and Switzerland, and Turkey, Antigua, Bedouin, Belgium, Bethlehem, Cairo, Christmas, Church of the Nativity, Dead Sea, Egypt, Eilat, France, Garden of Gethsemane, Germany, Guatemala, Gulf of Aqaba, homesickness, In Days Gone By, Iona, Israel, Jericho, Jerusalem, Julian of Norwich, Luxembourg, Mary’s Tomb, mediaeval monks, Milky Way, Monastery of St Catherine of Egypt, Mount of Olives, Mount Sinai, Muhammad, Nature and Man, Osama, Palestine, Paths of the Wind, President Hosni Mubarak, Providence of God, Sharm el-Sheikh, Silence, Sinai Safari, Sydney Australia, Taba, The Netherlands, The Paradox of Life, Turin, West Bank, White Canyon
Now here I am in Guatemala once again, we have survived the Mayan Apocalypse, Christmas and the New Year’s goings-on, and for many of us we are back at work or in one way or another back into the rhythm of our everyday existence. Now is the time to settle down and begin serious work; for me on the novel this Journey has been all for. Once home and hearth and the routine of life is re-established, The Paradox of Life, will be my constant focus. There is a plan and a goal but it is untried, untested, and as this is my first attempt at writing a novel, will no doubt be subject to regular review and appropriate modification. ‘All will be well’, one of my favourite sayings from great Christians of the past [Julian of Norwich], is a constant reminder that rattles about in my thoughts, and is a guiding aphorism that has come to have great significance for my life. No matter what may come, we rest in the Providence of God. And in this, I always take heart……………
This year Christmas for me was alone in a freezing and desolate Turin, Italy – a very long way from home. The heating system in the building in which Joe has his apartment decided to give up the ghost, some time during the very early hours of Christmas morning. For three days and nights the cold tightened its grip on the building as its residual heat diminished, little by little. By the end of this time the interior of the apartment was little better than outside in the street below.
Near the end of the three days of cold, having gone to the local ‘supermercarto’ for a few necessary supplies, I returned to the flat, stepped inside, placed the shopping on the kitchen bench, took the pizza I purchased at Joe’s favourite bakery and placed it on a shelf in the fridge, and in the process touched the shelf, and to my surprise found it warm to my touch. It wasn’t that the refrigerator was not working, it was, my hand had become so cold that the fridge felt warm! Eventually, the necessary repairs were made to the system, and it was soon up and running again.
On reflection, it was a difficult time for me, alone, isolated, and freezing cold. Towards the end it dawned on me that I had never experienced such conditions before, and was becoming anxious. I prayed about this, and an understanding came to me. When recently on Iona in the relatively mild weather of Autumn, I never experienced the bitter cold, the cold of winter, on the tiny Hebridean isle off the west coast of Scotland. I thought of the mediaeval monks and the life they lived there: the cold, the isolation, hidden in a cave, or wattle and mud cell, in a remote and desolate, yet beautiful landscape – how could I possibly connect with, and write about, their experience of winter in such a place without some personal knowledge of it. In a strangely fortunate way for me, not for the other occupants of the building, I was given the privilege of a very brief touch of their life. Turin is definitely beautiful, and far removed from Sydney, Australia. I was alone, isolated by language, and on top of this, hidden in the spartan cave of Joe’s minimalist apartment with its bare, white rendered walls, cold tile floor, and stylish yet minimalist furnishings. Not the cosy comfort of the warmly furnished home I am used to living in. Then there was the cold itself to contend with. Australia generally does not have cold equal to this, and snow flurries and freezing rain are not the common experience of Australian city life. The alpine areas do have these, but most Australians never see this type of weather; many have never seen or touched snow.
I can now see the value of the short time I spent having to endure this new experience. It was not some great trial, it was the slightest of touches. In many countries vast numbers of people face far worse conditions regularly and without ever complaining. Their lives are ruled by harsh conditions, and life itself is a battle to simply survive. My little encounter with difficulty was merely that, but I now have an insight, however feeble, into life in the harsh cold lands of the north, a necessary insight for the completion of my book. To experience what my protagonist experienced, is the essence of all that I have done on my Journey. Firsthand experience is best.
