Three weeks ago yesterday I woke up in Khartoum. For the first time since we have been in North Sudan, I woke up to cloudy skies. I had been sick the day before puking up something my body didn’t like. I was feeling better physically and mentally, because the sun that we see every day was hidden, giving us a moments rest from its oppressive heat. I went out to the living room to find Brian sitting on the couch. Before I could share with him my physical and mental relief, he said something to me. I don’t want to quote the words because I still don’t want them to be true. He told me through our friend Daniel on skype, that Nathan Junker is missing… missing in a lake…
The same lump in my throat that forms as I type this formed in that moment – A brutal reality that hits the soul like a canon ball, leaving the soul breathless. I ran to my computer, whispering prayers that Sam would be online… it’s midnight there… what are the chances that she will be… please, God, let her be. And there she was. The words we typed expressed very little, but what our souls screamed to each other over continents and oceans was loud and clear. Her husband, the father of her four children, missing. What my brain told me couldn’t be true was true and Nathan’s body was found the following day, though absent of that which had been reunited with his Master, his Lord, his Maker.
“Greater love has no man than this: that he would lay down his life for his friends.” Nathan Junker lived this way and died this way. He died to save another.
For the next 9 days I wandered through tombs of ancient kings who built structures and rooms to fill with everything they wanted to bring with them into the next life. The jewels and gold and food remained just as their bodies did. I wandered through these rooms, feeling something deep inside me, left from that canon ball of reality that hit my soul. As I wandered out of those tombs and back into our lives in Sudan, I heard the stories of the 9 days that Sam, her children and Nathan’s family went through. I heard about the reaction of families and communities as they processed Nathan’s life. And I heard about power – a power that I felt in and after that canon ball hit – and I started to hear that I was not the only one who felt it.
I feel as though something powerful happened to me when Nathan died. That the impact of the way he lived his life and the way he left this life made a mark in me and I know that others have felt it. It is something more moving than beauty of a carving, and more powerful than the grandeur of the pyramids – it is a deep and spiritual impact that in three weeks has only become stronger. It is the impact of a legacy of a profound and consistent life that challenges my own. It is the hope that there really is more in and beyond this life.
I feel as though, from half a world away, Nathan’s life – the way he lived and left it – has impacted me and changed me.
I am frustrated as I type these words because they are trite and small compared to reality of what I have felt, but I was compelled to try to express it. Of course the ones my heart grieves for is the family. Please continue to pray for Sam and their 4 children; Lauren, Alex, Journey and Lincoln. The impact and change in their lives goes beyond anything I can comprehend. But as Nathan did, and as I know they do, I believe in a big God who can and will take care of them. Please click on this link to find out how to contribute to a trust fund set up for the family.
I am just over 72 hours back in Sudan and every minute that ticks by gives me a further distance to look back on the past 9 days. This distance has made our time in Egypt even more dream-like than it was experiencing it in real life… but the fact that it feels more dream-like is an extraordinary thing, because from our first moments in Egypt I felt that we were floating through a different world… a dream even.
Our first two days were spent on the banks of the Nile in the town of Lukor. Luxor is a green, quaint town filled
with horse-drawn carriages and corner shops selling Palestinian scarves, glass pyramids and magnets of Tutankhamen. Driving these carriages and working in these shops are some of the most skilled salesmen and panhandlers I have ever encountered. Almost every step we took in Luxor came with a different voice hollering at us to buy something or ride in something else – boat, taxi, carriage, etc. We discovered that we had a great diffuser to these hecklers – our little Sudanese Arabic. We responded to them in Arabic and what started as a yelling match of “BUY THIS!” “I DON’T WANT THAT!”, turned into a friendly exchange among neighbors. Luxor is the home of two major temples and the area once was the capital of the Egyptian Empire. We wandered through temples and tombs, our necks aching from looking up at the grandeur of columns and pillars with carvings and paintings with our mouths gaping wide.
My favorite moment in Luxor was at the HUGE Temple of Karnak. I was wandering through the temple with massive pillars all around me. The afternoon call to prayer started to ring out nearby and before I realized what I was doing, I sat down in the middle of the temple. I listened to the call to prayer and looked at intricate carvings and paintings in honor of a gods the Egyptians worshipped. I listened to the strong voice of the man calling his fellow believers to bow down and worship Allah and something happened. It was more of an experience than a thought… In that ancient temple, listening to that call to prayer I experienced something about Belief. Little people, making big things because of belief. Little people doing big things because of belief… And it all points to something and someone bigger than ourselves that we go to great lengths to honor. It made me glad that I believe because it is a human tradition to believe. And it is a great thing to do great things because of belief.
We spent two days walking through temples and tombs in Luxor. We sweated through every piece of clothing we wore and dove into a pool at our hotel every afternoon. Luxor was a serene, beautiful place (with the exception of the people working there) and I think I will remember it for the blue of the Nile, the green of the vegetation that thrived next to it and the reds of the temples we stood in.
We took an overnight train from Luxor to Cairo which was definitely an adventure. Brian and I were like kids in our
little sleeper cabin. We ate our meals and couldn’t wait to put down our bunk beds… Well it was a good thing we were a little over-eager to get our beds down… the guy helped us put them down and just after we got into our p.j’s and ready for bed, the generator on the train stopped working. At first I thought it was no big deal… I liked laying in my bed in the dark looking out the window at the small towns going by. Unfortunately, no power meant not only no lights, but no air conditioning either. As minutes ticked by our cabin got hotter and hotter and we started to get more and more worried that our overnight train experience would turn into the bad kind of adventure… But to our great relief, the generator did come back on and we both fell asleep with the cool air on, swaying back and forth, listening to the tracks beneath the wheels of the train.
We woke up at 5 am to have breakfast and get ourselves ready to hop off the train in Cairo. The best way I can describe Cairo is Antique. Cairo has been described as dirty, dusty, smoggy, crowded, and dilapidated. I can see all of those things being true, but I don’t believe they capture what is really going on. Take all of those descriptions and combine them with incredible architecture, smells of incense, sweet tobacco, and delicious food, sounds of old Egyptian jazz mixed with the beats of popular Arabic music, and thousands of friendly faces on crowded traffic-filled streets, and I think that the dirt, smog and dust are essential for making Cairo great. Certain cities have a certain vibe and Brian and I both felt the vibe of Cairo almost immediately and very quickly became infatuated with it. In my infatuated state I literally started making lists of who was going to meet us in Cairo and we even stopped by the American University to see if we could imagine ourselves as students there. But with the 72 hour distance, I now realize a few things… like, my parents would HATE Cairo. Sorry mom and dad, but I think it’s true. It really is the most chaotic city I have ever been in (there’s a lot of the world I haven’t seen, so that status could change as the years go by). The driving is insane and almost never pleasant. It’s always hot and I never really felt like I could take a deep breath of fresh air. It’s insane and so much fun.
One night Brian and I left our hotel at 11 pm to go get McDonald’s (I realized while I was chatting with my sister that it was the 4th of July that day… nothing more American than McDonald’s, right?). We both figured that the city would be starting to wind down and the streets would be calmer than they are during the day. Well, the EXACT OPPOSITE was true. We turned the corner onto the main street by where we were staying and we were confronted by literally THOUSANDS of people. 11 pm and there were families everywhere with children of all ages doing what appeared to be their normal shopping trips. Men were standing at the corners with toys for toddlers. One guy was throwing glow sticks into the air, entertaining a group of children while their parents were shopping in a shoe store. It felt like we had discovered some carnival – not a city street on a Tuesday night. The traffic was even crazier than it was during the day and Brian and I had to hold on tight to each other so we wouldn’t get separated in the currents of people on the sidewalk. We finally did get to McDonald’s by latching on to a group of “Cairenes” crossing the street…. I seriously think we would have been killed if we tried to cross that street by ourselves.
