I could write continuously for the next four weeks — not even stopping for meals — and not tell the entire story of my pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I have had Bible stories come to life before my eyes, had questions answered that I have pondered in my heart for decades and had many other questions raised — all while engaged in Christian fellowship with wonderful friends, new and old.
And since my bags must be packed and outside my door within the hour, I won’t even begin to try and tell the story of our trip for now, but I am sure it will come out in bits and pieces — a story here, a remembrance there, anecdotes along for the rest of my writing career, because I have experienced the kind of trip that stays with you for a lifetime.
I will share, however, as I sit next to my window in the Olive Tree Hotel in Jerusalem, looking out across the ancient city and its domes and turrets and the skyline, as it is, dotted with crosses and Stars of David, an observation or three about the last 10 days.
For one thing, travel groups seldom vary. The faces and names change, along with the shapes and sizes and ages, but there is always one of everything within a given group. It has been that way since I boarded that Trailways Golden Eagle in 1968, headed cross-country for Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico.
There is always the gentle soul who takes care of everyone else. Someone is always the life-of-the-party, there is always the person who emits such goodwill that they attract a crowd at meals. There is always someone who just can’t quite make it to the bus on time and someone who needs to run back for one last souvenir, and so forth.
You know all of these people, if you have ever traveled in a group, and you know that these are the people who collectively make travel so much fun. How dull the trips would be if we carried robots around the globe, all programmed to look and think and act exactly alike. I have had the privilege of being with 46 wonderful people, all of whom added spice and substance to our journey, and I will never forget any of them.
I have also learned — or been reminded again — that American showman P.T. Barnum knew exactly what he was talking about when he wrote, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
You can buy all sorts of things in the streets of these ancient cities and towns, for all sorts of prices. I traded a portrait of Andrew Jackson to a street merchant for a kaffiyah that I was certain made me look like Lawrence of Arabia — or at least Yasser Arafat. It was red and black, too. My favorite colors. I walked a block and a half and found a guy trading the same merchandise for portraits of Alexander Hamilton — who was never even president.
Holy Water was for sale everywhere, in little vials and medicine bottles. It came in many varieties — Jordon River, Dead Sea, Red Sea — although I am not sure whose blessings made it holy. I passed on the water. I did buy some dirt from the bottom of the Dead Sea, though, because it is supposed to make the parts of the body you rub it on seem 10 years younger. I can’t wait to get that stuff home and see if it works!
I have rubbed shoulders this week with Muslims, Christians and Jews, Israelis, Palestinians and Americans — and about 10,000 Japanese — and I have learned that on a day-to-day basis, most people just want to be left alone, to pursue their own happiness and try to make a living.
I have learned that young men standing guard with Uzis have very little sense of humor and that it is probably not a good idea to wear your brand new $20 kaffiyah on a tour bus with 45 other Americans as you cross a military checkpoint near the Jordanian. I also learned that if you choose to do so, your hotel room is not the ideal place to have left your passport.
I have learned, also, that blessings cannot be bought — only given — and I have received, as always seems to be the case — far more blessings than I could ever repay during this remarkable trip. My perspective on the region and her people will remain forever changed and I will read the Bible with brand new eyes when I get home and hear the old, old stories with brand new ears.
And I cannot wait to share what I have learned with those who have ears to hear.