8. December 2009 11:45
Looking up, it seemed to be raining Christmas lights. The colored Christmas lights hanging down from the high branches of the cypress trees lining San Antonio’s River Walk twinkled downward like water trickling down a waterfall.
The 122,000 dazzling lights reflecting onto the San Antonio River created quite the Christmas wonderland. I happily strolled past shops, restaurants and live music along the stone path before deciding on a barbeque dining establishment.
Earlier that day, I started off my guided trip with Mayflower Tours by learning the Spanish colonial history of the Texas town. Originally constructed in 1731, the San Fernando Cathedral has remained a spiritual center of the town since a group of 15 families arrived in San Antonio from the Canary Islands on the invitation of King Philip V of Spain. Not far off, the 1720 Mission San Jose became the largest Texas mission with amazing stone ornamentation still intact. Both churches, along with the colorful and festive Mexican market, show the mix of indigenous and Spanish influence created when the Spanish originally conquered the area.
San Antonio River Walk
San Fernando Cathedral
San Jose Mission
25. November 2009 18:22
Every Easter growing up I would hear the song “Jerusalem, My Destiny,” which connected the city with Christian tradition. The tune took on a new meaning when I saw my first view of the Jerusalem skyline and its cream-colored buildings of Jerusalem stone and the arresting golden Dome of the Rock. On my walking tour of the ancient city, I met reminders of religion around every corner with black-clad Orthodox Jews with side curls, muezzins’ five-time daily singing call to Islamic prayer and tolling church bells.
At the 1924 Church of All Nations, hundreds of years old gnarled olive trees encircle the basilica, which sits atop Gethsemane – where Jesus prayed the night before his death. Huge mosaics portray images from scriptures surrounding Gethsemane on the ceilings of the church. Afterwards, I entered the tall stone gates to the Old City to wander through more Christian history along the Via Dolorosa trail past the stations of the cross. The trail ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which many believe sits atop Golgotha, or the Hill of Calvary, where Jesus was crucified. The darkly lit Greek Orthodox church leads pilgrims through different chambers venerating the place of the crucifixion and the first-century tomb believed to be Christ’s.
Later, I explored the most beloved Jewish holy site at the Western Wall, which Herod the Great originally constructed in 19 B.C.E. It stands close to the location of the Second Jewish Temple destroyed in 70 C.E. According to Orthodox Jewish customs, the site is divided by a barrier separating men and women so they can both walk up to pray and place written requests in the cracks of the wall. With the Dome of the Rock visible on the other side of the wall and other Christian churches not far off, the area remains at the epicenter for three of the world's major religions.
Jerusalem skyline from the Dominus Flevit Church
Church of the Holy Sepulcher
23. November 2009 01:47
I stepped inside the location of the real Nativity scene at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The Byzantine church that has survived so many centuries of war and strife still stands with an ancient feel, since the Greek Orthodox Church upkeeps it without extensive renovations. Without the restorations, everything you see is original from either the Byzantine period or the Crusader period. Though the wall frescos were faded, I knew I saw the same paint from the Crusader’s time and nothing else. Hanging lamps from the Orthodox influence of the church hung everywhere, supplemented by light beams shining across the church like light from the star of Bethlehem.
Underneath the altar, I walked into the Grotto, which is the cave believed to be where Jesus was born. “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” sung by a church group in Latin from inside the Grotto set the Christmas mood for the tiny cavern once used as a barn and now decorated in remembrance of Jesus’ birth. For a little while I just stood looking at the star marking the traditional spot of the Nativity while listening to calming religious songs.
Although it is completely heartbreaking to see the wall built around Bethlehem because it is in Palestinian territory, my trip made me realize hope still remained for the city’s future. The friendly and sweet people I met in the churches, market and traditional Arab restaurant made the town one of the highlights of the trip. My Palestinian guide, Maher Desouki, said the fact that the Christians and Muslims have been living together happily for so many years by going to shared schools and businesses proves the power of peace. The town mentioned in so many Christmas carols should definitley be included on any pilgrimage to Israel.
