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Monthly Archives: May 2013

Global Maternal Health in 2013

Our week in Kuala Lumpur is almost over and we’ve had an amazingly busy and informative week of meetings, briefings and field visits. Whether visiting with the Malaysian government’s ministry of health, touring government facilities, sharing thoughts with one of the 4,000 delegates from around the world, or participating in roundtable discussions with experts in the field, I have been immersed in the issue and focus of the conference.

In 2000, all UN Member States committed to eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which aim to significantly reduce extreme poverty and disease, ensure environmental sustainability, and enhance international coordination around development by 2015. That means that 189 countries committed to ending extreme poverty worldwide through the achievement of these MDG’s. The MDGs are the FIRST and ONLY international framework for improving the human condition of the world’s poor.

MDG 5 — Improve Maternal Health — set a target of reducing maternal mortality by three-fourths by 2015. And that has been one of the key focal points of this conference. Every year, between 350,000 – 500,000 girls and women die from pregnancy-related causes.

Medical solutions exist, but increased government attention is needed to implement policies to improve the supply of and demand for services that will help. While the numbers of deaths are decreasing, the progress is not enough or fast enough to meet the MDG goal by 2015. Almost all maternal deaths occur in developing countries; especially vulnerable are poor women. In fact, maternal mortality represents one of the greatest health disparities between rich and poor and between the rich and poor populations within every country.

Interestingly enough, providing the essential services needed to make significant improvements in maternal health are estimated to cost less than $1.50 per person in the 75 countries where 95% of maternal mortality occurs. The great majority of maternal and newborn deaths can be prevented through simple, cost-effective measures.

For instance, using a country closer to home, in Haiti, the maternal mortality rate is the highest in the Western Hemisphere with 350 deaths per 100,000 live births. In comparison, the rate in the U.S. is 12.7 deaths per 100,000 live births and Afghanistan’s rate was 1,600 deaths per 100,000 live births (2002). Several programs in Haiti have trained over 700 traditional birth attendants to assist with child birth since only 37% of all births in Haiti take place in a health facility.

Thanks to these attendants, pregnant women in Haiti have increased access to trained assistants who assist with safe deliveries. Identifying signs of high-risk pregnancies, and referring at-risk pregnant women to health facilities for care. In Afghanistan, thanks to skilled birth attendants and access to education about pregnancy, the maternal mortality rates went from 1,600 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2002 to 327 deaths in 2010.

Achieving MDG 5 is not only an important goal by itself, it is also central to the achievement of the other MDGs: reducing poverty, reducing child mortality, stopping HIV and AIDS, providing education, promoting gender equality, ensuring adequate food, and promoting a healthy environment.

The U.S. is a leader in funding these programs, but this is not just a U.S. government problem. It’s one that will take government, in partnership with other donors, governments, academia, the private sector, religious institutions, civil society and individual advocates.

Failure to invest in the maternal health of women in developing countries is a missed opportunity for development in those countries that need critical development gains the most.l

 
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Posted by on May 30, 2013 in International Affairs

 

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Global Health Investments: Why It Matters to Main Street, USA

Getting here was a challenge and on the day we landed, we took advantage of our limited free time to explore the city. But on Sunday, the real work began! All day long, we participated in interactive and engaging round table discussions with some of the world’s most engaged and passionate people on the issues that I believe are vital to the United States. It was a pre-curser to the rest of our week in KL.

We are here to participate in the 2013 Women Deliver Global Conference. This is third international conference of its kind intended to bring world leaders and experts in the field together to discuss one aspect of our foreign assistance agenda. The Women Deliver conference builds on commitments, partnerships, and networks mobilized at the groundbreaking Women Deliver conferences in 2007 and 2010, fighting to end the deluge of preventable deaths that kill approximately 287,000 girls and women from pregnancy-related causes every year.

Many people back home wonder why the United States is engaged in funding activities like global health concerns and sometimes its hard to explain. But when you’re in a place like this, surrounded by people who address these concerns daily, it’s more than clear why.

Despite the fact that many people view foreign assistance as unnecessary – particularly in austere budgetary climates – I would argue that drastically reducing foreign assistance is not the answer to balancing the budget, nor is it our best interest as a nation.

To help frame the discussion, its important to note that sixty percent of people questioned in a CNN/ORC poll conducted early in 2012 said they’d like to put foreign aid on the budget chopping block; however, at the same time, the public grossly overestimated how much the U.S. is spending on foreign aid. Americans estimate that foreign aid takes up 10% of the federal budget, and one in five think it represents about 30% of the money the government spends. The reality is, it amounts to less than one percent of our budget and I contend, it may be one of the most important annual expenditures and investments we make.

We are a nation blessed with an abundance of wealth and opportunity and I firmly believe that we have a moral responsibility to invest in the world around us. For one percent of total federal spending, the United States is able to respond to humanitarian needs, promote a more secure world, help those most in need around the world, and spur economic development to improve people’s lives. But just as important as our moral responsibility in this arena is the fact that these precious taxpayer resources are an investment in America’s long-term national security.

No matter your political persuasion, it is a fact that the money we spend on global health and development is a cost effective investment. The threat of terrorism and extremism are two of this generation’s greatest challenges. Families all around the world want the same thing. A happy, healthy family, one that promotes and stabilizes the family unit, that leads to a strong village filled with hope and optimism for tomorrow, which leads to stable governments, stronger economies, more friends abroad, and ultimately, a peaceful world.

While it might sound naive, it is the truth….promoting peace and stability through effective foreign assistance ultimately means the promotion of healthy societies, which are often the best defense against extremism and protects our overall national security interests.

Today’s briefings and discussions focused more pointedly on women’s health and we had robust discussions with numerous groups working on the ground. We heard from advocates like Mandy Moore and Barbara Bush, plus numerous experts from the field. Funding programs that improve the health and lives of girls and women in the developing world is a smart investment for the United States. Every year of schooling for a girl increases her future earning potential between 10-20 percent. Simply ensuring skilled care during a delivery would reduce maternal deaths by 74%.

Women are important contributors to the global economy. They make up 40% of the global labor force and more than 60% of the workers in agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa. When women thrive, families flourish, communities do well, and nations grow.

The math is rather simple, investing in women pays dividends. I am looking forward to meeting experts from the field over the next few days and the dynamic conversations that will follow!

 
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Posted by on May 27, 2013 in International Affairs

 

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Visiting Kuala Lumpur

Visiting the City…

Or how to kill yourself your first day in KL after a twenty hour flight! I think our group should receive an award for making the most out of 7 hours of free time in Kuala Lumpur. After a fast turn around this morning, we set out on our adventure through the city, hitting all of the city’s key attractions, all while facing what felt like 100 degrees and higher humidity than I’ve ever felt before.

Any perceived notions I may have had about Kuala Lumpur were shattered today. This is a vibrant, modern city with a vast infrastructure and bustling neighborhoods. Kuala Lumpur has an estimated population of 1.6 million. The population’s diversity is amazing. Which is the key reasoning for the incredibly mix of ethnic and cultural influences you find here.

From the “just because I thought you might like to know” files, Malaysia’s constitution declares Islam the state religion while protecting freedom of religion. The government system is closely modeled on the Westminster parliamentary system and the legal system is based on English Common Law. The head of state is the King, but he is known as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong. He is an elected monarch chosen from the hereditary rulers of the nine Malay states every five years. The head of government is the Prime Minister. In 1957, the Federation of Malaya gained its independence from British rule. Kuala Lumpur remained the capital through the formation of Malaysia on September 16, 1963.

The geography of Kuala Lumpur is characterized by a huge valley known as Klang Valley. The valley is bordered by the Titiwangsa Mountains in the east, several minor ranges in the north and the south and the Strait of Malacca in the west. Kuala Lumpur has a tropical rainforest climate, which is warm and sunny and complete with regular rainfall. Temperatures tend to remain constant with maximums between 88 and 91 °F and minimums ranging between 72 and 74 °F. Apparently, the temperatures have never gotten higher than 103 degrees and have never fallen below and have never fallen below 58 degrees. My kind of weather!!

Since the 1990s, Kuala Lumpur has played host to many international sporting, political and cultural events including the 1998 Commonwealth Games and the Formula One Grand Prix. And this week they are hosting the third international “Women Deliver” conference with 5,000 delegates from all over the world, including me and my colleagues from the Congress. Kuala Lumpur is also home to one of the tallest twin buildings in the world, the Petronas Twin Towers, which have become an iconic symbol of Malaysia’s futuristic development.

Malaysia is a relatively open state-oriented and newly industrialized market economy. Since independence, Malaysia has had one of the best economic records in Asia, with GDP growing an average 6.5% for almost 50 years. The economy has traditionally been fueled by its natural resources, but is expanding in the sectors of science, tourism, commerce and medical tourism. In 2011 the GDP (PPP) was about $450 billion, the 3rd largest economy in ASEAN and 29th largest in the world. In 1991, former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mahathir bin Mohamad outlined his ideal, called Vision 2020, in which Malaysia would become a self-sufficient industrialized nation by 2020. And several independent sources confirm that Malaysia not only has all of the right ingredients to become a developed nation, but they are also well on their way to meeting the Vision 2020 goals outlined by the government. After touring around yesterday, I cannot believe that they will not do so!