Australia seems a distant dream now, having been away for five months. I must admit to not a little homesickness over the last couple of weeks. I have been feeling the call of the familiar, of family and friends whom I have not seen in a long time.
The homesickness is appearing due to the season I am sure, and the fact that I have now finished all my journeyings in preparation for the writing of my book – The Paradox of Life. The travelling concluded the week prior to Christmas. Since that time, I have been unwinding and trying to absorb all that I have seen and heard and experienced.
It has been an epic adventure: flying halfway around the world to Britain, with weeks exploring London; then the bus to Oban, Scotland, and again bus, boat and ferry to the Isles of Mull and Iona, and staying there the better part of a week. Hard on the heels of Iona came a testing and awe-inspiring walk coast to coast along the Great Glen Way across Scotland, and providentially meeting Angels who watched over me for the greater portion of the trek. Returning to London and a brief period of more exploring, I sadly bade farewell to Moira my beautiful and accommodating hostess.
Flying to Turin with RyanAir proved an expensive exercise due to baggage issues. However, now with my brother-in-law Joe who lives and works there, and alone, exploring the city and climbing a nearby mountain capped by a mediaeval monastery, the European path of my protagonist’s journey began to unfold and take shape before me.
Next came a month away to visit Joan [one of my Angels] in Guatemala, Central America, where I stayed in Antigua, a five centuries old Spanish colonial city surrounded by three massive volcanoes – one actively erupting and spewing lava, with consequent evacuations, a week or so before my arrival. Visits to the ancient Mayan city of Tikal in the dense tropical jungle of the lowlands, and to the sacred Mayan lake of Atitlan, along with the Mayan communities in the mountains around the lake, followed.
Returning to Europe, a driving tour through France, Luxembourg, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland finalised research to identify locations, landforms, flora, etc. Concluding in a return to Turin via the Alps and Mt Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe [4,810 metres or 15,634 feet] and the Mt Blanc Tunnel [11.6 kilometres or 7.25 miles], created a mind-boggling impression – Nature and Man – at their best!
The Middle East – Paths of the Wind
Perhaps the most incredible journey of all came next, through the Middle East – Israel, Egypt, and Turkey. Chauffeur driven by personal tour guide in a beautiful Mercedes, Joan and I negotiated the back streets and blind alleys of Jerusalem – the Old City.
In style, followed visits to many of the places that bear the mark of legend: the Garden of Gethsemane, the summit of the Mount of Olives, thence Mary’s Tomb, Palestine [the West Bank], Bethlehem, the Church of the Nativity, the Dead Sea, Jericho. Meeting and eating with local Palestinian people, discussing local politics and religion, skirting security checkpoints, racing through the desert in a Mercedes-Benz; ultimately we arrived back in Tel Aviv; our hotel moments from the Mediterranean. The next day strolling on the beachfront seemed at odds with, and a contradiction of, all we encountered previously.
The whirlwind tour and day in the sun walking kilometres to a mediaeval church and fortress left us exhausted.
Taking the internal flight to Eilat, the run to the Israeli-Egyptian border in an open-air jeep, hanging on for dear life, passing through suspicious security guards, and scanners, and questions, and more – on both sides of the border – ensured our readiness for a night at a four-star resort at Taba.
Sinai Safari: By four-wheel drive jeep to ancient tombs deep in the desert, over seemingly endless expanses of rock, boulder, gravel, grit, and sand dune, our Bedouin driver Muhammad drove with the knowledge of one possessing an arcane insight into the trackless wastes. Leaving the tombs many kilometres behind, the edge of an unknown abyss loomed into view. A glass of tea in the desert; a toilet break over a flyblown hole in the ground, readied us for what was to come.
