Walking with Abraham
Stars sprinkle the black canopy stretching overhead far down to the horizon in all directions. To the east, I notice a gradient of gray and deep blue. The sun is not yet up, so this Judean Desert is cool and still. For now we hike in the near darkness and total silence, guided by the soft light of the moon, hearing only the crunching of rocks under our boots. We walk like an ancient caravan carrying goods from Damascus to Jerusalem, or perhaps Cairo.
A desert hike holds the promise of wonder. This is the land of the wanderer, the nomad; from here come some of our oldest stories. Walking downwards into a wadia dry canyon carved by centuries of flash floodswe descend gradually, and I wonder how long this sedimentary rock, these exposed layers of history, have lain bare. Sheer cliffs rise high above my head, and there seems no way out except to climb the precipitous face. Did it look the same when Abraham wandered here from the east looking for the land of Canaan, for surely he walked this desert as I do now.
According to biblical accounts, Abraham lived in present day Syria, where he and Sarah had started a community that taught acceptance and understanding. God commanded Abraham "Lech Lecha," which translated from old Hebrew means 'Go yourself,' or 'Go you shall go.'
It's been a year now since I have 'gone myself,' crossing Asia from eastern to western fringe, writing stories for GORP. Nearing the end of this assignment, my thoughts and emotions are a jumble: stark images of returning home mixed with the exotic places and people I may never see again. I'm hoping the silence and secrets of the desert can help me sort things out. It's as good a place as any to end a journey, to find meaning to a year of wandering.
I connect faces with friends Jill and I have made this past year and the acts of kindness we've experienced from strangers. I'm reminded of the poverty of the so-called 'developing' world and the dozens of languages we've heard. If nothing else, travel has taken me outside myself and into the wide world to experience other ways of living and thinking.
We started in Singapore, in a society of ten distinct cultures and religions living together in the common pursuits of financial gain and the hope of a better life. Enemies live side by side under the strict rule of an Asian government. In a society that on the surface seemed so similar to my own, I was startled that people would be happy to forgo personal liberties for the sake of safety, order and civility. I learned the power of money to keep all that together.
Coming up the Malay Peninsula, we rode a day-long train into the heart of Bangkok just as the Thai Bhat began its plunge, setting off the current global economic crisis. To be in a place on which world attention is focused made me realize the difference between reading about something in the paper and actually seeing the event with your own eyes. This in itself, I decided, is reason enough to travel.
Laos I remember well as a poor country, perhaps the least developed in the world next to North Korea. We experienced village life, the way 70% of the world lives, as did all our ancestors. The village is part of our collective history, and in Laos, we did not go to the fringes, but to the center. What I discovered there was my own difference, as an educated Westerner, from the rest of the planet.
Here in the desert, walking slowly through the high-walled canyon, I'm lost in such thoughts. The sun scratches the underbelly of the horizon, and with the moonlight still strong, I notice I have two shadows. The earthen canyon walls change from red to pink to brown. The cliffs are desolate and I have seen no sign of life. Beneath my feet, the cracked limestone crumbles softly with every step. I am thirsty, for what I don't know. The land cannot hold my attention, and my mind wanders like the feet of Abraham nearing the Promised Land.
In commanding 'Go yourself,' God dictated to Abraham three things: 1) that he leave his father's house, in order to think for himself; 2) to leave his history, so he may break from the binds of his past; and 3) to leave his culture, that he may learn not to transgress others beliefs.
Abraham was uneasy leaving his comfortable home, and his journey across the desert was difficult. He was 70 years older than me, and I can only imagine how he made it through this heat. The morning sun has become so strong that I seek out the shade and am nearly blinded when I step out into the sunlight. Because of the high canyon walls, the shadow lines are distinct darkness sliced by a straight-edge of light.
I haven't known heat like this since the Mekong Delta, in South Vietnam. And again, I find myself thinking back on our trip.
From Vietnam I wrote about the mysterious Ha Long Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin where Jill and I met generations of families living on wooden boats. In the early mornings, before they set out to fish with hand-drawn nets, they crowded around kerosene burners, preparing for a long day of hard work and little return. We were told stories of a long, proud history of rebellion against foreign invasion that made me reconsider what my schoolbooks taught me about a war that ended when I was a child.
Out in the Philippines, between sunset scuba diving and fresh fish dinners, we were intruded upon by the world's reaction to President Clinton's at-the-time alleged sexual affairs. Every newspaper and gossip conversation centered around the 'Oral Office,' and I saw not only that much of the world views Americans as naive, but how we affect the globe culturally and politically.
