In Denial

August 9, 2007

The Egypt Chronicles, Part 7

Our journey through Egypt finally allowed us a morning to sleep in, and we took advantage of it. Until this welcome Tuesday morning, the pace of our trip had indeed been furious, and as we charted our course for the rest of the trip, we knew that what lay ahead would be exhausting and amazing all at the same time.

During the morning and early afternoon, we left the hotel and visited a couple sites. A friend who had been to Egypt before had recommended the Nubian museum, so we decided to check it out. Unlike the antiquities museum in Cairo, this one featured informative displays, good lighting, and clear labels. All these features together tell the story of the Nubian race. These people have long lived in the Southern areas of Egypt and have been ruled by the Egyptians throughout history. Like pretty much museum or temple in Egypt, this one featured a few big statues. Here is one of them.

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Not far from the museum lies the “Unfinished Obelisk.” As you may have gathered from the name, this large obelisk was never completed. Its size is impressive, but then again they never did finish it, so it is limited in its grandeur.

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Before being outside for long, we began to feel the Aswan heat, and since we had stared looking at sites that were unfinished, we headed back to the hotel. As we walked into our suite, we heard some familiar voices, which belonged to Betsy, Laura, Lester and Austin. We spent some time catching up with them, and they decided to join us for our afternoon activity—a boat ride on the Nile River.

Our Nile voyage was certainly the marquee event of our first day in Aswan. The trip had been arranged by our hotel, so our boat driver, dressed simply in a long, white, one-piece garment, met us there and escorted us to the river’s edge, where we boarded our boat. An engine propelled the boat, which consisted of a bottom deck with cushioned seats and a simply flat top deck. The only passengers were the eight IBEXim.

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At first we crossed to the middle of the Nile and Elephantine Island. We stopped at the Nubian House where some of the girls got henna tattoos. Before long, we found ourselves standing at the entrance of a village with a sheik on our right, offering a tour of the village (for baksheesh, of course), and a museum on our right. Thankfully, we just decided to head back to the boat and the open water of the Nile River.

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The Nile is certainly wider than any river I have seen, and seeing the river for myself only makes the first plague of the Exodus more impressive. The whole river turned to blood—that’s a lot of blood.

Since we were cruising along the Nile River, some of our party felt compelled to swim. After they became convinced that would not die from some strange African virus, they jumped in. I opted to take pictures.

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After the swim, we continued to cruise along the river, meandering between islands in the grand river. At one point we encountered an African boy who seemed to be spending his afternoon swimming from boat to boat.

Back at the shore and the hotel, we cleaned up and met yet another IBEX group for dinner. We ate pizza and pasta at a restaurant on the river. Let me also mention that if you ever end up in Egypt, drink as much of the fruit juice as possible—it’s delicious.

Abi, Whit, PC, and I did not stay out too long because the pace of our trip was about to increase again. The next morning, the alarm would ring at 2:45AM as our adventure took us farther south into the unknown land of Africa.

The Egypt Chronicles, Part 6

As the sun began to rise upon the town of Luxor, PC and I were awakened at 4:30 AM by the first call to prayer of the day at the local mosque. This loud call would be the first of five that day, and devout Muslims would flock to the mosque each time. However, PC and I rolled over and slept for a few more hours before waking up for our grand tour of the West side of the Nile across from Luxor.

The day before we had arranged a tour of the west bank through Magdi, our hotel owner, that would take us to the Colossi of Memnon, the Valley of Kings, Hatshepsut’s temple, and the Valley of Queens. Our tour fare covered our entry to all these sites, an English speaking guide, and taxi service.

We enjoyed a breakfast of bread and eggs with a Canadian named Ed (he had a great accent, eh) before venturing outside to meet our taxi. Expecting to find a standard, old, blue-and-white piece of work, a new, black Toyota Corolla with a sweet interior pulled up to take us across the Nile.

As we drove through fields upon fields, you would not have known that we were only a mile away from desert. After a few minutes of driving through this agricultural land, we arrived at the Colossi of Memnon, our first stop of the day. The Rough Guide says, “This gigantic pair of enthroned statues originally fronted the mortuary temple of Amenophis III, once the largest complex on the west bank.” The temple has since been destroyed, but nevertheless, these ginormous statues are impressive.

