Monday, July 31, 2006

More Music...not quite so beautiful

Somebody must have had quite a bit of time to put THIS together. Pretty amazing watching Bush channeling Bono...

Friday, July 28, 2006

Making Beautiful Music

I thought THIS was absolutely amazing. I hope you like it, too...check out how the balls in the background continue to make the proper sounds in real time. VERY cool!

Warsaw, Poland

We flew into Poland and met up with Victoria, our guide/interpreter for the city. I know all about the Polish jokes. They’re not true. Victoria is an example, speaking English, Polish, Czech, and Bulgarian. She is in the process of learning French…I’m such a piker.

Victoria took us to the old city of Warsaw.

During World War II, the Germans had bombed it, reducing it to rubble (and those were the big parts). Unlike the city of Minsk, where they replaced everything with what I called the Concrete Bunker Style of Architecture, the Polish people did something remarkable (again, the jokes just aren’t warranted). They collected all the old photographs people had, interviewed the survivors in the city (especially the older residents), found blueprints and plans, and then rebuilt the city to its original splendor (that’s splendour to my international friends). It is one of the most beautiful, cleanest cities I have ever visited.

In the center of the town there is a square that contains a series of restaurant's, tables and the like. You sit down in the section related to the restaurant of your choice.

We sat down and Brad gave me some helpful advice on ordering internationally (Note: this will work pretty much wherever you are). I said to the waiter, "I am only in the country for one day, so I need you to bring me whatever the very best thing is at this restaurant. Don't even tell me what it is. Just bring out what you thing makes this restaurant and this country special." Brad said, "I'll take whatever the second-best thing is." We tried to get Ryan to get the third thing was, but he was insistent upon ordering. He ordered the trout.

Our meals came out: I got a deboned half duck, cooked to perfection, with a sliced peach and a berry sauce on it, served with potato fritters. Amazing. I shared with Brad who got a goose leg, with a glaze and fresh vegetables. Ryan got the trout. With, as is common in international dining, the tail on. And the head. Ryan was a little freaked out. Now I'm not one to say, "I told you so"....but "I told you so."

[Interesting side note: When I got back from Belarus, I was going through my Inbox and found THIS QUIZ,called Don't Gross Out The World. It's a few questions to find out what you know about International Ettiquette when it comes to eating. One of the questions was specifically about eating fish in Poland. I'll let you take the quiz rather than spoil it. Good luck.]

We walked through the city, which feels a lot more like a town, actually. Friendly people, CLEAN streets, beautiful architecture. One of the more interesting buildings we saw was the Cultural Palace. During the Soviet era, Stalin gave the people of Poland a gift. This building:

It is the tallest building in the entire city of Warsaw. While it was called a gift, it was really a reminder to the Polish people that they were under Stalin’s control, under the domination of the Soviet Union, and this reminder was given so that people across the entire capital could see it. Victoria explained it was to serve as an eternal reminder of Stalin’s superiority. I asked, Uh…yeah. Where is he now.” Victoria smiled, knowingly.

This is what it looked like to us:

Not so impressive, really. The cool thing is that they’ve turned it into a museum, and you can go to the top and look over the entire city. It’s just as beautiful a city from the top as from the bottom.

We went back to the hotel and spent the night thinking about what tomorrow would bring: Minsk, K., Pastors Mike and Galina. As beautiful as the city is, we are all anxious to start the REAL legs of our journey: K. Church and Belinichi. I slept like a baby…

On the First Leg of the Journey...

Note: I did not take a lot of pictures on this trip, so I’m relying on other team members for their photographs. I’ll fill in the blanks as best I can until I get those shots.

The ride from Harrisburg, PA to New York was very long. We ran into traffic jams from Newark all the way into and through the city. You hear a lot about New York Drivers: cutting people off, one finger waves, weaving through traffic, jumping into every opening, motorcycles shooting through the middle “lane” of traffic jams. It’s all true.

Still, there is nothing like seeing the skyline of New York City. I especially enjoyed looking out into the harbor as we went over the bridge and seeing the Statue of Liberty. It was my first post-9/11 trip to the city, and the emotions I felt were unexpected. Sure the traffic is a pain in the butt, but NYC is still an amazing city.

