Friday, March 20, 2009

Bethlehem and beyond...

Tuesday was a really great experience – one I’ve looked forward to since I came here in fact! We were able to have a field trip to Bethlehem and visit the sites surrounding the area Christ was born.
We started off the day with crossing through one of the Israeli checkpoints in to the West Bank where Bethlehem is located. Unfortunately, even though it’s only six miles from where we live, we’re not allowed to visit here by ourselves – the center takes great care of us and doesn’t want us to be in any potential danger at all. They expected that to take between half an hour and an hour, but we got through quickly and soon met up with our Professor who teaches Modern Near Eastern Studies of Arabs, and were able to have a lecture by a few of his colleagues about the Palestinian-Israeli problem and the history surrounding that. It was very interesting and I was grateful to be able to attend that, but the next part was even better. Our Professor teaches at Bethlehem University, and so we got to attend a lecture by him at his home school, with some of the students in his classes! We were shown a film about the resettlement of many of the Palestinian people during the 1960’s, and learned a lot more about that. We were then able to ask a panel of students questions about the anything we wanted – the conflict, their schooling, social life, etc. It was very interesting to be able to relate to these people who are doing the same thing as I am right now, just in a very different context.
We ate lunch at “the tent” and that’s really what it was. A large tent situated in Bethlehem where we had pitas for appetizers, and then French fries and kabobs for lunch. It was neat to socialize with everyone in this kind of a setting, because we don’t get to “go out together” much in the same way we might at home. It was also fun to see how happy our Professor was to be able to take us around his home town and give us a tour of his favorite sites and places to eat.
After lunch we went to manger square and the Church of the Nativity. This was really neat because it is the oldest church that is still in tact, in the world. It dates back to the 4th century AD, and was built on top of ruins of another church built even earlier. Because of how old it is, it is considered by many to actually be the birthplace of the Christ child. The church was beautiful, the only downside was there were lots of people visiting and so it was hard to be able to see everything. We got in a line to go down to the grotto, the place where Jesus would have been born, and only got to see the spot for a few seconds before we were herded out of the room by a nasty mean Priest who kept yelling at everyone to be silent. tell me…where’s the irony in that? I was kinda mad after cause I didn’t even get a good picture of the inside! And let’s face it, how many times am I going to be able to go to Jerusalem in my life? That’s right…probably never again! Stupid priest guy…some dude in a robe on a power trip…yeah.
After that we got to wander around the square a bit, shopping is always a good thing right? Actually I kept myself under control pretty well if you ask me! (Running out of money always helps this problem). It was interesting though, cause the hot item everyone was looking for was Bethlehem Blankets, and they were no where to be found! We were able to see an exhibit of many nativities from all over the world, this seemed rather appropriate considering the location.
The rest of the night was definitely the best part of the experience. We were able to go back across the borders to Shepherd’s fields – a place where in ancient times the shepards would have likely dwelt on night’s like the night the Christ child was born. Considering it was only a few weeks before this event would have occurred – the weather is even similar to how it would have been then. We were able to go as a religion class which was neat, because we had a devotional there. Several students prepared a small biographical sketch of Herod, Joseph, Mary, The Wisemen, The Shepherd’s and Elisabeth – it was really neat. We were also able to hear some Christmas Hymn’s on the Guitar from Mike and Annie – and I was even involved in a small sinigng group of six people who sang Mary’s Lullaby. It was a night filled with the Christmas Spirit more than I’ve felt in a while. Truly something I’ll treasure and take home with me.
