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Friday, April 23, 2004

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Holy Land

[I realize that the past three or four journal entries here at treppenwitz have been pretty heavy, so I've decided to finish off the week with something a little lighter]

Hitchhiking, once a popular, carefree, youthful pastime in the U.S. (and now seemingly the exclusive domain of vagrants, runaways, and axe-murderers), is all but gone from the American landscape. However, it is an accepted form of alternative transportation for a very wide cross-section of the population here in Israel.

Lest the reader think I lack the credentials to make a proper comparison of American and Israeli hitchhiking techniques, allow me to assure you that I have more than a passing acquaintance with the subject. You see, after high school I decided to postpone my university studies and join the navy. As if this alone weren’t enough to kill my parents, I also elected to spend a good part of that summer hitchhiking around California. [Yes, I am well aware that the karma debt collector will be showing up on my doorstep just about the time my kids reach their stupid years]

In Israel, the first thing that strikes the uninitiated observer is the sheer number of people who hitchhike (called ‘tremping’ in the local vernacular). Nearly every bus stop and rural intersection has a small crowd of people waiting patiently for rides. The second thing that jumps out at you here is the variety of people that tremp. Everybody does it; Young kids, senior citizens, men, women, professionals, students…and of course soldiers.

Technically it is against army regulations for soldiers to hitchhike, and they can get in quite a bit of trouble if caught doing so (because there have been several cases of terrorists kidnapping and murdering military personnel). However, despite the prohibition, the army requires soldiers to take a course on how to safely hitchhike. This is a very typical Israeli concept…prohibiting something, while planning for the eventuality that many people will not abide by the prohibition. Go figure.

Another marked difference between Israeli and non-Israeli hitchhiking are the hand signals. I grew up with the understanding that the proper hitchhiking posture was to stand facing traffic with your thumb extended into the roadway. In Israel, I was surprised to see that they stand with their index finger pointed outwards, and slightly down, as though arrogantly saying, “I want you to stop right here”. Of course, an Israeli seeing an American hitchhiker might think he/she was either doing a Fonzie impersonation, or giving all the passing drivers a goofy ‘thumbs up’ sign. Ah yes, so fun to judge and ridicule cultural differences.

There are also a few variations and nuances to the Israeli hand signs and hitching techniques. For instance, if you are traveling a short distance – say to the next intersection or town - you would point emphatically at the ground in front of you. If your desired destination required a turn early in the trip, you would point in that direction.

However, my favorite twist is the way in which the entire Israeli hitchhiking transaction is controlled by the passenger rather than the driver.

When a car pulls over to offer a ride, it is the driver that is required to state a destination through the open window, not the potential passenger. The assumption is that the driver has seen the hitchhiker and wouldn’t have stopped unless prepared to offer a ride. However, the person standing on the side of the road needs a few moments to size up the driver and decide if he/she wants to accept the ride. If the driver seems safe (always a value judgment and not-so-subtle exercise in profiling) and the destination coincides with the hitcher’s needs, the ride is accepted. If anything about the driver makes the hitcher uncomfortable, or if the destination is not helpful, a simple “thank you…have a nice trip” is offered and nobody is offended. It’s really quite logical if you think about it.

Once a ride is offered there are a whole bunch of unwritten rules to guide the conduct of passengers and drivers. For instance, even after the ride is accepted, the hitcher is generally under no obligation to disclose a destination until the car is within site of it. Again, this keeps the control firmly in the passenger’s hands. If anything about the ride makes the hitchhiker nervous, a simple, “would you please let me off here” is all that is necessary to quickly bring the deal to a close. Something that also took some getting used to on my part was that, in many cases the accepted way of telling the driver that the desired destination is approaching is to unbuckle one’s seatbelt. This sudden clicking of the buckle made me very nervous the first few times it happened, (having been brought up with the rule that seatbelts were fastened until the car comes to a full stop), but I’ve been told by friends that this is the way things are done, so I’ve accepted it.

I remember in my hitchhiking days in the states, it would be considered strange, or even suspicious, for a hitchhiker to not offer some account of himself (or otherwise engage the driver in some sort of small talk). In Israel, the act of hitching is so commonplace that talking is usually frowned upon (unless the driver begins the conversation). Soldiers, especially those returning home from the field, have their own unique way of observing the no-talking rule: they fall immediately and profoundly asleep. For this reason, it is sometimes appropriate to break with etiquette and ask a soldier’s destination once the vehicle is moving so that the driver knows in advance where to stop.

Another modern wrinkle added to the driver/passenger relationship is the cell phone. Everyone has a cell phone here so invariably a phone will ring, or a call will have to be placed to tell family or friends that you are on your way. The rule of thumb is that one should speak quietly and not stay on the phone for an extended period of time. A close friend of mine has actually chastised passengers who were rude enough to conduct loud or extended cell phone conversations in her car.

Seating arrangements are also the exclusive choice of the passenger. Women, especially those who will be the only passenger in the car of a male driver, often elect to sit in the back seat so as to assume a modicum of control, and to provide a good view of everything around her.

I’m sure there are other subtleties that I have missed (feel free to share your own experiences and knowledge on the subject), but that should be sufficient for anyone interested in offering or accepting a ride here in the holy land.

As always…don’t thank me, I’m a giver.

Posted by David Bogner on April 23, 2004 | Permalink


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Whilst I always enjoy your postings, this particular entry caused me a moment's pause as I digested the part about your U.S. hitchhiking days and your follow-up comment regarding the Karma Debt-Collector as our children near the years where their sole job is to turn our heads grey with age and worry. I post this comment to publicly state my frustration that my own goodie-two-shoes past will be largely negated due to the fact that your teenage adventures more than cancelled out any of my brownie-points. And a word of advice to any parents reading this post/comment: be VERY careful when you wish the same type of child you had on your child! Your child's future spouse may not be as deserving of that time-honored parental curse! Lol.

May I also add, for the record, that you never cease to amaze me.... Sigh.

Posted by: Zahava | Apr 23, 2004 11:47:16 AM

Ladies and gentlemen…may I present the divine Mrs. B…known sometimes as Cheryl, and most recently as Zahava! Give her a hand!

Whenever we discuss something horrible that one of our kids has done, she is always floored to hear I did the same (or worse) as a kid.

Either she was the world’s most well behaved child, or she is one hellava good liar.

As we sit here in our home office, she is busy polishing her halo…

Posted by: David | Apr 23, 2004 11:52:31 AM

Okay, then. For the record, I am not polishing my halo, but I am wiping tears of laughter away! Your response was funny and witty, AND rife with spelling errors!

Posted by: Zahava | Apr 23, 2004 11:56:47 AM

Glad to see you've fixed the spelling errors.

Posted by: Zahava | Apr 23, 2004 11:58:57 AM

I'm thinking of a word that rhymes with 'witch'...anyone...anyone?

Posted by: David | Apr 23, 2004 12:13:30 PM

Like the look of the new title page... but what's with the stairs? Not sure I get it... but it LOOKS good!
Loved the comment-jabbing between you & Cheryl at the home office!


Posted by: val | Apr 25, 2004 3:52:13 AM

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