Harding Magazine

Places that changed me

Text and photography by Noah Darnell

From the time I said goodbye and left my parents at the security checkpoint in Birmingham International Airport until I arrived at the same gate at the same airport and greeted my parents in the same spot, exactly 109 days had elapsed. In this short span of time, I had evidently done something deserving of questions — hundred of questions — from hundreds of people.

Granted, most of the questions came in two forms: "How was your trip?" or"Did you have fun?" Many of these four-word questions were answered easily with single-syllable answers: "Good!" or "Fine!" If excessively wordy that day, I might have added, "It was the best experience I could have asked for."

More than a week of "Good!" and "Fine!" and "Great!" passed before I got my first question that required a great deal of thought to answer. My often philosophical great-uncle asked me, "What was the most important thing you learned?"

How do you tally up the things you learned while spending four months on foreign soil? How do you make one learned thing more important than another?

There was an answer. But, on the spur of the moment, I did not have it.         

It is truly difficult to nail down the one thing that comes to mind as more significant than everything else. I learned plenty about places, of course. That cannot be overlooked. However, I am not able to say that the most important thing I learned had anything to do with Ramses the Great (who brought order and power to the entire Egyptian empire), Delphi (which repeatedly changed the course of history with its mysterious Oracle), or   Capernaum (where Jesus and his disciples had their base for a few years).

Don't get me wrong; book smarts are important, for sure, but they pale in comparison to the feeling of standing in the presence of and looking at the shriveled, leathery face of the REAL mummified body of Ramses the Great. I tell you from experience it gives you a different sort of chill. Whether it was Ramses the Great or Thutmose III, one of the 13 mummies  in that Cairo museum went toe to toe with Moses and the Israelites. One of those withered bodies witnessed the parting of the Red Sea, and one of those 4,000-year-old men had his son die as a result of the 10 plagues of Israel. Do you have chills yet?

When Israel is spoken of, everything else pales in comparison in my mind. To see these places — Masada, the Dead Sea, Petra — is enough to make anyone pause and think, "Is this real?" But the most bizarre feelings I have ever experienced in my 22 years charged up inside my head and my heart as we drove along the highway into Jerusalem, knowing fully that it was just around the next bend. We then burst into the light after the darkness of a long tunnel and saw the Temple Mount and Dome of the Rock gleaming golden in the afternoon sunlight. I am in no way being melodramatic when I say I will never feel the same way about Jerusalem for the rest of my life.

These are all places I no longer have to see in photographs and history books. These are all places where I can simply close my eyes and see them in my memory, completely real.

Maybe these tangible places really do have something to do with the most important things I learned. While I stood at the Western Wall, Athens Acropolis or  wherever else I traveled, my worldview was changing. I can no longer be cozy wrapped up with my Southern, small-town worldview. I have watched Jewish men in the Jerusalem marketplace do business with Arab Christians while Muslims and their children played together behind them in the street. I have seen the Italian people sitting in the shadow of the Milan Duomo just enjoying their usual morning paper. I have been pestered by hawkers pushing their trinkets in obscure corners of Egypt. I have walked through rows of white crosses on the perfectly manicured lawns of the U.S. military cemetery on France's Normandy coast overlooking Omaha Beach.

Is it any wonder I took 20,000-plus photographs? These are places that change people. These are places that changed history. These are places that changed me.

So what is that one thing?
At the most simple level, I learned that this world is continuous. No matter where I traveled, I saw the same land on the same Earth. We all connect. We all share a common thread. After all of it was over, I came to the realization that we are all living in this world together. Every person is someone else's son or daughter or father or mother or sibling. There may be fences and walls — literally and figuratively — all over the world, from Berlin to Bethlehem; but where there are spaces in the walls, people interact and lives intersect. In the old city of Jerusalem, a man and his neighbor may pray in different ways, but they say hello at the mailbox, and their children play together after school. At the most basic level, people are just people.

That's what I told my uncle: "I learned that people are just people, and they are just like you and me wherever you go." My answer satisfied him.

Noah Darnell is a senior print journalism major from Guntersville, Ala., who spent the spring semester at the University's International Program in Greece. For more photos and insights from his semester abroad, visit his blog, haonavy.uber.com.

The coastline of Normandy, France, looking toward the Mulberry harbour at Arromanches, is the site where World War II ships unloaded following D-Day.
Outer fortification walls surround the ancient city of Rhodes, one of a multitude of Greek islands in the Aegean Sea.
 Dock worker
A dock worker checks the progress of a ship passing through locks on the River Nile south of Luxor, Egypt.
In the marketplace before sunset begins the Jewish Sabbath, one man aids another by giving him a few shekels.
 Kom Ombo Temple
Night falls on the Kom Ombo Temple located on the banks of the Nile. Ancient Egyptians worshipped the crocodile there.
 Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
In the shadow of grandeur during the rush of the day, an elderly man and his younger friend stroll along Milan, Italy's, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.
 Sea of Galilee
On the Sea of Galilee, a tour boat sails into the afternoon mist.
 Step Pyramid of Djoser
One of Egypt's oldest pyramids still in existence, the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara predates the famous pyramids of Giza by at least two centuries.
 In the Plaka
In the Plaka, a historical neighborhood and marketplace in Athens, a man sits outside and reads surrounded by two companions.
 Aviv's International Airport
In Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport, two pilots head down the corridor to their flight.
 temple of Poseidon
The temple of Poseidon at Sounion, Greece, is offset by the rising moon and setting sun in this in-camera double exposure.


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