Via Dolorosa

One of the must-sees for any pilgrimage to Jerusalem is the Via Dolorosa. Before arriving here, I had a vague idea of what that would mean, what it would be like, how it would impact me. Like most everything else in Israel, my preconceived notions and reality have very seldom lined up. Not that that’s a bad thing.

Just getting there is slightly intimidating. A short walk from where we are staying, there is a free shuttle that will drop you off at the Dung Gate. (((See below))) To enter the Old City here, you must pass through security – a metal detector and bag check. This puts you in the plaza just left of the Western Wall. The Jewish, Muslim, Armenian, and Christian sections of the Old City converge near this point, so there is all manner of people, attire, and languages to be observed. A tunnel leads to the Muslim section, where a beautiful cacophony of sights, sounds, and aromas mingle. Even during the off-season, the streets and alleyways are full of people: shop owners eager to show you their exotic wares, families with small children, the occasional beggar, religious people, tourists on holiday, large tour groups wearing matching t-shirts and headphones to hear a guide in their own language, couples strolling hand-in-hand; demeanors are relaxed and frantic and all points in between. It is both an assault and a feast for the senses.

One of the things I noticed right away is that the British, who laid out my beloved home city of Savannah in perfect squares, left no such mark on the ancient streets of Jerusalem. For each major thoroughfare in the Old City, there are a number of crooked alleys leading from it. Every path seems to lead to another. I seriously wonder if anyone could know all of the possible passageways branching off from just one of the main streets. Traveling along El-Wad, the primary road in this section, will eventually land you at the Damascus Gate; about halfway, however, a right turn on the street Via Dolorosa carries you at the Lion’s Gate.

My travel buddy, Karen, and I joined a couple hundred of our closest friends from many nations to walk the Via Dolorosa. Since the 13th century, Franciscan monks have been the Custodians of the Holy Places. Each Friday at 3:00 pm they lead a procession beginning near the Lion’s Gate and ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, tracing the route of important events as Jesus was condemned then crucified. These are also called the Stations of the Cross.

As we reached each point, the Franciscans would give a brief description of the station (in three languages), often accompanied by a liturgical recitation or song. Since I am not Catholic, much of this was lost on me. Still, I found it a hauntingly beautiful backdrop for our journey through the city.  The crowd was large and the streets were narrow. After being nudged out several times by incredibly devout Chinese Catholics (honestly, still trying to wrap my head around that), I found a more comfortable spot farther back in the crowd. Here, I heard less of what was being said, but was still able to actively participate in the processional.

Walking the Via Dolorosa was certainly a powerful experience, but not in the way I expected. This was not a calm, reflective stroll where I could quietly ponder the implications of each stop along the way as Jesus carried a heavy, shameful instrument of death out of His great love for me and His total obedience to the Father. Instead, it was a semi-chaotic up then down then up again, winding path through a bustling market area crowded with people who had no time or interest in this processional. They had wares to sell or buy, places to be, things yet to be done.

I can’t help but wonder if things were remarkably similar on another Friday 2000 years ago.

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Please be aware that this is personal reflection, not an academic presentation. However, since some might be interested in a bit of historical backdrop, I have included below an appendix of sorts, with a short description of the Gates mentioned above.

Information taken from The Jerusalem Post, “Sites And Insights: Gates Of Jerusalem,” by Wayne Stiles at jpost.com.

The Dung Gate

The unusual name stems from a gate that stood along the city’s south wall in the time of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 2:13). The Targum identifies the Dung Gate as the “Potsherd Gate” of Jeremiah 19:2. In antiquity, the city dump lay in the nearby Hinnom Valley, and the Potsherd Gate served as the exit by which the citizens took out the garbage.

The Damascus Gate

A fine example of Ottoman architecture, this is the most beautiful of the gates of Jerusalem. Excavations below the gate reveal a triple-arched gateway that Hadrian built—the northern extent of the Cardo street from the second century. Outside the gate, an Arab market offers fresh fruit and vegetables.  The Jews call it the “Shechem Gate,” and the Arabs refer to it as the “Gate of the Column.”

The Lion’s Gate

Christians have identified this gate with Stephen’s name in honor of his martyrdom outside the city (Acts 7:58-60). However, Byzantines placed his death outside a northern gate.  Another name, “Lion’s Gate,” comes from the stone reliefs of two lions (or panthers or jaguars) that flank the gate.