We went to different sections of the city; the old Islamic Cairo, the old Coptic Christian Cairo, the NEW MALL… yes, the new mall. We saw two movies – Angels and Demons and the movie UP. If you haven’t seen UP yet, you have to see it. It is such a cute movie. Brian and I both walked away from that movie stunned by how profound a few moments were. See it. We saw previews for Harry Potter 6 at both movies and I cursed our timing that we aren’t going to be in Cairo (or anywhere with a movie theater) in a few days.
Anyway, we ate some local food, but a lot of good old American style junk food. Our last night we had sushi, and as my Grandma always says – Happiness is.
I just can’t say enough of how cool Cairo is. But I think I’ll stop there.
We saw the pyramids the second to last day in Cairo. Even with all of the pictures I’ve seen and the stuff I’ve read about, the pyramids still FAR exceeded my expectations. A week before we went to Egypt I was skyping with my dad and he told me that the pyramids were built by angels, that is, angels and men. He said some people think that aliens built them. I laughed and made fun of my dad and even got a little annoyed that he would try to attribute a great human achievement to aliens…
And then I saw them.
I couldn’t stop saying over and over, “How did they do this…”
Brian and I could not get over the idea of 4,000 year old architecture that is still standing…
It seriously was overwhelming. We went inside one (if you do go, don’t go inside it… it’s a public health nightmare) and then just wandered around staring at them. Once we had seen everything we came to see we just sat for a while and talked about how guilty we felt leaving… it felt like we should have sat all day and stared at what incredible structures they are. The coolest thing is that we could see the pyramids from our hotel balcony. Through tall buildings and 15 kilometers away, we could see the two biggest pyramids. Modern structures still can’t outdo what they (people, angels, aliens, what have you) did thousands of years ago. Overwhelming.
And then there was the pool. We swam a lot. It was lovely.
Our trip was lovely, fun, relaxed, exciting and profound.
They lost our luggage on the way to Luxor. It felt like an omen. I was worried that my first break in almost six months was doomed from the start. Luckily I was wrong…the luggage came the next day and 2 day old sweaty underwear couldn’t ruin the adventure we were embarking upon.
Egypt is cheap…we have a fantastic meal of Babaghanoush, stuffed pigeon, spiced lamb, fresh lemon juice, and yoghurt with honey drink for 17 bucks total…and we were very stuffed.Luxor is a hidden jewel with cheap wonderful hotels and amazing sights. The temples were extraordinary, the valley of the kings was mind bending, and the sales people were annoying. I do highly recommend Luxor, and I recommend the Luxor temple at night…wonderful lighting on 3000 year old carvings and statues.
Bethany described the train sequence well…it was funny when the A/C went off…it was a reminder of how fragile our happiness was at that point…it was like the train was saying, “Having fun??? I can ruin it sooo easily if you aren’t careful…” But we put on a somber face and the train relaxed and gave us cold air again.
Cairo is easily one of my favorite places I have ever been. We ate McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, TGI Fridays, Chilis, Sushi, and American style drip coffee. We watched movies at a mall that rivals the best in the states. We sat and enjoyed sundown on the Nile over the city skyscrapers. We swam in clean, beautiful pools. We talked to Cairenes that could easily have grown up with us in the US. YES, I loved it because it was so much like the West.
However, I also loved it because it was chaotic. The traffic was like a demolition derby. People in the roads were swarms whose masses we joined for safety in numbers. The street markets went for miles and smelled of street, flowers, fruits, cloth, humans, animals, sheesha, and spice. The mosques stood proud and beautiful, with throngs in and out throughout the day.
So I also loved it because it was NOT so like the West.
I loved it because in Cairo, one of Islam’s foundational cities, women can walk around without head covers, alcohol is served, and liberal society exists alongside head coverings, and conservative Islamic society.
I loved it because a taxi driver told us he used to hate Americans because of what he learned in school, only to discover that he really enjoyed their company when he started driving taxis.