A good park for beginners

That’s what Mr Nixon said about Lake Manyara National Park.

Our relationship with Mr Nixon was only a few hours old, so we were not yet sure what to think. By the end of the week we would trust him with our lives.

An “island” of pink flamingos on the bed of Lake Manyara. The lake is broad and shallow, growing in the rainy season and shrinking in the dry season.

An “island” of pink flamingos on the bed of Lake Manyara. The lake is broad and shallow, growing in the rainy season and shrinking in the dry season.

The sign at the entrance read “Home of Tree Climbing Lions.”

“They say that,” he commented, “but it is more likely that we’ll see them climbing in the Serengeti.”

I still thought it best to keep one eye skyward at all times. Having 400 pounds of tooth and claw fall on your head would be terrible surprise. It also would make an end to a lovely safari that Vicki and I and Mr Nixon had planned in the East African country of Tanzania.

The early Tarzan movies were filmed at Lake Manyara.

Ernest Hemingway came here as well. He called this region of alkali water and fig and mahogany forests, "the loveliest I have seen in Africa.”

The dirt road into Lake Manyara National Park. Lake Manyara sits in the Great Rift Valley and is one of Africa’s largest lakes. Like Israel’s Dead Sea, it has no outlet. Unlike Israel’s Dead Sea it is shallow and alkaline.

The dirt road into Lake Manyara National Park. Lake Manyara sits in the Great Rift Valley and is one of Africa’s largest lakes. Like Israel’s Dead Sea, it has no outlet. Unlike Israel’s Dead Sea it is shallow and alkaline.

Mr Nixon parked our Land Cruiser just outside the ranger station and pulled the brake. “Let me get the papers.”

A few minutes later he returned. “Come look at this.”

In the grass behind our vehicle were piles of poop. “Elephant droppins,’” he said. “About a day old.” He took a stick and stirred the gooey mass. “Look at the seeds. The elephants eat the fruit and spread the seeds. The birds come down and eat them from the droppins.’”

“That’s a pretty good strategy for the plant,” I said.

“Ugh,” said Vicki.

“Exactly.” said a grinning Nixon.

Lessons in wildlife from Mr Nixon.

Lessons in wildlife from Mr Nixon.

The elephant who had left the droppins’ was nowhere to be seen, but we hadn’t traveled far until monkeys appeared on both sides of the road. A bit later, Mr Nixon pulled the brake and a troop of no less than 200 baboons passed by our Cruiser.

It was impressive, but we drew back just a little. Their sheer number, weeping sores, and toothy dog-muzzles were intimidating.

A troop of baboons passed by. They are a little frightening.

A troop of baboons passed by. They are a little frightening.

Most of the afternoon we rode with the Cruiser’s top popped up. Vicki and I could stand between the seats for a 360-degree view. Mr Nixon navigated the car-swallowing potholes and taught us about the buffalo, impala, gnu, zebra, and warthog.

“But I really love the birds,” he said on many occasions.

Our Toyota Land Cruiser had a pop-up lid that allowed us to view the surroundings in the shade. It is a good thing there are no seat-belt laws in Tanzania.

Our Toyota Land Cruiser had a pop-up lid that allowed us to view the surroundings in the shade. It is a good thing there are no seat-belt laws in Tanzania.

As we discovered, Lake Manyara was not the place to witness tree-climbing lions or even herds of elephants (although we did see some, maybe even our pooper!), but instead it is the place for bird lovers. More than 400 species can be found in the park. Some migrate through on their way from distant corners of the earth. Others make this region their permanent home.

We took turns peering through Mt Nixon’s binoculars from our 4-wheeled canopy. We saw orange bellies, yellow beaks, purple wings, and bills and crests of every size and angle. Mr Nixon’s stories of their habits and eccentricities and legends was throughly entertaining.

Most memorable for me were the flamingos that gathered like an island of pink in the shallow waters of the lake. Bee-eaters, herons, ibises, storks, and, of course, the pelicans also caught our eye. Lake Manyara is a bird-watchers paradise, a perfect place to begin an African safari.

A yellow-billed stork comes in for a landing. His gear is slightly askew.

A yellow-billed stork comes in for a landing. His gear is slightly askew.


If you would like to read more about the area of Lake Manyara, check out our observations from a previous visit here.


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Our usual haunts are in Israel-Palestine, but our current experiences in East Africa excite the senses. Might other Bible Land Explorers be interested in a safari-style excursion? If so, let me hear from you. I may try to work this into the schedule on a regular basis. Contact me at markziese@gmail.com if you are serious.

For our more standard packages in the Middle East, see a list of future trips here.

Sturdy students

I type this sentence from the departures terminal of the Tel Aviv airport. The folks pictured below are winging it home at this very moment.

Look closely. These are the faces of sturdy students for sure, even if a bit odd.

On the streets of Nazareth.

On the streets of Nazareth.

Seth Bryant (second from left) was their chief. He pastors the New Hope Christian Church in Roanoke, Virginia and brought this team from the other side of the world. They came for a 12-day experience in Israel-Palestine. There’s nothing odd about that.

Fact is, the itinerary for most two-weekers is fairly predictable. One cannot come here and dodge places like Caesarea-by-the-Sea, Tiberias, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem. The paths between these sites is well-worn by the feet of millions.

Seth tempts gravity on the edge of Mt Arbel. Below him is the Plain of Genesaret and the Sea of Galilee.

Seth tempts gravity on the edge of Mt Arbel. Below him is the Plain of Genesaret and the Sea of Galilee.

Sturdy students, however, do other special—or shall we say, odd—things. Here are a few extras that set the New Hope crew apart from the typical tour group.

