“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

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
 

Guru? What’s a Guru?

Living Interfaith Community – now that catches my attention.

I stumbled across this place in my quest for all things faith in India and I can hardly begin to describe what I found here. Harmony, tolerance, unity and personally inner peace and calm.


Gobind Sadan was started by Baba Virsa Singh over 30 years ago, an incredible man of God who dreamt of building a place where all men and women of all faiths can come, worship and live together in harmony. His message is simple: work hard, look after others and love God. Your way! Here they hold the Havan (sacred fire) in high regard. Around the clock three Havans are tended to and prayed upon by the occupants and passing pilgrims who volunteer.

 I dutifully sat by this fire and chanted in Sanskrit in the morning, recited the Jaap Sahib in the afternoon and sat in solitude in the evening whilst wishing well on the world and all the people in it. Trying not to forget to pour the ghee and cleanse the new wood so that no ants are harmed (after all it’s a vegetarian fire).


For three days I immersed myself in the culture of Gobin Sadan. This involved quite a tight schedule that seemed to keep me busy but not bored and not tired. Up at dawn for the first round of prayers (ok so I slept through that the first day), followed by prayers and prasad at the Havan at  8:00am. Then it was over to the Gurdwara to hear the recitation of the Guru Granth Sahib and chanting by the main Havan as the Guru – Babaji made offerings to God. The words were repeated over and over in unison (tan tan a baba siri chand sahib) with the other followers. It was such a beautiful sound and there was a feeling of being in a trance. I could have sat for hours, watching the flames flicker and dance with each other along with the swaying of the Chaur Sahib (second nature after such a short time).


Quick brekky and 10:00am snuck up on me. Time to recite the Jaap Sahib – a Sikh morning prayer; complicated at first with Hindi Sanskrit and Arabic. This is sung, the leader first, then us in chorus after him. Then it was rest time and reflection. Back to the Havan for midday prayers, lunch, rest unless you’re on fire duty – I was. Then a round table reading of a passage of the Guru Granth Sahib and reflection of what those words meant to us. Off to Jesus’ place to pray at 6:00pm and the cycle continues into the night and actually starts again at 2:00am.


The Guru – of which I would say there was two, Mary an incredible woman of the lord. Check out her story below; and Babaji, who I was lucky enough to have an audience with…twice. Of course, the first time I was feeling quite overwhelmed and wasted my opportunity to chat with such a wise and awesome man of God. Instead of going deep we discussed trivial history of the farm of which I already knew and of course the pilgrimage after being prompted as to my ‘purpose’ in life. Is it my purpose? But the second time, feeling more at ease, I just waltzed up and asked if we could have a chat and thankfully and graciously he agreed.


So, what do you ask when you have the Guru’s attention? Well my heart is repairing from my previous relationship. Healing advice? I’m dating a Muslim. Interfaith advice? And I’m dedicating my life to spreading tolerance. Protection and wisdom? I go for the hat-trick. I asked if the soul tie ever really evaporates following the loss of a great love or if a part of your heart dies with that end? I’m serious. He ponders. I can hardly catch my breath hoping he really does have the answer, suddenly immersed with more heartache than I thought I had left. He speaks, “The heart overflowing with love is a gift from God. You are blessed to have had this person to mould and guide you for the period you had. I will ask God for healing.” (Don’t weep, don’t weep).


The Guru continues, “In a partnership of two faiths you have the opportunity to learn and grow in tolerance and the children will know the love of God from more than one source. Should they experience negativity from their peers, society and others, they will know through the love of God and strength of their parents that they operate on a higher field than those who judge others for their faith.” Whoa!


And finally he hits me with this,“God is always with you, I will pray for your protection but in the arms of God who is Allah, who is Shiva and who speaks to us in many forms. He will always protect you, his daughter, so be at peace.”

WOW! How can that be so heavy yet so enlightening all at once? I feel free, I feel no fear and I feel FAITH. I offer my life into the hands of God. I will succeed, I will be safe and my longing for a family WILL happen.


I think I found a Guru…. make that two! 

https://youtu.be/P7XaacSD1bg  
Yours in Faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim

 

Varanasi – Spiritual Enlightenment or Soul Destroying?

I know, heavy title, right. Hear me out.

India always presents such stark contrasts, but Varanasi is a paradox to me. It is a holy place. It is a sacred city on the banks of the holiest of holy Mama Ganga, goddess of the Hindus. It is a giver of life and sanctuary for the soul in more ways than one.

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Wandering the endless narrow streets (much like Venice without the canals) and the addition of countless cows and consequent cow shit (holy land mines, as per my host). I came across temple after temple after temple. On every corner there was a shrine to Shiva, the creator of this town. Or the telling orange clothes of an approaching sadhu. They are holy men who have dedicated their lives to God. Not to be confused with a priest; only a Brahmin can be a priest (their caste system is a whole other post).  But a holy man, who eats, sleeps and breathes prayer whilst sitting for hours chanting Sanskrit scriptures. He relies on the kindness of others for food. He is happy to offer advice and counsel if asked, but more so a man of solitary devotion to God. 


Then there is the river itself, a holy living Goddess flowing for 2500 kilometres providing life and spiritual hope to all those who adorn her banks. Or better yet to bathe in this mighty river is said to cleanse the soul. Of course, I indulged in this opportunity to cleanse some sins away. I’m the Unlikely Pilgrim after all. Holy yes, pure … not the word that comes to mind when submerged in this water, especially with a buffalo within spitting distance. 


Nonetheless I cleansed, I bathed, and I even headed to the temple to be blessed.
Like my previous entry (Cremations and Corpses) describes. There is commitment to the ceremony of this place. The dedication to rituals in ensuring the soul is clean is paramount. Pilgrims from all over India, and in fact the world, come in the millions to soak up the energy of Varanasi. In theory it is beautiful and spiritually charged. 


However both times I’ve been here I’ve felt an underlying sadness; not a surface bad feeling, but a deep sorrow in my heart.
A sorrow for the conditions here: the streets are filthy with animal mess, rubbish and general grime. Children as young as three years old beg on the streets well into the night.

 Seedy and uneasy feelings down by the river after dark surrounds me and the lower castes are avoided and disregarded. An example, the Aghori the men who work down at the cremation sites to ensure the masses get their golden ticket to heaven work tirelessly, yet I’m advised not to talk to them or risk being tainted by someone else’s woes. Superstition or discrimination? I’m undecided.


With all the colour and spirituality, Varanasi is certainly an incredible place to visit. I can’t help but invoke feelings of helplessness when I think of Varanasi though. A place so full of hope and maybe that’s why the poverty is more obvious to me here than in other parts of India. Albeit the divide is everywhere in India. Maybe it’s the simplicity of life here, because all the people need is their God. 


Find out for yourself.

http://www.visitvaranasi.com

Yours in faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim

 

Homelessness & Hatred, Healed by Humanity

 

Atlanta, Georgia. In nine short hours, I came to understand the meaning of ’Southern hospitality’ . The key to a united world is with our children, and in two separate and very moving experiences, I have faith that the future of America is in safe hands . It was in the Martin Luther King District I found the first inspiring bunch as I loitered around the entrance of the Ebenezer Baptist Church.

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I met Jesse from UP  of Atlanta, a beautiful soul influencing and guiding young minds away from fear and prejudice and into the light of humanity. After eavesdropping about what a wonderful thing they were doing for the community, I was intrigued. So naturally, I huddled up to the teachers and asked what they were doing. The Galloway school arranges community events for their older students to go out and give back to five separate initiatives for a week every year. Today, they were sharing food with people in need within the city area. So I went along. These kids were so eager to learn about my travels, who I had met, and where I’d been. They were so open-minded.

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As we wandered the streets in the city, they approached people willingly, saying in cheerful tones, “Hello, we’re in the community today sharing food. Would you like a sandwich?” These people were sleeping rough on the streets of Atlanta and were totally loving the support. The kindness, the love, never mind the food, it’s about human interaction and these kids were so open to everybody that they came across. We met up with a man called Ben who had battled addiction for many years and had survived to tell the tale; emerging as a shining light to the people in the community. Ben has his own business now. He provides clothes to the homeless; to the less fortunate people like he was. What an inspirational guy, he stood before the kids and said, “What you’re doing today, you’ll never know how much you’re impacting people and somebody you reach out to today may have been contemplating their last day on earth.”

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A sobering thought but probably accurate. I can’t imagine the streets of Atlanta being the most forgiving of places after dark. The love that poured from these kids, and in fact these teachers, was incredible. It was Ash Wednesday and we found a church without walls that holds services in parks and different places encouraging peer support. The team of people volunteering and helping other people, regardless of whether they’re still dealing with their own struggles or not, is amazing. This empowers the community and  recognises that everybody needs help sometimes, not to mention how rewarding and motivating it is to be the one giving back.

Inspired, but in a hurry. I left my new classmates and headed to the Centre for Civil and Human Rights. Wow! I was blown away by that as well. Teaming with school groups, from seven years of age and up. It’s a new building, only built a few years ago and a must see if you’re in town. One exhibit that really got me was the simulated ‘Sit In’. In the ’60s when segregation was still polluting the south and white only diners were plentiful, courageous men and women staged sit-ins to protest. These crusaders, these pioneers at lunch counters across the state were subjected to horrendous abuse and still not served. The exhibit – ‘Sitting on a bench’. You close your eyes. Put your palms face down, headphones on and racial abuse is screamed at you for two and a half minutes. Violent, disgraceful, and bone chilling slurs. Even the chair, it stomps and shakes as people verbally assault you and threaten your life, whispering through utter hatred in your ears. It was so real! As I got up, in unison with the three teenage girls who sat with me, I was overwhelmed and so were they.

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I burst into tears. I was so touched and disgusted that that is what has happened in the past and still today racial equality is not a given in all societies. One of the teenagers passed me a tissue and the centre employee nearby said in a very Southern accent, “Don’t y’all worry, everybody cries.” I thought, what a brilliant idea that is, to really make you think. I’m a white Christian female; discrimination doesn’t enter my world really because of my location, my heritage and my birthplace. I’ve never had to be subjected to that sort of demoralising behaviour. I certainly was inspired to explore the South a lot more. My flying visit which was supposed to be nine hours of boredom at the airport turned out to be a fascinating and incredible day. The Bible belt, I’ll be back.

Yours in Faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim