April 23, 2009

Misadventures in CouchSurfing - Part III
Giv'atayim, Israel and the Palestinian Territories

Previously: Part One, Part Two

Going From Bad to Miserable

We'd generally come to a sort of peace and calm with our situation for the night by the time we returned to Sara's apartment building. Maybe with some helpful cleaning and careful eye we could make it work, was the tentative consensus. Unless we went back with a prior host, Sara was the last CouchSurfing option I'd arranged for Tel Aviv (a city we certainly weren't ready to leave).

We walked the dark, overgrown path leading up to Sara's apartment building, her unit on the ground level. In the near-black of the unlit stairwell I placed our shopping bags on the ground and struggled briefly to find the door's keyhole.

Something was wrong.

I pushed the the key in… turned… nothing.

"The door won't open," I said to Tatiana with a long heavy sigh, followed with a series of hushed expletives. "It looks like the key's going most of the way in, but won't turn to unlock the door."

I knocked several times, each with growing degrees of loudness—desperation, really—but Sara had already left to take her mother back to the airport.

We were locked out.

Locked Out

The temperature had dropped considerably in the time since we'd left the apartment, about an hour prior, and we were far from dressed for it. It was a little after 9:00 p.m., and if our hostess indeed came back directly from the airport, it'd still be a good two bone-chilling hours before she'd be expected. But if she decided to stop off at a bar or even drop by a friend's house—who knew how long we could be waiting.

The situation demanded I keep working with the stubborn spare key that I'd failed to check before leaving the house (another failure on my part I suppose, as I'd again assumed that Sara would've at least checked the other key worked). This was something that I'd normally do, but we were just in too much of a rush to get out of the apartment to talk.

I continued to fiddle in the darkness with the door until I blurted out a muted wail in the cold concrete stairwell: "OH SHIT!"

I'd hardly applied much more pressure than you would to unlock any other slightly sticky lock, when suddenly the brittle key had snapped off in the lock. There was nothing left but the nub of the shaft on the decades-old key in my hand.

I turned to the silhouette of Tatiana, holding Aidric on the landing a few feet from me: "Oh, yeah. We're all really screwed now."

Safety Scissors

Without question we were all in a bad situation. Even if Sara returned home at a reasonable hour, she'd now have no way of opening the door with her own key.

I did a quick run around the outside of the building to see if there was another way in, but all the windows were enclosed with cages of thick, rusting steel bars. And the door, the door was your standard reinforced type for these parts: Not just a single bolt at the handle, but when you turned the key toughened steel bars extended both laterally and vertically from with within and locked into the frame. Lovely.

OK, I thought, now the priority is to get the key shard out of there so that we can at least get in when Sara gets back. We'll deal with Aidric when this gets resolved.

Tatiana was underdressed and already getting quite cold, while Aidric was starting to misbehave from boredom and hunger. We'd only expected to be gone 30 minutes or so, and we now seriously regretted not taking anything for him in the way of provisions (no food, water, or diaper wipes). Thankfully, we'd picked up some diapers from the store, so we at least had those (when he eventually pooped during the long ordeal).

I left the two momentarily and darted back to the group of delinquents in the rear of the building, hoping that someone among them would have access to a pair of needle-nose pliers (as they certainly seemed the type).

Unfortunately, what I received was a rather half-brained twenty-something that grabbed a pair of safety scissors (the kind most commonly found in kindergartens) before returning with me to the crippled door. The most good this kid did was to illuminate the keyhole with his cell phone, so that I could get a better look at the problem.

Traveling, I've been in situations like these far too many times to count. No, not locked outside in the middle of the night with an ornery baby and rapidly chilling fiancée, but where a simple tool or object that you'd normally have access to back home could easily resolve a situation. Instead, you're forced to expend this absurd amount of energy to reach the same resolution point without. At its core, it's creativity, perseverance and tolerance for such things that make for good long-term travelers.

Decisions and Russians

We had no way of calling Sara, as I didn't have her cell phone number. Normally a few local contact numbers are kept on me at all times (especially that of my host), but my pockets had been emptied for the relocation, and I didn't think to take much with me but cash for our quick trip out to the store down the street.

I explained what I thought the two basic options were to Tatiana:

  1. We could all wait for Sara to return home (at some point), while I continue to run around to the building's collection of shady neighbors asking for help.
  2. We could leave a note, walk back to Lee and Nir's apartment, call Sara (her number was in my e-mail), then I'd come back and wait for her return.

Despite the notion of a clean, warm room to sleep in, Tatiana didn't want to leave me, and I think we both didn't want to disturb our previous hosts unless we absolutely had to.

It wasn't long after our decision to keep the evening's problems away from Lee and Nir that the young female neighbor directly opposite Sara's apartment returned home. Baby in her arms, I asked Tatiana if she'd please knock and try to get a sympathetic ear—maybe she had some tools, or could call the landlord (who'd most certainly have the pliers we needed).

She was a Russian immigrant, living and working illegally in Israel. It turned out that her name too was Tatiana and that she had a young daughter of her own (who had to remain in Russia, and was missing tremendously). A story repeated again and again on a global level, this woman worked abroad illegally to send her savings back home.

This warmhearted, pale-skinned woman, who spoke only a few words in English and Hebrew, patiently worked with us until the end of our ordeal.

Eventually the problem was explained and the landlord was summoned over the phone, but we quickly discovered that this was certainly not the man charged with the maintenance of the building. Whereas our hostess' apartment would've been decently sized if it weren't for the moving clutter, this Russian man had taken the apartment opposite Sara's and remodeled it into two or three (maybe even four?) tiny studio apartments. Certainly the delinquents were living out of a part of this sliced up unit, accessing their home through a sliding glass door in the back of the building.

The Russian landlord didn't speak a single syllable of English, but in the pale light emanating from Tatiana's apartment it was easy to see our problem with the door. Reluctantly, he went back to his vehicle and fetched a toolbox.

Great! I thought to myself, This seems to be working out.

But I'd thought much too soon.

Could it Get Any Worse? Yes! Yes it Could… and Did!

I was quite disappointed to see that the aging Russian had no slender pliers in his haphazardly strewn assortment of rusting tools. Never the less, I stood back as he conducted his pro bono repairs.

I turned to Tatiana and said, "What I'm really afraid of at this point is that this guy or someone else is just going get the broken part of the key pushed in there even further, at which point the only way we're getting in there is with a locksmith and a drill."

My attention momentarily diverted to Tatiana and Aidric, who had started crying (from his just-pooped diaper), I turned back to look at the Russian just in time to see our new misery unfold before my own eyes.

In his left hand, rising from the toolbox, was a long flat-headed screwdriver.

Cocked in his right, a hammer.

Before I could even process and react to the sheer stupidity that was unfolding before me he'd raised both into place and…


I stood there in shock and disbelief, my mouth agape. He'd actually hammered the broken key shared into the keyhole.

We were really, really fucked now.

Cockroaches the Size of Cats

Since the moronic Russian landlord had successfully destroyed any hope that we'd out of this situation without a locksmith. In his mind, simply hammering the broken key shard into place and turning the lock with the other half of the broken key was the path to resolution. Idiot.

Before leaving the man called a locksmith up from an advertisement of service numbers that had been taped to everyone's door. He "asked" if we wanted the man to come over, but we couldn't do such a thing, it wasn't even our place—and we didn't want to get stuck with some outrageous bill (possibly quoted at around US$60–70, but we weren't sure).

A physically and emotionally exhausted Tatiana at 1:35 a.m., next to Aidric (who finally passed out in the neighbor's bed around two hours prior).

It was 11 p.m., and much too cold for baby Aidric and Tatiana to be outside. The Russian neighbor invited them inside her small apartment, while I waited in the dark stairwell for Sara to come home. This lasted almost an hour before I finally gave up and joined everyone inside.

Tatiana was looking absolutely wrecked from the late hour and the stress ordeal. All she wanted to do was sleep, but the evening wasn't even close to over yet. Once Sara finally got home, we'd have to explain the busted door, and that a locksmith would be necessary to open it up—certainly not the best of conversations to be having with a host on our first night together.

While we waited and listened for sounds in the hallway, the Russian had killed two large cockroaches in her cute, clean living space. She explained (as best as she could) that the reason the previous tenant of Sara's apartment had moved out was because of the terrible infestation problems she was having with "cockroaches the size of cats" there. —Joy.

Welcome Home! …Sorta.

Sara finally got back home at 12:40 a.m.

We didn't know that she didn't have a car—she'd done some walking and taken the train with her mom to the airport and back. She was late, but at least she was back.

I quickly summarized the events for her while placing the broken key in the palm of her hand. "I'm sorry, but thanks to that ass of a landlord the only way in now is with the help of a locksmith."

If she was angry, she concealed it well. We were grateful that she was understanding and apologetic, and made no mention of money (other than that she'd be writing a check that'd bounce when the locksmith cashed it).

Tatiana and I thought to ourselves: Well, you wanted that lock replaced anyway, right?

The locksmith at work - 1:25 a.m.

She called the same serviceman that had been contacted earlier, and after waiting quietly for half an hour he arrived—a heavyset man perched atop a scooter with a large tool chest welded onto the rear.

As expected, the man had to break out a cordless drill and made such a racket that the entire building up probably awoke. I'd never seen a door lock get drilled into before, so I casually observed with mild interest. More than anything I just wanted the day to end.

It was nearly 2:00 a.m. by the time the door was put back together and the family was back in the apartment with our belongings. Completely drained, Tatiana and I collapsed and drifted off to sleep.

Without question, this would be our only night with Sara.




August 6th, 2009

Que desastre

The United States


August 7th, 2009

Oy. Still, after all this, I'd ascribe the host's failure to incompetence, and not maliciousness (which is a pretty important distinction, in my book).


Craig | travelvice.com

August 7th, 2009

@MB: Oh, I totally agree. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The United States

Bob L

August 7th, 2009

"It is not an adventure until things stop going as planned"

Bob L

The United States


August 7th, 2009

That…was awesome.

The United States


August 7th, 2009

um, shouldn't you have paid for the lock, since you broke it?


Craig | travelvice.com

August 8th, 2009


I thought about chipping in for it, but decided against offering because:
1) She was planning on replacing it in the near-future anyway
2) Although I turned the key, the age of the buttery key wasn't my fault
3) We were unhappy enough as it was, without coughing out the money

I'd much rather spend $70 on my son in other ways than fixing her door — and did.

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