As an underqualified but highly motivated Aliyah tour guide, I thought I’d give my perspective on the transportation system here in Israel. Please read on for the good, the bad, the ridiculous and the insane of Egged, Dan, Kavim and more- AKA- The Israeli Bus System.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that I am something of a bus novice here in Israel. In my early days of visiting Israel, buses did not have a good reputation. And by that I mean that they were terrorist targets and gave me and my mother feelings of panic just walking near one. Was this a fair assessment? Kind of. There were definitely attacks during those years of the Second Intifada where just the sight of a bus would have me crossing the street, but the vast majority of buses rolled on, safely and soundly. This fear, however, led to strict instructions by my mother to never, under any circumstances, take a bus. It also compelled her to pay for the taxis that would inevitably become my preferred mode of transportation. As the years passed and my trips to Israel became more frequent and longer, my mom was kinda like “This is getting expensive.” And once the money train stopped, wouldn’t ya know it? I started taking the bus again! I remember my triumphant return to a public Jerusalem bus, marked with only two short prayers to G-d for my safety and 10 friends taking photos of the auspicious occasion. From then on, it just wasn’t that bad.
In New York, I had a car. I wasn’t one of those cool New Yorkers who lived on the subway, or the less- cool ones who rode the LIRR (kidding!) I lived in the outer boroughs and worked in several different schools as a speech pathologist, so as the saying goes “I lived in my car.” I remember when I told my mother I wanted to make Aliyah, she said “How could you leave your niece and nephews? Daddy? Your car?!” She, and I, if I’m honest, knew how attached I was to having my own vehicle. I’m a goer and a doer and being on someone else’s schedule, in this case, the Egged Bus Company, was going to be a challenge.
And a challenge it has been! I would like to take you on a sample bus ride to work so you can understand the little difficulties that add up to a total bus headache. What you want to do first is download the Moovit app for your phone. Created by Israelis (of course) this app uses GPS to create a bus/train/walking route for you, tell you how long the trip should take and estimate how soon your bus will arrive. I would like to emphasize should because being wrong is not unheard of. So you choose the route that looks easiest. Sometimes that route will take 2 buses- don’t do it. Do the “more walking” option because honestly, the only thing worse than waiting for one bus is waiting for back to back buses. So you get your bus and you’re the third person to board. Except because it’s Israel, people cut in line and you become the 6th person to board. Except because I’m from NYC, I get back to being 4th. Okay. Unfortunately, the first person is paying with cash (a 100 shekel bill on a fare of 6.90) and the third person’s bus card is malfunctioning but feels that a 5 minute argument with the bus driver would be the best course of action (pro tip- you will never win with the bus driver- the house always wins.) Finally, you swipe your card. When I first moved here, I would buy rides in increments of 20 until I discovered the “monthly unlimited” option (cue the angels and harps.) I have to tell you, as a former shopaholic- this card is my one monthly splurge. For about 65 dollars, I can ride as many buses and light rails as I want for the entire month! It’s amazing! And I know you’re thinking- okay, Jords, relax- but it is basically the biggest purchase of my month nowadays, and I look forward to the 1st of every month now for just that reason. A whole month of unlimited bus rides, far as the eye can see!
So I’m on the bus, right? Great. There are only 2 types of buses generally. Completely empty and bursting at the seams full. So your ride will go one of 2 ways- seated or smushed up against the handrail, praying for the next stop to be the one the entire bus is waiting for. Let’s say it’s empty, as most of my morning ones are. I get my seat and it is glorious. I put on my headphones and start reading one of the 50 articles I have “saved for later” on my phone. Inevitably, the bus will stop and more people will get on. And inevitably, regardless of how many empty seats are around me, their seat of choice will be next to me. Often I have wondered “why?” Why sit next to me and invade my space when there are so many other’s spaces that can be equally invaded? I believe it comes down to these elements: 1) I am clean/smell good (cannot be overstated on a Jerusalem bus) 2) I look safe- say what you want about political correctness, but the young American (because apparently it’s obvious) woman of ambiguous religious level is always a safe bet. I won’t be fervently praying next to you, reeking of smoke next to you or loudly gabbing on the phone next to you and 3) I look like I want nothing to do with you. Why is this a plus, you may wonder? Because I will not speak to you, not breathe on you and not cough on you unless my life depends on it. And when you are on your way from or to work, that’s a real blessing. This is all well and good, unless you’re me and you would kill for an empty seat next to you once in a while. Or would it be possible that the person next to me is a cute, religious young man once in a while? Nope. I attract every other type of person though- men and women, children and the elderly, Hasidic and Arab, French and Israeli- I am an equal opportunity seatmate.
Once on the bus, the driving style of the bus driver is really anyone’s guess. The majority of my rides are smooth and easy, but I have definitely had more than my share of rides that ended with my kissing the sweet, sweet pavement upon reaching my destination.
You have buses that come super late and buses that show up early, so you can wave goodbye to them with tears in your eyes as you hunker down to wait for the next. You have buses with open windows in the rain and no A/C in the summer. Some of the hottest days of August are not complete without a sweltering standing-room-only ride chugging up the hill from the Old City, smelling the smells and feeling the feels of your fellow man as you blast your music, think of puppies and pray that the lights all turn green. You have the people who will talk on the phone as if they are on their own patios, sharing all their private information with everyone around them, and the old ladies who will shush you when you quietly chat with your friend. You will have the tourists who will inevitably miss their stop and then get detailed directions to get back on track and the old timers with their carts full of produce, who have been taking that bus and that route since its inception.
You will see the hills of Jerusalem and the Judean desert and the highrises of Tel Aviv, and the passing trains, the fallow fields and a herd of cows and then an hour later, a line of camels. You will see heart-stopping drops and your ears will pop as altitudes change. You will traverse the entire country in less than a day and experience the wonder and the miracle of this land on every trip. And you will miss your car, and pray that one day you will be able to afford one here. But in the meantime, you will make the best of this time on the bus, when you can turn on your headphones, stare out the window and enjoy the beauty of your new home.