That having been said, the traffic was so bad, we began to worry about missing our flight, from NYC to Warsaw aboard LOT airlines. We arrived at 4.30 for our 6.20 flight, got through airport security and found our flight was delayed an hour. Brad assures me it will be two hours. He is right…sort of. We board at 8.30, but then sit on the runway for another 40 minutes. Takeoff is a beautiful thing, even though its 2 ½ hours late. Still, I’m thinking if that’s the worst thing we run into, we’re doing okay.

An uneventful 9 hour flight later, we are in Warsaw, Poland.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Where was this woman...

...when I needed to pack my suitcase for Belarus? I really could have used time.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Wrapping up My Appalachian Trail Adventure

Day 3

So we hiked out of the Trail into civilization. It was fairly uneventful, except for the first place we reached, a campground. David and I went into the general store and I bought a bag of potato chips and a Coke. Sweet. We went out to the porch and sat and watched the "aluminum city" campers. It was quite a homogenous group, and seemed a stark contrast to the hikers we saw on the trail. Most of these campers were older than us, wore those really bad trucker ballcaps, and sported quite the pot belly, the kind that presents the question: Over or under with the belt? Pickup trucks were a must.

The activity for the morning seemed to consist of bringing the septic system of the camper up to the disposal area. It was the strangest thing I have seen in some time. The pickup trucks lined up, one after the other, each towing their blue septic tanks like a giant Caravan of Crap. Some guys brought their families with them, as it was part of the ritual of family camping time...I suppose. Either way, in consideration of the wind, David and I were on the wrong side and were getting a "whiff of the roses" as the less efficient guys came and went with their tanks.

We were feeling almost superior when this little girl walked past David and said to her mother, "Mommy, that man stinks." It was what I call a "Let-me-get-this-straight" moment, as in "Let me get this straight: there are people over there dumping their feces in a tank, and that smell bothers you less than the way we smell?" Ouch...

I hiked on and my feet were sore, swelling, blistered. What did I learn: Four-year-old shoes might not be the best for a 35 ,mile hike.

David and I hiked out to the Deer Lodge in Mount Holly Springs, where Joan and Katie Rose picked us up. They were happy to see us, but I still didn't get a big hug. I suspect they were afraid of sticking to me. I must really smell bad...

General Impressions
I thought it would be a more spiritual experience than it was. I often find myself closer to God when I'm out in nature, but I think this was so much like work it never got to the point where spiritual reflection was part of it. It's not a bad thing, just unexpected.

I thought about Randy, his family and his son a lot. Those moments when I did pray, it was for their well being and healing. They continue to be on my mind, in my heart and with my prayers.

I missed Joan and Katie a lot--much more than I expected. I was only gone for two and a half days, but with no cell phone, no Internet and no smoke signals (THE STOVE[!!!] is not so good for that), the separation was palpable, difficult. I did not expect it, but it made coming together, after a shower, so much better, which I suppose is one reason we go on these things in the first place: to put into perspective how important people are, especially our families. I'm certain David felt the same way, though we didn't talk about it.

Sleep uphill. Sleeping downhill or sidehill is inadvisable. Just trust me on this one...David!

I came back to a party. It was a tough thing to do, with all of the noise: kids yelling, music playing, fireworks going off. It was a system overload after being on the silence of the trail.

Last but not least: Ice and elevate feet.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Back from Belarus

I just got back from my mission trip to Belarus. Reports from the trip, including people, places, miracles (large and small) will follow. I wanted to let you know, dear readers, that all went well. Stay tuned, and thank you for your kind thoughts and prayers...

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Appalachian Trail...Day 2

Day 2

I awoke at 5.30 am to the whippoorwill still crying his lonely song. I got up, got THE STOVE (!!!!) out and lit it with my lighter: sah-weet! I also found my knife, so my day was pretty much complete before 6.00 am. I boiled some water on the stove, and made coffee with Folger’s Coffee bags. It was absolutely atrocious. But even that nasty tidal water they allege was coffee couldn’t dampen my day.
What I learned: Those coffee bags are totally nasty—get real coffee and find a way to make it.

David was up throughout the night and was bitter about not sleeping much. He asked me to ask God if he could have another hour of sleep, so I said a prayer. He fell back to sleep almost immediately and slept for…an hour. I am naturally a morning person, so being alone in the dawn was just fine with me.

