Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Cities of the Bible

For the past three days we have been docked in Haifa, Israel.  I had the wonderful opportunity to make two day-long trips to cities tied to Jesus: the first day to Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and today to Nazareth, Capharnaum, and Galilee. It has been an eye-opening experience in more ways than one.

On Monday’s crew tour, our first stop was Bethlehem.  We were greeted by Palestinian security upon driving into the town.  I knew there were a number of pockets of Palestinian governed land in Israel, but was unaware that Bethlehem was one of them.  Our tour guide, Leah, was not allowed to work in this territory, so a second guide boarded our bus to show us the way through town.  Within Bethlehem, there were people of many faiths living seemingly peacefully and respectfully with one another.  The locals were incredibly kind and willing to share any knowledge they had with you.  While in Bethlehem, any time I sneezed I was met with a clear and meaningful “May God bless you”, as opposed to the mumbled “bless you” you might get if you’re lucky in the western world.

After navigating the old streets, we came to the Church of the Nativity, a 1700 year old church built over the grotto where Jesus Christ was born.  There are 3 sections within the Church: the Aramaic Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic places of worship.  In the ruins directly below the Greek Orthodox altar is the place Mary gave birth.  Typically is it a 2+ hour wait to get in to those caves, but the tour guide and guards discreetly allowed me in through the exit door with two others from the crew.  It was a very emotional experience to visit this location.  Below is a picture of the star marking the birthplace, and us girls sitting in front of where the manger stood:

Leaving Bethlehem, security was even tighter.  Palestinian guards armed with machine guns boarded our bus for a scan before we could be cleared to exit.  It is disheartening that people who otherwise exist so peacefully mere steps away, despite their differences, are so aggressive and hostile over land that truly doesn’t belong to us as a species at all.

Next up was Jerusalem, where we walked through the Jaffa Gate down the Trail of Agony on our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulture.  Inside are chapels belonging to all denominations of the Christian faith.  After following the actual steps of the stations of the cross, I came to the outside of the tomb where Jesus was buried and rose again.  The line was long and there was no sneaking in this time, but I got close:

Leaving the church we passed through the Jewish Quarter to the Western Wall, before heading back to the ship:

Today’s journey began with circular drive around the Sea of Galilee and a stop at the Jordan River Baptismal Site.  Our visit was quite moving.  First of all, the river and the scenery are breathtakingly beautiful.  You are able to walk right into the river if you wish.  There were also many groups from around the world who were there to be baptized for the first time in the same waters Jesus was baptized in.  Despite the language barriers, the feelings of joy and serenity at this symbolic place were palpable and brought everyone together:

Next we drove to the top of the Mount of Beatitudes.  A church now stands there where Jesus once blessed the masses with a stunning view overlooking the Sea of Galilee:

Next we headed to Tabgha, the place where Jesus turned 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish into food for thousands.  You can see the rock on which this miracle was performed peeking out from below the altar in this church:

Afterwards, it was on to Capharnaum, where Jesus spent his earlier years.  Saint Peter’s house can be seen underneath the raised modern church.  The house is just outside the old synagogue, where is it said Jesus gave shared of his first teachings:

Finally, after lunch we came to Nazareth.  The Basilica of the Annunciation is a beautiful two-story church.  Below, an altar is placed in the grotto where Mary was visited by the angel and told she was to give birth to Jesus.  Above, a grand worship space with wonderful mosaic depictions of Mary from every country:

Just a few steps away is the modern St. Joseph’s Church, built above where Joseph’s carpentry shop once stood:

Overall, it has been a very spiritual few days.  This time for prayer and reflection is just what I needed as this contract comes to a close.  I am thankful for the opportunities to perform, for all my unique experiences abroad, and for the loving arms that will welcome me home in just 5 days!

God bless,


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Elephants, and Monkeys, and Fish, Oh My!

Asian recap #2.

On a tour in Koh Samui (Koh Suh-moo-ee), Thailand I became one with the wildlife!  The colorful temple tour included several bonus stops to see the native animals.  My first encounter was completely unintentional, but completely worth it.  I passed a fish spa and couldn’t help stopping by for a very unique pedicure.  Toothless fish commonly known as Doctor Fish eat the dead skin off your feet.  It is definitely ticklish for a minute or so, but then just feels tingly as if your feet fell asleep (minus the muscle cramping):

 The cast of the baby elephant show was both athletic AND artistic!  They showed off their dunking ability, then played us sweet sounds on their harmonicas:

At the coconut plantation, I bonded with one of the workers.  He climbs trees and picks coconuts all day, but took the time to stop for a photo op with me:

Tomorrow’s recap takes us back to China!

So Long Hong Kong

I am now heading back westward on the last leg of my contract.  As we leave Asia, it’s time to recap some of the highlights I’ve not yet written about. This will be a trilogy.  Let’s start with Hong Kong, shall we?