Map of the Old City:

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http://www.itsglia.com/images/tipsgatesmap.gif

Driving in Israel – Part Two

A week before I left home, it was decided that I would get an international driver’s license to save a significant amount of money on excursions. This offered us great flexibility and really did save a ton of money. After paying $150 to take an hour-long drive by taxi, $200 to rent a car for four full days was a very logical choice.

Only, that meant I had to do all the driving. When it comes to long road trips, I’m a great passenger. I love to press my nose to the window and see all the amazing sights, or curl up and fall asleep. Now I was going to have to pay attention to the road. Having never driven in Israel, there were some unfamiliar signs, and the traffic signals operate slightly differently than the ones in the US. I accidentally ran a red light or two before I clued in to the difference, but at least we were on the same side of the road as at home. There was some comfort in that.

The friends we were staying with wanted to show us the city of Be’er Sheva. I appreciate their thoughtfulness, but I am a country girl and would have been nervous driving in a large American city. I saw nothing but the asphalt. My eyes were glued to the road, the traffic signs and signals, and other drivers (who, are considerably more aggressive than American drivers but not as much as those in Europe.) My only aim was to neither kill nor be killed. I am sure that Be’er Sheva is a lovely city, but all I can say with any degree of certainty is that they do seem to have a nice system of roads. There are few standard crossroads, but the plethora of roundabouts keep things moving and people are generally considerate of other drivers – unless you pause long enough to inspire honking.

Though he no longer drives, Sasha is far better than any GPS. When he says turn, you need not question him. Sasha knows. The one time we got really turned around, Sasha hesitated, I missed the turn-off from the highway, three people all started talking at once in two languages. An hour-long quest to get back on track began. As it turns out, Sasha was right all along, the GPS was wrong (it was a brand new road), and we ended up seeing a different part of the countryside, which would have been quite pleasant had I not been so anxious about having led us so far astray.

The most treacherous driving experience was reaching the Dead Sea. Periodically the side of the mountain was marked with your elevation in regard to sea level, +1000m, +500m, etc. The distance may have been 25 km as the crow flies, but it was, I assure you, considerably longer when you are the one behind the wheel making the hairpin turns on the side of a mountain, descending further and further down to the lowest elevation on planet earth. Leaving the highway and reaching the Dead Sea took over an hour. By the time we arrived, I was one stressed Georgia girl, longing for the flat lands of home. I think the other three passengers all expected me to blow a gasket at any moment, but some cappuccino and exploration of the Dead Sea smoothed out my wrinkled nerves.

One of the coolest things we saw along the descent was a group of young Bedouin shepherds. They had a flock of sheep – perhaps 20-30 – and camels – around 10 – mothers and babies, grazing on the side of the mountain. We passed by far too quickly for anyone to snap a photo, but I am sure that this is a rustic imagine that will live in my mind for many years.

On the way back to Ofaqim, we decided to fill up the car with gas. Sounds simple enough, right? Not even. Since they live in a metropolitan area, neither Fira nor Sasha drive. They counted on me to make this happen. I was not a bit concerned as we pulled into the dark station after regular hours since I do know how to pump gas and do self-pay at the pump.  The only problem here is that the directions are in Hebrew. Sasha reads and speaks Hebrew but he doesn’t know the procedure for using the card scanner at the pump. We developed a chain of translation. Sasha read the Hebrew directions, then translated them into Russian to Fira, who then translated them into English. I could not help but recall the I Love Lucy episode where Lucy is arrested in Paris for using counterfeit money and it takes a five-language chain to plead her case and set things straight. Meanwhile in Ofaqim, much confusion ensued. There was vigorous reasoning together in Russian, my head snapping back and forth like I was watching the championship match at Wimbledon, trying to catch a recognizable phrase so I’d know how to proceed. After some time, Fira called her grandson to talk us through the proper procedure, her eyes wide with concern as she explained our predicament to him. I had to bite my lip and turn away as I heard him laughing on the other end so I wouldn’t do the same. After more emphatic discussion, it was decided that we would wait until the next day and go to a different station so an attendant could help us. Storm over, we all climbed back into the car and headed home.

 

Photo credit: http://reachingutopia.com/save-money-at-the-gas-pump/

Driving in Israel – Part One

Coming to Israel has been the trip of a lifetime. There is so much to see, so much to do, so much biblical and historical importance all around you. Every experience is new and weighty with importance. Culture shock is too small a term. Not all of my observations, however, are deeply philosophical.

Two stereotypical notations from my first week in Israel:

  1. If you are a man in Israel, you are required to smoke.
  2. All drivers must honk their horns as soon as the traffic signal changes.

