"BRING a flashlight and a comfortable pair of hiking shoes."

An intriguing last minute reminder from the travel agency that arranged our trip to the Holy Land. If that sounds stimulating the Emirates Airlines Boeing 777 was a big surprise as I personally did not expect that the Emirates are using this wide-bodied big bird.

Updates on President Benigno Aquino III's presidency

Quite comfortable even in the economy class and for the first time since the kids got hooked to rap and songs devoid of melody, I finally had my fill of classical music from Manila to Dubai and on to Amman, Jordan. This is the first leg of the 3-country destinations programmed for our travel tracing the paths of Moses and of the Holy Family.

My family is part of the motley group of 32 from Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao in quest of the Biblical truths from the physical realities and relics that have survived the ravages of an unending tumultuous historical events of human conflicts and even devastating natures wrath. There are unexpected bonuses in this journey aside from the spiritual nourishment for the soul: the realization that despite the opulence of nations in those parts a Pinoy comes home at the end of his journey to a paradise we so belittled. The one we call the Philippines.

Jordan

As we boarded our coach and left Amman's Queen Alia International Airport I have my first glance of barren land so vast my eyes cannot see where it ends. A curtain of haze blurred the view. I did not bother myself asking why as our tour guide starts giving us a brief of what to expect in our sojourn at Amman. Since it was early in the day, we immediately proceeded to Mt. Nebo where Moses ended his journey after he and the Israelites fled Egypt to claim God's promised land.

From this promontory can be seen the infinite expanse of what the bible tells us as Canaan. Moses was not allowed to proceed to that green valley and Joshua was to lead the Israelites to their final destination. It was in Mt. Nebo that Moses was buried. Thousands of tourists from all over the world come to this place. It is interesting to note that it was only in the year 2000 during the visit of Pope Paul II on a personal pilgrimage to the Holy Land that the Jordan government realized the potential of this biblical site.

While Mt. Nebo is the only place (for now) linked to the path of Moses, Jordan is where the fascinating city of Petra is located. Carved and chiseled from the red-rose mountains of rocks and maybe solid magma from the past, Petra is a magnificent piece of ancient architecture that the Nabataeans tribesmen built in the 6th century BC. Petra is a new world wonder drawing hundreds of thousands of tourists to Jordan.

Jordan was celebrating its independence day during our 2-day sojourn there thus the atmosphere was festive. Huge billboards of the reigning monarch, King Abdullah II and his late venerable father King Hussein are festooned in many nooks and corners of the city and elsewhere.

Despite the deserts around Amman where nearly all buildings are finished with white stone slabs the temperature in this unique modern city is cool. It is not only its contemporary and western-inspired architecture that one notices but the women in these parts drive the latest luxury cars and SUVs.

Hashem Owaidat, is a doctor of medicine but opted to be a tour guide as he is happy and contented being one, he said. But he appears to begrudge and resents women who seem to have upstaged the men in various professions and income.

We assured him that the trend is true in the Philippines and he laughed. Hashem is quite adept not only in the current and ancient history of Jordan as he lavished us with his knowledge not only of his country but of Moses' plight and flight. Amman by the way is home to many Christian churches, among them St. George Church, most of these are Orthodox Christians.

Jericho

From Mt. Nebo, we crossed the border between Jordan and Israel. There is not much hassle here even as the recent restiveness in Gaza was highlighted in the news. The Israeli immigration is efficiently manned by young women in military uniform. As we ingress on the Israeli territory we had no problem transferring to a sparkling Mercedes Bench coach.

Yoram, our Israeli guide, made us feel at home immediately as we finally crossed King Hussein Bridge which spans the narrow and dry river bed of Jordan. Yoram impressed us with his Tagalog and he immediately endeared himself to the group when he declared that of all the tourists that come to Israel, he loves the Filipinos best. In chorus we asked him why. "Kasi and Pinoy walang putok", he said adding "you Filipinos must be taking a bath three times daily because you smell distinctively good than all of the tourists I have encountered".

Jericho is known to be the oldest city known to man. The Bible tells us that this city was well-fortified but Joshua and his weary army conquered and destroyed it by going around its fortification seven times while blowing their bull horns as God commanded. Today this city in the west bank of the Jordan River seemed to have retrogressed in time. It is in this city where Jesus preached and where Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector who is a short man, climbed the sycamore tree to see Jesus. The tree still stands there.

The Sea of Galilee

The Sea of Galilee is not a sea but a fresh water lake that is fed by the waters from the Golan heights unto the river Jordan. It is 209 meters below sea level and is therefore the lowest lake on earth. Waters from the Golan heights north of the lake is the source of fresh water. The famous Tiberias City is along its coastline. Amidst the ruins now rise so many tourist hotels. It is in the settlements, like Capernaum, around this beautiful lake where Jesus preached no wonder why many of the disciples He first recruited were fishermen. From this lake came the famous St. Peter's fish. It is a delicacy which every tourist is fed. There is really nothing to be envious for St. Peter's fish is known to us as "tilapia" and believe me, those Israeli chefs have a lot to learn from us on how to prepare it. But they take pride in serving us fried tilapia with French toast! The Jews ought to taste our deep fried tilapia garnished with sliced tomatoes with a bit of pungent soy sauce to go with it.

