I got off the bus after an eight-hour journey. 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 woman had gotten on the same bus in Guatemala City with an identical US Army bag, and had gotten off the bus with my bag at the previous stop.
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 woman or my bag.
It was Friday afternoon. I was hoping to catch a bus to one of the national parks before Shabbat. By late afternoon there was still no sign of the woman. I resolved to find a guesthouse. I walked through the local market scanning the area for a sign that offered accommodation.
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 prayer book!
For the first time on my trip I put the tefillin in my pack. I had never done so before. 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 woman in Guatemala gets on the same bus as me, with the same bag, and then gets off with mine!
I bought some bananas, avocados, and some candles to light for Shabbat. After walking around a bit, I found a guesthouse.
“You’ve only got a small bag with you?” The guy running the guesthouse asked in a heavy American accent. “Is this all you travel with?”
“Today it is, because some woman 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’s not coming back. The contents of your bag are worth more than the woman 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 his pancakes and that I would not do any clothes shopping on Shabbat either.
I lit Shabbat candles and a candle for the first night of Chanukah. I tried to daven what I could from memory. I sang a few Shabbat songs, and had my bananas and avocados.
Tom was curious about the Shabbat 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.”
The lost tefillin were a special pair; a gift from Hashem. At my bar mitzva I received a very large and heavy pair of Chabad-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 on these outdoor treks was annoying, especially if I was doing a 24-hour adventure race. One night I made a decision that on the next adventure trip I would 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 prize.
“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 leftover 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 the prize.
“I want the smallest and most beautiful tefillin that you can make, with every 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 a most unusual way.”
Later, after saying Shma, 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.
“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 mitzva I have not missed a day of putting on tefillin. 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 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!”
Shabbat morning, after praying what I could by heart, I walked to the bus station, accompanied by Tom. There was still no word or sign of my bag.
Twenty minutes later I went back to the station to check again. The man working there smiled at us and presented my bag fully intact.
“This is first time I see in Guatemala! Yesterday woman 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 Shabbat.
“It will be an honor to carry this bag,” said Tom. He lifted it over his shoulder and we walked back to the guesthouse.