Chapter 2 : A Journey Begins
As I grew into a man I realised there were decisions to be made. Childhood shelters us from the harsh winds of responsibility and our childish freedoms seem to come easily. But as childhood fades and society demands more from us than we ever could have imagined, our freedoms have to be won or else, like ears of wheat left untended in the fields, they wither and are lost.
I could not continue to hide in the desert for the rest of my life, even if I had wished to. There were things I wanted to know and suspected even the desert could not teach me. When our spirit awakens and a call is heard in the heart, we are helpless to ignore it. Try as we might our soul cries even louder like a drum beating inside our skull. Those who recognise the call will doubtless understand what it means to be tormented: sleep grows shallow and full of restless dreams, and waking hours are spent trying to decipher their meanings which, like songbirds nesting high in the trees, always remain hidden.
I could have chosen the life of a farmer, like my father. I could have worked with the seasons and elements, planting wheat and barley and tending olive trees – and like any good citizen offered up my livelihood to dishonest tax collectors and pious stewards of the Temple. I could have married and fathered children and lived the kind of life society expected of me. But what then would have become of those dreams or the voice of my soul? Even at that young age I knew there were some invitations you do not refuse.
So it was that on the day of my eighteenth birthday when I should have been celebrating and feasting with friends, I packed my belongings and said farewell to my family and my home. I had heard stories from merchants and other travellers passing through our land of great cities like Athens and Alexandria, and sacred places rumoured to contain all the mysteries of the world. This at least gave me hope that there were others like myself: outsiders who dreamed of crossing the desert in search of revelation. I was looking for answers to questions I could barely even frame in my mind, but which nevertheless continued to haunt me. If I stayed at home my future would be tied to the plough and the soil or, like seeds sown on shallow ground, blown here and there by the wind; in either case I would only ever be half the man I dreamed of being. I would miss my family of course. And I would miss the hills and caves where I played as a child, roaming wild like the beasts and the birds. I would miss the burning sand and the sunsets that blazed like an inferno, but still I knew I had to leave or I would never know who I was.
I took one of the many trade routes which connect these lands with the West – with Egypt, and Athens and Rome on the far shores of the Mediterranean. As soon as I could I joined up with a caravan, for these roads are best not travelled alone; the hills are home to mercenaries and robbers who prey on lone travellers and would happily stab you in the heart for a handful of coins, a couple of blankets or some food. Our little group was as egalitarian as any on this earth. We shared all our supplies as well as the workload: tending animals, cooking, erecting shelters and keeping guard against nightly attack. These routines were well practised and there was not a man, woman or child who did not know their responsibilities or role. I learned new skills like how to set a trap, make basic tools from palm leaves woven tightly for strength, and set a course from the position of the stars. I absorbed everything with a keen interest, thanking fate to have fallen in with such practical and generous companions.
As for my destination I had only the vaguest of plans. My notion was to search for a teacher, someone who would steer my soul towards whatever destiny awaited me. I had heard tell of great masters, men whose discipline and dedication had led them to realise the most profound states of consciousness. Some called them sorcerers or magi, others holy men – keepers of wisdom whose knowledge was shrouded in secrecy. Whatever the truth of this, it was clear I was on a journey whose course was unknown, a path that could only be accessed through the dreams and yearnings of my soul. Even though some might have called it a fool’s fantasy and laughed at my quest, my footsteps were light and my focus firm. And while the travelling was often gruelling, I awoke each morning with a sense of excitement and greeted every sunrise as if it were a blessing.
We passed through lands I could never have imagined, so insular are the ways of a farming community in the empty hills of Judea. Accents soon began to change as did language and customs, yet we felt the same earth beneath our feet and beheld the same sky. I learned that throughout the tribes and communities of the desert a traveller is considered a gift from God, and every effort was made to welcome, shelter and feed us. When our route led us through populated areas – a village or small encampment – young children would run to greet us, guiding us like kings towards fire, food and hospitality. Whatever gods they held sacred were generous indeed for it seemed a matter of pride that all our needs were met; often we would sleep on luxuriant beds made from animal pelts, drink refreshing tea, and feast on roasted meats and breads cooked in the embers of the fire.
At times we met with immense struggle and hardship and would certainly have perished were it not for the respect and loyalty between us. One morning while packing away the shelters we were overtaken by a sharkiyya – a hot easterly wind with a temper as ferocious as a wild bear caught in a trap. These demons of the desert give almost no warning and when they strike they kick up a sandstorm that can barely be imagined; unless you have witnessed the fury of hell you will not know of what I speak. Even the strongest and most able among us were left cowering like infants, praying for the ordeal to end.
Despite these tribulations we made good progress and remained in high spirits. Our journey took us across the Judean wilderness, through the deserts of Idumea and Sinai and on towards the Gulf of Aqaba. From there we crossed into Egypt and set a course which eventually brought us to the banks of the Nile River – the lifeblood of these otherwise arid lands. Where the landscape of my home was stony and parched the Nile Valley was a fertile oasis of palm trees, lush fields and even water meadows filled with oxen and wildfowl. Dark-skinned farmworkers or slaves, bare to the waist, were planting out wheat and other grains. With our supplies running low this was a sight most welcome for it meant we might soon be filling our bellies with something other than bread and gruel.
In the second week of our passage through Egypt we came to the shores of the Mediterranean, serene in the ferocious heat of the midday sun. For my companions this was a mere pause in a much longer journey west, but for myself I felt I had stumbled upon a land of myth; a country far removed from the humble farms and settlements of my childhood home. The moment I set eyes on the ocean, whose distances were mysterious and unimaginable to me, I knew that this chapter of my journey was almost at an end.