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Thursday, August 12, 2004

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Holy Land

[In case it wasn't clear... treppenwitz is in reruns this week, and last. This was originally posted on Apr. 23rd, 2004.]

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 August 12, 2004 | Permalink


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Interesting, the way different cultures handle hitchhiking. I used to do a fair amount when I was growing up in New York - it was very commonplace in the early 70s, even amongst young girls. Looking back, I think I took way too many risks. A girlfriend and I once hitched to Woodstock, NY (a ride that was a couple of hours away from home)when we were about 14 or 15, just for the hell of it. It was a year or two after the big concert, which we were too young to attend, and simply thought it would be fun to go there and have a look. I would die if my kids ever thought of doing anything like this now, of course. I barely allow them to cross the street by themselves (they range in age from 13-20. Ha, ha).

Anyway, what I really wanted to mention here was my experience in Russia, very recently. We were visiting an American Ex-pat who has lived there for the past 10 years. He wanted to take us to a WW2 Memorial outside of Moscow city proper, and decided we should "hail a taxi." Well, it turns out that anyone in Russia can play taxi driver if they are in need of a few rubles. You hold you hand out in the typical "hailing a cab" pose - similar to that in NYCity, and a person pulls over. You tell them where you want to go, and on your way there, settle on a price. The method did get us safely to where we wanted to go and back, and the drivers were very happy to do it.

Posted by: Gail | Aug 12, 2004 5:35:35 PM

an *excellent* and thoroughly enjoyable post!!
you're a hilarious writer!!

Posted by: celestial blue | Aug 12, 2004 11:28:47 PM

Gail... I had never heard about the russion taxi phenom. Very cool!

Celestial... maybe you'll get an opportunity to try out some of this advice in the near future. :-)

Posted by: David | Aug 13, 2004 12:46:19 AM

As a trempist from the Gush, I can tell you that there is also etiquette for the trempiada (hitchhiking post). If someone has to go exceptionally far, he gets dibs on the juicy rides to places like the central bus station - jlem, even if others nearby need to get to town and were there first. If evening approaches, females get priority so that they don't have to remain alone at night. In terms of conversation, I've encountered those who insisted on absolute silence, as well as those who have encouraged conversation and marathon "Jewish Geography" (degrees of seperation). Since my story generally consisted of explaining my plans to make aliyah etc., I made some friendly acquaintances and had some profound conversations, and it wasn't uncommon to get an invite for Shabbat. Once a gentleman picked me up and pointed to the seatbacks, which had posted on them a request to place charity in a little tzedakah box between the seats in return for the ride, which is somewhat similar to the Russian phenomenom.

All in all, tremping is a great way to discover Israeli society from the inside.

Posted by: Dan | Mar 20, 2006 6:14:10 PM

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