Along the Thai-Burma border, we visited refugees, living in camps along the borderline of danger, fear and uncertainty. We spoke with people who slept with backpacks as pillows, packed in case the Burmese military junta would attack again in the middle of the night. Professionals and farmers alike lived in squalor and thatched huts, jobless and listless, because they stayed temporarily on land that was not their own. Many had forgotten their dreams. From them, I learned to value the security and opportunity I had waiting for me back home.
Security is not something I feel now, here in the desert. The sun is high now, and the shadows shorten slowly along the rocks like a bed-sheet falling to the floor. Soon, there will be no protection. We walk and walk through chasm and gorge, along the dry river canyon, and I'm reminded of a passage in a Tim Mattheson book where a character looks at a sign pointing left that reads 'nowhere,' another sometime later pointing right that reads 'nowhere,' eventually reaching a sign that says 'now here.' I am nowhere, but here.
Somehow, I think that's why G-d sent Abraham wandering through these dry hills and desolate landscapes, because to travel outward is to travel inward. By going and seeing, we come to ourselves. Wandering, he must have learned, as Jill and I did, that no matter where you wake up in the morning, you are with yourself. And that's all you have to rely on when the time comes.
That's what I learned in Nepal paddling the whitewater rivers and hiking the Himalayas. On each day of that month-long trek, Jill and I trudged six to eight hours up and over high, steep passes and down rolling valleys to cross raging rivers. When we reached the snowline, one step could have meant death, and we had to monitor ourselves and find inner strength neither of us knew we had. We were rewarded for our struggles with a foot-journey to the base of Everest, by the good people we met, and a sense of physical and mental accomplishment that we'll be able to rely on in future times of trouble.
Next we went to India, arriving the week they got the bomb. Delhi was a fever with nuclear euphoria and a 120-degree heat wave, so we made our way north into the mountains, to Dharamshala, home of the Tibetan government in exile. There, I met a 12 year-old girl who walked with other refugees from Lhasa to Kathmandu, over the highest mountain range in the world. Dadon lost all her toes to frost-bite, trading them for an education she's denied in her homeland. Having escaped, she may be safe but will grow up watching her culture fade into extinction. Dadon and the other Tibetans we met taught me the importance of fighting oppression, even if it doesn't threaten your own community.
In Turkey it seems like yesterday Jill and I sailed the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts, looking at the land from a different perspective. East meets West in Istanbul, and a great many cultures either settled or passed through the country looking for trade or safety. Many are long forgotten, or exist in ruins along the countryside. On that borderline between two worlds, I learned of the commonalties all people share. When we started planning this trip four years ago, we told ourselves that in Asia, we would discover the cultures most different from our own. While this was true, Turkey showed us how much we all share.
And now I find myself in the Judean desert. What seems like the middle of nowhere, yet is actually just the middle. After all, here in the 'Middle East' all the ancient trade routes and silk roads converged. On most maps older than a few centuries, Israel, then called Palestine, is in the center. And most of this Rhode Island-sized country is sand and barren rock.
To my surprise, the empty desert has life. A heard of quick-footed Ibex deer passes high on a precipitous ledge, looking down at us with fast glances. And I can hear the call of a warbler, although I cannot see her. A lone eagle circles, looking for lunch. Or maybe it's a vulture.
I will soon leave the desert, Israel, this journey, and return home to whatever awaits. So what is there to learn from wandering?
Abraham was 99 when Sarah gave birth to Isaac, from whom descended the Jews and later the Christians. His first son was Ishmael, patriarch of the Moslems, born to his servant Hagar. Some even say that Abraham had other children who went east and became the Brahmins, or the highest caste of Hindus and early priests of Buddhism. All this because G-d told him to 'Go yourself.' 'Through you,' G-d told Abraham, 'all the people will be blessed.'
One hot day in the desert, on his way to Canaan, Abraham was taking shade in his tent when G-d spoke. But Abraham was distracted by three men wandering by. Getting up and interrupting G-d mid-sentence, he went to offer the strangers water, food and shade. Not only did Abraham go to them, the old man ran to catch them. It wasn't enough for him to walk with G-d and to be righteous: he had to act.
I have learned what Abraham learned: After such a journey you must take home what you have gained and discovered, and after looking inside, you must turn outward to help others. The message, as I hear it, is that we must all be ourselves, and live without walls.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication