Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jerusalem’s Countryside
The biggest obstacle to hiking in Israel on a weekend is not safety or scorching temperatures, but a dearth of transportation options. Buses and trains stop running from 3pm Friday up until 8pm Saturday. Finding a taxi through the GET app, the Israeli version of Uber, is essentially hopeless, since very few taxi drivers work on Shabbat. In general, the farther you go from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the less you are able to find any sign of public transportation.
Yet it is possible to navigate around these transportation constraints. As a 20-year-old female, I’ve surprisingly met many demographically similar hikers traveling, backpacking or hitchhiking throughout Israel. One reason hiking has become popular, and even encouraged, in Israel is due to the famous Israel National Trail (INT) — a 1100 km long trail stretching from the northern Lebanese border to the southern tip of Eilat. Many Israelis and non-Israelis traverse parts of this trail every year, and 40% of them complete the whole thing.
Last week, my friend and I hiked in Jerusalem’s countryside. We picked Ein Kerem, a small village southwest of Jerusalem as our starting point. Our goal was to follow the “Sataf path” (a section of the INT) to Sataf National Forest, a serene place on ancient agricultural terraces that was first irrigated by Israelites thousands of years ago.
At Ein Kerem, we walked into one of its four shops (it’s not at all a big village) and asked the store owner how to get to Sataf. He thankfully knew a little English, but in any case he didn’t, we were prepared to explore on our own. Turn at this blue fence, he pointed in front. Head down the canyon until you reach a bike path, which takes you to a circle road (roundabout). From there, keep following the left road going up. Then you will get to the Sataf path.
We had to rely on his words as our compass, given that we had no trail map and could not read the Hebrew on any of the trail signs. His directions were undoubtedly accurate, since we found the roundabout with no problem. Maybe the knowledge of “we are getting there without any trouble” made us overconfident, because we began experimenting with side trails, thinking that any path ahead would lead us to Sataf.
I’ll admit, it was my fault. Along the way, I tried to take a shortcut, leaving the main road and hopping through the most bushy, thorny path ever. As a result, we got very cut up before we decided to stop and switch directions. We left the bramble and got back to the main road (the highway) by scrambling up the side of a crumbly rock hill. From there, we agreed to just follow the highway, which also goes all the way to Sataf. Stick to one path and one path only.
The walk along the highway was initially disheartening. All you could see ahead was a long black road winding infinitely around large hills. The mid afternoon sun beat down its harshest glares. Cars zoomed by, sometimes mere feet from us. Several honked encouragingly. I felt like I was running a marathon and the Israeli drivers were onlookers cheering from the sidelines. That lifted my spirits.
After walking for around 50 minutes, we arrived at where the highway crossed the entrance of Sataf, marked by an ice cream truck and a few saddled horses. We immediately spotted a sign that said “Sataf Path” behind the truck. Lesson learned, it’s easier to start from Sataf and hike to Ein Kerem than vice versa. A bit further in the forest sat shaded picnic benches, surrounded by groves of juicy fig trees bursting with sun-bathed fruit. We picked several large figs from the trees, bit into their warm pulp, and stored some in our bags to dry later.
We knew the sun was quickly setting, which meant we didn’t have much time before our pre-arranged Shabbat dinner. Taking the Sataf path (Israel National Trail) down instead of the highway back meant we could save some time, if we did not get lost again. It also meant we could see a different view and actually hike through a “real trail.” I wished we could have explored more of Sataf’s forests, but returning to Jerusalem before sundown was more important.
I should point out here that the Israel National Trail is marked by three colored lines: orange, blue, white — representing land, water, and air.Following the INT markings, we scaled down the side of the mountain, eventually reaching the half-destroyed walls of an Palestinian village that still stood within the terraces. Adults lounged around on the grass and kids cannon-balled into a (very dirty) natural spring. The relaxed atmosphere tempted us to stop, but we did not. We were basically running down the rocky-path, powered by the mountain’s potential energy, and our instinctive desire for dinner.
