Travel, Pilgrimage, and Rites of Passage

By Will Pennington - Millennial Milk

The fact that you are reading this is a miracle.

It may not seem like at at first…but it is.

Seriously, the chain of improbabilities that led us to this point is astounding. And I don’t even know your story. I only know mine, and it’s a strange one.

I can’t tell it from the beginning, but I want to tell you part of my story. Part that is particularly important as to how it came that you are reading the words I’m writing.

I’ve had a lot of shitty moments in my life. One was getting a call at 6:00 in the morning telling me my best friend was dead. That’s one of those things that irrevocably alters your life trajectory.

I needed a change in my life. I had spent the last couple skipping class and generally being a miscreant. Brian’s death was a wakeup call. Needless to say I was pretty shaken up. I needed a change, I needed to get out of town for a while.

I’ve come to learn, what I needed, (in the parlance of Anthropology), was a rite of passage. A rite of passage is a ritual that involves going from one life station to another. (Becoming an adult, getting married, funerals etc.) I needed something to mark the end of one chapter of my life and the beginning of another. In order for something to be considered a rite of passage it has to meet three basic criteria. 1. The person undergoing the rite of passage must be separated from their friends and family for the rite. 2. The person must go through a state of liminality, in which they are part of neither their old group, nor their new group, and the cultural constraints from neither group apply to the person in question. And 3. Incorporation into their new role.

Step 1: Separation

Like I said, I needed to get away from things for a bit. My cousin had been living in Israel for the last couple years and was getting ready to move back to The States in a few months. I had always talked about going to visit him, but never gotten around to it. Now was my chance. I made sure my passport was up to date and set off on my grand adventure to the middle east.

Now I know what you are thinking, if my cousin was there, I wasn’t truly separated from all of my friends and family. This is true, but in some cultures rites of passage take place for a group of people at a time. You are not separated from everyone; your companions play a key role while you are in that liminal state. I would not have grown the way that I did without my cousin Jack there. Besides, I had plenty of time on my own.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. However, one of the things I love most about traveling is that it makes you realize that the basic human condition is the same all over the world. For 10 days I was a pilgrim seeking meaning in the middle east. I found it, but not in the way I expected.

I have a tendency to maintain one very close friendship at at a time. Throughout my life, I have had a series of best friends from whom I was practically inseparable. For the last two and a half years Brian had been part of everything in my life. Suddenly being alone after his death was like trying to learn to walk again. My confidence and self-esteem were shot. I didn’t know who I was without him in the equation.

Jack, my cousin, was in Israel working with a non-profit called Peace Players International, which uses basketball to help promote peace in conflict regions. (Israel/Palestine, or Northern Ireland etc.) I definitely learned a lot through helping him. But I also learned a great many valuable lessons on the days when he was stuck in the office and I went and explored Israel on my own.

One of the most important days was my trip to the old city in Jerusalem.

I’m from Oklahoma, we don’t really do public transportation, but on a day when my chauffeur (Jack) was stuck at work, I had no recourse but to take the bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. I would have been a little out of my element trying to get on the bus to Dallas, much less navigating a very busy bus stop in a country where you can’t always count on English being spoken. Seemingly miraculously, I made it to Jerusalem, and was able to navigate without a hitch to the old city.

The Old City of Jerusalem is something else. I could spend pages and pages talking about the wonder and the mystery I found there, but I don’t have that kind of time, and doubtless neither do you.

Step 2: Liminality

It really astonishes me how many of my habits can be traced either back to, or directly through my time in Israel. For example, today I keep a daily journal, making sure I complete tasks, tracking expenses, and documenting my deeds so to speak. These days it is full of tables and lists, and probably walks the line between productivity and obsession. I keep a journal in Israel too. I only made three entries, and they are all terse. One reads like this:

“Day 2: Woke up at approximately 11:00 am local time, went to going away pool party for Jason in…?, ( I didn’t remember where the party took place when I wrote that evening) After party came back and helped clean up apartment, Then went to Agadir for burgers and drinks w/ Mor Elharar, Chris Powers, and Jack.”

Before I get back into the story. If you are ever in need of a good burger in Tel-Aviv, go to Agadir. It was maybe the best burger I have ever eaten in my entire life. I am serious. It makes my mouth water thinking about it three years later.

Anyway, looking back on that journal from Tel Aviv is like finding a fossil record of the progress I have made as a person. My journaling has evolved, and this entry about a pool party and a burger is like the first species to set foot on dry land. Israel was a time when I started to grow.

