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Published: July 15th 2017
The idea of taking a pilgrimage to the Holy Land had been in the back of my mind for years, but something had always stopped me. Whether it was terrorism concerns or wanting to do something more freewheeling and “fun” I had held back on purchasing that weighty plane ticket to Israel. This time was different. I felt God leading me and saying that this year was the time. I was ready.
One reason why it worked out so well was because I was not working. I had the time and space to research, pray, and consider what I was about to embark on. For my research, I first bought every guidebook imaginable. What was perhaps the most helpful was reading Rev. James Martin’s book on Jesus and his own pilgrimage in which he wrote that “traveling through the Holy Land was like visiting the family home of a good friend.” I also made an appointment to speak to my pastor who had been to Israel just a couple years before. It was great to meet with him and hear about his travels and get a chance to talk over what a pilgrimage was all about.
I picked February
as the month to go because I was trying to find a time that would not be too crowded. Also, the cooler temperatures would be much better for walking around and I was planning to do a lot of that. I was very excited to be able to book a flight on El Al, Israel’s national carrier. One because it was going to be direct and two because I would be able to experience its notoriously strict security first hand.
I made sure to get to the airport early to deal with the expected lengthy security. However, there was next to nothing. I checked my bag and went through the security screening without issue. As I wandered around the departure area I began to notice a crowd forming around a beige metal door. Every so often an Israeli looking security agent would disappear within, sometimes accompanying a bewildered traveler. It had a feeling of Room 101 from 1984. However, they were leaving me alone. I was in the clear or so I thought.
With about 15 minutes until boarding I heard it. “Will Tommy No Papers, please report to Gate 37 for additional screening”. I made my way
to the counter where I was met by a female El Al security agent with a crewcut and intense eyes. She proceeded to ask me all sort of personal questions about my life, family, traveling history, and connections to Israel. She was the first person to seem surprised that I was going on a pilgrimage alone as opposed to being part of a group. All seemed to go fine until she said that I was now to report to Room 101. Would I still be on time for boarding? Yes, but I need to go there now.
Apprehensively, I approached the beige metal door. I was about to knock when I noticed the people gathered around the entrance. I asked if they were waiting. They said they had been there a long time, their bags were inside, and they weren’t sure what was going on. I decided to knock to let whoever was inside know I had been sent there. The door opened and after explaining who I was an agent motioned me to come in and sit down. There were some other agents in a smaller back room. After asking if there was any money in my carry-on
the agent took my bag and brought it to the other agents who then shut the door.
I was then asked to put all the contents of pockets on a table. My hands and shoes were then swabbed for explosive residue. And again I was questioned about my life and the purpose of my trip. Then I was left to sit there. It was all slightly unsettling like I was under an investigation by some sort of secret police. Eventually, a frightened looking woman was ushered into our room through the metal door. I was free to go. With a sense of relief, I bordered the plane and was whisked off toward the Holy Land.
After a long overnight flight next to a shrill sounding mother and her very loud toddler I arrived in Ben Gurion National Airport. At immigration they gave me a temporary piece of paper for an entry permit and did not put a stamp mark in my passport. This was done because Islamic countries won’t let you in if you’ve been to Israel. I thought it was unnecessary and planned to paste mine in later.
I long imagined Israel to be some sort of warzone. And here I was. I hopped in a cab from the taxi rank and hoped for the best. The taxi driver was an older gentleman with what seemed to be a French accent. He did not understand the address of my hotel in Jerusalem and had to ask another driver.
As we drove along I peered out the window to get a sense of my surroundings. The morning was grey and rainy, but everything looked normal to me. My hotel was in East Jerusalem, the Arab section, near the Damascus Gate. The driver was a kind man and seemed worried about me. He kept saying that he had never been to this part of the city and that there were a lot of Arabs around and that I needed to be careful. With that uplifting bit of information I stepped out of the cab and set foot upon Jerusalem soil for the first time.
My hotel was in an old Ottoman mansion. It was damaged, taken over and used as a command center by the Israelis during the six-day war in 1967 as the army pressed on through East Jerusalem. My room had medieval looking stone walls. It felt like a room from another time. My Ipod shuffled randomly to a song called “You’re in Safe Hands”. I crashed down on the bed and turned out the light. My pilgrimage had begun. Note: All the entries from my Israel trip are based on brief notations in a journal I was carrying around with me. They were able to provide a starting point so I could get my recollections down in blog form. The downside is they can never be as immediate as if I was writing from the road, although there are a couple of direct entries. The upside is that because I am not on the road I am able to spend more time and write in more detail than I would than if I was travelling. So I guess it all balances out. Enjoy my journey!
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