Zion and Bryce Canyon

Southwestern Utah is home to part of the Colorado Plateau, a massive chunk of land that has been pushed nearly 2 miles above its original altitude and slowly carved back down over millions of years. My friend Michael and I decided to take a hiking trip down here, to explore the purported beauty of these geological structures and work out our legs climbing up and down the Grand Staircase.
We got to Las Vegas and drove through the Nevada Desert. We followed highways that curved around mountains and through canyons, with the brown desert extending as far as we could see in the sunset. Even this rugged landscape had the beauty of the desert, as the mountain peaks stood picturesque next to long, flat, highways. 

Eventually, we got to Mt. Carmel Junction, a small town where our hotel is located. Turns out, it’s a hotel, gas station, restaurant, and golf course, one of three or four enterprises in this town. What we thought would be a Best Western turned out to be Thunderbird, a cool old diner straight out of a movie.

After getting settled, we went to Zion National Park, a hiker’s paradise on earth. My friend had been talking up this hike called Angel’s Landing, which was about 5 miles with a 1500 ft elevation gain. We went straight there, walking uphill for hours on winding switchbacks, until we got to the actual Angel’s Landing trailhead. This 1/2 a mile scramble is along the spine of a ridge, with sheer walls on both sides as you crawl along the etched out trail. A chain is there (but my friend and I agreed, largely unnecessary on the way up) and as long as you were smart, it’s a manageable but intense hike. So we did it, hugging the cliff face as we scooted along, climbing over ledges as we peered down to thousand foot drop offs on our left and right, and crab walking back down to keep our sanity. The view was spectacular since the Zion Valley was right there in all its glory for us to behold. A crazy cool hike to start off this trip!

The next day, we drove about an hour north to get to Bryce Canyon. Another friend (also Michael, who I went to Mammoth Cave with) told me that this was one of the coolest parks he had visited. And he was right! Before we started, we met up with Laura’s brother Ken (Laura who took me to Cleveland) who is on a cross-country road trip and happened to be in the area. Together, the three of us descended into the Bryce amphitheater, gazing at the towering hoodoos that covered the canyon walls. These hoodoos were formed from rainwater seeping into cracks in these rocks and freezing and melting over and over for millennia. The towers of red and white rocks constantly shifted as we moved, creating an illusion of a dynamic, fluid landscape that is both still and beautiful. Here are a bunch of panoramas I took, since each turn was a new perspective on the incredible scenery.

So far, we have visited two of the three National Parks in the Grand Staircase. More Zion to come, hopefully, and then down to the last park, the Grand Canyon, to complete our tour of this incredible geological wonderland.

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CLE (aka Cleveland)

A few months ago, my friend Laura asked me if I would want to visit her hometown in Cleveland. Despite some (wrong) ideas about what Cleveland was like, I agreed to go, and learned that Cleveland is a real gem of a city, one that is coming back to life as we speak.


Laura and my roommate Danny (who is also from Cleveland) started me off with Cedar Point. They kept building and building it up, and it surpassed all my expectations! We had a blast flying 93 mph down the Millenium Force, taking a 95 degree drop on the Maverick, and hanging 200 feet in the air over the drop on the Valravn! The coasters were crazy and we had a blast speeding down the metal rails all day long.


The next day, Laura and I explored the cultural side of Cleveland. That meant we went down to the Cleveland art museum, Little Italy, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Danny met us later in the day, and the three of us ended up at Melt, where I got a deep fried grilled cheese sandwich with powdered sugar and a berry dipping sauce. What, who would eat that, you may ask? I would. Delicious. 

Laura and I finished off our trip with a few more food stops. We went to Laura’s favorite ice cream shop with her friend Taylor.  Honey Hur serves amazing ice cream made with real honey and real flavors that just melted over your tongue with every bite. Our last stop was the Cleveland market, where we got gyros and crepes and gawked over candies, breads, meats, and cheeses.  

Cleveland, contrary to popular opinion, is a crazy cool city. Yeah, it’s had a bit of a rough patch, but the new city center paired with the old CLE culture gives the place both a homey and a hip vibe. The foods awesome, the attractions are world class, and the city is open, waiting to transform its next visitor. And to top it off, I got to spend loads of time with some of my best friends, making my time in Cleveland one I won’t forget. 

The Abbey of Gethsemani

This past week was our spring break.  Most of my friends headed out of town immediately after their last class, but I hung around for a few days before driving down to Bardstown, Kentucky to spend a week at the Abbey of Gethsemani. After a 2.5 hour drive, I pulled into the huge monastery, situated among the beautiful, rolling Kentucky hills. 
  

I checked in, got settled in my room, and entered into the monastic silence. The abbey is run by the Trappist monks, also known as the Order of Cistercians of Strict Observance, who practice a very intense monasticism. Though they do not take vows of silence, they maintain silence throughout the day and night, in addition to regular fasting, vows of poverty and chastity, and lots of prayer.
So what did I do for four days in a silent abbey? I prayed the Liturgy of the Hours with the monks, a set of 7 prayer services a day that start at 3:15 am and continue regularly until 8 pm when the monks go to bed. I also read, enjoyed the good Trappist cheese and fudge, and spent time journaling, reflecting, praying alone, and enjoying the quiet time.
  