Now my liminal state isn’t as epic as some. I didn’t have to go lion hunting, or to stick my hand in a mitt of bullet ants, but I changed none the less. I think part of it was my camaraderie with Jack and his friends. The only faces I knew in a strange land. Some of it owed to that trip to Jerusalem.

One of the days that seems to matter the most in retrospect was the day that I went with Jack, Mor and Mohammed Yatim to the Dead Sea and Masada. It reads like a bad joke, two American Christians, a Jew, and a Palestinian get into a car…we were an odd bunch.

First was the Dead Sea, and relaxation. The mud, the salty water, the floating, it was a blast. People go on and on about float tanks these days, and sensory deprivation. While I’m sure that’s cool, I am glad my senses weren’t deprived on that day. Being at the lowest point of land on earth was a kind of humbling and spiritual experience.

Israel in general is a trip. Tel Aviv is the modern Israeli city next to the ancient Palestinian city of Jaffa. When I say ancient, I mean Jonah was taking a bout from Jaffa when he got swallowed by his fish. I had never been anywhere that was old like this before.

But right next to ancient Jaffa is brand spanking new Tel Aviv, with its Bauhaus architecture and its nightlife and sleek modernity. That was my favorite part of Israel, the constant dichotomy between old and new, ancient and modern. Time feels cyclical in the Holy Land. Like the past and the present are somehow coexisting next to each other. I think that is why it feels so spiritual, I also think maybe that is why conflicts in this part of the world seem to stretch on and endlessly as the cycles of time.

Anyways, after a mud bath and bobbing up and down in some really salty water like a cork. We dried off a drove to the ancient Jewish fortress of Masada.

If you don’t know about Masada, I’ll try to briefly explain its importance. Masada was the last free Jewish refugee against the Roman occupation of the Levant. Masada is built on top of a flat topped mountain that looks like a mesa out of the old Road Runner cartoons. Being for strapping young men, we decided to take the long trail full of switch backs to get to the top. The path is treacherous, only wide enough to walk in single file. It is steep and long and exhausting. At the time of the Roman siege, it was the only way up.

For years, a Jewish force of hundreds was able to resist a Roman army of thousands due to the difficulty of attacking up this winding mountain path. Eventually the Romans got tired of trying to out wait the Jews and essentially built a giant ramp up to the top of the mountain where they could attack en masse. When the Romans reached the fortress they found all of the Jews dead. They had taken their own lives rather than submit to Roman slavery.

The view from Masada is as breathtaking as the story is tragic. The wind and the desert are tragic and beautiful. They seem to know this is a solemn place.

Israel and Masada in particular awoke in me again my love for anthropology, my love for exploring cultures and traditions and learning lessons from both the past and the present.

On our way back, we got stopped at a checkpoint. No big deal, we weren’t breaking any laws, but then Mohammed realized he didn’t have his ID with him. The look of fear this man had, this brother with whom I had made the exhausting treacherous climb up the mountain path with, broke my heart. Mo is the last thing from dangerous, he had lived in Israel his whole life, but still his government made him fear for his own safety. That wasn’t right.

We got through the check point ok because we had two American passports and an Israeli Jew in the car, we didn’t seem like much of a threat. Even after the check point that fear lingered in Mo’s body language and on his face.

Step 3: Incorporation

The friends I made in a week and a half in Israel have transcended that time.

Remember Jason, the guy who’s going away party I went to? He is kind of my boss now.

We had been friends on Facebook since I met him in Israel. Not like real friends, but like Facebook friends. I really wanted to go back to Israel so I did my best to keep up with most of the people I met there.

About months ago I bought his book The Millennial Advantage, it’s a good book full of sound financial advice for people in their 20’s and 30’s. As Shea Serrano says, “Support people who make dope shit”. Then one day Jason said he was looking for professional writers looking for part time work. I sent him a message.

We began discussing the idea of me working for his new Medium publication Millennial Milk, I didn’t know him that well so I decided to do some research. I asked Jack and Mo what they thought of Jason. Mo told me all I needed to hear. “I trust Jason with my life,” he said unequivocally. That was all I needed to know.

Having been in that car with Mo as we rolled up to that checkpoint I knew that was not a phrase he would use lightly. I knew this was someone I wanted to work for, someone I could trust.

So many things sprang out of that trip to Israel, but I really never thought this job would be one of them. To anyone reading this, I urge you, travel! Explore the world! I know traveling is expensive, but it isn’t a frivolous expense, it is an investment in personal growth and connections.

It doesn’t have to be across the globe to make an impact. Explore the country you live in now. Hell, explore your home town. I promise you will still be better for it. This is just one of a plethora of examples of how I would not be the person I am today were it not for the opportunities I have had to travel.