Exploring the city was wonderful, and we decided to do so using the Hop Off Hop On bus, which costs RYM 38 or about $13.00, for a two and a half hour drive around the city with 28 different stops. We decided as a group to hit some of the highlights and began our journey around 10:45 with our first stop in Kuala Lumpur (KL as the locals call it) at Petaling Street, KL’s very own Chinatown! As you might imagine, Petaling Street was a hive of sound and activities. The street seemed to be a bargain hunter’s paradise, with stall after stall of what started to seem like the same stuff….but you know what I mean! I did see Chinese herbs, food specialities, and tons of imitation goods. I understand that at night, Petaling Street transforms into a lively and vibrant night market.

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We decided to walk to two other sites, the Sri Mahamariaman Temple and Central Market. The Sri Mahamariamman Temple is the oldest and richest Hindu temple in Kuala Lumpur. Founded in 1873, it is located at edge of Chinatown. In 1968, a new structure was built, featuring the ornate ‘Raja Gopuram’ tower. From the temple’s inception, it provided an important place of worship for early Indian immigrants and is now an important cultural and national heritage. The temple catches your eye on an otherwise crowded and busy street. It is the most elaborate Hindu temple in the country and its gate tower is adorned with ornate sculptures of Hindu deities. The floors and walls inside are marbled with Italian and Spanish tiles. Outside and all around the temple, we found multiple street stalls with hand crafted flower tributes for believers to purchase and place in the temple.

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After the temple, we continued our journey and found our next destination – The Central Market. Its an old building – built in 1928 – but it had air-conditioning, a by pleasant surprise on this warm and muggy day!

The building has won awards for its architectural design and was founded in 1888 and originally used as a wet market. It has since been classified as a Heritage Site by the Malaysian Heritage Society and it is now a landmark for Malaysian culture and heritage. Today, Central Market is arranged in a stall concept, representing the traditional market that has existed in Kuala Lumpur since the 1800s.

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After Central Market, it was back on the bus! Our next stop, Little India! Ok, this was just a drive by, but this block was a huge project unveiled by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Malaysia’s PM. Little India is an area that caters to KL’s Indian community and includes shops and stores that carry Indian specialities and goods. There’s a 35-foot fountain at the center of this part of town, an information kiosk at Jalan Thamby Abdullah and a three-story Indian bazaar at the end of Jalan Tun Sambanthan. The brick-paved Jalan Tun Sambanthan is lined with white street lamps and creamy-yellow arches with purple embellishments to match the newly painted purple buildings along the street.

Our next stop was also a drive-by…we saw the Istana Negara or National Palace. This was the official residence of His Majesty, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (King) of Malaysia. It stands on a 28 acre site, located on the slope of a hill of Bukit Bintang overlooking the Klang River, along Jalan Syed Putra. The Yang di-Pertuan Agong is the head of state of Malaysia. The office was established in 1957 when the Federation of Malaya gained independence. The Yang di-Pertuan Agong is one of the few elected monarchs in the world.

The 14th and current Yang di-Pertuan Agong is Sultan Abdul Halim of Kedah. His reign began on December 13, 2011 after his election by the Conference of Rulers. He previously served as the fifth Yang di-Pertuan Agong from 1970 to 1975. He is the first ruler to hold the position twice, as well as the oldest elected to the office at 83 years old. The installation of the new Yang di-Pertuan Agong was held on 11 April 2012, at the new Istana Negara at Jalan Duta. This building is now used a museum.

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We also visited the National Museum. It is a palatial structure built in the style of Minangkabau architecture. Located atop a hill on Jalan Travers, it provides an introduction to the history and culture of Malaysia.

Our next stop, Lake Gardens, is Kuala Lumpur’s first large-scale recreational park. It is located in the heart of the city and established in 1888. Lake Gardens served as place of refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city during colonial times. It contains large sculpted and manicured gardens and a host of attractions. Among the tourist attractions located here are the National Monument, deer park, Hibiscus garden, Orchid Garden, Kuala Lumpur Bird Park and Kuala Lumpur Butterfly Park. Lake Gardens, we learned, is also the where the Malaysian House of Parliament is located. So, hopping off at this location was a must! The Malaysian Parliament is divided into three components: Yang Di-Pertuan Agong, Senate and House of Representatives.