We spent a number of days docked in Hong Kong, but what was the very first thing I chose to do there?  You guessed it:

Hong Kong Disneyland is the smallest of the Disney parks, but it was definitely work the trip.  They have two unique sections including Mystic Point and Toy Story Land:

 Mystic Point features a ride called Mystic Manor, which is set up similarly to the Haunted Mansion but with a different premise.  An early 20th-century style treasure hunter welcomes you into his home to view his many one-of-a-kind artifacts.  His most recent find is a jewelry box topped with an enchanted ruby than when touched, brings intimate objects to life.  The treasure hunter’s companion is an Abu-inspired mischievous monkey named Albert.  Albert cannot help himself, and grabs for the ruby, causing all sorts of mayhem (sound familiar?).  Thus begins an exciting ride full of dancing statues, creepy-crawly scarabs, and even self-operating weapons.  It was a great time.

Several guests from a previous cruise were staying in an owner’s suite at The Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong while we were there, and they invited us over for a cocktail party!  It was interesting to see how the other half lives:

 On my second stay in Hong Kong I was able to visit Victoria Peak, where I enjoyed the view and made some new friends who were on a field trip and wanted to practice their English with me:

Our tour also stopped at several other sites visited in the movie Love Is A Many Splendored Thing.  Shout out to my grandmother, since it’s her favorite movie.  Since she wasn’t here, I made the trip for her.

Come back for part two later!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Nagasaki – Atomic Bomb Museum and Peace Park

If you were to walk about in Nagasaki today, you would never suspect you were walking through what was an atomic graveyard less than 70 years ago.  That is until you enter the Matsuyama-Machi area, which houses the Atomic Bomb Museum and Peace Park.

I did not have the opportunity to visit the Memorial Museum while we were in Hiroshima, so it was important to me that I go this site today.  It has been so exciting to play with indigenous animals and experience the cultures of the countries I’ve visited, but I believe that a visit to a historical site such as this cannot be passed up.  It is important to remember such events so we can learn from them.  I was too humbled to take many pictures, but I will do my best to explain the gravity of my visit in words.

To call the visit heavy would be an understatement.  Our lecturer on board told me before I left, “Remind yourself of the context in which the event happened.”  Once I got there, I understood why.  Without recognizing that this was an act of war (considered necessary at the time), it makes the actions America took all the more monstrous, and quite frankly, evil.

Upon entering the museum, there is a hallway of pictures from pre-August 1945 Nagasaki.  Packed streetcars, children playing, women praying - a typical town scene from the first half of the 20th century.  As you walk down this hallway, there is the constant sound of an anxious clock ticking.  Turning the corner, the clock stops and is replaced with the sound of an explosion.  The wall ahead is made up of television screens showing footage of the mushroom cloud caused by the plutonium bomb the United States dropped on Nagasaki, Japan at 11:02 am on August 9th, 1945.  Next is a clock recovered from the debris, presumably the one that “stopped ticking”, with its hands frozen at 11:02.

The next dark room is filled with recovered rubble, twisted metal, charred concrete.  A bent fire tower to the right, a warped water tower on the left, a 3x3 foot square of surviving wall from an elementary school.  Television screens projected before and after photographs of the destruction.  Two walls were dedicated to pictures and artifacts from the original Urakami Cathedral, what was once the largest Catholic Church is East Asia.  Blackened statues of saints and angels, a sculpture of a bleeding-heart Jesus with his nose severed right off his face, and probably most hauntingly, a crucifix with Jesus beheaded by the blast.  The before-and-after pictures of the building itself were just as awful.  A replica of one of the church walls left standing after the bomb stood at the end of the room.

Women walked through the room crying.  I was the only tourist in there at the time and, clearly being an American, I would be lying if I said I didn’t get any looks that made me uncomfortable.  It gave me a little bit of perspective on how people of Middle-Eastern descent must feel going through American airports.

The rooms steadily became even more difficult to bear.  Lights and lasers illustrated the span of the destruction on a topographical map of Nagasaki.   More artifacts…glass bottles, money, tattered bloodstained clothing.  Every clock (that still had its hands) displayed 11:02.  At one point, looking at all the relics reminded me of being at the Titanic museum.  But the Titanic disaster was a horrible accident, and this tragedy was inflicted with purpose.

Then came the pictures of the people.  Caution: this will get graphic.  The civilians we saw going about their days in the first hallway looked rather different now.  Piles of charred bodies lay dead in the streets.  A young girl, crying, standing next to a corpse with blackened limbs, and with skin, flesh, and muscle peeled away from the face revealing a clean skull.  Dismembered body parts of children in the schoolyard.  A mother and her baby, bodies scorched black, eyes seared clear out of the skull, lips parted, revealing the mother’s glowing white teeth.  These are all photographs.  Not drawings, or paintings, but photographs.  Photographs not of soldiers, but of mothers and fathers and children, of homes and places of worship and everyday life.  There were photos of survivors, too.  Men with holes clean through the sides of their faces, just waiting to look slightly less disfigured after skin graft surgery.  The women with purple scalps who were lucky if they has 20 strands of hair left on their heads.  A man scarred up and down the entire right side of his body, his chest so bad he no longer has a right nipple. 