1. Walking two different portions of the Jesus Trail. New Hope hiked from Nazareth to Sepphoris and again from the heights of Mt Arbel to Magdala. Given the mid-summer temperatures this year, that was a real feat!

2. Spending time visiting with members of the Christian HolyLand Foundation. Learning about the challenges and rewards of contemporary ministry in Galilee proved to be a high point of the journey.

We enjoyed the hospitality of Hani and Shifa Billan who are doing local ministry in Cana, Israel. They are a part of the Christian HolyLand Foundation team. See the link    here    for more on CHLF.

We enjoyed the hospitality of Hani and Shifa Billan who are doing local ministry in Cana, Israel. They are a part of the Christian HolyLand Foundation team. See the link here for more on CHLF.

3. Substituting a drive through Palestine (West Bank) for the usual cruise down the Jordan Valley. As it turned out, the group picked up sites like Jenin, Samaria, Jacob’s Well, and Shilo. These are not sites on the beaten trail. Another extra was doing lunch in Nablus that included world-famous knaffeh and coffee!

Staying hydrated is a challenge on the trail in the summer.

Staying hydrated is a challenge on the trail in the summer.

One other thing that set this group apart was the variety of hotel experiences. One cannot imagine a stronger contrast than the setting of Kibbutz Lavi and the setting of the Angel Hotel. The former is an old Galilean commune frequented by Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews; the latter is a boutique hotel run by a family of Arab Christians inside Palestine.

Sprinkle a few nights on the Mediterranean and the Sea of Galilee between these and it adds up to a full cultural experience.

The platform underneath our seats is a part of the construction effort of Herod the Great who rebuilt the YHWH temple in Jerusalem. It’s a good place to reflect upon this history, as well as the legacy of Islam. Today, this area is known as the  Haram esh-Sharif  or “the noble sanctuary.” It is the third holiest site in all the world for a Muslim.

The platform underneath our seats is a part of the construction effort of Herod the Great who rebuilt the YHWH temple in Jerusalem. It’s a good place to reflect upon this history, as well as the legacy of Islam. Today, this area is known as the Haram esh-Sharif or “the noble sanctuary.” It is the third holiest site in all the world for a Muslim.

Not every group is ready to embrace these kinds of experiences, but this one sure was.

I guess they were a little odd.

But they made memories that will last a lifetime.

Our sturdy driver and dear friend Robert Makhlouf proved to be a difference-maker.

Our sturdy driver and dear friend Robert Makhlouf proved to be a difference-maker.


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Sam, an old camel friend of mine who lives in Jericho, is known to snoggle the unwary tourist from time to time.

If you’ve never experienced a camel snoggle, you’re not living life to the fullest. Why don’t you consider joining one of our future trips? Our 2020 and 2021 tour schedule may be found here.

Canyon Critters

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The sun was directly overhead when we arrived at the trailhead. The asphalt was gummy.

“Bring everything you need to survive for an hour and half,” I chirped. “Maybe two hours. Hat, sunglasses, sunscreen and an extra bottle of water.”

Our crew didn’t need my reminders. On the previous day we had hiked from Nazareth to Sepphoris, an accomplishment in any season. It is a notable one at the end of June with the temperatures scraping three digits.

We entered the canyon below Nabi Shu’ayb.

We entered the canyon below Nabi Shu’ayb.

Even in this season of scarcity I hoped to spot some wildlife on the trail. Today we aimed to follow a stream that trickled through the canyon (Arab. wadi) from the plain near Nabi Shuʿayb (the traditional burial place of Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses) to the moment where the canyon released its travelers on the edge of the Sea of Galilee.

The canyon is called Wadi Hamam or “Valley of the Doves.” It forms one leg of the ancient highway connecting the Sea of Galilee to the Mediterranean Sea. Jesus likely walked this path in Eastern Lower Galilee.

I don’t know what wildlife encounters an ancient traveler would have had, but five kinds of critters surprised us.

The trail runs through the tangle of brush at the edge of the stream.

The trail runs through the tangle of brush at the edge of the stream.

Our first critter appeared out of nowhere. I stepped through the thicket and almost ran into a cow. It was standing in the water, blocking our path. She raised her head. Menacing horns protruded from her brow.

City-boy Mike confessed: “I said ‘Holy _____! Look at those horns. It’s a bull. We’re all gonna die.’ Later I asked for forgiveness.”

“Yah! Git!” I coaxed. The cow moseyed on, yielding the road.

A few minutes later Thunder Bobby hollered, “What’s that?” Our second critter of the day, a pudgy hyrax, looked down from his overhead perch. Like everyone else under this sun, he was slow to move. He watched us carefully with beady black eyes. Finally he barked a warning to his hyraxian homies (see our previous post on these “Wise wee folk” of the Wadi Hamam here) and crawled out of sight.

Back in 2014 I spotted this hyrax in about the same place. He may have been a grandpa to our friend today.

Back in 2014 I spotted this hyrax in about the same place. He may have been a grandpa to our friend today.

Our third critter encounter came as a result of Lightning Seth’s keen eye. High above us, he spotted the movement of a Palestinian mountain gazelle. We all watched in amazement as the gazelle (unlike the cow and hyrax) sprinted and leaped with vigor across the steep slope. By the time I finally got my camera unholstered it was already gone.

This particular species is iconic to the region. For more on its endangered status, see here.

Lightning Seth was quick. He caught the gazelle on his phone. Watch the video below.

Later, we spotted two more on the opposite side of the canyon.

Our fourth critter encounter was also on the slope above us.

I turned back to see if the group had successfully crossed the stream. Movement caught my eye. It was a wild boar. A pumba. A big pig.

And he was not running downslope into the Sea of Galilee (!) but upslope and away from it. I caught the still image. City-boy Mike caught the video that follows.

