Bethany Beyond Jordan: A Pilgrimage

Last weekend I took my first trip to Jordan. I surely hope it’s not my last. Jordan was inviting and laid-back. A perfect destination for a weekend of relaxation and reflection.

We arrived in Amman’s airport about fifteen miles south of the city and directly started our descent into the Jordan River Valley. The descent did a number on my ears as we slipped below sea level and bottomed-out at the lowest point on earth – the Dead Sea. I’ll get to the Dead Sea in another post, but I wanted to focus on one of the reasons I was drawn to the area – Bethany Beyond Jordan, the Baptismal Site of Jesus.

When I first saw this tourist site on the map, I immediately thought how can anyone know for sure where John the Baptist baptized Jesus? Well, there are clues. Strong ones, actually, including historical references to the site being several miles north of the Dead Sea. In addition, history favored this site by having a Byzantine Church built there in commemoration of the baptism as early at the 5th century AD. Excavated remains are right above the baptismal location.

So on our second morning at the Dead Sea, we boarded a tourist bus around nine A.M., and after the should-have-been-expected stop at a tourist trap full of Dead Sea items, we arrived at the baptismal site at 9:50 only to be told that the 10 A.M. shuttle to the site had already left. We would have to wait until 10:30 for the next shuttle. Since when does anything around here run early? Oh well.

We battled the flies waiting for the shuttles while reading the pamphlets about the history of Bethany-Beyond-Jordan. When the shuttles arrived, a tour guide herded us onto the bus and took us to the site. Guides are required because it is literally on the border between Jordan and Israel – certainly a security region – so no wandering tourists allowed without being on an official tour.

During the five minute shuttle ride, we passed Elijah’s Hill – yes, that Elijah, and that was the hill, which according to Biblical history, where Elijah was caught up into heaven on a chariot of fire. It started to feel surreal being in this setting, tucked between the rugged cliffs of the Jordan Valley, with Jericho, the world’s oldest city in the foreground to the northwest and Jerusalem, the City on a Hill in the distance to the southwest, and Mt. Nebo, the place where Moses glimpsed the Promise Land to our back. The Holy Land, a place for pilgrimage and reflection, walking in the footsteps of larger-than-life characters which were such a large part of my childhood. It was enough to make one pause and reflect upon this land full of untold significance.

We exited the shuttle into a beautiful, scraggy, arid landscape with picturesque churches on the hillside. We walked the opposite way along a covered walkway until we saw the first glimpse of the Jordan. The poor river is a mere shadow of its previous self. You would not need an Old Testament Prophet to part the waters to cross. A mere hop and dash would do the trick. The mighty Jordan has had its water siphoned off by all of the surrounding countries, making it a trickle while at the same time lowering the Dead Sea water by significant amounts each year.

Our guide mentioned how Jordan, in Arabic, means meandering because that’s what the river does – it meanders in curved, snake-like fashion. This picture below proves it. I’m standing in Jordan taking this picture. The water in the foreground is the Jordan River. On the other side of the water is Israel. However, you see that church in the background? That church is in Jordan. Weird, isn’t it?


We arrived at the site of the baptismal, the place where people of faith believe that Jesus received his anointing, baptized by John, as the Holy Spirit in the form of dove descended from heaven. It’s a site of foreshadowing – descent into death and resurrection to life. The type of site a faith pilgrim could ponder for days. But we had to keep moving.

jesus baptismal

The Baptismal Site of Jesus. The 5th Century Byzantine Church in the Background.

We arrived at a Greek Orthodox church built recently on the banks of the Jordan. At this site, we came face-to-face with pilgrims from Israel. Many donned white bath robes and dunked themselves into the water. A small church service on the Israeli side with a fiery preacher, beautiful singing, and baptisms in the river filled out the scene.

Before we knew it, we were being crammed on the shuttle back to our awaiting bus. It was only later that I was able to reflect upon what it was that I actually saw that day.

Bethany-Beyond-Jordan was only opened to the public within the last two decades. This is a site of beauty and reflection for all, even if you do not have a particular religious persuasion. Just to stand in the land which gave birth and life to so much of the world’s history and influence is an awe-inspiring experience in itself.

Put Bethany-Beyond-Jordan – the Baptismal Site of Jesus – on your must visit list. After all, it’s in Jordan, and Jordan’s awesome.




