Arriving in a new country…at night…where you do not speak the language requires a great deal of trust. I arrived at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport around 6:00 PM and by the time I got through customs and got myself situated, I left the airport in complete darkness. Even though there is no immediate threat of danger, I only know a few things: I am alone, I don’t speak the local language, it is dark outside and I have to get to my hotel. You can argue that it may not have been the smartest time to give public transportation a go, but I told myself what better way to get to know a city than to get right out into it. Jump on a bus, ask a few locals to point you in the right direction and suddenly you’re really IN a city.
The place where I was staying provided information on how to use the local subway and bus to get to their location, so with that saved on my fully charged phone, I set off. The first step was to take the metro from the airport a few stops, then get off and walk about 10 minutes to get to the central bus station. From there a bus would drop me off close to the hostel where I would follow a map to get me to my new home for the next few days. Easy enough!
I made it through the first part of the trip which including buying a ticket with shekels (a currency I thought existed only in Old Testament stories) and trying not to gawk at young female soldiers carrying cute backpacks in one hand and a machine gun in the other. But once I was left the metro station and started to follow the directions to the bus station, well that’s when things started to fall apart. I crossed the road once and then back again, made a few wrong turns then finally made it to what looked like a large central bus station. Unfortunately, while I had found the bus station, I couldn’t find the appropriate place to wait for the bus number I was given. I asked a security guard who spoke passable English if she could help, but she seemed as unsure as I did. I was told to go one place and then another and I followed both suggestions while dragging my luggage behind me (and after a 13 hour flight).
Still unable to find the bus number I was supposed to take, I realized that someone was desperately trying to get my attention. I pretended like I didn’t see or hear the thin, older, scruffy man who was waving in my direction, but eventually he was right beside me asking where I was going and if I needed help. It was then that I was faced with the dilemma that so many travelers face: do I trust this person or not? Do I shoo them away and say I’m fine (even though I am clearly lost) or do I admit to being lost and trust that they want nothing more than to help me.
It quickly became clear that this man was a hawker for the sherut drivers. A sherut is a public van, smaller and cheaper I believe, than a public bus, which will take you around the city. I had read about the sheruts before I arrived in Israel and they are a totally legitimate form of transportation, but I always prefer to request a ride rather than be taken to one. I feel like I am less in control in the latter situation. I tried to protest a few times to the older, shabbily dressed man, but he insisted and it was getting later and I still saw no sign of the bus I was supposed to take, so I followed him. I trusted he was being honest.
I followed the man to the van he said would get me to where I needed to go, and when I boarded, I saw that I was not alone. There were other locals and I suspect even another traveler who just wanted to get to where they were trying to go. Having no idea how much the ride should cost nor the value of most of the odd looking coins in my wallet, I did the thing that most travelers have done at some point even though you are sure you’re setting yourself up for failure. I grabbed a handful of coins and held them out to the driver. He probably could have taken me for 10 times the actual cost of the ride, but instead he picked through the money I offered, selected a few coins that added up to the fare total and we were on our way.
About 5 minutes after we took off the driver, who spoke no English, was gesturing for me to get out of the van at the next light. I stepped out onto a nondescript city street and thought, “Great, now what”? I looked at street signs that didn’t seem to match the directions I was given. I did’t see anyone who I felt safe asking for directions, so I stood there, staring at every sign, walking a few feet in one direction, the doubling back in the other. I was sure I had just been dropped off randomly – the driver not caring where in the hell I was going. Or perhaps he misunderstood the name of the hostel I’d given him and instead put me out close to a totally different place. Just as I was starting to get a bit panicked, I looked down at my map again and up to the street sign above my head and realized I was in the right area after all. I trusted the hotel’s directions, the sherut hawker and the driver, and everything had worked out all right. I walked a couple of blocks through the quiet streets and then I saw the marquee of my hostel just ahead. I had made it!
Relieved to finally check in at the front desk, I headed up to my 6 bed dorm room. Although clearly occupied, the room was empty except for one girl who had the bottom bunk just below me. We said our hellos and she went on to tell me about her harrowing experience with Israeli airport security as I unpacked some essential items and set up my bunk bed. She seemed nice enough and fairly quite but who knew if she was a librarian or a murderer…or both? At that point I was hungry and desperately in need of the free drink promised at the hostel bar so off I went – leaving all of my belongings for the next three weeks in the same room as a stranger. Another example of travel putting me in a situation of having to trust someone I have no real reason to trust. Sure I could have dragged all of my bags with me to the bar, or tried in vain to stuff my bags into the narrow locker I was assigned, but I was too tired or lazy to do either of those things. Instead I neatly stacked my belongings in a corner and put a luggage lock on my bag and was on my way. An hour or two later, I was back in the room, now filled with additional women I did not know and none of my items were touched and nothing was missing.
Time and time again I am put in situations where I have to trust myself and trust those around me – usually strangers, but sometimes people I have known before. It may be as small as trusting that a shop keeper will give me the right change, or it may be considerably larger like trusting the person who is leading your SCUBA diving trip is properly certified and will not let me drown.
There are times when your intuition throws up a stop sign and says “No!” and its usually best to listen to yourself in those instances. True, you may be wrong and miss out on a fun time or a great adventure, but as long as you keep traveling there will be many more of those opportunities.
I wish I had listened to that voice in my head when I decided to follow a “friend of a friend of a friend” down a dark alley in Brazil. The surroundings didn’t feel safe, but if I didn’t follow, I would have been left on my own so I told myself not to worry and went along. Turns out that was a bad decision because a few minutes later I was robbed. The thief snatched a necklace right off my neck and ran. I was lucky not to have been hurt, but it really shook me up. Not only did I loose a necklace that had a very special meaning to me, but it was also the realization that I allowed myself to be put in harms way when I knew better than to go down that dark alley. I trusted that this “friend of a friend of a friend” wouldn’t take me somewhere where I would be in danger, but really why should I trust this person I hardly knew? I guess the same reason why I trusted the young woman in the hostel and the sherut driver. None of these people knew me or had any responsibility for my well being, but as a traveler sometime you just have to say F*CK IT and take the risk that people are inherently good and do not want to do you any intentional harm.
I am fortunate to say that on this trip to Israel, although I had many instances of having to trust strangers and my intuition, I did not encounter any situations where I was let down or harmed in any way. In fact, with travel to over 60 countries in the world, aside from the incident in Brazil and the occasional taxi scam, I have had remarkably few bad experiences come out of trusting strangers. I really am blessed (though I am looking for a piece of wood to knock on just to be sure). What about your travel experiences? Have you had instances where you needed to put your trust in a stranger while you were traveling? Did it end with positive or negative results? Leave me a comment below and let me know.