The celebration of bacon was a part of our conversation for the rest of the day.

The only thing I managed to capture was his twitching tail disappearing into the brush.

The only thing I managed to capture was his twitching tail disappearing into the brush.

Caves appeared in the ancient limestone above our head as we approached the opening of the canyon. Here was our fifth critter sighting.

At first I thought it was school children. City-boy Mike saw the bit of color as well and hollered, “Hello!” “Hello!”

A couple of goats appeared at the mouth of one of the caves.

I’ll bet there was a shepherd dozing inside.

The goats came out to have a look.

The goats came out to have a look.

During our walk in Eastern Lower Galilee, I had hoped for some animal encounters. Cows from the nearby village were a given. Maybe goats. The other critters were a pleasant surprise.

Far from being a“valley of the shadow of death,” the Wadi Hamam with its stream and thicket turned out to be a veritable “valley of life.”


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Our current group of Bible Land Explorers are from Roanoke, Virginia. They are not content to “do” the usual tourist tour, but have specifically requested special engagements like hiking portions of the Jesus Trail.

If you are interested in experiencing the land of the Bible in a fresh way, consider joining one of our future trips. Our 2020 and 2021 tour schedule may be found here.

Baker's Dozen

Actually it was more like a dozen and a half.

As I write this note, Tommy Baker and his coterie from First Church of Christ in Burlington, Kentucky, are winging their way home. They looked tired but happy as they left the motor coach and headed into the departures terminal of the Tel Aviv airport. Their 2019 pilgrimage in the Holy Land was nearly complete.

Janet wings it on a camel in Jericho.

Janet wings it on a camel in Jericho.

Our 10-day experience with First Church took us to many of the best-known biblical sites in Israel-Palestine, including Caesarea-by-the-Sea, Nazareth, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem. At these sites and many more we contemplated the biblical story, archaeological findings, and the contemporary situation. As Denny, one member of the group, put it, “It has been a true trip of a lifetime!”

Rick Lowry, Spiritual Growth Pastor at First Church, contemplates the Sermon on the Mount on “the Mount”!

Rick Lowry, Spiritual Growth Pastor at First Church, contemplates the Sermon on the Mount on “the Mount”!

This kind of success grows out of a team effort. On one end was the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies (JCBS), the organization that coordinated all our in-country logistics. On the other end was Robert Makhlouf, driver extraordinaire, Arab Christian, and old friend. Between these ends was Tommy Baker and Rick Lowry, pastors at First Church.

Robert wheeled our big Volvo like like a boss and always wore a smile. Since the last time we worked together he has become a father. His little girl is four months old.

Robert wheeled our big Volvo like like a boss and always wore a smile. Since the last time we worked together he has become a father. His little girl is four months old.

Some challenges came as a result of the heat. Undoubtedly, summer travel in Israel-Palestine brings on serious shvitzing (Yiddish for “sweating”). We shvitzed a bit (to say the least!) in the afternoon sun in Tiberias, Jericho, and Qumran. On the positive side, rain was not a problem! We drank plenty of water, took our time, and onboarded a little extra vitamin D.

Group photo from the summit of Mt Arbel. The Sea of Galilee shimmers in the distance.

Group photo from the summit of Mt Arbel. The Sea of Galilee shimmers in the distance.

One new experience for me was an overnight in Jericho. We slept in the hotel Oaisis, just inside the Palestinian border. This location made it possible to do a late afternoon swim in the Dead Sea and a cool morning walkabout over the remains of ancient Jericho (Tell es-Sultan). Watching the sun slip behind the crusty hills of the Judean Wilderness was special, as was the early morning call to prayer from the minaret near the hotel (!).

Swimming—or bobbing—in the Dead Sea. Photo by Tommy Baker.

Swimming—or bobbing—in the Dead Sea. Photo by Tommy Baker.

First Church has sent multiple teams of Bible Land Explorers to us over the course of a decade. Plans are already in the book for yet another return: May 16-29, 2021. If you are interested in being a part of that experience, it is not too early to contact Executive Pastor Tommy Baker at tbaker@firstchurch.me.

In the meantime we will continue the quest to discover the place where faith begins.


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Our groups cover a lot of ground in order to make the most of our limited time. Travelers should be able to climb stairs unassisted and walk over uneven surfaces. Good shoes are a must!

If you are interested in experiencing the land of the Bible through through the lens of history and faith, consider joining one of our future trips. Our 2020 and 2021 tour schedule may be found here.

A Threepeat

Threepeats are special.

Summer 2019 marked the third year that Whitewater Crossing Christian Church of Cleves, Ohio, sent a crew to the Heartland via JCBS. It was special.

The bathhouse at the palace of King Herod at the Herodium is a perfect place for a group photo.

The bathhouse at the palace of King Herod at the Herodium is a perfect place for a group photo.

Thirteen folk from the midwest packed their bags and came to the mideast for twelve days of personal study, prayer, and fun. It was a small and tidy group. What we lacked in numbers was offset by raw enthusiasm.

The boulders on the trail at Tel Dan were slippery, but teamwork got everyone through.

The heat was cranked up in the Dead Sea basin, but the secrets of Masada and Ein Gedi were revealed.

The darkness of Hezekiah’s Tunnel was intimating, but headlamps (and a little hand holding!) did the trick.

These sturdy souls took up the challenge of wading through the dark tunnel known as Hezekiah’s Tunnel. This conduit provided water for the inhabitants of Jerusalem in the Iron Age.

These sturdy souls took up the challenge of wading through the dark tunnel known as Hezekiah’s Tunnel. This conduit provided water for the inhabitants of Jerusalem in the Iron Age.

