Monday, April 28, 2014

Fantasyland for the Faithful

Jesus Birthplace
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL: This is my final stop on this my fourth trip around the world and what a better place to be than Jerusalem, the fantasyland for the faithful of the three major western religions and their various offshoots. At the Jaffa Gate Tour Information office, I am told I can choose between a Christian or Jewish tour of the Old City. I ask, “What about a secular tour?” The response is a puzzled look. I decide to go it alone, at least for the Old City. From the Tower of David I have a 360 degree view of the Old City, from where I see where Jesus’ last supper was held, where he was crucified, where he was buried, where he preached the sermon on the mount, and where he ascended into heaven. I see also where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac and, to my surprise, where Adam was buried (hint: the same place Jesus was crucified). Less than an hour’s drive into Bethlehem I see the caves where the shepherds lived, where Jesus was born, and where the Virgin Mary shed some milk while breastfeeding the Christ Child on their return from Egypt. On my way to Jericho, I see where the Good Samaritan helped the injured traveler and in Jericho the tree that Zacchaeus climbed to catch a view of Jesus. When and wherever I have the opportunity, I ask, “Who decided that this is where such and such happened and when was this decision made?” The responses I get are all over the board: “Why are you asking that? It’s in the Bible.” “Are you an agnostic?” “It’s tradition.” Sometimes the answers are more thoughtful; “Empress Helena, mother of King Constantine, in 325 CE determined where Jesus was crucified.” “The Crusaders decided where Mary’s milk was spilt.” But sometimes the responses can also be surprisingly candid: “The tree is only 1,000 years old, so Zacchaeus could never have sat in it,” or “The archeological record shows that Jericho wasn’t occupied during Biblical times, so maybe the story of Jericho in the Bible isn’t even true.” 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Mere Mortals Couldn’t Have Done This

Church of Saint George
LALIBELA, ETHIOPIA: I visit the eleven monolithic stone churches of Lalibela, built in the early 13th century by King Lalibela. As my guide and I approach the first church, the Church of Saint George, my guide drowsily says, “This is my church. I was baptized here. I go to mass here every morning from 5:30 to 6:30. It’s how I start my day.” I understand now why he sounds only half awake. In a hardly audible monotone voice, he continues with his script, “Laibella built these churches with the help of angels.” “Angels!” I interrupt, trying to spark a little life in him. “Yes, angels. I will explain. Lalibela was a good king, who was poisoned by his brother. When he died his soul went to heaven where he met God, who told him that he had to return to earth and build these churches. God explained exactly how He wanted the churches built. After three days, Lalibela’s soul returned to his body and he rose from the dead and began building the churches. To help him complete the task, God sent angels to help him. The next church we visit, he explains, as though reading directly from his script, “At Lalibela’s direction, the angels built this church in just one night. “Is this something you actually believe?” I ask. “Yes, of course,” he says, suddenly awake. “It’s the truth. It’s part of our religion like the death, resurrection, and ascension of Saint Mary.” He’s awake now and that should bode well for the rest of the tour. I must admit, it’s hard to imagine mere mortals carving these massive churches out of stone.

Easter in Ethiopia

Blue Nile
BAHIR DAR, ETHIOPIA: I arrive early Easter Sunday morning. The streets are filled with women in flowing white dresses and men dressed in suits. People stand outside an overflowing Orthodox Church. As I enter the hotel, I slip on the reeds that have been strewn over the floor. The receptionist in the same colorfully embroidered white flowing dress cheerily greets me, “Happy Easter.” My guide explains that 60% of the population is Orthodox and 30% Muslim. Our first objective is to visit two 14th century Orthodox Churches on an island on Lake Tana, the second largest lake in Africa. A deacon of one of the churches takes over as my guide. When I ask how did Christianity come to Ethiopia, he reads from the Book of Acts, which describes an encounter between the Apostle Philip and an Ethiopian prince. “But it wasn’t until the 4th century that Ethiopia was declared a Christian nation,” He explains. The inside walls of the two churches are covered with 16th century religious mosaics, most of them depicting the life, death, and resurrection of the Virgin Mary. I ask, “In what book are these events described.” He responds, “In the Book of Saint Mary.” I leave the island and with my driver head for the Blue Nile water falls. Along the way we encounter a group of men slaughtering a cow in an open field surrounded by a gaggle of vultures. “Those men,” he explains, “Are dividing up the meat from the cow. It’s an Easter tradition.” Back at the hotel, I retire early to the odd blend of the amplified sounds of distant church and mosque chanting. I’m thinking, “It’s not too bad, I should be able to sleep.” But as the night progresses the cacophony of sounds increase. It’s as if they are in competition with each other. I get little sleep and the next morning I overhear two Brits complaining to the Hotel Manager. “What was all that noise?” The manager smiles, “It comes from the church and the mosque about a kilometer from here.” “Do they always do that?” “Yes, from eleven to eight in the morning.” They may have been especially loud last night because, as you know, [stupid] it’s Easter.”