As for the rest of the week – I’ve just been studying for tests and finals! Today we had our last one – Musallam’s class. It was such a relief and you can sense the drop of tension and stress in the building. After the test was over we all ran outside and yelled for joy – and then decided to go down the road and pick up an ice cream at one of the local shops. On our way back we met some of the young local boys, who showed us the small cage filled with puppies right near to where the center is! We had fun playing with them and then spent the rest of the night relaxing and preparing for Galilee! It’s been a great week overall.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Jordan was INCREDIBLE, I know it's probably horrible to say and against some kind of rule, but I'm pretty sure I enjoyed Jordan more than Egypt! The pyramids were incredible but what I loved about Petra was the fact that it was all secluded from the rest of the world (as opposed to the pyramids which sat in the middle of a city). Petra, besides being the location that Harrison Ford walked in Indiana Jones (and yes, many wore "traditional" hats to commemorate the occasion), is the location where the Nabatean people made their community. It contains the treasury (which is the famous structure from the movie), as well as various other caves which served as tombs and homes, a amphitheater which resembles Roman structures very closely, a high place of sacrifice, and a structure similar to the treasury - but on an even larger scale - the monastery. We were able to have a guide tell us all aobut the history of the site on the way in, and then were free to roam around and explore for the afternoon. I decided to visit the Monastery and the High Place of Sacrifice, and while it was a rather long hike (hot too), it was most definitely worth it. One of the neat experiences I had here was with a Bedouin family who still lives in Petra. (There are many, which I was rather surprised by). We were walking down from the Monasery and I noticed a mother stationed by one of the many tables filled with souveniers. She was sitting on the ground with three or four young children, and they were attempting to eat lunch. Their meal was very meager and I felt really bad for them! Many of these children are used to get money from tourists, but these children simply sat. As we passed I pulled some crackers I had out of my bag and gave them the remainder of the package. The mother was very grateful, and the children danced behind me smiling and waving for quite a distance. It made me so much more grateful for what I have, and sympathetic to these people who know no other way of life. After we hiked to the monastery we were able to eat lunch at a great restaurant located right in Petra! They had the best falaffels I've ever had! On the way out we hiked up to the High Place of Sacrifice (which was quite a difficult task because I was so tired by this time!) and we were able to see a great view of all of Jordan, it was most definitely worth it!
Another incredible site we were able to visit is called Jaresh - it is known as the best Roman ruins out side Italy, and it most defintley was. There were pillars everywhere, as well as structures used for worship and the like. We were able to go in to a structure that looked simliar to the collosseum (at least to me). As we were listening to our guide explain what the structures were, a dressed up band came out and began playing music. The JC is all about dance parties - apparently - and this was most definitely the best one! Brother Brown and Brother Wilson even joined in the festivities for a few minutes! We got to finish wandering around the ruins, including walking down an ancient Roman road in which you can still see the ruts from the wheels of chariots! It's hard to imagine the things that happen there without actually seeing people wandering around, but this sure gave me a great idea! I really liked the market here as well, because I was able to get a couple of cheap and beautiful oil paintings! The last thing we were able to do here was attend a show which depicted some of the typical atheltic events the Romans would put on at Jaresh. Many of them were gladiator like fighting. After this we were able to go meet the actors, and I got my picture taken with one of these guys - I like to call him "pecks". He was SO hilarious, he put his arm around my back and kept telling me to look in to his eyes, and then he'd growl at me! HA!
The last day we were there we stopped at another mosque and learned more about the Islamic religion. This mosque was more specific about the attire of women, and so all of us had to wear full-length black dresses (which we all felt really great about...). It was neat to get another perspective here, and I learned a lot of new things I hadn't before, which is always good! It's incredible to me how similar the Islamic religion is to our own as well.
The last significant stop we made in Jordan was most definitely the River Jordan. There are a few spots in the Holy Land which claim to be the site of the baptism of Christ, and while I'm not sure in which place it really occurred - this place seemed as good as any to me. It was kind of in the middle of no where, which I actually preferred, and had the same spirit about it as the Garden Tomb. We were able to have a devotional there and talk a little bit about the life of Christ and the beginning of his mortal ministry (which if it didn't occur here, than somewhere similar to here.) One of the points I thought was really interesting was just as Christ descended below all things in fulfillment of the atonement, he was submerged in the lowest body of water on earth when he was baptized - this was a physical manifestation of something he did for us spiritually. I'm so excited to be starting New Testament and learning more about his ministry.
Some of the other highlights of the Jordan trip were most definitely the mall in Amman, where we made some local friends and ate at a pizza hut (which tasted very American actually!) The DVD shop where we were able to ;) movies was pretty good as well because we were able to increase our movie library here at the center by quite a bit (not that we have a lot of time for moving watching).
The day after returning from Jordan we had another field trip planned for Tel Aviv, and while everyone was excited to go visit the city it was definitely hard to make myself get out of bed and go, we were all pretty worn out from Jordan. We made it though, and it was worth it for sure. The first stop we made was at the Diaspora Museum, where we were able to learn more about Jewish traditions and the way they were able to maintain their national identity despite all the many deportations and scatterings that happened to them. This was really interesting to me because I realized, once again, that the Jewish ideas and traditions are really not that different from my own.
