Why you should care

My first visit to the Middle East introduced me to kind people, captivating culture and (hopefully) a jokester I’ll never forget.

There I stood, in Israel’s desert, somewhere between the Dead Sea and Jerusalem.

I wondered how many more hours we would be stranded — the bus carrying us back to the Olive Tree Hotel had broken down almost two hours ago. Our savvy driver had, however, managed to maneuver our cohort off the dusty road and into the relative luxury of an Israeli gas station. There, lying in the parking lot, was a tethered camel. It was like stepping into a 1960s Wild West movie set in the Middle East.

A camel ride atop a hill overlooking the Dome of the Rock seemed to be a lucrative tourist opportunity, but here? Not as likely. I guessed Bedouins must stop for snacks too.

In 2009, six camels equaled roughly $2,000 … [but] how many Camel cigarettes could one buy with $2,000?

A week earlier, I had landed to catch a late transfer to Jerusalem in Israel’s now-trending hub, Tel Aviv, after a 14-hour flight. Outside my window, the sparse, tree-studded landscape along Highway 1 had whizzed past in the early darkness of a February evening in 2009. The excitement of the unknown when I travel to new places has always been pleasing; when laced with nothing more than the suggestion of danger, it becomes intoxicating. Arriving in a country with a storied past and ancient traditions, and less than one month after the end of the Gaza War, it was enough to concoct a stimulant composite. A dramatic setting with a dramatic aura.

In the cool morning air, I pulled on a jacket and made my way to the Old City with my mom in tow. I was, after all, 15 years old. Had we known that first morning of our trip would not be the last time I could have been taken in Israel, maybe we would have been more alert to the people we encountered, rather than troubled by the uncertainty of an Israel-Hamas cease-fire.

Common sense urged us to exercise more caution when we were close to the Gaza Strip, just 25 miles away. We unlocked and unpacked the cargo hold to settle in for the duration, but our stomachs began to grumble as our planned dinner hour arrived and then departed. With the promise of another bus on the way, Mom and I browsed the station’s aisles for Pringles and Diet Coke to tide us over until we returned to the city.

As we stood at the counter, shekels in hand, the attendant looked me over, turned back to my mom and offered her a proposal: six camels in exchange for her only daughter.

Six camels? Was he really attempting to buy me, or was he just joking?

On our first day in Jerusalem, we had crossed into the Old City through the Damascus Gate. We sauntered along stone streets flanked by heaping spices. Continuing on, we entered the Western Wall Plaza, where we marveled at the meleke structure, built with 90-million-year-old limestone from the Late Cretaceous period. Minutes later, Mom was poised with her camera.

She placed me among a group of five Israeli soldiers finishing their morning cigarette, for a ripe photo opportunity — AK-47s and all. As I walked away, they jokingly waved a hand, inviting me to join them on the back of the military truck. Now, days later, I would have gladly hitched a ride with the soldiers had they been around.

In the gas station, Mom and I turned to each other, offering a nervous laugh, only to find the cashier looking back at us stone-faced. Our shekels clinked on the counter. We gathered our purchases, turned on our heels and reconvened with our fellow travelers to see the replacement bus pulling into the station.

Had he really been serious? Did I miss the memo that men still buy women with camels? My mom didn’t care to reconsider or double-check with the potential buyer.

Many of my habitual travel practices today stem from this trip. Lesson one: Pack your own snacks — it’s healthier and just might keep a wide range of precarious circumstances at bay (these days I carry at least two protein bars with me) — and a sense of humor.

Though I was able to answer some questions surrounding the exchange, others remain. A response to one of my lingering thoughts: In 2009, six camels equaled roughly $2,000. More unanswered questions that swirl through my thoughts: How many Camel cigarettes could one buy with $2,000? And, more compellingly, did Mom ever revisit her decision during the trying times of raising a hormonal teenage daughter?

Maybe she could have profited from the swap by founding a camel rental company. Churches always need at least one hump, maybe even two, for the live Nativity scene around the holidays, yes?

Most surprising of all, a country about 3,000 square miles larger than the state of New Jersey, fresh out of a three-week armed conflict, left us feeling safer than any other destination we had visited. A potential alternate life and profits aside, my first visit to the Middle East introduced me to its many kind people and a captivating culture. Despite the real or imagined danger of war or people, I learned to embrace practices outside my own cultural norm. And managed not to be sold for camels in the process.

OZYTrue Story

Good stories from around the globe. Essays and immersion, into the harrowing, the sweet, the surprising — the human.