This is a deceptively simple game. Drivers in front are in competition with all those behind them. The aim is to be in motion immediately after the signal turns green. Time is not allowed for the transfer of the foot from brake to gas. All drivers from the second position back are poised for honking. The first one to do so is the winner, though there may be consolation prizes for a close second.

Occasionally several drivers combine the tones of their horns into some sort of native melody of varying tone and frequency. There is the short, high-pitched DINK of tiny sedans, series of staccato beeps from the truly impatient, and elephant-like blasts from city and tour buses, all of which combine into a symphony of sorts.  I believe there may be some sort of code embedded in the honks, like

  • “I’m about to pull in front of you”
  • “Hey! Who do you think you are for pulling in front of me??”
  • “Pedestrian, you better move!”
  • “And just WHY do you think it is OK to stop here? Unload your passengers elsewhere.”
  • “I have places to be and you are driving far too slow”

There may be others that, as a foreigner, I am not yet privy to.

My most extreme honking encounter came when we returned the rental car. The rabbit warren that passed as the lot was full of cars with only a narrow passageway for entering. Think of any Bass Pro parking lot on Black Friday, minus clearly painted spaces. Now stick some additional cars in every available nook and cranny.

There was only one path leading in and out. This T’ed left and right to more lines of bumper-to-bumper cars. I pulled up to the branch of the T. Another driver hemmed me in from behind, just as drivers also emerged from the left and the right. I was literally boxed in. All three of these drivers began honking in turn and there was quite a bit of yelling. To try and appease one raised the ire of the another. No matter what I did, someone was yelling and honking. Finally, I pulled forward, and that was decidedly the wrong thing to do, because when I moved, each of the others did as well, leaving me even less room to maneuver. I backed slowly (NOT my best direction) and almost scraped the full length of a parked car before I got straightened up enough not to cause damage. Seeing the tiniest bit of daylight, I was able to stick my car on a patch of dirt so that the other three drivers could then go wherever they wanted.

As my passengers and I emerged from the car, suddenly three other men standing nearby began yelling at me. Now, I’ve never been cussed out in Hebrew before, but I have all ideas that this is precisely what was happening. Somehow their tone and gestures did not imply a celebration of my superior driving skills. Sasha said to leave the car where it was and we went inside to finish up the lengthy return process. After a heated discussion with the man behind the counter, Sasha then burst into his hearty laugh, and the incident ended as quickly as began. People finally quit yelling at me and everyone was friends again.

Fortunately, I’ve had just enough exposure to these cultural interactions to be amused rather than rattled. In this particular instance, I’m rather glad NOT to know what anyone was saying. Ignorance can indeed be bliss.

Photo credit: MyParkingSpace.com

Hiking Practice: A Deux

As the date of our Appalachian Trail day hike draws ever closer, Jeff and I decided to schedule another hiking practice. The original plan was to spend an evening eating and sleeping in our own little woods. Hurricane Matthew, however, disrupted our idea. With 85*+ temperatures, swarms of quarter-sized mosquitoes (I only wish I was exaggerating) and snakes on the move, we decided to pass on the sleeping-under-the-stars portion of the proposal.

Plan B wasn’t nearly as rustic, but we made do.

Our first order of business was to obtain water. Jeff and I walked through a small copse of trees to reach the tiny creek on the front corner of our property. Then we filled our bottles with the tea-colored water that bubbled along over the rocks and decaying limbs. The water we collected was certainly suspiciously-colored, but lacked any visible sediment. We could only hope that filtration would prove successful and there would be no violent cases of intestinal distress.

With all necessary supplies collected, it was time to start a fire. We have in our possession matches and fire sticks and cigarette lighters, but I wanted to create fire with a magnesium bar. Even if I never have to do so again for the rest of my life, I needed to know that I could.

We gathered sticks of all sizes, pine cones and straw, and dry leaves for a tinder ball. Jeff demonstrated the proper technique once, then let me have at it. I put down a paper towel with crushed dead leaves. After scraping a pile of tiny silver flecks from the magnesium bar, I struck the other side, hoping to create a flame. Nothing doing. I tried again. And again. Then one more time. After a couple more failures, I eventually figured out how to produce a weak flicker. Even that, however, is no guarantee that fire will ignite. This procedure is not nearly as easy as the survival guys on TV make it look. Remembering a tip from some such show, I ran inside (Oops! Cheated a little there!) and returned with a cotton ball. I used this to make a nest for the metallic flakes, and vigorously pulled the striker against the magnesium bar. The first real burst of sparks startled me and I dropped everything. Recognizing an opportunity for success, I reconfigured the cotton ball and struck again. Flames! Big yellow flames! Suddenly I was Tom Hanks dancing in front of the bonfire in “Castaway”. I had created FIRE!

