Saturday, February 25, 2012

Day 149: Je suis arrivée!!


At last my feet are standing at your gates, Jerusalem.

What a long way to come by foot, passing through the wilderness, coursing through the millennia, mingling with distant neighbors.  Love your neighbor, we're all told.  Easy to do when our neighbor lives next door and looks just like us; more interesting to go far afield to meet the ones that are less like ourselves.  I've met a lot of neighbors.  It's overwhelming, really, as always at the end of the path.

It was not possible to know when I started out that I'd arrive in Jerusalem during the 'high season' when pilgrims are plentiful but accommodations harder to find - bus pilgrims, of course, I haven't seen any other foot pilgrims or even bicycle pilgrims.  Pushing outward, I found a quiet monastery of St Martha outside the walls in Bethany at the traditional site where Mary and her sister Martha lived when their brother Lazarus was raised from the dead.  The three Passionist priests give me just the solitude I need for the conclusion of my trek.  See the sights, plan the return...

I sit with mixed feelings, of course: I've arrived!  Yeah!!  Delivered from evil!!  Yeah!!  but the pilgrimage is over.  Boo =(  Time to make my way back across the globe.

Day 146: Bad Samaritans/Good Samaritans

(I wasn't able to post this when I wrote it...)

For the first time in all of my pilgrimages - over 15,000 kilometers by foot - something 'bad' happened =(  Two men tried to rob me of my leather bag that holds my pilgrim credenziale, the book that contains the record of all the places I slept, the stamps from churches and monasteries, notes and signatures from the various hosts, etc... In the souk I visited in Monastir, Tunisia, I was stripped of my reading glasses and my wee little pocket knife, but there was no violence involved, so it wasn't such a horrible experience and I dismissed it as a simple annoyance.

Walking through richly historic Samaria in Palestine, midway between Nazareth and Jerusalem, I came down from the terraced olive groves where the road winds tightly between some mountains... I like the groves, muddy though they are, but geography overrules at certain points and roadside walking is required.  Not many cars or trucks pass along the modern highway, so it's not too stressful for a pedestrian pilgrim.  Idiot drivers honk their horns as they pass, though, which I distain as much as I cannot imagine what possesses them to cause such unnecessary stress to a complete stranger... 140 decibels is unpleasant... morons disturbing my tranquility... whatever.

One of the idiot drivers who honked as he came up from behind me shouted 'where are you going?'  I waved him off and he drove away, only to return from the opposite direction a few minutes later.  The passenger got out of the car and said he wanted to help me.  I don't need anyone's help, thank you, goodbye.  He got back in the car and the two men drove off again, turning around a few hundred meters further along, and passed me in my same direction.  They disturbed my tranquilty once again stopping only long enough for the passenger to alight.  ´Imshee!´ I shouted at him to leave me alone and went from the shoulder of the road to the center, though there were no cars at that moment, if one came by, he'd have to stop.  The man told me straight out, rather politely I can honestly say, ´I want your bag,´ pointed to the leather pouch.  ´You won't get it, I'm a pilgrim and have no money, there're only books (in English)...a traveler only on foot and with no money (in Arabic).´  He laughed and said of himself, ´but I'm crazy.´ ´Still, I have no money, leave me in peace.'  The moron then made an effort to reach for my bag.  I whacked him hard across the chest with one of my hiking poles.  Though the lightweight titanium just bounced off the solid muscle, it sent the message that his petty theft wouldn't be a painfree one and thankfully at that moment, a car came around the bend a half kilometer away.  The crazy would-be thief thought better of the situation and ran off in the direction of his conspirator waiting in the getaway car hiding behind the other bend.  Then a steady stream of cars came by in both directions and I saw the car of the two men pass me in my direction again, waving a twisted fist.  I wrote down their licence plate number, for what it was worth, but the ordeal was over.  I was through the windy part of the mountains within a few more kilometers and returned to the tranquility of the olive groves and sheep pastures.

I certainly wasn't afraid of either of the morons - what could they do in the middle of the highway while I was armed with two hiking poles, two very heavy hiking boots, and a backpack for ballast?  Thieves should really think these things through a bit more.  It was just sad that after all this distance, days before completing the pilgrimage, I had to encounter 'bad' people.  There's always something 'good' about the people I meet, even if they're pesty morons.  It's hard to convince myself that they're really 'good' guys just having a 'bad' day.  Heavy sigh.  Bad Samaritans.