Or, better still "pinaputok na tilapia" with cubed tomatoes and onions with lemon grass stocked inside the ventral cavity of the fish and wrapped in tin foil then roasted slowly in a burning coal! Or just plain sinugba provided there is "pinakurat" or "sinamak" to go along with it. And if you will, a dash of calamansi juice. I will recommend Davao City's Garden of Eden for this gastronomic delight. There you delight not only on the delectable tilapia but you have to catch the fish first by hook-and-line before this is prepared by their very able cook.

Nazareth, Jerusalem and Bethlehem

Nazareth, a city southwest of Galilee. This is where the Blessed Mary and St. Joseph are from. The Cathedral of Annunciation now stands where Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to announce that she will conceive a son who shall be called the Son of God. Adjacent to it is the Church of St. Joseph which stands right in the cave that served as Joseph's carpentry shop. Nazareth is of course a booming city now in undulating hills. When Mary conceived of Jesus, she visited her cousin Elizabeth in Jerusalem. Now that's a couple of hours by our air-conditioned coach plying through concrete and modern highway. It must have taken Mary and Joseph weeks on foot and riding on a donkey to get to Jerusalem to bring to her cousin the news about her conception. Actually Angel Gabriel had earlier appeared to Elizabeth who maybe past her menopausal stage and her aging husband Zacharias that they will have a son who shall be named John (the Baptist).

Back in Nazareth when Mary was heavy with the child Jesus, she and Joseph had to go back again to Jerusalem to have their name listed in the census ordered by King Herod. No wonder there were no more inns available when they arrived thus they proceeded to Bethlehem and in a virtual cave, in a manger, Jesus was born.

On the very spot now stands a cathedral, which through the centuries and many conflicts were destroyed and rebuilt but the manger is still there. In Jerusalem too, are the relics of the past. Preserved or restored, among them the Garden of Gethsemane which is just at the foot of Mt. Olive where the Church of Agony is also located. It is near the wall of the city of Jerusalem where several olive trees said to be over 2,000 years old still stand.

You access Bethlehem through a check point from where a high wall, reminiscent of Berlin wall, divides the Jewish and Palestinian territories. Bethlehem is often referred to as the Palestinian city in the Central West Bank. It is about ten kilometres south of Jerusalem. Not too long ago, Bethlehem had a Christian majority. Today, out of the estimated 30,000 inhabitants, Muslims have become the majority although Bethlehem remains to have the highest population of Palestinian Christians. Bethlehem is important to Islam, Jewish and Christian because of its significance to Abraham. It used to be occupied by Jordan but in the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel occupied it. In 1995 Israel withdrew from the territory on account of a treaty and Bethlehem came under control by the Palestinian national Authority. It is the birthplace of David, of Jesus Christ and it is also here where St. Jerome translated the bible from Hebrew to Latin and where the Church of Nativity is located.

Near the Sea of Galilee just outside Nazareth is the Village of Cana where Jesus performed his first miracle, that of changing water into wine during a marriage feast. On that site now stands the Wedding Church of Cana. Not that we thought our wedding was a fake, but I courted my wife Jay anew and get her to agree to be married again in this church. I had this planned before our trip and I brought along with us my mother in-law to veritably re-enact our wedding rites. It's authentic for we have our new Ninang, the hilarious Teody Adriano. This time however, our teenage kids Abbie and Paolo are part of our entourage. It is a mass wedding actually with three other couples exchanging I Dos.

Baptism in the River Jordan

The traditional baptismal site in the River Jordan is at Yardenit located south of the Sea of Galilee. From Yardenit, the water trickles down although hardly a drop of water reaches to the Dead Sea. Along the way, the Israeli kibbutz and the Jordanian farmers siphon waters for their farms. Yardenit is swarming with tourists for baptismal rites. Fr. Larry Faraon, the very inspiring spiritual leader of our group, baptized each one of us. It's a reassuring feeling being blessed anew.

Why the Dead Sea is dead

Farther down south of Galilee is the Dead Sea. It's dead because the extreme salinity of the water can snuff off the life of any living creature in seconds. As a relief though, for even those who do not know how to swim, will never drown in the depths of the Dead Sea. We soon found out that there is no way one can sink since the basalt content of the water buoys the body up.

The Dead Sea is the last of our exploits In Israel. We drove to the farthest end of Israel to the narrow gulf of Eilat which provides unique attractions to tourists. We were told that since Egypt started to raise the toll in the Suez Canal many exporters bring their cargoes here and transport these by land to the port of Haifa in the north. From there the cargoes are transhipped to various destinations in Europe via the Mediterranean. Despite these commercial activities, and surrounding deserts the waters in Eilat are crystal clear and the gulf itself is known for its rich marine resources and fine beaches. Women in their bare essentials skimpily hidden by tri-kinis are a commonplace in this part. The gulf ends where the Red Sea begins and minutes from there is the southern border of Israel and Egypt's Mt. Sinai peninsula. The Taba Border Terminal is the main border crossing between Israel and Egypt and operates 24 hours a day, except for Yom Kippur and the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice (Eid el-Adha.) The terminal is open to Israelis and foreign tourists, but not to Palestinians. It is an important crossing point for pilgrims visiting the holy sites of St. Catherine's Monastery in Sinai. Commuters have to tug their luggage after immigration clearance and this is the most arduous task in this journey.

