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Short Story

November 17, 2020

Is It Just Me, Or Is It Shawarma In Here?

At this time last year, before COVID and quarantines, sixty brave Orthodox armed with toilet paper and Dramamine set out for an adventure of a life-time. Together we touched the untouchable and cradled miracles in our bare hands. It was a blessing to take this spiritual journey with my travel companions, whose unique personalities made this trip so memorable and fun. Read my story to find out what happens when the middle-aged meet the Middle East.

Our church group trip to Israel was no vacation.  This was made clear to us by our tiny, tyrannical tour guide, Katarina, who was not above employing militaristic tactics to keep us marching forward when all we wanted to do was pause long enough on the Via Dolorosa to take in the exotic sights and sounds of the old marketplace.

“Move along!  Move along!”  The sixty-something tour guide clapped her hands twice and stomped her foot.  “This is a pilgrimage.”  She shrieked in a heavy Greek accent.  “Not a vacation.”  When I dared to slow down, American dollars in hand, long enough to purchase an olive wood nativity scene from a vendor on the street, the tour guide’s voice cracked like a whip on the cobblestone road.  “No shopping!  No shopping!

To make matters worse, we were expected to continue this grueling spiritual journey straight through lunch.  There was no time to break for a boring kebab when there were monasteries to visit and relics to relish.  At first, I welcomed skipping meals, praying the first miracle we witnessed would be my losing five pounds. But the lack of food made me see visions, instead.  Was that a heavenly light at the end of the tunnel, or a platter of hummus at the end of the buffet line?  Was I hearing a divine message, or was that just my husband Wes’ stomach growling again?

Seasoned traveler that I was, I knew to sneak food from the breakfast buffet to tide us over until dinnertime, swiping small, hard rolls with slices of cheese, and sliding them, wrapped in paper napkins, into my purse.  I borrowed bagels for my backpack, pilfered pita for my pockets.  Hoarding food was in my genes (and now in my jeans) and Yaya, my grandmother, whose giant patent leather purse had always been stuffed with enough cracker packets and Melba toast to feed the masses, would have been proud of my ingenuity.  I imagined the feast Jesus could have created with five fuzzy rolls and two slightly stiff sardines.

The forced fast was quickly turning the people of our peaceful pilgrimage into a pillaging posse. Lacking the basic comforts of home, like real diet Coke, cute shoes, and lunch, threw us into survival mode and tempers were taut.   Even bottled water was scarce, which was just as well, since there was no bathroom on the bus, and the fear of having to pee hung over us like humidity.

The poor travel conditions affected us all, but my aunt, Evelyn, who hadn’t been on an airplane in thirty-five years, was the first martyr to suffer.  It was the second day of the trip and we were riding in Bus Number One down a winding, mountainous road.  Already that day she had lost her jacket, her sunglasses and a wide brimmed straw hat.   

“Is she always like this?”  A disgruntled man scowled and handed me her cheetah print scarf that he’d found on the ground outside the monastery.

“I’m not sure.”  I shrugged.  “I only see her twice a year at holidays.”  I was puzzled, too.  The aunt I knew, an avid baker and animal activist, who boldly breezed in to our family gatherings carrying plates full of rich homemade chocolate desserts, was a far cry from the anxious, disorganized woman who’d followed me on this trip.

We had just left Mt. Tabor, the site of Jesus’ Transfiguration when Evelyn began going through a less glorious transfiguration of her own.  She had started off that morning stylishly dressed, energetic and eager to witness a miracle.  By afternoon, she was minutes away from a meltdown, instead.

“I hope I don’t get motion sick.”  Evelyn rustled around in her backpack until she found a container of Dramamine and popped a few pills into her mouth.  She shook the bottle near my ear.  “Don’t you want one?  It would be terrible to get sick on the bus.”

I shook my head and concentrated on staring out the front window, craning my head to see past the passenger seated in front of me.

“I mean, don’t these twists and turns make you dizzy?”  Evelyn poked her head through the space between the seat I shared with Wes.  “I probably shouldn’t have taken those pills on an empty stomach.”

We bounced along in the bus for a few minutes in blissful silence.

“I’m starting to feel sick.”  Evelyn fanned herself with a map of the Sea of Galilee.  “Do you feel sick?”

I’d felt fine before she mentioned it.

The bus lurched left and right and I focused on the yellow line in the middle of the road to get my mind off the somersaults my own stomach was performing.  I dug in my purse and excavated a lint covered roll.  “Eat this.”  I threw the baked good over my shoulder to my aunt.  “It’ll make you feel better.”