Continuing on, I entered the outskirts of the city of Nablus.  I asked a few people where to find the Catholic church and was pointed toward the Greek Orthodox one high up a mountain.  I asked more people who directed me to the farthest end of the city, high up another mountain.  Once again, Greek Orthodox.  Next door, there was an insurance agency.  I popped my head in the open door and asked for help.  The kindest of men stopped what he was doing to help... phone calls, directions, Google Maps... he offered coffee.  Settling on the location of the church, he offered to accompany me there since it had gotten dark.  It was back toward the first Orthodox church, which was too far for his legs, so he hailed a cab and escorted me there.  It turned out to be a Melkite Catholic church and a friend of his new the son of the priest.  More phone calls, invited in to spend the night in the rectory with the priest's family, cake, sparkling wine, festivities followed... Good Samaritans.  Happy ending.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Day 144: Closing in

Only the quickest of moments here at the computer...
I've got a whole new impression of Israel now - it's green! Not quite the 40 shades like Ireland has, but a few days of rain and all the land is lush, wildflowers, flowing water in the streams, gooey cow patties underfoot.  It's wonderful to see the Sea of Gallilee with verdant slopes full of such history... Cana, Nazareth... pick a place mentioned in the Bible, I've visited it or am about to.  Four more days until Jerusalem, unless I take another lap around the Dead Sea... Pilgrim fun, but the only other pilgrims I've seen have been the bus variety, no other foot pilgrims.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Day 137: The Dead Sea, the West Bank

Desert pleasantries...how to fit them all in one blog? Amid covered farmland, smelling sweetly of hidden herbs and vegetables, I never would have guessed that 'sawadie-kaa' would be a useful greeting in Israel, but it's been mostly Thai field workers who supply me with requested drinking water. It's a small world, after all.

Friendliness and openness, warmth and hospitality; Israel is good pilgrimland. Two winters ago, I read whatever I could about the great Greek philosophers as I approached Delphi; now I'm strolling through Old Testament territory, and though much of it recounts wars and general violence, some of it is very intriguing being in the presence of history... I climbed high and licked the skirts of Lot's wife! Salty, no surprise. She was a big woman. Sodom's not much to write about. Gomorrah's gone, too...

After twisting my ankle on some rough terrain, I thought how good it would feel to soak in a salt bath... Doh! the Dead Sea served the purpose well, though any pilgrim will have scrapes and scratches...oooh how the salt stings! As the air is thin in mile high in Denver, it's thick a quarter mile deep, which is the current elevation of the salty surface. Breathin's been easy.

Partying with diverse groups every evening... The only challenge is the heat - high 20s/low 30s - which requires high water consumption, which adds kilos of weight to my pack. A side benefit to the Dead Sea is the protective shield of the evaporative layer... No sunburn!!!

Off to the Sea of Galilee next...

Monday, February 6, 2012

Day 130: Meanwhile, back at the kibbutz...

Delivered safely from the land of Egypt, a most exhausting country full of extremes.  Sinai was a challenge the passed much too quickly.  'Tourist Police' seem to think that the best way to keep tourists safe is to not have any.  And since they need tourists in Sinai to keep the artificial tourist cities in business, they want the tourists to stay in their all-inclusive Club Meds and travel around only in tour buses.  Like I encountered in Algeria, having no clearly written rules means that any self-authorizing individual can make up rules that suit him and there's nothing to be done to challenge the rule.  Anyone venturing outside the tourist town of Sharm el Sheik must have a permit to be there (so the Tourist Police decided.)  Walk through the mountains [where Moses and the exiled wandered for 40 years] to the Monastery of St Catherine?  Permit Denied.  No reason needed.  Denied.  Get on a tour bus like everyone else.  Not even if I would pay a Bedouin guide.  Denied,  Where are the 'Pilgrim Police' when you need them?

So off to the monastery by car - a kind and honorable young Camino graduate who lives part time in Sharm el Sheik offered greatly needed assistance... military checkpoint all along the way, very curious about my nationality.  We found out that that very day two Americans with their guide were abducted by 'bad' Bedouins and held in exchange for an imprisoned drug dealer... the Egyptians paid up thus setting the exchange rate.  Americans are high-value assets.  But I'm just a pilgrim, safer on my own in the mountains than with an unarmed security post in the car on the highway.  Isn't that obvious?  Argghh.

The monastery, anyway, was fabulous and the monks let me stay at their guesthouse gratis.  Joining the tradition, I got up in the wee hours to climb the 6-kilometer well-marked path loaded with heated rest stations and lined with Bedouin hawkers offering every sevice and commodity under the stars to aid in the ascent.  Seeing the sunrise from Egypt's highest peak and the site where God handed down the commandments is a unique experience that I shared with about 400 bus pilgrims.  Cautioned very sternly by one of the 'good' Bedouin coordinators not to reveal my nationality to anyone, I tagged along with a group from France and spoke nothing but French except to bark at the boy hawkers aggressively convincing walkers to ride their camels (the Bedouins conduct business in Russian or English).  Many of them were incessantly asking 'where you from, lady, where you from?'  I always had the idea that Moses had the mountain pretty much to himself... oh, but for a moment.

