Looking for the Ark, and Finding Humanity For a fan of the movie Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark who is about to travel to Ethiopia, learning that the actual ark is believed to be in the country can bring on a state of excitement and anticipation. But on arrival, the hunger and poverty can overtake those interests.
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Looking for the Ark, and Finding Humanity

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Looking for the Ark, and Finding Humanity

Looking for the Ark, and Finding Humanity

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

And it's official. Paramount Pictures has set May 22, 2008 as the release date for the fourth Indiana Jones movie. George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford will begin production on the film this spring. The first three installments of the saga have generated an astounding $1.1 billion in box office receipts.

Among all of those fans who plunked down their money to see Indiana Jones is independent producer Jake Warga. The movies left a big impression on him.

(Soundbite of Indiana Jones theme)

JAKE WARGA: I have two degrees in anthropology. I wear a fedora when I travel and I travel a lot. I pretty much base my life on Indiana Jones. On a recent trip to Africa, I had some free time, so I thought I'd look for the Ark of the Covenant.

(Soundbite of movie, "Raiders of the Lost Ark")

Mr. HARRISON FORD (Actor): (As Indiana Jones) You know, the Ark of the Covenant, the chest the Hebrews used to carry around the Ten Commandments.

Unidentified Man #1: Wait, what do you mean commandments? Are you just talking about the Ten Commandments?

Mr. FORD: Yes. The actual Ten Commandants. The original stone tablets that Moses brought down out of Mt. Herob and smashed, if you believe in that sort of thing.

WARGA: I don't really believe in that sort of thing, but it's worth a look. There's the church in Axum, Ethiopia, near the border with Eritrea, that's supposed to be the final resting spot of the ark. So just like Indiana Jones, I tightened my fedora and hopped into a propeller plane.

(Soundbite of plane)

I pictured myself traveling on a red line moving up a parchment map of Africa, not cramped in an old Russia Focker 50 with fading Air Ethiopia paintjob on the sides.

(Soundbite of movie, "Raiders of the Lost Ark")

Mr. DENHOLM ELLIOT (Actor): (as Marcus Brody) Nearly 3,000 years, man has been searching for the Lost Ark. Not something to be taken lightly. No one knows its secrets. It's like nothing you have ever gone after before.

WARGA: The story of how the ark ended up in Ethiopia goes like this. Around the first millennium B.C., the Queen of Sheba went to visit King Solomon in Jerusalem, who insisted she not take anything of his. Fine. But late one night after a strategically spicy meal, the queen downed a glass of water the king had left by her bedside.

In the morning, the tricky Solomon demanded something in return. She went back to Ethiopia pregnant. When their son came of age, he visited his father in Jerusalem. In revenge, the son made off in the night with a tabot, the ark, returning with it to his kingdom in Ethiopia.

Unidentified Woman: (Through Translator) Ladies and gentleman, we have descended into Axum Airport and the time is 20 minutes to 11 a.m.

WARGA: In a crowded mini-taxi into town, I asked the driver if I could see the ark.

Unidentified Man #3: We believe that the Ark of the Covenant is here.

WARGA: So where?

Unidentified Man #3: And you are lucky you are going to see and visit the home of Ark of the Covenant.

WARGA: Driving from the airport into town is like driving through a three little pigs pop-up book. Beautiful, circular mud huts with traditional batched roofs give way to corrugated roofs, then concrete block buildings once we reached the paved roads of town.

Unidentified Man #4: (Speaking foreign language)

WARGA: A word about Ethiopia. It's poor, really poor. Figures are rough, but it said that seven million people are directly dependent on food aid that if they were to stop, seven million - that's one tenth of the population - would starve to death.

Unidentified Child #1: You found the leaf?

Unidentified Child #2: Are these getting in?

Unidentified Child #1: You have a car?

WARGA: Everywhere I go I have to push my way through children with big eyes asking me for money. But mostly, they're asking me for pens.

Unidentified Child #1: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Child #2: Give me a pen.

Unidentified Child #1: (Speaking foreign language)

WARGA: The location of the ark, unlike the film, isn't exactly hidden. In fact, it's on page 45 of my "Lonely Planet" guide. It sits in a church, right in the center of town.

(Soundbite of chanting)

WARGA: Amplified prayers are read all throughout the day in Ge'ez, the ancient biblical text, and then Amharic, the local language. I take a tour when I get there. This is my guide, John.

JOHN: Okay. For a start, welcome to the Axum Church, and this here, the first church in Africa.

WARGA: Okay. So the ark is here.

JOHN: Yes. Yes.

WARGA: Have you seen it?

JOHN: No, because the ark was only keep here by the (unintelligible) monk. The (unintelligible) monk are not allowed to the compound (unintelligible). The life of the monk, inside.

WARGA: Just like in the film, the danger of looking at the ark is instant oblivion. To look upon the tabot is to look into the eyes of God, something no mortal can handle. That's why it's guarded by a monk, the only person who can see it. He spends his life, his whole life, in the same room where it's kept.

While my guide is explaining all these, a monk floats by as if on roller blades.

JOHN: Now, we are very lucky. You know, the keeper of the Ark of the Covenant, the monk. Very lucky, you know, now he's to the toilet. This monk only allowed to the Ark of the Covenant.

WARGA: And where is he going?

JOHN: The toilet or the restroom.

WARGA: So the monk still has to pee?

(Soundbite of movie, "Raiders of the Lost Ark")

Mr. JONATHAN RHYS-DAVIES (Actor): (as Sallah) Indy, there's something that troubles me.

Mr. FORD: What is it?

Mr. RHYS-DAVIES: The ark. If it is there, then it is something that man was not meant to disturb. Death has always surrounded it. It is not of this earth.

WARGA: Beggars and orphan children, elderly and the blind, all stretched their hands to me in a lifelong, palm-out gesture. A legless man with flip-flops on his hand shuffles underfoot. Given the chance, all the sufferers orbiting the church would probably cash-in the only thing they do have, believe and hope, for the chance to see God, believe that God exists and hope that, as promised, the next life is better than this one.

After a few days sitting outside the church, I realized that I'll never be allowed to see the ark, to see if there is a God. I would like proof that God exists, but it might lead to prove that God doesn't exist. And I think that's what I fear most.

I tried to ignore the flies tickling my face with the same abandon as everyone around me. Some kids, like walking corpses, too tired with malaria and the cruel shock of being maligned, couldn't swat the flies away, allowing them to crawl up their nose even on their open eyeballs that stare at me, the foreigner.

Unidentified Child #3: Give me pen.

WARGA: I fear I may have become numb. I capture cold, enlargeable, but always two-dimensional images on my camera. I record sounds of children who have nothing more than rags and hunger. I write down these thoughts as children beg me for pen. Pen, mister, you pen.

Unidentified Child #2: Give me a pen.

Unidentified Child #1: (Speaking foreign language)

WARGA: While scribbling these words in the notebook, my pen breaks.

Unidentified Child #2: Give me pen.

WARGA: Ink bleeds on the page like blood. I close it and silently start to cry.

Unidentified Child #1: (Speaking foreign language)

WARGA: The tear I'd been holding back all week chases a fly off my cheek.

Unidentified Child #1: (Speaking foreign language)

WARGA: There's no one I can ask for a pen.

Unidentified Child #2: Yes.

WARGA: Mister, pen? You?

Unidentified Child #2: Give me a pen.

WARGA: Through the blur, I see children watching me. They're smiling.

Unidentified Child #2: You. Give me a pen.

WARGA: Why? Why do they keep smiling?

Unidentified Child #2: Yes.

Unidentified Child #1: Yes.

WARGA: Is this the ark?

NORRIS: Independent producer Jake Warga. His story comes to us by way of HearingVoices.com.

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