Between that tunnel, the swimming pool, the Dead Sea, and and (of course) the Jordan River, everyone ended up in the water at some point.

With two physicians and two nurses in the group, I never felt so confident in my life. Fact is, I was almost embarrassed to be carrying a medical kit. Fortunately, there was no need for my kit or their knowledge.

Part of that success was due to the professionalism of our driver. We borrowed Louis for two weeks from the British Embassy. His knowledge of the roads and skills in navigating them was uncanny. While we did not splash like Tony Blair, I am certain we received the same attention from this wheelman as did the Prime Minister.

We borrowed an excellent driver from the British Embassy. Louis not only knew the roads, but was instrumental in keeping our group safe and well-fed.

We borrowed an excellent driver from the British Embassy. Louis not only knew the roads, but was instrumental in keeping our group safe and well-fed.

The extra cover to the experience, of course, was drawn from deeper sources. We prayed in the morning and evening. We sang in the churches. We climbed to the top of many tells, and despite wobbly knees, stood on the top of these vistas and read from the Bible.

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the traditional site where Jesus was crucified and resurrected. Photograph by Kurt Knochel.

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the traditional site where Jesus was crucified and resurrected. Photograph by Kurt Knochel.

One of our travelers, Nancy, returned home after these 12 days and wrote a quick note. She described the trip as more than a sightseeing excursion. She believed God communicated to her in these words:

“Child, you have heard my Word in new ways. You have seen with your own eyes places I designed. You have heard with new understanding historical events I orchestrated with purpose. You were led back in time to be taught and inspired by people I created and directed according to my will. You saw places of great importance and remembrance that have been uncovered under my supervision. In all of this . . . remember me, remember me, remember me.”

That kind of experience never gets old, no matter how often one returns to this part of the world.

Plans for a fourth trip with Whitewater Crossing Christian Church are already in the works.

We didn’t suffer too much at our hotel beside the Dead Sea.

We didn’t suffer too much at our hotel beside the Dead Sea.


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If you are thinking about visiting the Heartland yourself, consider joining us next year. We have open seats for several trips in 2020 and 2021. If you represent a church or school group and are interested in exploring this kind of travel ministry, know that we are booking custom experiences for 2022. Chat with me at markziese@gmail.com or see our full list of study-travel opportunities at the link here.

Travel Documents

Security concerns require travelers to obtain, carry, and show documents to cross international borders. The documents you need will vary, depending on your place of origin, destination, and mode of travel.

Since many of our Bible Land Explorers are citizens of the United States who travel by air to Israel/Palestine, the following comments are tailored for that journey. Non US-citizens and US-citizens who are headed to other destinations should read on, but are encouraged to consult governmental websites (such as those listed in this post) for the most up-to-date information.

Three kinds of documents are considered here: the passport book, the visa, and the airline ticket.

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1. The passport book

All US-citizens traveling internationally must carry a valid passport book.

If you do not have a passport book or are in need of renewal, go to the website linked here to start the process. Getting a passport book is not difficult, but it does cost money (up to $150) and it can take time (routine service requires 4 to 6 weeks to complete).

If your travel dates are less than three weeks away, you must expedite the process. This will grey your hair, cost even more money, and may require a personal visit to a passport agency or center. Bottom line: avoid the panic; work on this now. You can’t start this process too early.

Two other notes of interest.

Note the date of expiration on the picture page of your passport.

Note the date of expiration on the picture page of your passport.

First: If you have a passport book, look for the expiration date on the picture page. Airline and customs officials will check this date against the date of your planned return to the US. If the date of your planned return is less than six months from the expiration date of your passport book, you will not be allowed to leave US soil. Passport books for grownups are supposed to be good for 10 years, but in truth, it is only good for nine and a half. My guess is that governmental officials don’t want to mess around with folks who get stuck in a terminal somewhere and have their passports expire. If you have flown Allegiant or Frontier Airlines lately you know that a six-month delay is not an impossible scenario.

Second: While traveling, take care of that passport! Zip it up, lock it down, tuck it away! Your US-passport is a valuable item. If it is lost or stolen, you will suffer some hardship and cost. While in Israel-Palestine, I encourage our travelers to lock their passports in the safe provided in their hotel room. It is more secure in the room than it is in a fanny-pack pocket (and just between friends—lose the fanny-pack before you leave home please).

You will receive this card upon your arrival in the Tel Aviv airport. Keep it safely tucked away inside your passport.

You will receive this card upon your arrival in the Tel Aviv airport. Keep it safely tucked away inside your passport.

2. The visa

The purpose of the passport book is to certify a person’s identity and country of origin. The purpose of the visa is to demonstrate that a person has been given permission to enter, stay, or leave a country. Visas are commonly stamped or kept in a passport.

For US citizens arriving in Israel for touristic reasons, a free on-arrival visa (B/2) is usually given in the airport. See the link here for more details. This visa is usually good for 90 days, although a more limited time may be given if they notice you are wearing a fanny pack.

For non-US citizens a visa may need to be secured from an Israeli embassy in your home country before arrival. See here for more information.

All travelers will receive a border control card like the one pictured above before leaving the secure area in the Tel Aviv airport. This card certifies that you have entered the country legally and that you are not an Israeli citizen.

Please place this card inside your passport and keep it there for the duration of your stay. Because this card is not affixed to your passport it can be easily lost. In some situations (hotel stays, car rentals, VAT tax exemptions, cranky security people, etc) you may be asked to provide it.

When leaving the Tel Aviv airport, the blue border entry card will be replaced by a pink border exit card. You may throw both of these away when you return to your home (or keep them as cheap souvenirs!)

Stamp collecting in one’s passport is one way to remember your travels.