Returning to the monastery, the Tourist Police officer, wouldn't let me leave the monastery except in a car with an escort and directly to the border crossing.  I've grown so weary of trying to explain why I want to go on foot.  The fat man who couldn't walk as far as the gate of the monastery will never get it.  Though I doubt his authority entirely - he just makes up rules that suit him - the fight is out of me and I only gave him enough of a hard time to make him earn an hour of his paycheck.  Deposited at the border town of Taba, I walked the last half kilometer out of Egypt.  Robbed of the weeklong walk through the Sinai mountains, Africa is prematurely behind me.

Ah, but a half-hour interview with the senior officer of the Israeli border guards - refreshingly a woman - was deemed necessary once posed the question of what countries I visited in the last year.  I'm not sure if it was just Libya that sent me up the chain or the itinerary as a whole.  Walking on foot?  No money?? Alone??? okay, in the end, a one-month visa granted.  The clock has begun.

The scene in the Wizard of Oz where the world changed from black and white to technicolor mimics well the emergence on the Israeli side of the border... everything so clean and orderly, tidy gardens, sidewalks, pavement, no taxi drivers chasing me down, courtesy, silence, beauty... the pilgrimage is not over yet - a month to tour the famous historical sites of the Holy Land - but the dangerous part is in the past.  Delivered from dangers, the dangers posed mostly from the security forces.  The Egyptian people were by and large very good to me - where there was good, it was very very good; where the good was lacking, it was very very difficult.  Extremes.  In the first town on the Israeli side, I asked for a Christian church - none I was told - so I found a synagogue and asked a rabbi for some help.  Sure we can help you, but you can go to the Christian church around the corner if you'd like... Catholics.  People who understand about pilgrims.  No explanation needed... of course we'll take you into our home for a place to shower and sleep... ahhhh

A marked hiking/biking trail parallel to the highway... quiet, peaceful, scenic, with informative kiosks describing nature and wildlife management programs in place.. houses in orderly kibbutzes...Maps - real maps, accurate so far... maps for touring Christian sites, Jewish sites, nature trails, water points, rest stations... this is all so promising for a person on foot.  Happy pilgrim...

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Day 125: The Wadi of Wonders

The wilderness is a remarkably safe and beautiful place, a feast of visual diversions!.  I loved every minute of my walk once I finally got to a starting point I could reasonably place on a GoogleMaps printout.  I admit that with the proper basemap, a GPS unit would have given great assurance of my location, but it didn't make much of a difference.  Walk up the biggest wadi then southward across the plateau and down the next biggest wadi.  Water was the limiting factor that kept me from reaching St Anthony's Monastery by foot.

Nonetheless, I had four wonderful days in a spectacular canyon walking up the unnamed wadi eastward from the Nile.  The impossibility of my mission became apparent by the end of the first day.  The labor of dragging the sled - whooshing quietly across the sandy stretches but noisily along the rocky sections - made me thirstier than my allotment of water allowed and the added distance from the tightness of the canyon made it pretty clear that it would take a day or two longer than I originally hoped.  I couldn't haul more weight in the sled if I could get it... a donkey is really necessary.  I followed the fresh tracks of two small-footed soft-soled men, a small dog, and one camel.  I didn't think camels did so well over such rocky terrain.  Pack animal with water is the key.

Realizing this, I wasn't going to squander my opportunity in the wilderness.  I continued on to explore in solitude.  The canyon, steeply sided, sometimes even vertical, for heights of 300 meters/1,000 feet - echo-y, soaring with ravens and a few raptors, full of petroglyphs.  I copied a selection of them in my little sketchbook but the camera on this computer doesn't present them in focus, but I'll try to update this blog with a photo of my sketches when I find a better camera.  The petroglyphs are remarkably similar to those I saw in the Chihuahua desert last winter - male figures and animals mostly.  The animals here are camels - men riding on them with lifted spears - and gazelles with their graceful long horns.  Fascinating.  They suggest that people have not only visited this particular canyon throughout the ages but that they considered it sacred in some way.

