Leave No “Petra” Unturned or Unvisited

It had to be the late 1980’s. I was young and the band “Petra” was killing it on the Christian music charts as they changed the face of Christian rock with their 80’s hair band style. I can still remember some of the lyrics. Here is one of my favorites:

I had no idea what the word “petra” meant. In fact, it was not until I was thinking about this blog and did research that I found out petra is the Greek word for “rock.”

Back in those days, I pulled out the ol’ dictionary book – you remember those things called books, right? They have hard covers and paper “pages” that you turn to continue on with the story? Dictionaries came in book form too. Crazy! Well, the dictionary refeimg_20170106_130432677renced an ancient city in Jordan. I thought, “Ancient city? That sounds cool. I want to know more!” So, I pulled out the encyclopedia book. For those of you who do not know what an encyclopedia is, it is basically Wikipedia, but in book form. The books were alphabetized from A to Z. I pulled out the “P” volume and looked for “Petra.” One look at that poor quality photo in the encyclopedia and I knew I wanted to see it one day. I did not believe I would actually get the chance.

I am led to say this: NEVER underestimate or scoff at the interests, dreams or longings you have had, even at the earliest of ages. You never know what awaits you in the future. Things you thought were silly or are just childhood wants, can actually come to pass. They are not to be taken lightly. Do you know when I was five years old, I told my mom I wanted to be a ballerina or a forklift driver? I wound up driving a forklift for nearly 8 years when I was in my twenties (By that point, it was far less of a dream than when I was five). Childhood dreams and the spoken word are very powerful! What things did you dream about as a child? Have you had the opportunity for them to happen yet? If not, keep your eyes and ears open for opportunity. Let the five year old dreamer in you come alive!

Since Petra is so close to Israel, (located in the bordering country of Jordan), I decided to look into the cost and procedure of visiting. Boy, talk about a can of worms. I heard everything from needing a visa before leaving the United States to waltzing across the border with no problem. I heard a variety of costs ranging from $50 if you go at it alone to $800 for a private guide. I heard my safety would be at risk and that it is completely safe. I heard all sorts of things. But in the end I had to ask myself a couple of questions:

  1. Is it something I have dreamed of for a long time?   Yes.
  2. Is the money worth spending?   Yes.
  3. If I have to cut my trip short in order to make this dream happen, is it worth it?   Yes.
  4. If this is the only opportunity I ever get to visit Petra, will I regret not going?   Yes.

There was nothing more to discuss. I was going to Petra.

The day tour was fantastic. The border crossing was almost smooth. The site was beautiful. If you are not familiar with Petra, you may have seen it showcased in a variety of movies. The location has shown up in Indian Jones and the Last Crusade, Arabian Nights, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, The Mummy Returns, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and more.

Overlook of the mountains where Petra is hidden.

Petra is over two thousand years old. Although it is unknown when Petra was actually built, the city prospered as the capital of the Nabataean Empire from the first century BC through the spice trade, specifically focused on frankincense and myrrh. Later, the Roman Empire acquired Petra until a large earthquake in 363 AD destroyed the city leading to its downfall. By the seventh century, only local Bedouin’s inhabited the area. It was considered the “lost city” until 1812 when Swiss explorer, Johannes Burckhardt, dressed as an Arab and convinced his Bedouin guide to lead him there. After his visit, Petra became well-known in the West and began attracting visitors. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been labeled one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

img_20170106_121849425As you walk toward the canyon-walled pathway that guides you to Petra, you are met with rock formations on either side of the road. The doorways lead to tombs. Hundreds and hundreds of rock tombs line the path to Petra. Some of them are dated all the way back to the first century AD.

Nearly 700 horses, donkeys and camels work in the park, providing transportation for tourists and an income for owners. All three have been part of Arab life for thousands of years. (Click on photos to see full image)

The “Siq” or narrow gorge, is the winding pathway leading to Petra’s entrance. The Siq was the result of an earthquake which split the mountain apart, leaving the gorge. It is just over one kilometer long and extremely vivid in color. Some secrets can be found in the rock walls as you make your way toward the city.

When you arrive in Petra, you are immediately staring at “Al Khazna”or The Treasury. This is Petra’s most famous landmark, and rightfully so. Standing over 125 feet high, The Treasury is beautifully carved and decorated in Corinthian design. It is said Pharaoh’s treasure is still concealed here. Chances of spotting camels here are good. They will even take you for a ride if you are willing to pay.


As you walk the “Street of Facades” you will see a number of carved entrances to more tombs. Eventually, you will make your way to “The Theatre” which can accommodate 4,000 spectators! The columns in the front are an addition by the Romans during their time of occupation, later in Petra’s history.

Down around the corner from The Theatre stands “The Royal Tombs.” Each of the four buildings has its own given name but combined, they make up a most impressive and beautiful façade to view. Visitors can climb the five stories for the experience to walk inside and gaze at the marble ceilings. While it is obvious that some of the stairs have been reconstructed, others are still authentic so watch your step! (Click on photos to see full image)

If you were to continue the path past the Royal Tombs, you would reach other areas of ruins of Petra. Unfortunately , the city itself was eventually destroyed and never rebuilt. The majority of what remains is tombs. But nonetheless, it is one of the most incredible places I have ever visited. If you get the opportunity, go for it. You will not be disappointed.

And so, this brings us to end of my time in Petra and in Israel.

January 11th marks the six month anniversary of leaving home with just a backpack. In some ways, it has gone by fast. In other ways, it has crept along slowly. But no matter how I look at it, it has been a fantastic ride so far. Thank you for continuing to trek with  me. Thank you for your comments of encouragement and cheer. You are such a part of this journey. You may not think so. You may think you have not played a part at all, but I assure you, you have. You matter. Your words matter. You reading this blog matters. You coming with me in spirit matters. Keep up the good work. We are not done yet.

Next destination: South Africa.

Now that I think we can agree that we all love Petra, I encourage you to chase God’s dream for your life. He guarantees to take you to a place greater than you imagined. Choose to take a step beyond belief to the next plateau.

Biblical Tamar Park

As most of you know, I have been staying in the Negev Desert for nearly three months now. Okay, fine Tara. You are staying in the desert. But what does that mean? Are you camping in a tent? Are you in a hotel or a hostel? Are you only surrounded by sand and some palms like you mentioned in your Christmas post? What does “staying in the desert” mean?!?  Thank you! I am so glad you asked.

I have been staying at an archeological dig site called “Biblical Tamar Park”. Yep, you heard me right: It is a real archeological dig site. This site was originally discovered in the mid-1980’s under mounds and mounds of dirt. Over the many years, the dig has unearthed hidden secrets dating all the way back to the reign of King Solomon (10th century BCE).

Do you remember that guy in the Bible? He is the one who God was willing to grant anything he asked. He went ahead and asked for wisdom to rule over Israel. God was so pleased with Solomon’s request for wisdom that he received riches and fame as well (1 Kings 3). You may also be familiar with him as the guy who built the first Temple of the Lord which housed the Ark of the Covenant (not just a gimmick in the Indiana Jones movies, my friends!). WELL, that same King Solomon is noted in the Bible for building up the towns of Beth-horon, Baalath and Tamar (1 Kings 9:18). See that? TAMAR! That’s where I am!

Older Biblical references are made toward nearby areas, like Be’er Sheva, lend to possibility of settlement prior to King Solomon. Abraham made a treaty regarding a water well with King Abimelek in Be’er Sheva, which you can visit yet today (Genesis 21:31).  Be’er Sheva is only about sixty minutes by car from Tamar. In Numbers 21:10, Moses led the Israelites to “Oboth” which translates to “Tamar” which means “date palm” in English.  See that? TAMAR! That’s where I am! While evidence for this specific site has not been discovered yet regarding Abraham and Moses, it is accepted that they were wandering in the nearby area during each of their time.

Located in the Arava Valley of the Negev Desert, Tamar has a rich history that has been categorized into seven different time periods. The official brochure for Biblical Tamar Park says this: “If only these rocks could speak” is a phrase often heard in Israel. But the rocks do speak at Tamar, and they tell us about the place and people who lived there, only faintly remembered and recorded in biblical writings. They are a visible reminder of what happened when nomads first wandered across the region, followed by Canaanites, Phoenicians, Hebrews, Arabs and other Semitic tribes who settled the land, and who left behind distinct layers of sediment and stone to form the Seven Periods of archeological history we see today.” During some of the later periods, Tamar was in a strategic location for the spice route from the “Orient”, British occupancy hosting an “oasis” for British soldiers traveling through during World War I. Israeli military occupancy following the British withdrawal in 1948 and even later, a kibbutz settlement. A kibbutz is a community, often agriculturally based, where voluntary residents have communal ownership of property, social justice and equality. Basically it is a settlement within the country which operates under socialism-type ideals, meaning all contributing residents receive the exact same pay, no matter what job they do. (Before you get too excited about the success of kibbutz’s, they are currently on a downslide. Original, volunteer residents committed to the socialist views but the following generations have not been as interested in continuing with this lifestyle.)

As noted in my previous blog titled, “Returning to Israel”, I returned to Israel to spend time with and assist GMS Management Solutions as they continue to offer group tours to the Promise Land. We all stayed at Biblical Tamar Park. The Park is managed by Blossoming Rose, a non-profit organization based out of Michigan, USA. President of Blossoming Rose, Dr. DeWayne Coxon, has been directly involved with the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) since the Park’s discovery. Today, Blossoming Rose is the lease holder and curator for Biblical Tamar Park with the goal of coordinating archeological restorations, educational programs and providing staff to help maintain the site and surrounding grounds.

Biblical Tamar Park offers the opportunity to experience a taste of desert living. The accommodations are comfortably rustic. They provide clean beds, clean bathrooms and even have running water. Many times, folks will pay a visit after they completing a tour of Israel. Whether you want a relaxed desert getaway or you prefer to assist around the site, there is always a place for you! I mean, come on! How often do you get to say you spent a week helping out at an archeological dig site in Israel? Come visit the “Jewel of the Arava”!


Lessons I Learned in the Desert:

  • How to make instant coffee.
    • I love coffee. Part of my plan when I left home was to wean myself off coffee. It did not happen. Most of the places I traveled so far had great coffee available, but Israel…not so much. While there is an office style coffee maker at the park, the coffee preferences (strength, brand, etc) are always at the whim of the person making it. One day back in October, my dear friend Angel Martinez said to me, “Let me make you a cup of instant coffee. It is really good.” I was skeptical. But he made a GREAT cup of instant coffee and taught me how. While I am still not able to make as good of a cup as he can, it has tied me over for a couple months now. This skill will come in handy nearly everywhere in the world. Thank you Angel!
  • Personal testing and trials.
    • The Bible shares many stories of people facing tests and trials while in the wilderness. Moses was in the desert for FORTY YEARS with a million people behind him. Jesus spent FORTY DAYS in the desert which is where Satan brought several trials and temptations to him. Abraham was sent on a journey through the wilderness and desert not knowing where he was going. And I am no exception. My time in the desert has challenged and stretched me in ways I did not know I needed (or wanted) to be challenged.  This was definitely a time for refining of character, persevere through the uncomfortable and painful, search out what God says about my circumstances and learn to stand firm on what I know of who He is and who He says I am. Did I get it right all the time? Nope, I am sure that I did not. Has it been worth the time and effort? Yes, although I do not yet know how or what the refining will be used for.
  • Dealing with boredom.
    • I have ALWAYS struggled with boredom…just go ask my mom, she has stories. I do not like to “create” my own fun. I like to be entertained or have something accessible to venture off to. I get bored quickly with the same old thing over and over. Looking back, this has been an ongoing work-in-progress for many, MANY years. Being in the desert with limited transportation and nothing easily accessible around me has challenged the part of me that gets easily frustrated with boredom. You know how some people experience being “hangry”? They show signs of anger as they get hungry? (You know who you are. We ALL know who you are!) I have a similar reaction to boredom. Can I call it “bordangry”? I become miserable and I am sure I can be miserable for people around me. I have had to intentionally focus during this time to maintain patience and self-control to not take my reaction to boredom out on others. I am still not perfect at it but I think I have made a little progress.
  • How to consistently use a clothes line.
    • I am not going to speak for everyone in Wisconsin, I can only speak from my experience. I did not grow up consistently using a clothes line. We had one and I remember my mom hanging somethings every once in a while when I was a kid but for the most part, we used a clothes dryer. With six months of snow & cold and the other six months of unpredictable rain & high humidity, it is difficult to rely on hanging clothes to dry. As silly as it sounds, it has been a different experience to hang clothes on a line. It takes a little more time to hang them than just shoving them into another machine but I have been bored anyway so time is no issue. I do not really have a preference either way and this lesson is pretty insignificant as far as I can tell. It has been a lesson nonetheless.
  • The desert is BEAUTIFUL.
    • Maybe I am biased toward the beauty of the desert because my favorite color is brown. Yes, you read that right. I mean, seriously, who’s favorite color is BROWN?!? Mine. Strange, I know. Please do not hold it against me. The desert takes my breath away in how the variety of brown shades sweep and swirl through the mountains as well as the flat lands. In some areas heading south, the brown earth actually fades into rich oranges, maroons and purples. YES, purple earth! Incredible! The wild Acacia trees contrast from the brown when they are in bloom and the clear, dark nights give way to the greatest light show of stars ever seen. One night, in a matter of twenty minutes, I counted three shooting stars. It is not a “waste” land but a “different” land. It’s beauty has stretched the mind to think beyond the box of what I would normally consider “beautiful”.


If you are interested in more information about Biblical Tamar Park or Blossoming Rose, please click on the link: www.blossomingrose.org






A Simple Request For Sand and Palms

As far as I can recall, this is my first Christmas away from my family. When I was a child, we spent several Christmases together in Mexico on mission trips. One time we all met up in South Padre Island, Texas for the holidays. Now before you get too envious over those travels in terms of weather, please know that snow followed us each and every time without fail. The Smith family does not dream of snow at Christmas, but evidence proves snow must dream of the Smith family.

I purposefully did not pack cold weather clothes for this journey for several reasons.  Reason #1: I dislike cold weather. Reason #2: Cold weather clothes take up way too much room in a pack unless one is specifically planning for it. Reason #3: I dislike cold weather. Yep, I made that point twice…that is how much I dislike cold weather. I figured I would be able to keep moving to warmer climates as the seasons change. I planned to continue chasing the sun.

Knowing I would not be in Wisconsin for Christmas, I made a request of God. I said, “Lord, I will go anywhere You ask me to go. I will do whatever You ask me to do. I will follow Your lead, but if it is Your will and if it is possible, can I have sand and palms for Christmas?” Man, I was picturing myself on a tropical beach somewhere with an exotic fruit drink in my hand as the beautiful, deep, blue waves crashed upon the shore. Maybe I am wearing sunglasses and one of those large, floppy brimmed, straw hats with a gentle breeze blowing past my face as I collect a rich, bronze tan. I can almost hear the seagulls fighting for my fresh coconut cup.

God’s sense of humor is rarely lost on me. Or maybe, just maybe, He tweaks His humor so it matches my own…so I will see Him in the circumstances. He answered my prayer and fulfilled my request. My VERBAL request was for sand and palms. He gave me more sandimg_20161224_085517 than I could have imagined and a variety of different palms. The weather is just chilly enough for the need to wear every layer of clothing I own. Instead of a fruit drink, I make a couple of cups of instant coffee to help warm up. Instead of waves crashing, yesterday the cold rain was beating on the roof which also means I have a hood pulled over my head instead of a floppy hat. The tan I acquired only a month or so earlier has nearly faded. No seagulls to speak of, just the sweet, resident yellow lab who stops in for a quick hello. And yet at the end of it all, He is still El Shama – God who hears. Not only did He hear, but He honored my request in full.

The beauty of  it all is God has invited me to come to His land and follow some of His own journey. One thing I am starting to understand on a deeper level is He is a God of invitation. In the book, And the Angels were Silent, Author Max Lucado writes, “God is an inviting God. He invited Mary to birth his Son, the disciples to fish for men, the adulteress woman to start over, and Thomas to touch his wounds. God is the King who prepares the palace, sets the table, and invites his subjects to come in. In fact, it seems his favorite word is come.” Throughout the Old and New Testament, God calls out, “Come,” through a wide variety of creative measures. Jesus verbally spoke the word “Come” frequently during His time on earth. “Come to me with your concerns. Boy, do I have great, amazing plans for you! Come  along with me!” And He does not stop there, He looks for ways to join us as well.

The longer I am in Israel, I am discovering deeper meanings to biblical stories, fulfilled prophecy and prophecy yet to pass. With my friend Dawn visiting, we took the opportunity to visit Bethlehem to see the supposed site where Jesus was born. A large church has been built over the top of the suspected cave where Jesus was laid in that famous manger. Since several religions and people groups are still rallying for the rights to the sacred spot, the church has literally been divided into sections for each group to worship and pray. They all have the opportunity to go down the stairs to the cave below and hold private prayer services at the labeled site of Jesus’ birth. When we arrived to the church, one of these services was in session so the door was closed to the public. Several tour groups from Singapore…I would estimate a “line” (probably the word “cluster” is more accurate) of one hundred to two hundred people were waiting to visit. With the help of our private guide, we worked our way near the front where we waited in a pushing crowd for nearly thirty minutes. When the door finally opened, chaos broke loose. We had to manage our way down five or so stairs with zero visibility because of the crowd. When we entered the small space, security barked orders, “Get down on your knees to see it. Get back up. Quick go over to your right. Now, get out! We have a private meeting and need to close the doors soon.” By this time, I think the doors had only been opened for ten minutes and we were in the small cave for less than three of those minutes. BUT, we did get to see where it is believed Jesus was born.

I did not have any major sentimental thoughts during that chaotic experience. Everything happened so quick; it was difficult to know what was happening as we were bumping into people and getting rushed out. As I have had some time to reflect on it, my understanding is growing deeper. Matthew 1:23 says, “Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.'” For me, that single verse sums up much of the big picture of this current, traveling journey. God said, “Come join me,” to Mary. At the same time, Immanuel was born specifically to join us.

Come join me and I will come join you! Aren’t those words what make the best kinds of friendships? Last year, I joined Dawn in Albania. This year, she joined me in Israel. Come join me and I will come join you! I have a great number of treasured friends who have joined me in my emotional struggles and in return, I have joined them in theirs. Come join me and I will come join you! This is the very promise I have received from God as I continue to trek life’s path with Him. He has yet to let me down. Come join me and I will come join you! This is the same promise He makes to every person on the planet. He is committed if we decide to commit in return.

And so, with Christmas on the nearly literal horizon, I will be celebrating differently than I have celebrated before. Nearly two years ago, God planted the invitation on my heart to “Come.” El Shama has heard my request and honored it in the unexpected place of the Negev Desert of Israel. And then, another of His many names – Immanuel, which comes with a full promise that I am not alone. Now that is a friendship I want to be a part of. Come join me and I will come join you!

Merry Christmas to you, my friends and family on this beautiful of celebrations.






Returning to Israel

During my very first visit to Israel, WAY BACK in September, I had an opportunity to spend a couple of nights in the Negev Desert. Now, I need to preface this by saying, I do not care for camping. I do not care for bugs. I do not like to “create my own fun” in the woods or wilderness for extended periods of time. But when the suggestion was made, I thought, “Hey, how often does one really get to stay in the Negev Desert in Israel? That will be a small adventure. Sure, why not?” Seriously, this is God’s humor at work. Had He told me what was going to be coming down the line, I may not have been so quick to answer which is why He only tells me what I need to know when I need to know. In the meantime, He was already at work challenging and changing my heart to prepare me for steps I might not have been otherwise willing to take. But we will get to that part of the story later.

During the drive from the north to the south, the landscape changes dramatically. While the entire country seems to be hilly and mountainous, the northern areas are more green and lush. After making it past the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem line, more dirt showed up and the color faded from greens to browns with only wild scrub brush and acacia trees marking the landscape. As we made our way beyond the city of Be’er Sheva, the desert really began to take form.

In my mind’s eye, I have pictured deserts of the Middle East as I have seen them in National Geographic photos, movies or on TV: piles and piles of wind-blown, khaki colored sand dunes that go on and on for miles. The only thing of interest is the mirage of an oasis out in the distance that one can never reach. People lose their way and wind up dying, never to be found again. Mysteriously, the camel makes it home safely without the rider.

The Negev Desert looks nothing like that picture. I was in awe as we took the curvy road heading deeper and deeper below sea level, into canyons of high rock walls. The strata creating beautiful paint strokes with varying colors of brown, red and even purple sand. The desert went on and on. It was absolutely breathtaking. The Negev Desert currently occupies more than half Israel’s land mass stretching over 4,600 square miles. My perception of “desert” was radically changed that day. Enjoy a video of the beautiful, curvy drive:

When we reached our accommodations at Biblical Tamar Park (I will give more info on this place in another blog entry), we were welcomed by some friendly folks from Texas. As it turns out, they operate a company called GMS Management Solutions. They offer a wide variety assistance programs from personal needs like cleaning/organizing of homes and estate sales to business needs like assistance in small business growth and marketing. They also offer DNA testing and genealogy research assistance. But one of the main reasons they were in Israel was to continue building their group escorted tours business.

Israel’s tourism is often connected with the historical and religious sites – come see where Jesus walked on water, follow the Via Dolorosa, visit the Temple Mount, etc. These sites are fabulous and are definitely worth seeing. But do these sites appeal to the younger American generation? Are they enough of a draw to bring young adults to Israel? Is there anything else that can be offered to raise interest? GMS Management Solutions can answer the last question with a resounding, “YES!” Or like the infomercials say, “But wait! There’s more!”

Israel is FULL of action and adventure, especially in the Negev Desert. Camel rides are just the tip of the iceberg. All different levels of hiking are available from flat, easy walks to vertical, mountain climbs. Take a visit to Ramon Crater to repel down the cliff. Dune buggy type 4×4 vehicles are waiting to take you tearing through the desert, leaving a trail of sand and dust in your wake. Canoe or kayak the ice blue colored Jordan River. The southern city of Eilat lies right along the gorgeous, deep blue Red Sea, inviting you to swim, snorkel, scuba dive or if those are not enough, you can always swim with the dolphins. Jump out of a plane for sky diving in Israel.   The Negev Desert even has wine and beer tours to try out. This country offers so much from the historical to the active outdoors. And I also need to note GMS Management Solutions has really incredible Israeli tour guides. They are top quality, experienced, adventurous, English-speaking guides who will take excellent care of you. They strive to give you the level of quality you’re looking for from hotels to food to attractions.

With my experience in working the tour industry, I was offered the opportunity to come back to Israel and spend time with GMS Management Solutions to learn about what they do and where they are headed. I was intrigued but did not immediately accept the offer. I had a couple of pending options already in motion. I told them I would pray about it and see what happens but I was committed to the other options first.

As God would have it, the doors closed on the other two options allowing me to return to Israel following my time in Armenia. Remember the blog about my experience getting through airport security during my first visit? Go back and read it if you do not remember or you did not get the chance, it was quite the ordeal. As the time to return was drawing near, I found myself with anxiety over going through airport security again. My sister said to me, “Maybe this is not an issue. You fully believed the fog would lift so we could take the tram ride to Tatev Monastery. You fully believed the clouds would part so we could see Mount Ararat. Both things happened. Why don’t you just believe and declare that God will get you through security into Israel again?” She was right and I knew it in that moment. So, I declared it in God’s name. Since this path was of Him, then this security thing would NOT be an issue either. And you know what? Miraculously, it was not. I walked right through with only a question of, “You were just here, why are you returning?” When I told of my situation, the officer smiled and said, “Welcome back.” Miracle.

My new Texas friends picked me up and we made our way back to the Negev Desert. I mentioned in the first paragraph how God was working on my heart to challenge and change it, preparing me for something I would not have chosen on my own. Well, I have been staying in the desert for nearly two months now. I am not going to lie; it has not been easy. It is not what I would choose on my own and yet, here I am. I believe the Lord put a veil over my eyes to protect me from seeing the camel spiders and scorpions others have reported. I believe He provided a friend who was entertaining so I did not have to constantly figure out how to “create my own fun.” Even as He was softening my heart to take this challenge, I believe He looked out for my dislikes, insecurities, fears and provided for me.

One of the reasons why GMS Management Solutions is interested in connecting young adults to Israel is to assist those of Jewish heritage in “making Aliyah (ah-lee-YAH).” When Israel became a nation again in 1948, the Jewish people were (and still are) scattered all over the globe. To generalize, “making Aliyah” is the process of applying, petitioning and granting of legal citizenship to Jews who are returning to Israel from exile. One of the requirements in “making Aliyah” is the applicant must have visited Israel at least once prior. According to prophecy, the day will come when Jews will return to Israel for safety. If the current process of “making Aliyah” is relatively the same, then the younger generation can already have this important requirement fulfilled.

This is also why GMS Management Solutions offers DNA testing. Many people of Jewish descent are not aware of their heritage. They may have heard rumors of their family past but do not have proof. We have all heard stories of Jewish parents handing their babies to non-Jewish friends during WWII in order to save them, their ancestry lost. DNA testing is one way to validate and legally document their birthright. What a calling this company has, right? If you are interested in having your DNA tested, contact me. I will hook you up.

My Texas friends headed back to the United States on December 4 to continue operating business stateside for the time being. However, they will be traveling back and forth with groups both young and old, calm and active, historical and adventurous. If you are interested in historical, biblical, adventure or a mixture whether as a private or group tour of Israel, contact me. I will hook you up.

As for me, God is not finished with me on this backpacking trip. As of now, I plan to be in the Negev Desert until after January 1. But more blogs to come on all of that.

Armenia (The Final Chapter)

I can pinpoint four specific miracles that took place during our visit to Armenia. The first was upon arrival, two during our road trip away from the big city, and the fourth was the day before departing. Each was something beyond our control where we felt very cared for by El Roi, Hebrew name for God meaning “God Who Sees Me”. (Can you tell I have been staying in Israel for a while?!?)

Miracle #1: When Mom and LeeAnn arrived in Yerevan, I rode with the hotel shuttle driver to pick them up at the airport. While we hugged, the driver took the full luggage cart to load them in the vehicle. Assuming all the bags were in the van, we piled in and took off on the twenty minute ride to the hotel. After the bags were unloaded on the curb, we were not able to locate Mom’s Canon SLR camera bag. Panic set in. You know the feeling – that one where your heart is in your stomach?  After calling the airport to report it missing, we find out the local police have jurisdiction over the parking garage. So we call the police. After only a few minutes on the phone they report back that it had been found. With Mom still on the line they went through each pocket to make sure everything was accounted for. The bag was delivered to the hotel the following day with all items in tact. Thank you El Roi for seeing our circumstance before we knew we had one and providing.

When we left Goris, the fog was still lingering. We debated whether to attempt the Tatev Monastery or to leave the eastern part of Armenia to head northwest toward our next destination near Lake Sevan. One of the most exciting parts of visiting Tatev is taking the LONG aerial tram ride to the mountaintop monastery. The views of the valley below are incredible from seeing farms to winding mountain roads to ruins of once-upon-a-time villages. From my experience in 2015, even if the ride was all fog, Tatev Monastery is pretty unique on its own.  I suggested we still do the ride because the fog could open up to see the valley below.

Miracle #2: The fog opened up to see the valley below. As we boarded the “longest reversible cableway (aerial tramway) in the world” and pulled away from the edge of the mountain, the fog seemingly disappeared. The entire fall landscape below was clear as a bell for the full twelve minute ride to Tatev Monastery. Thank you El Roi for seeing our adventurous hearts and providing a clear, beautiful view when it looked clouded.

Originally built during the 9th century, Tatev Monastery is one of the oldest spiritual centers in Armenia. It also was home to University of Tatev during medieval Armenia in the 14th and 15th centuries. This University is most noted for its role in the advancement of Armenian culture and served as a library for valuable manuscripts, monastic and official documents and contracts. The school was varied in offering studies from sciences to language to music to art. At some point, an olive mill was added toimg_20161013_122821 the monastery. Elements of the mill are still well preserved today. The buildings have undergone much destruction and reconstruction over the centuries due to invasions, natural disasters and even looters but the magnificence of this place still remains. It sits high on a cliff overlooking the gorge of the Vorotan River. Even though it is only used for tourism now, as I stood in the courtyard breathing in the structures on the property, I was able to imagine the hub of activity it once was. Tatev really is a sight to behold as she stands proud of her legacy like a castle in the clouds.

As we boarded the tramway again to head back, the fog came rolling back thick as can be. How blessed we were to have the exact amount of time needed to view this spectacular place.

Remember in my previous blog I mentioned how vehicles are not the only ones who use the roads? We had taste of sharing the foggy road with some fluffy friends…

We drove along winding roads once again heading northwest toward Lake Sevan. At this point, we were planning on hanging out near Lake Sevan for a couple of nights but only had accommodations for one evening. We wanted to be free to venture into other surrounding areas without being tied down to one general location.

Lake Sevan is theimg_20161013_135706329 largest body of water in Armenia measuring twenty miles wide and over forty-five miles long. It is also one of the largest high-altitude lakes in Eurasia sitting at a whopping 6,234ft above sea level! And let me tell you, while you area driving next to it, it just keeps going and going and going. The lake is considered a “national treasure” by providing electricity, fish and tourism to Armenia’s economy. As with most areas of Armenia, the history of Lake Sevan can be traced further back than most Americans can fathom with proof in the old black monastery which is situated on a peninsula overlooking the water. Since Lake Sevan boasts the only beaches in Armenia, it is a popular vacation spot for Armenians during the warm months.

Our accommodations for the evening were in the town of Tsaghkadzor. Please do not ask me how to pronounce this town name, I have no idea. We had previously scoured the internet looking for places to stay and this particular lodge had really good ratings and reviews AND the price was reasonable. So we booked online and away we went. By the time we reached the downhill ski town of Tsaghkadzor, the sun had gone down and the time was approaching 7:00pm. The entire town appeared to be sleeping already – no restaurants open, no shop lights on, no hotel rooms with lights on…it was a bit eerie. When we arrived at our booked lodge, it appeared to be completely closed. No lights. No activity. LeeAnn climbed the fifteen steep steps to the door and found a lone security guard with limited English waiting for us…only the overhead security lights were on. He led us up SIX long flights of stairs in the silent darkness to the very top floor where he unlocked two room doors, each having rather shabby accommodations with two single beds. He nodded his head as a bid goodnight and walked away. We still think we were the only guests in the place for the twenty minutes we were there. After being creeped out, we decided we needed to find a different place to stay. We grabbed our bags and went back down the SIX long flights of stairs in the dark. I mean, come on, this is the stuff horror movies are made of! Not a soul was around in the dim lobby area so we left the key on the desk and quickly went to the vehicle. As we pulled out of the parking lot, the security guard came running up to the vehicle. I rolled down the window and simply said, “No, not comfortable.” He looked disappointed but hey, what could he do? Luckily we had not supplied a credit card online or during this rather peculiar “check-in”. We jumped online once more (thank goodness for car rentals offering Wi-Fi!) and looked for other accommodations. We checked into a couple of places but NONE of them were open.

Miracle #3: In the distance we saw a large, lighted sign with the words “RUSSIA HOTEL”. We figured if the signs were lit up, someone should be home, right? When we pulled up to the hotel, a few lobby lights were on. An actual person was working the front desk! We asked if they were taking guests for the evening and the desk clerk said “Yes.” We asked if the hotel had a restaurant on site and the desk clerks said, “Yes but it is closed now.” Mind you, it was only 8:00pm. We thanked her, went to our room and decided to just get by with protein bars. A few moments later came a knock on the door. The desk clerk let us know that the chef was willing to keep the restaurant open for us to eat. He was currently preparing some food for us. How amazing is that?!? The three of us dined alone in a huge dining room, feeling awkwardly cared for. Thank you El Roi for seeing our need for a place to stay and providing not just shelter but food as well.

The following morning, we decided to head back toward the big city of Yerevan. With plenty of time for more adventure along the way, we went off the beaten path, up through a couple small villages to find another monastery at the top of a mountain. We found a small souvenir market along the shores of Lake Sevan and made time to swing by a winery. It was a wonderful time to meander our way back with no real agenda but to just experience what we could.

Miracle #4: For the majority of our time in Yerevan, Mount Ararat was shrouded by clouds. We could see bits and pieces of the mountain but not a full view of the splendor that she is. I just knew that we would be given one moment to gaze upon her entirety. How did I know? This had been a deep seeded, generational dream over thirty years in the making. I knew God would be faithful to provide a clear majestic moment for us to see Mount Ararat. On our last day, I went out to the balcony of our hotel to see if the mountain was visible. You know what? It was. The full beauty of Mount Ararat was on display for us to see. It was worth every waiting moment. Thank you El Roi for seeing the deep longing of our hearts to see Mount Ararat and fulfilling a dream established long ago.

Mount Ararat standing tall over the city of Yerevan.

I want to say a huge THANK YOU to my dad who worked tirelessly to not only help make this dream happen for my mom but also bless me and my sister by paying for some elements for us. He also assisted with child care so LeeAnn was able to visit Armenia too. Also a huge THANK YOU to my brother-in-law who selflessly picked up a large number of extra work hours to help fund my sister’s dream trip and worked it out with child care so she did not have to worry about it. You two men have touched my heart more than you know.

Armenia (Part 2)

Two specific questions are often posed when I share about visiting Armenia to learn more about my family heritage. 1) Will you be visiting any family members while you are there? 2) Will you be visiting the town where your family members came from?

As far as we know, we do not have any relatives living in Armenia. During WWI, many Armenians lost their lives due to the genocide. Others fled, leaving Armenians scattered throughout the world. My great-grandmother’s siblings immigrated to the United States while my great-grandfather’s family spread to South America and other locations.

My great-grandmother lived her early years in the towns of Eskisehir and Azizya (now known as Emirdag) which are located on the west side of Turkey, closer to Istanbul. My great-grandfather’s family was also living in Turkey in the town of Adana. At the time, many Armenians were living in Turkey. They were in daily relationship with the Turks; all under control of the Ottoman Empire. They were even serving in the Turkish military, before and during the war. In order to return to some of our ancestor’s hometowns, we would need to visit Turkey. I am guessing the current towns are nothing like they once were when Armenians were inhabiting them. Needless to say, we were not able to visit any of the areas where our family originated.

With many rural areas of Armenia yet to see, we rented a 4×4 SUV and hit the open road heading east. Months before arriving in Armenia, my mom had researched the terrain and road conditions to determine what kind of vehicle would be appropriate. We were all very happy with her decision. When you decide to visit another country, please look into the road conditions and ask questions before booking a vehicle. We found conflicting information about what we were getting ourselves into. In the end, we decided to cover our bases and reserve a vehicle that could do it all, including some very steep, mountainous climbs.

The landscape of Armenia is covered in extinct volcanoes and mountain ranges. Many of the roads are curvy and often switchback their way at a steep grade. Parts of the drive are not for the faint of heart but each turn rewards visitors with a panoramic view unlike the one before.


Every turn offers magnficent views.


Armenia was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as the national religion. “Monastery hopping” is one of the main highlights of the country. Many of the monasteries are built on a hill or mountainside. Some are still in use and are well-kept, others lie in ruin. All come with a story, a legacy and a beauty all their own.

We set the GPS for Tatev Monastery but agreed we would leave room for spontaneous adventure. Wimg_20161012_132727174hen we reached the small winery town of Areni, a nature preserve with a cave called to us so we turned off the main road and drove through the high cliffs and foliage. Truth be told, we never found the cave but an old monastery was waiting on top of a cliff area at the end of the preserve road.


Built during the late 1200’s, the remains of the monastery grounds stand as a tourist img_20161012_130409570attraction and a physical reminder of what once was. Monasteries were used as places of worship as well as hospitality centers, providing overnight accommodations for travelers passing through. Perhaps they were considered the first hostels or guest houses. Monks lived on the premises ministering and taking care of guest needs. Notice: The stairs in the front, on the outside of the structure. This is not a common feature for Armenian monasteries.


Khachkars (Armenian word pronounced “Kotch-kahrs”) or stone carved crosses, decorate monastery grounds and buildings as well. While their style may look similar to a Celtic cross, they are in fact, quite different. Many of the designs incorporate Armenian living such as pomegranates, grapes, leaves and interwoven lace. Sometimes they have one of the Christian Saint’s faces carved in the stone near the cross. Below the cross carving, most Khachkars have a round design representing a rosette or the sun. They are used for headstones, memorials, church decoration, victory commemorating, jewelry, etc. They are beautifully intricate and can be found all over Armenia.