Stamp collecting in one’s passport is one way to remember your travels.

3. Airline ticket

As the paperless age gains momentum, airline tickets are not as important as they once were. Most US carries no longer issue paper tickets. However, if you have visa issues of some sort, proof of your planned departure may be needed. Every traveler should have ready access to his/her flight information including carrier, confirmation number, flight number, and date and time of travel.

If this information is not available on a phone (and service/wifi is not always reliable), I recommend carrying it printed in a notebook or on a small sheet of paper folded in a wallet or pack. Again, it may not be needed, but if it is, you will have it. Don’t be a rookie.

A traveler who has all his documents in order is a happy traveler. Image from    here    (accessed June 15, 2019).

A traveler who has all his documents in order is a happy traveler. Image from here (accessed June 15, 2019).

Footnote

Depending on how often you travel internationally, it may be helpful to join the U.S. Customs and Border Protection program known as Global Entry. As is the case with obtaining a passport, joining Global Entry is a process, but once approved, there are many advantages. These include the TSA Pre✓ benefit as well as expedited US customs screening when returning to the United States. Dodging the long lines makes you feel like a boss, and, in some cases, credit card companies that cater to travelers (like Capital One Venture) will pay the Global Entry fee! Ya can’t beat that!

For more on the Global Entry program, follow the link here.

The US government issues a laminated card to members of the program. This prize should be added to the collection of travel documents carried by the seasoned Bible Land Explorer.


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If you are thinking about putting some of this practical advice to use, consider joining us next year. We have open seats for several trips in 2020 and 2021. We are booking new groups for 2022. Shoot me a note at markziese@gmail.com or see our full list of study-travel opportunities at the link here.

Piggy flies

So I was tripping happily down the stairs in my socks thinking about travel to faraway places when suddenly I was really tripping. My foot came off the stair and nosed into the tread below, toe first. The weight of my fuselage drove down on it.

White flash! Bratatat!

I caught the handrails to arrest a cartwheel.

Gnashing teeth! Arrgh!

A few hops later I was sitting at the bottom, fretting.

I had been training regularly, anticipating a vigorous summer. And now?

I don’t even want to look. And two days before I’m scheduled to fly. Stink!

I had to look. I inched the sock off.

Fortunately there were no digits pointing in odd directions like what happens when you are playing basketball and you look down at your hands after hearing that horrible pop! and discover a member of your squadron is out of formation.

One slips out of formation. Image from https://nara.getarchive.net/media/an-f-15-eagle-aircraft-breaks-out-of-formation-with-two-other-f-15s-while-participating-56607d. Accessed 6/5/2019.

One slips out of formation. Image from https://nara.getarchive.net/media/an-f-15-eagle-aircraft-breaks-out-of-formation-with-two-other-f-15s-while-participating-56607d. Accessed 6/5/2019.

Everyone seemed to be flying more or less in the same direction. That was good. But one wiggle of the big toe triggered an electric jolt. That was bad.

Two hours later, the doctor at the drive-by clinic confirmed it. My feet were dangling from the crinkly-paper table, the offended member already plumping like a ripe tomato.

She came into the room after studying the x-rays. Her eyebrows arched. “Your toe is broken. Distal phalange.”

I grimaced.

“Do you want to see it? Bring your phone. Most people like to take a picture.”

Curious, I slid off the table and hopped in pursuit. There was a monitor on the desk at the end of the hall. She flipped through a series of x-rays and pointed out the problem. I took a picture in order to be like most people.

A distal phalange in distress. There is something not-quite-right about seeing the insides of your own body.

A distal phalange in distress. There is something not-quite-right about seeing the insides of your own body.

Fortunately, she didn’t see any chips floating around or complications in the joint. She offered a bumper-shoe for protection and a shot for the pain. That was all. Well, that and time. “Four to six weeks to completely heal.” I politely refused and paid my bill.

Two days later my plump piggy was in full war paint: black, green, brown, and purple.

I inched my sock back over him and eased into a shoe. It was time to fly.

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings."

Lewis Carroll, The Walrus and the Carpenter (1872)

A good landing. Image from https://www.ossett.net/pages/WW1_Air_Crash_Gedham_jpg.htm, accessed 6/7/2019.

A good landing. Image from https://www.ossett.net/pages/WW1_Air_Crash_Gedham_jpg.htm, accessed 6/7/2019.

I had a flight instructor who used to chirp: “Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing.” Does hopping away from one qualify?


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We walked and hobbled through the Old City of Nazareth today with travelers from Whitewater Crossing Christian Church in Cleves, Ohio. Along the way we met many friends, both new and old. It is such a delight to travel in good company!

Interesting in joining one of our future trips? See a list of planned excursions here or email me at markziese@gmail.com.

Required reading for explorers (part 4)

Out of Africa seemed out of place.

The book jacket is lovely, no?

The book jacket is lovely, no?

I was surprised to find it listed among National Geographic’s top 100 adventure stories of all time.* I thought it was more of a swoony period romance that limped along like a broken cricket. It was certainly not the stuff of extreme adventure.

Of course, my knowledge of Karen Blixen’s (aka Isak Dinesen’s) Out of Africa was derived solely from Sydney Pollack’s 1985 film adaptation of the book. Even after all these years (and I only saw the film once) I could still hear the oddly accented voice of Meryl Streep repeating the phrase: “I had a faahm in Ahfrica.”

So I hesitated to pick up the volume.

But the determination to tackle NatGeo’s list overpowered what may have been the memory of an immature adolescent, so I threw myself into the recliner, tome in hand. Immediately several things became obvious. Let me highlight just two.