The modern additions were limited to some boundary markings - Latin alphabet, not Arabic - that seem to me to be from mining surveys and a small abandoned settlement of buildings with a palm grove of sickly looking date palms.  The collection of seven or eight buildings were built within the last 30 years but look like they never were used.  I speculate that some mining firm had some ideas about the chalk and other mineral resources but it never materialized.

On the ancient side again, I poked my head into several caves in the canyon walls; one with petroglyphs as well but the passage was blocked after 10 meters.  Ropes, shovels and lighting could lead to a good time in the mountains there.  (And a partner for safety.)

The other remarkable feature that I contemplated was that the steepness, color and dimensions of the canyon walls clearly gave inspiration for the great pyramids from the time of the Pharaohs... the pyramids of Giza, less than 100 kilometers away, look just like them.  Even the step pyramids mimic the nature here because the rocks of the canyon are blocky limestone, some sandstones, silicious and calcitic inclusions - lots of chert/flint - and form natural steps.  If I were a Pharaoh with all the money in the world, I suppose I could command a mountain be built out behind the palace and expect that it look just like the mountains in the canyons beyond.

I had no problem making a camp each night - the blocky chalk makes nice sleeping platforms and a framework for my wee little tarp.  I gathered enough small branches from the scrubby vegetation to have a fire for several hours each evening just after sunset to warm my little space and heat small rocks to bring inside after the fire died down.  The temperature only dropped to the mid single digits (40s), so it's not like 'real' winter camping in the European or North American sense.  The crescent moon didn't overpower the glorious canopy of stars and my planisphere made for dimlit entertainment before bed.  A note for the 'fraidy cats out there: no water in the canyon means no fearful wild animals; the only noises at night were the occasional distant rockfalls echoing through the canyon.  Peaceful music.  Sunsets, sunrises...two days up, two days back down.  Lovely solitude.

Knowing I had to retreat back to the highway, and that it's too dangerous to walk along the highway, I exited to a military checkpoint and had them flag me down a car to take me to the destination.  Minor adventures only, but I got the the monastery late in the afternoon.  I wish I could say I was well received, but these things don't always follow script.  The monk assigned to greet all foreign visitor was a cranky old grouch and gave me nothing but a hard time.  That I'm not a regular tourist was of no issue to him; that I was on foot meant nothing.  He brushed his hands together and told me where I slept was not his problem but it wouldn't be within the extensive and lengthy walls of the monastery.  It was an ugly situation and in the end, with no help, I could think of nothing to do but sleep another night in the desert outside the walls.  I asked for something to eat - got a small bowl of cold soup; I asked for a place to wash - got a cold shower in a filthy bathroom; I asked for an extra blanket since I wouldn't have the luxury of a fire - got a stinky, mildewy filthy old thing.  Ah well, I was too tired to suggest they rethink their idea of hospitality.  A shame, though.

I saw the monastery properly very early in the morning, before the rainy dawn, and climbed up to St Anthony's cave 1,000 feet higher up the canyon wall and enjoyed the tiny space with three Ukrainians - one a priest - who were having a little service there.  Experience on my pilgrimage to St Andrew two years ago allowed me to jump right in and join in the 'hospady pomiloy' chorus.  The rest of the soggy time at the monastery was soggy as well - I dared to ask for something to eat again and got a small bowl of cold beans and some cold feta cheese.  I still had some chocolate bars and peanuts the wonderful Coptics of Cairo set me off with.  It wasn't an issue of going hungry.

The monks refused outright to tell me the way over the mountain to the monastery of St Paul of the Desert, my next destination.  They were adamant that only by paying a Bedouin guide 1,000 pounds could I even consider it, but because I'm a woman, it's far too dangerous... arghhhhhhhh
Uncooperative at every turn.... they wouldn't reason with me and I was far too weary to fight... the Ukrainians came to my rescue and took me there by their little tour bus.  I enjoyed St Paul of the Desert only as a tourist, not as a pilgrim.  Still too beaten down by mean monks to argue, I took the sympathetic and well-intended advice of the Ukrainians and carried on with them to Hurghada where I can get a ship across the Red Sea to Sinai and continue on.  I want to walk, really and truly, but no pilgrim can do it without help.  The sexist pasty monks who live in modern comfort and have never left their walls on foot were unwilling to help and the Ukrainians helped the best they could.  Ukrainians have so often been extraordinarily good to me =)

The Coptics in Hurghada are making up for the sins of their cloistered brethren (it's pretty sinful to deny hospitality to a pilgrim).  I'm being well taken care of now as I wait until the ship sails tomorrow morning.  Onward to the monastery of St Catherine, a Greek Orthodox community and I'm assured they have guest houses just outside the walls to accommodate pilgrims.  The great pilgrimage continues.