Evelyn nibbled on the bread for a moment.  Then she gasped and began rummaging around on the floor, tossing her belongings like a huge Greek salad onto the empty seat beside her.   “Oh no!”  She reached through the seats and grabbed my shoulder.  “My purse.  It’s missing!  I had it at the monastery and now it’s gone.”

Wes growled under his breath while I steeled myself, then swiveled around in the cramped seat to face her.  “Evelyn, try to stay calm.  Let’s think about where you had it last.”

“I might have left it in that horrible bathroom, the one without toilet paper.”  She moaned, her face turning white. “Or on that shuttle bus we got on with all those grumpy Romanians.”  Sweat formed on her forehead.  “Help me find it!  I’m too sick to move.”

 I groaned.  My dream of a drama free vacation was disappearing as fast as beef kabobs on an all-you-can-eat buffet.   I performed acrobatics to dislodge my body from the seat I shared with Wes, and dug through the pile of belongings on the seat next to hers—sweaters in case it was cold, sunscreen in case it was hot, a fancy camera that couldn’t hold a charge.  It was no wonder she kept losing things.  She’d packed everything but her well-stocked kitchen pantry and whatever didn’t fit in her massive suitcase, she carried in her bare hands. 

I grabbed her backpack and searched through every pocket, unearthing enough hand sanitizer to disinfect every hand on the bus and enough tissue to wipe every tush.  My fingernails raked across something large and hard at the bottom of the bag.  I whipped my hand out and examined my nails, now dirty and brown.  Instinctively shifting into motherhood drive, I brought my fingers to my nose and sniffed.

“Baking chocolate.”  Evelyn grabbed for her backpack, reached into it, broke off a chunk and swooned as it melted on her tongue.  “For medicinal purposes.  Can you look under all the seats?  Maybe someone picked it up by mistake.”

 I glanced at the other passengers wedged into each bus row, thighs spreading uncomfortably into the aisles.  The grim Greek faces of half-starved church council members, deacons and priests stared back at me.   I had grown up and grown older with most of these people.  They knew my parents and my grandparents and my children. But my “spiritual but not religious” aunt, and my new, “Irish Catholic, but evasively evangelical” husband were outsiders, loose cannons on this bus.  My goal was to keep them from blasting through my reputation as a semi-regular Christmas and Easter, once-a-month when I didn’t have too many margaritas on Saturday night, church-going pillar of the community. 

I set my mouth in a stubborn line.  I may have been younger than my absent-minded aunt, but I was twice her size.   Although I would crawl on my hands and knees to kiss the spot where Christ was crucified, I drew a hard line at dropping into a downward dog in the middle of a speeding bus, in front of God and my fifth grade Sunday school teacher, even if I was wearing my comfortable new Athleta travel pants.

“Evelyn, take some deep breaths.  It’ll be ok.  The most important thing is that you have your passport.”

 A crazed look came over her face.

 My stomach did a flip.  “Evelyn, where’s your passport?”

Her eyes grew wild with emotion.  “In my purse!  Everything—all my money, my credit cards, my passport, my life—is in that purse.”

Breakfast bubbled up inside me as I grasped the severity of the situation.  I reached across the aisle and tapped Katarina on the shoulder. “I hate to bother you, but we have a slight problem.”

Katarina ignored me and continued yelling into her cell phone. “I don’t care what time your hotel dining room closes.  I have seexty hungry people and you’re going to feed them. “  Her face turned as red as her hair.  “And eet better be good food, too, not some cold cra…”  She turned to look at me and clicked her phone shut mid rant.

I took a deep breath.  “One of the passengers seems to think she misplaced her purse.”  I whispered to avoid alerting the rest of the bus and calling unwanted attention to us.

Katarina’s eyes grew as wide as Kalamata olives.  She bolted to a standing position.  “Who?  What passenger?”

 “The woman behind me.”  I swallowed.  “My aunt.”

The tour guide moaned.  “This eesn’t good.  This ees not good.  What was een her purse?  Her money?  Her credit cards?”

 I nodded.  “And her passport.”

Katarina wailed and tore at her hair.  Then she snarled at the driver in a demonic voice.  “Stop the bus!”

The driver swerved in surprise.  “I cannot pull over!”  He shouted in broken English.  “I am on a toll way.”

The sudden movement woke all the passengers from their low blood sugar comas.  A woman across from me gasped and clutched the cross around her neck as a collection of water bottles rolled down the aisle. 

“Is it desert bandits?” The woman asked, her voice trembling.

“Maria, we’re not in the desert,” a man answered.  “We’re on a freeway in Nazareth, for Pete’s sake.  Look…” He pointed out the window.  “There’s an H&M store.”

Evelyn began dry heaving.  “I’m going to be sick!” 

Muttering something to Jesus under her breath, Katarina leaped from her seat and sprang into action.  She grabbed a plastic bag from the overhead bin and thrust it at Evelyn, then snatched up her cell phone and pounded in some numbers.  The whole bus could hear her yelling in Greek to a monk from the Transfiguration Monastery.

Thanks to the Friday night Greek school I attended each week when I was a little girl, I could decipher almost every other word of her passionate plea.  Woman. Purse. Crazy.  Please.  Some of the others on the bus, however, understood it all.

“A woman lost her purse?” The man who had earlier found my aunt’s scarf on the ground growled.  He stared daggers at Evelyn and pointed an angry finger at her.  “Not you again!”

“If we turn back now to go get it, we’ll miss dinner, too!” yelled another.  “And the brochure promised shawarma.”

“And what about shopping tonight?”  A woman’s shrill voice echoed from the back of the bus. “You promised to take us to your favorite store and now we won’t have any time.”

We were minutes away from a mutiny and I looked to the priest for help, but he stared straight ahead like a religious statue, clearly unwilling to get involved with the bedlam on the bus behind him.  I glanced at my aunt, frazzled and frail, wearing a thin cardigan, hunched over her plastic bag dry heaving while the others complained.  Indignation roared up inside me.  Where was the holy in this Holy Land trip?  Who were the pilgrims on this pilgrimage?  My aunt was about to be sacrificed to the lions and I didn’t have a prayer to save her. So I did what any good niece would do.

I got down on my knees—and looked under the seat.

My simple act of kindness spread like hummus on pita and soon a symphony of sixty pairs of arthritic knees could be heard creaking and popping as every passenger on the bus knelt down and searched every row.

And came up empty-handed.

I looked at Evelyn and shook my head.  The money and credit cards we could replace, but the passport was her ticket to travel, the key to unlock the mysteries and miracles in Egypt the next day where we’d visit the burning bush and Moses’s well.  More importantly, it was her gateway to returning home where she reigned.

“It’s ok.”  Evelyn took a deep breath.  “I’ve prayed about it and I know I’m going to find my purse.”  She stood up, unbuttoned her sweater and shrugged it off her shoulders.  “Is it warm in here, or is it just me?”

 “I don’t believe it.”  The man across the aisle rolled his eyes and nudged his wife with his elbow.  He jabbed a crooked finger at Evelyn.  “What’s that hanging across your shoulder?  It wouldn’t be a purse would it?”

I stared at her, my mouth gaping open.

Evelyn looked up to the heavens and cried, her face beaming with joy.  “Oh thank you, thank you!  I knew I’d find it.”

Relief and irritation danced the hora through my body, jockeying for the lead. “Evelyn, were you wearing it the whole time?  Under your sweater?” 

Minutes later, the bus pulled up to the hotel and everyone raced to raid the dinner buffet, except Katarina, who snuck off to the bar where I imagined she’d have more than one stiff drink.  Evelyn exited last, eyes bright in search of the next miracle, walking briskly, her blue cloth purse strapped securely across her chest.  Her determined pace said there was no time to lose with shawarma to sample and shopping to do. 

I looked at my aunt and marveled at her determination.  It was only day two, and she’d lost her jacket, her sunglasses and her wide brimmed hat.  She’d lost her purse and passport.  She’d almost lost her cookies.  But she’d never lost her faith.

“Oh!”  She paused and pointed to the corner where a dark skinned man stood next to a camel, a small group of tourists surrounding him, cameras posed.  “I’m going to ask him if I can ride it.”  She ran down the sidewalk, dropping her sweater along the way, and called back over her shoulder at me.  “I mean, what have I got to lose?”

I walked down the block, admiring the pink and yellow stripes of color streaking across the foreign twilight sky, and stooped to pick up my aunt’s sweater.  I tucked it under my arm and strolled back to the hotel where the bus driver was waiting, holding a backpack.

“Someone left this on the bus.”  He grinned and shrugged his shoulders.  “I thought maybe you’d know who it belongs to.”

I unzipped it just to be sure and smiled when I saw the slightly soft bar of chocolate inside.  I broke off a piece and placed it in my mouth, savoring the bittersweet taste of home.  If I squinted I could just make out Evelyn’s thin form balancing regally on the camel’s back, glowing brightly as she rode off into the sunset.

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