Driving in Palestine
Getting around town by taxi and servee is actually really easy. The transportation system takes a little bit to figure out, but it does work. We’ve been here for a little over two months now and we can pretty easily get anywhere in town we need to go without a car for just a few shekels. That said, I didn’t realize how much I had missed driving until this past weekend!
Lynn’s folks and her sister Sheri came in town for a visit, so we rented a SUV with dual insurance which allows us to drive both in Palestine and Israel. The major car rental brands (Avis, Hertz, etc.) don’t cover travel to the West Bank, so you have to go with local companies — the aptly named Good Luck Rental, or Dallah Rent-a-car (whose website is worth a visit, if for nothing else than to see their juxtaposition of car rentals and fiery explosions). The rental costs $130 a day, which is probably twice what it would be in Israel, but again, you’re paying for the insurance.
As I have previously mentioned, just about every car here has dents and scratches on the bumpers and our rental was no exception. When the manager (super nice guy, by the way) walked me around the car for the inspection, he marked just about every side as having a scratch or dent. It does take some of the pressure off when you know your car comes pre-dinged.
We were supposed to have a Chevrolet Traverse, but despite reserving it, they only had a Mitsubishi Pajero available when I went to pick it up. With all our luggage, it was definitely a tight ride for the kids in the rear jump seat, but it was a fun car to drive. The Pajero (fun fact: this car is known as the Montero in the Americas due to pajero being a Spanish curse word) probably isn’t available in this configuration in the US. This 4×4 featured a 3.2 liter diesel engine, which came in handy when navigating up and down the hills of Bethlehem.
When I found out they were coming to visit, I started to plan out the trip. I started paying close attention to our taxi drivers to see how they navigated through the crowded streets. Speed limits here are more of a gentle suggestion than a hard and fast rule, which is handy since I haven’t internalized the difference between a 80 kph zone and a 110 kph zone. Generally, just keep up with traffic and you’ll be fine.
[Side note: driving in metric reminds me of the car my Mamaw had when we were growing up. It was a late 80’s Chrylser New Yorker I think (some sort of land yacht anyway) had an early digital dash which allowed you to press a button to switch between US and Metric. The car also had a fantastic voice command system: “a door is a jar” was always good for laughs…say it with me, kids “it’s not a jar, it’s a door!” Anyway, on a trip to Six Flags when I had just gotten my learner’s permit, Mamaw and I pulled a prank on my brothers and sister in the back seat when she switched the car to kph. Mamaw loved to tell the story of how concerned Tom got for the rest of the kids, telling everyone to buckle up and sit back quietly. Tom’s an ER nurse now, so Mamaw would always add that at the end of the story to show that he’s always been caring of others.]
Guide to Horns
I also learned that taxi drivers, regardless of any posted signs or traffic conventions, always have the right of way. The drivers here honk their horns more than in Mississippi, but substantially less frequently than the drivers in Jerusalem. I think I have deciphered the horn honking system to be something as follows.
One loud, extended blare of the horn – universal signal for “I find what you are doing/not doing to be irritating. Please adjust.” Typically found when a driver stops in the middle of the street to unload passengers or cargo, fails to begin moving at the traffic light when it turns yellow (more on that in a moment), attempts to back up down the street, blocks an intersection, or if traffic is generally at a standstill.
Two short beeps – usually given before passing a slower vehicle on a regular city street. Passing on a two lane city street happens all the time here, often via lane-splitting.
Three beeps – given as a warning when driving by anyone you think might be about to do something odd, like back out into traffic or turn across oncoming traffic.
The neatest horn-related modification I’ve seen has been the taxi driver who rewired his high-beam flasher to the horn relay. That way, he could honk his horn at will with just one hand on the wheel. I would totally do that to my car if I lived here full-time.
Smiling Traffic Lights
Ramallah has the best traffic lights around. My theory is that they have introduced these stop lights to combat road rage. Who can be angry when a little frownie face is sympathizing with you at the red light? One of the best features of these lights is that the yellow light turns on seconds before green. Every stop light feels like you’re on the dirt track! On your mark, get set, GO GO GO! This is definitely not a place where you want to run a yellow light, that’s for sure.
Old School Navigation Meets GPS
So in Palestine, you pretty much can’t use Google Maps or other directional apps. The lack of solid mapping options is actually one of the platforms for the Right to Movement marathon. There is a program a lot of people here use called Waze, but it’s mostly in Hebrew and/or Arabic, so it’s less than helpful for me. Once you get to a settler road, the mapping apps work a bit better. What I ended up using is Galileo, which is a really nice offline vector based mapping app which allows you to download an entire country map to your device with one click for offline viewing. The app uses GPS to show you where you are on the map, but it doesn’t give turn-by-turn directions. Luckily, I’m pretty good with maps (I love maps, actually), so I found it pretty easy to get around.
However, what’s frustrating about driving here really isn’t the crazy at times traffic or lack of street signs, but the fact that at any time the roads can be blocked for Israeli military road closures. Any time there is a security problem, the military will close a road or shut down a checkpoint. I had mapped out some beautiful routes in and out of town with Galileo, only to be thwarted when the road was abruptly shut down, leading to long detours. Another time, on our way out to the airport, I found a nice road that connects right to the main thoroughfare to the airport. However, that road is next to a Israeli settlement, so the road was blocked and we had to drive an extra 15 km on a winding one lane road to get back to where the original road should had led us. Luckily, we weren’t under any big deadlines to get anywhere, so the group didn’t mind the scenic route. If I was trying to do business here though, those roadblocks would be really, really annoying.
I’ll leave you with this short clip where we are enjoying the scenic detour.