Israel, Part III: Weekend Travel, Pictures

Happy 2018!

Despite good intentions, I never wrote that third reflection on this summer. Fall ’17 was a trial by fire. I’ve scarcely had time to reflect on some big life events that happened this semester, let alone the fact that I was in Israel this summer. Now that I’m on the other side of the fire, I’ve been able to reminisce and look through photos from the summer. Here are some pictures from my three weekend excursions.

Weekend One: Jerusalem

After the week-long pre-dig tour and a short excursion to Caesarea’s beach on Thursday, all of the student volunteers were dropped off unceremoniously at a train station and left us to fend for ourselves. Five other OU students and I caught a train to Jerusalem.

(One of my greatest fears about studying abroad before this trip was being in a country where I didn’t speak the language and having to get from one place to another using public transportation. Well, now I’ve been there and done that. It is a bit scary. But we did it.)

On Friday, our adventure began. Being a cheapskate, I starkly refused to take cabs anywhere, and as a result, three of the six of us walked 15 miles that day and got acquainted with the city in a way that wouldn’t have been quite the same otherwise. Brennan, Aaron, and I circled from our hotel around the southern periphery of the Old City and to the Mount of Olives.

The Garden of Gethsemane, gently surrounded by the Church of All Nations and fully enclosed by a wall covered in pink blossoms, was a sanctuary. Morning light shone through leaves of the twisted olive trees, and despite the presence of other visitors, the air was quiet. Through the peace of this garden I felt a sense of melancholy. I imagined Jesus’ sorrow as he prayed, “Not my will, but Yours.” And I felt an enormous sense of gratitude for what he did next.

After some more exploring at the Mount of Olives, the three of us gradually wandered through colorful, modern Jerusalem until we found the Mahane Yehuda marketplace, a culinary highlight of the city. Since sundown and Shabbat we quickly approaching, everyone was making a last-minute run to the store or the market to prepare for the coming day of rest. So, the market was packed. The narrow walkway was full of wheeled shopping bags, tourists like us, and fresh challah bread.

After afternoon naps, we met up with the rest of the OU group for dinner. We signed up for a program that matched us to a family in the neighborhood who would host us for a Shabbat meal. This meal was one of my favorite parts of this trip.

Our host family prepared for us and the other families around the table (from Poland, France, and Michigan) a complete five-course meal. The cuisine was European and Middle Eastern, a blend of influences from immigrants from around the world. Though the food was excellent, the best part about the meal was learning about Shabbat traditions from our host family.

The world really closes down for a day – the next day, we experienced the quiet streets for ourselves. All food is purchased, all meals are made ahead of time so that no work has to be done on the Sabbath. Little technology is allowed – if you need a piece of information, you may consult a book or a friend, but not Google. Most families don’t walk far or drive at all, and all public transportation is closed.

A day of true rest really is a gift. Why, I wondered, does much of the world forgo this gift? Are we really too busy, too important to take a day off? Experiencing Shabbat makes me want to incorporate a day of rest into my own schedule, no matter how much preparation and catching up that entails for the other six days. It would be worth the effort.


Weekend Two: Jerusalem again

On the second weekend, I returned to Jerusalem with a group of friends from the dig. We walked a lot this weekend, too, and got lost quite a few times.

We stayed in a hostel with beds on the rooftops with panoramic views of steeples and stars. (I slept inside, but the idea is romantic, isn’t it?)

This weekend, a fesitval of lights was going on throughout the Old City and the surrounding area.

Last weekend, the other OU students and I had taken a tour of the Old City during Shabbat. I enjoyed seeing the city then, but I felt rushed and a bit shortchanged by this tour. (The first stop on the tour was a “licensed” shop selling olive wood at exorbitant prices – though, just for us, the shopkeeper was offering everything at the store for half price! I felt a bit of Jesus’ anger when he turned the money-changers’ tables. The expensive shops gave the centuries-old streets the feel of a “den of thieves.” But I digress…) On the second weekend, I was able to wander through the Old City at a much more savory pace.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was an experience. I am still blown away by the sheer number of countries represented by the visitors to this church. My friends and I had a chat with a couple from Indonesia while waiting in a line.


Weekend Three: Ein Gedi, Masada, the Dead Sea

A dozen new friends and I rented a bus to take us three hours south to the desert (with the permission and help of our supervisors, of course). We encountered a strange, alien landscape.

Our first stop was the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve. We made a short hike to King David’s Waterfall.

Next stop: Masada. It was more spectacular than I imagined. Pictures do not do this place – or the view – justice.

