It took less than 48 hours for the panic to set in. There was no WhatsApp message and the phone rang unanswered. She had promised to contact me every day — a one-line message or even just a thumb up icon. We had agreed on this while standing on the check-in line at Ben Gurion Airport.
“Don’t worry, Mom,” she had said.
“Don’t worry,” echoed her boyfriend and travelling companion.
But I was worried. My mind flipped through a catalogue of news stories I had read over the many years: a litany of accidents, attacks, illnesses and natural disasters which had befallen young Israelis travelling abroad. Reading all those stories while my children were in gan (pre-school), I was comforted knowing this was far, far, off in my future. Now my future had arrived.
When she eventually called, and I admit it didn’t take that long, she was nonchalant.
“We took a day trip to the sand dunes and I left my phone at the youth hostel. Everything is fine, just like I told you it would be,” she said.
Only 120 more days left to go.
My 23-year-old daughter, Gabriella, set off this week on the great post-army trip abroad, as much a rite of passage for Israelis as the army itself. She and her boyfriend, Din, headed for South and Central America, one of several Third World regions clogged with so many Israelis, it’s dubbed the “Hummus Trail.” In the past several months, our home was abuzz with stories from female friends who had returned from the trail. They raved about the hospitality of the Colombian people, the grandeur of Machu Picchu and the beauty of Mexico. And Gabriella, still clad in her khakis and army boots, patiently waited her turn.
The army experience, with its rigidity, rules and confinement to a single base, fueled the desire for international escape. For three long years, Gabriella endured 12-hour work days, horrific food, bed bugs and bureaucracy. But it was more than that: as an officer, she had to ensure her soldiers learned how to use a weapon, decide whether they could leave midweek for a relative’s wedding and help determine disciplinary measures for infractions.
“I’ve just spent the past years being responsible for others, now I want to travel and just be responsible for myself,” she said.
She also wanted a break before university, career, marriage, motherhood and all the other trappings of adult life. There would likely be other trips in her life, but probably none like this one when a soldier turns wanderer. I would have preferred that she travel in Europe or North America. But I understood that the appeal of these trips is to find a place as different from home as possible yet, ironically, filled with enough fellow Israeli backpackers to make it feel at least a little like home. And I understood that, as a parent, I had to put my worries aside and just let her go.
Her departure on the Hummus Trail was delayed almost two weeks due to illness. I was impressed and surprised by how sensitive the doctors here were in understanding the trip’s importance. When the subject of the trip arose, the rheumatologist’s serious visage turned dreamy.
“I took a trip myself like this when I was your age, to Asia, and it was a pivotal experience in my life,” he said.
I relished my own 20-something travel experiences, although they seem tame in comparison. Summer of my college sophomore year, I set off alone for Western Europe on a EU rail pass. I loved that feeling of hopping a night train from Paris to Spain or walking out in the predawn light of the Venice train station. Over three decades later, I can still remember the American soldier I met in Heidelberg and the Iranian émigré, homesick for the country he had to flee after the revolution, I wandered around with in Paris. The following summer, I spent six weeks hitchhiking around Ireland and Scotland. Communication with my parents back in New York was limited to a telephone call once every week and chatty letters written on tissue-thin blue aerograms that failed to mention the driver from Cork who got fresh or the stomach virus that knocked me out on the Island of Skye.
I’m grateful for the easy communication enabling me to get daily reports on how Gabriella is handling altitude sickness in Cusco (not well, by last account). And I’m trying not to think about when Din comes home next month, and she continues travelling by herself. Solo travel, even for women, has become part of the necessary Israeli travel experience.
I’ve already promised her, and myself, to be good. I won’t pester her with too many messages and phone calls. When I’m feeling nervous, I try to visualize her return home. I imagine that moment when she comes through the airport door pushing her trolley cart with her oversized backpack, now scuffed up and stuffed with presents. I imagine she’ll be wearing a funky beaded necklace acquired in some small town in Guatemala and that her face will be sunburned, but her auburn eyes shining. She’ll be excited to get back to her room, unlimited hot water and a refrigerator filled with hummus and raw vegetables that can be consumed without fear of illness. It will be great in the beginning, but parents who have already been through it have warned me about what awaits. After the hugs and kisses have faded, the laundry’s been done, and the photos shown, the planning for the next trip on the Hummus Trail begins.