This morning my daughter called, wondering how to sum up in a one-sentence response (suitable for a seven year old to understand) what God’s purpose was for creating the world, for their study of Geography. It didn’t take long for us to think about how, simply, if we understand that History is “Jesus Christ– His Story,” then we also understand that the world is “the Stage upon which His Story takes place.”
Well, it’s been a long time since I last submitted a post on my blog, in large part because Dan and I recently had an amazing opportunity to travel to Europe, Asia, and Africa, visiting eight countries, numerous cities– and vastly broadening our perspective of God’s Great Stage, the world.
The trip came up rather suddenly, and in November, Dan and I enthusiastically headed east from our west coast home into the wild blue yonder, flying through the short night and finally arriving in Paris, France. There, we met up with two of my sisters, a great-niece, and my brother-in-law who had flown in from Toronto, and together we boarded a plane for Athens, Greece and the start of our adventure.
Landing in Athens, we found our way via the local bus system to the port where we boarded our ship. For the next two weeks, we sailed during the nights, and each morning when the ship docked, we headed off to “see the world”– stopping at ports in Volos, Greece; Dikili, Turkey; Istanbul, Turkey; Kusadasi, Turkey; south across the Mediterranean to Alexandria, Egypt; then after another full day crossing the Mediterranean Sea, arriving at Corfu, Greece; then on to Dubrovnik, Croatia; and finally to Venice, Italy where we spent several days before heading to Amsterdam, and home.
What surprised us the most initially was the ease with which we traveled from country to country, city to city– once we left the U.S.! Security nowhere was as difficult as the U.S.A. to travel through! Our second impact was that the world is full of people– who desperately need the light of Christ.
Had we taken the trip in reverse, both Volos and Dikili would have been a huge disappointment, both non-descript after the beautiful and exciting places that followed. However, never having been to either Greece or Turkey, we found it fascinating to wander the streets of somewhere so clearly far from home at the start of our trip. In Dikili, we all sensed the strangeness and oppressive coldness of the Muslim environment: the clear dominance of men was blatant in the streets and shops, as well as in cafes/tea houses where large groups of men invariably congregated– women rarely in sight. (Later we learned there had been a huge Muslim festival the week before, with animal sacrifices in the streets, feasting, celebrating, and prayers.) Dikili was a good introduction for what was ahead.
We traveled on, and the following morning, we left the ship and walked 20 minutes into Istanbul, meandering through Istanbul’s renowned Spice Market and later the Grand Bazaar, while the warbling Muslim call to prayer sounded loudly over the minarets throughout the bustling city. Vendors urged shoppers to consider their wares– bright colored scarves, slippers, spices, colorful Turkish Delight, strong Turkish coffee, carpets– and women, heads covered, and sometimes wrapped in their full black Islamic garb, wandered the crowded streets among the Turkish men. Dan stopped to chat with several of the men.
Dan was eager to find the famed Basilica Underground Cistern, constructed in the 6th Century to provide the city with fresh water, and with the help of a vendor who pointed us in the right direction, we headed down to the stunning underground “river walk,” where 336 huge, ancient carved stone pillars– each one illuminated at the base, creating the most gorgeous glow that was reflected in the shimmering water in the underground darkness– held up the massive, ornately carved stone ceiling. Until now, we’d never seen anything as ancient!
After Istanbul, the ship sailed on to the lovely, attractive port of Kusadasi, Turkey. With a Rick Steves’ travel guidebook in hand, Dan and I, along with several new friends we’d met on the ship, made our way through the streets of the city, and found the bus depot where we hopped on a local bus that carried us through town. We made our connection to transfer buses, and rode on out of the city through the beautiful countryside for about a half hour to find the ancient town of Ephesus. We hopped off the bus, and after a brisk ten-minute hike over a dry, primitive dusty road in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, we suddenly came upon the most amazing and breathtaking ruins of the ancient city!
Far more vast than I had ever imagined, it opened before us– wide stone boulevards lined with huge stone pillars; stairways that led from building to building, site to site; ancient homes; huge, majestic library with mammoth pillars, statues, and bold Greek lettering carved in stone; and the amazing, huge amphitheater, the very place where the Ephesians had rioted against Paul’s preaching of the one true God in Acts 19, spread before us in incredible majesty. I literally felt my eyes fill with tears at the magnificence! We walked through the tunnels where the gladiators entered the arena, and sat in the stone seats of the amphitheater, drinking it all in.