In addition to the huge, simple, church, the monks maintain some huge grounds where there are a bunch of hiking trails. So I hiked in the mornings alone, enjoying the solitude and peace in nature, then spent time alone in the afternoons between prayer services. 
   
   

These monks live incredible lives, totally dedicated to worshipping God all the days of their lives. The abbey is truly a place of worship.  As one’s thoughts settle in the permeating silence, you easily come to find God in the beauty of nature, worship, and solitude.
  

Mammoth Cave: Crawling, Climbing, and Sliding through the World’s Largest Cave

This weekend a friend and I headed down to Kentucky to Mammoth Cave National Park. We both had wanted to visit the park, which protects the largest cave system in the world, with over 400 miles mapped out! We had decided that we could do the “Wild Cave Tour,” billed as “extremely strenuous” (although reviews and the website said it was ok for people in decent shape who can walk a few miles and climb up some stairs). Not knowing what to expect, we headed out excited and a little nervous!


We got to the park, got on our tour, met the guides, and changed into our caving jumpsuits and helmet lanterns. Then, they took us down into the cave, where we hiked, crawled, slid, climbed, and wiggled our way through 5 miles of tunnels, canyons, crevices and paths.  As you might imagine, the cave is pitch black and our headlights were the only light, and cameras were not recommended anyway, so I don’t have any pictures of us in the cave. But, to give you an idea, here is one from the visitor center of ‘canyon walking,’ where you put one foot and one arm on one side of a canyon and the other foot and arm on the other side:
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Needless to say, my friend and I got dirty, and had an awesome time! We had a caving adventure, as we squeezed through holes just big enough for our shoulders, crawled through the “Cheese Grater” tunnel, bouldered up rocky vertical paths, and gazed at the beautiful caverns, canyons, pits, waterfalls, and rock formations that we passed in a wildly diverse geological formation.  To top it all off, we got to go into parts of the cave most people don’t see, and parts that the National Park Service doesn’t even put on their map! (See the arrow pointin into the darkness for the “Wild Cave Tour?!)

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As you can tell from the smiles  on our faces, we had an amazing time after 6 hours in the caves! A challenge, but not impossible, and full of awesome memories, unique experiences, and a couple of sore muscles.

*Note: Credit for these two photos goes to the National Park Service, taken solely to show family and friends some examples of how wild our trip was!

From Akko With Love, and Euro-Layover Round 2

 After two weeks abroad, a layover in Madrid, and another adventure in London, I made it back home safe and sound, and with some extra stamps and stickers in my passport. 

The last few days in the Galilee were amazing. My group visited Nazareth and Cana, two very important sites in the life of Jesus. We stopped by the churches there, which commemorate the Annunciation and the Wedding at Cana.  Luckily, we visited on January 6, which is when the Eastern Churches celebrate Christmas and the Western Church celebrates epiphany, so there were some services going on with great music echoing throughout the large stone structures. 

   
   

We also visited the Golan Heightta, exploring beautiful hills, waterfalls, and some more ancient ruins. We saw the only (and oldest) mud-brick gate in the world that is still preserved, marking the wall of an ancient city of Northern Israel. We also stopped by the Temple of Pan in Cesaria-Philippie, where the Romans held ceremonies for the god Pan who brought humans out of the wilderness into civilization, and where interestingly, Christ revealed himself to his disciples as the Messiah. 

   
   

Perhaps the most exciting part of the trip for me was when my uncles picked me up outside of Nazareth and we headed to the city of Akko on the coast. Interesting in its own right, Akko holds a special place in my heart because my father was born and raised there. So, my uncles and I went down to the old city, exploring the narrow streets and fish markets. To top it off, we found the home my dad grew up in and the family happily invited us inside for coffee! 

   
   
  
    
  
Then, my uncles took me to Rame, where more of my family lives. They cooked me a feast, with rice, chicken, olives, leban (yogurt), pita, salads, and more. After dinner, one uncle told me I had more family nearby in Pki’in, so we headed up the mountain to visit them. They were so excited to see new, hugging and kissing me and offering us plenty of food and drink. What a family I have, and what an exciting chance to see them all at once!
  
 
I fully intended this last picture to be the end of this series of posts, but after a delayed flight from Tel-Aviv, I got stuck in London for 24 hours waiting for the next flight to Dallas. The airlines put me and about 10 others up in a nearby hotel, and with some time to kill, a few of us headed downtown to th city! I gave them a quick tour of the main sights since I had been to London about 18 months ago, and we had a great time seeing the bustling city at night. I didn’t think I would be back so soon but I’m glad I made the most of it and got to see some more stuff on this never-ending trip!

   
  

    
  
And for comparison, here is a picture from 2014:

  

Anyway, I made it home safe and sound, with some great memories and experiences all over. Somehow I got to see the Holy Land and Madrid and London, not to mention long-lost family and tons of great places in Jerusalem and the Galilee. The trip was absolutely wonderful and I would do it all again. I’m very thankful for the opportunity to have yet another adventure, and it couldn’t have been better. Thanks for reading and I hope you all enjoyed the stories as much as I did! Until my next time, Akko!
  