After we left the nature preserve, we continued heading east toward the Syunik Province to visit Tatev Monastery. As we wound our way there, the fog also wound its way in. I was the lucky one who was driving and at one point, could not see more than a few feet in front of the vehicle. In America, this may not be that big of a deal but in Armenia, not only do we need to keep an eye out for other vehicles but shepherds and farmers also use the road to move their animals. Due to lack of visibility, we somewhat disappointedly decided to skip Tatev for the moment and try again tomorrow. We worked our way to our accommodations in Goris at Aregak B&B. What a delightful surprise this turned out to be.

If you want a real cultural experience, I suggest getting out of mainstream tourist spots and taking a chance on the outskirts, take a chance on a B&B, take a chance on a hostel, take a chance on a local restaurant.

L-R: LeeAnn, Mariela, Kathy, Tara

The care and concern of the host/hostess to make your visit a positive experience is beyond what the normal tourist hotel will offer. The B&B owner, Mariela, lives just above the B&B which turned out to be more like an apartment building. She came rushing down to meet us as soon as we arrived. She was excited to give hugs and welcome us to her home. Her English was strong enough to carry on basic conversation and looked for any way possible to make us comfortable. She brought a welcome snack and suggested we rest for a bit, then she would show us around the town of Goris, including a lavash (Armenian flatbread) factory. We quickly agreed.


Around 8:00pm, Mariela showed up at the door ready to take us out on the town. Actually, Goris was very quiet, very foggy and nearly every business was closed down for the day. But she told us as much information about the town as her English would allow as we made way through the foggy streets to the lavash factory.

I have grown up eating lavash on and off at various Armenian celebrations. To see this flatbread being made was a really neat experience. Three women, a simple area and a lot of work made this visit unique. See the pictures and captions below:


Mariela had already purchased a few pieces of freshly cooked lavash for us to eat. It was a wonderful surprise. We had debated earlier about whether to go or not because we were so tired but all of us were glad we took the risk for what turned out to be a delightful, unexpected experience.

Following the factory, we walked around the city in the fog to see the local church and landmarks of Goris. This city is mentioned in history books as early as 8th century BC. Over time, as with all ancient cities, Goris was conquered by this king and that empire until it eventually settled in its current status with approximately 20,000 people living along Goris River in the valley. It is currently the second largest city in the Syunik Province.

Mariela took an immediate liking to my mom, especially when she found out we have Armenian heritage. We became family that day. Thank you Mariela for a wonderful stay!


More Armenia to come. I apologize for the recent delays in forthcoming information. Please pray for solid internet access and uninterrupted time to blog. These have been my most difficult hurdles for blogging from my current location in the Negev Desert, Israel.




“Let Me Walk Upon The Waters”

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
“Come,” he said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus.
Matthew 14:28-29

I am going to go ahead and throw in a disclaimer here. When I talk about Israel, I am going to be referencing the Bible quite a bit. The entire country is covered in significant places the Bible makes mention of. The majority of tours visiting Israel revolve around religious sites for Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. Travelers visit from all over the world just to hear, see and touch the places where Jesus, the disciples, Mary Magdalene, Paul and other historical figures walked, slept, ate, performed miracles, held gatherings, etc. To keep Scripture hidden, would be to hide Israel.

I had the opportunity to visit my friends, Shane and Becky Boettcher, in the city of Tiberius. (If you want to know more about the Boettcher’s story and why they are in Israel, please see my previous blog post entitled “Introducing The Boettcher Clan”. ) Tiberius has a population of approximately 45,000 people. This steep, hillside city is located in the northern part of Israel along the Sea of Galilee. It is considered one of the four Jewish Holy Cities along with Jerusalem, Hebron and Safed. It is speculated when Jesus was giving the Sermon on the Mount and said, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matt 5:14 ESV), he was facing the currently known city of Tiberius.

The Sea of Galilee. My first impression of the Sea of Galilee was, “Wow. That is a lot smaller than I imagined it to be.” Since the body of water is basically one large circle, land can be seen with the naked eye, shore to shore. This Midwest Wisconsin girl is used to tree covered islands or inlets where rivers flow in and out of our 15,000+ lakes. (You read that correctly Minnesotans, we Wisconsinites have more lakes than you do. Sorry to brag.) But the Sea of Galilee sits out in the open and as you crest the hill of Tiberius, the entire sea is available for your viewing pleasure.

Sea of Galilee – 13 miles long, 8 miles wide, 141 maximum depth

Big deal, a large body of water. What is so special about that? Scripture is what makes it special. During Jesus’s assumed three-year ministry, his main headquarters were in Capernaum which is located north of Tiberius along the Sea of Galilee. The Sea of Galilee shows up in a great number of stories throughout the Bible, especially the New Testament. It was this body of water where Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John left their lucrative business of fishing to follow Jesus (google Matthew 4:18-22, Mark 1:16-20 or Luke 5:1-11). It was here Jesus multiplied only five loaves of bread and two fish to feed five thousand men as well as women and children (search for Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:31-44, Luke 9:10-17 or John 6:5-15). And it was on the Sea of Galilee the disciples were in a boat, caught in a violent storm, that Jesus literally walked upon the water to meet them and called Simon Peter to walk upon the water as well (visit Matthew 14:22-35, Mark 6:45-56 or John 6:16-21).  These are just a few examples; and you thought Harry Potter was a good series. Try reading the incredible adventures of Jesus and his disciples sometime. This is just barely scratching the surface.

Side note about me: I am backwards. Reading history or destinations from books does not get me interested to visit a site. But visiting a site gets me more interested to read more about what I have seen. Therefore, I tend to know nothing about something while I am standing in front of it. It is later that the information sinks in for me to understand the big picture. Growing up in a Christian home, I have known stories of the Sea of Galilee. But to take the physical picture and now reread the details of the stories is to comprehend with entirely new eyes.

During my first full day in Tiberius, Becky and the kids took me swimming in the surprisingly warm Sea of Galilee. We went across the body of water where we could view the “City on a Hill” that Jesus may have been referencing. Also, I learned if you swim from the beaches near Tiberius, little fish bite nibble on the dead skin from your legs and feet. (Do not freak out, people pay good money at a spa for this service but visit Israel and it can be included in your stay!)  But across the sea, no little fishys nibbling.