Time was not on our side, however, and far too soon, we had to find our way back to the highway to wait for a bus to return us to Kusadasi. A stunning Turkish bride and groom passed us as we left, likely stopping for wedding photos in the lovely ruins of Ephesus. An old tractor turned in front of us, pulling a wagon loaded with cotton, with about six Muslim women sitting on top.They waved to us as they passed. Hopping on the bus, the blazing red sun lowered in the sky and set over the sea as we approached Kusadasi and headed back to the ship.
When we returned to our room on the ship that night, I read through Acts 19, parts of Ephesians and Revelation 2– and although it didn’t seem more “alive” to me than these scriptures already had before, there was such a deeper perception of these accounts of events that took place right there… right in Ephesus… right where we had walked!
The whole next day was spent on the ship, crossing the Mediterranean southward, until we finally docked in Alexandria, Egypt. Though excited to be entering the African Continent, Dan and I were not yet sure where we wanted to go once we arrived in Egypt, and having procrastinated over making our plans, we found ourselves without any. Just before docking, a couple we had met on the ship mentioned to us that they had researched reputable tour companies before their trip, and had booked a private tour to Cairo on a mini-van with two other couples. However, one of the couples was suddenly fearful about traveling in Egypt, and opted out– so they had room for another couple, if we wanted to go. So… we did.
Egyptian travel was quite an experience! Huge political signs were strewn all over the city as we pushed and shoved our way through the cluttered, littered streets heavy with traffic, while Egyptian men and women darted precariously through the streets, in and out of the chaos of vehicles. There were no traffic lights, no stop signs, no street signs, no directional signs– and, apparently, no rules. It seems to be an “everyone for himself” system of travel, which you can only appreciate if you are in a minivan clearly pushing the wrong way through a very narrow, crazily crowded one-way side street.
Our guide, a young Muslim woman named Maha, warned us immediately of the traffic chaos we would experience. “But don’t worry!” she assured us. “Our driver is very good, and we never see any accidents!” In truth, we saw four during that day. Sheepish after the third accident, Maha shrugged her shoulders and quipped, “I haven’t been in Cairo for two days– things change!”
As we fought our way, pushing and shoving along with the chaos of a multitude of other vehicles, Maha added, “Why do you think we Muslims pray five times a day!?”
Twenty-eight, still unmarried, and very independent– a scourge to her mother’s traditional Muslim thinking, as she kept reminding us– Maha wore jeans with the traditional Muslim “Hijab”– the scarf covering her hair and head. She explained that the women’s dress was not determined by law, but by their individual devotion to Allah. Many who want to be more holy dress in the traditional full black robe, covering all but their hands and eyes.
We traveled several hours to Cairo, passing scores of donkeys pulling carts loaded with one thing or another, and we made one stop at a neat little coffee shop that had clean rest rooms (“Water Closets”) while Maha talked about the culture, the history, the geography, and especially the current political climate of Egypt. She herself had been in Tahrir Square the previous January during the first revolution, and gave us her account of it. Surprisingly, during our whole time in Egypt, we felt safe. As Maha herself communicated, the normal Egyptian individual does not want violence and bloodshed any more than we wanted to see it. Driving through back streets and alleys, my heart broke for these common men and women and children in nations of unrest, who desperately need the hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ– not civil unrest. Clearly, this was a country in need of the One True God that Paul had preached about in Ephesus.
In Cairo, Maha took us to several pyramids, one of which we were encouraged to hike into. My claustrophobic tendencies kept me outside, but Dan hiked inside with several others, and felt the exertion of the cramped hike for days! Later, we stopped to see a “carpet school” where Muslim children industriously worked at making beautiful Egyptian carpets, literally one thread at a time. Child laborers are preferred, as their hands are small and agile, but there are strict laws against child labor, so in order to accommodate it, “carpet schools” were developed, whereby the children study in the mornings, and devote the afternoons to making carpets.
For lunch, Maha took us to a small but very clean Egyptian restaurant tucked in the middle of a wooded country setting, and we feasted on falafel, hummus, chicken (I think it was chicken…who knows!?) cooked on little grills set on our table, stuffed grape leaves, and fresh baked pita made in an outdoor clay oven by a Muslim woman right at the entrance of the restaurant. And, of course, dates for dessert.