Along the Sea

We made it to the Sea of Galilee. I don’t think words can describe the all encompassing beauty of the place, so maybe this picture will suffice:

  
The Sea is astounding, inviting me into a reflective, solemn state every time I look at it. No wonder Jesus made this his home during his years of ministry.

To start, we traveled up to the coast. On our way, we stopped in the Judean desert, where the monastic tradition developed. Like the Sea of Galilee, the Judean desert was a vast expanse of hills, nearly silent as the wind blew threw the caverns. Here, we saw the beautiful St. George Monestary, tucked away in the hillside. Again, the site drew me into a reflective state, and luckily one of my friends got a snapshot of me gazing upon the vastness of it all. And to top it off, we visited the Jordan River, where Christ was baptized long long ago.
   

   
  

   

Next, we passed through a number of ruins, visiting old Roman and Byzantine sites. These sites let us peer into the past to see these ancient ways of life. The remains tell us a story of a Roman-Christian-Jewish mixture of cultures, where the faiths and traditions appropriated from and mingled with each other to create a fluid evolution of ideas. What we see are mosaics and synagogues and churches with various symbols both inside and outside of their particular faith tradition, borrowing elements from a number of seemingly conflicting sources.  

   
   

Then, we made it to the Galilee. Here, about 3/4 of the Gospel events take place, and we passed through many of them in conjunction. We saw the Mount of the Beatitudes, the Church of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, Capernaum, Peter’s House, and of course, the sea itself. This tour of Christ’s ministry was moving and peaceful, as one could stand in awe of some of the biblical stories while turning one’s head to gaze out at the breathtaking sea. 
This trip has brought the biblical stories alive. Although many of the sites are symbolic representations of actual events and are not the true locations of certain things, the spiritual milieu and aura around them reminds one of the power of the Scriptures.  Whatever the true facts are, at least this much is clear: for thousands of years, this part of the world has been inhabitated by people who have given us one of the most foundational texts in the Western canon. Christ lived here, working, preaching, and ministering while spreading a message of love and peace. Today, I sleep well alongside the shores of the Galilee, remembering that I’m walking where Christ once walked.
   
    
  

Bethlehem, Bad Weather, and My Last Days in Jerusalem

Plans change sometimes, and the more you travel, the better you are at going with the flow. So when it started raining here in Jerusalem and the streets became flooded in the southern desert due to the runoff water from the Holy City and kept us from going to the Dead Sea, I figured that it could be worse and that changing plans is part of life. The heavy rains also stopped us from visiting the large outdoor markets, so we have spent a lot of time inside, getting some much needed rest from walking 9+ miles each day since we got here. And if the Jerusalemites are inside when it rains, it seems fitting that we should be too. When in Jerusalem, do like Jerusalemites.

So what did we do? We had more lectures on various topics from food to films, archaeology to the Oslo negotiations, and mummies to ancient cups. All of the lectures have been riveting, since they have highlighted issues within the state from a variety of vantage points, mingling ancient and modern problems with the messy situations to try to pinpoint the areas of tension throughout the state.  For me, what has emerged is an incredibly nuanced and dynamic understanding of the forces at work here that somehow, despite all odds, holds a steady yet precarious balance.

Now, these past few days were not all indoors. The highlight was our excursion to Bethlehem, where we visited the famous Church of the Nativity. Built in the basilica style by Constantine, the Church is one of the few Roman structures that was not destroyed by the Persians, because the mosaics in the sides depicted the three wise (and importantly, Persian) men giving gifts to Christ. The Orthodox Church had a number of icons, but was under extensive renovation. Nonetheless, we entered into the small grotto where Christ is traditionally said to have been born, feeling a spiritual presence even if the site itself is symbolic.

  
   
 
Then, we visited the Shepherd’s Fields, an old system of grottos overlooking the Palestinian countryside. The shepherds used to sleep in these grottos, humble workers whose lives were close to nature, dirty, and simple. As noted in the Gospels, Christ’s birth is announced to the shepherds, indicating the importance of the poor and simple, that Christ comes for everyone, including especially those who are socially the weakest. And later, Christ becomes the shepherd, a humble leader of the humble, a guider of us, the flock.

   
   

In addition to this, we went to the Israel Museum, and later the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. The visits were interesting (but I didn’t take any pictures….), as we looked into the Dead Sea scrolls, ancient artifacts, and the modern government right across the street. And of course, I’ve had many more excursions back to the old city of Jerusalem, having fun running around slick cobblestone covered in the scent of spices and the weight of hundreds of years of history.

   
   
 

 
Lastly, one of the most exciting things that has happened has been meeting my family! My dad’s mother’s brother’s kids were all here, due to some unfortunate circumstances, but somehow, I have been blessed enough to see them all together even though most don’t live here. My family is from all over the world, including the USA, London, Greece, Cyprus, Oman, even South Africa.  Even more amazingly, this is the first time that most of their children have seen all of these aunts and uncles together at once, and their children are older than me. All in all, an incredible coincidence that seems like more than a coincidence, and a beautiful reconnection with much long lost family.