It was a moment.

We stoked our fire with limbs, graciously provided by Hurricane Matthew, and had a substantial campfire rolling in no time. Once that was underway, we turned our attention to food prep.

Recently Jeff had returned from a gun show with a gift for me (let that sink in) and I have been eager to try it out. Today was the day. We took the bottles of our freshly-collected but undeniably brown water and attached my brand new Life Straw filter. Timidly I took a sip. It tasted like – nothing really – but when your water starts out that discolored, nothing is a good thing.

We measured out filtered water and put it on the miniature camp stove to boil, which took about 90 seconds…sweet! We measured out the water and added it to our pouches of freeze-dried beef stew. After waiting the allotted ten minutes, we enjoyed a tasty meal, accompanied by a pretty decent cup of coffee, in our blue ceramic lumberjack mugs. Jeff and I sat in front of the crackling fire, which kept the mosquitoes at bay. Had we not been “camping” on the back patio, it would have made a picture-perfect commercial for an outdoor-sy magazine.

I wish the conditions outside had been more conducive for this newbie camping diva to sleep under the stars (comfortably snuggled up in a sleeping bag inside a three-season tent). We will try that when the weather cools off a bit and the first hard freeze wipes out a significant portion of the mosquito population. The extended AT camping event is scheduled for early spring, so we’ve got time.

Jeff and I are about two weeks away from our day hike. I am ready. I think. There is an elevation factor to consider, but I am comfortable carrying a loaded pack and walking a reasonable distance, say, about ten miles. I now know how to make fire and filter water. I have my hiking shoes and several layers of clothing available, as the conditions may require. Best of all, I have my favorite person on the planet right here by my side to plan and prepare, then to enjoy the journey.

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Zest for Life

One of the things I dearly love about the European Jews that I have met is their zest for life. They have lived through one of the most horrible eras of world history and somehow manage to continually bounce back.

In Poland, when we were given our room assignment at the retreat center, my digs were on the third floor. My suitcase was the size of a young manatee, barely squeaking in under TSA’s 50-pound limit. Yikes! Fortunately, there were a couple gentlemen around who helped this damsel in distress, and I was more than happy to let them do so. As the Holocaust Survivors arrived with more reasonably-sized bags in hand, they didn’t hesitate but headed straight up the stairs. Some had to pause momentarily, but most did not.

In this retreat center, the dining room was at ground level, on the second floor, and the showers were on the first floor. If, during the day, you needed to “go”, you would be hitting the stairs, heading either a flight up or a flight down, as there were no rest rooms on the main floor. There were also no elevators or wheelchair ramps. We all just hoofed it.

Never once did I hear the Holocaust Survivors complain about all the walking we did while on excursions. Certainly, as these folks are anywhere from 75-95 in age, some would tire quicker than others and therefore find a bench in the shade for a few minutes. While resting, they were quite likely to burst into song. They sang folk songs from their youth, and when I say they sang, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they belted them out. I could tell if the song was happy or wistful or a vigorous call to action by observing the cadence of their voices and the expressions on their faces. Then, just as swiftly as a butterfly flits away to another flower, the verse or chorus would end, and a new conversation would begin, or perhaps they would stand to walk further on. The moment was over as quickly as it had begun. More than once I was moved to tears by these impromptu concerts. Their tunes drew me in, and for that instant, I felt their pain, their joy, their determination. It was real and raw, and I felt honored to be given a brief glimpse into their hearts.

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One of the most fun things we did during our time together was a Camp Olympics. The Holocaust Survivors were divided into two teams to compete in a variety of athletic events, like kicking soccer goals, shooting basketballs, and the all-time favorite, using a giant slingshot to hurl water balloons at their trip leader. These people are some kind of competitive! They cheered their team on with enthusiasm, as former athletes and former spectators gave it their all. You didn’t have to speak the language to tell that there was a constant flow of good-natured trash talk with the other team. Just like with 12-year-olds from around the globe, there were heated discussions about whether or not the kick was “in-bounds” or if someone participated out of turn. Not one person entered the contest with the slightest intention of losing. At the end of the activity, however, the staunchest of rivals walked away arm-in-arm, laughing and recounting moments of failure and glory. Perhaps with an elbow to the ribs and a semi-jesting, “Just wait till next time!”

