After an eight hour journey I got off the bus. The boy who handled the bags tried offering what he thought was my US army khaki duffle bag. It almost looked like mine. However, it was missing my name which was written in small letters along the side. Slowly we worked out what had happened.
A women had gotten on the same bus in Guatemala city with an identical US army bag, and gotten off the bus with my bag at the previous stop. Things like this do not shock me. I tend to be more amused by Hashem’s sense of humor. I have been traveling around the world for years and never met anyone with the same bag as me, but now in Guatemala of all places?
The boy and I jumped into a cab and rushed back to the previous bus stop. We checked all over but could not find the women or my bag.
“Maybe she take van from here and go to another place?” the boy suggested pointing to the vans that serviced various parts of the country
It was Friday afternoon. I was hoping to catch a bus to one of the national parks before Shabbos. By late afternoon there was still no sign of the women. I resolved to find a guest house. I walked through the local market scanning the area for a sign that offered accommodation. The local indigenous people sold fruit and vegetables. It was a colorful affair but my mind was focused on a backpacker’s worst nightmare: ‘The disappearance of a backpack.’
My backpack is my home, containing everything I need to survive: clothes, a toothbrush, and juggling balls. It also has things like cables to recharge my camera and my Mp3 player, medication, contact lenses and other small things that are impossible to replace in a third world country village. But the most valuable items in the pack were my tefillin and siddur! For the first time on my trip I put the tefillin in my pack. I usually never do this. I know always to carry the tefillin with me in a small bag along with things like the camera and other valuables. The one day I put my tefillin in the pack is the one day that a women in Guatemala gets on the same bus as me, with the same bag, and then gets off with my bag!
I bought some bananas, avocados, and some candles to light for Shabbos. After walking around a bit, I found a guest house.
“You’ve only got a small bag with you?” The guy running the guest house asked in a heavy American accent. “Is this all you travel with?”
“Today it is, because some women has my stuff. In exchange she has left behind a bag of old clothes.”
“By the way my name is Tom,”
“Ben,” I said, and we shook hands.
“I’ve lived in Guatemala for seven years,” said Tom, “If you have one electronic item in your bag forget about it. It is not coming back. The contents of your bag are worth more than the women can make in a few years!”
Tom smiled when I mentioned that I also had $100 US in cash hidden in the pack. I kept it there for an emergency.
“She’s struck gold!” Tom continued, “But I know something that will cheer you up. My dad and I make the best banana pancakes in Guatemala and tomorrow I’ll make you one for breakfast. Then we can go out and I’ll show you where to find some new clothes and a new backpack. Maybe you’ll even find your original pack and clothes for sale!”
I did not bother to explain to Tom that I would not eat a pancake cooked on Shabbos and that I would not do any clothes shopping either.
Having nothing was incredible. I tried to embrace the experience and savor the feeling. It was something I could not put fully into words. It brought me to some sort of place where I could sense my true self and feel some of the divine inside of me.
Tom was curious about the Shabbos and Chanukah candles and we spoke about Jewish stuff. I also told him about the tefillin that cost $1200 and that this was the most valuable item in the backpack.
“If you have this special spiritual item in the pack, G-d will get you your bag back.”
“From your mouth to G-d’s ears,” I replied.
I gazed intently at the burning Shabbos and Chanukah candles. The lost tefillin came to mind. They were a special pair; a gift from Hashem.
At my bar mitzvah I received a very large and heavy pair of Chabbad style tefillin. Since then I became active with outdoor adventure; running trails, climbing mountains, and bicycling long distances. Carrying a large and heavy item like the tefillin in to the outdoors was annoying especially if I were doing a 24 hour adventure race. . One night I made a decision that on the next adventure trip I may not take my tefillin.
The following morning my mother called.
“Guess what! You won a raffle.”
This did not surprise me because I seem blessed at wining raffles. Maybe this time it was dinner for two at a non-kosher restaurant or some other useless thing. I usually forget when I even buy a raffle ticket.
“Remember two months ago you gave me money to put in a Chinese auction? Well I put in for the stuff you wanted but there was some left-over money so I put in for tefillin. You won the tefillin of your choice valued at up to $1,200!”
I emailed the scribe in Israel who was responsible for organizing the prize.
“I want the smallest and most mehudar tefillin that you can make with every chumra (stringency) possible.” He wrote back, “for $1200 we can make you very good tefillin!”
“I will miss these tefillin – the ones I have lost,” I said to myself as I gazed at the candles. “They were special to me, but if Hashem gave them to me in the most unusual way, then he can take them back in the most unusual way.”
Later after saying shema I spoke to Hashem. It is one of the few times in my life that I truly felt like I was talking to G-d and that he was listening. It is one of the only times that I really prayed.
“Hashem you can keep the backpack, all the cables and the rechargers, malaria medication and contact lenses. You can keep the $100, and even my five favorite juggling balls, but since my Bar Mitzvah I have not missed a day of putting tefillin on. When Sunday morning comes, if you want me to put on tefillin, you better get me a pair, because it is up to you. Even if I try to get to Guatemala City where I can find tefillin, the chances of me getting there by sunset on Sunday are not high. It’s a long trip away. There needs to be a bus going, I need a seat, and you need to arrange that there will be no landslides that block the roads, bus breakdowns, riots, wars, or rebel activity. So between you and me, it is probably easier for you, Hashem, to organize my tefillin to come back, than to organize a miracle where a bus will not break down in a third world country!”
It is the only time in my life I felt I davened with complete bitul. There was absolutely nothing I could do about the situation other than ask Hasehm for his help.
Shabbos morning after davening what I could by heart, I walked to the bus station. There was still no word or sign of my bag. The man working there tried to comfort me, “This is Guatemala, no bag ever come back. You can have this bag of women’s clothing,” He said, offering me the duffle bag belonging to the woman.
“No thanks,” I said. I had no use for the woman’s bag of old clothing.
I found Tom at the guesthouse and asked him if he could help me with a police report. His Spanish was better than mine.
“I don’t get it,” Tom said, shaking his head. “You’ve got these tefillin things, so G-d has to get them back to you”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“I’m not convinced,” Tom continued, “We’re going back to the bus station.”
Twenty minutes later we were standing in the station. The man working there smiled at us and presented my bag fully intact.
“This is first time I see in Guatemala! Yesterday women travel five hours. Come home late at night and see she have wrong bag. So she travel back five hours and hope she find her bag still here!”
I was happy and about to explain that I could not carry the bag back because it was Shabbos.
“It will be an honor to carry this bag,” said Tom. He lifted it over his shoulder and we walked back to the guest house.
“Do you still want that banana pancake?” Tom asked me when we arrived at the guest house.
“Maybe tomorrow,” I smiled.