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.


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

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:


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:

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:

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).