After David woke up, we had three oatmeals between the two of us (perfect!) and some beef jerky. We broke camp and washed our dishes and filled our water bottles on the way out of the camp…now you’re learnin’, boyos! True to form, as soon as we hiked down the hill, we were faced with an uphill climb on the opposite side. We set off past a few other hikers who were also breaking camp, including one bushy-looking through-hiker who had that distinct trail smell. I’m pretty sure we’ll have it by the end of our trip. I wonder if I have it now, and I just don’t know it.

We hiked about 13 miles to Pine Grove Furnace. The terrain was unbelievably rocky, and the scenery absolutely stinks in this area Pennsylvania. First, the rocks. There is a rumor going around among hikers that Pennsylvanians hate through-hikers, and spend the off-season sharpening the stones on the trail. There might be something to this. I likened them to alligator teeth; they all seem to be just the wrong size, and they all seem to be pointing up. Other areas had large turtleback stones. It would have been a welcome change, except that with all the rain, they were slippery and thus, more treacherous than the alligator teeth. Where it wasn’t covered with rocks, it was a low-lying swamp.

The scenery was trees, shrubs and bushes. Trees to the left, shrubs to the right, and bushes surrounding them. There were a couple of points where we came out and there was a clearing, and one spot where we came out to an overlook. It was only about 40 feet down, but comparatively speaking, it was breathtaking. Everything being said: it was some tough slogging. Hay foot, straw foot, one in front of the other.

The other thing is that trail mix, while good and filling, didn’t have enough carbohydrates for me. I started to feel a little uneasy, so David broke out a pound cake, which hit the spot right on time. I also stopped to dunk my head in a stream and dinged my knee standing up. It was tough going as the knee stiffened up a bit, and I poured some water on it (STINGS!!! OW-OW-OW-OUCH!!!).

As I said before, there are characters you meet on the trail. At one point, David and I are walking and talking. We get around to one of two our favorite topics: snakes (the other is The Simpsons). So we’re talking and marveling at how we haven’t seen any snakes. On the trail, things are very secluded, and you get the sense, at times, you could be the last surviving people on the planet, and you won’t know it until you break out into civilization. It’s in this setting, quiet solitude, talking about snakes, that this voice comes from directly behind David: “I SAW SOME SNAKES!” I was in front, and I jumped. David instinctively drew back his walking stick and was about to give this idiot, who had snuck up behind us, the business end of the stick. I think the only thing that saved the guy is the way he looked: like Jim Neighbors with a mustache, wearing shorts and black socks. He chatted for about thirty seconds as he hiked through and moved on ahead—again, we never saw him again. When you see someone on the trail, you immediately size tehm up for the otential danger they present—this guy was saved by the fact that, looking at him, he presented none. I think in hindsight, he will probably not sneak up on anybody again, especially two guys walking through the forest. He might also want to consider carrying tic-tacs in his pocket.

When we arrived in Pine Grove, we went to the General Store and got a Coke. It was still warm, but delicious. I tried to call home, but there was no phone coverage. The park was a disaster, with the storm having destroyed huge sections of trees, trails and park. There were even areas of road washed away. We found an area to set up camp, and did so. Then we hiked down to the stream, about 100 feet away, and I waded in to cool off—so sweet, and so cold. Climbing out, I saw a mouse trapped by the edge of the stream, obviously dying. I took a large log, and finished him. I felt bad, awful really, but it was the best thing to do for him.

So we went back to the camp and made Ramen Noodles with the stove. After dinner, we were bored, so we…took a walk, of course. We added another 4 miles, bringing our day’s total to 17 miles. During the walk out, David got the feeling things were moving, and need to make an unscheduled pit stop. The problem: we had no toilet paper. “Uh…Rob. I’ve got a problem.” The solution? I cut the sleeves off my shirt and he used them. “You’re welcome. No, I don’t need them back.”
What I learned: There are advantages to shopping for camping clothes at Goodwill before the trip. $2 shirts and $3 shorts. You don’t miss them when they are gone.

We came back to camp and got finished setting up, and I went to hang the bear bag. We couldn’t find it. The dilemma then became where was it (lost, dropped) and what could we do to replace it? I opted to put the food in my tent bag and throw that up in a tree. Then David found the bear bag…UNDER HIS TENT! So, the bear bag was under David’s tent, with food in it. That could have made for a less-than-pleasant evening, to be sure. We hung it far from the tents.