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Our most interesting stop of the day was certainly the Valley of Kings. Remember the pyramids? While they are magnificent, there were not the best idea the Egyptians ever had. Nothing tempts a grave robber more than a huge monument that screams, “Here I am; rob me.” But the Egyptians got smarter. This Valley of Kings was a secret burial place for many ancient pharaohs. This method protected but tombs a little better than the pyramids, but still only one tomb (King Tut’s) kept its treasure until the twentieth century.

We visited three tombs, and each was fascinating, colorful, and hot. The intricate designs give amazing insight into the religious beliefs of the ancient Egyptians. Also, I had to force myself to imagine these tombs filled with treasure as they were before they were robbed. Let me tell you, grave robbing must have been a very lucrative profession. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the tombs.

In the valley next to these hidden tombs sits the temple of Hatshepsut, the only woman to ever reign as Pharaoh. In order to legitimize her position, she claimed divine parentage and was usually depicted in masculine form. Here we are imitating the statues of the temple.

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And this is PC, Abi, and Whit showing off at the top of the steps.

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The last stop on our guided tour was the Valley of Queens, which houses the tombs of high officials, royal children, and—you guessed it—queens. In one of the tombs we saw a mummified human fetus. After finishing here, we traveled back to across the Nile to Luxor. We ate an afternoon meal and showered at the hotel while catching up with another IBEX group that was now staying there before going to the train station with Magdi.

While we were waiting for our train to Aswan, I was able to chat with Magdi a little bit. Originally from India, he started his hotel in 1992. He has slowly expanded it ever since while also expanding his family (4 boys and 1 girl). From the couple days I was able to know him, I quickly could tell that his life was wrapped up in his hotel, his family, and his religion; he was a devout Muslim who went to the mosque five times a day. (Yes, that means that while PC and I were rolling over at 4:30 AM, he was at the mosque.) Here is our group with Magdi.

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We spent the rest of our third Egyptian day traveling and enjoying great conversation. When we arrived in Aswan, we quickly hailed a taxi to escape from the horde of hotel owners that hounded us as we got of the train. With the help of the Rough Guide, we found a hotel to our liking that even had a view of the Nile. After three days of intense travel, our day to sleep in had finally come.

Time to Explore Luxor

July 7, 2007

The Egypt Chronicles, Part 5

When the day had dawned and the night train has stopped rolling, we arrived in the city of Luxor, which is more commonly known throughout history as Thebes. Outside of what we had read in our Rough Guide and what we had heard in Todd’s lectures, we knew little about the city we were about to explore.

We did know that our first order of business needed to be finding a place to stay, since we would not be leaving Luxor until the next evening. With the help of our Rough Guide, we had selected a couple good possibilities, including one hotel named Fontana. Immediately as we walked off the train, we were greeted by a man named Magdi, who just so happened to own and operate the Fontana. He gave us a free taxi ride back to his hotel, and we quickly decided to stay there. Magdi would become an important character in our adventures.

After taking our first showers of the trip, we laid out our plan (with the help of Magdi) for the next two days. That day we would explore the temples and museums of the East Bank (of the Nile) on our own, while the next day we would investigate the temples and tombs of the West Bank. So we gathered our cameras and set out on rented bicycles for day one of our Luxor adventure.

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I must admit that riding bikes through this Egyptian town was one of the highlights of the trip for me. As we made our way to the Karnak Temple, we cruised down the main street the parallels the Nile River. As I looked to my right and saw the Luxor Temple and then to my left to see the vast Nile River, I thought to myself, “How cool is this?”

We finally did arrive at the Karnak Temple with directional help from a few locals. This temple spreads across 65 acres of land is the best preserved temple in Egypt. We saw nothing of this size or magnitude in Israel. Here is a shot of the front of the temple.

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The Pillared Hall stands as the most impressive architectural feature of the temple. 134 columns fill this hall and would have supported a massive roof in the ancient times. This ruins of this temple were impressive enough; I cannot imagine what it must have looked like in its old splendor. Here is Whitney amidst the forest of giant pillars.

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By the direction of Todd’s Egypt Guide, we found a few carvings in the temple with biblical implications. Here we are in front of Shishak’s city list, which lists the cities Shishak conquered as he invaded much of Israel during the fifth year of Rehoboam. This is mentioned in 1 Kings 14:25-28 and 2 Chronicles 12:1-12.