What is your perception of Saudi Arabia? (assuming you have never visited)

I’m sure there are certain images or preconceived notions which naturally bubble to the forefront of your mind. Where did your perception come from? Media? Friends?

Perception of a particular culture almost never turns out to true when one finally comes in contact with that culture. It’s been true in every country where I have spent a significant amount of time.

I remember when I first moved to Vietnam, I had all kinds of images in my head: Vietnam War, communism, oppressive heat and rain, etc… All of the stereotypes one by one came crashing to the ground once I arrived in the country, started talking to the people, and started learning for myself what the Vietnamese culture was all about. (I’m not going to go into the details of how my perceptions were wrong except to note that the coldest Christmas I have ever spent was in Vietnam, huddled under the thickest quilt I have ever seen in my life, shivering cold at a level I have never experienced again.)

It happened again (losing my perception, that is) when I moved to Malaysia.

Well, this week I moved to Saudi Arabia and guess what? Yes. The walls come crashing down.

I had a lot of strange and astonished looks when I told friends and family that I was moving to Saudi Arabia, which means to me that everyone had certain images of what to expect. Here a few items I’ve experienced this past week that just felt different from what I had anticipated:

Food. What terrific western food! Now, Malaysia is a food paradise for it’s blend of various cuisines, but, honestly, they’re western food was seriously lacking. Not here, I’ve been to incredible, immaculately decorated restaurants which serve terrific western dishes whether pasta, fish, burgers, mexican or whatever. I’m sitting in these places thinking “where am I?” The answer is Saudi Arabia.

Space. Jeddah is a sprawling metropolis which alternates between sandy open lots and immaculate malls and gigantic modern complexes. I was standing in a parking lot after dinner the other night and I commented to a friend that anyone standing here could have mistaken this place for any modern plaza in North America. I again was wondering where I was. The answer was the same.

Add in the spectacular views and promenades of the “Corniche” along the Red Sea with the terrific service everywhere and the wonderful friendly smiles of the Saudi people and I’m in the position to have a lot of my perceptions blown out of the water.

And that’s a good thing.

The next time you go some place, check your perceptions at the door and arrive with the attitude of a learner. You’ll be surprised. And while your at it, whatever you think of another’s culture right now, you very well may be dreadfully wrong. And that’s a great thing to discover.


Visiting Arlington Makes One Remember

Arlington National Cemetery is a solemn and sobering place. There are many picturesque sites, and I spent the morning yesterday wandering around on a terrifically sunny and blue-sky-day to enjoy the scenery. Enjoy, perhaps, isn’t the correct word. One can enjoy a walk in the sun, but how does one enjoy a walk through a cemetery like Arlington. So many thoughts, both past and present. So much gravitas.

Think about the number of prayers represented by the thousands of graves neatly aligned throughout the rolling hillside. How many women stood with their aprons on, washing dishing, looking out their kitchen windows, trying to get a mental glimpse of husbands and sons, neighbors and cousins, who were fighting over there. How many sleepless nights, how many wiped tears, how many mental breakdowns are represented by each of those white stone markers? The fortitude needed to carry-on on the homefront is represented well here. The amount is tremendous.

Most of the gravesites in Arlington are the same. This is a terrible injustice, not the commemoration, though, that is done well. It’s only an injustice because there simply was no tangible way to make the young men and women who sacrificed their lives or gave their time a monument to show their differences. You cannot clad a personality on a gravestone. Not in Arlington. And so in death, they rest peacefully in uniformity, and that is perhaps how they would most like it, buried with their comrades, shoulder to shoulder, bound together with a common purpose, a mutual goal, an understanding of what must take place to preserve the country back home they hold so dear.

Your sacrifices are not forgotten. This cemetery stands as a national remembrance of what it is that we collectively stand for. Each white-washed stone adds to the chorus of the past which pleads with us today to not forget the battles fought, the lessons learned, the courage expended, the freedom preserved. Each one beseeches the powers that be and the people on main street to look past what divides us and remember the heart of Arlington which unites us all. The commonality must be stronger than the division or we as a nation will waft in whatever prevailing political wind happens to be in town across the Potomac. We’ll be left adrift without a moral compass to guide us and not a soul to pity us.

Goodbye, Malaysia. A Memoir in Food Photos

I’m leaving Malaysia for good after eleven wonderful years living in Penang. Though there are people and customs and culture and other things I’ll miss about Malaysia, I thought my Goodbye Post should highlight some of the food items I ate in my last week. I will miss all of this tremendously.

