On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

A journey like no other

Day Four – March 1, Chinese food at Haifa, Mt Carmel,

AFTER days of Middle Eastern food, we had lunch at the "Taiwan Restaurant" in
Haifa. Owned by a Jew, the restaurant cooks looked like Thais to me but the
cooking was quite authentic.

Before that, we had to climb the hilly ancient site of Megiddo, where many
ancient and bitter battles had taken place.

It is mentioned in the Bible as one of the cities that Solomon built. Two
fortresses from the period of Solomon had been uncovered there.  This site is also believed to be the last
battlefield between Good and Evil (Revelation 16, 12-16), the Armageddon in
bible prophecy.

Our journey continued to Caesarea, once the capital of the Roman province.
Pontius Pilate, who ordered Jesus' crucifixion, lived here. It was also from
the harbour here that St Paul was taken to Rome to be tried (Acts 27, 1-2) and
sentenced to death.

Then it was straight to Jerusalem, the old capital of Israel, but we had to
pass Tel Aviv, the present capital of modern Israel, first. We drove past rows
and rows of impressive-looking shopping malls, clubs and pubs. I wished we had
spent a night there but we reminded ourselves that this was a spiritual journey
and not a tour. So Tel Aviv did not warrant a stop.

Day Five – March 2, Bethlehem

We entered Bethlehem, where Jesus was born 2,000 years ago. It was the place
where Joseph and his pregnant wife, Mary, came to register as ordered by
Emperor Augustus (Luke 2:2-7).

The highlight of the visit was the Church of Nativity. There is neither stable
nor manger here but a series of grottoes where we are told Christ was

Tradition has it that Mary stayed here in fear of King Herod, the vicious
regent of Jerusalem, who was determined to kill the child. The church was built
circa 324, by Helena, the mother of Constantine I, the first Roman Emperor to
become a Christian.

We prayed and took our turns to kiss the holy star symbol on the spot where
Jesus was born. It was really emotional for all of us.

The Church of Nativity is the oldest church in Israel and in 2002, it made
world news when Israeli soldiers fired into the church, where about 200 people,
including Palestinian militants and policemen and clergy, had sought refuge in
a standoff with Israel. During the two-week standoff, Israel ringed the church
with tanks, armoured personnel carriers and snipers.

For lunch at Bethlehem, we stopped at a Chinese restaurant where, to my
surprise, the chefs were all Palestinians. Either they were good cooks or we
were terribly hungry.

The journey of faith continued with a trip to Shepherd's Field. Tradition has
it that this was where angels announced the birth of Christ.

It is an open, rocky wooded field. Our two pastors conducted Holy Communion in
a church, where a grotto, the typical home of a poor shepherd, once

The trip continued to the Place of Ascension, where 40 days after Jesus'
resurrection, he rose to heaven (Luke 24:50-51, Mark 16:19).

The Church of St Peter in Gallicantu on Mount Zion, one of the day's stops, was
interesting. What was once the house of Caiaphas the high priest, and the site
to where Jesus was brought after he was arrested, is now a church dedicated to
Peter, the apostle, who denied Jesus three times. Gallicantu is the Latin word
for "when the cock crows."

Just a stone's throw away is the Upper Room, where the Last Supper is said to
have taken place. It is a large hallway with Gothic architectural elements
built by the Crusaders in the early 14th century, on top of a much older

This was also where 120 people – the apostles, other disciples and Jesus'
mother, Mary – gathered after the Ascension to wait for Pentecost.

Another important stop was the Pater Noster Church, where Jesus taught the
Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). Tradition has it that Jesus stayed here on his
last journey to Jerusalem.

On the walls of the church is the Lord's Prayer in over 100 languages, set in
mosaic. I looked for but could not find a Bahasa Malaysia version. But there
were translations in Bahasa Indonesia and Kadazan. The latter was a pleasant
surprise indeed.

Day Six – March 3, Via Dolorosa and the Wailing Wall

There is high expectation in the air. Today, the Malaysians would be carrying a
wooden cross – just like Jesus had done.

This took place along the 500m Via Dolorosa, the route along which Jesus
carried the cross on his back from the Antonia Fortress to Calvary, which winds
its way through the Old City's Muslim and Christian Quarters.

When we began our religious ritual at about 8am, the many Arab shops selling
everything from Christian religious items to Persian rugs had yet to

Rubbish was strewn along the way, making the Fourteen Stations of the Cross an
unwelcome sight. The stalls, which lined the route, reminded me of the Kek Lok
Si temple in Penang.

We were not the only pilgrims who carried the cross. The others we met were
Indonesians. A few wept openly as they carried the cross, which touched many

We ended at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, regarded as the most sacred place
on earth for Christians. It was here that Jesus was said to have been nailed to
the cross, suffered and died. From here, he was lowered from the cross and
placed in his tomb.

Next stop: the Wailing Wall, also known as the Western Wall. Many of us were
fascinated at the sight as we had only watched it on television. The wall is
the Jews' holiest shrine as it is the last accessible relic of the temple built
in 20BC that was destroyed by the Romans in 70AD.

Outsiders are permitted to enter the area and even touch the wall. The only
condition is that we wear a  "yarmulke",
the skullcap worn by Jews. We made do with paper stapled ones that are
available to visitors.

