There is no such thing as an unnecessary adventure. Sometimes you just want to do something adventurous you’ll remember for no special reason. When I was younger that translated into traveling rough even when I had money just for kicks. “Oh, sleeping behind a gas station on the highway in Serbia, that sounds like something I’ll remember” used to be an argument, and am glad I did stuff like that back then. Unfortunately I’ve gone a bit vanilla and don’t roll that rough anymore but I still won’t turn down an opportunity to hitchhike, and I wanted to hitchhike in Israel.
It’s not like I didn’t have money for the bus or anything. I just wanted to hitchhike in Israel for the hell of it. Plus, since it was the Shabbat, the first bus wouldn’t be leaving until after sunset, so I figured that instead of waiting around in Eilat for half a day I could turn the whole thing into a fun adventure and maybe get to know some people and learn a few things about Israel.
That morning, I ate the rest of the hummus I bought for dinner the night before, packed some bread and cheese into my bag before leaving my rental apartment and headed down to the highway. The instructions were detailed on hitchwiki so I knew where to go. Luckily, as Eilat is literally the end of the road, there is only one direction out of town: north.
I had just passed a gas station at the edge of town when I turned around to take one last look at Eilat. I would be going back there to catch my flight back to Germany but it felt like I would just keep going straight forever. In the distance I saw was a guy carrying a sign walking in my direction. I waved and waited for him to catch up, and then we continued walking together. My new friend was an Australian traveler named Ziggy who was heading to the same spot to hitch a ride to Mitzpe Ramon, a small town just north of Eilat. We walked together for a bit, and after we got to the spot we split, as hitchhiking etiquette adheres to a first come-first serve principle and hitchhiking in pairs is more difficult.
It was about 11 a.m. Traffic was low but I was optimistic. I stuck my thumb out despite knowing that in Israel the gesture for hitchhiking is pointing at the road with your index finger and waited. And waited. I ate a piece of bread with cheese and waited a bit longer. I looked at all the things that other hitchhikers had scribbled (as is customary) on the walls of the bus stop and smiled when I saw a Ukrainian trident and the name “Ukraina” written below it.
The sun was shining bright. I had been there for about 45 minutes, and just when I started thinking about having a plan B, namely going back into town and taking the bus, someone stopped. He was only going to the Kibbutz outside of town so it didn’t make sense to get in the car but that gave me hope that it was possible to do this on the Shabbat. And sure enough, some ten minutes later two young guys, Shoval and Itay, stopped and told me they could take me with them all the way to the Arava junction, which is where highway 90 forks into two directions—one going to Jerusalem along the Dead Sea and the other going west to Be’er Sheva.
I immediately got in, thanked them, and was on my way. As is normal in Israel, both these guys also hitchhike from time to time. When you hitch a ride in Israel you’re supposed to keep quiet until the driver breaks silence but we started talking straight away.
“What do you know about Israel?” I told them I had read quite a bit, mostly about Zionism and the foundation of the modern state of Israel, Jewish immigration to the British Mandate of Palestine, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that I was there to get to know the place and form my own opinions. After all, everybody has an opinion about Israel but usually not based on empirical knowledge.
I kept looking out the window. I had never seen such a landscape as the one passing rapidly by. There were some palm trees but it was otherwise just arid. In the beginning it looked like Mars, but the further we drove into the desert the more it started resembling the moon. We were driving along the Jordanian border and the road was flanked by a mountain range that extended all the way to the Dead Sea.
Shoval and Itay told me about their time in the Israeli military, which is compulsory for all citizens with the exception of ultra-orthodox Haredi Jews—which they, like most other Israelis I met, where passionately against. Also, I learned from them that “the biggest wish of all Israelis is to have a second passport,” due to the travel restrictions that apply to them, especially since Israelis love to travel. “I wouldn’t say it’s our biggest wish but yeah, it’s up there,” confirmed later my host in Jerusalem.
“Have you ever had malabi?” I had never even heard of malabi in my life. They said we would stop and get some and then didn’t mention it again. We had been driving for well over an hour and I had seen literally nothing along the road so I didn’t know where we would get some. At some point, I saw these colored signs in the distance that apparently announced malabi. We stopped the car and they were like “alright, you’re about to have your very first malabi,” selling it to me like it would be the greatest thing in the universe and would blow my mind.
What blew my mind was that there, in the middle of the desert, was a guy sitting by himself in a tiny trailer selling malabi, which is a kind of milk pudding with rose water topped with peanuts. I wondered how he even gets there every day and if it’s even worth it to be there on the Shabbat. There was music playing and some CDs on the counter with the malabi salesman on the cover. I didn’t have any cash but when I found out you could pay by card (which I didn’t expect because I live in Germany where such a place would definitely not accept plastic) I offered to pay for the round of malabi as a small “thank you” for picking me up.
Shoval and Itay dropped me off at the Arava junction. As I was getting out of the car, two Israeli hitchhikers approached and took my place.
I walked across the road, took a few pictures, and stuck out my thumb again. After not even five minutes I was in the second car of the day heading straight to Jerusalem. Noam, my driver, was an engineer at the Israeli army. We talked a little bit about everything but at that point I was a bit exhausted from talking and didn’t want to repeat what I had just said to the other guys so I wasn’t very engaging, not even when he claimed that “history is not important.” How can an Israeli claim that history is not important being that it is key for the very foundation of their state!? But I just said “it actually is very important.”
The sun was setting and we were driving along the Dead Sea. The mountains, still the same range that had been accompanying me since Eilat, were now pink and Noam and I stopped to take a few pictures. The whole scene was a bit surreal to me. We then continued, but not before Noam checked his GPS to make sure he didn’t take the wrong turn, as we would be passing through “some villages where he didn’t want to enter,” especially since he had his soldier ID on him. “What would happen if you did?” He hesitated and just said that “he could get attacked.”
It was dark by the time we entered Jerusalem. I bid Noam goodbye, wished him a happy Hanukkah and started walking to my rental apartment in the neighborhood of Rehavia with a feeling of satisfaction for having added “hitchhiking in Israel” to my traveler resume.
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