Navigating in the world on your own is never easy. Doing so in a foreign land where you don’t speak the language adds another degree of difficulty. So traveling in Israel on my own was a bit of a challenge, shall we say.
I planned to leave Jerusalem to visit the Dead Sea and watch the sun rise over Masada. I would take the bus from the city to my hostel in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t have an exact plan of how to get from the bus stop to my hostel. But, I’m pretty resourceful and knew I would be able to figure it out. So I hopped on the bus headed to the Dead Sea.
Before I got on the big green Egged bus, I put my backpack in the undercarriage compartment. I left the daypack attached, which had my passport and laptop in it. I thought about unzipping it and taking it on the bus, but I was lazy and decided to leave it. I wasn’t going to need them on the bus, and it didn’t have my money in it. And, I wasn’t too concerned that someone would run off with my stuff.
When I got on the bus I asked the driver which stop I should get off at for Ein Gedi. He mumbled something back to me. I couldn’t understand what he said so I asked if he could call it out when he reached my stop and he grumbled back “yes.”
I found my seat and sat down to write in my journal. The bus schedule said it should take about an hour and 15 minutes to get to my stop. Around that time I started looking outside for signs that meant I was close to my destination. I saw things saying Dead Sea. I was excited, I had been looking forward to this part of my trip most of all.
The bus driver called out for me. I asked him if this is my stop. He said “yes.” I tried to clarify with him where I needed to go after I got off the bus because it was completely dark outside. He was not very helpful and rushed me off the bus as he grumbled. Thanks for the hospitality, buddy.
As I was rushed off, I stepped off the bus and before I could turn back and say anything to him he pulled off. I was stunned. It took me a second to react because I thought “What happened?” Then it hit me like a ton of bricks…
OH MY GOD! MY BACKPACK!!!!!!
The bus driver pulled off and he had my backpack still on the bus. My heart raced, I was freaking out! What do I do now? I was in the middle of no where. I looked around me and all I saw was the beach and the road and hills. There’s no other buses or cars around, there’s nothing here. FML.
I didn’t have a phone so I started walking up the road looking for help. I saw a little snack bar on the beach so I ran over and asked if they had a phone. They did have a phone. I’m saved! But they didn’t know the number for the bus company and don’t have internet access to look it up. Damn. I asked if they know where the bus is going — they say no. So I was back to square one.
The guy at the snack bar tried to reassure me that things would be okay. He said my stuff would be left in a lost and found, but it didn’t make me feel any better in the here and now. I looked around the beach and wondered how to find the way to my hostel. To add insult to injury, the bus driver dropped me off at the wrong stop. I had no idea how to get to my hostel, and exasperation was starting to kick in.
Think Natasha, think. What could I do? Well, maybe the bus driver had to come back the same way to go back to Jerusalem? So I stood by the side of the road and waited…and waited…and waited.
Every time I saw bright lights heading down the hill towards me I got hopeful, and then it was a car or truck. Never a bus.
Then I finally saw a bus!! I waved it down desperately with all the energy I could muster. The driver slowed down and I could immediately see it was not an Egged bus, but a regular coach bus. I still got him to stop and told him my story. I asked if he knew how I may find the bus. He shook his head, wished me well and drove off.
I was completely distraught and panicked.
Should I try to hitchhike my way up the hill? I could, but where would I ask them to take me? And who knows what kind of creepers will pick up a single woman on the side of the street at night. Not a good idea, I decide.
My blood coursed, and I racked my brain. That’s when I felt my face get hot and the tears started rolling down my face.
I tried to eat my leftover food to distract myself and stop the emotional breakdown. All I have to do is figure this out, I told myself. Sitting on that bench on the side of the road in Ein Gedi was one of the times traveling solo felt lonely.
I saw the lights of a bus coming down the hill again and I forced myself to get up and wave it down. It was that same driver again. This time his bus was empty and he stopped to hear my whole story. He looked sorry for me, and offered to give me a ride up to the nature reserve he worked for so I could use the phone and get help.
This felt like the first break I’d been able to catch all day. Being inside the bus made me feel like my luck was going to turn around. Unfortunately, we got to the office and everything was closed. At that point I had no backpack, no prospects and no where to sleep.
My bus driving friend, Rahim, asked if I had a place to stay and I told him that I didn’t. He looked at me and said “Come stay with me, I have an extra bed you can use and in the morning I will help you find your bus.”
Wait, what? As an American, I’m not used to generous acts of hospitality from strangers. I was nervous about saying “yes” to spending the night with a stranger. But as a shelterless vagabond, I was not in any place to decline. We got back on the bus and he drove us to the cabins where the drivers stay.
Rahim had a trundle bed and pulled out the bottom section for me and offered me his blanket. I laid down in bed with my mind racing, sitting back and questioning everything I’d done that day. I asked myself, “how did I get into this predicament?” But all the while a little piece of me was so thankful to be in a bed and not sleeping outside on the beach in the cold.
True to his word, in the morning Rahim tried to help me track down my backpack. He called his friends that worked for Egged to ask for help and we searched online for any information we could find. In the midst of all that he showed me pictures of his wife and daughter back home. We made a semi-successful effort to communicate using Google Translate. Going back and forth between Arabic and English.
