I tentatively press my foot on the gas in the black Mazda.
Oh so tentatively.
“Oh my god,” I saw to Giselle and Cody, who somehow have agreed to be willing participants in the Great Israeli Driving Experience (which I totally just made up). “I cannot believe we are renting a car. I cannot believe I am driving in Israel!”
And with that, I grip the steering wheel tight and pull out onto the little side road off of Hayarkon and the Budget Rental Car garage (although it really is more like an underground area with a few parking spots) and out into the gorgeous and happy Tel Aviv afternoon.
I feel a little tense, but not like I did the first time I ever drove in a foreign country. Back then, in Romania, I was a mess. A scared mess, closing my eyes when the traffic circle got weird and panicking when cows were the congestion. In Sweden, it wasn’t so bad. And in Israel, minus the aggressive nature of Israeli drivers, I felt pretty confident pulling out into traffic as we turned down Ben Yehuda.
I roll down the windows and turn on the radio.
It’s been months since I’ve been behind the wheel. And, the last time I was in the driver’s seat was in America, where there is nothing uncomfortable about driving.
I’m on a high as drive the few miles to Ron’s place, where I trade Cody and Giselle for Ron and then embark on a journey to pick-up friends and head to Old Jaffa for a gorgeous Mediterranean lunch.
Sure, there are times when I get a little nervous en route to said lunch.
“Turn left here,” Ron announces, and I need to quickly calculate in my head which side of the road I need to be on.
The first few hours of driving are all good until it comes time to park the car outside of Jaffa. The lot, a large gravel mess on the coast of the Mediterranean, is teaming with traffic and cars jutting out of every direction.
“Tell me what to do,” I instruct Ron as I angle and re-angle and bite my lip in frustration and anxiety as a van driver behind me gestures wildly and yells out his window at me in Hebrew.
“Tell him I don’t speak Hebrew! Tell him I’m sorry!” I cringe to Ron as we park the car. Cheers for teamwork, otherwise I’d probably still be sitting at that odd angle, blocking traffic everywhere.
That night, we head to Jerusalem, but I let Ron handle the driving responsibilities. But, the next day, its Game On when Ron skips our afternoon outing to Bethlehem.
We drive there, Cody navigating as we pass through Jerusalem and towards the West Bank.
Because I’ve got rental tags (and a huge Budget rental sticker plastered on the side of the car), we can’t proceed into Palestine, so we park the car behind the bus stop and enter into the historic and conflicted city.
After hours there, wandering around the ominous wall separating Palestine from Israel, Giselle and I head back to Jerusalem, leaving Cody, our directions man, behind.
“We can do this,” I say to her, handing her my phone with some directions Ron had sent to me earlier. But, when I look at it now, it’s just a bunch of street names to which I cannot find real life matches for. So, we wing it.
“I totally think we’re going the right way,” I say proudly to Giselle as we whizz by the Old City. “I know where we are.”
And then we hit a tunnel.
And then, we come out of the tunnel in another part of Jerusalem.
“Ok, we’re just going to turn around.”
I can feel myself getting a little tense as neither of us have wifi on our phones, and the horns begin to honk as I drive a little slower and linger a little longer at lights.
Then, we see Abraham Hostel off the road.
“Let’s not tell the boys we even got lost,” I suggest as we exit the car in the parking lot a few meters from the hostel.
It isn’t until the last day when my driving confidence begins to falter.
We’ve spent the day in Hebron with Abraham Tours doing a dual narrative conversation with both Israeli settlers and Palestinians, and it’s dark. And I’m tired. And don’t feel great. And yet, I volunteer to drive.
“You sure?” Ron asks as we hop into the car after dinner.
“Oh yeah,” I say, not wanting to be deemed a driver quitter, so I return to behind the wheel.
We begin our journey out of Jerusalem and back to the coast.
“You know, these roads are like ski slopes,” I remark as we rush down a steep hill and then back up another one. “I mean, the roads here just get straight to the point, don’t they? They’re all up and down, up and down.”
I’m still doing ok.
Then comes the Checkpoint.
“Slow down,” Ron instructs.
“What do I do? What do I do?”
“Just let me handle it,” he says as I roll down the window and slow to a crawl as we pass by the IDF. “Slowly drive.”
They look into the car and then we are through it.
In Tel Aviv, on day three of the Great Israeli Driving Experience is when I lose all driving street cred. As we exit off the highway, Ron begins to give me instructions via an app to get us back to Cody and Giselle’s hostel.
Somehow, I turn into a daft driver. He says “turn right,” I go straight. He says “watch for that person crossing the street,” I nearly hit the person. Don’t even get me started on the side of the road I was driving on when I made a right-hand turn. Hint: it was the wrong side.
When we finally pull up to the hostel and leave Cody and Giselle, I bestow the remaining driving duties of the trip to Ron, who gladly accepts.
Driving in Israel: mild to moderate success. Had I not had the Day Three Night, I’d give myself five stars. Although I think Ron might disagree since later in the week, he mentioned he was pushing imaginary breaks that final night.
Renting a car in Israel
Plan ahead. You can get deals for car rentals on sites like Groupon. Since we are random, no deals were to be had. The car we rented was from Budget and cost just under $200 USD to rent from Friday afternoon to Monday morning. The price included an extra driver for $3 USD per day and insurance for $14 USD since the deductible without it was astronomical. My recommendation? Get insurance.
Driving in Israel
Depending on where you have driven before, driving here can seem a bit more aggressive. Unlike in America, the lights here go from red to yellow-red to green. The yellow-red lights mean “go,” not “wait until green,” so if you don’t go when that yellow light starts to glow, you will get honked at.
And, honking is definitely part of the norm here. Going too slow? Honk. Another car wants you to move over? Honk. Taking too long to park? Honk. Honk. Honk.
Checkpoints are dotted around the main highways in the country and are clearly identified as such. Simply slow down to a snail’s pace and roll down your window when driving through them. If an officer asks you to stop, stop.
If driving a rental car, be aware that a vehicle with Israeli plates that is a rental is not allowed into Palestinian areas. You will have to park and walk into these areas or take public transportation.
THE app to use for driving in Israel
I’d never heard of it until a cab ride en route to Ron’s one morning, but the app everyone uses in Israel for driving is a nifty one called Waze. It provides maps, gives directions and lets users provide feedback as to traffic situations, speed stops and more and it is all updated in real-time.
And the other app to have
Because parking spots are limited, it isn’t easy to find a place to park in Tel Aviv. It is important to note, cars without residential stickers (and rental cars fall into this category) can park against curbs painted gray. However, if a curb is painted blue and white, it is city parking and the only way to park there without getting a ticket is to download an app, Pango. If there aren’t spots available, there are municipal parking lots throughout the city.
This post is part of the D Travels Europe (and Israel) series. Stay up-to-date on all of my European adventures by following along on Twitter (#dtravelseurope), Instagram,Trover, G+ and Facebook. And, for a look at the health and wellness side of European travel, be sure to follow along at The Comfort Zone Project and on TCZP’s Facebook.