A few years ago I was with some students and friends on a mission to Israel. It was a cold, rainy Chanukah season (good for the country, less so for the tourists) and we were scheduled to spend Shabbos at a hotel (I use the term loosely) in Safed.
After a dreary (but spirited) bus trip from Jerusalem, we arrived at our destination, eager to shower, change and experience a little of the holiness of the city.
Unfortunately it was the more mundane aspects of Safed that drew our focus. After lugging our suitcases up the steps in the pouring rain (uncomplaining as we remembered that our ancestors had drained the swamps and built the Burma Road!) we were drenched and tired yet still of good cheer. However this was quickly dispelled when we saw our rooms.
Most of the windows were broken, with plastic sheeting partially covering them. The majority of the showers did not work, the sheets were dirty to nonexistent, the electricity sporadic and the doors either wouldn't lock, or for one lucky couple, wouldn't open! My friend looked at me and burst into tears. It was an inauspicious beginning.
Yet it turned out to be a fantastic Shabbos. Although we eventually tired of the jokes about who walked the farthest in the rain (based on the distance of the host family from the hotel), we didn't tire of each other, and the adversity (it's all relative) created a bond we wouldn't have otherwise shared. Especially since no one really wanted to go back to their rooms and we basically all spend Friday night in the lobby telling stories, getting to know each other better, eating cookies, and huddling together to stay warm. In a five-star hotel, under a sunny sky, these relationships would never have been forged and the trip would have been much less memorable.
I was reminded of this experience when I flew home with my family from Lakewood, New Jersey this week. It took us 28 hours door to door. (Yes we could have gone to Israel -- and back! -- in the same amount of time.)
We had a great vacation (always lead with the positive) visiting our kids, relaxing and engaging in typical vacation activities -- eating, biking, eating, boating, eating, amusement parks…and now it was time to return home. We had booked our flights with air miles so we were very proud of our thrift. But a lesson in humility awaited us. We had flown from LA to Newark upon our arrival so we prepared for our 6:45 a.m. departure time by leaving our rental house in Lakewood at 4:15 a.m. We arrived at the check-in desk, bags in hand and rental car returned at 5:30 a.m. We were ready to go. Until the ticketing agent politely informed us that we were at the wrong airport; our flight home was out of LaGuardia, not Kennedy, and there was definitely not enough time to get there.
Our faces fell, our balloon of pride instantly popped. There was no one else to blame. My husband and I had both checked the flight and both missed this crucial detail. We couldn't even attribute it to Divine Providence since it was our own carelessness.
We took a deep breath and prepared to face the day. For our children -- for ourselves -- we needed to be in good spirits. Thank God, we were able to get on a later flight to Milwaukee (our original stopover) and a still later connecting flight to LA. We made our way to Queens and waited eight (count them) hours for our flight. I can answer any questions you may have about Terminal A at LaGuardia, having done a minute inspection.
Our flight to Milwaukee arrived on time, leaving five more hours until our flight to LA. We learned patience and calm, and more patience! We found a kosher deli (having obviously not done enough eating on our vacation!) and had an impromptu tour of the city. It was a long day but food always revives the spirits.
Upon hearing that thunderstorms had delayed our plane home until 11 p.m., we still didn't give up. We went for a walk down to Lake Michigan, dragging our carry-on bags behind us. It was beautiful. And if, after 120 years, the Almighty asks me if I saw Milwaukee and this one of his Great Lakes, I can now answer yes.
We returned to the airport and settled in for the wait. All around us flights were being delayed or canceled. Our ETD rose to 12 to 2 to 4:30 a.m. Although we continued to smile and amazingly enough, so did our kids, at this point we began to feel a tinge of desperation.
My husband approached the airlines and found a 9 p.m. plane to Las Vegas to which they transferred our baggage. At least it was going in the right direction.
We waited about ½ hour on the ground as the crew tried to round up any passengers from a cancelled San Francisco flight that might have wanted a ride. Through our frustration, we appreciated that show of caring and concern. I'm not sure we would have been capable of it.
I'm not sure I can say I'm grateful for the experience but I'm not sorry. We are closer (and more deeply fatigued) because of it.
Thank God, we arrived safely in Las Vegas and even more miraculously, so did our bags. But that half hour delay ensured that we missed the last connecting plane to LA.
We were undaunted and determined. We rented a car and purchased coffee, coke and chocolate to gear ourselves up for the drive home. Only sheer force of will got us through that middle of the night drive. We kept going, taking turns at the wheel and pulling over for brief naps or to stretch our legs. One of our daughters stayed up to keep the driver company so the other driver could rest (I think she didn't trust us!).
We finally arrived home at 5:00 a.m. LA time, 8:00 in New York, 28 hours later! And there was no key under the mat… Besides the lessons learned along the way, besides the absolute and utter exhaustion, this trip, like the one to Safed, was a special, unique and wonderful bonding experience.
We deepened our relationship (my kids probably think I'm being corny) and shared something that wouldn't have happened otherwise -- adventure and humor and courage and uncomplaining determination (Okay, we weren't climbing Everest but still…). We learned we could all stretch ourselves to deal with difficult situations with grace and good nature. And we reinforced our ability to laugh at the absurd and share the joke with each other. I'm not sure I can say I'm grateful for the experience but I'm not sorry. We are closer (and more deeply fatigued) because of it.
And for all of you who said, "I'm sure you'll turn that story into an article"…you were right. Maybe that's why it happened after all.