Camino Series #3 – In God We Trust

Churches! Churches! Churches! The Spanish love the Lord! Every town has a church or two or 10! Even the tiny wee villages that have but a few houses and a lot of farm land, there in the centre of town is the house of God. Outside, a very similar style yet inside even the quaintest of churches has that energy that only God provides. You can feel the love of the caretakers or congregations, especially when they are up at dawn to stamp the passport of the passing pilgrims.

img_9867
At the beginning of the Camino you get a pilgrim’s passport so you can stamp your way through the villages, cities and towns to prove in Santiago that you have indeed walked and earned your Compostella. I thought 50 stamps would be sufficient but I must have passed over 500 churches in 21 days. The Leon Cathedral was a sight to behold! It was HUGE! Upon entry the vastness was filled with beautiful paintings, sacristy and the power of God and stunning architectural design. Empty pews during the day and packed out pilgrim masses at night. This was a common theme, empty pews.

img_8863
In a small town called Trabadelo the church was packed to the rafters when I arrived. Surprised, I enquired…funeral it seemed. Apparently, the village priest struggles with attendance on Sundays, although a handful of devout women attend week in, week out. Alas for a wedding, christening or funeral in this case, the townspeople gather in their hundreds.

I marvelled at the Gaudi masterpiece of the Episcopal Palace in Astorga and the cathedral which was equally impressive. Of course, the pièce de résistance of the Camino is the Cathedral Santiago. Set upon an infinite square where the last seashell lies, signalling the end of your pilgrimage. Unfortunately, the restoration works had it covered in scaffolding as I arrived, but it was festival time. So, as I lined up on the feast day for two hours just to enter at mass time, I’m thankful I had the patience to wait. Inside decadently grand and alluring you wonder why the Catholic Church doesn’t rapidly expand its congregations on sheer elegance alone.

img_9144A beautiful  creation and the sense of God still there; and with the grandeur of the ceremony it witnesses and the swinging of the Botafumeiro, which technically should only occur on a holy year. But it’s St James Day and they’re feeling festive.

With 50 stamps in my pilgrim’s passport I’ve but touched the sides. The house of God always astounds me. If history, architecture, nature, hiking or God is your thing, get yourself on the Camino. You won’t regret it.
Yours in Faith

The Unlikely Pilgrim

“Happy Blogiversary” To The Unlikely Pilgrim!

I cannot believe it has been a full year that I have been jetting about exploring religions, cultures and making friends in the strangest of places. I have hit 18 countries and been to tiny little villages in India and Indonesia, super cities like Shanghai, Bangkok and London. I’ve frolicked in the waves of the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, among others. I’ve seen ancient sites and felt the history within them as if I was a time traveller. I’ve eaten anything and everything, dabbled in local dance, learnt languages, customs and got lost A LOT! So to mark this monumental occasion I’ve compiled my seven most remarkable memories from the last 12 months. Enjoy!


Spiritual Enlightenment

Given my love of God and the fact that this is The Unlikely Pilgrim, I’ve been privileged to experience some incredible festivals, monuments, places of worship and powerful moments. The one for me that stands out most has to be Jerusalem. Amongst the chattering of Japanese tourists and the chaos of Easter weekend crowds, I was in the Upper Room where it is written that Jesus hosted the Last Supper the day before he was crucified. I stood in awe of the location, a relatively bland room with hints from its Islamic, Jewish and Christian past. I listened to Hillsong tunes echo through my earpods. I was completely engulfed by the magnitude of the occasion and its importance in my faith and therefore my heart and soul. In that moment it was as if I was alone, reflective of what had gone down in this room. My commitment to Christ swelled inside me and reaffirmed my path: to celebrate God my way and love others, like Jesus had. Not with judgement, not with an agenda, but because we are all one. That was my Jerusalem moment.


 Underwater Paradise

The Caribbean is the clearest, bluest most incredible water I’ve witnessed to date. The turquoise shimmer of the sun is mesmerising and inviting. It was here on my 33rd birthday I went diving with one of my best friends Nea off the coast of Can Cun at Isla Mujeres. The MUSA underwater museum is home to thousands of colourful fish and massive turtles all swimming amongst hundreds of statues placed underwater, as an artificial reef. I’ve been diving all over the world and the ocean scenery is always captivating; but I think what made this special was the symbolism of unity that these statues represented. Combined with the stunning nature of the above water views as well, helped. It was a feast for the eyes and for the soul.