That night we saw several people come through on the trail, including one girl who was left by the other people in her party. Class move. She seemed to be catching up, and I have little doubt she did. Still, though…

That night, it rained pretty hard. I stayed dry, but David's stuff got soaked.He was, predictably, miffed...

The Appalachian Trail....Day 1

The Back Story
David and I used to teach together, more than ten years ago. I left the district and eventually the profession, and David moved away. We had always been good friends, but over time we drifted apart—distance and time can do that to a friendship. About two years ago, he called me out of the blue. I had been going through a rough spot, and the call came at a good time to talk with someone with history. The short story version: we ended up getting together to go fishing, and now get together three or four times a year to go. He has a wife and young daughter, like me, so it takes a commitment on both our parts (he still teaches, so it might be a little easier on him), but it’s worth it for both of us.

Last summer, he hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail. He loved it, and of course called me to see if I wanted to go with him this year. Having hiked as a younger man (college and shortly after, so it’s been a while), I thought it would be fun.

Day 1
After the funeral, David’s wife Jenny drove us down to Caledonia, PA where the Appalachian Trail (AT to those who’ve hiked on it) crosses at the Thaddeus Stevens Iron Furnace. Stevens was a Civil War era abolitionist who eventually became one of the most powerful Senators in the history of the United States (his bio).

We arrived at Caledonia at about 1 o’clock, geared up and set out to the north. Hiking in, everything was soaking wet from the torrential downpours we have had in the northeastern section of the country. The Caledonia section starts in a low-lying area, so David and I had to hike through some pretty ugly swamps just to get moving forward. [Note: Throughout this entire experience we learned a lot of things in hindsight. As such, you’ll see these entries peppered with statements about what we learned.]
What we learned: Take your hiking shoes off at the swampy areas. Put on a pair of sandals, hike through it, then put your dry hiking shoes on your dry feet.

The first mile or so had two steep climbs, the first about 600 feet and the second about 700 feet, so the first section was a tough place to get reacquainted with the mechanics of hiking. Still, I think we acquitted ourselves quite well (read as: we didn’t bag it right there, catch a cab and hike to a hotel that served beer and wings).

We hiked to the first shelter, about 4 miles. It was a beautiful, well-maintained shelter, with a spring. David explained that it’s a good idea to take your shoes off at certain points to keep your feet from swelling and to let them breathe a little, so we did that. In a hiking situation, you’re bound to run into characters, and we did so at this point. He had a nervous twitch—on his entire face. Afterward, David and I tried to figure out if this twitch was hiking induced, and came to the conclusion he was a high school shop teacher. “Twitchy” was trying to put in about 15 miles a day, which would have put him on the same pace as us. It is not uncommon to see the same characters throughout a hike, at rest areas, shelters, watering holes and the like. We never saw Twitchy again.

While at the shelter, we walked down to the spring to get more water. David had brought a carbon-based water filtration system, where you put the water into a container, then squeeze it out through a carbon filter, removing particles that make you sick (I’ll spare you the suspense—it worked the whole trip. Thank God!)
What we Learned: Chlorine tablets would be so much easier that this stupid, %$#@, &^%*(!), squeeze bottle.

Lunch was eaten while walking. David had brought a trail mix of nuts, granola and M&Ms (melt in your mouth, not in your hand). Not bad at all. In about 4 hours, we had covered 8 miles, which is what we had planned. We hiked down a massive hill and arrived at an area that had a stream. We decided to hike back up the hill and set up camp. Then we realized even though we had a little water, we would need some later, so we went back down the hill, got the water with the stupid, %$#@, &^%*(!), squeeze bottle, then hiked back up.
What we learned: If you stop and think for a second, you can save yourself a lot of time and aggravation.

So we set up camp, and then David brought out THE STOVE. This thing is awesome! We put a dish of water on it for Ramen noodles and heated it up. It took about two minutes to come to a boil: sah-weet! For dinner, I had Ramen noodles with organic miso (I can’t eat the regular packets that come with the noodles because they are loaded with monosodium glutamate, commonly called msg, which causes all kinds of bad stuff with me. I also had some organic beef jerky from my local Giant Supermarket (so happy they carry this, as msg is in jerky as well). We also had cold(!) orangeade and pound cake for dessert. Then we had to wash the dishes…at the bottom of the hill….again.
What we Learned: apparently nothing.

