Jose and the Giant

By Brock Powell, senior

[Brock had a medical emergency and left the trip in Kenya to return home for care.  Please keep him in your prayers as he recovers.  He is greatly missed by the rest of the team.]

Brock and Jose in Buenos Aires

I distantly remember weeping into my own elbow pit as a rambling Swedish woman discusses the thrills of her blog-able life. Rambling of her love for travel, as we drive away from Los Angelito Vieja, she asked me my opinions of Argentina so far. The first response for every new question was to be a guttural growl, followed by the smashing of a window as I tuck and roll out of it in a ferocious Mr. Hyde madness.

I was not in the mood for a new friendship, as mere minutes before I had just departed from one of the most important friends I have ever had the great pleasure of knowing.

It was between soggy silent sobbing I began to recall how this leather seat tantrum came about.

As usual, my mind leaps to blame my Grandparents and their advice. Grandma “Peaches” is incredibly sweet but slightly off her rocker, which is why she remains in such a high place in my heart. Every morning after a homemade breakfast of garlic eggs, garlic toast and a fruit bowl with a confusing garlic aftertaste she would hold my shoulder and share some advice: “Make a friend, and be a friend.” This garlic-soaked proverb haunted me well into adulthood.

In the evenings I would discuss my high school days over garlic pork roast, and my Papa Bruce would speak of the Lord’s hand in my daily activities. He explained many of my encounters as “divine appointments.” In current memory most of my previous experiences with these supernatural meetings were limited to purchasing of a car or finding Concordia University. Never had these two pieces of advice collided so nicely. This was until my first visit to Los Angelito Villa in Buenos Aires.

I was with a group of a few over twenty, led by Ms. Lily of L.I.F.E. Argentina. L.I.F.E. spent time in at least five of the villas in Buenos Aires, teaching and playing with at-risk youth.  Los Angelito was my second villa to experience. The first one resulted in my own near hospitalization as I was dog-piled and beaten endlessly by boys wielding an inflatable mace.

Los Angelito looked smaller, but there seemed to be just as many children. With much hesitation and little instruction on what to do—other than restrain the kids from rioting—I took to the sidewalk: chalk doodles for all.

Within minutes piggyback rides became my specialty. Some children held tightly to my shoulders, fearing for their well-being, while others pierced into my side with the gentle demeanor of Buffalo Bill halting a bronco.

This was when one of my passengers did not ask me to go faster or slower, yet enjoyed the piggyback ride for itself. He had a fine little haircut, a big smile with teeth too big for a nine-year-old, and eyes that never missed their destination. I called him the “little gentleman,” but he kept reminded me with a giggling whisper his name was Jose.

Our friendship was confirmed on the eve of my first visit when Jose took my hand and led me down a long alley of stone homes. We turned in past a whining dog and ducked under a moist clothesline. I was quickly greeted by a small woman with a dirty apron. She looked just like Jose, which was with good cause considering she was his mother. She told me of her illness that led her and her two children to live in this one room as refugees from Paraguay. Jose had no father, a sick mother, a sweet sister and a tiny roof over his head. Yet his smile seemed permanent.

The next day my visit to Los Angelito was substituted with a visit to the Buenos Aires Zoo. It was truly a special day for some children of the villas, where only the chosen could go to participate in a monthly “Zoo Day” camera competition. I agreed to help keep the villas kids out of the cages, but did so with a little bitterness in my tone. Jose was still in Los Angelito, though his older sister Sylvia would be in attendance. It just wasn’t quite the same.

The bus arrived, puttering, and spat out the eager passengers on the sidewalks. We waited at a side gate, as Ms. Lily told the American volunteers to keep silent, and, “Do not speak English while near the fence.” I stood for more instructions as I felt a tug on my khakis. “The little gentleman!” I murmured through a hushed voice.

Lily smiled and nodded, giving Jose and I permission to spend the day together, with the additional bonus of no camera competition to worry about.

Still, this situation made me nervous, for I am a terrible Spanish speaker. I roll my r’s and spit my vowels. Which for the listener this often made me seem inebriated, and in some ways I appreciate that assumption which offered at least a plausible theory for a few of my endless quirks.

Jose and I spent hours walking through dusty paths and forests of rusty cages. We would swap our languages’ names for the animals we saw, and invent our own language to describe them–animal noises.

