The Guest Room
Musings, Memories & Epiphanies Inspired by Place
Hitchhiking in Israel
Travel is more than the seeing of sights,
it is a change that goes on deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.
The names and places in this story have been changed.
I’ve experienced several Aha moments, as Oprah likes to refer to them over the course of my now fifty-nine years. Some small, some large, most occurring when least expected and all to some degree having a life defining affect. One memory in particular surfaced recently during a conversation with a friend about the transforming power of travel and how a particular place or person can forever alter long held perceptions.
Having been raised in a traditional, conservative, Jewish family, a constant thread of dinner table conversation often centered on the importance of Israel’s existence to the Jewish people as a whole. My parents and extended family were all extremely pro-Israel. There was no gray area when it came to this topic. Israel always wore the white hats. As a result certain perceptions were imprinted into my brain from a very young age about the world, cultures, and of course the situation between the Palestinian’s and the Israeli’s, which lent to the formation of some deep-rooted belief’s regarding the conflict and the people on each side.
I was almost twenty years old the first year I spent in Israel, arriving a few months before the Yom Kippur War broke out. I lived on a Kibbutz (a large, communal farm) by the name of Kfar Blum located approximately four miles from the Lebanese border in the northern region of Israel called the Galilee. From here, I could look out and see Mt. Hermon, as well as the Golan Heights, the mountain range dividing Israel from Syria in the not so far distance.
My days were split; one half learning Hebrew and the other working within the community alongside Israeli’s and student volunteers from all over the world. One small aha moment occurred a mere three weeks after I’d arrived with the realization I’m not in any way, shape or form meant to be a farmer. Another incident taking place on a Saturday evening in late September a few months later had a far longer lasting effect, though at the time I didn’t know how deeply it would change me.
My Friday started out like every other day, with me oversleeping, (I swear I’ve never had a reliable working alarm clock) rushing up to the dining room for breakfast and complaining about my boring work assignment to my friends. I’d been stuck on kitchen duty for more than a month. I guess the work manager thought I couldn’t do too much damage peeling potatoes and washing dishes. I’d already been fired from working with the sheep, (losing a flock of sheep along with the sheep dog I guess wasn’t particularly impressive) feeding chickens, (okay, stepping on a chicken’s head and killing it clearly not a point scorer) picking oranges, (did you know if you ate more than a dozen oranges within three hours’ time your stomach will revolt?) I don’t even want to get into what happened when I was assigned to work with the cows!
On this particular morning, my luck took an upward turn when I managed to trade my kitchen shift and get the weekend free so I could hitch down to Tel Aviv where friends were throwing a party to celebrate the end of an unbearably long heat wave. The trek down must have been unremarkable as I don’t recall any of the details, except I left right after lunch (weekend’s began Friday at noon in Israel) and traveled down to the city with two friends and fellow volunteer’s; Anne, who was from Sweden and Nancy from Toronto. I remember the party turned out to be not quite as exciting as I anticipated, though why I’ve no recollection at all. Maybe a boy I liked hadn’t paid attention to me. Maybe I got bored, ran out of money or had a quarrel with a girlfriend. I don’t recall why I decided to leave after being there just one day, or why I chose to hitchhike back up to Kfar Blum on my own.
I caught a ride within a few minutes of getting myself onto the side of the highway with an Israeli family heading north. I remember because I had to fold myself into the back seat of their small car and squish myself in beside three bickering tween age girls. They took me a good distance, about half way of the two plus hour drive dropping me off at a junction along highway ninety where two roads surrounded by fields of rock and patches of high grasses diverged in opposite directions. I was familiar with the spot, comfortable another ride would come by soon as had always happened in the past. I gave no thought to how daylight was fast turning to dusk. I didn’t consider how I’d be standing on this crossroad alone. At twenty I still held to the illusions of my own immortality, confident I was able to take care of myself in any situation. I assured my ride I’d be fine. The harried parents took me at my word and drove off.
I’d been standing there for about twenty minutes, I’m sure hoping for one of the many army trucks always traversing this route to come by, (they always picked up hitchhikers) wishing I had brought something to eat, probably wondering what my friends in Tel Aviv were doing and contemplating whether I should have stayed when a van pulled over maybe twenty yards from where I stood. Five men in traditional Arab dress stepped out. I watched them slowly approach. It didn’t take more than one terrifying instant to understand their intent was not a good one.
I had nowhere to run except out into the empty landscape where I knew for certain they would easily outrun me before I’d gotten more than a few yards. There wasn’t another car in sight, the nearest houses a shadowy mirage at least half a mile away across the field. I’ve no recollection of their faces. I couldn’t tell you the color of their robes, their headdress or if they were wearing shoes or sandals, yet with absolute clarity, I can still see them stalking toward me with each step I took back.
As the five of them came closer and closer, my breath felt like it was being choked off and my vision blurred. In a cyclonic whirl of dust an old, beat up station wagon screeched up within inches of me and the back door was thrown open. With one glance I took in the two men in the front seat wearing similar dress to those coming at me and the veiled woman with two small children in the back. With no more than an instant’s hesitation I jumped in just managing to pull the door shut as the driver peeled out in another spray of gravel and rock to speed down the road.
It was a long moment before I gained control of my breathing, gulping down wave after wave of deep, body racking sobs. My face was wet with tears I hadn’t been aware I’d given into and my clothes soaked with sweat. I felt a gentle squeeze around my fingers and I looked down beside me into the eyes of a dark haired little girl who had slipped her hand into mine. She had long black braids and eyes the color of chocolate. When I smiled back she climbed onto my lap. A little boy with equally dark hair and eyes sat beside his mother quietly studying me. All I could make out of woman was her eyes, a matching dark chocolate brown as her two children. I realized she was gently patting my back.
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