Monday, February 28, 2011

Middle East Adventures, Pt. 1

I traveled to the Middle East a year and a half ago, and I decided I'd put my experiences into writing. Here's Part 1:

For the past few years, I’ve had this attitude that the best part of life is telling stories that I’ve lived through. Regardless of the outcome, it seems that experiences are just sort of reborn as stories, and it’s often the painful/humiliating/terrifying endings that become the best to tell.
I haven’t really done a lot of writing, but I guess this is the part where I give a little background. To put it frankly, I was raised by wonderful parents, with a wonderful sister, in a conservative (in hindsight) Dallas suburb. There was even a perfectly Baptist church in the story. I thought the world was really small, then I learned that it was really big, then I learned that it was even smaller, but in a much different way.
One other important detail of the growing-up was a summer camp where I spent a lot of time, called Sky Ranch. I roamed around, combating the Texas heat with ziplines, water slides, and, of course, a lake with a Blob. The Blob is a giant air pillow on the banks of the lake. One kid sits on the end farthest into the water while another (preferably much heavier) kid jumps from a platform onto the Blob, launching the former ideally into oblivion, but more than likely into a 15-foot-high soaring belly flop onto an unforgiving lake. At Sky Ranch I learned about what love is, who Jesus is, and how to sneak through the forest in the middle of the night in full camouflage, completely unnoticed by enemy spies.
I loved this place dearly, and worked there as soon as I got to college. I was shocked when I realized that the saintly, all-knowing leaders that I had always looked up to, were actually wide-eyed, older-looking kids than the ones they were in charge of. We really had no idea what we were doing.
The point of all that isn’t the Blob at all, but that the second summer of working there, I got to go with a group of other Sky Ranch Staff to southern Kenya, where we had a really cool summer camp 50 miles from Mt. Kilimanjaro in the middle of Maasai-land. The Maasai are an old-spirited, wandering tribe, who heard cattle and goats, make really cool jewelry, and wear red pieces of linen wrapped across their bodies. It’s quite honestly real-life National Geographic, until you hear a phone ring, and one of the herder guys pull a cell phone from the folds of their costume-that’s-not-actually-a-costume. See what I’m saying with the whole “small-big-small” thing? I was amazed that people lived so differently than I live. It’s something you hear about, but it’s difficult to realize there aren’t Chick-Fil-A’s just around the corner from the pictures of babies with big bellies and flies on their faces until you see it for yourself.
I’d seen firsthand that my lifestyle is far, far from the norm. I think that a lot of people like to come back from trips like that (maybe I did this…) and look down their noses at everyone because they just aren’t “cultured,” and don’t appreciate refrigeration or hot showers like I did after drinking “heat-treated” milk that magically didn’t need refrigeration (and came amazingly packaged just like a juice box), or trying to wash my hair in freezing Kilimanjaro-water while trying my hardest not to get anything else wet, but it really is an amazing blessing of an opportunity that most people won’t get to have. And let’s face it, a large number of Americans are tricked into thinking that they can see the world through CNN and FOX, which is basically the same as deciding you don’t need to see a sunset over the Pacific because you’ve seen your electric stove things get all orange and hot when it’s switched on.
The fact is, I’d been told by my world that Africa was a continent with crazy monster-people that ate each other and bugs and were always fighting each other for any vast number of reasons, and I was shocked beyond belief when I landed at the Nairobi airport and I saw no scary men with machine guns, but was greeted with kindness and love that I’d only expect from the closest friends. (Weeks later I did find machine guns, but I was bringing tea to/taking pictures with the very un-scary policemen who were holding them).
One stereotype I’d been subtley taught had crumbled before my eyes, thus rattling the foundations of all the others I’d heard my whole life, and I was dying to explore them.
Two summers later, before my senior year of college, I had planned to go back to Africa, but the trip sort of fell through. Around that time I’d heard lots of people saying all kinds of crazy stuff about the Middle East and how everyone there wants to kill me and everyone else here in America. I got pretty defensive and shocked a bunch of people when I told them that I’d just have to go and see what’s going on over there and report back. I got so into it that I actually booked a flight with a bunch of earnestly-collected frequent flier miles, and somehow even managed a begrudged blessing from my parents, who were feeling brave after watching their son go to Africa and make it out alive. Before I knew it I was mailing my passport to a Syrian Consulate in Houston, TX. You’d think that would be pretty official, but the number I called actually made its way to a gruff voice muttering “Hello?” I was shocked, but I mailed my passport to him, and it came back with a stamp on it with Arabic writing, and I thought that was pretty neat. I planned tentatively to hit up Syria, Jordan, Israel, West Bank, and Egypt. Oh, I forgot to mention that I couldn’t really find anybody equally excited about this month-long adventure/quest/thing, and decided that I’d go by myself. My friends and family were positive I was marching off to my death, and I’d started growing a beard.
All I knew was that I had a backpack with a few pairs of clothes, tennis shoes, sandals, sleeping bag, one of those “secret” fanny-packs that you wear under your pants so no bad guys can take your passport, and a tiny guitar that could strap to the side of the backpack. It even fit in an overhead compartment! As I sat in the Dallas airport, loneliness crept in. I noticed a mass of high school kids in matching shirts, and I knew by my Baptist upbringing that it could be nothing other than a mission trip. Their shirts informed me they were from a local mega-church, and after talking to a few of them I learned we had a mutual friend. The loneliness subsided, we talked and talked, and we boarded the plane headed for Amsterdam.
I ended up only an aisle away from the kids I’d been talking to, which was amazing considering there were at least a hundred of them…the plane even gave them a shout-out upon takeoff and landing. We talked a lot about music and the suburbs, and they expressed the usual terror regarding my solo journey, complete with dismal “we’ll be praying for you.” This is when I got out my Trader Joe’s chocolate covered almonds, and offered them around. I even asked the guy sitting behind me, who was wearing a full military uniform and hadn’t made the slightest sound. He was shocked, and I repeated myself “Do you want some of these chocolate covered almonds?” Timidly, he agreed, and he told me that he was going to Germany, then to Afghanistan. I decided to ask him for advice for my trip, and he gave me a stern, ghostly command to “Always have a point of contact.” I emphatically agreed…then asked him what he meant. “Always be sure someone knows where you’re going, how you’re getting there, and never take the same way twice,” he urged, “make sure you carefully map the paths you take, and gather intel on dangerous places around you.” I nodded and agreed, while my brain flopped around inside my head as I realized there was no way I was prepared to do any of that. I was truly marching off to my death. I would never survive in this dangerous part of the world called the Middle East. I nervously ate my chocolate almonds and turned on a movie. Before I knew it I had decided on a pretty neat-looking movie called Taken. Ironically, the whole premise of this movie is a girl who goes to Europe, gets kidnapped, addicted to drugs, and amazingly is saved by her warrior-father from being a sex-slave. Really great movie choice. This sparked lots of thoughts. “I don’t think I want to be a sex slave” “Isn’t Europe safer than the Middle East?” “I’m going to get kidnapped within 5 minutes of my plane landing” “At least I have a beard?” It was very comforting. We landed in Amsterdam, said my goodbye’s to the mission trip kids and the scary military guy, and I got on another plane to Rome.



  1. Robert, I really enjoyed reading this. I hope you will continue the story! It lets me have a deeper insight than we would normally discuss. I love you and am so proud of you!

  2. What happened to Middle East Adventures, Pt. 2?!