Near the end of the day, I had taught Jose how to say “Look,” an incredibly powerful verb. Everything that interested him he would share with my eyes, and with only one word spoken I was able to see exactly what made him bare his big-teeth. To this day he is the only kid I know who was most excited about going to the zoo to see the cows.

My visits to Los Angelito became more exhilarating. Jose and I would begin the afternoons reading “Horton Hears a Who” in Spanish. Over the days, my small acting lessons to him grew longer. The games became more inventive. If he asked to get down from a piggyback ride, he’d have to survive being thrown in the air before he would be set down. The whole process caused us both to giggle.

The day of my final visit to Los Angelito still stirs a pain within me. I wanted to prepare the perfect gifts for my little gentleman. What do you give a nine-year-old who has nothing? I decided on a few books, a firm handshake and a silent promise to see him again someday, some how.

With tears streaming down flushed cheeks, I watched Jose walking into Los Angelito one last time through the rear view mirror of our puttering bus.

Admittedly it was not a place I had imagined making an acquaintance. Charity can be a way that we avoid our reality, but when one of these needy hands pushes through to your heart, the connection is unbreakable.

To make an unexpected friend while blindly standing in middle of “divine appointment” makes me realize that the Little Gentleman has been a messenger of God’s unending care. How appropriate to find his friendship in Los Angelito, the village of Angels.

The Sacred Phalanges of St. Catherine

by Christine Gilbert, senior

St. Catherines' Monestery - Sinai Peninsula, Egypt

Not more than ten feet in front of me stands a Greek Orthodox priest blessing a bowlful of cheap, imitation silver rings while above my head spans a forest green sea and sprays of equidistantly spaced golden stars in the vestibule of St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt. Trying to figure out if I should cross myself starting from the left or the right once I get to the front, I take a few steps with the influx of the crowd towards Catherine’s relics.

Once at the front, I cross myself the wrong way, bow down and place my head on the contents of the first fur-line box in front of me.
Later, I discover the small spherical thing within the box encircled by Catherine’s silver necklace: her ancient, browned skull. I touched the skull with my face, and I’m not even Orthodox.

Growing up in a Baptist church in Texas, I was never taught to seek out holy relics, much less make bodily contact with them. My fumbled imitation of an Orthodox reverence ritual was due more to my sense of adventure, my obstinacy to obeying stupid rules, and a lack of activities in South Sinai.

The only two things to do in South Sinai are hike up Mount Sinai and visit the oldest working monastery in the world. On my first full day there, seeing as how I had already booked my ascent up the mount for later that evening, I decided to sojourn into the wilderness separating my campsite from the other wonder: St. Catherine’s.

Besides possessing Moses’ “Burning Bush” of the Torah’s Exodus and the well where Moses met his wife, St. Catherine’s proved to be a mixture of dust, pious Greek, Russian, and Armenian Orthodox followers, and church workers on par with the Internal Revenue Service in their attention to job minutia. This last observation was made apparent in my undertaking to see the most famous of the monastery’s treasures: the preserved, severed hand of St. Catherine.

Catherine lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries B.C. The morning after her conversion to Christianity, she awoke to find a golden ring had mysteriously appeared on her finger. After converting her household and neighbors, Catherine’s proselytizing encountered a formidable opponent: the Roman emperor, Maximinus. Scholars were sent to disprove her faith, but Catherine not only defended herself admirably but converted some of the scholars as well.

Undeterred by the emperor’s power and rage, Catherine converted his household and subjects alike which only served to royally tick him off further. Thus he made several attempts on her life, including his invention and employment of a particularly nasty spiked-wheel torture device before he was finally successful in killing her.

Fast forward five hundred years and Catherine’s body is found on the site where the monastery now stands. Those in the area claim angels delivered her to the spot. Catherine’s hand which bore the heaven sent ring has since been preserved resting in a glass encased box.
I and several others decided to inquire with one of the entrance worker’s what time the hand would be on view for the public. After some brief chit chat, he asked whether we were Orthodox.

“We are Christian,” one of my fellow camp group members, Sam, responded.
“Yes, but are you Orthodox? Greek? Armenian? Russian?”
“No, but we are Christian,” Sam reiterated.
“The hand is for Orthodox only. You cannot see the hand.”

