Jan 07 2010

Planes, Trains and Automobiles … and Cabs, Sheruts, and Peds

by at 4:30 pm

We just got back from our two week trip to Israel. Our baggage, however, did not. Two days after landing, we took the train back to the airport and successfully retrieved it ourselves (there’s a huge backlog because the baggage handlers were on strike a few days ago.)

While we sit in comfort on our direct train from the airport (for which I paid 11.50 CHF = US$11.10!) I’m reflecting on the contrast with our transportation experiences in Israel. Surprisingly (or not, if you read Jackie’s post about trains in Switzerland), Israel’s train system was the real shocker for us. Driving was very frustrating, buses were very confusing, and taxis and service taxis got us where we needed to go without too much hassle, eventually…

The Good

Trains: after landing in Israel, we took a fast, cheap, and direct train to Modi’in (where part of my family lives). Usually we take a sherut (service taxi) to Jerusalem, and by comparison this was much more relaxed, less cramped, and quieter. There were even AC plugs for laptops and the like! My uncle later told us that on the morning commute into Tel Aviv from religious areas there’s always a minyan.

Getting around, even during Shabbat: we spent a Friday in Tel Aviv with Hilary and Yakir, who live in Rehovot, 40 minutes south of Tel Aviv. We took a train in but after sticking around to watch the sunset over the beach, all public transportation had closed because of Shabbat, so we caught a cab to the central bus station to get a service taxi back to Rehovot. On the way, the cab driver suggested to Yakir that he could drive us all the way back to Rehovot and we’d only have to pay a bit more than if we took a service taxi. We agreed and the driver turned up a radio station playing and singing along to classic (i.e. 1970’s and 1980’s) Israeli music for secular listeners to enjoy Shabbat. Quite pleasant.

The Bad

Driving: My Dad rented a car (thanks Dad!) and thus had to contend with traffic in Jerusalem, plus the usual challenges of navigating the city’s confusing, poorly marked, windy roads. This was made even worse by the ongoing construction of a new light rail system. (No one we spoke to was optimistic about it being finished anytime in the foreseeable future.) When we weren’t in the car, we took buses or cabs. Driving around the rest of the country, navigating by GPS, was mostly fine. Modi’in is very confusingly laid out (it always seems like you’re going in circles). Hertz’s insurance says you can’t drive in the Territories, and in particular, the GPS always avoided Route 443, which would have been a faster way to get from Modi’in to Jerusalem. This was fine by us (and the big news while we were there was that the High Court ordered that Route 443 can no longer be restricted to Israeli use only.)

Buses: The buses in Jerusalem are really confusing, insofar as they seem to be ever multiplying and no one person I’ve ever spoken to seems to have any kind of comprehensive understanding of where they go, when, or even how to obtain this information. (Egged’s website is pretty unusable, most, but not all, bus stops have signs indicating bus lines and final destinations, and that’s about it.) We didn’t do so badly, however—my grandmother knows all the buses that go where she needs to go. And like most things in Israel, you can usually muddle through if you just do something—once you go wrong, someone will be happy to tell you the many ways in which you have erred (or help you, depending on your point of view). More than once, I got on the first bus that came, asked your driver if the bus goes to my destination, and then had him either wave me on, or wave me off, hopefully telling me the number of the bus I was actually looking for.

Once, I sat on a bus for a few stops while a woman told me and everyone young-looking nearby that they needed to get up to give our seats to other people who needed them more than us, even though the older “needy” people turned them down. I decided I might as well stand and move to the seats farther back on the bus. As I walked towards them, the bus stopped and lots of people piled on, so I stayed standing. Then, the bus tried to make a tight turn past the light rail construction and its back wheel got stuck on a concrete block. 15 minutes later, with the help of construction workers or maybe just random passersby, and after holding up all the traffic on Jaffa Road, we were on our way. Inevitably, every subsequent stop was torture: we were the first bus to reach the stop so dozens of people were now waiting to get on. I should have walked (or maybe not, see below).

Cabs:our experience was mixed. One time, we got an amazing cab driver who didn’t mind when we changed our destination while in the cab, knew exactly which restaurant we were going to, pointed it out to us when he dropped us off, and somehow found a very quick shortcut avoiding both the craziness of driving through Mea She’arim and the construction from the light rail. Another time, a driver suggested we just pay him a flat rate of 30 shekels. Worried about being cheated, we demanded he turn on the meter. We got stuck in traffic and ended up paying 38 shekels. Oh well.

Walking mostly, walking was fine: my Dad and I took a long walk from my grandparents place in Ma’alot Dafna (near the Mt. Scopus campus of Hebrew University) through Sheikh Jarrah to the Old City, stopping at the American Colony Hotel. It’s amazing how close the overwhelmingly haredi neighborhood of Ma’alot Dafna is to the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, and yet, how separate the two are. We thought about walking back, but it would have been up hill, down a very busy street, so we took a cab.

Surprisingly, people don’t seem to jaywalk in Israel, so I always felt bad doing it in front of them (but not nearly as bad as in Seattle.) Cars do stop for you, sometimes, especially if you’ve studiously avoided making eye contact in what amounts to a game of chicken. Once, I got to an intersection at which the traffic light was out. While a man on a cherry picker worked to repair it, three uninterested men (and one woman) ineffectively directed traffic, including two haredi men wearing bright green reflective vests over their black suits.

Meanwhile, when we took a day trip to Bethlehem to visit a family friend, at one of the two traffic lights in town there were PA men (soldiers? police officers? They had big guns…) on all of the corners, directing traffic and pedestrians a bit more energetically than the people in Jerusalem.

The Ugly

Motorbikes: weaving in and out of traffic, and going on sidewalks when they’re really desperate. They’re a real menace. My uncle told us that there’s a debate about insurance premiums for motorcyclists, who apparently don’t think they should have to pay for the fact that they’re always getting into accidents. My uncle didn’t mention that the protest involved bikers riding around in their underwear. Oh, Israel.

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