The film adaptation of the book cast Robert Redford as big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Meryl Streep as the author Karen Blixen. Image from    here    (accessed 3/14/2019).

The film adaptation of the book cast Robert Redford as big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Meryl Streep as the author Karen Blixen. Image from here (accessed 3/14/2019).

First, Blixen is a captivating storyteller.

Her first-person narrative whisked me away to British East Africa. I found myself confronted by the odd pairing of an unruffled existence and the primitive struggles of life on a 4,000-acre coffee farm. There in the Ngong Hills of Kenya’s yesteryear . . . I slowed down. I raised and released an orphaned fawn. I was introduced to the complexities of Kikuyu and Maasai cultures. I suffered a plague of locusts. Trembling, I squeezed the trigger on my rifle and shot a charging lion.

These stories are rolled out not as one narrative but as many, knitted together loosely in five “books.” All but the fourth is themed: they are vignettes elicited from a “dry and burnt” landscape “the colour of pottery.” Out of Africa is out of time, or at the least, not bound by it. Blixen gathered her experiences between the years 1914-1931 and published them as memoir in 1937. Nearly a century has passed and they are no less vibrant.

Second, Blixen is a bold survivor.

She tells her story without explanation or apology.

One must look elsewhere to find the details of her personal life—quite painful—highlighted in the Pollack film. In the book, she simply appears as colonial-era owner-manager of a 4,000 acre coffee farm. Only hints suggest how she acquired the farm, how painful her marriage was, how she physically suffered from her husband’s infidelity (neurosyphilis, heavy metal poisoning), and later, how her own affair with big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton developed and was tragically cut short. That is not the stuff of this book.

Karen Blixen and Denys Finch-Hatton. Image from    here.

Karen Blixen and Denys Finch-Hatton. Image from here.

What the reader does find is a person of privilege who struggles with repeated loss. She does so with the kind of ebullient courage that qualifies this book as a story of extreme adventure. She attempts to hold the farm together for her own sake and for the sake of the community of squatters and workers who occupy it. Blixen’s colonial mindset is evident in her choice of language, no doubt, but it is a mindset tempered by respect and affection for the cultures and people who labor around her.

One may be tempted to compare Blixen with Hemingway, but that would be a mistake. While the two moved in similar circles, shared a love for the same region, and clearly read each other (Hemingway praised Blixen’s work following his reception of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954**), they expressed themselves differently. Both dallied with tragedy. Hemingway did it using crisp and sardonic prose. Blixen is efficient as well, but is also fluid and warm and playful.

Blixen and her workers. From her farm, c 1920. Image from    here    (accessed 3/15/2019).

Blixen and her workers. From her farm, c 1920. Image from here (accessed 3/15/2019).

Pardon the long quote, but you must sample this:

“Out on the Safaris, I had seen a herd of Buffalo, one hundred and twenty-nine of them, come out of the morning mist under a copper sky, one by one, as if the dark and massive, iron-like animals with the mighty horizontally swung horns were not approaching, but were being created before my eyes and sent out as they were finished. I had seen a herd of Elephant travelling through dense Native forest, where the sunlight is strewn down between the thick creepers in small spots and patches, pacing along as if they had an appointment at the end of the world. It was, in giant size, the border of a very old, infinitely precious Persian carpet, in the dyes of green, yellow and black-brown. I had time after time watched the progression across the plain of the Giraffe, in their queer, inimitable, vegetative gracefulness, as if it were not a herd of animals but a family of rare, long-stemmed, speckled gigantic flowers slowly advancing. I had followed two Rhinos on their morning promenade, when they were sniffing and snorting in the air of the dawn,—which is so cold that it hurts in the nose,—and looked like two very big angular stones rollicking in the long valley and enjoying life together. I had seen the royal lion, before sunrise, below a waning moon, crossing the grey plain on his way home from the kill, drawing a dark wake in the silvery grass, his face still red up to the ears, or during the midday-siesta, when he reposed contentedly in the midst of his family on the short grass and in the delicate, spring-like shade of the broad Acacia trees of his park of Africa.”***

In the end, I am glad that I picked up this volume. I will proudly place it on my bookshelf of extreme adventure.

And drink some tea.

Karen Blixen pictured on the flap of the book jacket.

Karen Blixen pictured on the flap of the book jacket.


*If you would like to see the list of 100 extreme classics, see National Geographic Adventure Magazine (May, 2004). http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/0404/adventure_books.html (accessed March 11, 2019).

**Clara Juncker. “After You, Baroness!”: Ernest Hemingway and Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen). The Hemingway Review 35/2 (2016): 87-109. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed March 11, 2019).

***From chapter 4.

Required reading for explorers (part 3)

One week from now, God willing, I’ll be winging it back across the Big Pond. I’ll have a day to get my business in order before meeting a group of ministry residents at the Tel Aviv airport. We’ll take them on the loop-de-loop in the Heartland, cruising up the Mediterranean coast, across Galilee, down the Jordan Valley, and concluding in the highlands around Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Hopefully I can wear them down before they wear me out.

The only reason I bother you with such details is because it was on this exact trip one year ago that I had my little “animal encounter.” Should you have a strong constitution and care to read about it, you can find the story in a series titled “Rabies is not the way to go” beginning here.

The good news is that while I do gnash my teeth and foam at the mouth from time to time, it seems to be more related to my work as college administrator than something prompted by a stray Lyssavirus (the “fury” virus from the Greek λύσσα).

Nonetheless, to prepare for the journey, I thought it might be useful to study a book that my kids got me for Christmas. Aren’t they stinkin’ hilarious? Here’s the cover.

The book has been hanging around my table since Christmas. I’m reading it now with a chuckle.

The book has been hanging around my table since Christmas. I’m reading it now with a chuckle.