Church of the Nativity
Grotto of the Nativity
Traditional Palestinian meal
20. November 2009 03:27
Two things I would have never thought to put together are Dean Martin and the Sea of Galilee. However, I found myself experiencing both at the same time during a ride around the legendary lake (it’s a lake even though it’s referred to as a sea) on a replica of first century vessel. The wooden boat looked the part with its curved shape and simple design, so the captain chose some music to fit the scene like Hebrew songs and religious tunes, along with some classic Dean Martin to encourage dancing. As we glided along, the boat excursion had moments of fun with impromptu karaoke and moments of reflection when we passed certain mountains attached to Biblical stories, such as the Mount of Beatitudes where Jesus gave one of his most famous sermons.
The Sea of Galilee has been the running theme of the day from the moment I woke up in Tiberias with the body of water in view until the boat ride this evening. Since Jesus spent most of his time preaching around the lake where he first recruited his twelve followers, the area is a pilgrim’s paradise with churches, gardens and archeological ruins from the time of Christ at most stops. I visited some of the main religious sites at the peaceful Mount of Beatitudes, Tagbha's mosaic-filled church dedicated to the multiplication of the fishes and loaves miracle, and Capernaum where Jesus began his ministry. At the Church of the Primacy of Peter, I joined other excited visitors intent on wading in the water so filled with history.
Wading in the Sea of Galilee
Mount of Beatitudes
Pilgrims' Boat ride
19. November 2009 02:48
Last night at dinner, our guide joked that a phone call to God from Israel is cheap because it is a local call. I think he might be right. The land where Jesus was born, lived, preached and died all fits into a spot on the map the same size as New Jersey. This center for Islam, Judaism and Christianity doesn’t take long to drive across, but it could take years to properly explore because around every corner lies another ancient site dating back to the Old Testament and beyond.
My first day in the one and only Holy Land began with a trip to a palace built by King Herod in Caesarea. Now made into a national park, the area holds archeological ruins from the time of Christ including a remarkably intact Roman Theater. As my guide helped me imagine the wealth and splendor of the once mighty port city on the Mediterranean, I felt transported to the movie Ben-Hur, since part of the extensive ruins featured a huge stadium that charioteers once raced around holding on to their chariots for dear life. To help me visualize the past grandeur of the site, the park had a museum with interactive exhibits and a video that virtually transformed the palace remains into a thriving metropolis.
The rest of the day I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t dreaming as I toured site after site pertaining to the life of Jesus Christ. Each site straight out of the Bible had its own church devoted to its Christian connections, including Nazareth’s Basilica of the Annunciation, Cana’s Wedding Church and Mount Tabor’s Church of the Transfiguration. Worn out from a plentiful dinner of lamp chops, goose liver and fruit crepes, I fully expect to fall straight asleep before embarking for more holy adventures tomorrow.
The Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth
Caesarea National Park
View from Mt. Tabor
8. July 2009 09:03
In my daily life I often push buttons, flip switches, turn keys and without another thought, magic seems to happen. Lights instantaneously flash on, elevators lift and car engines roar on the spot without another hint of how my simple motion jump started these complex processes. At the Discovery World at Pier Wisconsin in Milwaukee, I took a behind the scenes look at life by exposing the unseen forces behind man-made and natural wonders in our everyday world.
The science museum explores the world’s mechanisms with numerous hands-on exhibits that break down how things work, such as a hamster wheel for humans to power a light bulb and clock gears that illustrate how clock keeps time through a system of weights. Even processes as intense as computer code for automated machines and the invention of the electric guitar were revealed at the museum.
In another part of the museum, exhibits on what’s really under our waterways used glass aquarium tunnels and touch-me tanks to make me feel closer with bizarre-looking underwater creatures. Though I still couldn’t build a battery from scratch, the museum made me think about how much in the world I take for granted. This museum was one of many intriguing attractions I discovered on my tour of Milwaukee with many more surprises in store tomorrow.
