I rise, bleary-eyed from my bed, just before 5am. I’ve had a restless night, which is always the case before I start a trip…somehow, I can never begin to feel calm until the plane is in the sky. Vice City is still in darkness and as I step outside to hail a cab, the sky is an inky black. Even so, there are people on the street – a woman walking her dog, a guy coming back from a night on the town (looking a little the worse for wear) and an old man, in prayer shawl, clearly on his way to shaharit (morning prayers). There’s something incredibly reassuring about living in a city that never sleeps – especially when you need to find a taxi. And straight away, one pulls up, the driver asking my destination.
“Central Bus Station” I tell him. Eying my backpack, he asks where I’m heading from there.
“The Himalayas…” I reply. He’s clearly impressed and off we screech, down Rothschild Boulevard.
But the best of plans go awry. I’m about to face my first obstacle of the journey –getting inside the actual station. There’s an enormous line outside of people waiting to be checked by a sole, bored-looking security guard. Yes, this is Israel and I’d better hold my tongue, especially since I actually chose to come and live here. I join the line but soon I’m being pushed and prodded, tossed aside by more assertive travellers than myself. It’s first-come first-served and I can’t get anywhere near the front, especially with my luggage. But I’ve a bus to catch so I shove myself forward. To little avail! When I’ve finally realised polite manners and jostling won’t do it, I grab the woman in front of me, firmly, by the arm, and tell her, in my most serious voice: “I’ve got a plane to catch.”
She scowls at me but, amazingly, let’s me through. Then, of course, I’ve got to open my luggage. And, just my luck, the guard is pretty curious (or particularly diligent). He takes me aside, proceeding to unzip every last pocket in my state-of-the-art Eagle Creek World Traveller’s backpack, poking through my medical kit, underwear and assortment of novels for the journey (I live in fear of running out of printed matter!) He opens the bag of condoms and leers at me. I grab the bag and shoot him a look that lets him know in no uncertain terms that my sex life is not his concern. He gets the picture, but gets his own back by thoroughly rifling through of my daypack...
I’ve been a fool, I tell myself. Why didn’t I didn’t factor all of this in? And, to my horror, as I look at my watch I realise that I’m really cutting it fine. Finally inside, I race up the escalator to the sixth floor and run frantically along the Egged platform. No sign of what I need. I accost a soldier, then an old man reading the morning newspaper, since the information desk is closed. After some yelling, gesticulating and face-pulling, we all establish that I’m on the wrong floor, and I race up another elevator. There’s my bus…pulling out.
OK, what’s my Plan B?
Plan B. now thrown together on a wing and a prayer, is to catch the next bus to Afula, take a connecting bus to Beit Shean (in the heart of the Jordan Valley), and try and pick up the Nazarene Tours bus that will take me all the way to Amman, without schlepping my own pack, dealing with taxi drivers the other side of Israel and possibly hurtling to my death when one of their battered vehicles careers off the road. (I’ve done this journey before, and I am not exaggerating). But I have to wait 45 minutes for the next bus.
So when it pulls in, I ask the driver nicely if he’ll let me out at the tsomet (stop) before Afula, where I can hitchhike the 15 kms to Beit Shean, thus saving me valuable time. I’ve no fear of hitchhiking, just the fear of losing more and more valuable minutes. If I’m not at the border at 9.15 am, to meet that bus, I’m toast. But he won’t play dice and no amount of pleading will help. My eyelids droop as Tel Aviv highrises turn into fields of sunflowers. I always forget how beautiful this country is. With a start, I wake up – in Afula. OK, now I’ve got to get to Beit Shean. I’m about to jump in a cab but then I see a bus pulling out…and with a mad dash I reach the front door and pound on it. The driver sighs and opens the door. I’m still in with a chance.
Only we stop at every conceivable stop one can imagine, in the 17 kilometres between the two towns. And then we get caught behind two huge diesel trucks, and can’t overtake. Then a woman trips as she alights from the bus…and the minutes are ticking by and my heart is pounding because I have an awful feeling I don’t think I’m going to make it. We arrive at the border city (still another few kilometres from the crossing) and crawl through the town at a snail’s pace. Last stop…I’m here. Its 9.12 am…I should just be able to intercept the bus I need, which has come from Nazareth. I reach down to grab my backpack from the luggage section and out of the corner of my eye see my Nazarene Tours bus. It’s driving away from me, around the corner…then disappearing down the road towards Jordan.
“No….no…”I wail, to the amusement and consternation of the driver and passengers. You see, there ain’t no taxis around and I’ve now no clear way of getting to that border. Save hitchhiking. Which, of course, is what I do…I run to the corner and start flagging down cars that are going at least some of the way. It takes a few minutes but someone soon stops – a woman taking her child to school at the nearby kibbutz. She drops me 5ks down, where I’m then picked up by a second kibbutznik, en route to a business meeting a little further on. I’m getting tantalisingly close to my destination. But time is ticking and the bus has already been at the border a while. Dropped off, yet again, I now know that it’s extremely hot, I’ve forgotten my sun hat, and my water bottle and I parted company in my mad 9.12 am dash! I’ve a sinking feeling that I might be done for.
And then, out of nowhere, comes a yellow bus, an honest-to-god, all-American school bus. Lady luck is on my side! I flag it down, desperately…run into the road, waving my arms like a crazy woman. The driver stops and seems amused. I tell him, in my politest Hebrew, that I simply have to get to that border. And, suddenly, my karma kicks in. He’s Danny he tells me, and takes kids to school every day. He’s just dropped them off and going home (in the other direction) but he’s going to get me to that border, by hook or by crook. We race down the road, he’s putting his foot on the gas big time and – before I know it – I’m there. Danny grins. “Come and visit me on your way back” he says. “You’ll find me at Kibbutz Ruppin, 4ks from here. I’ll make you tea.” I’m so grateful I throw my arms around him and hug him goodbye, promising him a visit.
I race inside the terminal, only to be confronted by an Israeli border guard who asks me if I’m in possession of a weapon. I give her my prettiest smile and say “No, I’m a nice Jewish girl and I really need to catch a bus…” And I’m onto exit tax booth, where I throw 100 NIS at another bored-looking guy, who dutifully stamps my passport. I hot foot it down the hallway, dash through the duty free, make a break for the border (literally) and there in front of me I see the Nazarene Bus revving its engine.
It’s still there. Just. I pound my little fists on yet another door and, baruch hashem, the driver opens it. I am saved! I’ve made my connection, I’m on the bus and – all things being equal – I’m going to be in India in not too long.
Let the revelry begin!