When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.”So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt ready for battle.
Thus began the most arduous detour in the history of travel. Avoiding the busier, breezier Via Maris along the coastline, Moses led two million Israelites on a protracted, inter-generational journey through Sinai Peninsula, a tiny wedge of land between Africa and Asia on the map but an endless, barren desert on the road, much more on foot. It was a circuitous exodus to the Promised Land that took 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. Myth, history, or a bit of both, this tale of freedom from slavery and covenant with Yahweh defined the faith and identity of the Jewish people.
Halfway up, the Alpilles in Les Baux served up stunning views of Provence. The valley was a green canvas on which shingle-roofed towns and winding roads were drawn. All these were framed by pale towering rocks misshapen by wind and water through the eons. I thought it was heaven until I read the overlook marker:
Standing at one end of the Les Baux valley, the Val d’Enfer, or Vale of Hell, exhibits its white sandstone cliffs sculpted by the elements. It gets its name from Dante’s description of “Hell” in his “Divine Comedy,” which was inspired by this very place. The gaping holes of the quarries, which have worked from ancient times to this day, amplify the strangely tormented appearance of this mineral landscape, carved into so many fantastic shapes.
In my 50 years as a Filipino citizen, I never set foot in Malacañang Palace, the seat of power in the Philippines. As the office and official residence of Philippine presidents since a century ago, it never piqued my curiosity even as a historical site. A palace implied royalty; last time I checked, our form of government was never a monarchy. The opportunity came in the form of an invite from a colleague and docent-in-training. Her connections in the Presidential Museum secured our group a spot in their weekday guided tours.
…Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.
Mokattam Mountain in Cairo had been moved by mustard seed faith. Jesus may have meant His statement metaphorically – He spoke in parables after all – but the Copts took it literally. This mountain’s solid rock face had been heavily quarried, either for practical reasons or mystical qualities, to become building blocks of pyramids and temples. The miraculous geologic movement was not the only astounding aspect of this mountain. Mokattam stood over a city of trash. Coming from a developing country, our group was familiar with landfill slums, but we had not expected to find ourselves in the middle of one in Cairo.
Superstition had it that whatever you did on New Year’s Day predicted how the next 364 days would go. Nothing could be farther than the truth. The first day of 2020 was our last day in Taiwan and, as it turned out, on the road. Unbeknownst to us, a new coronavirus strain was starting to make the rounds in Wuhan, China. In just a couple of months, global travel would completely be paralyzed and then altered by the new normal.
She had WTF written all over her face. Then a suppressed smile lit her eyes. I could see her in my peripheral vision as she was observing Ki pressing his phone on the glass window to take videos of passing landscapes. The observed noticed the observer. She grinned at having been found out. This scene played out in all but one of our train rides around Morocco. Local commuters blind to their daily view were incredulous at a tourist’s child-like amazement. Travel writer Robert Louis Stevenson put it best: “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.”
The cultural heart of every Moroccan city beat in its ancienne medina (ancient city). That was why Ki and I dove head on into Tangier’s old quarter by booking a stay at a boutique B&B named Bayt Alice. Bayt, we later learned, was Arabic for house and, by extension, household. Alice, however, was a decidedly Western name. We could only surmise that this was a house owned by a foreign woman. How typical of Tangier, the African city closest to Europe, not only geographically but more so culturally.
This French folk song about dancing round and round on the bridge of Avignon had been fact-checked. The titular Pont Saint-Bénézet was deemed too narrow for such soirées. If anything, dancing would’ve taken place at the foot of the bridge. Our family dancercise sesh with the Zumbadoc, my Zumba instructor slash doctor brother, was not entirely out of place. He found a spot across a bed of lavender by Avignon’s famous bridge.
Myanmar was the place for an organic foodgasm. Processed Western food was hard to come by and fast food chains did not exist in Mandalay and Bagan. I lived on local cuisine of mainly fresh herbs and spices with some meat and fish thrown in. It was the healthiest diet I had ever maintained in consecutive days.
Leiden / Wijk bij Duurstede / Zaandam, the Netherlands
June 7 – 9, 2019
Wind and water defined the Netherlands. Both elements billowing from the North Sea had shaped the country’s geography and culture. Sea breeze could blow a gale. The sea itself could sink a third of the country, one of the Low Countries, that lay below sea level. But the Dutch in centuries past were a hardy bunch. They harnessed these elemental forces with windmill technology to power their survival and progress.
“Myanmarvelous!” A former student posted that comment on my ‘Gram shot in a pagoda. I wished I came up with that! Not only was it a cool portmanteau, it was the truth in a nutshell. Myanmar’s sights were typically spectacular, much of its centuries-old tangible heritage an architectural and engineering marvel. A long chauffeured drive to the countryside out of Mandalay proved just that.
Thousands of feet up on Royal Air Maroc, I could make out the tip of Morocco – of Africa, really – forming the lower lip of the Mediterranean’s mouth. That turned out to be Tangier’s coastline stretching from the Atlantic in the west through the Strait of Gibraltar toward Alboran Sea in the east. A day after our arrival at the sun-drenched, sea-kissed city, Ki and I were drawn to go beachcombing through five kilometers of its coast and newly-reinvigorated corniche.
That this engineering and architectural wonder was built almost 2,000 years ago was no mean feat in itself. That it had survived largely intact to this day was the jaw-dropper. Like many extant Roman edifices around the Mediterranean, Pont du Gard in Southern France had remained a well-preserved monument up to our time.
San Juan / Rosario / Pedro Garcia, Batangas, the Philippines
January 23, 2012
“Every road that leads me leads me back to you.” A song of grief got me with that line. There were trips I took with my mother, one of which was through Batangas in 2012. While travelers left their heart where their feet had taken them, I left mine with people in this road of life. I posted this Facebook throwback for my sister and late mother:
This photo was taken in 2012 during one of our road trips through Southern Tagalog. We stopped by the town of San Juan, Batangas mainly to see the church where Juday and Ryan wed. In Mom’s pace, we also explored blocks of grand old houses (some seemingly abandoned), kicked off our shoes at a quiet beach of powdery sand, and took in local culture at heritage restaurants adorned with all things old world: Cafeno (in photo) and Naranja Grill. I’ve never been back to San Juan (except at Cafeno), but I hope it remains as how Mom saw it 8 years ago.
Magnificent, towering, ancient. Such description could not apply to Protestant churches in my country. Grandiose church architecture was exclusively within the purview of Catholicism. As a Baptist, we traced our religious heritage to the American occupation a mere century ago. Our places of worship were modern and minimalist as Catholic cathedrals were massive and ornate. I was today years old when I saw the Gothic grandness of two Protestant churches dominating the skyline of Delft in South Holland.