No matter how far and wide and often you may have gone to see the many wonders of this earth, there is nothing as valuable as the knowledge and wisdom you will acquire as a pilgrim.
There was much to look forward to on my second trip to Egypt and Jordan, and my third to Israel.
Best described as an experiential pilgrimage, the 18-day trip was a meticulously planned tour of the Holy Land, in which one had to be primed for 6 a.m. wake-up calls, 7 a.m. breakfasts, 8 a.m. bible study and contemplation, and prompt departure at 9 a.m. for the day’s tour.
Spirituality amid political unrest
Each time we boarded our bus, we were well-nourished with the significance of the day ahead, and secure in the unity of our team, spiritual siblings who never complained about the length of each day and remained attentive to a higher call.
The constant reminders of our spiritual head, pastor Dr. Peter Tan-Chi of the Christ’s Commission Fellowship, and his gracious wife, Deonna Tan-Chi, through their words and their inspiring Christian ways, certainly helped keep us focused on the higher purpose of the trip: to immerse ourselves in the historical evidence from archeological discoveries that prove that the Bible and its contents are accurate and verifiable.
Our second full day in Egypt took us on a morning tour of the Great Pyramids of Giza, the only one among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that has remained largely intact.
In the afternoon, we traveled south to the Sinai Peninsula, following the path taken by the Israelites to the Promised Land, Canaan.
Our tribe of 13, led by Dr. Hayden Kho and his wife Dr. Vicki Belo, was assigned to the blue bus, one of the five tourist buses available for us. This was part of the four- to five-star accommodations of our trip.
To our small group, it could have easily been another pampered tour, except that we had a security detail from the Egyptian military, a stark reminder that we were in the Sinai Peninsula, a buffer zone since 1979, which all our buses now had to cross by 4 p.m. to be in our hotel before dark.
The area has been a hotspot for transnational crime and Islamic militancy since 2011, when President Hosni Mubarak’s government was toppled. As a result, the largely Bedouin population in the region, perceived to have sided with Israel, lives in poverty and political alienation.
Retracing Exodus 19-20
The Bible guides us through the journey which Moses led the Israelites on:
“In the third month after the Israelites left Egypt—on that very day—they came to the Desert of Sinai. After they set out from Rephidim, they entered the Desert of Sinai, and Israel camped there in the desert in front of the mountain.” (Exodus 19: 1-2)
“The Lord descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the Mountain. So Moses went up.” (Exodus 19:20)
Moses departed to the peak of Mount Sinai and stayed there for 40 days and nights as he received the 10 Commandments.
The focal point and purpose of our Sinai adventure was to gain personal insights into the story of the Passover and the Exodus from Egypt. Thus I focus on the most unparalleled experience of this journey: the trek up the mountain where Moses received the 10 Commandments from God.
To reach the summit is the only reason to climb a mountain, or why would that peak seem so beguilingly near the heavens?
I have climbed three mountains, camping for three days, scaling 13 waterfalls and rappelling the final 150-foot one.
But that was 15 years ago. I now have an ailing back, having had a medical procedure done two years ago. I knew it would take more than my usual determination to tackle this.
We were not told what to expect in scaling Mount Sinai. That was a wise move, because had I known, I would not have done it. The only hint of impending hardship was—surprise, surprise—the best hotel in the area, a two-star hostel with a large pool. And we were only informed of this as we approached the foot of Mount Sinai.
Exhausted after a seven-hour drive on our second day and having just toured the Great Pyramids of Giza the whole morning, we were ready to hit any sack, even one made of stone!
But, alas, Khaled Osman, our guide, informed us that call time to the bus was 11.30 p.m., which meant we had an hour for dinner, an hour to shower and pack our gear, and two hours to take a nap.
Since I have experienced mountain climbing, my gear consisted of a good pair of track sneakers, a knitted cap, trekking trousers, a walking stick, and four layers of shirts and vests, topped with a jacket with multiple pockets that contained $60, mobile phone, two analgesic tablets, toilet paper, eyeglasses, flashlight, a bottle of water and lipstick—the latter to ensure that I would still look good for the mandatory pictures when we reached the peak!
Quite significantly, our arrival at the police checkpoint in South Sinai was on the second anniversary of the Islamic attack that killed several policemen and injured some others. The brutality of this event, juxtaposed with the blessed history of the mountain we were seeking to climb, added to our adventure.
We began our first kilometer walk to the Monastery of St. Catherine, the site where Moses was supposed to have seen the burning bush.
I had high hopes for the monastery, where Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, had a chapel built, and where the largest collection of antiquities from the 11th to the 14th century is housed. The site is the world’s oldest working Christian monastery, built between 548 and 565 AD, and is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Alas, it was past midnight and the place was closed, so we proceeded to the mountain’s first camel station.
I joined Hayden, Tatler editor Anton San Diego, Lingling King, and the Tantocos—Donnie, Crickette and Nicole—on the camel ride for a one-way fee of $25 per person.
Carol Garcia, Vince and Rhoda Aldanese, and lawyer Karen Jimeno were the brave souls who went on foot. By 1 a.m., 230 Filipinos were ascending Mount Sinai on a moonless night, in chilly 10°C temperature.