The next stop we made was at the hosue in which the State of Israel was established. I think everyone had lost focus by this time because I noticed quite a few nodding heads during the orientation movie, and I'm a bit to ashamed to say that I participated in a game of signs during the presentation...I probably shouldn't admit to such activities. We were allowed to roam around the city for most of the rest of the day, so I headed to the beach with a group. It was perfect beach weather, warm enough to be able to appreciate the chilly water, but not hot enough to be completely uncomfortable sitting up on the beach. Unfortunately we weren't allowed to swim, so I rolled up my jeans and walked along the surf of the beach. Stephanie, Miriam and I even collected some old water worn pieces of glass (they look kind of like transparent rocks now) so that we could make some kind of "Jerusalem mosaic" out of them. It's a little big fifth grade arts and crafts, but everyone needs creativity time...right Mike? ;)
Shabbat was a good break for everyone, and while I always enjoy our Shabbat meetings, this one was especially good because it was fast and testimony meeting. It's nice to be able to share thoughts and experiences here in fast and testimony meeting because we are all able to relate to one another, and so it's more like adding someone else's feelings and perspectives about the same things you're experiencing to your own. After church the majority of the students made their way over to the Garden Tomb - a lovely place to spend the afternoon. On the way over, Miriam Sarah and I decided, after passing several groups of children and youth walking home from school, that we wanted to befriend some of the local children. We resolved to stop and talk with the next group of girls we came across, and before too long we found ourselves outside an all girls school - outside of which were many groups of young girls! We started talking to one group where there were girls ranging from about seven or eight up to thirteen. Some of them weren't able to speak English very well, but that was ok cause those who did translated for us. I made a few friends, and it was really neat to be able to feel part of the community that way.
The Garden was especially beautiful that day, the sunlight streaming through the trees above, and the various groups raising praises to their Savior many of whom did so through song. My favorite group was the Nigerians who seemed to greet us upon arrival. I was able to sit and contemplate for a while, and then after hearing somone several feet away start singing "Rise and Shout" I joined some of the other students in talking with an LDS travel group who was here visiting for a few weeks. It was neat to see some people from home, it really emphasized to me the fact that within the church we are all brothers and sisters, and it really felt this way. At the end of our trip here, we were able to raise our voices with many others in singing hymns just a few feet from the entrance to the Tomb. I decided on this day that this could be the "other grove", if you know what I mean.
So even though we had finals coming up , they scheduled ANOTHER field trip for the next day, but it was worth it. (I'm pretty sure I say that like...every two seconds.) This one was the "Herodian" field trip, and it was neat because it is something that isn't too far away from here, but I hven't done it yet. Basically we were able to walk on the same steps Christ would have to get up to the temple complex. There was something very real about this place - maybe because it's one of the few we know the Savior legitly walked. (Yeah...I just wrote legitly). After that we went through a few museums which were ruins from the Upper City of Jerusalem, a place where Lehi probably lived during Book of Mormon times. It's neat to learn all about the Bible here, especially because it doesn't seem to be of particular emphasis in the States, but it was also neat to remember that our church has foundations here as well.
Well this blog is beginning to become excessively long so I'll just wrap up with a few more activities. This week was Purim, which is basically like a week-long Jewish Halloween...kinda. It's a celebration of the story of the Book of Esther, and as part of the celebrations everyone dresses up! We learned quite a bit about it from our Judaism teacher, Ophir, and then we were able to go experience it for ourselves! Miriam Moon and I dressed up as a Rock Band, and Bryan was our manager...although I'm not sure if he looked like that - you'll have to decide for yourself. There were a few who thought other things about his costume...I wonder why...but anyway! We went to synagogue with the Wilson's and listened to the story of Esther in Hebrew (and also made friends with some Jewish girls from the states). Afterwards we went out to Benyahuda Street, where the real party began. So we didn't really party all out like many of the people did - instead we hit up Sambooki's for hot chocolate cake and brownie pastries. Probably the best thing about West Jerusalem. (Don't worry mom, I'm trying to get the recipe so I can make it for you).
The other important visit we made this week was the Separation Wall visit. We were lucky to have a man who has worked a lot with the United States and Near Eastern relations come and explain to us his perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Everyone here seems to have their own opinions about the whole conflict, obviously, but it was interesting to get a new view. He emphasized the fact that if a two-state solution was not reached it may be impossible to solve the conflict.
Last night, we had a pretty sweet game of capture the flag going on - Pirates vs. Ninjas naturally...I mean what fun is a dance a game...anything really without dressing up? Yeah - none at all. While the Pirates were pretty vicious and scary...the Ninjas definitely had better moves, which I think is really a redeeming factor and reason enough for us to win. The game ended with a few people angry at one another was ok cause we all made up over a few games of Uno. Awesome right?
Well that's about it for now. Shabbat was incredible - as it always is. And maybe your prayers this Sunday can be for me - cause I'm not sure if I'll be able to keep up with my blog without some divine intervention!