A storm over the sea held us up in Egypt for an extra day, and when the ship finally set sail, my sisters commented with relief over our “deliverance out of the land of Egypt”–certainly a place of turmoil and despair.
After a rather rough start, we sailed into the quieter waters of the northern Mediterranean, and docked at the beautiful island of Corfu, Greece. From there, I emailed my family saying, “I think we may have found a likely place where all of us will want to live in the New Earth!”
Corfu was breathtaking, an idyllic place of ancient buildings, streets of little shops dotted with beautifully ornate Orthodox churches and lots of cafes– where stone streets were so clean and shining that they looked wet! A multitude of steep stairs climbing to houses tucked in everywhere along narrow streets and alleys created a maze of places to live or set up shop. Tables were neatly placed right out in the streets where small cafes welcomed hungry tourists or locals– who needed to be prepared to spend a long time lingering over lunch! No one was in a hurry– or expected anyone else to be in a hurry– in this beautifully relaxed, pleasant and gorgeous little paradise. And what really impressed both of us was seeing laughing children wandering the streets together unattended– safe and content in the security of this place they called home.
From Corfu, we traveled on to Dubrovnik, Croatia, where again, we were in awe of the shining, spotless stone streets, the sparkling clean shops and houses, and the sheer beauty of this amazing, seemingly idyllic place on the Adriatic Sea. Though hard to comprehend, the city was at war, attacked by Serbia, in 1991 when 60% of the city was war-damaged. The pleasant, peaceful, relaxed way of life belied the stressful tension that these people must still be recovering from!
Dan and I were eager to climb the very long, very narrow stone steps leading to the top of the stone wall that surrounds the Old City, and spent the next hour-and-a-half hiking our way around it, looking far down into the stairs and courtyards of homes on one side, and far down to the beautiful, beautiful Adriatic Sea on the other. Amazing! It was simply amazing!
After, we wandered the streets and alleys of Old Dubrovnik, went into the shops, wandered through the farmer’s market, popped into even more ornate, silver-chandeliered Orthodox churches, and sat in one of the many cafes for another very leisurely lunch. Croatia– this independent little resilient paradise– had won our hearts.
Checking off yet another place we want to return to spend much longer some day, we headed back to the ship, and sailed for Italy.
By now, the weather was becoming colder and damp as he headed north, and the port of Venice was shrouded in fog so thick that it was closed. Consequently, after sitting off shore for almost a day, the captain sailed the ship to near by Trieste, Italy. From there, we hopped on buses, with our luggage, and traveled a couple of hours to Venice.
My sisters and brother-in-law had reserved a hotel closer to the airport, so we found ourselves saying a very sudden, quick farewell, and went our separate ways– hoping to run into each other in Venice, but we didn’t. Meanwhile, Dan and I found our way to the old historic hotel we had booked near the port, and settled into our room where, out of our bedroom window, we looked directly on to the canal below. For the next two days, we woke in the morning to a classic European breakfast of yogurt, muesli, eggs, fruit, meats, cheeses, rolls, croissants, and pitchers of strong coffee and hot milk to be mixed half and half, then spent almost every waking hour crossing the bridges and walking the streets along the canals of Venice.
For two days, we strolled around the city, finding treasures for grandkids and family in Venetian shops, peeking inside churches, climbing the Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal, stopping into cafes for hot chocolate and hot, flakey croissants periodically to warm ourselves before heading out into the streets again, savoring the music of Vivaldi at the museum in his honor, photographing bridges and gliding gondolas, experiencing the stunning architecture of St. Mark’s Square, and completely enjoying our time spent in Venice.
And finally…. we headed back home, not only incredibly refreshed and revitalized by the wonderful experience, but armed with so much to talk about together, hour after hour.
Both Dan and I came home in absolute amazement of having experienced so much more of the world– this Stage upon which His Story is being written, even now, even as I write this. Our appetites are whet, of course, to travel more, to see and hear and find out more of what’s really out there, and our hearts long to see the day when the “glory of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the seas.”
Like reading the Bible after having actually been in Ephesus, now we both hear and see world– and the events that are going on in the world right now– with a clearer perspective in so many ways. Now, we don’t just see lines and colors on a map. Now, to a large degree, we see it through the eyes of the people who live there. We’re so grateful. So, so grateful!
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