Hitchhiking was a primary form of transportation for me last year during in my gap year in Israel. I spent my year living in Migdal Oz, a small kibbutz settled by pioneers in the seventies, in the area now known as the West Bank. My year was filled with bizarre experiences and culture shocks. Over time, however, sheep herds inhibiting me from crossing the road one day, and large army vehicles the following day, stopped fazing me.
The way I see it, hitchhiking is essential in an area with few public transportation options. In times of desperation, there are buses. But tremping was a far more interesting option. Tremping, the Hebrew term for hitchhiking, is a rich art that takes time to perfect. Before I learned the ropes, I did some pretty stupid things – like getting into a car filled with machine guns, for instance. It ended up being the security van for a well-known Israeli politician – but let’s just say, I didn’t tell my parents about the incident until much later. Hitchhiking in one of the most contested territories on earth has the slight potential to be dangerous. It offended all of my homegrown American maxims and advice from my parents in one shot. That being said, it is such a deep part of Israeli culture that no one worries about the dangers, anyway.
The best tremp-ers learn from experience. If you are simply planning on visiting Israel for a short time, however, here are six tips to get you started:
1. Don’t wait just anywhere. Because tremping has become such an integral part of society in certain areas of Israel, there are usually designated spots where people wait for cars to stop. During my gap year, I often waited at major junctions that were filled with Israelis and Palestinians alike. Especially in more contested areas, there may be soldiers standing around surveying the scene. Don’t be alarmed – the soldiers are just there to help out. That being said, know where you are. Tremping does have the potential to be dangerous, especially in a contested country like Israel. Most people profile drivers with their gut instincts before they get into the car – veer on the side of caution. Tremping is only prevalent in certain areas, such as the West Bank and the more rural, northern parts of the country. If you are in a more urban area near the center of the country, like Tel Aviv, don’t even bother. No one will stop for you, and at that point, you might as well wear a sign that reads, “I am a tourist.”
2. Wait in line. Because of the popularity of tremping in certain areas, there will usually be a buildup of people waiting for rides. Cutting one of these (possibly grumpy, impatient) people is strongly discouraged.
3. Learn the hand signals. Unlike the classic American hitchhiking symbol of putting up a thumb, the symbol in Israel is sticking out a finger, usually facing downwards. Sometimes, there are different hand motions to designate different areas to which you want to travel.
4. One you’re in the car – don’t talk. Tremping in Israel is not necessarily the best way to meet people. The culture tends to be that once in a car, hitchhikers act invisible. The idea is that these drivers are going on with their normal schedules, and the fact that you are in their backseat is a favor – not a way to socialize. However, drivers do like to meet tourists on occasion. If the driver starts the conversation with you, feel free to participate – and don’t be surprised if you get invited to the person’s house for dinner the following night. In a small country, people tend to be friendly.
5. Get out of the car where it is easier for them, not for you. Although this advice is relatively obvious, it reflects on the broader theme of tremping: the driver is doing you an irreplaceable service. So, don’t be picky.
6. Say thank you! Be polite, and make sure to sound appreciative when alighting from the car.
Tremping provides incredible utility, and a great way to people watch – just another way to get acquainted with the incredible country that is Israel. After spending a year in Israel, it made a country otherwise foreign to me, feel like home. Good luck with your travels, and who knows? Maybe one day we’ll end up in the same car.