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After leaving the Karnak Temple, we made our way back into Luxor and ate lunch at McDonald’s before checking out a few museums. We found the Luxor Museum to be much more user friendly than the museum in Cairo. All the artifacts had clear labels, and the museum was well organized. The most impressive items in this museum were two mummies, one of which is possibly is Ramses I. I still remember one of these antique corpses having a very vivid facial expression. Sorry, no pictures were allowed. We also visited the Mummification Museum, which had a mummified crocodile on display.

By the time we finished scoping out the museums, we were all ready for naptime. The nap was great—except for the few minutes PC were awakened by a loud call to prayer at a mosque down the street.

After this refreshing oasis of time, we set out for a more relaxed evening around the Luxor Temple. The Luxor Temple is very similar to the Karnak Temple—lots of pillars and statues—but observing it at night gave it a different feel. Here is a picture of the front.

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Inside we explored, took pictures, and even ran into another group from IBEX. Here we are having some fun with the old self-timer.

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We left the temple and rode across the street on our bikes to a restaurant called Snack Time. While inside the restaurant, you could have easily felt like you were in America, with menus in English and smiling teenage employees in uniform. PC and I taught them how to make Coke floats, and our group sat up on the fifth story rooftop that overlooked the Luxor Temple. We enjoyed the good ice cream and excellent conversation before heading back to the hotel so we could rest up for a second day of adventure in Luxor.

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The Egypt Chronicles, Part 4

Our adventure in Egypt introduced me to many things. I experienced life on my own in a foreign country for the first time—no professors were guiding the way. I saw amazing things like the Pyramids. I tried some new foods (but not too many.)

Also, I rode a real train for the first time in my life. Yes, I did not need to go to Egypt to experience this, but it was in Egypt nonetheless that first made my way by rail.

Train travel (like most kinds of travel) turned out to be not that exciting. Since it was night, there was nothing to look at out the window. Nevertheless, I still found my first train experience interesting. The four of us were put in a room with two Egyptian men. Both spoke good English, so we enjoyed talking to them for a bit. One even had some questions about Christianity, so PC spent some time sharing the gospel with him.

Before too long, all of us felt the need for sleep. The four of us had had quite a day, and it had started at 3:45 AM Egyptian time. However, trying to sleep in the train car proved interesting. Our seats barely reclined. PC eventually stretched out on the floor, and the girls split the three seats on their side of the cabin. I was seated with the two Egyptians, so I tried to make use of my backpack as a pillow, and that worked…for a while.

After about four hours of sleep I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep. And for those of you who know me, you know that me plus being tired plus traveling plus not being able to sleep plus an optional side of McGriddles equals interesting times—I feel sick. To complicate things, vacant bathrooms proved to be exceptionally hard to find on this train, so that added some suspense to my early morning experience. Thankfully, I ended up feeling alright and even got some more sleep before the end of the train ride.

That morning as I sat on the train feeling sick to my stomach, I felt like I had never been in such a foreign experience. I was so far away from everything I knew and was comfortable with. I was on a train traveling deep into the heart of a strange country. I was surrounded by people speaking a foreign language and practicing a different religion. I had no way to contact anyone outside of that train, and there was nothing I could do. I was far, far away from my comfortable bed on the Moshav, and even that was fading farther into the distance.

It was this morning that Psalm 139 became the Psalm of Travel/Study Break. In this Psalm, David stresses the omniscience and omnipresence of God, and he says, “If I ascend into heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” I have never made my bed in Sheol, but that morning I felt like I was as close to doing that as I could be. David also says, “Even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.” Even though I was in the strangest place in my life and nothing felt normal, God was still there, holding my hand, and leading me on.

By this time our trip was starting to take shape. We would spend the next two days in Luxor, followed by a day in Aswan, followed by a day in Abu Simbel. We did not have all the details filled in yet, but that was the beauty of our Travel/Study trip. Next time I’ll post (with pictures) about Luxor.

Wonders of the World

June 16, 2007

The Egypt Chronicles, Part 3

When I say Egypt, what is the first thing you picture in your head? If you were a Sunday school all-star, you might be picturing frogs jumping out of your computer screen right now. But if not, the pyramids are probably floating in your head. Somehow these monuments have come to symbolize the historic civilization that has lived along the Nile River since the beginning of history, and it was to these ancient wonders that our Egyptian adventure brought us next.