Drunken Debauchery

Did someone say Carnivale in Rio? Five days of bloco parties, samba, Brazilian music, fancy dress and the world’s most gorgeous people half naked, offering me beer. YES please! Combined with stunning beaches and glorious churches to explore whilst in recovery mode, made this a very hazy yet very enjoyable stop along the way. A weeklong party that EVERYONE gets involved in from the little ones to the grey army. I highly recommend getting yourself to Carnivale in Rio. It won’t disappoint.


Forever Friendship

Tough category! I am going to omit the Bali crowd from this one as they are already on that list. This one goes out to Maria. Maria is my proofreader and originally a friend of a friend. I have only met her in person twice, yet she has been with me all the way. Ensuring my blogs make sense, offering impartial yet valuable advice and helping my book come to life. Her views are often not aligned with mine and this is why I love her. She is a kindred spirit yet our differences are what makes that so. It’s funny how connected you can feel to someone with oceans and mountains between you. I’ve learnt that this year. I’ve learnt that true friendships don’t fade with distance, they evolve and they change, but true friends will be there in the end. Even when you are worlds apart. (She totes has to proofread this, haha!)

 WTF Moment

Back to Brazil! This was not the only “exorcism” I have witnessed this year but inside the walls of the Temple of Solomon in Sao Paolo, shit got real! Surrounded by 6000 evangelist Christians, on their feet all shouting “get out” in Portuguese to the apparent demon within the dishevelled woman on the stage seemed to be quite extreme, even to me. I certainly said my own prayers amongst the fanfare and hype of the moment. Not for the lady, but for me to make it out without donning the stage or being discovered as completely bewildered at the practice.

I Wish I Lived There

Bali! Bali! Bali! I loved every moment of my time on the paradise island, with its thunderous wet season, scorching dry months, ceremony overload and endless rice fields. I loved the lifestyle of yoga by day and beers with mates by night. I met some incredible people that are firmly in the forever friendship groups. I found myself and I conquered so many fears and demons in that place. Not to mention the beaches are beautiful, the people are so kind and friendly and life is just simple there. I’ll be back. I know it.


Time Traveller

 Lebanon – The history that laps the shores there is incredible for me. Phoenician ruins dating back 6000 years in Byblos and temples for Venus and Bacchus at Baalbek in the mountains. Cedar trees that are centuries old. I enjoyed the unity of the Islamic and Christian worlds colliding over time yet emerging united in what Pope Benedict XVI said is an example for the rest of the world. Islamic burial grounds annexed Christian cemeteries in Tyre. Towering Minarets overlooking Church bell towers in Beirut. Glimpses of the war years linger and yet the general vibe of the place is one of party, friendship and harmony.


 Three hundred and sixty-five days on the road. I feel blessed to have enjoyed the journey thus far and look forward to sharing what the next year has to offer.

 Yours in Faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim

Kuli Kuli – Life with a Moroccan Family

They say home is where the heart is and I am a family girl. But I’m beginning to think my family is increasing by the day. I have signed up with IVHQ  to volunteer both in Marrakech and Casablanca during Ramadan. I am hosted by families in both towns and almost immediately I feel like I am one of them, Moroccans are famous for their hospitality, but this is above and beyond. The family in Marrakech host myself and Kelly, the bubbly blond law student from California, and I adore them right off the bat.

We sit and chat with the help of Google Translate and the daughters who speak fluent English translate and giggle along with my very broken Arabic. Bushra and Abdeljalil facetime with my man and to hear them chatting in Darija (Moroccan dialect) makes me smile and it is like he is here. I am woken gently at 3:00am for Suhoor and I’m constantly in a fit of giggles with the amount of food Bushra puts before me at this ungodly hour. Kuli, kuli (eat, eat) she is always saying.

A sentence I have learned early on is “my husband is Moroccan”. Okay, so he is not my husband per se, but long distance boyfriend is just too hard to explain. Knowing this increases the love I get from the locals. This family includes me in everything! I mean everything. On day two my host sisters take me to the Hammam, it’s a local one, not the blue tile spa masterpiece you see on tele, this is something else. Women who are normally covered practically from head to toe are naked as the day they were born and completely not bothered. I’m not so shy but when Salma takes my loofah and starts exfoliating my back I do crack a smirk and think, well when in Rome I guess.

Omar and Yassir are absolute legends too. I speak at length until the wee hours about Islam and areas I’m not so sure on. Omar takes it all in his stride and the feminist and Christian in me shines, as does the male dominated societal upbringing and devotion to his faith arises in him. Abdeljalil just watches on ensuring we don’t get into an argument. Which we don’t and thoroughly enjoy the debate on both sides. He goes to bed with a list of things he needs to answer for me.