Getting ready to swim in the warm Sea of Galilee. Tiberius is behind me on the hill.

A few days later near Ginosar, we viewed a 2000 year old boat, known as the “Jesus Boat”, which had been excavated from the mud and muck of the Sea of Galilee in the mid-1980’s. It is now housed in a museum with fascinating, easy-to-read descriptions of how it was discovered, transferred, dated and preserved to its current location. It is an incredible piece of history with mystery behind it. Who owned the boat? Could Jesus or a disciple have ridden in it at one time? How did it end up getting left behind?

2000 year old “Jesus Boat”

This is also where we boarded a worship boat. What is a worship boat?!? These beautiful, wooden boats are taken out onto Galilee to simply experience the Biblical body of water. They also can be rented by tour groups for praise and worship in song and/or dance. Becky, Abel and I had the opportunity to join a small tour group as we sailed south along the calm water from Ginosar to the harbor of Tiberius. While I did not experience any precipitation during my time in Tiberius or the Sea of Galilee, I could imagine the moment the rains stopped, winds died and the waves ceased when Jesus commanded the storm, “Peace be still.”

Worship Boats upon the Sea of Galilee

One more thing to note about the Sea of Galilee: the famous Jordan River feeds the sea through natural, underground springs that runs north to south. This is the very same Jordan River where John the Baptist baptized believers as well as Jesus. Many baptisms still happen today in the Jordan River just outside of Tiberius. The river is a clear, icy blue color and yet, still fairly warm to the touch. I expected the river to be murky and a bit dirty, but it is not. It is incredibly beautiful.


The beautiful Jordan River


The song “Oceans” by Hillsong has been the cry of my heart from the very moment this journey was spoken into my heart. To sit in a boat on the Sea of Galilee where Simon Peter was called to literally walk upon the water with Jesus was a special moment for me personally.

Spirit lead me where my trust is without bordersLet me walk upon the watersWherever you would call meTake me deeper than my feet could ever waterAnd my faith would be made strongerIn the presence of my Savior

Follow this link to see Hillsong perform “Oceans” live in one of the worship boats on the Sea of Galilee: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M9GcyHpptMk


Additional side note: I have so much more to share regarding Israel. But will be diverting to talk about Armenia first and will come back to Israel. God-willing, it will all make sense in the end.


Venturing to the Promised Land

Friends from home, Shane and Becky Boettcher, had the opportunity to stay in Israel last year for a few months. They knew they would be returning sometime in the fall of 2016. When I publicly announced this backpacking journey, they invited me to visit them in Israel. I responded, “I would love to. When will you be there?” Becky replied, “We don’t know yet!” And so it was set. I would be visiting them in Israel.

When the Boettcher Family established their travel dates, I looked at my schedule and visiting Israel “fell” into place.

If your thinking of visiting Israel, there are a couple of things you should know about the process of getting there and the country itself. I’d like to share a couple of learning curves I had to help your experience go smoother.

  1. You will get extensive questioning at the airport. Before you check in for your flight, they may ask a load of questions regarding your travel purpose, where you are going to stay, how long you plan to stay, if you know someone who is there, what the occupation is of the person you know living there, etc. They may ask you these questions several times in several different ways. This is for your safety and the safety of the country. Remember, Israel has been attacked on and off for nearly their entire existence. They want to make sure you are on the up and up. Please be patient, kind and let them do what they need to. However, if you are not able to answer these questions fully with detail, they may let you know that everything you own will be searched and flag your belongings as such.
  2. If you take a “budget” airline carrier like I did, the check in process may be a hassle. I attempted to check in online prior to my airport arrival but received an error message. I figured I could check in no problem with the agent. Wrong. He said I would have to check in online for free or pay $10 to check in at the desk with him. I told him I was unable to check in online so just charge what he needed to charge. Wrong again. He sent me on a hike to the computer kiosk to check in. Since I was checking my backpack, the kiosk would not print a boarding pass until I paid for the bag. Back to the check in desk I went. The airline charged $70 for a checked bag. Yes, $70!! However, he wound up charging my card and printing my boarding pass…which is the SAME THING as checking me in! BUT he saved me $10, so I guess it was a win.
  3. After playing twenty questions with the check-in security and ring around the computer kiosk with the counter agent, I was finally allowed to go through security in Prague to find…there was none.  Prague Airport has security at each individual gate.
  4. When the gate opened, I walked up to go through but the check in security agent had placed an additional security sticky note in my passport as the flag to dig through all my belongings. The security officer asked if I had been given a blue piece of paper stating what time I was to enter the gate. I had not received this paper. She asked me to wait for about twenty minutes outside the gate until her colleague(s) arrived to lend additional help. One hour and twenty-five minutes later, I was able to go through security. My hands were swabbed, my electronics were swabbed, every item in my backpack was swabbed. After each swab, they ran the tissue through a machine which either ok’d it or signaled a warning. Everything was a go until the very end. My wallet. My cheap, “Made in China”, bought at a junk store in Italy, plastic wallet set off the alarm. It is very important to remember to stay calm through all of this. These agents are following their orders for protection. It is not worth fighting with them, panicking, crying or any other response you may muster up. Just let them do their job and do what they ask of you.
  5. At this point, I found out there is another whole level of security. This is the part of the story where they asked me to follow them behind the curtain. You may have already guessed it; I was body searched. Two women patted me down and used the beeping wand on me. Beyond the next set of curtains, another agent was patting and strip searching my wallet. They would not let me take my wallet on to the plane with me but were happy to slip it in to my checked bag which was also getting strip searched.
  6. Needless to say, I made is safely to Israel. Fortunately, the flight itself was nowhere near as eventful as the preflight pat down party.

MORAL OF THE STORY: Always use a computer kiosk first when checking in. Always know where you are staying when you arrive to your destination. Always calmly do what airline security asks of you. Always wear bra and underwear that you would not be too embarrassed for airport security agents to see. Never buy a cheap plastic wallet from a knickknacks store in Italy before traveling to Israel.

Is Israel really worth all the possible hassle at the airport? Absolutely. It has been worth every single pat.

More Israel to come.

Preparing to land in Tel Aviv, Israel