan were very profound and very difficult. We loved the Old City markets, where Arab families still shop for all kinds of everyday things, sold in centuries-old stalls: underwear, pastries, raw meat, shoes, cell phones, fine jewelry and for tourists, yes, souvenirs galore - for all three religions.

There are locals and tourists (pilgrims, really) everywhere. Many languages. Many forms of piety, from kippah and headscarves, to cross necklaces and nuns' habits, to side curls and "I love Jesus" sweatshirts. I won't even get into the politics, protests, checkpoints, etc. here.

Jerusalem has layers and layers of history. Our course group (a nice size at 8 students and three staff) had an amazing tour of the Church of the a Holy Sepulchre with our course instructor, Rodney Aist. The first time I visited, in 2000, I found the place bewildering. There's no signage (this is because the religious orders in residence there can't agree on anything - they can barely agree on repairs, much less signage or identification of various chapels or mosaics). It's labrinthine. Rodney's tour was historic, not devotional, but it made the place come alive for me and the history of Christian pilgrimages there feel like something I wanted to be part of, although it also brought back more frustration at organized religion. My chosen vocation. (Not that unorganized religion, science professors, or yoga teachers are any less prone to self-righteousness or conflict. Just saying.)

There were two kinds of wilderness places we saw on this course: one, where people had done business and traveled, traded, and built settlements along the Incense and Spice Routes; two, where people had built monasteries and lauras, or groupings of hermit caves, far away from other people and / or on holy sites. We visited a variety of desert places on day trips from Jerusalem: near Jericho, the Kidron Valley, Beersheba, and the Negev. In some places were occupied monasteries, in some just ruins, and in some skyscrapers in the distance.

It was very hot and dry, even though it was fall and not summer, and Adam and I both struggled with our moisture levels. By the time we got to Jordan, I had to stay behind for a day in our hotel, trying to rehydrate. I bought a six pack of liter bottles of water and guzzled almost five liters of water (over a gallon) over the course of a morning. I think I might've needed a hospital stay otherwise. Yikes. Thankfully, I recovered, but felt a bit weak the rest of our time in Jordan.

Adam, on the other hand got to go snorkeling! That may not sound I like the wilderness at all, but believe me, after so much rock, wilderness, sweating, and hiking, some recreation was needed (I just had to get mine in the hotel room). Aqaba is a seaside resort town and has coral reefs, there on the Red Sea. We saw many Europeans on vacation there and a huge hotel strip being developed by some Lebanese businessmen, we learned. We also saw oil trucks who have driven to Aqaba from Iraq, since it's safer to drive from northern Iraq to the sea port here in Jordan than south to their own port at Basra. We drove by the Saudi Arabia border crossing and waved.

There, and all over the wilderness places we visited in Israel and Jordan, we learned how precious water really is. Reading the psalms, Exodus, and the stories of Hagar, Abraham, and Jesus in the wilderness, are all quite different when you realize the meaning of water, springs, wells, and rain in such dry places. "The river of God is full of water," really means something, or "like a tree planted by streams of water." Becoming dehydrated added a whole new dimension to the experience. At one site, I remember even thinking that the sound of our feet on the sand and gravel even sounded drier than sand and gravel back in the Midwest, or even in the Southwest, where we've also traveled.

Then we visited Wadi Rum, or "The High Valley," a desert full of desolate but beautiful mountains. It was cool and breezy and just beautiful. At our lovely open air dinner in a huge, stylized Bedoiun tent, I managed to get bitten, hard, by a stray cat I had decided was cute and clean enough for a pat. It seemed so friendly! Luckily, my tetanus shot was up to date. Not only did I manage to make our course nurse look more worried that she did on the whole trip, even more than at my dehydration scare (I actually developed quite a special relationship with Judy over those two weeks) but Adam has forbidden me from petting any strange animals ever again.

We slept outdoors in canvas tents, which was memorable but not entirely relaxing - the sound of wild dogs in the distance, and bathrooms NOT close by, although there was a big wall in between us and the dogs. Just not the cats.

Then we visited Petra, basically a city of tombs, which the Romans made into a real city at one point, complete with a few churches. Many people love Petra, but I found it spooky and closed-in-feeling. It's also full of people trying desperately to sell you souvenirs, carriage rides, camel rides, donkey rides, and rides on horseback. Some parents (a mix of Bedoiun and Roma) send their children out to sell you postcards. There are two and three year olds, even, who have been set down next to platters of pretty chips of rock for sale, although mostly they play with the rock or their feet. Officially, Petra officials outlaw child labor but it's hard to enforce because Petra is so big and sprawling, and basically has no fences. I just didn't like it much.

We saw ruins of Byzantine churches and monasteries with bits of arches, columns, altars, and mosaic floors. The most interesting mosaics were two maps - one of Christendom at the time, split between East and West of the Jordan River at Umm Rasas, and one of biblical lands, the famous Madaba map. On some mosaics, all the faces of people and animals had been rubbed out, because of popular feeling against iconography of any kind.

We also saw Machaerus, the hilltop fortress (ruins now) where, almost certainly, Herod had John the Baptist beheaded, and Mt. Nebo, where Moses looked out over the Promised Land, after 40 years of wandering, and then died. Both are speckled with hermit caves, and Nebo has a church and monastery.

It took us three hours to cross back into Israel at Jericho. A difficult ending to a difficult journey.

Then, I got food poisoning. From an entirely vegetarian meal, go figure.

Often, I felt overloaded with information and emotion on this course, but it was also an incredible experience and I wouldn't take it back. But I'm still trying to figure out how it's changed me and my faith. We did too much, really, and we gave that feedback. But under all the things we saw (see list above) a lot was happening... With scripture, prayer, landscape, and even just the spiritual discipline of perseverence!

It's wonderful to have two whole weeks here so we don't have to rush, we always come back and sleep in the same room, and we can spend whole days writing, reading, and figuring out what's happened to us on this sabbatical. Besides the fun of Baroque churches and gelato (more on that soon), I've really needed this time in Rome to unwind and reflect, and to transition back to a more Western existence. (Although the organized religion thing is pretty intense here, too. At least no one is killing each other or fighting over it in this particular moment in history.)

Thanks for your patience! We are in Rome for one more week, feeling very grateful, and loving being in a city with so much water (fountains everywhere) and cooler temperatures. So far, no more dehydration spells.