Rachel Levin’s first book, Look Big and Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds (New York: Ten Speed Press, 2018), offers an interesting take on our North American friends from the wild side. The author chooses 50 animal species and devotes a page or two to each of them. Some of her choices are expected: bears, jellyfish, rats, and ticks. Others are surprising: cockroaches, bison, whales, and woodpeckers.

In the case of each Levin offers tidbits on where these critters can be found, what size or shape they come in (black bears are “as big as a sofa” and rabbits are “the size of a pineapple, but softer”), sounds they make (the elephant seal “snorts and grunts, like a long and epic burp”), why they are dangerous (owls can “stab your head,” geese squeeze “out two to three pounds of poop every day,” donkeys “will bite your butt with their big-ass donkey teeth”) and what one could possibly do to avoid or survive an encounter.

All illustrations in the book come from the hand of Jeff Östberg. Even in the case of rats (p. 103), his art is mellow and creamy and delightful.

All illustrations in the book come from the hand of Jeff Östberg. Even in the case of rats (p. 103), his art is mellow and creamy and delightful.

It is this last category that sells the book. Levin wryly pitches it as a guide, but the volume is more entertainment and less reference. In the case of a black widow spider bite, don’t try to suck out the wound. Call the poison center. Attacked by a swarm of bees? Run! Tackled by a grizzly? Fight for your life. Confronted by a wild hog? Do what you must but don’t get knocked down.

For reasons already described, I took great interest in the section devoted to dogs. I found it surprising that “man’s best friend” kills more people than sharks, alligators, snakes, and bears put together (p. 55).

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Levin’s advice to “avoid eye contact or smiling” when encountering a stray seems reasonable. The same is true with her “don’t run” command. It is a “total trigger.” I do take issue with her wisdom that if you are bitten, “curl into a ball, wait for it to be over, and admit you might be more of a cat person” (p. 55). This tip is ludicrous for one clear reason: cats are of the devil.

If you haven’t figured it out already, the book is front-loaded with humor. Some of it hinges on the author’s neuroses about all things wild (Levin is a food critic in her other life); other bits of it are suspended from the stupidity of humanity “like the dad who smeared peanut butter on his toddler’s nose, then waited for bear to lick it off (p. 18).

Between the lines is a moralistic edge. Dangerous animal encounters seem to be more frequent today because the human population is increasing, animal habitats are shrinking, and social media rewards asininity.

The Florida turnpike. Looking big is of little help in these parts. You become a yummier target.

The Florida turnpike. Looking big is of little help in these parts. You become a yummier target.

Even if these trends are true, I suspect that the chances of being killed by one of your human neighbors is astronomically higher than the possibility of being killed by some foraging critter. This is especially true if you have lots of wind chimes, cats, or are the president of your HOA.

By the way, can you guess which wild animal is responsible for 200 deaths annually and is hands-down the most deadly in North America?

Big-eyed Bambi. Those dang deers.

Our greyhound, (Turbo High) Dutch, is fawn-colored, has big eyes, and at times resembles a deer. He may even contemplate danger between naps and meals.

Our greyhound, (Turbo High) Dutch, is fawn-colored, has big eyes, and at times resembles a deer. He may even contemplate danger between naps and meals.


Look Big lists for $14.99 in the U.S. You can find your copy on Amazon.com right here. You need to have it on your bookshelf for smile-value reasons.


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I’ll keep you posted on how our upcoming trip pans out. While I offer stories on this website irregularly, I try to post a picture-of-the-day almost daily. See the tab marked POTD at the top of our home page here.

For a complete list of upcoming travel opportunities in the Lands of the Bible in 2019, see our schedule here. Some seats are still available. Contact me at markziese@gmail.com if interested.

Naturally I lost my bearings

Gordon lifted the oversized compass to his face. The transparent plastic flexed in his hands, making his nose appear to wiggle. His voice was less animated. His words came out deliberately.

“Turn the bezel until the arrow is in the box.” He turned the disk on his plastic demonstration model. His nose wiggled again.

We complied. Our group sat at the table with real compasses balanced on our upturned palms. I twisted the bezel on mine. The needle danced briefly, then settled dutifully.

“It doesn’t matter how many bells and whistles a compass has,” Gordon said. “It does just one job...” We recognized the prompt and chimed as chorus, “…it points to magnetic north.”

This was old school at the local REI. We were studying the compass, paper quadrangle maps, and the mystery of declination. Gordon was the perfect teacher. He was articulate and patient.

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He also warned us about ever-present danger of table legs.

“Watch.” Gordon slid a compass across the plastic table. At one point the needle wobbled and forgot its singular purpose.

“Remember, it’s a magnet. The table legs are metal.”

He illustrated his point with a story about hikers he had once observed working off a quadrangle spread across the hood of the car. “That engine block will really mess you up,” he chuckled.

Tools and tricks of the trade.

Tools and tricks of the trade.

He didn’t need to remind me.

I drifted out of the classroom to a dark and rainy night on the streets of Jaffa, Israel. I was driving a tiny rental car. Inside was Tanner, my son, Jody my graduate assistant, and Karl, a good friend. We had just arrived in Tel Aviv a few hours earlier and were quite bleary after an all-night flight. We were attempting to find a hostel where I had made reservations.

This was back in the 1990s before the widespread use of miraculous technologies like the handheld GPS, the cell phone, and the Ninja smoothie blender. We were true pioneers, just a generation away from the discovery of fire. Jody held a paper map and a compass. “Turn right.” “Turn left.” “Try right again.” We wandered for what seemed to be hours. Hopelessly befuddled, we found ourselves at the spot where we started.