At the base of the path was a parking lot, I assume, for people day-hiking the Sataf Forest. There were several uninhabited cars still there. Too bad none of the cars belonged to us.
According to Google Maps, Jerusalem was still two hours away by foot — which meant we would not make it back in time for Shabbat if we walked. Not like we wanted to walk anyways. A taxi would be nice. Getting one was highly unlikely though, since we were still too far from Jerusalem or Ein Kerem.
Out of other options, we decided to hitchhike. This basically meant we stood next to the road, waved our hands in the air like propellor jet planes, and stared intently at every driver that drove by. How we managed to hitchhike onto not one, but two cars — one from the parking lot to Ein Kerem, and another from Ein Kerem to Jerusalem — can only be attributed to two very kind Israeli strangers.
The first driver who stopped was a man wearing glasses and a white button down shirt. He was with his two high school daughters, who eagerly chatted with us about their adventures hiking the entire Israel Trail with their dad. They just recently returned from a trip through Amsterdam. The father wordlessly moved their large luggage from the backseat into the trunk to make space for my friend and I.
The second driver was a small lean woman wearing a floral dress. Sitting in the driver’s seat next to her was her ten year old son, and in the back her aging mother. She smiled and told me she’s lived near Ein Kerem all her life. We bonded over our love for the countryside’s serenity compared to the noisy crowdedness of the city. She grew her own plants and vegetables and was excited when she heard that my family, thousands of miles away, did too.
I was surprised how quickly each angel showed up. Sure, several cars drove by without stopping. Yet, if people are naturally selfish, why would two strangers delay their Friday Shabbat plans for two people they don’t owe anything to? Is it wrong to believe people are intrinsically good?
Of course, one should make sure the scene is safe before getting into a person’s car. Here are general guidelines for hitchhiking in Israel (or anywhere in the world):
1) Find the right spot to stand in. You can intuitively increase your hitchhiking chances if you stand on the side of the road closest to the approaching car. Also, standing near a parking lot or on a wide road makes it more convenient for the car to stop and let you in.
2) Assess the driver (and passengers). The general rule of thumb is to be cautious of strangers. In our case, the two Israelis were both driving with young children. They were dressed in nice-looking clothes. Based on their appearance, I’d say they weren’t trying to take our money, nor where they taking us to somewhere unsafe.
3) Ask the driver first where they are going. Don’t share too much information about yourself and destination — just a precaution for stalking. If it’s on the way, tag along! Any place closer to your final destination is better than the alternative.
4) Don’t be afraid to converse! It makes sense to feel uncomfortable talking to a person you’ve never met or will most likely never meet again, but that’s exactly what makes it fascinating! This is a great chance to learn something about the locals in the area and possibly discover a connection. Small talk is 100% recommended. It makes the ride pass by faster.
5) Thank the driver. This is obvious. They literally just saved your life.
6) Pass along the kindness. An act of kindness can go a long way. Anytime you see hitchhikers on the street, remember the time someone stopped to help you, and try to do the same for others.
The last guideline is obviously to…
7) Hitchhike Again. Hitchhiking across a country can be one of the best ways to authentically experience a place’s unique culture and aspects of society that are usually overlooked by tourists.
Growing up in America, we are sheltered by our safe suburban neighborhoods and our private cars. No wonder we find traveling alone in a foreign country daunting, and hitchhiking scary.
The stigma around hitchhiking goes away the older you get and the more experience you gain through traveling. The first time traveling alone, you are bound to get into a lot of trouble, whether it be missing a train, arriving at the wrong address, or losing your luggage. It took me 20 years to muster the courage to travel alone. It’s definitely no easy feat.
Traveling on my own, however, made me see and appreciate the full extent of generosity that humans are capable of showing. After living in Israel for seven weeks, I’ve learned a thing or two about the people here. Around this country are enemies waiting to annihilate it, but inside it are many kind people eager to help others in need.