Without question, my favorite trait of the Holocaust Survivors I have met can best be visualized by the HaagenDazs Gelato commercial,  entitled ‘Arguments’. You know, the one where the Italian couple bickers, then reconciles over a tasty dessert. In much the same way, my European-Israeli friends will give each other what-for, holding nothing back. They conclude with an emphatic hand gesture that seems to signify, “And THAT’s the way it is!”, then they walk away. When next they meet, they are fast friends again, as if the previous conversation never took place. In a similar situation, most Americans I know would hold a grudge for years. Decades-long family feuds have developed over far less. For them, however, when it’s over, it’s over.

My personal introduction to this behavior was about fifteen minutes after meeting the Holocaust Survivors for the very first time. There was an incident with towels, to which I responded quickly but ineffectively. One lady, who I called Sassy Pants until I learned her name, was completely unimpressed with my inability to resolve this issue. I was severely reprimanded in Russian. The words were unintelligible to me, but her message was crystal clear. I was crushed. I walked away stunned. Here I was, minutes into living out a lifelong dream, and I had already alienated the very people I had come so far to meet. I honestly wanted to cry. The next morning at breakfast, however, she met me with hugs and kisses and a silver bracelet, which she insisted I put on immediately. The bracelet was too large, so she said (via translator), “You eat more. It will fit.” And just like that, we were friends.

I have come to love these Holocaust Survivors so much. They captured my heart right away and have refused to let go. While I am still reluctant to name them by one event in their history, they are indeed Survivors in every sense of the word. Their passion is contagious. They are affectionate and brutally honest. They are loud and loving. They are strong-willed and optimistic. They are considerate and tenacious and inspiring. They welcomed this awkard country girl with open arms, and gave me the best gift of all – their friendship.

 

Lemon zest photo from http://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/45079/best-lemon-zest

“Assume The Crash Position”

Where I come from, there are couple of running jokes. One is that there are more cows than people living on my road. The other is that when people come to visit, they have to check their passports at the border of civilization. While these are indeed exaggerations, they are not too far from the truth. It was a big deal a few years back when our road got paved with real asphalt and rocks. This was a step up from the layers of ash from the local paper mill that some bureaucrat thought would be a fantastic idea. (Just for the record, it was not.) Autumn mornings you are quite likely to see men in camouflage converge in wooded areas and grassy fields, hoping for a white-tail buck to fill the freezer and perhaps a set of horns to adorn the living room. (This is a part of Southern culture. Don’t judge.) Because we live in a rural community, most people work in the big city about an hour away, and the twice-daily bumper-to-bumper commute can be quite gruesome. Out here in the county, however, it’s only about a ten-minute drive to the nearest small town, which is a lovely old faded beauty currently being revitalized through some sort of Revitalize Cute Old Towns Grant. A traffic jam out here is most likely to happen when you get stuck behind a tractor driving down the road at 11 MPH, chugging from one hay field to the next, or perhaps a school bus-turned-convertible hauling large quantities of said hay. There are also what we refer to as “crop inspectors”, old men in old trucks who have nowhere to go and all day to get there.

Now I had heard of the autobahn before. It is spoken of in hushed tones of great awe by prepubescent students bouncing along on a school bus most likely older than they are. Years after being enlightened about this wonder, even my wildest fantasies of zipping along at such speeds were no match for my initial encounter with real, live European drivers.

My first year flying into Poland, I remember being incredibly impressed with the Chopin Airport in Warsaw. It was bright and welcoming. Though the pace was fast, the building is organized and well-marked, so locating our bags was a breeze. We met our guides who took us on a tour of the city for a few hours while we waited for the other half of our delegation from the US to arrive. After introductions all around, we piled into a 15-passenger van/minibus hybrid and away we went. And, man, did we ever GO!

As we shot into traffic, the first two minutes were better than a ride at Six Flags. The allure wore off quickly, however. Leaving Warsaw was simply an experience I was in no way prepared for. There were no discernable speed limit signs in the city, or perhaps they were uniformly ignored. People changed lanes at will, and a gap of about four inches was enough for them to squeeze their vehicle into – regardless of size. My Polish consists of about five phrases, but even my inexperienced ear could easily determine that our driver had an extensive vocabulary of Slavic profanity, which he exercised liberally, accompanied by a couple of hand gestures that are recognized on six continents.