We spent some time visiting the Orchid Garden, which has over 800 species of exotic Malaysian orchids. The orchid is truly exotic and special flower and i have never seen so many of them in one place at one time. Despite how beautiful this park was, everyone told us a must see was the bird park and we needed to visit that before our at ran out! Across the street from the Orchid Garden is the KL Bird Park, a fascinating and slightly uncomfortable park that puts people inside a giant aviary.

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I must admit, I felt like I was entering that scene in Jurassic Park! The KL Bird Park is a 20.9-acre public aviary in the city. It is a popular tourist attraction in the country, receiving an annual average of 200,000 visitors. The Bird Park houses more than 3000 birds representing more than 200 species in an enclosed aviary. 90% are local birds and 10% were imported from overseas. Feeding time at the Eagle enclosure was frightening when the other birds got all excited about the eagles getting lunch.

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One the way back to our hotel, we passed the Masjid Negara, the national mosque of Malaysia. It has a capacity of 15,000 people. Originally built in 1965, it is a bold and modern approach in reinforced concrete, symbolic of the aspirations of the newly-independent Malaysia.

Our last stop for the day was the Petronas Twin Towers, the world’s tallest twin buildings. A mix of offices and commercial, the towers are huge and a part of the KL skyline. As we cut through the building to get to our hotel, we saw the famous mall inside the towers.

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After a quick shower, we all ran to our dinner and briefing to discuss the week’s goals. At 9:00 pm, an extremely long, exhausting, but productive day finally came to an end!

 
 

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The Other Side of the World

Twenty hours is a ridiculously long time to be on a plane. But, I guess that’s what happens when you travel to the other side of the earth. To a place located south of the equator. It’s now Saturday morning and while we left Washington on Thursday, we are now just 60 minutes from escaping the plane. Don’t get me wrong, the ride was amazingly comfortable, the staff very helpful, and I actually got some shut eye as well. I just feel like I’ve been imprisoned and I have one hour left in my sentence.

Upon landing, it will be 6:30 am here and this is our only free day in Malaysia. I hope to check in, clean up, unpack, and visit the city before our official meetings begin tonight.

 
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Posted by on May 25, 2013 in Travel

 
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Thoughts from Jordan – A Few Parting Thoughts

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I cannot begin to adequately describe in any way that does it justice, the things, people, and experiences I have been privileged to witness this week. This is a fascinating country. Generally, westerners have misconceptions about the Middle East. Americans especially tend to think of places in this part of the world, as menacing places, but nothing is further from the truth when it comes to this country.

Jordan’s people are friendly and open. Many speak or understand English. The nation’s capital, Amman, is a city filled with neighborhoods, shopping districts, restaurants and people. It only takes five hours to drive from Jordan’s northern borders to its southern-most city.

Jordan has its share of incredibly difficult issues to overcome. It is the 4th poorest water resource country in the world. It has a population of 6 million, and Palestinian refugees add 2 million to that number, while the crisis in Syria has resulted in 500,000 new refugees and the prediction that as many as 500,000 more will follow by the end of the year. Unemployment is high. There are 13 Palestinian refugee camps here, some since 1949. There are three Syrian refugee camps in Jordan that house some of the 500,000 plus Syrian refugees.

Jordan, unlike its neighbors, has no natural resources to speak of. They import most of their energy needs and food. Their geographic boundaries place them in one of the toughest neighborhoods on earth. They are bordered on the east by Israel, Syria on the north, Egypt in the south, and Iraq and Saudi Arabia to the west.

It has weathered the Arab Spring. It is resolved to change in light of those protests all around the region. They have embraced some democratic reforms and while their democracy doesn’t look like ours, they are embarking upon their own grand experiment.

It’s not immune from terrorism. The 2005 Amman bombings enraged its citizenry who call that day, Jordan’s 9-11. The bombings were a series of coordinated bomb attacks on three hotels in Amman, Jordan, on 9 November 2005. The attacks killed 60 people and injured 115 others. The explosions—at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, the Radisson SAS Hotel, and the Days Inn—started at around 20:50 at the Grand Hyatt. The three hotels are often frequented by foreign diplomats.

Despite their challenges, their difficult economy and the regional challenges they face, the Jordanians are some of the most gracious people in the world. They have given more than any one country should be expected to with respect to the helping with the Syrian crisis. The demands on infrastructure, a weak job market, and utilities, especially water, by the addition of 1,000,000 people in a short period of time – or nearly 20% of your country’s population – are staggering.

The people of Jordan seem patient for now. But continued stresses on everyday Jordanians by the country’s generosity cannot and should not be taken for granted. This situation is just not sustainable. The regional impacts of unrest in this stable and reliable ally cannot be understated.