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We spent our time at the pyramids exploring and taking pictures.

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Honestly, this guy has been sitting in the sun for 3500 years, he could use a little shade.

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Whitney thought he was kind of cute.

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This guy was pretty friendly and wanted me to take a picture of him. We then left before he could try to sell us anything.

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Getting a picture on a camel at the pyramids is a must if you go to Egypt.

The whole area that houses the Sphinx and the pyramids is crawling with locals hoping to take advantage of rich tourists. Each ten steps you take you are offered a camel ride while others will offer you water or some cheap trinket. Interestingly enough, very few locals will actually guess that you are American. They are more likely to think that you are Australian or English. This misidentification results from a lack of American tourists in Egypt.

We paid the extra cost to go inside one of the bigger pyramids, and the interior was surprisingly simple. A single shaft descends into the pyramid before ascending to the burial chamber. Unlike other tombs we would see in Egypt, these walls were without paintings or carvings. The temperature inside the pyramid was also surprisingly high, so we did not stay long. At one point in the narrow shaft, I thought to myself, “I really hope this thing doesn’t collapse.” I quickly realized that the pyramids have been there for 3500 years, so they would probably hold for five more minutes.

On our way out of the pyramids we asked one guy for a camel ride. We asked how much it would cost, and he said, “No problem.” Apparently we had not quite learned our lesson yet. We quickly took pictures and then offered the man a rate we had got from other camel operators nearby. However, he did not find the rate so fair and went ballistic, so PC and I spent the next few minutes explaining how we were not going to give him the ridiculous amount of money he was asking. We ended up giving him a little more than he had planned, but this still did not make him too happy.

As we were leaving the pyramids, we were trying to decide whether we wanted to try and go farther South to more pyramids or back into the city for the Antiquities Museum. We got a taxi and decided to return to the city. Our taxi driver had heard us talking about the other pyramids, so every few minutes he offered to take us there the next day. Whenever he offered, I told him that we were catching a train that night and would be in Luxor the next. Each time, he said, “No problem.”

We arrived at the museum with little difficulty and were excited to enter and see what our Rough Guide called “the finest display of its kind in the world.” This museum is excellent because of the quality of its artifacts, not the brilliance of its presentation. Many of the artifacts lack labels that explain what they are, and some of the ones that are labeled are only hand-written. However, we had both our Rough Guide and small booklet from our professor that pointed out the highlights, so we felt confident in proceeding without a guide. One item of significance to us who were studying in the Holy Land was the Merneptah Stele, which clearly refers to Israel. Here we are in front of the museum.

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The most impressive display at the Egytian Antiquities Museum is clearly King Tutankhamun’s gold. When Egyptian pharaohs died, they were not simply buried in a casket at a cemetery; they were laid to rest in elaborate tombs that were loaded with treasure. However, as these tombs were discovered, they were all empty—they had been robbed. Only one tomb was found in its original condition, and that tomb was King Tut’s. He was buried in a sarcophagus, which was placed inside another sarcophagus, which was placed inside of yet another sarcophagus. These sarcophagi were then placed inside of a box inside of a box inside of a box. Did I mention that all these boxes and sarcophagi were made of solid gold? And these things are only the being of the opulence of the dead king. Certainly the most impressive artifact is the burial mask, which would have been placed over the corpses face. You can still see the brilliant colors that were painted on this mask thousands of years ago.

By the time we left the museum, night was approaching. We spent the evening eating at T.G.I. Friday’s with some fellow IBEXers and getting to the train station. It was hard to believe that that very morning we had awoken in a hostel room in Israel. Since then we had traversed the Sinai, crossed under the Suez Canal, seen the Nile River, haggled with taxi drivers and camel owners, been inside a pyramid, and seen King Tut’s gold. What a day it had been! But this was only our first of seven days in Egypt.

No Problem

June 8, 2007

The Egypt Chronicles, Part 2

Most of the guys in the hostel room were awake before the alarm went off at 4:45 AM. We did not need a clock to wake us up; excitement for a new day of adventure had already done that.