Without alternatives (like the mossy side of trees) to guide us, we gave up. We deadheaded our way to Galilee. We pulled onto a dirt road beside the Horns of Hattin at about four in the morning and slept in our seats to sunrise.

Jody, Tanner, and yours truly from a compass-directed Israel experience many years ago.

Jody, Tanner, and yours truly from a compass-directed Israel experience many years ago.

Only later did we discover that something in the vehicle was messing with Jody’s compass.

Thanks to Gordon I now know that it doesn’t take much. The earth’s magnetic field is relatively weak. Science suggests that this force is measured at 5 × 10−5 tesla (or 50 µT).

Did you that before it was a space car, the Tesla was a unit of magnetic field strength? I didn’t. Neither did I know that while the value of the earth’s magnetic field is strong enough to protect the earth from harmful solar wind it is not strong enough to overcome the mysterious powers of some small European rental cars.

The earth’s magnetic field protects us from dangerous stuff flying around in space. I’ll bet Starman has a GPS. He is not going to mess around with distortion or declination. Image from    here   .

The earth’s magnetic field protects us from dangerous stuff flying around in space. I’ll bet Starman has a GPS. He is not going to mess around with distortion or declination. Image from here.


Our local REI store offers a variety of courses regularly. One of them is “Map and Compass Navigation Basics.” For a small fee, you can find yourself in a good introduction to compass navigation or be reminded of things you forgot since your Boy Scout days.

If an REI is not convenient, the book of choice is Bjorn Kjellstrom’s Be Expert with Map and Compass (Wiley, 2010). This is the classic guide to compass use. Its author was a Swedish orienteering champion and cofounder of the Silva compass company. Be Expert has been revised since the original 1955 release and is now in its 3rd edition.


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We have seats available on a couple of trips scheduled for summer of 2019. The good news is that we will be traveling in a wondrous GPS-equipped motor coach. I haven’t gotten lost in a few years now.

Registration will be closing soon on our May 25-June 4 excursion as well as our June 4-15 trip. These are similarly paced and priced. If you are interested in either please contact me immediately at markziese@gmail.com.

For a complete list of travel opportunities in 2019, see our schedule here.


Above the Jesus Trail, 2019

I must confess that it took me a long time to recover from the jump between film and digital photography. Shutter speeds and F-stops made sense. But these new gadgets and all their buttons seem so irregular and complicated.

I was just beginning to feel good about my digital Lumix when this college kid shows up with a drone and a phone.

Cody, his phone, and his drone. Nazareth, Israel.

Cody, his phone, and his drone. Nazareth, Israel.

The drone was not much bigger than a deck of cards (with rotors retracted). The phone, was, well, a phone . . . but it had an app that controlled the drone!

It blew up my world.

Cody was a crazy-good pilot. He could fly that little whirlybird in and out of the palm of his hand. He buzzed the treetops, circled the moon, chased the cows, and we watched the whole thing happen in real-time on his phone.

Cody was one of our Bible Land Explorers who walked the Jesus Trail in January of 2019. He sent me this edited clip of the experience.

It looks like another technological curve is ahead of this old dog.

Enjoy.

And the next time we do the Jesus Trail, you really should join our merry band.

Note: all the clips featured here were taken along the Jesus Trail except the last. The view to Jerusalem was taken from the Haas Promenade just south of the city.


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We have seats available on a couple of trips scheduled for summer of 2019. Registration will be closing soon on our May 25-June 4 excursion as well as our June 4-15 trip. These are similarly paced and priced. If you are interested in either please contact me immediately at markziese@gmail.com.

For a complete list of travel opportunities in 2019, see our schedule here.


Jesus Trail 2019

Jesus Trail 2019

There are many ways to experience the biblical Heartland. One of them is to hike the Jesus Trail. Unlike the turnpike of millions, the Jesus Trail is the road less traveled. Here the groups are small, the pace is slow, and the priorities are different. Read more about out 2019 hike.

Required reading for explorers (part 2)

Required reading for explorers (part 2)

Last night I finished F. A. Worsley’s 1931 publication of Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure (Norton, 2000). It was terrific! The author, Frank Worsley, was a New Zealand sea captain who saw action in WW1, did merchant work around Iceland, but most famously, skippered the Endurance. The Endurance was the ill-fated ship used by Ernest Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–1916. It is also a fitting theme for this book.

Wisemen Wafers

Wisemen Wafers

We are busy here at the Bible Land Explorers’ headquarters chewing the magoi. So far we’ve noted how Jesus was born in a Cold War (see here) and how the magoi were savvy politicians with a reputation for king-making and king-breaking (see here). As Christmas morning approaches, however, we lean toward something more festive: wisemen wafers!

Enter the idea of the eulogia.

King-Makers and King-Breakers

King-Makers and King-Breakers

“When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matt 2:3).

The response of Herod and Jerusalem (and potentially Rome itself) may be best appreciated in a wider geopolitical context. This is all the more significant given the reputation of the magoi as royal puppeteers in texts outside the Bible.

He blowd his brains out his ears

He blowd his brains out his ears

The descent into Spain is rugged. The bright pastures of the sommets des pyrénées slip downslope, gradually at first, then furiously, precipitously, until they tumble into dense beech forests. Bob and I do the same. Spattered by mud, decorated with leaves, and swathed in shadow, we appreciate the epic Song of Roland.

A chain of whispered stories

A chain of whispered stories

The Pyrénées do not look imposing on a map. But don’t be fooled. This mountain chain between France and Spain is ancient, steep, and full of whispered stories.

A cup

A cup

This is the Spain you never heard about. It is old and earthy and green and has the feeling of something Irish, or maybe something out of a Tolkien universe. On cue, the sound of a bagpipe and penny whistle drifts through the door.