Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Home again, home again, jiggity jig...

When I finally got home from 24 hours of traveling, this sign greeted me:

It made me smile. I really missed Ryan.

To celebrate his being done with the Boards and my returning from Israel, we went out to dinner. I have been sweaty, greasy, and disgusting for the past 10 days, so I wanted to get all dressed up. Ryan wore his new birthday outfit from his mom (isn't he HOT?), and I wore my new skirt from Jerusalem.

A better view of the skirt, which I got in the Arab section of the Old City...I love it.

I miss Jerusalem and my dad, but it feels good to be home with Ryan again. I am headed out for another international adventure Thursday morning--but at least Ry will be with me for this one! We are returning to El Salvador for a week to see the kids at the orphanage and for Ryan to help at a dental clinic in the city. We can't wait!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Sacred Ground

My favorite day of the Israel tour had the most spiritual emphasis: We retraced the final day of Jesus's life and learned about the events leading up to His crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. Since Jesus lived about 2,000 years ago, it's hard to verify exactly where these events occurred (and there has been religious controversy about holy places over the centuries), but archeologists, historians, and religious leaders look at evidence and do their best to identify possible locations. It was all very fascinating.

We started the day at an upper room in Jerusalem similar to the one in which Jesus and his disciples had their Last Supper. While sitting in that upper room, our guide told us about the Jewish Passover, and it was very interesting to see how Christ did not destroy Jewish traditions, but instead revised and explained them. For example, they already had a tradition of breaking bread and drinking wine with Passover dinner; Jesus just further explained its symbolic significance as His body and blood.

After the upper room, we went to a beautiful, secluded “Prayer Garden” on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem, and read about/discussed the suffering of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. We also saw a church that some Christians believe is near the place where the Atonement occurred.

After Gethsemane, we went to Caiphus’s Palace (which is now a lovely Catholic church) and discussed Jewish law vs. Roman law and how the chief priests of Christ’s time did not follow Jewish law in His trial.

Finally, we did a little of the “Villa Delarosa” (or final walk of Christ) from the remains of the Antonia Fortress (where he was condemned by Pilate) to Golgotha and the Garden Tomb. We went to a church in the Old City of Jerusalem called the Church of the Holy Sepulcher that has been traditionally identified as the site of Christ’s crucifixion, burial, and Resurrection.

We also went to a different area just outside the city walls which many religious groups and archeologists believe is actually the place where those final, sacred events of Christ's life occurred. It was so so so lovely there--the highlight of the trip. I have to say, for me, the most spiritual moment of the entire tour was the moment that I first saw the Garden Tomb. The guide was giving his speech, and all of the sudden, he said, “And when they found a tomb that dates back to 1st century A.D....”and motioned with his arm. I glanced over---and there it was. Just like that. I felt like I lost my breath for a second, and all I could think was, “He was here.” I felt humbled and amazed and sure...all at once.

Seeing the physical evidences of Christ and His work during the past week has immensely changed and strengthened my belief in Him.

Thanks, Dad, for such a life-changing experience!

Underground Terror!

On our last full day in Jerusalem, we decided to go to Hezekiah's tunnels in the ruins of the City of David. We read in the guidebook that this ancient water system was chiseled out of solid rock around 700 B.C. to channel fresh water into the city. Today, although water still flows through the channels, it is part of a national park and open for tourists to walk through. I pictured some fairly wide, well-lit tunnels with emergency exits every 100 ft or so. (That's how it would be in the States at a national park.) What we found instead looked something like this:

You have to keep in mind that it was pitch black (the only reason you can see anything in the photo is because of the flash on my camera), and the tunnels continue for almost a mile without a single emergency exit.


Before we entered the tunnels, some of the ladies got scared and decided not to go. I, of course, was too proud to admit that I am somewhat claustrophobic, and I decided, "How bad could it really be?" This was not a wise decision. After walking in these tunnels for about 15 minutes, the traffic got stopped up in front of us, and all of the sudden, I was stacked in a tiny tunnel with about a dozen people in front of me and a dozen people behind way out.

I think I almost had a panic attack. Someone said, "Don't'll only be about 45 minutes more."

This did not help. Can you imagine walking for an hour in pitch darkness in a tiny, underground rock tunnel with no emergency exit? I tried to make a joke out of my fear when I posed for this photo, but I truly was terrified.

Before we had entered the tunnels, Oren (who is 70) said to me, "Now Rachel, if I start to cry in there, just give me a big hug!" In the end, it was me who needed the hug!

Cutie Oren in water almost up to his waist.

Note to self: If you are ever in Jerusalem again, skip the claustrophobic underground tunnels!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Daily essentials for Jerusalem in July...

1. Ice cream bars.
I don't know if you can tell from the small photo, but I am extremely sweaty and motley all the time here...and I am more than a little bit delighted by the ice cream bar melting in my hands. In the States, I don't even really like ice cream bars that much...but here, I am OBSESSED.

One of my favorite friends on the trip, Suzanne, is equally in love with the ice cream bars. She and I eat several every day!

2. An umbrella.

This is a candid photo I took of my dad while we were listening to our guide at all hilltop overlooking Bethlehem. This is a very peaceful and spiritual place...but MAN is it hot!

3. A hotel swimming pool

Isn't this beautiful?? Unfortunately, the pool closes at 6:00, which is about the time we get back from touring every day, so I've only been able to go swimming once. But it sure was a great way to end the day!

Speaking of hot...check out this young Israeli soldier. (Sorry, Ry!) I don't know if it's the uniform or the automatic weapon, but these young army guys are CU-TE!

And you may think it's only the guys toting the machine guns--but check out these young girls exchanging gossip over large piles of automatic weapons:

YIKES! (Every young person serves in the Israeli armed forces for two years after high school...crazy, huh?)

Today was our last full day, and we are exhausted but's been a fabulous experience. I've learned so much and have so so so much to write about...but it's almost midnight, and I've been in the heat all day, so I'm ready for bed!

Stay tuned...

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Adventures in Jerusalem

We’ve had several more enlightening, exciting, and scorching days in Israel.

Yesterday started with a tour of the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine in the Old City of Jerusalem. Muslims believe that this was the site of Muhammad's ascension into heaven. Interestingly, this holy site of Islam sits on the Temple Mount, an area where the Jewish temple used to stand before its destruction in 70 A.D.

As we entered the Temple Mount area, we were approached by a guard who inspected our group for admittance. Suddenly and unexpectedly, he pointed at me, my dad, and our friend Suzanne and rattled off some angry-sounding Hebrew words. He was motioning to his arms and knees and looking upset. (Let me add that having an angry Arab man talking about me was not the most comfortable feeling I’ve had in my life.) The guide then translated and told us that the guard thought that we were dressed immodestly.


My dad and I looked at each other in disbelief. I mean, yeah, we all know that my dad wears some pretty short and somewhat disturbing running shorts...but that is only when he is running. Yesterday, he was wearing knee-length khaki shorts and a polo. And I was hardly a sexy Marilyn Monroe...I was wearing a frumpy, Old Navy t-shirt and a knee-length skirt. To make matters even more confusing, everyone in our group was dressed exactly like us! Almost all of the men (including the guide) were wearing long shorts, and the women were all wearing short-sleeved shirts. (Remember, it's over 100 degrees!)

Well, for some reason, us Westovers were on the guard’s immodesty radar, and he escorted us to a stall where we could purchase (at extremely overpriced rates) some coverings for our provocative arms and legs:

I must say, if the guard was trying to prevent us from looking sexy, he should not have recommended that shawl for my dad. Dad looks even better in a man-sarong than he does in shorts! (Just wait until I tell Deborah!) In fact, I was so taken with his new look that I insisted he pose for a couple of glamour shots. This is what he came up with:

After the tour, our group members were all chuckling about the fact that we got targeted for being immodest when they were dressed exactly like us. One of the ladies said, “Well, I guess this means that Rachel and Suzanne have the sexiest arms of all of us. I mean, maybe the guard looked at them, and those arms were just too much for him.”

Since I have been somewhat concerned lately about my ever-floppier “church chorister” arms, I was quite pleased with that explanation! :)

The whole event was just fun and funny...and we didn’t mind. We were happy to comply in order to be respectful to another religion. (Our guide insists that we were dressed appropriately and that he’s never seen a guard be so picky. Maybe the man selling shawls was the guard’s brother?)

Anyway, one thing that our guide told us before we entered the Dome of the Rock area was that men and women are not allowed to touch each other on the temple grounds. Well, part-way through our tour, I heard Penny Parrot, the southern 62-year-old lady in our group who I absolutely adore, suddenly shriek out, “Don’t touch me!!” I turned briskly in concern--hoping she was not being accosted by a pickpocket or other such villain. It was a relief to see that she was not fleeing from an unsavory character but was instead shrinking away from her husband, who had temporarily forgotten the rule and had tried to put his arm around her. After her harsh rebuff, he looked a little shocked and then said in his darling accent, “Oh, but honey, I just love you so...I don’t know what to do when I can’t touch you.” It was the absolute cutest thing I have ever witnessed. I hope Ryan and I are so in love after 43 years of marriage!

Here I am with Penny and Oren Parrott, two of my favorite new friends:

The tour of the Dome of the Rock was very very interesting, and then today, we went to experience a little of the Jewish religion at the Western Wall. (This area is known as the Wailing Wall to outsiders, but that is considered somewhat offensive to Jews.) It was Bar-mitzvah day, and it was incredibly fascinating to watch the young boys engaging in their religious traditions--reading the Torah with their fathers, binding the phylacteries to their heads, and singing the ancient Hebrew songs.

I’m overwhelmed by the pervasiveness of religion in this country. It is extremely touching how three major religions (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity) all have sacred roots in this place, and so many people worship so devoutly here, every day of their lives. I aspire to be like these people--who are humble, faithful, and fiercely committed to what they believe.

I know most of my blog posts are lighthearted and funny, but--hot weather, Dedos, and man-sarongs aside--the most meaningful aspect of this trip for me has definitely been growing spiritually and personally. With that in mind, I thought I’d end with something a bit more serious. I’m not one to get church-y on a blog, so I hope you don’t mind me sharing something I thought about the other day as we rode across the choppy water of the Sea of Galilee.

Several accounts in the New Testament recount Jesus walking across this same body of water to reach his frightened apostles in the midst of a storm. In Mark 6:47-51, it says: “And when evening was come, the ship [of the disciples] was in the midst of the sea, and [Jesus] was alone on the land. And he saw them toiling in rowing; for the wind was contrary unto them: and about the fourth watch of the night he cometh unto them, walking upon the sea...He talked with them, and saith unto them, ‘Be of good cheer: it is I; be not afraid.’ And he went up unto them into the ship; and the wind ceased...”

It’s so interesting to me that Jesus stood on the shore watching the disciples struggling and toiling before he intervened and calmed the storm. He was there all along, watching over them, but they didn’t know it. This has so many parallels to my life experiences. Christ doesn’t always immediately calm my storms, just because I want Him to. He often waits until the “fourth watch,” meaning that I often have to struggle and toil for a long time before He lightens my burdens. Nevertheless, He is always there, “on the shoreline,” watching over and protecting me in the midst of my storms.

This afternoon, we had the opportunity to go to a hillside above Bethlehem and read the stories from the Old and New Testament that occurred there. As I sat on that peaceful hill, I contemplated my own faith and the way that this trip has deeply impacted my convictions. I am grateful I’ve had the opportunity to come here...heat or not! feel of the spirit of Israel.

It’s been an awesome experience.

Overlooking the city of Bethlehem

Monday, July 20, 2009

Holy Hot Land

Here we are in the HOT Holy Land. Yes, indeed, it is hot. Yesterday, we journeyed to the Judean desert next to the Dead Sea, and it was about 115 degrees. Today, we visited the area around the Sea of Galilee, and I was sure it would be much cooler. I was wrong. It must’ve been at least 100 degrees with sweltering, heavy winds. I must admit, I am not thrilled about the weather. Luckily, there are plenty of other things to be thrilled about:

1. Delicious homemade every meal

2. Unusual outings such as floating in the Dead Sea

It was salty, nasty, and desolate--but still pretty cool to float in. I guess the water is so salty and full of minerals that if you swallow it, your throat will swell shut and you could die. Unwilling to risk such an unpleasant demise, I kept my mouth shut tight...except for an occasional smile to my dad who was onshore with the camera. (He was a wimp and only stayed in the water for about a minute.)

3. Spiritually uplifting outings such as wading in the headwaters of the River Jordan, boating on the Sea of Galilee, and reading scriptures on the Mount of the Beatitudes

It has been an incredible experience to actually see the places where Christ lived, taught, and walked. It has made the scriptures much more “real” in a lot of ways, now that I can picture where and how the events took place. Our guide is a Jewish Mormon, and with his insights on Jewish religious traditions, stories in the Bible take on new, deeper meaning. Plus, he’s able to explain how Christianity “fulfilled” Judaism (Matt. 5:17) and how the two are much more closely connected than I had ever previously thought.

Headwaters of the Jordan River

"The tempest is raging" on the Sea of Galilee...
not really, but it was pretty windy and choppy on our boat ride and, thus, we look less than stellar.

Mount of the Beatitudes--a lovely garden and Catholic church
overlooking the Sea of Galilee commemorate the spot

4. Spending time with my goofy Dad

We ate a fish at lunch today called St. Peter’s fish, which is only found in the Sea of Galilee. It’s name refers to a verse in the New Testament (Matt. 17:27) in which Jesus instructed Peter to catch a fish and then look in its mouth to find the shekel that they needed to pay the temple tax. At the restaurant, some people were served fishes that actually had shekels stuck in their mouths. Dad wasn’t so lucky, but he still seemed pretty excited about his smiling fish friend. SICK. I opted for chicken.

5. Quirky people in our tour group

The beauty of tour groups, in my opinion, is that you get to meet interesting, nutty people from all over the country. We have a really fun group of 12 wonderful people, and many of them just crack me up. I love the Parrotts, an older couple from Georgia that are cute as can be. (The husband is always calling his wife “my love” or “my dear.”) I also quite enjoy Mary, a daffy middle-aged mom who reminds me of my crazy aunt Merlene because she is always shouting out in excitement, telling animated stories, and getting the gossip on everyone’s lives. And my favorite pair of all is...THE DEDOS.

Dedo, in my family, is a code word for “delightful dork.” If you have ever heard us call you a “dedo,” do not be the Westover family, “dedos” are held in the highest regard, and we mean it as nothing but a compliment. A dedo is someone who is delightfully unaffected by social expectations--and just goes around making the world a happier place for all of us.

We have two such people on our tour--and they are brothers. One just graduated from college, and the other just graduated from high school. From the beginning, we suspected that they might be dedos, but this suspicion was confirmed on Sunday morning when the older brother emerged for the day clothes. You may be wondering, “What’s the big deal? Church clothes on Sunday...that doesn’t seem too out-of-the-ordinary.” Well, you have to remember that, in Israel, the Sabbath is on Saturday. So most people, even some Christian congregations, go to church on Saturday because Sunday is the first day of the work week. Dedo #1 (can’t reveal names in case he’s someone’s cousin) knew this, but he declared that he just “could not feel comfortable wearing normal clothes on a Sunday.” My dad and I looked at each other and grinned.

Well, it got better: Sunday’s journey was to a ruin on a plateau in the middle of the Judean desert..and, as I mentioned, it was 115 degrees. So there was this poor fellow, hiking through the dusty ruins wearing his black church pants, polished black shoes, and white collared shirt. He must have been melting!

Can you imagine church clothes in this terrain??

Then, when we went to the Dead Sea, he slung his church pants and collared shirt over his arm and tromped down to the shore wearing his swim trunks...and his black church shoes! Again, my dad and I couldn’t help but grin

I absolutely love people like this. DE-LIGHT-FUL. Doing what they think is right...and they don’t care what other people think.

As you can tell, we are having a great time, learning a lot, and having a few good chuckles.

Moral of the story: DO come to Israel, but DO NOT come in July! :)

Stay tuned...more to come...and perhaps some scriptural insights, not just fun stories...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Rachel's journey to the Holy Land

A few months ago, my dad called and asked me an unexpected question: "Do you want to go to Israel with me this summer?"

It took me -.5 seconds to reply, "Hmm, let me think about this---YES."

My dad has always wanted to travel to the Holy Land and do a religious tour based around the life of Jesus Christ, but since my mom passed away, he hasn't had anyone to go with. Well, I happily agreed to be his lucky traveling companion for this adventure. (My sisters have both had international daddy-daughter trips while they were in college, so they don't get to come on this one! Sorry, girls!)

So, Dad and I are heading to Israel tomorrow. To quote my favorite SNL skit ever, "I'm excited and a little scared." (Thanks, Brian Fellows!) I'm very excited to bond with my dad while learning about the life of the Savior, but I am a little nervous to be in such a foreign place, so far from Ryan (who will be stuck in Buffalo studying for the Boards), during a time of some international upheaval. But hey, I'll have my dad with me...surely, he'll protect me, right?

I am hoping to post frequently throughout my trip--photos and stories--so stay tuned!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Fun and games in the Buff...

Ryan's mom and sister came into town last week. As you can tell from the photo, we had fun. (As you can also tell from the photo, Ashley is a former cheerleader, Ryan is a good basketball player, and I am...well...uncoordinated. I am a pathetic two inches off the ground.)

We went to Palmyra for a spiritual uplift. The church historical sights were crowded and therefore not quite as peaceful as usual; but the Hill Cumorah pageant was awesome. I was amazed by the special effects!

We also ventured into Canada for a day of shopping and fun in Niagara-on-the-Lake. We got in trouble for taking this photo in a hat shop. We didn't notice the 100 signs all over the store that say "no photos." Oops.

Ashley and Ryan were also quite excited to see Lake Ontario.

In fact, they were so excited that they just had to jump for joy again. (I, however, chose not to embarrass myself with a repeat performance of my uninspiring leap.)


"Miss Ashley" (who is a fabulous cook) hosted the Cookie Club one afternoon. She helped the kids make caramel chocolate cookies, and I have to admit, they might be the yummiest cookies those kiddos have ever had at the Nielson's apartment. (I've been shown up!)

A highlight of the trip was the "cookout" with Deborah's family. Deb's mom, Patricia, was so excited to meet Sally and Ashley. When I called her a few days before their arrival to make final plans for the BBQ, she asked if we could come a little early to help her set up and grill the food.

"Sure!" I responded. "What time would you like us to be there?"

"How about 11:00?"

"Sounds good!"

"And if you come at 11:00, I figure we can eat around 3:00."


What was I supposed to say to that?? I was speechless. (And that doesn't happen very often.)

So, long story short, we learned that a real Buffalo "cookout" is an entire day event with lots of stories and soul food. (We especially enjoyed the greens.:)) It was rainy, so we sat in the garage and ate and listened to rap music. We also played a rowdy game of Jenga. They are delightful.

Deborah lost this round but blamed me for distracting her.
She knocked the tower over just as I snapped this photo. :)

The moms did all of the grilling.
Check out that old school grill...the ribs were smoky and delicious.

Before we left, Patricia found out that Sally and Ash (or Janice and Gail as she kept calling them) have never tried a buffalo wing. She immediately insisted, "Well, you'll just have to come over tomorrow after church and I'll make you some!"

I wasn't sure if I could handle two full-day cookout events in a row...but (perhaps fortunately), we already had dinner plans for the following evening. So Ash and Sal will have to wait another year to try one of Patricia's famous wings. The Tilleys are so generous and welcoming. We love Buffalo.

Overall, it was a great week. Sally spoiled us, and it was a treat to have a mom and a sister around.

Thanks, Ash and Sal, for coming to hang out with us in the Buff!

Monday, July 6, 2009

What Ry's been up to...

Studying, studying, studying!
Board Exams on the 25th of July!
(At least he's still smiling!)

A few days ago, one of the neighbor boys rang the doorbell and asked Ryan, "Will you play with me?" (pronounced "Will you pway wif me"...the kid has a serious lisp.) could Ryan resist that? So, Ry set up a make-shift tennis court in our driveway, and he and the boys have been having a grand old time on his study breaks! This photo was taken from our upstairs window.