A plaque told the recounting of a woman who was 9-years old at the time of the bombing.  A beam of her house had collapsed on her two year old sister.  As they were screaming for help, their mother wandered back from working in the fields, red and purple flesh with no hair left.  No one had yet been able to lift the beam, but the mother put her shoulder underneath it and pushed up with all her might freeing her youngest daughter.  The mother died later that day.

After such a somber exhibition, I exited the museum and spent some time in the Peace Park, which is located at the hypocenter of the bombing.

A portion of the Cathedral wall that was left standing was relocated to the park, along with some other larger artifacts.  A large statue of a mother holding her dead baby was added to the park on the 50th anniversary of the attack as a memorial to all who lost their lives.

Also, throughout the Museum and Peace Park, were thousands of colorful origami cranes.  Legend has it that anyone who folds 1000 paper cranes will be granted one wish.  The paper birds are now a symbol of peace.

Let us not forget that no matter our differences, we all bleed the same.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Back when I was in ‘Nam

The Nautica spent a good portion of last week in Vietnam, and I had the chance to really take advantage of some of the tours offered there.  On Valentine’s Day, we docked in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon (Sigh-Gone).  It was 94 degrees on the southern coast of Vietnam when I boarded a coach to take us to the Mekong (Meh-kong) River.  The ride took us through the bustling city full of thin and tall buildings.  It is a government regulation that any residential building in Vietnamese cities can be built no larger than 12 feet wide by 60 feet deep.  In the streets, we were surrounded by scooters and motorcycles, some boasting up to 5 people AND groceries!  As we left the city scene, the streets became much quieter and our surroundings turned to farmland and rice patties.  Once we arrived to the Mekong Delta area, we passed through a market on our way to the junk boat.  I bought myself a Non La (Known-La), a traditional Vietnamese hat often worn my rice farmers.  It was only a dollar; everything in Vietnam is very inexpensive.  For example, our tour guide told us he pays the equivalent of 4 US dollars per month for satellite tv in his home.  Crazy.  Also, the exchange rate is one US Dollar = 21,000 Vietnamese Dong.  So basically, I’m a multimillionaire.

Anyway, we then boarded our Junk boat and sailed to Unicorn Island, where we were treated to a traditional lunch with some VERY unique dishes including Elephant Ear Fish…

Fresh Shrimp…

And “Dragon Eggs”, or sticky rice…

After lunch, we took a walk through the gardens before boarding small sampan boats for a ride through the canals.  In this area of Vietnam, neighborhoods are situated on the small canals, so instead of motor vehicles and roads they use sampans and canals for transportation.  And when I said “small canals” I really meant it.  For most of the 20 minute ride, the canal was no wider than 6-8 feet and the vegetation consistently hung low overhead.

At one point, we turned a bend and our guide said “duck”.  Immediately ahead of us was a footbridge crossing the canal, at an equal height to our shoulders!  She didn’t even slow down, so we quickly scrambled to double over as to save our necks, literally.  I managed to snap this picture to give you some sort of idea of how low this thing was:

Did I mention our sampan started taking on water during our journey?  Oh, well it did:

After our ride through the canals, we re-boarded our junk for another island where they made coconut candies, then to another where they served us exotic fruits and delicious local honey tea, and where we could do a bit of local handicrafts shopping.  Then, we got back on the junk to head back to mainland.  The evening ended with a trip to a local Buddhist temple before heading back to the ship:

Speaking of temples!  On February 19th, we docked in Ha Long Bay.  Let me tell you, the weather in northern Vietnam this time of year is very different.  I bundled up as best I could to brave my outdoor tour to a local farm and Buddhist monastery in the wet 50 degree weather.  We first stopped to tour a local farmer’s property where we were served green tea and fresh fruits.  After the pit stop, we headed to the Truc Lam Giac Tam Zen Buddhist Monastery...and sorry, I don't know how that one's pronounced at all:

 While at the monastery, several monks guided us through a meditation.  These monks meditate three times a day, from 3:30am to 4:45am, from 1:30pm to 3pm, and from 7:30pm to 8:30pm.  I could never do that.  Most of the monks were also not here by personal choice or calling, but rather had their fate decided for them by their parents when they were young.  So, shout out to Mom and Dad for letting me choose my own path, which has so far turned out to be a really fulfilling and awesome one.

Check back tomorrow for an update on my escapades in Hong Kong!