The people here always smile. They go out of their way to say hello. Jordan’s strength is her people and their resolve. The next few years will be critical for this small nation. Jordan is the keystone in any process that impacts Syria, peace in the Middle East, or relationships with the Arab world. She is an ally in a region where the United States has few friends. We must continue to support and encourage our friends in Jordan for they might be the last best chance the world has in this part of the world.

 
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Posted by on May 5, 2013 in Travel

 

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Thoughts from Jordan – Jordan’s Treasured Sites

Over the last few days, we have been privileged to visit some of the most amazing places on the face of the earth….I thought I’d share a few observations and tales….

Mount Nebo

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Mount Nebo is one of the most revered holy sites of Jordan and the place where Moses was buried. A small Byzantine church was built there by early Christians, which has been expanded into a vast complex. During his visit to Jordan in 2000, the Late Pope John Paul II held a sermon here that was attended by some 20,000 faithful. On the highest point of the mountain, Syagha, the remains of a church and monastery were discovered in 1933.

The church was first constructed in the second half of the 4th century to commemorate the place of Moses’ death.  We were running late this day and decided to still go to the site.  Unfortunately, the church is under renovation, so we could not enter.  But we did head to the place where Moses was allowed to view the holy land and where God showed Moses the promised land and explained that he would not join those he had led from Egypt.  The weather did not fully cooperate either,  but I am told that when you stand where I was standing – and it’s a clear day – you can see, as Moses did, the Jordan River Valley, the Dead Sea, Jericho and Jerusalem.

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We were able to see some things in the distance; however, dust and wind prevented it from being a clear vista.  Nevertheless, I was tremendously moved by standing in this place.  Jordan’s rich and treasured historic monuments are unlike any I have visited before.  This is a place where as you walk, climb, hike, or just visit the valleys, hills and plains of this country, the names of famous historical and Biblical persons, who have been woven into our collective human history by virtue of walking in these same places and crossing its rivers during their lives, are virtually everywhere.

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As I walked back to the bus, I quietly reflected upon what this pilgrimage meant to me. And all I could think of was that when God chose Moses to lead the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, Moses was unwilling at first. And after I got beyond the “Oh my God, I’m standing where Moses stood,” phase, I started to think about how many of us are reluctant to get up and do something even when God clearly has something else in store.  Visiting Mount Nebo was a reminder that when we feel that tug from inside, we need to listen because we don’t always know what God is trying to tell us to do.

The Ancient City of Jerash

For anyone fascinated with history, a visit to Jordan is a must.  But for Rome itself, I’m not sure I have ever seen so many wonderful examples of ancient ruins than in Jordan.  On Thursday, we visited the ancient city of Jerash.  Jerash is the site of the ruins of the Greco-Roman city of Gerasa, also referred to as Antioch on the Golden River. Visiting Jerash is without a doubt one of the best preserved Roman cities I have ever seen, and sadly, I had never heard of it before this trip.

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Recent excavations show that Jerash was already inhabited during the Bronze Age (3200 BC – 1200 BC). After the Roman conquest in 63 BC, Jerash and the land surrounding it were annexed by the Roman province of Syria, and later joined the Decapolis cities. In AD 90, Jerash was absorbed into the Roman province of Arabia, which included the city of Philadelphia (modern day Amman). The Romans ensured security and peace in this area, which enabled its people to devote their efforts and time to economic development and encouraged civic building activity.

The City of Madaba

After visiting Jerash and Mount Nebo, our final stop of day was a trip into Madaba.  The city of Madaba is known for its mosaics and religious sites like St. George’s Church.  on the original floor of St. George’s church are the remnants of church’s mosaic map of the Holy Land.

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The Map of Madaba mosaic was discovered in 1896 and the findings were published a year later.  But the amazing thing about the Madaba Mosaic Map is that it is an index map of the region, dating from the 6th century!  With two million pieces of colored stone, the map depicts hills and valleys, villages and towns in Palestine and the Nile Delta. The mosaic contains the earliest extant representation of Byzantine Jerusalem, labeled the “Holy City.” The map provides important details as to its 6th-century landmarks and is one key in developing scholarly knowledge about the physical layout of Jerusalem after its destruction and rebuilding in 70 AD.

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The actual map depicts an area from Lebanon in the north to the Nile Delta in the south, and from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Eastern Desert. The map may partially have served to facilitate pilgrims’ orientation in the Holy Land. All in all, the map depicts about 150 labelled towns and villages.

