July 31st, 2015. A few days after my return to Washington State, I boarded a plane to JFK to join up with a group of other university students and recent graduates as part of an all-expenses-paid, geopolitical tour of Israel. For only $500 (plus the cost of a plane ticket to JFK Airport) Covenant Journey would cover the cost of flights from the United States to Tel Aviv, hotels, three meals a day, a luxury bus, an experienced tour guide, various speakers, and all entrance fees to the different sites we visited. I was stoked.
After flying all day to JFK (thanks to various layovers), I arrived a few hours before our designated group meeting time so I people-watched and grabbed supper. I was only taking my 50L Mountainsmith backpack for the two week trip, partly because I enjoy traveling light and not having to deal with waiting for (potentially lost) luggage at a baggage carousel in a foreign land, but also because I wanted to test it out for a later trip to India scheduled for October. After meeting with the rest of the 50 students from a variety of universities around the U.S., including Colorado Christian University’s Women’s Basketball Team, we headed over to get our boarding passes at the El Al counter. El Al is by far the most secure of any airline, with a rather lengthy interrogation process at the counter (of which I seemed to be singled out thanks to the stamps of several not-so-friendly-to-Israel countries in my passport…although I’m sure having only a carry-on while the rest of the group had mega suitcases probably set off some red flags). After getting a yellow sticker on my passport that apparently marked me for a future search of my bags, I collected my boarding pass, walked with the rest of the group to our gate, and proceeded to get to know the others. We flew out on the night flight, direct for Tel Aviv.
After landing, we were taken to a sweet restaurant that had excellent food – various pasta dishes, salads, breads, and a version of pizza.
From there, we boarded back onto our tour bus, introduced each other, and drove all of the way to the Sea of Galilee where we would stay for the next two days at a resort called the Kibbutz Maagan. The resort is directly on the water, and I planned on waking up early the next morning to go for a quick swim and watch the sunrise.
Morning came quick, and after jumping into the same waters that Jesus walked upon, I felt alive. The sunrise was pretty rad and the waters were glassy calm in the muggy summer heat.
After a quick shower, I joined up with my roommate for the trip, a neat guy named Timothy Daley from the University of Arkansas, and we headed over to the dining room to grab breakfast. There was tons of unlimited food, all of which was healthy mediterranean food.
After breakfast, our group headed out to the Jordan River.
With so much history within the entire area, the Jordan River was an awesome gem to behold. Jade green waters teeming with fish and a special section designated for baptismals. Many of our group got baptized while we were there, and that was awesome as well.
After the Jordan River, we drove to the Mount of Beatitudes. The early morning heat was already sweltering and sticky by the time we reached the parking lot. Date palms and beautiful flowers lined the walkways and the whole hillside seemed remarkably peaceful.
- Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
- Blessed are those who mourn: for they will be comforted.
- Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth.
- Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be filled.
- Blessed are the merciful: for they will be shown mercy.
- Blessed are the pure in heart: for they will see God.
- Blessed are the peacemakers: for they will be called children of God.
- Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 5:3-10
Afterwards, we headed over to the ancient ruins of Capernaum, the fishing village where Jesus went after Nazareth. Along the way, we passed by one of the many IDF military exercises which brought back the reality of being in the middle of the turbulent Middle East.
In the blazing heat, we explored the ruins with our phenomenal tour guide, Jacob. He showed us all around and pointed out the ruins of an ancient synagogue where Jesus taught.
Afterwards we grabbed lunch at a hostel’s buffet and checked out the recovered remains of an ancient boat. Following that, we spent some time along the Sea of Galilee at the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter.
Then we walked a short distance up to the Church of Loaves and Fishes, where a recent arson attack had occurred. Since we had just come from the place where Christ had given the Beatitudes, the recent attack reminded me of the last part of the Beatitudes:”Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5:11-12.
After spending some time reflecting, we boarded the bus again and went to the Olea Essence olive oil factory at Ein Gev.
The olive oil factory was swell, with free samples of various types of spices and oils. I bought a container of barbecue spices that tends to spice up meat decently well and adds a nice variety to typical barbecue seasonings.
From the olive oil factory, we boarded a boat for a ride out on the Sea of Galilee. The temperature cooled down as we were under way and for the next hour or so, we enjoyed a lively boat ride complete with dancing and singing.
After the boat ride, we ate dinner at a seaside restaurant and then headed back to the kibbutz for the night. I was pretty wired still and walked around a bit, mingling with some of the local tourists and eating ice cream.
The next day, we munched on another wonderful breakfast before boarding our bus and driving over to the Banias Nature Reserve. The scenery transitioned from dry, desert yellow to a vibrant, forested green, and we trekked down the dusty trail to the falls.
The falls were marvelous and the cool air rising from the water was a refreshment from the heat burning up the plains above this oasal valley.
I ventured off to one of the other trails with a new friend, John Alex Peters from Colorado. We went about half a mile to another set of falls and flumes before turning back around and racing back to the bus. Along the way, I spotted the large shadows of fish swimming in the pools and a small freshwater crab that scurried away from me and hid under a rock.
From the Banias Nature Reserve, we drove up to Caesarea Philippi where the Temple of Pan (a.k.a. the Gates of Hades) resides. Some fun trivia that we learned was that 1) the word “panic” comes from the god Pan, 2) Jesus went to the Temple of Pan with his disciples – a completely counter-cultural visit, since it was considered an unclean place, and 3) this is where Peter said to Jesus that He was the Messiah, and Jesus replied, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18).
On our way back to the parking lot, we hiked through a path covered by fig trees and small rock hyraxes perched on the branches, nibbling on the green leaves. From here, we drove to a splendid steak house restaurant owned by one of our speakers, Colonel Kobi Marom.
The food was incredible with fantastic hummus and breads, as well as a variety of meats.
After lunch, we went with the Colonel Marom for a brief visit to the Golan Heights and an explanation of the current geopolitical situation. While there, we heard the distant thundering of artillery bombardments across the border in Syria.
After the tour, we traveled back to the kibbutz for dinner. Most everyone seemed to be exhausted and jetlagged and napped on the ride back (except me and a few others).
After dinner, several of us went out for a swim in the Sea of Galilee. There seemed to be an event each night at the resort, and for this particular night there was live music and a large gathering on the beach. I walked down and made free flat bread s’mores with several little children, and then got some free tea that a guy from Durban was handing out.