7. July 2009 07:15
I wasn’t sure what to expect on my first evening in Milwaukee, but Elvis Costello certainly wasn’t at the top of my list. Within five minutes of landing in the Wisconsin city, I spotted someone walking into the airport with not only the face, but also the familiar hat, scarf and sunglasses of the famous musician Elvis Costello. I’m afraid I gawked at him as he walked by, since I could scarcely believe my eyes.
It turns out Milwaukee has had a long history with music. I arrived the day after the 11-day-long Summerfest, titled the “World’s Largest Music Festival” by the Guinness World Records. After driving by the festival grounds next to the sky blue Lake Michigan, I learned Elvis had indeed performed the day before at one of the festival’s many stages. Looking at the stellar Summerfest lineup, I could tell the city knew how to party.
After my surprise celebrity sighting, I took a driving tour of the city and won about $30 at Potawatomi Bingo Casino. Not too shabby for my first attempt at a slot machine. Tonight, I’m staying at one of Milwaukee’s many historic hotels called the Ambassador Hotel. This beautiful hotel hearkens back to the 1930s with its art deco decorations that extend to it elevators and bathroom doors. I can already tell my tour of Milwaukee will be full of surprises.
4. June 2009 17:50
Today I went the distance to discover a place I felt I already knew before I arrived from one of my favorite movies: Field of Dreams. I resisted the urge to quote lines from the movie out loud to my guide Karla Thompson from the Dyersville Area Chamber of Commerce as she drove me down the same road featured at the end of the film when cars sit bumper to bumper to come see the baseball field.
The Field of Dreams Movie Site awakened all the heartwarming feelings the movie creates, since the field looked just as it did when Universal Studios constructed it inside a corn field. Some children and adults were playing a pick-up game on the iconic baseball diamond while I walked around, since the owners keep the field free for anyone’s use.
Even though the corn was too short to be just like the movie, the stories of filmmaking made the field come to life for me. Tomorrow marks my last day of touring this small corner of Iowa at Quad Cities and Des Moines, with no doubt more amazing surprises in store.
3. June 2009 17:37
When I was little I always impatiently awaited my next chance to play in my friend’s tree house, which we would stay in until the setting sun forced us both inside. Today, I explored a tree house in Marshalltown, Iowa that made my friend’s one-room tree house seem like a dollhouse.
What started out as a hobby has turned into an attraction drawing people from all over the world. The man with a vision, Mick Jurgensen, built this tree house mansion with very little construction experience. As his grandmother gave me a tour of the sprawling 55-foot high house, she told stories of Jurgensen’s early fascination with constructing miniature structures out of wood and Lego blocks so elaborate they came complete with their own water pump system.
The childhood fantasy come true known as the Big Treehouse seemed even livable, with 12 floors, a television, grill, running water and zany fun decorations at every turn. After today’s enjoyable tours of Pella and Marshalltown, I anticipate more Iowa gems tomorrow at Waterloo, Dyersville and Dubuque.
2. June 2009 23:55
After exiting the Des Moines International Airport this morning, I took a right turn and found myself immediately immersed in the bright greens of America’s heartland. Corn fields hugged both sides of the road and dairy cows munched on the lush prairie grasses as I drove past farm after farm. The peaceful countryside seemed even more beautiful than I imagined from movies like Field of Dreams.
I’m in my room at Honey Creek State Resort Park after touring the resort so new that all the concrete hasn’t finished drying. Opened last September, the resort features elegant accommodations with views of Iowa’s second largest lake – the Rathbun Lake. As I walked in the resort, the 60-foot fireplace drew my eyes upward at its mosaic designs of native Iowa fish and birds.
At the resort’s Lakeshore Grille, I was informed that any traveler to the state should taste the well-reputed Iowa chop. I’m still in a food coma from that delicious meal with baked apples on top, but looking forward to starting my whirlwind tour of Iowa tomorrow.