I learned about the Siege of Masada during a class last spring and since then had been eager to visit. The story as told by Josephus is tragic. Here, the Romans, striving to regain control of Judea, besieged one of the last remaining groups of Zealots who took shelter in this fortress. When the Romans built a ramp up to the fortress and broke down the door, they found that the rebels had chosen death by suicide rather than surrender. After this, the Romans sold many of the Jews into slavery throughout the Mediterranean.

It was eerie walking through the places where these rebels had survived. It is miraculous that they were able to survive for so long in such conditions, in such a remote place.

We ended the day at the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is half its original size and only shrinking. I’m glad I got to see enjoy the bathlike, stinging, buoyant water this summer, because the Dead Sea might not exist for much longer.

Israel, Part II: Digging

My team and I found some cool things on this dig. For three weeks, I was assigned to an area near the headquarters of Legio, the home of the Roman VI Ferrata Legion (the “Iron Legion”).

Even though the pieces of pottery (called “sherds,” not “shards”)must remain in the lab or on site, I did find some intangible things that I am allowed to take home with me. Perhaps the most important finding: it’s all about context. There’s no use in finding objects without knowing where they came from. So, here’s a bit of context for what I did for three weeks in Israel.

See the teeny white dot near the trees in the distance? That’s our dig site!

Each day I was woken by a 4 a.m. alarm. In a semi-conscious state I’d get dressed, lace up my boots, apply the first coat of sunscreen, stumble downstairs to the kitchen, flip the switch on the electric kettle, and make a mug of tea with two teabags for extra caffeine. Then outside in the darkness I’d grab a few buckets from pottery washing the previous day to bring back to the dig site and wait with everyone else for the 5 a.m. arrival of the bus. We’d all board the bus and depart for the site, eating granola bars, listening to music, and silently savoring our last few moments of rest before the day began.

When the bus dropped us off in the field south of Megiddo that became so familiar, we’d immediately station ourselves tent posts and work together to raise the tarps that would shield us from the sun later in the day. After waiting a few minutes for adequate light and grabbing pickaxes, hoes, patiches (mini pickaxes), trowels, and a variety of brushes, we’d start to work.

The difficulty of the work varied depending on the contents of our square each day. If we were lucky enough to have some architectural stones in our squares, we’d use light tools to articulate their surfaces to make them nice and clean for the photographs. But most of the work was breaking ground and clearing away as much topsoil, sediment, and rocks as would fit in the buckets and hauling those buckets down to our pile of dirt, either to sift them in search of material culture or to dump them unceremoniously in a growing dirt-mountain.

Breaks came as a relief after hours of work in often-humid air or deceptive breezes that felt refreshing but actually dehydrated us. The first break of the day was breakfast, when we’d sit on grass mats and eat vegetables, eggs, hummus, bread, hazelnut spread, and peanut butter with dirty hands. The next break came closer to the end of the work day at 1 p.m., and often our supervisors would be kind enough to supply us with watermelon and popsicles.

The work, as I have said before, is not easy. I have never experienced such muscle pain before waking up on morning two after learning how to properly pickaxe on day one. Injuries are common. Though I luckily escaped with only one bruised fingernail, two scraped knees from two graceful falls while carrying buckets, and one head wound, I have heard stories about past volunteers losing fingers. And the combination of the heat, humidity, sun, and inhaled dust drained everyone and made early bedtimes a necessity.

Downside to head injury: blood. Upside: free bandana!

I gave up my sole for archaeology.

But despite the challenges, there were things that made the long work days fun. Herds of cows routinely visited before breakfast to keep us company. The more curious of them even hopped the fence to join us. The stunning sunrises, which came slightly after 5 a.m., more than justified our 4 a.m. alarms. And in my area (nicknamed “Lollipop Valley” by the second area, who often complained about how hard their supervisors worked them) we were seldom without good music supplied by one of the students or Dr. Cline.

The cows got too close to our squares, so we had to tell them to moove back.

Sunrises like these were usually accompanied by The Circle of Life from someone’s phone.

We found pottery. Lots of pottery that we’d have to wash back at the kibbutz later in the day. Many of us have experienced haunting dreams about washing pottery sherds. We also found lots of tiles that would have covered the roofs of the buildings in the camp, and bits of glass and shell.

Smiling through the pain

The long days of work made me appreciate things I often take for granted, like air conditioned buses, food, naps, a pool to take a dip into, clean laundry.

I did find some cool material culture on this dig, and I learned about archaeological techniques and skills like taking elevation points, keeping a field notebook, and keeping track of finds.

I would definitely return to Israel for another season to gain more knowledge and archaeological skills, but I’d especially want to come back for the camaraderie. Yes, digging brings people together.  It’s hard to spend a week with someone in a 1.5 meter deep hole brushing dirt off rocks without emerging friends.

Israel, Part I: History, Touring

I’ve just arrived home from four weeks in Israel. My circadian rhythm is in the middle of a 180. Thanks to the regularly early wakeup times combined with a significant difference in time zones between Fort Worth and Tel Aviv, I woke up at 2:30 am and crashed at 5:30 pm yesterday. My brain is fried, my eyes won’t stay open, my stomach is churning, my muscles are sore, my hands are calloused – but my heart is full.

I’ll start by giving an out-of-order run-down of the pre-dig tour, which lasted for a week before the start of the excavations at Legio and familiarized us with Israel’s rich archaeological history. Israel’s “old stuff” makes the United States’ and Europe’s seem young in comparison – it’s not just from one time period but from many. It’s probably impossible to throw a rock and not hit a tel, an artificial hill consisting of layer upon layer of civilization. On our dig, we found not only Roman ruins but also bits of material culture from the British Mandate period, the Ottoman occupation, and the Early Bronze age.

Case in point: Beit She’an is a small mountain of 18 distinct layers of human occupation. Eighteen!

Beit She’an was not the only tel we visited. We also observed the current excavations at Tel Kabri, a site where a large palace and evidence for large quantities of wine have been found. We hiked around the Tel Dan reserve with its massive fortress and arched gate known as Abraham’s Gate. And we were given a tour of Tel Hazor, with Late Bronze temples and administrative buildings that had been destroyed around the time of the Bronze Age collapse.

Tel Dan

Tel Hazor

The cities from the Hellenistic and Roman time periods helped us get an idea of what we would be looking for at Legio. We got a tour of Omrit, a complex of temples built in multiple phases. Hippos-Sussita, a town on top a mountain in the Golan Heights overlooking the blue Sea of Galilee, was a real feat of engineering with its water system and gate carved of basalt. Caesarea Maritima, Herod’s tribute to Augustus on the Mediterranean, is still impressive to this day and must have been especially so before its destruction by tsunamis. Sepphoris, one of my favorite places we visited on the tour, had lots of beautiful mosaics that have survived nicely. One of them the mosaic in the temple which depicts biblical characters and a menorah alongside a zodiac wheel around a sun god, is an interesting example of religious and cultural syncretism between the Romans and the local population.



Caesarea. The above picture is Herod’s swimming pool. I’m a little jealous.

One of Sepphoris’ main roads

One of the many mosaics at Sepphoris. Are they hugging? Wrestling? Waltzing?

A representation of the Nile and all the life that springs from it

Known as the Mona Lisa of the Galilee. Isn’t she lovely?

Zodiac wheel in the synagogue

Games carved into the road. Wish the Romans had left behind the instructions.

To round out the survey of Israel’s history we also saw examples of Crusader-era architecture. The fortress and tunnels at Akko were fun to explore, and so was Nimrod’s Fortress with its narrow spiral staircases, archer’s loops, pathways between mountaintops, and spectacular panoramic views.

Tunnels in Akko

Inside the fortress

Nimrod’s Fortress

Stay tuned for part 2 for pictures of the holes I spent three weeks in and part 3 for stories from my weekend excursions and overall reflections!

Adventures in Central Asia

Thanks to the provision of God and some wonderful family and friends who supported me, I had the opportunity to spend six weeks in Central Asia this summer making friends, learning the language and culture, helping with an English club, and seeing beautiful places with four fellow OU students.

(Note: the reason I say “Central Asia” and not the name of the country is that this country is becoming more and more difficult for Americans to visit. For the security of my friends there, I can’t give a lot of information about our program. But bear with me, and feel free to use your imagination and speculate where I was!)

My friends Erin, Anna, Dillon, Stephen and I spent the bulk of our time in a city of millions of people, with a few excursions and weekend trips to other parts of the country. The district we lived in was populated by universities, students, restaurants, pubs and coffee shops. So. Many. Coffee shops. Coffee culture has been introduced to the city in the past five years, and it is thriving.

The squad, from left to right: Stephen, Anna, Dillon, Erin, and me!

I wish I could sum up our six weeks in this post, but it’s impossible because each day was completely different. Some days, we volunteered our English speaking abilities at a neighborhood club for students and professionals seeking to improve their English. Other days, we set out into the city in search of good food, interesting places to shop, and friends to show us around.

This has been my first international trip longer than six weeks, and this six weeks has changed the way I see the world, people, America, and myself.