I love this family and I think that maybe I should have just committed the whole time to Marrakech so I could be with them longer. Alas it’s time to move on…

Casablanca. This is a big city and I am in a very rough and tough neighbourhood. I’m introduced to Fatima my host and she links my arm and walks me home. I feel like she is marking her territory, perhaps telling the neighbourhood, “see this blondie, she’s with me so don’t mess with her!”

We arrive at the apartment which is colourful and bigger than that of the one in Marrakech and I soon find out why – five kids: my magic number. Four gorgeous girls are 24, 19, 17 and little Miriam, six who is to become my shadow. Ahmed is the man of the house and there is a son who is in Spain. It’s Ramadan and they are all very impressed that I am fasting and are proud to feed me up at Iftar time. Kuli, kuli there’s that familiar cry. I’m eating, I’m eating!

Over the three weeks I am with this family they open their home and heart to me, invite me to all events and I return the favour by cooking a feast once a week. Also, I’m giving them a laugh with my developing but still amateur Arabic. This family is immersed in the centre that I teach at and at all hours working on projects, sewing clothes, making food for Iftar and just generally getting involved.

I’m invited to a local ceremony, they insist I stay on for Eid celebrations and watch over me like I am one of their own. Now I know this sounds like just any friendly household, but it’s the little things that warm your heart. It’s the beaming smile on Ahmed’s face when he sees me bleary eyed at suhoor amused at my dedication to his faith, or the kisses that come from Miriam as soon as I walk in. Or the genuine love from Fatima as she brings me in for a cuddle as I sit and read just because that’s what mums do.

I’ll cherish my time in Morocco, not for the sights and not just for the journey through Islam, but the open hearts of the families who have hosted me and truly made me like I was one of them.

Yours in Faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim

 

 

 

Not Hangry – Ramadan the Fast.

Wow!  Sixteen hours without food or water of any kind, in 30 plus heat all whilst trying to explore, learn and teach. What was I thinking? Day one and it just so happens I’m in the Sahara (not joking). I feel like I’m in a movie where the damsel in distress is walking fatigued and dying of thirst across the endless sand dunes hallucinating about a mirage that evaporates before her eyes as she approaches. Okay not that extreme, but by the last hour when I am literally on the back of a camel crossing the sand dunes. I am secretly praying for an oasis and my head is pounding.
Day two is a little easier, with the long journey back to Marrakech ahead I am ushered off for a nap in the lounge with all the drivers in quite an elite little club of the Fasting Locals whilst the tourists I’m with have lunch. Said locals are always so pleasantly surprised of my fast and show their appreciation and encouragement fervently.

After this initial hurdle, it’s practically easy. Honestly. I am normally a very hangry bird when I’ve not eaten and my patience amazes even me. I don’t know if it’s because subconsciously I know it’s for God or if it is something the body just adjusts to quite quickly.

Most days I feel the fatigue from the broken sleep more than anything else and with the feast that occurs at Iftar. It’s worth the wait. Suhoor is a funny time of day. In Marrakech, my host family cook a massive meal, tagine, soups, yogurt, bread and there is always melon. It’s weird for me to eat such a stodgy meal at such an early hour. I go from being asleep at 2:55am to eating a full dinner at 3:05am. What the? In Casablanca, my hosts are more of a jam and bread kind of crew and I find this much easier to adjust to.

At day 19 I’m feeling like I’ve conquered it and then it hits… Fes has 43 degree heat, endless mazes of narrow lanes to explore and I feel like the extra seven minutes until Iftar is a lifetime. I am a grumpy bitch all weekend. Honestly. The endless, rip off approaches from the street vendors and impromptu and unsolicited guides, the haggle for a taxi that really is unnecessary combined with the heat – NOT COOL! I enjoy parts of the trip and learn a thing or two but I feel the fast in Fes and decide not to travel again until after Eid, for my sanity and that of those around me (sorry Emily). The silver lining of course is that the remaining days in Casablanca pass with ease because I am so thankful to be in the comfort of 28 degrees and for the ocean breeze.

Thirty days have been and gone and I survived! I didn’t falter, I didn’t cheat and even when I was technical excused from fasting (when you travel and when you are sick) I soldiered on and I’m glad I did. I’ve lost 3 kgs, I feel motivated to get back into the gym having not had the energy to do so for the last month and I have a new-found appreciation to this holy month and one part of what it stands for.

 

You don’t have to be religious to fast and you don’t have to be Muslim. If you fancy it try it next Ramadan and have a go, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Yours in Faith, 

The Unlikely Pilgrim

Indoctrination or Devotion – A Christian woman immersed in Islam 

It’s Ramadan and I’m committed to all things Islam for  30 days, I’ve got my Hijab. My Jellaba, English translation Quran and my host family are teaching me the salat.
 