The cold, quiet night was replete with fearful moments as I looked down at the precipice and fought to keep my balance. There were also many moments of peace and silence, when I looked up at the stars and meditated in prayer for my family’s safety, for my own health and for strength to reach the peak.
At one point it was both bizarre and calming to hear voices speaking in Tagalog, from another group that was returning from its sunset climb. That passing encounter and my camel provided two welcome moments of levity.
My beast of burden was named Michael Jackson, and I half wished he would break away from the steady cadence of his padded footsteps and switch to the moonwalk, without threat to my safety while I was perched on his back.
I reached camel station no. 2 after two hours. I jumped off my kneeling camel, bought a mug of tea and rejoined the rest of the camel riders from my bus. We were about 1.5 hours ahead of our friends who climbed on foot.
The next stage was to climb 750 steps to the peak, a feat that I thought would take just another 15 minutes. With the help of a Bedouin guide I was avoiding at first, I instead climbed an extremely challenging path over uneven boulders, resting every 10 steps. I felt that, with the $15 that Achmed was charging me for the ascent, he should be carrying me on his back!
Thank God for Lingling, Anton and Hayden, who joined me in that excruciating climb to the peak of Mount Sinai, where we felt God’s Hand at work all of the way.
At one point, Anton suddenly had an asthma attack. By voice relay, those climbing ahead asked if anyone had a Ventolin inhaler, and a lady from another bus sent one down to where we were.
Hymns of praise
I thought I would collapse before I reached the top. But, with Achmed leading me by the arm, I finally reached the peak after two hours. At that point I could barely take another step and my fingers could hardly open the cap of my water bottle for a badly needed sip. But then I could hear the beautiful voices of Ugandan priests who walked past my camel earlier, singing hymns of praise while their leader said Mass just outside the Catholic chapel.
It was still dark when we reached the peak and while we waited for the first crack of dawn, about a hundred of us sang our favorite song, “Amazing Grace.” I could feel moments of calm and the love in the air while thanking the Lord for the patience and determination to reach the top.
As the first light began to illuminate the earth, I reflected on how, when I wake up each morning, I face a mountain of obstacles, whether it be my health, a troubled relationship or work-related challenges.
Knowing now how difficult Moses’ ascent on foot had been on an unchartered path while a hopeful people waited for him down below, I realized how appropriate it is never to be stymied by the size of the mountain, and instead to know and understand that my God is much bigger than any mountain. It was an exhilarating moment that stayed with me for the rest of my journey.
After numerous photo ops while waiting for the rest of our tribe to reach the peak, we headed back.
With another $15 to motivate him, Achmed happily led me down the 750-step path of boulders. I chose to walk down instead of taking the camel because of the toll it would take on my back. However, it was just as difficult, because as the sun was rising, the heat bore down on me.
Achmed asked me to buy him water and chocolate for energy when I left him at the second camel station, so I was left without a cent to buy water for myself and to take a taxi to the bus.
I must have slipped five times during the descent, blessed not to have sprained my ankle in the process. And because I was too slow, my faithful tribe left me without knowing they did!
On my third slip, I met up with young Samaritans from the red bus who were traveling with their family. Physically exhausted and in pain, I was almost bodily carried for the next hour and a half to our waiting bus, by Alia Lao and her cousin Mark Cheng, while their family trudged along behind us. They fed me until we reached our hotel.
Ascending and descending Mount Sinai is a most remarkable metaphor for life.
We all live our lives taking frequent chances, not knowing the outcome of our actions nor what really lies ahead. Unforeseen bends that can throw us off course are plenty, but we simply must forge on in faith.
At no other time was this more real than when we climbed that formidable mountain in the dark. As in life, we could fall, but we need to rise again. Even on a camel, I knew I may not be spared that scary possibility. But the only choice was to journey on.
Faith is anchored on truth. In near-freezing surroundings and enveloped by a dark night, one is strengthened by learning to trust God’s process, and that the journey ahead is the right path.
But it takes a community to reach a goal. I could never have done it alone. Whether it’s business, family or spirituality, one needs the inspiring company of people for mutual encouragement and help. Your trusted friends may not be around to assist or be assisted. Yet, as real as daybreak itself, their absence will be filled by new and sustaining friendships along the way.
God’s direct hand in the lives of the Israelites was most evident in this place. No matter that our classic vision of Him has always been influenced by the Hollywood movie starring a man of godly looks and fearless leadership; there was much fear and doubt on the Israelites’ journey into the unknown. But with God’s promise to Abraham, those who chose to be led by faith made it to the land of milk and honey.
The climb was insufferable but significant. The trek down, marked by more excruciating human pain, seemed interminable. From start to finish, the memory of the experience will never leave me. I climbed with both human trepidation and uncontainable excitement, and in the end felt nothing short of edified.
The historical and spiritual significance of my surroundings on Mount Sinai will never leave me; I was humbled yet sanctified by a newly reinforced knowledge of the love of God.
Now back home, I continue to relish these realizations, and to draw strength from them. Mount Sinai does change you.
Oh, but I will miss that camel Michael Jackson. He was my faithful foothold on the rough and treacherous precipices that dotted that difficult mountain. I will even remember Achmed fondly—he who didn’t care how scared and hungry I was, as long as he himself was fed.
We each travel a different journey on the same road called Life. But at the end of that road, how nice it is to realize how loved and special we are to our Great Provider. –CONTRIBUTED