Last updated on August 8th, 2022
Featured image: Located at an elevation of 900 metres (2,953 ft), Safed is the highest city in the Gaililee and in Israel. | Photo by jenni.heller on Twenty20
Don’t take anything for granted, plan ahead and trust your intuition
by Jessica Heriot, Guest writer
In one of my favorite movies, The Sheltering Sky, the two protagonists, who fancy themselves real travelers, fail to heed the basic rules of navigating in a foreign place: Don’t take anything for granted, plan ahead, and when in doubt, don’t. The pair pay a steep price. One dies and the other is held hostage by a desert tribe.
The misadventure that hammers these messages home is an evening excursion with my daughter in Israel. We spent the day in Tiberias, a small city on the banks of the Kinneret, also known as the Sea of Galilee.
Jessica in Safed, Israel / Photo provided by Jessica Heriot
We stay the night at the Scottish Hospice, once a hospital, with clean spare rooms and an inner walled garden dripping with purple bougainvillea. Our plan is to take a bus to Safed, an ancient town, once a Roman fortress, conquered and reconquered by both Christians and Muslims. The city was once home to the Kabbalah, a mystic branch of Judaism and is currently a center for Jewish studies.
Perched on a high hill 2,953 feet above sea level, Safed offers warm summers and cool mountain breezes. The town is a warren of narrow streets, medieval synagogues, and a vibrant artist community. From Tiberias, the ride to Safed is only 30 minutes, giving us plenty of time to walk around in the light, eat dinner, and return to Tiberias.
Sounds simple. But then, things go awry.
Are you sure?
In Safed, we step into the late afternoon just as the sun is hovering above the crest of the hills and a teasing breeze hints at the twilight wind to come.
“When do you think the last bus leaves Safed for Tiberias?” I ask my daughter.
“Don’t worry,” says Anita. “It’s not a problem.” She sounds so certain.
“How do you know?” I ask, taken aback by her sureness.
“Buses run all the time here, and besides, we can always get a cab,” she retorts. She has a point, I think, but say, “Let’s see if we can find someone to ask. Is there a schedule?” No one was around, and no schedule posted.
The bus arrives and I decide the driver is our last chance. I engage in a frustrating pantomime, shooting my arm up in the air, creating a curve with my hand, then zooming it down the other way while Anita contributes her meager Hebrew to the mix.
We decide he said nine.
“He said nine, right?”
“Yes, mom. I’m sure.”
“Are you really sure?” Pause. No, you’re right. He said nine.”
“It’s nine, Mom.”
The bus climbs the narrow winding two-lane road to Safed. The evening wind is up and the swaying grasses covering the hills make a rustling sound, soothing and persistent as waves.
We pass stone walls, untamed pastures dotted with red poppies, gnarled olive trees, goats and sheep, and a shepherd ambling down the long hill. Each turn of the road takes us higher, and the higher we go, the more vast the vista: low rolling hills, the Kinneret shining blue in the distance. Transfixed by the sound of the wind-blown grasses and the patina of gold covering fields, all tinges of worry evaporate.
Anita Heriot in front ofa stone house in Safed / Photo provided by Jessica Heriot
Portents of things to come
In Safed, the evening is balmy as we wander through the narrow streets. We pass men in black coats and tall hats, heads down, walking with purpose; ancient stone walls with blood red flowers pushing through the cracks; and breath-taking views of the surrounding hills and valleys that pop up in the turn of a corner or an opening in the wall.
A check of our watches tells us that it is time to eat if we are to make the nine o’clock bus. We pick the main restaurant in the center of town with the predictable pack of four or five young men standing around commenting in Hebrew.
In the restaurant, two incidents occur that are clearly portents of things to come. Anita pulls out her chair, starts to sit, misses the chair, and lands on the floor, legs up. The waiter rushes over, everyone stares. Anita, flustered and embarrassed, tries to regain her composure and jokes about her klutziness.
Finally, dinners are ordered. We are happily drinking Gold Star beers when Nita knocks over a glass of water. The waiter arrives, cloth in hand. Anita apologizes, more stares. This is too silly. We laugh.
About ten to nine, we walk down to the bus station. Wait. No bus. Wait some more. No bus. Then we see a taxi and approach the driver. “When does the next bus come?” I ask.
“At nine,” he says.
“That’s what I thought” I say. “So where is the bus?”
“Not tonight. Tomorrow,” he says.
“Tomorrow?” we ask.
“Did you say ‘tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow at nine,” he answers in a don’t ask me again tone of voice. We look at each other. I should have trusted my instincts. I’m annoyed with Anita and annoyed at myself.
“Mom, we can get a taxi. Relax.”
Ok, I think. That’s true. We can get a taxi. This is Israel. They are everywhere.
Taxi to Tiberias?
We ask the taxi driver if he can take us to Tiberias? No. He is not going there. Does he know anyone who would? He doesn’t. He can take us to the bottom of the hill. On the main road we can get a ride to Tiberias. We look at each other.
“Should we stay the night here?” I ask.
“Do we have the money?” she asks. We count, probably not enough. We seize the inevitable and hop in the back seat of the taxi. A woman shares the front seat with the driver. They chat and laugh. Paranoia sets in. We did not negotiate a price. He knows he has us, could charge anything. Of course, he can’t resist coming on to Anita, and flattering me. “You are sisters, right?” he says.
“No. mother and daughter,” we say sweetly. The driver and the woman laugh.
When we reach the main road, he asks for the equivalent of 20 dollars in shekels. Ok, could be worse, I think. “Don’t worry,” he says, “A taxi will be along. Maybe you can hitch a ride.”
“Shalom” and he is off.
Putting safety first
This is a dark road. Up a way is a café, lit up. Across the road is another café, closed. A house is attached to it and a deck with picnic tables. We give each other resigned looks. But hope that maybe he is right and a taxi will come by.
We agree, only rides with women or one man, and we must agree about the man. Cars are few and far between. Two or three stop and beckon us. None meet our criteria. We look away, and fortunately, they drive on.
After about 15 minutes, I say, “Ok, I’ll walk to the café and call a taxi or see if someone can call a taxi. Maybe we will luck out and get a ride with a nice couple.”
On the way, which is longer than it looked from where we stood, I think if worse came to… we could sleep on the deck of the restaurant across the street. Should we knock and wake the owners or just curl up on the deck and try to get through the night?
On to the café
As soon as I walk in, I know I am in the wrong place. All men. Cigar smoke. I start to leave when a heavy-set man asks me if I need any help?
“I am looking for a way back to Tiberias,” I say. He gets up from his seat, walks over and puts his arm around me.
“Would you like to eat something?” he asks. “I buy you something.”
“No, thank you,” I say and move away.
“I take you. After I finish dinner,” he says.
The men stop talking. All eyes are fixed on me.
“No, it’s Ok,” I say.
I’m out the door.
OK, I think, this is what you get when you take things for granted in a foreign place. Serves us right. I resign myself to the deck across the street. At least we will be off the road.
When I reach Nita, there is a young man with her, a soldier.
She is excited. “He came over when he saw me on the road. He will stay with us until we get a taxi,” she says.
What good luck, I think, a soldier. People stop for soldiers in this country. He speaks some English and says “I stay with you. You should be careful, things happen, not to take a ride with just anyone.”
“Thank you. That’s very nice of you,” I say. “We really appreciate it.” I go on, explaining how we got into this situation.
Cars pass. Nothing. I worry the soldier will get tired of waiting and leave us.
Anita senses this too. She smiles, tries out her Hebrew, makes him laugh. Ten minutes pass. No cars at all. This is it, I think. The deck is our future. I am thinking through the logistics of this move. Just cross the road, climb quietly up the steps to the deck and find a place to lie down. Don’t wake anyone.
Overlooking Tiberias / Photo by 5W3vryday on Twenty20
Our chariot arrives!
A big black limo comes into view. The soldier leaps toward the road and holds out his arm. Of course, they stop. Inside the car are two Orthodox Jews. He asks them in Hebrew if they are going toward Tiberias. Their answer is unclear. They are not sure. It is…may be out of their way, but they will do it for 25 dollars. The soldier turns it over to me. He has done his job.
They do not speak English so I ask, “Parlez-vous Francais?”
“Oui,” says the driver.
“Vingt,” I say, twenty.
“Vingt-cinq,” he says, twenty-five.
I give it one more try. “Vingt.”
“Non” he says, stepping lightly on the gas pedal.
As soon as we get in, he holds out his hand and I fork over the equivalent of 25 dollars in shekels. We are now broke.
He steps on the gas and takes off. It is a great relief to be sitting in a warm comfortable car on our way to the hotel. After silently thanking our lucky stars, I calculate our evening’s loss. Forty-five down the tube. I wonder if this would have bought us a room in Safed. The Round trip by bus would be… about three bucks. Stupid us.
In 15 minutes, we are there. The road passes the back entrance to the Scottish Hospice. We scream “Stop. Ici Ici.” They stop just long enough for us to jump out. No good byes, shalom, or au revoir. They speed off.
Back in Tiberias
Our clean sparse room at the Scottish Hospice welcomes us, and we are relieved to return to this oasis of English politeness and breakfasts of soft-boiled eggs and dry toast. I know we have lucked out, reprieved from a bad situation that could have been much worse, caused by our ignorance, Anita’s bravado, failure to follow my instincts, and our willingness to convince ourselves that everything would be fine because that is what we wanted to believe.
Return to Safed
Two years later, I’m back in Israel to visit my parents, who retired in Tel Aviv.
We want to return to Safed. This time common sense prevails and we decide to stay overnight. We arrive in the early afternoon and check into a small hotel where our triangle-shaped room overlooks a courtyard shared by several families, and a roof patio covered with grapevines.
We take a siesta, walk the narrow streets at twilight, browse the artists’ studios, listen to music in the town park, and go to dinner at the same main street restaurant.
No sooner are we seated when Anita promptly knocks over her glass of water.
Bio: Jessica Heriot, Ph.D., co-founded the Women’s Growth Center in Baltimore in 1973 where psychotherapy for women was rooted in a feminist perspective. After working at there and at Jewish Family Services, she opened a private practice where she saw clients, primarily women, for 32 years. In 1992, she received a doctorate in social work from the University of Maryland School of Social Work and was an adjunct professor there for nine years. Her current book, Feminist Therapist: How Second Wave Feminism Changed Psychotherapy and Me recounts the seminal contributions of feminism on women’s psychology, psychotherapy, and its impact on her own life and career.
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