A warm welcome speaks volumes.

In Central Asia, we met some wonderful friends who took us around the city, to restaurants, and into their homes and places of worship. We were strangers in their country who spoke little of their language, got lost frequently, and asked lots of redundant questions, but they graciously helped us beyond pointing us in the right direction. If we needed a place to sit down and have coffee, they would come with us and chat for a while. If we wanted to purchase certain items, they took us to the best places to buy those things and then helped haggle the prices down.

Now that I’m back in the United States, I want to be the friend to international students that my friends in Central Asia were to me.

I recently heard the story of a student from Africa who studied in the United States for a total of eight years and was not once welcomed into an American’s home. And I’m sure he isn’t the only one. What does that say about Americans and our culture?

Love has no language.

Anna, Erin and I experienced significant language barriers this summer. We knew very little of the language coming into the country, and picked up some helpful words and phrases but were never conversational in the short period we were there. Thankfully, many of our friends speak English much better than we speak their language.

I struggled through some conversations when I wanted to explain complex things, and when I knew my friends wanted to explain complex things yet only a word or two was understood. I learned to listen well, and to explain things in creative ways that my friends understood, verbally and nonverbally.

But even though many things were unsaid because of the language barrier, our friendships did not suffer. Two of my closest friends in Central Asia do not speak much English, but I had many a wonderful time with them regardless. We swapped stories and talked about what true love is and whether it really exists and told each other our hardest struggles and biggest goals in life.

Love is not just words – love is actions. One friend I met, who hadn’t yet taken her year of English preparation and could only speak in broken phrases, said that she felt loved (as she made a hugging motion to her chest) by the way that me and my friends were talking to her, even though most of the words weren’t understood.

Love is listening and patiently striving to understand. Love is respecting the surrounding culture, and giving up rights and freedoms in order to build bridges instead of walls. Love is seeking to know another person and everything that makes up who she is – her family, her interests, her quirks, her beliefs, her view of the world.

In America, I take my privileges for granted. And to effectively learn about and live in another culture, I need to lay down my privileges, expectations and rights.

I like having a personal space bubble with a two- or three foot radius. I like it when everybody obeys traffic rules and abides by the law. I like being familiar with currency, food, public transportation, toilets. I like knowing exactly what kind of meat I’m eating when I stop at a food stand or a diner.

I like to make appointments with my friends and have them arrive and leave on time. I like being able to speak the language of my country and understand what passers-by around me are saying.(Unrelated tangent: I learned on this trip how helpful knowing another language can be when traveling, even if it’s not the national language. I encountered several people in Central Asia who did not speak English, but did speak German, so I got to put my German speaking abilities to the test! I’m barely functional in German, but those encounters gave me the motivation to keep improving it.)

I like having the freedom to criticize the president, or the legislature, or politicians, or the law, when I feel they are unjust or unscrupulous. I like to read news uncensored by the government. I like  that if ever accused of a crime, I’ll be innocent until proven guilty. I like going where I want, when I want, and not having my motives scrutinized.

I like life to be predictable, controllable and safe. I like to run around my neighborhood and know the only things I’ll have to avoid in my route are construction zones, not political rallies. I like not having to worry whether my friends and family were in the wrong place, at the wrong time when I hear there’s been a bombing in a large public area and dozens were injured and killed.

I harbor expectations for life that differ from those around the world. In the United States, all of these things that I like are seen not as privileges, but as expectations, as standards of normalcy. But in Central Asia, life didn’t always work exactly as I wanted it to.

If I had entered the country expecting things to be exactly as I like them, I would have been shocked. Much of the culture shock I experienced was caused by differences that are neither good nor bad, just different. I learned to take the word “weird” out of my vocabulary. “Different” does not mean “weird” or “abnormal.” If my friends from Central Asia visited Oklahoma, there would certainly be elements of American culture to which I’m accustomed that they would find different, too.

The political turmoil I described affected the people I encountered in day-to-day life even more deeply than they did me. The residents of the city I called home for a mere six weeks were caught up in a conflict that they, too, had no control over, conflict in the city they call home permanently, the city that many have called home for their entire lives and have no desire to leave. Now that I am home, I can mentally process all the things I experienced, but my friends must go about their normal lives.

Yes, all of the above list were things that I had to let go of this summer. But for the sake of cross-cultural understanding and growth and my new friends, who have become very dear to me, laying down all of these things has been more than worthwhile.


More than a month later, I’m still thinking through all of the things that happened this summer and the implications of what I’ve learned. Some of those thoughts will likely end up here in the near future. Until next time,