In previous blogs, I have always shared my experience as a lone backpacking independent traveller. Sure enough, that has always been my preferred way to explore our beautiful and historic planet during my bachelor days. Like that, any risk of bickering, disagreements, or missing out on a venue for another's preference, along with a lack of affordable time, were all avoided. Instead, I went wherever I wanted to go, and stayed at a venue as long as I decided, with no questions asked. As a result, I tended to be very approachable, friendly, and quite chatty to anyone I came across, and that especially in the member's kitchen at any backpacker's hostel. Of course, after I married Alex, much of that had changed. This includes acceptance of package trips where both single-venue travel itinerary and hotel accommodation were pre-arranged by the company in charge of the trip, whether it be Thomson's, Thomas Cook, or some other travel operator. The very sort of holiday I would have looked with disdain before I married. For example, our honeymoon was a package trip to a Greek destination with Thomson's, the first of such trips since a package trip to Spain with a college friend as far back as 1972.
But at least Alex and I did enjoy an independent backpacking trip to Israel in the year 2000, to celebrate our first wedding anniversary. And I rate this trip as backpacking because we spent our time together at three separate venues: The first at a hostel in Tiberias, a town on the western shore of Lake Galilee, the second venue at the Stella Carmel Christian Guest House at the small village of Isfiya, not far from Haifa, and the third at the New Swedish Hostel right in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem. And as with any independent trip, we made our own way to each of these hotels through means of public buses and taxis. However, there was one big mistake we have made with that particular trip, and that was in the timing of the decision to make the journey from Tiberias to Haifa. We chose, of all days, the eve of Rosh Hashanah, or New Year's Day for the Jews in Israel, when the entire nation shuts down - every shop, all public transport, all administrative services - making the whole land look as if every human being had vanished. So we were stuck in the deserted city of Haifa after the very last bus from Tiberias has pulled into the depot.
Furthermore, we couldn't see any Sheruts (shared taxi) to take us to Stella Carmel, and we were also strapped for cash, with just a few shekels in my pocket, having foolishly neglected to cash a Traveller's Cheque at a bank in Tiberias while we still had the chance. So although carrying a large book of cheques, we were basically penniless, and therefore we had little option but to attempt to walk from the city of Haifa to Stella Carmel, using the skyscraper of the University of Haifa as a guidepost. For I not only knew about the University but also its location, from the time I was a volunteer at Stella Carmel more than six years previously in 1994. But what I didn't realise was that Isfiya was just over twelve miles 20 km from Haifa Bus Station, and to add to the situation, not only did I have a heavy rucksack on my back, but there was a mountain to climb, Mount Carmel, a ridge of high ground 1,700 feet, 525 metres from sea level. And oh yes, Alex was 18 weeks pregnant with our first daughter.
So we climbed the mountainside, using a series of stairways which cuts through the rising suburbs of the city. Near the top, as we were about to arrive at the beautiful summit town of Karmelia, we turned and looked back at the fascinating panorama of the whole city, its large harbour functioning as the only commercial goods port for the whole country, and the rest of the coastline leading north to Accra, a medieval port a few miles further away. Strange, really. Only three years earlier, whilst still single, I had a vivid dream of standing at that very spot, with an unrecognisable female whom I did not know at the time. Was this the fulfilment of an apparently prophetic dream?
After passing through Karmelia, we found the main road to Isfiya, and for the first time we saw the upper floors of the University skyscraper - far, far away. Then I knew that I have severely underestimated the distance from one venue to the other. It would have taken several hours to arrive at our destination, as there was still a considerable distance between the University and the village of Isfiya. I could say that the tower block marks approximately halfway between where we were and the guest house, and it was soon to get dark. We walked a little further, the heavy rucksack bearing down on my shoulders. As we passed a residential area, we spotted a vacant roadside bench, and we both sat down. I covered my face with both of my hands, and it felt as if I was about to cry. As a seasoned traveller, how could I possibly have got both of us into such a disastrous situation? How could a wanting of a little pre-trip research make such a difference? (No Internet back then.) I confessed to Alex, sitting next to me, that I was unworthy to be called an experienced traveller. I felt desperate, not so much for my sake as I have handled similar situations in the past. Rather I was desperate for my beloved wife and her unborn.
Although at a residential area, a fence ran alongside the road, leaving no access to any of the nearby houses where I might have called for help. So we just sat there, remaining undecided what to do next - proceed with the walk which would have been too much for Alex as well as for myself, or spend the coming night here on the bench - and jeopardising Alex's safety as well as losing an already-paid night at the guest house?
After a short while, I saw a taxi halt directly in front of us on the other side of the dual carriageway, on its way to Haifa. The driver called out and asked if we were going anywhere. I shouted back that we are heading for Isfiya, but have hardly any money between us. The driver then shouted across to remain where we are, he'll be back. A couple of minutes later he arrived on our side of the road and beckoned us in. Again I told him that we had no money between us, only traveller's cheques, as we had forgotten to cash one of them whilst still in Tiberias.
"Never mind about that, please get in."
As we headed the right way, the driver wanted to know more about us. We told him that we are Christian backpackers out on a trip to celebrate our wedding anniversary, still two days away. He then reached for his wallet and pulled out a ten-shekel note.
"Please take it." The driver insisted.
When I told him that our final destination was Stella Carmel, we also felt that somehow he already knew.
"Aside from driving a taxi, I'm also a pastor of a Christian church in the city, and I was on my way there when I saw the two of you, and I felt God telling me to stop and tend to you."
It was a miracle! For I don't believe in mere coincidences, I knew there and then that the mercy of God had intervened. Of all vehicle drivers passing us to and fro along the busy carriageway, the one taxi driver who spotted us happened to be a church pastor, in tune with what God was telling him. The driver dropped us off by the front door of the guest house, and bidding us farewell, he drove off, leaving us to check-in at Reception, the very desk where I sat and administered six years earlier.
|Stella Carmel Guest House.|
And there are other hosteling trips I did overseas with other people - all of us young(ish) unmarried men. Four trips, if I remember, all between 1986 and 1989. The first two trips with four other mates, the third one with two of the same friends. And the fourth with just one from the group, making two of us on that particular trip. And the first two being actual cycling holidays across Holland, Belgium and Germany. And the fourth trip was also a (very testing) cycling holiday in France, over the hilly terrain of Normandy. This leaves just the third trip, without our bicycles, to Cologne in Germany, the three of us on a single-venue trip on the boat-train out from London to the English Channel crossing between Dover and Ostend in Belgium, and then by train on to Cologne. In all, by travelling with a group of friends, even independent from any operator, I have learned the meaning of fellowship and team co-operation through in-depth experiences which solo travel does not impart.
To travel as husband and wife is one thing, to travel in a small group so diverse is quite another. Between Alex and myself, there is that oneness of spirit which is unique only to married couples. My compulsion to protect my wife at an adverse situation was out of a special love reserved only for her, knowing that any harm coming to her would also hurt me badly as well, even if not physically. But among a group of young, unmarried men, we all had the instinctive ability to look after ourselves without the need for protection - at least not on the level as my wife needed while we were in Israel.
Instead, while I spoke tender words to my wife whilst at our travels, between us men there was a lot of harmless teasing, with the ability for each of us to laugh at ourselves. And that was the real core of fellowship - the ability to laugh at oneself. Because this allowed each one of us to crack jokes at one another without hurting the recipient, or to pierce his heart, with myself being an easy target for teasing! There was even one moment I thought I had lost my bunch of keys, all on a single keyring, or that I had left them behind at the hostel where we spent the previous night. So there I was in a panic, emptying my backpack on the ground, and while I was rifling nervously through the contents, one of my mates called out what was that lump bulging out one of my pockets. When I shoved my hand into the pocket, lo and behold, there were the keys! This particular incident has become the main source of laughter and endless teasing for years to come, believe me! But the secret of such joviality was to laugh with them.
But once on the road, we all cycled in harmony, often with myself leading. And there was one occasion when I was called at from behind to slow down because one of our group was struggling. So I slowed down for the rest of the leg of the journey. (And to right the balance, there was another occasion when I was struggling, and I had to call out to the rest to ease it a little.) But whatever we might have faced or experienced during these trips, there was that one single bond which held us all together, and that was our unity in Jesus Christ. Except for one, the rest of us all attended a church of our own choice, and our universal belief in the historicity of the Bible is the inspired Word of God. But the exception was an unbeliever who came with us on the first trip (replaced by another, a believer, on the second trip). Yet he knew what the rest of us believed in and had respect for our faith, and has enjoyed a deep friendship with us before marrying and moving away.
But also what I have found very intriguing about these trips, especially with our bicycles, is that there was no social class distinction among us. Our small group consisted of an accountant, a banker, an architectural assistant, a kitchen porter, and a domestic window cleaner (that is, me). None of us had upheld one job being greater or with a higher status than another. The unbeliever who accompanied us on the first trip also worked at an office desk. But there was not an iota of snobbery found among us. Such is the wonder of the power of the Holy Spirit in us.
|At Cologne, Germany, 1987|
Unity in Christ. The only power that can bring a bunch of men of such diverse opinions and such different ways of life to one of agreement among us. Like with my solo trips, we spent each night at a different hostel. But rather unlike hosteling as a lone individual where I tend to make conversation easily, in a group we tended to keep ourselves to ourselves, without giving any time to fellow hostellers. In a way that was a shame, because with Jesus Christ in us, I'm sure we could have offered something.
But the point in all this is, whether as a married couple or a group of unmarried young men, God takes delight in fellowship. As it is written,
How good it is when brothers live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron's beard, running down upon the collar of his robes.
It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.
For the LORD bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.
For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.
Love is the greatest force in the Universe, for God, its Creator who is Love.