Sunday, June 3, 2012

Finding my way from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem

Getting around when visiting Israel can be a hassle. It can also be an adventure. The really good news is this tiny country that has all sorts of problems – political, religious, cultural – also has a really good public transport system. Truth to tell, it’s significantly cheaper and easier to get from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem than traveling from Marietta to Atlanta. Go figure!

On my most recent trip to the Jewish homeland, I ventured out and about in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with little problem; mostly getting around on buses, sheruts – a sort of mini-van that follows a scheduled route – and the occasional cab.
It’s worth noting that much of what you’ll want to visit as a tourist is in the heart of both these cities and is well within walking distance if you’re reasonably healthy and fit. An added bonus of hoofing it when walking is an option is that you’ll get to see parts of the country up close and personal that would be nothing more than a passing blur from a bus or cab.
Most cities in Israel have a central bus station. In Tel Aviv and Jerusalem the stations are mini-cities; expansive developments that include retail shops and banks, cafes, restaurants and fast-food kiosks, ticket offices and information centers. The stations are almost always busy; crowded, noisy and filled with locals and tourists on their way from here to there. It’ll probably take a little effort to orient yourself on your first visit. But it’s an experience that’s worth the effort.

I was lucky earlier this month; I needed only to follow in the wake of Sar-El friends Irwin and Gigi when off to visit Jerusalem. They are experts on getting around the country and helped me find my way through the labyrinth of hallways and passages that fill the central bus station in Tel Aviv.
Buses run between the two cities about every 15 minutes. So the process was made even simpler when we dashed aboard a waiting bus and bought our tickets from the driver instead of stopping at a nearby ticket window.

The trip costs 18 shekels – a little shy of $5 – but I was advised to hand over 9 shekels and simply say “pensioner”! Retirees and seniors in Israel are offered half-price fares on all public transport. And that’s how I ended up making the trip for just a bit over $2. BTW, just for the sake of comparison, a can of cola will cost you 7 shekels in Israel and a really good cup of gelato will set you back 19 shekels.
Trains are another decent option, especially when traveling along the coast. They are quick, efficient and affordable. When heading back to the states after visiting friends in Zichron Yaakov, a small resort community just south of Haifa, I took a train. It whisked me through a half-dozen cities and villages that dot the Mediterranean, then on through Tel Aviv before I reached my final destination, Ben Gurion International Airport. The 50 minute trip was a bargain at 37 shekels. Remember that Israeli retirees would have paid half that price!

Cabs are all together another story. They are relatively expensive and the experience, at least for me, is almost always cosmically irritating. Cabbies fall into that group of Israelis who love tourists for only one reason – our money. They look on us all as suckers and know that, for the most part, we hate to haggle and argue and that we’ll pay whatever we’re told.
The very first cab ride I took in Israel several years ago was a horrible experience that featured a cabbie nagging me about payment from the moment we were off and going. I didn’t understand the system and hadn’t told the cabbie to turn on his meter. Instead, he continually asked me how much I was going to pay him.

Unfortunately, that nasty introduction to cabs and cabbies has proven to be the norm. On my most recent trip, this same scam played out twice. The first time I told the cabbie to turn on his meter; the second time I had a good idea of what the cost should be and handed the cabbie that amount when I reached my destination and made a hasty exit.
Of course there are exceptions. I had a mini-emergency a few trips back and needed to get to a pharmacy in Jerusalem. A helpful cabbie got me to a nearby mall, volunteered to wait, then returned me to my hotel. Another cabbie, dropping me off at the airport, zipped away, then quickly backed up and waved me down. It turns out I had left a small bag on the front seat and he had spotted it after dropping me off – a major crisis averted!

Travel, especially in strange and foreign places, is always an adventure; and getting around is a big part of the experience. If you’re on a group tour with a professional guide, the good news is most of the hassle of getting from place to place comes with your ticket.
Truth to tell, I like the ease and sense of calm that comes when traveling with family and friends. But I also like the adrenalin rush that’s part of the solo experience; the unexpected happening just around the corner and me, yet again, stumbling my way through another grand experience. And so it goes!

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