Mt. Sinai

"Welcome, my habibi," our unmistakably Egyptian guide greeted us as she stepped into our new coach. Habibi can mean anything from friend to my darling, she said. For now I think the 32 of us are a darling to her. Mona's hair dangles down her shoulder. Most of the Egyptian women still keep their hair secured in veil but their faces are all exposed. She intimated that the option to let loose their hair is all dependent on the woman but many still follow the tradition of hiding their hair in public.

The moment we left the border station there is nothing but miles and miles of desert lands and rocky mountains. Now and then we pass by abandoned Bedouins camps. Mona explained that the nomadic tribes move around the desert and pitch tent when their water diviner tells them there is water on the spot. When the underground stream runs dry, the tribe moves on. Bigger communities are established where bigger and sustainable volume of water is found. Morgenland Village Hotel where we stayed has a swimming pool in fact. It's a few minutes to St. Catherine Monastery where the burning bush is found and where we started our trek to Mt. Sinai.

At Morgenland, the ladies tried belly dancing under the tutorship of Bedouin men. But the ladies do not have the belly for it so it looked like the dancing was a corruption of our native Singkil and boogie.

Only about a dozen of us enlisted for the climb. We were advised that it will take about four hours going up and three hours coming down. The distance is about seven kilometres or a total of 14 and I thought that I can handle that. Nobody told me that it will be a very stiff, rocky and boulders all the way. We started the trek from the gates of St. Catherine Monastery at about 1 a.m. We were not alone. There were Russians, Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, Americans, Indians and Europeans. Many senior citizens took the camel ride and I had the feeling that I am the only one in that category who refuses to pay $25 for the ride. Not that I think the Bedouins are taking me for a ride, but I told myself I want to experience and follow the path of Moses on the way up to the promontory of Mt. Sinai.

My kids, Abbie, 15 and Paolo, 13 joined the younger pack who rambled their way to the top. I told our guide Abel to take care of them and assured them that I will join them in the apex in no time at all. Jay and I slowed down after negotiating a stiff bend and I saw the kids disappearing from my sight.

The early dawn did not help much to light our way and I realized then how useful the flashlights were and the walking shoes that Rose Galang, our tour agency operator advised us to bring. The path to the top is zigzagged and I think that in every kilometre distance there is a Bedouin quarter which serves as a resting place. The Bedouin is an uncomplaining tribe. They offer you their homes and sleep there if you wish. They are a happy grateful lot if you buy your mineral water or colas from them even as they make very little profit from it. The young Bedouins peddle stones gathered from the top but buying them is the last thing I have in mind. The higher you go up the heavier a liter of water gets. What sort of irritated me was a resolute Bedouin who kept on badgering me to ride his camel. The dude thought I cannot make it to the top. Only when the promontory of Sinai became visible, that he finally gave up on me.

The moment we set foot on the mountain apex, I felt I had my strength back. The bit of chilly wind was invigorating. It was all dusky yet although the skies in the east have started to brighten up a bit. We readied our camera. Every minute we took a shot until the sun revealed itself in splendour. Every moment we pondered how beautiful a daybreak is and how closer are we to the Almighty even from a barren and rocky mountain top.

Cairo

Mena Hotel where we stayed used to be a stately palace, so we were told. It is located in the Giza district of Cairo and from the looks of the buildings it is decidedly the old side of the nation's capital. The three famous pyramids are almost adjacent to Mena. Despite their proximity you do not get a clear view of these ancient wonders because of the sandstorm that veils them.

Let's rewind a bit. When the magi went to King Herod to ask where to find Jesus the newborn king of the Jews, he became paranoid and ordered the killing of all infants. The Holy Family having been warned by an angel fled to Egypt. Today the Coptic Churches (Orthodox Christian Churches) are custodians of whatever significant accounts of the flight of the Holy Family here. In Cairo, the Church of Saint Sergius, popularly known as the "hanging church" remains to be the prime attraction of Christian tourists from all corners of the globe. It was built over the cave where Joseph, Mary and Jesus hid after they fled Bethlehem.

The pyramids and the Sphinx remain to be the main tourist attraction of Egypt. These wonders along with the mummified remains of the pharaohs and priceless treasures unearthed from ancient Egyptian edifices and from the bowels of its earth are indelible pieces of evidence that support the Biblical accounts before and after the death of Christ. Here flows still the river Nile and desert sands and storms never quieted a bit. Egypt remains to be custodians of these ancient and priceless treasures and they are amply rewarded for it. For the pyramids, the Nile and Sinai are Egypt's main resources. The same can be said of Israel and Jordan where Abraham and those who descended from him moved about.

After this brief journey I came to wonder why despite their similar looks, similar food and common history they continue to fan their conflicts. We may have our own internal conflict and political wrangling but I am happy to be back to this little paradise and then home to Davao City.