Fifty metres [160 feet] below, the rugged floor of the White Canyon beckoned. Climbing down the almost vertical side of a desert canyon 50 metres on an old fraying rope was not Joan’s idea of fun. After initial shock at the prospect, she strode up to the edge, grasped the worn thread, turned, back to the void, and stepping out into empty space risked life and limb. The descent was slow, unsure, unsteady, yet achieved and celebrated with surprise and a sense of pride in the accomplishment. Hiking through the wind-worn, barren, but serene and stunning canyon over boulders and along narrow ledges partially obscured by sand drifts to arrive finally at an oasis and Bedouin camp, we stayed the night with our Tour Guide Osama and driver Muhammad, and our host Bedouin family.
Hamad, his mother and young nephew and niece gave a traditional welcome of sweet cardamom laced tea while sitting at the edge of a warming open fire. A traditional Bedouin meal taken seated on the sand under an open sky rounded out the evening; the Milky Way shining in splendor and glory above.
Before dawn, the desert was icy; a chill wind crept up the canyon and lingered on the low huts forming the camp. Silence; utter, absolute silence – not the whisper of a sound – apart now from the squeaking friction of sand beneath sock-covered feet. Camera at the ready, catching mere glimpses of the beauty of that desert morn – moments I will ever cherish.
After a breakfast of fruit and sweet Bedouin tea, we bade farewell to Hamad and his mother for our camel ride across the desert. Arriving at the base of another cliff, we dismounted and embarked on a climb of 250 metres [about 800 feet] up an extremely steep and rocky track, camels in tow; that accomplished, more riding across the desert to a rendezvous with Osama and Muhammad.
Mount Sinai and the Monastery of St Catherine of Egypt were the next objectives. Having toured the publicly accessible areas of the monastery, we attended a prearranged meeting with Father Justin, an American monk and one of the foremost experts in the world on ancient manuscripts, and historical information relating to the Monastery. Ushered into the inner recesses of his private workrooms, during the interview we discussed and viewed his fascinating work on palimpsests [manuscript pages from a scroll or book used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased by being scraped off], followed by a discussion around the book I am writing, especially certain historical elements essential to the storyline. Given this time with Father Justin, I feel very privileged and extremely thankful to him for putting the hour aside for this meeting – a genuine highlight of my journey.
Next came the ascent of Mount Sinai [2,285 metres or 7426 feet] up a mostly narrow, winding, lose and rocky, and steep track – a never endingly upward climb of about 715 metres or 2275 feet from the actual foot of the mountain, with a final ascent of 730 ‘steps’, some parts almost vertical and terribly tiring.
We arrived at sunset, catching the final few rays as the sun hid itself behind the distant mountains: a truly awesome sight. The return journey was incredible and dangerous. Now in total blackness we made our descent. Our Bedouin guide explained he could see in that frightening darkness – and apparently, he could. Joan and I were given the concession of tiny torches; barely enough to see our feet and the next step, and that was all! Distinguishing three dimensionality in the vague half-light being virtually impossible, we suffered not a few misplaced steps and stumbles, though no falls. Our guide had but one minor slip, when he ‘surfed’ the scree for a second or two, without mishap. It was a harrowing return down a shorter though much steeper, gravel-strewn path. Encountering two separate camel caravans climbing the mountain without light of any kind, we made way for them moving to the edge of the track, backs to the black abyss behind. Surviving the descent, we travelled by jeep to a beautiful resort at Dahab, 80 km northeast of Sharm el-Sheikh, on the Gulf of Aqaba.
The journey to Cairo the following morning was an epic in itself, just the two of us and our driver in a small bus, we traversed numerous checkpoints manned by machine gun toting men in civilian clothing [security guards?] and other checkpoints manned by soldiers carrying similar weapons – passports and security passes were checked constantly; numerous people having been kidnapped in recent months.
The road to Cairo presented us with stark evidence of Egypt’s economic collapse and subsequent chaos following the successful revolution to oust President Hosni Mubarak – literally thousands upon thousands of developments and construction sites unfinished and abandoned – many massive, building projects designed to accommodate thousands of people. Huge apartment blocks four and five stories high and hundreds of metres long and just as wide stood abandoned in the open desert, and there were many thousands throughout the country, we were later to discover.
To be continued………………