Imagine the fragrance and flavor as you look at these beauties:


Beef Rendang – Indonesian, coconuty, Amazing!


Nyonya – Roti Babi – fried pork sandwich. Yum. Oh, and some greens.


Nyonya Pork Rendang. So different from the beef, but equally delicious.


Sambal Goreng – so unique, prawn, coconut, eggplant, sambal


Thai Long Bean & Pork – tremendous curry sauce on it


Indian! The best butter chicken masala with garlic butter naan.


Dry Curry Mee Noodles. Oh. My. Goodness.


Manchurian Califlower – fried, spicy, crunchy

The terrible thing about these photos (besides I’m not going to be able to eat these foods daily) is that it truly only scratches the surface of Malaysian fare. It’s diverse, flavorful, and dare I some, some of the best food in the world.

Goodbye Penang. Goodbye Malaysia.


Visiting Malacca or Melaka

I recently took what might be my last trip to Malacca. I’ve visited there eight times (I think), and I’ve enjoyed it each time. It’s a great place to take in some history, learn about the Portuguese, Dutch, British and how they elbowed their way into the spice trade. They’ve done a fantastic job developing the river area in the old section, plus you get to visit the vibrant and fun Jonker Street. Here’s a few shots from my trip. Yes, I bought some gula Melaka.


Malacca River. Great for night time walks or a river cruise.


Dutch built church in Dutch square. You can attend a service on Sunday morning.


Here’s my crazy students touring the replica Portuguese ship.


Up close.


The tomb of famous Malay folk legend Hang Jebat.


A typical Malacca building.


From the rooftop of Hangout Hotel. Jonker Street in full mode.


St. Paul’s church, built by the Portuguese in 1511. This is a statue of St. Francis Xavier, who was interred her for a time.


Inside St. Paul’s.


Malacca city from St. Paul’s hill. The lone standing gate of the old fort, Afamosa, is in the foreground.

Beautiful Views from Back Home in Pennsylvania

I’ve shared many posts about the beautiful island of Penang where I currently live. And many have been announcing its accolades over the past few years because of its cultural heritage and terrific food.

Well, now I stumbled across a BBC article about an often overlooked million acres of outdoor ideal-ness called the Allegheny forest in north western Pennsylvania. I can attest to how special this area is. The article talks about route 62 from Warren to Franklin, PA, which I have driven dozens of times in my life, as being one of the most scenic routes in the eastern United States. I have to agree. The route hugs the Allegheny river most of the time and weaves through charming towns and beautiful country valleys.

About 15 years ago, I drove two of my Vietnamese friends through the forest, heading to Warren on a summer’s evening. We counted, if I recall correctly, 24 deer and numerous other small animal sightings during the one hour trip through the forest. They were amazed. I was amazed I didn’t have an accident.

I remember the family trips we took to Titusville to see Drake’s well, the first commercial oil well in the world. I remember walking the trails in Cook’s Forest, and standing on the dam at Kinzua.

If you like the outdoors, hiking, camping, exploring land which has changed little since the time of America’s founding, you should really spend some time in the Allegheny Forest.

Here’s the original article. Check out the beautiful BBC: The US One Million Acre Secret


Another Article Extolling Georgetown, Penang – My Home

Another article extolling something great about my home for the last 9 years – Penang, Malaysia. More specifically – Georgetown – the main city on the small island. This article now claims that Georgetown is the new hipster destination. Read the Wanderluxe article here.


April 2015 – photo by sassevn

Penang is a special and unique spot. The culture – a vibrant mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian – has created an amazing array of some of the best food on the planet and some of the more unique street scenes in Southeast Asia.


Gurney Drive view of the port in Butterworth across the strait. photo sassevn

Penang heritage is second to none. Home to one of the two prominent Straits Settlements in the Strait of Malacca, Georgetown is full of unique and beautiful buildings, currently stocked with cozy cafes and delicious dives.


A Colonial Era British Building – photo by sassevn

Over the last couple of years, Penang has been voted one of the top places to retire in the world. It has been granted the status of best Asian street food.

It’s a beautiful, inexpensive, tropical island with some of the world’s best food. What more do you want!

It’s my writer’s oasis.

Come give us a visit!