During lunch at an Indian restaurant, we met an Indian Jew, complete with his
Jewish skullcap. He was a businessman and could not resist talking to our
fellow pilgrims from the Mar Thoma Syrian Church on hearing them speak
Malayalee, his ancestral tongue. They chatted happily about their Indian home
province, Kerala, and how he became a Jew.

Day Seven – March 4, a brush with pickpockets

What a day! On the way to the Garden Tomb, another possible site where Jesus
was crucified, I had my wallet picked by two teenagers who, on the pretext of
selling postcards, had followed me closely. I was tired and obviously not
alert, so they seized the opportunity.

This took place at around 4pm in front of a police station.

I felt a hand slip into my front pocket of my tight jeans. It was done within
seconds and I quickly let out a loud yell.

My shouts created a commotion, with my fellow pilgrims and locals wanting to
find out what had happened. Still in shock, I told the guide to use his "street
contacts" to get back my credit cards and MyKad.

But before we could decide on what to do next, a man walked up to us and
returned my wallet. Still in a daze, I did not even thank the man. The money –
US$80 (RM304) – and cards were intact. Praise the Lord!

Our Malaysian tour manager reminded us that "in the holy land, not everyone is

At the Garden Tomb is an outcrop that looks like a human skull outside the
northern wall of Jerusalem. This is said to be place where Jesus was crucified
and where the Bible says, "there was a garden, a new tomb where no one had ever
laid", although not all archaeologists agree.

Not far is the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus went with his most trusted
disciples to find solitude and pray. The garden at the Gethsemane Church, also
known as the Agony Church, contains olive trees thousands of years old.

Day Eight – March 5, the

Qumran and the Dead Sea

After having read so much about the Dead Sea Scrolls, I saw the caves in Qumran
where they had been found.

The scrolls were discovered between 1947 and 1956 in 11 caves on the northwest
shore of the Dead Sea, east of Jerusalem. They contain early copies of the
Scriptures and other writings.

It was fun time next. Just a short distance away from the caves is the shore of
the Dead Sea, one of the most spectacular natural and spiritual landscapes in
the world. It is the lowest point on earth at 417m below sea level and the
world's richest source of natural earths.

As the name evokes, the Dead Sea is devoid of life due to an extremely high
content of salt minerals but there have been recent findings of some bacteria
and algae in the water.

We changed into our bathing suits quickly and plunged into the water. Both the
men and women quickly smeared their faces and bodies with black mud, said to
have curative powers and therapeutic qualities. Everyone wanted to look young.
Even the senior citizens from the Mar Thoma Syrian Church sportingly went into
the waters in their saris.

Day Nine – March 6, Mount

Nebo and flight home

This was the last leg of the journey. We were tired and homesick but we all
agreed that it had been spiritually fulfilling trip.

At a thanksgiving service the night before, I spoke about my transformation
from being a Christian hater and how I struggle with my regrets, mistakes and
continuing sins daily.

I accepted the Lord only five years ago and amazingly, here I was in the Holy
Land. I recalled how I cried as I carried the cross and how the Lord must have
watched over me, not once but many times, the latest sending a passing angel
who ensured my wallet was returned to me.

As we headed towards the Jordan border, we sang Christian songs and naturally,
Shalom, Till We Meet Again.

We prayed for our Muslim driver, Ahmad Badawi, a 63-year-old Arab, and our
Indonesian-speaking guide, Jeries Farra.

We were the first bus to cross the Allenby Bridge and this time, the Israel
Immigration was efficient and even cheerful. We were practically waved through.
We entered Jordan with great relief.

The trip ended with a visit to the "original baptismal site" and a trip to
Mount Nebo, where God showed Moses the Promised Land. At the top of the hill is
a metal cross with a serpent, symbolising the bronze reptile that Moses made so
that those who were bitten and looked on it were healed. (Numbers 21:9)

A quick lunch of 20 minutes followed next, after a short visit to Madaba, along
the 5,000-year-old King's Highway where Moses had travelled. The Arabian town
of mostly Christians is known as the City of Mosaics as it boasts a Greek
Orthodox Church of St George with a 6th century Byzantine mosaic map showing
the entire region from Jordan and Palestine in the north to Egypt in the

A funny thing happened on our way to lunch. I was stopped by a group of
youngsters who, probably taken by my black leather jacket and sunglasses, kept
calling me "Jackie Chan" – a reference to the Hong Kong superstar.

To these young Jordanians, the kung fu actor was obviously their link to
Chinese. As I sat down for lunch at a nearby restaurant, the owner and his
waiters were still excitedly talking about Jackie Chan.

Strangely, more than 10 years ago, when I was in Sarajevo in Bosnia, shortly
after the war ended, some adults shouted "Bruce Lee" at me as I walked past.
It's the sign of the times, I guess. It's in with the new and out with the

We reached Queen Alia airport just in time to catch the flight to Dubai, where
we had a five-hour wait for our flight home to Kuala Lumpur.

 *For enquiries about Christian pilgrimage tours, contact: World Discovery
Travel, Ground Floor, Wisma TK Tang, No. 4 Jalan Yap Ah Loy, 50050 Kuala
Lumpur. Tel: 03-2026 1128.