Salat is the Islamic prayerWith a schedule of five times’ daily dependant on the moon with a timeframe that changes daily, it’s a little hard to keep up at first. But thanks to my new qibla app, the call to prayer now sounds from my iPhone and the inner compass helps me find Mecca (this is the direction that Muslims must face whilst performing the salat). 

 

I’m fine with learning the wudu – my host sister takes me through the ritual which is easy enough to remember.

https://www.google.com.au/amp/m.wikihow.com/Perform-Wudu%3Famp%3D1 

Then it’s time to pray. It’s 3:00am and we are lined up in the front room facing the Kaaba. I recite after my host the words of the surah and follow the actions like a religious round of Simon Says. We are done in about five minutes and we end with the customary greeting Salaam Alikom (Peace be upon you). I just love that.


I try on my own three times the following day and then again with the family at 3:00am. My pronunciation is not great and I’m thankful for the patience my host mum is exercising with me. The next day – day three of Ramadan I’m up to the part of my “Salat Guide Made Simple” book that explains the salat word for word in English. This is when it gets a bit awkward. I learn that I have been parsing  Mohammed periodically throughout the salat and announce him as the one true messenger of God (gasp!).



 Immediately I feel odd. Then looking outside myself, I feel odd for feeling odd. Years of praising Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour and reading quotes of the bible that condemns praising other people.  I feel icky. I can’t explain it, I just do. 

 

Ramadan Soul Search #1 – Is praising Mohammed a betrayal to Jesus? I freeze in my own conviction and stop the salat. I ponder and confide in my Christian mentor network for a good week before I can go on. It’s this strong reaction to words that shows me how powerful faith and/or indoctrination can be. My whole life I have been told and have believed in Jesus Christ as Lord and this seemingly innocent act of learning to pray another way (of which I have done many times before) feels like an unwanted taste in my mouth. 


 So, is my faith and love for Jesus Christ so strong and true that this doesn’t sit well or is it literally just foreign to me because of what I’ve been taught for so long? Am I a product of a Christian household, secular society and Catholic schooling or am I a devotee of the holy trinity? I guess I have the rest this pilgrimage to find out. 

Yours in Faith,

 The Unlikely Pilgrim
 

Holy Trinity or Idolatry? – A tale of two cities

Let me start by saying that being in Jerusalem was a dream come true for me. From walking the path that Jesus followed down from the Mount of Olives on Palm Sunday, to being in the upper room where it is said that the last supper was held. I certainly had my moment in there, an overwhelming connection to Christ and a sorrow for what he must have been feeling on that fateful night. To walk the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday and be at the foot of Calvary where my Lord was crucified was an experience I will be forever grateful for and hold very dear in my heart.

 
I was impressed by the diversity of faces among the faithful believers: Africans, Australians, Europeans, South East Asians, Indians, Sri Lankans and Americans too. Christianity is a faith that has spread through the ages to all corners of the earth. This is a place where pilgrims come together on this holy land to pay homage to Christ their Lord and commemorate the holiness of Easter. It was certainly worth the trip.


On the other hand, I was surprised by the sheer number of churches that were in this seemingly small town. For example, wherever there is even a hint of Jesus-related history a church has been erected. Nearly every Station of the Cross is marked by a chapel or church. The tomb of Jesus is surrounded by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in which five denominations hold services in their sections. Fun fact: these five denominations, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox (both Syrian and Ethiopians), and the Egyptian Coptic Christians cannot agree on anything to the point where for centuries two Muslim families have held the responsibility of the keys that are for opening and locking up. It is a tradition that is viewed as an incredible honour for the people of these two families. I bet the Anti-Islamist Christians don’t know that one.


Even in Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born is marked and so is the manger which was five feet to the left. What I found at these sites were faithfuls throwing themselves at the ground, kissing the stone of Calvary, kissing the stone where the manger lay, kissing the stone where Jesus was prepared for burial etc. etc. Now I’m all for paying respect and I was moved and in rapture by my faith whilst in Jerusalem. However, I couldn’t shake the thought of idolatry.


Idolatry, and the fact that the places and symbols of Jesus and his life seem to be worshipped with such vigour, I found unnecessary. I love Jesus but I did not feel compelled to kiss the ground where it is said he was born, or where he was condemned by Pontius Pilot. I ponder; it is a fine line between worship in memorial and idolatry of the symbolism of Christ. The crucifix hangs around my neck, yet if it were not there I would still have the love of Christ in my heart. St Christopher is in my passport wallet but I do not worship him. The foundation stone lay beneath the walls of a mosque but it does not remove its importance to me and my faith.