Sadly, the Egged hotline wasn’t open yet and my friend had to go to work. He suggested I go to the nature reserve offices to wait to use their phone. As I walked over I saw a slew of green Egged busses outside the nature reserve office. For a moment, my heart leapt for joy. Maybe one of these is mine!! Hallelujah!
Before I went inside I waited around for the drivers to return, one by one, the drivers show up. But none of them are mine. Once again my hope was crushed.
After 9:00 a.m. I walked into the office and started from scratch. I explained my entire ordeal to the kind woman that worked there. She helped me dial the number, but even though Egged was supposed to be open, I still got an automated message. Ughhhhh!! Dammit! I just want my backpack back!!!
Thirty minutes later we tried to call again and still no luck. The office manager could tell I was frustrated and on the verge of tears again. She offered to continue calling the hotline. And, to get my mind off this sad situation she gave me a ticket for free admission into the nature reserve.
I tried to be grateful but all I could think was: Animals, for real? That’s supposed to make this better? I’m in the middle of a three month backpacking trip and now I have no passport, and animals are supposed to make this all go away??? But of course, I don’t say any of that. I said thank you and walked outside to go see the damn animals.
Okay, fine, some of the animals were kind of cute. Especially the ones that looked like the dramatic chipmunk.
When I got back from the nature reserve I sat outside the office in a chair and waited. After an hour or two the office manager came and said to me, “I have some good news and some bad news.” I took a deep breath, but had no idea what this could mean. She said: “They have found your backpack, but the police — — it up.”
They found my backpack! Oh my god! Yes! But what was that part, what did the police do? She said it fast and I couldn’t quite catch it with her accent. She repeated herself: “The police — — it up, like with a bomb, goes boom!” And she said this as she made an explosion motion with her hands…
They blew up my backpack…they blew up my backpack…they blew up my backpack…
I can’t even think straight. What does she mean they blew up my backpack? Why?!?!? What about all my stuff!!! My Macbook, my clothes, my passport!!! I tried to listen as she explained. She said it’s not that bad, most of my things survived, maybe an item or two may have a hole in it.
Huh? What are you saying?? How did this happen???
Well here’s the story: When the driver got back to the station last night he found my bag still on the bus. He told his supervisor about it. The supervisor called it in to the police, because this is Israel and they take this ish for serious. They never know if something is an innocent backpack or a tragedy waiting to happen. So the police came and took the backpack. They called around to the local hostels to see if a bag was reported missing. Since none of the hostels said a bag was missing their protocol was to detonate the bag to ensure it’s not a bomb. And that’s how my bag got bombed by the Israeli police.
Anywhere else in the world, literally almost anywhere in the world, my backpack would have survived last night unscathed. It would have gotten tossed in a lost and found pile and waited for me to come get it. But no. I was in Israel…
I spent the next two hours waiting to take a shuttle to the police station.
I walked into the police station and looked right past the officer at the desk — I saw my stuff in two garbage bags. All my clothes, my toiletries, everything. I explained who I was and the officer brought me back to retrieve my stuff and make sure everything was there.
I sat on the floor and started to assess the damage. First thing I noticed, my laptop. It’s ruined. I can’t even describe the damage. The metal is dented and bent. The screen is completely cracked to hell. There’s purples and greens and all sorts of colors that aren’t supposed to be there streaked across the screen. My passport and clothes were fine, no holes. One blessing. Then I saw my backpack and my daypack….
My backpack, the one I needed to get around the world for the next two months…it’s busted to smithereens. There was a huge gash down the side of the bag. The back panel and padding on the daypack — scorched and falling apart. I thought: “What am I going to do? How am I supposed to backpack with this?”
My face got hot again and the tears flooded down my face. Sitting there with my blown up bag was almost worst than when I didn’t have it at all. At least then, in my head, it was still a backpack and not this pile of shards.
That’s when I heard a voice yell, “WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU? WHY ARE YOU CRYING?” I looked up at the officer, speechless. I thought, are you kidding me, do you not see the mess I’m sitting in front of? But he didn’t end there. He yelled, “YOU HAVE NO REASON TO BE CRYING, YOU STILL HAVE YOUR LIFE!”
Oh wow, I had no idea what to do with that reasoning. These officers might need some sensitivity training. The loud officer asked if all my stuff was there and then handed me some paperwork to sign. I moved past my crying phase to being angry as hell at these officers for 1.) Blowing up my damn backpack and 2.) Scolding me for crying about it. Eat a dick, guy.
But a nicer officer came along and asked if I needed anything, thank you for having a heart. I ended up heading to the mall in the back of a cop car to pick up a new bag. I definitely didn’t budget that into my trip. Sigh. My officer with a heart tried to ask for a discount from the shop owner. I walked out of the shop with an enormous backpack that looked like I was smuggling a hippo. But I had a backpack.
Back into the cop car, the officers drove me over to the bus station to catch the bus back to Jerusalem. The bus driver stood next to the side of the bus and reached his hand out to offer to take my bag. My heart raced, my eyes got wide and shook my head so aggressively I smacked myself with my hair.
I was like a mother bear guarding my cub. “Get away from my backpack!!” I rushed away, hopped on the bus and sat down with a sign of relief.
I'm Natasha Ho, a trained chef and avid traveler. I've studied culinary traditions from cuisines around the world, and I help food lovers learn how to cook a wide variety of meals that are consistently delicious so they can have more fun, ease and joy in their kitchen.