We flew – or should I say, careened – down the highway, and our group of European first-timers foolishly thought that we would be able to enjoy the sights of both the city and the countryside on a leisurely three-hour drive. Rookie mistake. We moved as such a break-neck speed that what might have been interesting highlights were little more than a blur.

The inside of the minibus was lacking in certain accruements that I have become accustomed to. Since Polish summers are incredibly mild by South Georgia standards, there was no AC. (Did you even know that they still make cars without air conditioning??!!) This happened to have been a rather warm day and the only two opening windows in the vehicle were for the driver and shotgun passenger. As the vehicle barreled along in a herky-jerky motion, we all tried to time our sway so that no one fell from his seat. My seatmate, who later became a dear friend, was at the time a stranger to me. After about the third or fourth time I bounced off her left shoulder, I quit apologizing. Add to this, all of us had been awake for approximately 30 hours. Between the exhaustion, the heat and the bouncing around, I was fighting car sickness. I closed my eyes, hoping against hope that I could fall asleep and the ride would mercifully seem to end sooner. Nothing doing. I curled up every way imaginable in my portion of the seat and even considered lying in the floor. As soon as I would drift off, there would be another snatch of the steering wheel, and my head would snap awkwardly. By the time we arrived at our final destination, I was, as my grandmother used to say, “plumb tuckered out.” Kissing the ground would have been a tad melodramatic. But I did consider it.

My other experiences with European drivers have all been interesting, but not nearly so traumatic. It seems that red lights and stop signs are merely helpful suggestions and that use brakes is entirely optional. Whether the drivers were simply in a hurry, or were trying to shock their inexperienced passengers, they certainly did wonders for my prayer life! That being said, in my three summers of visiting Poland, I don’t recall ever having seen an automobile accident. Perhaps those European really are onto something after all.

Who Are You? Who, Who, Who, Who??

Over the last several years, life has taken its twists and turns. As the scenery around me changes, so too have the ways I define myself. I’ve been chubby and miserable inside my own skin. I’ve been lean and healthy and strong. (That one is much better.) I’ve been a teacher. I’ve been a runner. I’ve been the mother of a screaming baby and the mother of an adult (This one, too, is much better.) Each season of life has its benefits and challenges. Sometimes I do miss the Old, but there is something exciting about the New.

Professionally, my New is becoming a Writer Girl. I’ve spent the last 22+ years teaching some pretty incredible kids how to get the words out of their heads and onto the page. That was a terrific season, but as happens with seasons, change arrived. Now I am seizing the opportunity to put into practice all those things I learned from teaching them. Some days the words come blazing out of my mind and onto the screen almost faster than my fingers can type. Other days, like a bashful kitten, they have to be gently coaxed out of hiding. Whether short or long, easy or difficult, each finished piece leaves me in stunned amazement to see that something I have always dreamed of is becoming a reality.

In my personal life as well, there is another New. I am becoming a Hiker Girl.

I remember a few years ago when we started going to a new church, we were invited to a big overnight camp-out. In the woods. In a tent. Without a restroom. There would be nature all around. That’s right, bugs and dirt. I really liked this group of people and wanted to get to know them. Certainly I didn’t want to wimp out. But, did I mention the bugs? I had it on good authority that spiders were allowed to roam freely in these woods. I would not have access to a stationary toilet or electricity or running water. What kind of Deliverance prototype were they luring me into???? As if those things were not enough, there was much talk of the previous year when an ice storm arrived during the night and people were trapped inside their tents the next morning, zippers frozen solidly in place. The temptation to fake an illness was strong.

We went to that camp-out, in spite of all my misgivings. While I would be inclined to emphasize the incredibly rustic nature of these surroundings, it is only fair to admit that someone made allowances for prima donnas like me. There was a generator and a port-a-potty. Several of the men arrived early to clear up debris so there was a nice, neat camping area. Women brought crockpots of chili and several varieties of homemade pound cakes. After dinner, a pied piper led a group on a quest to tree a raccoon, a southern rite of passage of sorts. All night there was a roaring fire, carefully tended by those who chose not to go traipsing off into the woods after dark. The night was cool, but there were no frozen tent zippers or spider attacks. We all awoke, wild hair and backs a bit stiff from a night on the ground. The faithful stoked the fire, while the rest of us stamped the cold from our limbs and waited for a hearty breakfast of pancakes and sausage.

It. Was. Awesome.

A couple months ago, Jeff and I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail. I’m not even sure how the subject came up, much less became a “good idea.” I’ve matured a lot (OK, a little) from those prima donna days a decade ago. I’m more active and physically fit, and not one to back down from a challenge. So, hike the infamous AT we shall.

Part of me is really looking forward to this adventure: Jeff and me out there in the great unknown, taking on a huge challenge, with nothing but our wits and an overstuffed backpack to draw from. Part of me is keenly aware that we are in the honeymoon phase of this venture. We take daily walks (2-5 miles based on the time available), strengthen our muscles at the gym, become students of AT survival, and buy one vital piece of equipment at a time. The reality is, after our Daily Hiking Practice, we enter our air conditioned home, have a popsicle, take a shower, then sleep in our incredibly comfortable bed. Something tells me the Trail won’t be quite that easy.

Our initial plan is quite simple. We are going to begin with a day hike this fall, about five miles out then back again. Based on how that goes, in the spring we will try camping for two or three days. Before that happens, we will most likely do an at-home camp-out to practice getting water and eating and sleeping in the Great Outdoors – with the equally Great Indoors nearby, just in case that prima donna rears her dainty little head.

(This post was originally published on my Facebook page, Running After His Heart, but fits the scope of this blog as well.)

That Moment When Your Dream Comes True

Traveling to Poland was the first time I had ever left the United States. It was rather overwhelming to think that my family was 5000 miles away. It was also interesting to realize just how disconcerting it is that YOU are the stranger, the foreigner, that you cannot speak a word of the local language, that if you get separated from your group, you are in serious trouble. I didn’t know how to ask for water, or a bathroom. I had no idea how to say hello. It was humbling, for sure. At the same time, it allowed me to view the world from a completely different perspective.

We stayed at a beautiful retreat center, Ostroda Camp, about a four-hour drive from Warsaw. The first full day there, we did some light repair on the cabins, painting and sprucing up after the harsh Polish winter. In particular, we replaced screens on the windows – designed to keep the mosquitoes (and they are HUGE) out, and the children in. (Kidding, not kidding)

Then the big day came! The Holocaust Survivors were due to arrive just before dinner. We got word that this day was Shauvot so we should dress up. My group of four from Savannah had no idea what a Shauvot was or how one should dress. Obviously, we were not prepared for this occasion at all. We stared Googling the holiday and its related traditions. We also cleaned and decorated the cabins and made a welcome gift for all of our guests. It was such an exciting afternoon.

Dressed in a borrowed skirt and the only decent shoes I had with me, I paced nervously, my ears straining to hear word of their arrival. I felt like I was preparing for my first date. Would they like me? Did my outfit look okay? How on earth were we going to communicate? What was I even doing here???? Suddenly a shout went up and we all flooded into the parking area. My heart pounded as the charter bus pulled in. As I ran toward the bus, I made a decision. No one here knew that I was shy except me. I was diving in. I was going for it.

I joined the others and went right up to the door of the bus. Though it was unplanned, we formed a receiving line to greet each person as he/she got off the bus. It was beautiful chaos. People began laughing and hugging and speaking to each other in any of four different languages. Instantaneously, strangers became friends. It was quite chilly as the sun began to set. I found myself wrapped up in this cute little Jewish grandma’s jacket. Three minutes in, and I had my first Jewish friend. It was one of the most amazing moments of my life. Little did I know, this was only the beginning.

(BTW – Although I have many fantastic pictures of experiences shared with the Holocaust Survivors, we have been asked, as an act of respect for their privacy, not to show their faces on social media.)

Getting There is Half the Fun!

My illustrious travel career boasted of destinations like Wolf Laurel, NC and Moncks Corner, SC. Once in high school I had even traveled as far as Lincoln, NE, but most of my childhood comings and goings were in the Southeast, within a day’s drive from home, and experienced from the backseat of a giant black Ford. They were great trips, all memorable in one way or another, even if not particularly glamorous.

Given my OCD nature, planning for my maiden European voyage sent my natural bent towards list-making into hyperdrive! And there were questions, lots of lots of questions. As my team met each week to get to know each other and to plan the details of the trip, each session began with 1) prayer, and 2) my unending barrage of questions.

Apparently I was quite anxious about many, many things: What kind of clothes do I need to pack? Is Poland a politically safe nation? Do I need special immunizations? Can we drink the water? How do I call home? What kind of electricity do they use? Is there a place where I can run? Where should I keep my passport? What kind of money will we use? What is the difference between an adapter and a converter? How heavy can my suitcase be? And on, and on, and on! My team leader later admitted that he wasn’t entirely certain I would be able to make the trip. In fact, the day we left, he asked me repeatedly, “Are you all right? Are you sure that you’re OK?” In retrospect, I can understand his concern.