So perhaps in this Holiest of Holy land we need to separate ourselves from the history and idolatry of the locations and remember that the love of Christ or the teachings of Mohammed or the Torah is what is important. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that the stone where Jesus lay or where Mohammed ascended or the Wall of Temple of Solomon is part of this land’s history. 

The legacy is not the bricks and mortar; it is in the hearts and minds of the billions of followers who continue the great work of Abraham as his great nation.


That is the promise of God. Not let’s all fight over a geographical location despite the united origin of our people. Or not let’s all fight over who has responsibility for the bloody keys.
Yours in Faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim

Home – in a Palestinian Refugee Camp

Wow! I was so nervous about heading to the other side of the green line, thanks to all the fear mongering from the media and people I had met. Boy, were they wrong. The people of Palestine were amongst the warmest I have ever met. I stayed with Ibrahim and his wife Aya in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp. Gotta love Airbnb, they really do give you the local experience. This couple bent over backwards for me and ensured my every need was met.


Ibrahim was also a driver and he took me exploring to Jericho, the Dead Sea and St George Monastery. He also wandered the streets of Bethlehem with me for hours to show me the other camps, the wall and some other key places that highlight the history and struggle of this region. Upon arriving, Ibrahim met me at the checkpoint where the other taxi drivers had rustled me up a seat in the shade while I waited – far from the harassment promised by the naysayers.


Aya had gone out so I was dropped to her at her mum Afaf’s house, where the whole family greeted me. Shisha, tea and cake, it was Abdallah’s (Aya’s brother) birthday and I slotted in like I always belonged there. No sign of feeling like an outsider, no awkward stares or questions on why I wasn’t wearing a head scarf. Just warm Palestinian hospitality from a wonderful woman and her tribe.


I asked probing questions on the occupation and their thoughts behind that. Speaking freely Ibrahim and his family (he is one of 14!) told me of the struggle of their family after his mother died when he and his siblings were still little and how the Christian brothers and sisters had taken a few of them in to school them and shelter them too. They told me about their land and villages that have since been occupied by illegal Jewish settlements and how they wish to return Insha’Allah (God Willing) and that that day will come.


The Dheisheh Refugee Camp came into existence 70 years ago when the UN leased the land for the displaced Palestinians and hosts 13,000 people today. Ibrahim advised that the UN holds a 99-year lease to this place so they feel secure for now. “But what happens after that?” I ask. “No one knows,” is his reply, with a distant hint of defeat. Aws and Ayham, his beautiful boys, greeted me daily with kisses and cuddles and loved to sit with me as I wrote in my room in the mornings.


There was a family get together nearly every night, one evening Ibrahim parked the car and ushered me in. I waltzed in to the house of his brother whom I had not yet met, I did meet about 30 members the day before at dinner but not this one. As I entered, a band of men looked up at me (the blonde stranger). I uttered a confident Salam Alaikom and one of the women from the day before came out to greet me with a joyous and enthusiastic smile. I felt like I could read the minds of the men (who is this chick, oh well she’s here now… tea?).
We sat in the back room (the second lounge, and as in all Arab households) and the food just kept coming and the giggling and chatter of the women competed with the stories and laughter of the men in the other room. Not segregated on purpose or for tradition, more like when you’re at a barbeque and the men stand by the fire with their beers and the women chatter by the salads. Same thing here, men and women float between the two rooms casually. I’m happy to be in my section, because we’ve got the kids and they are so adorable.


I was so impressed with the openness of this family and the no-nonsense approach to their lives. They are not in the best situation; they are treated as second class citizens in their own land. Aya is not permitted to enter Israel. No explanation, just not permitted, and Afaf explained to me the heartache of losing her husband due to the restriction on his identity card which resulted in him succumbing to his heart attack at the checkpoint whilst the soldiers held back his ambulance. It’s a total breach of human rights here yet no one can enforce the law which has many infringements here. Despite all that, they laugh, play and crack on the best they can and I admire that greatly.


A Muslim family who hold their belief in Allah and the teachings of Mohammed proudly whilst not being dogmatic followers, they discussed religion openly with me and took me to meet a Christian Brother, Joe a founding member of the Bethlehem University among others for my Faith Chat collection for YouTube. Nothing was a bother and I still chat to them every week.


If you want to go to Palestine, my advice is: don’t hesitate. Go. It’s safe, it’s beautiful, the people are amazing and the food is to die for.

Yours in Faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim