This is a memoir I wrote a number of years ago, recounting my experiences in ditching my escorted tour back in 1977. You can learn more about the difference between all-inclusive tours and independent travel here.
(My apologies that there are no photos! None have survived.)
Early January 1977
Tour busses, lines of tourists, one trinket shop after another. I was tired of it all! At the age of 23, I had signed up for this whirlwind tour because of the great opportunity to visit the Holy Land accompanied by Ron Sumpter, our minister and friend who had been here many times. Our group had been in Israel for 8 days and we had only 2 more to go. Yesterday we had visited the Old City of Jerusalem. I was enthralled—and frustrated! I wanted to wander the streets, savor the aromas—really get a feel for this foreign place. But it was not to be. “Tour 201—boarding in 5 minutes.” Uggghhh!
Please….Not Another Day on the Bus!
The next day, we were to travel south of Jerusalem taking in Masada and other sites. I asked if we would get to swim in the Dead Sea—something I really wanted to do. No, there wouldn’t be time. RATS! That night, I brooded. But I never brood for long—I take action. I made my plans. I would just miss the bus. I told my roommate and friend, Ellen, that I wouldn’t go—I was sick of being herded in and out of that bus. Ellen always followed the rules. She was appalled, “You’re not going to the Old City? Ron specifically told us not to go out alone!”
“Don’t worry, Ellen. I’ll be okay—I just want to wander around. I’ll be back before dark and Ron doesn’t have to know—if you don’t tell him.”
I waited until the tour bus left and then hastened to the nearby bus stop. My hands were sweaty with excitement as I deposited my fare and asked the driver to let me know when we got to the Damascus gate.
Jerusalem on My Own!
I spent time at the Wailing Wall—jotting feelings in my journal and was admonished once by a guard: “No write here!” I watched a line of Hasidic boys dressed in black coats follow their rabbi into a synagogue, their side locks dangling from under their black wide brim hats. I tried not to stare at Muslim women covered from head to toe—how did they see? The Old City is a melting pot of cultures and religions–an amazing place! I walked through the market, stopping to bargain for a sheepskin. I hesitated to browse in shops because I didn’t like being harangued by shopkeepers who thought I was a RICH American.
Finally, I decided to walk toward the Jaffa Gate to visit David’s Tower. I opened my map to determine the best route through the maze of shops, hovels and ancient churches and synagogues. If you get turned around in the Old City, it takes a while to get your bearings. While I was studying the map, a young boy—about 14 years old—asked helpfully, “Where do you want to go?” I told him and asked if he could point the way. “Here, I’ll take you there,” he said, gesturing for me to get on his donkey. I hesitated—I didn’t want to be a conspicuous American tourist riding through the streets of Jerusalem on a poor boy’s donkey. I’m not some holy person, for goodness sake!
The Donkey Ride
I asked if he would just lead the way and I’d follow. He agreed, but when the streets got crowded and I fell a little behind, he insisted that I mount the beast. I did so but felt like an idiot towering over all those people. I knew everyone was looking at me. I tried to think of a way to gracefully end this embarrassment. I also tried to examine my map to figure out where I was and where we were going. Finally, it dawned on me that he couldn’t be taking me to David’s Tower. We were going the wrong way.
“Are you sure we’re going to the Jaffa Gate?” I asked without a lot of confidence. After all, he had probably been raised in this labyrinth. He reassured me. Now that I had looked up from the map, however, I noticed that the streets weren’t so crowded—actually, they were looking less and less crowded at every turn. In fact, we were now in what looked like a blind alley. The end of politeness met the beginning of desperation.
I nervously remarked that we needed to go back and I said that I wanted to get off. The boy insisted that we go on. I got out my coin purse. I thought that I would just pay him for his “trouble” and get away as fast as I could. Unfortunately, my coin purse was transparent and he could see the little bit of currency I kept there and he insisted on more money which he pointed to. I gave him some more, but not as much as he wanted.
I started to get down and he grabbed my arm and asked for a kiss. My worries were not unfounded! I hit him in the face with my insignificant little purse. He let go and laughed at me as I raced back down the alley.
Trying to regain my composure, I started looking for someone from whom to get directions, No one was in sight. Finally, I saw a priest—that was a safe bet! I tried to ask in as calm a manner as possible where the Jaffa Gate was. He shrugged and said something in French! He didn’t understand English. GREAT!
I kept moving, not stopping to look at a map until I was surrounded by people again. Eventually, I got my bearings and useful directions from someone and got out of the Old City by way of the closest gate.
Still shaking but undaunted, I finally made my way to David’s Tower and got to spend some time at the museum, but I didn’t really enjoy it—in fact I don’t really remember much about it.
Even with a map, the Old City could be challenging to navigate before the advent of Google Maps.
To get back to the bus stop, I chose to walk completely around the outside walls of the Old City rather than through the maze of streets and stalls and risk getting lost again. Not very romantic, but safer—I was still shaken.
When I returned to the hotel, who was sitting the lobby? Ron! He was obviously upset with me but trying to remain calm. There was no way I was going to tell him what happened. I told him I had a great day, showed him my sheep skin and told him I was glad I played hooky. Normally a congenial fellow, now he mostly just nodded. I now realize that he was scared to death until he saw me come in that lobby door.
I retreated to my room. Ellen was there and informed me that the trip to Masada was incredible AND they did get to go swimming in the Dead Sea!
Would I Go Back? Of Course!
One and one half years later, in 1978, the allure of the Holy Land beaconed me. But this time I came on my own—no tour busses! I spent six months in Israel, working in a kibbutz and an archeological dig. I went to the Old City many times, staying overnight in safe and comfortable hostels. I roamed the streets and learned to get around—without a map. I had favorite vendors from whom I purchased foodstuffs. I sat at the Wailing Wall and knew better than to write. I sat on rooftops at sunset listening to the muezzins call the holy to prayer. I visited Masada—on my own terms, walking to the top like a pilgrim. And I swam in the Dead Sea (or rather floated) and I camped overnight on its beaches.
I did all this and more—but that’s another story…
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People often ask me if I am afraid to travel alone.
Yes, sometimes I am afraid when traveling. But no more often than when I am at home. Experience helps. Sometimes you just need to step out and meet your fears head-on.
Lost in the Old City
I was enthralled—and frustrated! I wanted to wander the streets, savor the aromas—really get a feel for this foreign place. But it was not to be. “Tour 201–boarding in 5 minutes.” Uggghhh!