Then came the packing. Have mercy, the packing! I started a week in advance. Good thing, too. I carefully made stacks of all the clothes, toiletries, and of course, books that seemed essential. After placing like items in two-gallon ziplocks and smushing out all the air, I loaded up the suitcase, went through a ridiculously awkward procedure to determine the weight, and…..oh no! Fifteen pounds too heavy! Thus the culling process began. Items were removed. Bags were resealed. Awkward weighing process was repeated. Now it was only twelve pounds over! And so it went. For days. Finally, on the night before our departure, the bag tipped the scales at a comfortable 47 pounds. Which I could only pray was accurate.

My first international flight was a wonderful experience. The seats were comfortable and larger than I expected. While my mission teammates were several rows over, my travel companions for the eight-hour flight were both thoughtful and friendly. There were movies and games on the individual video system for each seat. We were treated to warm cloths to wash up before dinner. Now, I’ve heard numerous horror stories about airline food. We were given a small, tasty beef stew and rice meal with adorable plates and utensils that I was tempted to keep as a souvenir. Then dessert. And warm cookies two hours later. And a light breakfast croissant shortly before we landed. It was like a kindergarten teacher’s idea of perfection – Give them a blanket and a chocolate chip cookie, and everyone will take a nap!

We arrived in Amsterdam just as the sun peeked over the horizon. My first European sunrise! It was simply lovely. We had a layover of several hours, so there was an opportunity to explore the airport. Let me just say, I am impressed that children in the Netherlands ever learn to read and write. It seems to me that Dutch uses a maximum number of letters for incredibly simple words. I was thankful for the English subtitles or I would still be standing there, trying to figure out some of the signage. Two other sights worthy of note include a giant mound of chocolate. Had there not been a connecting flight to catch, I could still be standing there as well, nose pressed to the glass, eyes begging for even the tiniest sample. Additionally, since this was Amsterdam, there was a shop (or ten) where wooden shoes of all styles, colors, and even of rowboat-sized dimensions were available. Just for the record, those are never going to fit in your carry-on. I tried!

(Just Kidding…but not about the chocolate).

POLAND??? Who Goes to Poland?

Like millions of twelve-year-old girls, I read The Diary of Anne Frank when I was in sixth grade. I was mesmerized. From that day, I dreamed of meeting Holocaust Survivors and hearing their stories first-hand. I used to daydream about sitting in a quiet cafe, sipping dark, steamy coffee, and listening to their thick European accents as they spoke in distant, far-away voices of things tragic yet incredibly important. Even before it became a cultural “thing”, I developed a Bucket List, no matter that there was no logical expectation that I should ever accomplish any of my outlandish goals.

Over the years, I traded away certain goals for others, and some were forgotten entirely. But not the Holocaust Survivor dream. It would still pop up on occasion, unobtrusive, but ever present. One day, somewhere around 2010, I was reevaluating the items on my list. Armed with a real job and a more firm grasp on reality, I was taking a look at what could be accomplished and what needed to be dropped entirely – a very decade-y sort of thing to do. I considered the Holocaust Survivor idea. What was the use of holding onto that one? By this time, the number of Holocaust Survivors around the world was greatly reduced. Those who were still alive would have been children at the time of the war. What were the chances of my running across one in Savannah, GA? With great sadness, I mentally struck that off my list.

I moved on with my life.

A couple of years later, my friend Morgan had a post on Facebook about needing another woman to sign up so she could go on a mission trip to Poland. I walked in our house after work that afternoon and asked my husband what he thought about me going with her. Jeff said he knew I had always wanted to do missions overseas. Six minutes later, I was signed up for a trip. Other than “In Europe”, I wasn’t entirely sure where Poland was, and I had no idea what the focus of the trip was. All I knew was that I was going.

The next day Morgan called to tell me that we would be ministering at a summer camp in Poland for Holocaust Survivors who were coming in from Israel. I think she had to repeat herself three or four times before my brain registered what she was saying. Holocaust Survivors! I was going to meet not one, not two, but about 30 of these iconic individuals! And it wouldn’t be just an hour-long conversation over coffee. We would be with them 24/7 for two weeks! I’m not sure my feet hit the ground after that.

Six weeks later we boarded the plane. This was it! I was excited! I was terrified. I was heading to Poland!