My Jerusalemite friend looked a bit concerned when I told her my plans to travel by bus to Masada on my last full day in Israel. I reassured her, telling her that I had worked out the schedule for departure and return and reminding her that my very presence here in Israel--alone and on my own--should demonstrate that I could handle such an outing.
My friend insisted that it wasn't MY abilities--or even my safety--that worried her. She then reminded me that the ubiquitous Egged buses were not exactly known for keeping to schedule. She noted that I had been spoiled by the relatively regular bus service provided within the City of Jerusalem. What concerned her was that buses making long trips to out-of-the-way places tend to run on "Jewish time," which may be more apt to reckon time by the ages of the universe rather than concern themselves with daily timetables. Conceivably, I could get down to Masada without a reliable way back--and as a result, I could miss my flight back to the States.
No self-respecting Israeli would issue such dire warnings without providing the required followup plan to save the day. And, of course, my friend did have advice: I should just go ahead, she said, and stick to my plan. But I should be sure not to wait until the last scheduled departure from Masada to return to Jerusalem. The last bus of the day, she said, often simply doesn't appear. She had one further piece of advice: In the event that something went wrong and I needed a way back to Jerusalem, I should hitch a ride on one of the tour buses. Yeah, right, I thought, hitch a ride. . . .
I listened politely but really didn't give much credence to my friend's pessimism. It was early September, and I figured the busy tourist season would be reason enough to keep buses running to Masada more or less on schedule. I mean, who doesn't want to see Masada on a trip to Israel?
By the time the second bus scheduled to depart Jerusalem for Masada failed to appear, I was beginning to pay more attention to my friend's warnings. I took the third bus with a bit of trepidation, but I was certain I could make the trip down and return before nightfall. I assumed that this bus would make it to Masada somewhere near its scheduled arrival time. I was wrong. By the time I stepped out on the Judean desert at the base of the rocky outcrop that holds the remains of Herod's fortress, it was less than an hour before time to catch the next-to-the-last bus to Jerusalem.
I was in torment. What could I do? Was it really possible that I could have come to this place only to stare up at Masada without stepping foot on its summit? No, I decided. It was not possible!
Remembering my friend's advice, I headed straight for the parking lot with its small number of tour buses. Finding one with a single person inside, I stepped up to the door and boldly asked "Yerushalayim?" "Ken (yes)," replied the man. Having used up a goodly portion of my conversational Hebrew, I proceeded to explain my problem in English and asked if I might be able to join this tour and return with the group to Jerusalem. "Of course," said the guide. (How had I known he was the guide? How did I know he would speak English? I don't know how I knew. I just knew.) "But you will have to pay the fee for the cable car to the top. All members of my group have that charge included in the price of the tour." Nothing else was asked of me--then or later.
So I joined the tour headed by this kindly man and beheld the spectacle that is Masada, including the panorama of the Dead Sea stretching out into the distance. It was an indescribable experience that I continue to cherish. The somewhat unusual circumstances surrounding the outing have made it even more memorable. Not the least of my many satisfactions was the amazement of my family when I recounted my tale.
As for the tour guide who had mercy on my predicament, he returned me safely to Jerusalem, dropping me off at one of my familiar city bus shelters. As I left the bus, I handed him a tip that was approximately equal to the cost of the tour and thanked him for his kindness. He accepted graciously and wished me a safe journey home.