Friday, April 18, 2014

We Are Now One People

IGALI, RWANDA: “I was ten when my family escaped to Uganda. Back then everyone was issued an ID card that indicated whether one was a Tutsi or a Hutu. With the ID cards they knew where Tutsis lived and how many were in their household. They would set up roadblocks and ask for identification. If you were a Tutsi, they would hack you to death. They also told people to gather in certain locations where they said they would be protected. Once there, they would kill them. [According to the Genocide Museum in Igali, churches were often designated as safe gathering places, where the clergy themselves then carried out the killings]. Over a million Rwandans were slaughtered in this way; orchestrated by the government then. Those people are now on the run, some in Canada, in Europe, and especially in France. Efforts are underway to capture them and bring them back to justice. They can receive anywhere from five years to life in prison. [According to the Genocide Museum only seventeen people out of eighty-eight indicted have been sentenced so far.] What’s important though is that we are all one people now. Those ID card are gone. No way to tell us apart. The only reason there was any distinction in the first place is because the Belgium colonists wanted to distinguish between those who had cows and those who didn’t. The Tutsis were those who had cows and the Hutu did not. If a Tutsi lost his cow, he became a Hutu. That’s how silly the system was. Otherwise, there was nothing like religion or tribal affiliation to distinguish between us [According to the Genocide Museum, you were a Tutsi if you had ten cows]. The above is what my guide told me on the way to the gorilla safari lodge.

A Museum Plaque
Later, another guide told me: “I was nine when my family and I escaped to Uganda. Uganda is only twenty miles from here, but it was still difficult to get to because the Hutu were everywhere, and everywhere I saw killings, women raped and battered to death with hammers and hatches. Children and babies cut to pieces. No one was spared. We now, looking back, don’t understand how this could have happened. How neighbors who worked together and played together, could kill each other? The only explanation was that Hutus were told to do this by the government, who said the Tutsis’ cows would then be theirs. [According to the Genocide Museum, the genocidal propaganda implemented by the Hutu government had been building for years before April 7, 1994, when all hell broke loose]. But now all this is over. Everyone was given a cow. We are now one people. Some still suffer from the trauma. My older sister has nightmares, but I don’t. I’m strong. The Rwandan people are strong. We are now all working together for a better Rwanda. [According to the Genocide Museum, many people continue to suffer from the trauma, but there are scant resources to do anything about it]. That trauma was apparent in the tears and gasps of the many of the Rwandans visiting the museum.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Gorilla Trek or Trick

SABYINYO VOLCANO, RWANDA: One of our two guides points to a volcano mountain partially hidden in a cloud. “Our trackers tell us we will find the gorillas over there on the slope of the Sabyinyo, where Rwanda, the Congo, and Uganda meet. We may encounter an elephant or a mountain buffalo on the way so for our protection, the three gentlemen over there with the AK-47 rifles will accompany us. They won’t kill them, mind you, but simply try to scare them away.” There are six of us tourists; one, of whom asks, “How far do we need to hike before we see the gorillas?” “Our trackers tell us five hours. We’ll spend an hour with the gorillas. It should take us three hours to get back — so nine hours total.” The guide explains that the trackers find where the gorillas are nesting the evening before, than early in the morning go to their nest and follow their foraging trail. “There should be seventeen gorilla in the family we see,” our guide continues, showing us pictures of each of the gorillas and their dates of birth. “There are a total of eighteen gorilla families in the area. We have been assigned to the Hirwa family.” As we set off, we are each issued a walking stick. The ground is slippery and muddy. I’m wondering how my quasi-boots are going to hold up. We pass a few small potato patches before heading into a bamboo forest. The walking, although sometimes steep and slippery, isn’t difficult. Our guide stops in an opening that gives us a panoramic view of the valley behind us and announces, “I have news: we have only three more hours.” But then the landscape abruptly changes, from the bamboo forest to a hilly terrain of thick low bushes; so thick that we have to walk over them rather around them. It’s not easy and I often stumble and fall. “How am I going to do this for another three hours?” I ask myself out of breath. I see the others are struggling too, but they are all at least a third my age and looking very fit. Another half hour and we reach a spot where the mountain drops off sharply and where we see miles more of the bush that we’ve been struggling to get through. It’s the young woman in our group who breaks the silence and whispers, “There’s a gorilla down there!” The rest of us don’t see it and the guides laugh, “It’s just a mountain buffalo.” The young lady persists, “I swear I saw a gorilla there.” The guides, smiling, finally relent, “Yes, this is where the gorillas are.” They had been playing a trick on us. They knew it wasn’t going to take three hours to get to the gorillas, but even if it had the encounter would have been well worth it.