Another tidbit we learned from the conversation was that the hand can only be viewed from 12:00-12:30 in the afternoon. Previously that morning, we had been advised by our Bedouin campsite hosts that we would either need to be orthodox or find a benevolent monastery worker to take pity on us and let us in. I am not Orthodox nor did the monastery have an ample supply of benevolent workers that day.

Acting decisively, I announced I would go find some other people from the Bedouin camp group still inside and mule the situation over.
Obviously, I could not miss Catherine’s severed pulpy brown and purple hand. I had already trekked the full length of the hill which her monastery was perched atop implicitly to see it. No, only one option remained: infiltration.

Thankfully, I had worn pants fully covering my legs and a bandana around my neck which could quickly double as a head scarf (Serendipitously selected garments since orthodox women cover themselves extensively). Shortly after my slight wardrobe change, I was able to find a mother and daughter from my Bedouin camp group inside the walled perimeter. The two agreed to accompany me in my devious ploy to breach the walls of the Orthodox sanctuary and glimpse the sacred phalanges.

This came in very handy later on, as the monks took directly to questioning and pulling the seemingly non-Orthodox out of the line even after they were already in the hand’s viewing sanctuary. At this point I had taken the little girl, Naomi, in my arms and was doing my best to appear innocent and heavily lost in thought. Actually, the later objective was not an act, as I was trying to figure out the correct way to cross myself and touch my head to the two boxes by the priest at the front of the room. Regardless, I never saw the monks kick any children out of monastery, and we made it to the front with little Naomi’s help.

I barely got to admire the hand from a distance much less in front of its glass case because I was so distracted with my ruse of trying to appear Orthodox. My observations were as follows: cross right side, left side, up, down. The woman in front of me and the guy before her had touched the brown spherical thing in the middle of the first box with their foreheads. Each continued on to place the tip of their nose to it. I followed suit as best I could. However, I had not observed what to do once I got to the second box which contained the hand.

The priest in front of me had taken a special interest in my lack of formalities at this point, and I decided the best course of action was a quick bob of the head toward the hand. Only, when I bowed my head down, I realized that a 1,700 year old hand was inches from my face, granted underneath glass, but an unpleasant realization none the less as I was in a self propelled hurdle towards it. This really just ruins the whole experience of trying to take in the features of Catherine’s ring and hand alike.

Perhaps Orthodox people bow more slowly, which would explain why the priest still seemed bemused by me. A faint smile hovered on the corners of his lips as he held out an imitation ring of Catherine’s golden one he had just blessed for me. Attempting a meek smile, I plucked the ring from his fingers and concentrated on walking, not bolting out of the sanctuary as I had now attracted the attention of a more portly and less amused looking monk. Mission accomplished.

A fellow mole of religious sites, the Christian missionary Amy Carmichael once said after sneaking into a Hindu temple: “Give me the Love that leads the way the faith that nothing can dismay the hope no disappointments tire the passion that’ll burn like fire.” Miss Carmichael’s quote, unlike those who oversee Catherine’s hand prohibits no denomination of Christ’s church from the joy, encouragement, and advancement of faith it can bring. It poignantly shows how faith is not a quest in which one seeks out a thing, but a journey to find God.

In the end, I think I’d rather have her words more available to the public than the severed pulpy hand anyway—but I’m going to keep the ring.

Bound for the Promised Land

by Aaron Bird, sophomore

Aaron and Professor Lee wade in the Dead Sea while waiting for their ride.

It is a strange feeling to have your flip-flops nearly lifted off your feet from the buoyancy of salt water.  Already buoyant by themselves, the flip-flops are aided by the salt to throw your feet off the floor of the sea. At times like this I know that God has a sense of humor and snickers at our feeble attempts to resist this anti-gravity. Only with undivided concentration and a little luck was I spared the splashing result that comes from wading in the Dead Sea.

I found myself pushing on this salty phenomenon during a warm late morning two weeks ago on the virgin voyage of our Around-the-World Semester for Concordia. We were just finishing our fifth country and looking forward to entering the Promised Land. Literally coming out of Egypt, we wandered through the deserts of Jordan and were finally being led to Jerusalem. Of course with our Bedouin guides, we were able to avoid the unfortunate 40-year detour that the Israelites endured.

After getting a few photos with one of my instructors on the trip, Professor Adam Lee, we were hastily drawn back to the road where we were abandoned to our Dead Sea adventure. Although our driver spoke very limited English, I was able to understand his laborious arm waving while yelling, “Hurry!”