Four taxis were waiting outside the Beit Ha’Arava Hostel to take us to the Egyptian Border. We moved through the border with no difficulty, and within an hour we were in a new country—Egypt. Here is my group, ready to take on anything Egypt might throw at us.

Our first task inside Egypt was to find a way to Cairo, which is about a six hour drive from Taba, the border town we were now in. Since it was only 5AM, our transportation options were quite limited. We found a small fleet of old mini-vans, and hired two of them to take the sixteen of us to Cairo. Each van came with a driver and a security guard. These guards wore suits and were packing some serious equipment. They both carried a small machine gun on their belt.

Our two vans comprised a small caravan that moved through the desert that Saturday morning. Even with no scenery that drive was new and interesting. Every so often, we would stop at military checkpoints. The soldiers were always quite curious when they discovered we were Americans and occasionally decided to send along another car to escort our caravan. Here you can see our two vans and the escort car at a stop along the way.

Eventually, we arrived in Cairo, and nothing in my life had prepared me for Cairo traffic. Many of the roads do not even have painted lanes; cars just converge into the mix at whatever speed they wish. Once we did safely arrive at the Ramses Train Station, my group bought tickets for the 10 PM train to Luxor that night. After this was accomplished, we hurried off to see what everyone goes to Egypt to see—the Pyramids.

We bartered with our first Egyptian taxi with ease and were almost at the Pyramids when we began discussing what we wanted to do there. Abi mentioned that she might want to ride a camel. Immediately, our taxi driver said, “You want to ride camel? I get you camel?” This is when our day really started to get interesting. Our driver turned the taxi around and started driving down some crowded alleys before stopping outside one shop. We could see some camels close by, and we could tell that we were not far from the pyramids.

A friendly, English speaking Egyptian greeted us with a smile. We tried to explain that we just wanted to go to the pyramids. He said we could ride the camels there in two minutes. However, we wanted to get to the pyramids before riding camels, and we were also looking for a place to eat lunch by the pyramids. We then tried to explain that we were looking for food, and he said he could give us falafel. The way he talked, he almost made it sounds like he was offering to give us lunch for free. PC tried to verify this, and he responded with something like, “No problem.”

This was the first of many instances that would teach us an important lesson: Whenever someone says, “No problem,” you’ve got a big problem.

He ushered us into a back room in his shop that was filled with nice furniture and perfume bottles. Some friendly Egyptian women were in the shop and asked us our names. Before long, one of them brought us mixings to make falafels. We ate what they gave us, but we were still very unsure if this guy was just very nice or if he was trying to get as much of our money as he could. On top of all this, we are still not certain what is safe to eat and what is not. Here we are, eating the questionable Egytpian grub.

Before long, we realized we needed to get out of this place and get to the pyramids, so we got up and started walking through the shop. We thought our host had been nice, so we thought we would give him a small tip. However, when our host saw us leaving, he was quite confused and tried to charge us for the food. Since we has understood that it was free, PC handed him the small tip (1 Egyptian pound), and we walked off. As we walked quickly away from the store and toward the pyramids, we were all in disbelief at what had happened. We were also not sure if the Egyptian mafia was now chasing us or not. We had so much to learn about foreign ways.

However, as we left the alley and turned the corner, we were met by a picture that we had all seen many times in books and movies, but now we were beholding it with our own eyes. We had arrived at the gates of the Giza pyramids.

Out of Control

May 30, 2007

The Egypt Chronicles, Part 1

At 2:00 PM on Friday, the 13th of April in 2007, sixteen IBEX students gathered at the Reception of Yad Hashmonah to wait for the van that would transport them to a world of adventure known as Travel/Study Break. The previous week had been full of homework and frantic preparation, but all of those things were put aside now for an exciting journey that would take the students to another continent and a different world from anything they had ever known. I was one of those students.

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My group consisted of Abi Cottrell, Whitney Krauss, myself, and Patrick Carmichael. We had absolutely no idea what we were getting into. While we had attended a few lectures on Egypt, we did not know what kind of adventure was right around the corner. We entered the week with a simple plan: Do everything we possibly can. We figured we could fill in the specifics later.

That afternoon, four Travel/Study groups loaded into the same sherut (a 20-passenger minibus/van) that would take us to Eilat, a port city on the Red Sea and the border with Egypt. As the sherut ride began, we spent the time in fun games and merry conversation. Moods were soaring; we had left the school books behind for adventure. We drove past Qumran, the Dead Sea, En Gedi, and Masada, but we barely looked out the window as we rode on with our “been there, done that” attitude. We were on a new journey.

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However, as we continued on the road through the wilderness, we encountered something new—rain in the desert. Thanks to the knowledge we had acquired in our Land and Bible class, we quickly realized a few things. First, if it’s raining here in the low desert, it’s probably raining more in the hill country. Second, if it’s raining in the hill country, then water is probably draining through the valleys to the lower altitudes of the Dead Sea and the Aravah. Third, if water is draining to lower elevation, we were probably going to see some flash floods.

Soon enough, we reached sections of the road completely covered in rushing water. At each of these sections, a line of cars would wait to cross. The first few were rather shallow, so our large sherut crossed without a hitch. We reached another crossing that did not seem too much worse than anything else we had crossed, so we jumped to the front of the line of cars and used the left lane to cross the newly formed river.

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A smaller car was also crossing on our right, but as we continued along the road, this car began to drift closer to us, forcing us nearer to the edge of the road—a drop of a couple feet into a raging river of muddy water. Eventually, we had to stop moving forward, and as we did our engine stalled. So there we sat in the middle of a flash flood crossing, with water rushing at us from our right and the edge of the road only a couple yards away on our left. On both sides of the crossing, people got out of their cars to observe our predicament.

Eventually, our engine started again, but as it did our sherut lurched briefly towards the left and the edge of the road before the engine stalled again. If they were not before, things were definitely tense on the bus now. I began to plan what I would do if our sherut did go off the edge of the road or if we had to abandon ship.

Finally, our engine started again. This time, we slowly moved forward and we were able to turn away from the edge of the road. We made it across.

While we thanked the Lord for bringing us safely through the flood, we did not know lay ahead of us on the road. Would we have another experience like that? Would we be able to make it all the way to Eilat? Thankfully, that flash flood crossing was the last we would encounter on our journey.

As we continued South, Whitney and I started to talk about our river-fording adventure. We both agreed that it was an “out of control” experience; we also concurred that we do not like those occurrences when we feel completely helpless with no control over the present situation. Whitney pointed out that control is only ever an illusion. No matter how much power you think you have over your circumstances at any moment, the reality is that your life is outside of your own control. We are all in a bus lurching toward the edge of the road—except for the grace of God.

Our trip was off to a smashing start. We had not even made it to the border before encountering the first adventure in a week that would be full of them. And we were reminded that no matter what we had planned, God was in control.

We spent the night in Eilat, all of us going to bed early because at 5AM the next morning, taxis would be waiting outside our hostel to take us to Egypt.

Egypt: Conquered

April 22, 2007

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At 10:15 PM on Saturday, April 22, 2007, Patrick Carmichael, Abi Cottrell, Whitney Krauss, and I strolled up the dark road that leads to Yad HaShmonah.

We were returning from a nine-day journey that had taken us through flash floods and sleepless nights to three different countries and a thousand good times. We spent eight of those days exploring the sights of the Egypt, from the pyramids to the temple at Abu Simbel to the frigid top of Mt. Sinai. We left without much a plan and returned to Israel thinking that we could not have planned a better trip.

There is no way that I can do justice to this trip in just one post, and there is also no way that I can do a series of posts now with how busy school will be for the next week. Therefore, one of my summer goals is to blog “The Egypt Chronicles,” which will tell the story of our amazing journey through words and pictures.

About a year ago, I remember reading a blog by Brad Smith about a trip he took to the land of Egypt. He talked about his adventures, but he also discussed Psalm 139 and how his experiences had brought his thoughts to this Psalm. And as I sat awake in the wee hours of the morning on a night train from Cairo to Luxor, all I could think about was Psalm 139. Even though I was in the midst of the most foreign experience of my life, God was there. The truth of his word remained constant, and I could enjoy the same nearness to God that I can enjoy here at the Yad or back in California. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me…

When we returned last night, we were surpised to find how much the Yad felt like home after our time in Egypt.

I was also surprised to find how much reading I still had for a Modern State book review that is due on Thursday, so now I am off to more reading from Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem.

You should go read Psalm 139.

Peace.