Came back to camp and hung the bear bag away from the camp. This supposedly keeps very large omnivores from coming into your camp, and dining at the buffet table of food, tents, and campers.

Other notes:
--I lost my knife—totally bummed.
--We didn’t see ANY snakes. I was kind of disappointed, David was ecstatic. Normally you see three kinds of snakes on the trail: rattlesnakes, copperheads, and black snakes.
--Fell asleep listening to the loneliest whippoorwill
--Slept like a baby, and even snored, which is unusual, because I never do.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Child of God

I went to my friend Randy's funeral for his 3 year old son. It was hands-down the hardest thing I have ever sat through. It was also one of the most powerful testaments to the power of God I have seen. Randy's brother said a few words about how he didn't know Drew personally, only through videos and cards and letters and phone conversation. It made me feel like I was in the same place--not really knowing him, but knowing him by association. He showed a video he had of Drew as "The Heavyweight Champion of the World" with a Rocky theme which Drew used to love watching with his dad.

It was heartbreaking, yet amazing in capturing the joy and innocence of a child. Running, playing, doing cartwheels, just being a kid. I have the same videos of my daughter...if you're a parent, you probably have those pictures or videos, too.

Then Randy spoke. I honestly don't know how he found the strength to do it. Since I knew him, he has grown to know God in a similar vein as I have. It was amazing to see this man I had known as a carefree, easy going guy, now expressing his own relationship with God. He talked about many things, but these are the things I came away with. He talked about the day of the accident, and all of the amazing people he met, who helped him, his family and who tried to save his son. He talked about the people at the hospital, strangers who came in to pray with him.

The EMTs and ER doctors kept Drew alive while his mom was being flown in to the Emergency Room. Randy asked them to keep him alive so Marcie could say goodbye. While he was waiting with his son, Randy remembered the day of his son's baptism, how his Pastor, Troy, had taken him around to the congregation and even outside the church, and introduced Drew to the world: This is Drew Michael Taylor: A Child of God. And so, as the doctors, nurses, EMTs and others came to speak with Randy, he introduced them: "This is my son, Drew Michael Taylor, a child of God."

Finally, Marcie did arrive and she was told the news. In another display of strength, she asked the doctors if his organs could be donated. The docs said no, there was too much damage. She asked again, saying, please, there must be some way Drew can help one more person. Again, it took a strength and a courage I cannot even imagine, to even think of this at a time like this.

Randy and Marcie went in to say goodbye to Drew. And then he was gone.

Then Randy had to tell his eight-year-old daughter, Lauren, that her brother was gone. I don't know how I would have handled it. This is how Randy handled it. He got down on his knees and prayed. He asked God to give him the strength and wisdom he needed, because he recognized that this was going to be the most important moment in his life, the moment that defined him as a father. When he told his Lauren, he did it with the strength, the wisdom, the grace and the love of the Holy Spirit.

In the days that followed, people asked the questions one asks, the same ones I did: "How are you and the family holding up?" "Is there anything I can do to help?" One of his friends asked, "What have you learned from this?" At first, I thought it a harsh question. I don't know if Randy did or will experience the rage and disappointment I felt with God when I heard. I suspect it's impossible not to. The thing that struck me was his response to the question. What he learned is the meaning of life. Randy said it all boils down to three things:
The people you love
The people who love you
What can you do for God

...and with that, he left the pulpit, sat down with his family, waited to hear the preachers words, and went out to send Drew Michael Taylor, Child of God, home to Heaven.

Many things have occurred to me since then. I don't think that I take a lot of things for granted, and I have a good grasp on how much God has blessed me. Still, it gave me pause and made me consider how I could spend my time here loving my family and friends more, and better. The other thing that I saw was how God never allowed Randy to be alone. I think at times like this, the worst part is when we are alone in the midst of it. Randy didn't have that. The EMTs, the doctors, the chaplain at the hospital, a local congregation that showed up to help and pray with his family as they recovered from the wreck, the local community, the schools where Randy and Marcie teach, and especially his own church. In all of these people, God made His presence not just known, but felt.