It passed through my mind that we had not entirely asked permission to climb down to the rocky shores of the Dead Sea. Feeling slightly guilty at my dismissal of our driver, I made it a personal effort to make my way to the top as fast as possible. This goal was, of course, a limited one equipped with my aging Reef flip flops, and I was quickly overtaken by my travel-stained professor.

In my guilt and my haste I was surprised with a visitor to my esophagus. Breathing in I sucked in a scrumptious and protein-filled Jordanian fly. It reminded me of the times in which I would inhale water while swimming. For the non-swimmers, it is similar to having a drink go down the “wrong tube” and not your esophagus. This time, however, I was disgusted even more by the fact that a filthy fly had just defiled my mouth. I started dry heaving, with a false hope that I could dispel this unwelcome guest. Professor Lee turned and asked if I was alright. Conveying the situation, he continued on his way with a small laugh. I was disappointed at my failure to rid myself of the fly. I do not think I have ever actually wanted to vomit before this incident. I guess that is what happens when a fly gets too overzealous.

In retrospect, I suppose I came on this trip to get out of my comfort zone. This is just another “exotic” food that I have tried. If this was someone’s choice of food, there is no doubt in my mind that they would never go hungry in the Middle East. The plague of flies from the biblical Exodus has a new meaning to me now. I am completely convinced that this plague never actually left but was spread through these unfortunate countries. I have never seen so many flies!

Finally making it to the top, I was floored at the sight in front of me. Our escort was hooked up to a large red tractor. “Are we being towed all the way to Jerusalem,” I thought to myself. When our car had overheated, I had assumed that it would be a quick fix. A little water in the radiator works wonders. I would learn later that these things are never as simple as they appear.

Complications started in Petra at our quaint Cleo-“petra” Hotel. Professor Lee, two other students and I were chosen to travel apart from the rest of the group. Having a 26 seat bus with 30 passengers typically causes adjustments to be made. This October morn I was delighted to find myself in forest green BMW trekking at 100 mph through the Jordanian desert. I knew for sure that my companions and I would reach the Israeli border before the rest of the group, stuck in the sluggish bus.

Climbing in our broken luxury sedan, we were again plagued by Moses’ flies. If anyone has stumbled upon a hornets’ nest knows the crawling feeling of insects covering your body. It took all of my self-restraint to not writhe crazily to rid myself of these flies. Slowly we made our way up the highway with our tractor friend. At a glance, this situation would seem somewhat ordinary, but the closer look shows a truly peculiar situation. Attaching our BMW to the tractor was not a cable. It was not a rope. It was a piece of fabric. I am still unsure what kind it was, but this “cable” of ours was definitely a towel or head scarf. What else could you hope for as speeding cars rush past at 90 mph?

Being towed along the Dead Sea by a tractor.

After about ten minutes our Good Samaritan dropped us off at a place to get some water to cool the engine. Quickly our driver jumped out and ran off with some bottles to fill them up. “Is he filling those with salt water?” The questions lingered a while after Professor Lee had inquired. “I hope not,” I replied.

I was desperately hoping that this trip would not end in the explosion of our beautiful BMW. We had decided to stay in the car to avoid creating any more trouble than had already become. Again we battled the ruthless flies. We all laughed as Professor Lee started what seemed like a tribal dance with his Palestinian scarf. The key to keep the flies in the air and off your body was movement. After a while, our driver came back to our rescue. Pouring the water into the radiator, we all secretly crossed our fingers in hope for fresh water. As long as we all made it to Israel, everything was going to be good.

It was time for our final act of heroism. Although the water worked to cool the engine off. The dry Jordanian desert was not going to give up without a fight. Skillfully, our driver took on the obstacle. As our temperature gauge continually rose, our driver would speed up to 120 km/h and then turn off the engine to give it a cooling rest. I wish I could have helped but my limited…non-existent knowledge of cars was a serious gap in my ability to fight off this heat.

It was only a matter of time. We again came to a stop, only thirty minutes outside of Israel. We were out of water and this thirty minute gap seemed like an eternity. Trudging out of the car to find some shade, we pulled out some food to keep us sane. Although our last act of heroism ended, the true hero came slowly around the corner. Through all of our break downs, the slug of a bus was now right behind — a savior!  With arms outstretched I welcomed my friends. It was time to rejoin. I grabbed my things and hopped onto the bus ready for another adventure.