For me, perhaps the most exciting aspect of the map has been its use to locate and verify biblical sites throughout the holy land.  For instance, in 1967, excavations in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem revealed the Nea Church and the Cardo Maximus in the very locations suggested by the Madaba Map.  In February 2010, excavations further substantiated its accuracy with the discovery of a road depicted in the map that runs through the center of Jerusalem. According to the map, the main entrance to the city was through a large gate opening into a wide central street. Until now, archaeologists were not able to excavate this site due to heavy pedestrian traffic. In the wake of infrastructure work near the Jaffa Gate, large paving stones were discovered at a depth of 4 meters below ground that prove such a road existed.

The mosaic also identifies significant structures in the Old City of Jerusalem: the Damascus Gate, the Lions’ Gate, the Golden Gate, the Zion Gate, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the New Church of the Theotokos, the Tower of David and the Cardo Maximus.

What’ remains today of the mosaic map is amazing to see and I did take some photos of it that I hope to put on Facebook soon.  As I stood there looking at it, it was hard to believe that such a detailed map existed during the time is was created.  And again, to know that it substantiates some of the sites referenced in the bible is fascinating.

As I left the City, I ran into one small shop and purchased a memento to bring home.  The shop keeper and I exchanged a few words and he asked if I have enjoyed my visit.  I told him I had and that he has a beautiful country.  He replied that it was my country too.  That sentiment was repeated over and over.  The kindness and hospitality of the Jordanians was clearly visible wherever we traveled.  Our foreign assistance dollars this place have made a difference for the better of our two countries and that was exciting to see and hear.

Friday

We left the hotel earlier today then we had all week.  With our official meetings over, and my head filled with information and details, and my suitcase overflowing (and I’m sure heavier then the weight limit) with handouts, presentation materials, and books, we packed our bags and set out for the our four hour ride to Petra.

We were just happy to get out of the bus.  It was a pleasant enough ride and the accommodations were fine, the ride itself was slightly uncomfortable, bouncy, etc.  But the trip was well worth the effort!  What an amazing journey.  From he first time I watched the Indiana Jones movie that featured Petra, I always wanted to visit this place.  And it did not disappoint!

Petra

At more than 2,000 years old, this city appears to be half as old as time itself and as you wonder through the old city streets, you cannot help but wonder what life here must have been like.  This city is indeed one of the greatest archaeological treasures of the world.

Tucked quietly in the mountains of southern Jordan, between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba, Petra was once the strategic location along early trade routes between the Middle East and northern Africa. Its people were some of the original architects, artisans and tradesmen prospering until trade routes changed and the Romans eventually took over. Now a United Nations World Heritage Site, the eroded areas are protected for future generations to enjoy.

The ancient main entrance to Petra was breathtaking.  It was a 1,200 meter long (or 4,000 feet) deep and sometimes narrow gorge of stunning rock formations and artwork.  Just when you think you’re done, there is another twist or turn, and then you come face to face with the iconic image of Petra, the Treasury, or Al-Khazneh.

The main influence in the construction of theTreasury was Hellenistic and stands an impressive 141 feet tall, and 100 feet wide.  We walked further through the city to see the Street of Facades and the city theatre.  Scattered high above the streets and well into the mountain sides, you could see caves that were bored into the rock formation and acted as homes to local residents of the time.  We also walked the colonnaded street, which was added after the city was incorporated into the Roman Empire.  This street led through the city center and is flanked by temples, public buildings, and shops.  It was absolutely breath taking.

Petra is beautiful.  It stands as a testimony to past civilizations, their desire for order, their commitment to education, and their passion for architectural and civil engineering dominance.  Despite the fact that we walked through Petra for nearly two hours, archeologists estimate that only 20% of the original city has been unearthed and that Petra was once home to a thriving ancient city of 30,000 people.

Wadi Rum

Although our day in Petra was perfect, the weather turned as we drove south to Wadi Rum, a huge desert reserve area in southern Jordan protected by the Jordanian government.

 

 

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JMA_8718Upon our arrival at the campsite, we were shown into a large square tented courtyard and offered teas, dates, and cookies. The area was laid out in a Bedouin-style, with rugs and cushions everywhere.  We waited there until our rides were ready to tour Wadi Rum and head to our campsite for the evening.  Wadi Rum is another amazing place seemingly frozen in time.

We boarded two 4×4 pickups and bumped past titanic stone sculptures of Wadi Rum. The pickups stopped a few times to awe at the beauty of it all.  At one point, I found my own piece of the desert to reflect at what God had created in this place. We arrived at our camp, fully set up in Bedouin style, and enjoyed tea, explored the area and got settled.  As we waited for dinner, we took the opportunity to introduce a western classic to our Bedouin and Jordanian hosts – s’mores!  I’m not sure what they thought about our description of a s’more, but once they got the hang of, they seemed to enjoy the process and the end result.  There is nothing like “S’more Diplomacy” to build relations around the world!

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The camp just housed our delegation, and there was dining, live music, dancing, great fellowship, and exploration.  We watched as our hosts pulled our dinner out of the ground after cooking for hours beneath the sand.  The meal included lamb, chicken, rice, and vegetables all cooked together.  Our Bedouin host also made fresh bread he flattened and cooked on a heated inverted wok kept on the fire.  Unbelievable!  The hot dishes were served with an assortment of hummus, salads, and sauces.

After things settled down, several of us decided to sleep under the stars instead of in our personal tents.  At this point in my day, I would normally check emails, voice mails and send a dozen or so text messages, but none of that was happening this night. No phones, no computers, just the age-old art of conversation under intense and unblinking stars.

Once everyone was in bed, I sat in our campsite and gazed at the rock formations surrounding our home for the evening and heard nothing. Nothing but my thoughts. For the first time in my life, I heard absolutely nothing. It was as startling as it was refreshing and peaceful. Just me, the earth and the air. I slept under the stars and awoke as soon as the sun began to rise and the formations around me were painted a different color than the night before and even more beautiful.

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Wadi Rum wraps its guests in a warm tranquil embrace that makes it difficult to board a 4×4 to head out of the park in the morning.

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Bethany Beyond the Jordan

On Saturday, our last full day in Jordan, we left Wadi Rum to make our way towards the Dead Sea.  Before checking into the hotel, we had one last antiquity in this amazing country peppered with antiquities and holy sites.  We set out for a place knows as Bethany beyond the Jordan.  For me, this may have been the most moving of sites visited during this trip.  I truly felt that this was in some ways a part of my Christian journey and a pilgrimage of sorts.  I didn’t think that when we set out, but by the end of the trip, visiting mount Nebo, Madaba, and this site were collectively overwhelming.

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I certainly acknowledge that no one today knows where Jesus was baptized, but we do know that John the Baptist hung out in this region of the Middle East.  We know that Jesus and John were together at some point during John’s ministry and we know, from historical records and archeological finds that somewhere in the general region I was is indeed the place where John and Jesus connected together.  To know that I was walking on this holy ground was moving, inspiring, and a bit overwhelming.

The area I am talking about is about a 45 minute drive from Amman, and slightly north of the Dead Sea. For the three past year and a half, the Jordanian Department of Antiquities has systematically surveyed and partially’ excavated a series of ancient sites that collectively make up one of the most important archaeological discoveries in modem Jordan.

The site excavated reveals the settlement of Bethany, where John the Baptist lived and baptized. The Bethany area sites formed part of the early Christian pilgrimage route between Jerusalem, the Jordan River, and Mt. Nebo. Archaeologists believed they have unearthed the cave where John the Baptist lived and the area is also associated with the biblical account of how the Prophet Elijah ascended to heaven in a whirlwind on a chariot of fire, after having parted the waters of the Jordan River and walked across it with his anointed successor the Prophet Elisha.

The Madaba map depicts two concentric circles at the site, which have variously been interpreted as symbols for the hill itself, the nearby caves, or the spring. The remains of a large church immediately adjacent to and east of the river include fine colored stone pavements and mosaics, Corinthian capitals, and column drums and bases, all from the late Byzantine period. This church may have been built in the Byzantine period to mark the exact spot where people believed that Jesus was baptized and where John lived and preached his baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins. This is the site that visited.

After visiting this ancient site, we went down to the Jordan River’s access point on the Jordan side of the river.  There we could see the Jordan River’s current day flow, and across the river – which could not have been more than 15 feet wide – we witnessed baptisms taking place on the Israeli side of the Jordan.  Believers dressed in white robes were immersing themselves in the river at one entry point while beliefs from Ethiopia were being baptized slightly down river.  On the Jordan side, a group was gathering to celebrate the baptism of a newborn child in the Jordan.

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As we ascended the steps back up the embankment, we visited a small Greek Orthodox Church, the Church of John the Baptist, and entered the church to look around.  The church was more of a small chapel than a church, but the mosaics, and paintings inside were beautiful, including the altar.  I lite a candle and said a few prayers for some friends and family who I know are having a tough time and again, a second wave of emotion came over me.

