It has been months since I updated this blog so our visit to the Holy Land seems a good reason to restart the blog. We returned earlier this morning from our tour and I will try and capture the salient parts both in terms of our visit to the religious sites as well as other thoughts and observations. There is too much to cover in one single posting so I will break it out over multiple postings.
A visit to the Holy Land is something that I have wanted to do for the best part of a decade. For one reason or another it never came to fruition until this year. The Achen who led the visit for our group – as well as some of the other participants – said that a visit to the Holy Land is something that happens when God deems the timing to be right because the best laid plans don’t seem to work according to schedule. Perhaps, that is the reason why we did not make it until this year. In any event, having Achen there to lead the group made a world of a difference in our appreciation of the holy sites visited and therefore any delay in the timing of our visit worked out for the best. I feel confident that had we gone with some other group – and there are many such groups that make these visits to the Holy Land from Kerala – the benefits derived from Achen’s vast experience would have been missed.
The Achen who lead the group was Rev. Sleeba Kattumangattu Cor Episcopa – Sleeba Achen as many in the group referred to him. The “Cor Episcopa” title is one step below a bishop of the church.His organization has conducted over 1000 such tours in a span of twenty years or so with almost weekly tours occurring at the present time. He obviously does not participate in all such tours and therefore being part of a tour which he leads is a big plus. He has made it his life’s mission to organize and occasionally to lead these pilgrimages to the Holy Land. I was introduced to him by my cousin Joychayen (TP George) who had gone for the very same tour in October with his wife, Chellammakochamma and came away with a very positive experience.
Achen’s leadership style is quite low key and he provides a lot of useful information with humor and a personal knowledge of the various sites visited.
He is also very attentive to the members of the group and maintains a calm in the face of any challenges that one faces. I never once saw him rattled. He knows a lot of the officials in the countries and they treat him with respect and trust. He also has an ability to caution the participants of what is a mixed group with varied experiences when it comes to traveling internationally in some of the niceties of proper decorum without causing any offense. The advice varies from minor details such as placing the shower curtain on the inside of the bath tub at hotels to avoid flooding the bathroom to being aware that any snacks or drinks consumed at a mini-bar will be billed to the participant and so should not be viewed as a freebie included in the price of the room.Apparently, on a previous tour there were a couple of young guys who went town on what was stocked in the mini-bar as well as the snacks that were placed in the room and when they were billed for it they got upset and there was a lot of unpleasantness. He also advised participants about dressing appropriately in the public areas of the hotel eg men not wearing a lunghi, women not wearing nighties, etc – again, I assume on prior trips there were participants who did not wear suitable attire in public settings.
These groups that Achen organizes range in size and the larger ones have as many as 50-60 people. Ours was a smaller group with 27 people. It was a mixed group in the sense that the people had varying backgrounds.Interestingly, almost everyone in the group either lived and worked for many years in the Gulf and/or had children who lived and worked there or in the US, UK or elsewhere abroad. There was also a Jacobite Achen from Kottayam – Rev Abraham John Cor Episcopa – as well as Pastor Sunny Chandy from a Pentecostal church also in Kottayam. Both the Achen as well as the pastor were there as part of the group but by virtue of their positions they did conduct prayers and communion at the request of Sleeba Achen.
We were the only ones from the US but there was a family of four from Australia and a young woman from New Zealand. Despite the varied backgrounds – and ages – there was a genuine sense of comity between the members and what started at the beginning of the trip as somewhat formal exchanges had evolved by the end of the trip into an informal and friendly interactions.
The term “Holy Land” is used to denote areas associated with major events in the Bible and consist of biblical occurrences in what is today Jordan, Israel, Palestine and Egypt. These trips from Kerala and especially those organized through Achen’s organization – Royal Omania – are essentially pilgrimages and there is little exposure to sites that don’t have a religious affiliation. In the case of our trip the only places we visited that did not have a religious component were in Cairo – where we saw the pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx and the museum that houses various Egyptian artifacts including the treasures of King Tutankhamun. All of these were places that we had seen on a previous visit to Cairo in 2006 during a cruise which stopped in Alexandria. If what one is looking for is a secular sight-seeing tour then this would not be suitable.
Achen’s own presentations and all prayers were in Malayalam but there were guides who spoke in English at each of the locations so someone like myself who is not fluent in Malayalam was not disadvantaged very much.
I personally found the pilgrimage to be spiritually uplifting – and I am not what one would describe as a conventional Christian in terms of my views. What is more is that Mini – who is a Hindu – found the pilgrimage to the holy sites very gratifying spiritually and a quite emotional and moving experience. Many of the participants – some were people of deep faith – were very affected by some of the sites we visited. For me – apart from the spiritual component – it brought to life in graphic and sometimes symbolic manner some of the events in the Bible especially as it pertains to Jesus Christ. Incidentally, Mini’s one concern about doing this trip was whether being a Hindu would be an issue – Achen assured us that it was not.
We stayed in hotels that ranged from three star to five star resorts and the cost which included the return airfare from Cochin, hotel accommodation for eight nights, ground transportation, deluxe bus travel, all meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner), the cost of tickets to all the sites, etc were included in the price of approximately $1300 per person. Other than personal items and the cost of an optional dinner cruise on the Nile on the final evening, everything was included in the cost of the package. Quite honestly, I am surprised that a tour this comprehensive and upscale can be done so economically.
I have no hesitation in recommending Sleeba Achen and Royal Omania tours to anyone who is seeking a well organized, moderately upscale tour of the Holy Land with emphasis on the spiritual aspects of the various sites.
Below is a picture of the group with Jerusalem in the background. It was taken in front of the hotel where we stayed that had a spectacular view of the city. The Dome of the Rock appears in the center of the picture.