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As we exited the church to head back to our bus, I looked up at the bell tower next to the church and saw three or four white doves perched in the tower.  That was about all I could take at this place and whether or not this is the exact location of the baptism, it was one of those moments in one’s faith journey that is life-changing.  It is a visit I shall never forget and it is one that will stay with me long after my return home.

The Dead Sea

On our final night in Jordan, we stayed at a hotel on the Dead Sea.  The temperature at this point had gone from pleasant most of the week, to extremely warm at this place. My walk to the beach was long and steep.  The Dead Sea is the lowest land point on earth.  People travel from all over the world to slather themselves in nutrient-rich mud from the Dead Sea and to float in its salty and mineral filled waters. Legend says it was the Queen of Sheba who first believed in the mystical healing powers of this age old sea. Then Cleopatra traveled from Egypt to build the world’s first spa there, later sending her armies in place of her to bring back their precious minerals.

I decided to walk into the sea and check this out. There was a warning sign at the entry point that stated one should not spend more than 20 minutes in the sea at a time.  Not the signs we usually see in the US.  “Watch for Rip Tides,” “lifeguard on duty,” and so forth.  No, at the dead sea, just an ominous warning that too much exposure to the salt will harm you, so I guess 20 minutes or less is the right level for healing!

My assessment….the water was warm, salty, and after just a quick walk in and placing my right arm in the water (presumably to heal a nasty bout of poison ivy that has been with me for two weeks now), I felt slimy and slippery.  You can immediately feel the minerals in the water on your skin.  I couldn’t wait to take a shower.  But it did feel cool.  By the way, my arm looked 50% better by the time I returned to my room – I guess the Queen of Sheba was onto something.

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I stood on one of the numerous balconies to watch one of the most dramatic sunsets I have seen.  As the sun lower itself over the Dead Sea, I was happy over the thoughts of seeing my family again, but sad to see the sunset on this amazing journey through Jordan.

 
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Posted by on May 5, 2013 in Travel

 

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Thoughts from Jordan…..The Realities of Syria’s Civil War

Every human has innate survival instincts.  Every parent is protective of his or her children.  Today I witnessed something I never thought I would see, the absolute look of despair and the need to survive in the eyes of women and men in the Al Zaatari Syrian Refugee Camp along the north Jordanian border near Syria.

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The human toll and suffering at the hands of another makes one wonder why the world response to the crisis of Syria is not more commanding, decisive, and united.  It is hard, no the word hard is an understatement, its unimaginable, when trying to comprehend the actions of one man and how his hold on power is so overwhelming that he cannot and will not do what is best for his people.

As families in Syria fear for their lives, that protective survival instinct kicks in, and people will do almost anything to survive.  In so many cases today in northern Jordan, I saw that.  Mothers and fathers were so desperate that they left their homes in darkness with just what they could carry to move into a tent pitched in the middle of the desert.

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Please don’t misunderstand, the country of Jordan is doing more than any one nation should be asked to do. And just eight months ago, there was only desert where 120,000 people now live in tents and temporary mobile units.  Yes, the residents have food, some security, health care, and education.  But this is no way for families and children to live.  There is overcrowding and a sense of hopelessness in many of the eyes that I gazed into.  The international response has been good, but with 2,000 refugees fleeing Syria into Jordan every night, the camp is now the 4th largest city in Jordan and by the end of this year, another 500,000 refugees are expected to cross into Jordan.

I watched new arrivals today setting up tents in the outskirts of the existing camp boundary as the planners and managers of the camp prepare for the newest influx of residents.  It’s hot and sandy in the desert, there is frustration. Life at a refugee camp is heartless, families live there with their children and are secluded, refugees are deprived of any social interaction with the surrounding community. As frustration grows, and money runs low, social norms begin to break down.  Without the proper resources, Jordan cannot provide the correct level of security and gang violence beings to invade the camp.  Burglary, vandalism, and violence against women are on the rise and trafficking is occurring.

No words can come close to properly conveying what I saw today.  But I know one thing, countless people are working hard to ensure that as many people as possible remain safe and secure.  Despite this Herculean effort on behalf of Jordan and its international partners, there appears to be no easy solution to the Syrian crisis.  A reasonable and sustainable political solution must be found to address the Syrian crisis immediately.

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Then and only then will these people be able to return home to their villages and towns  and the life they knew before coming here.  As I left the camp today, I looked out the window of the bus and thanked God for all that the world was providing to these people, prayed for resolution in Syria, and prayed that the inevitable clash of survival instincts and reality did not result in more pain and suffering for these people struggling to survive in a harsh place in a strange land.

 
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Posted by on May 2, 2013 in International Affairs