Monday, August 16, 2010

PART FIVE. Transportation. Number One. The Bus Ride

Shalom, Shloimy.

Today, I was on a city bus.

When was the last time you were on a bus, Shloimy?

Do you even know what a bus is?

Well, today, I'm going to tell you all about buses.

 Sunday is a normal work-day in Israel, and so we get on a local bus to travel to Jerusalem, to do some shopping. A trip from our front door to the central bus station in Jerusalem (which is practically in the city center, and therefore a convenient alighting spot) is all on one bus--no transfers required.

We start our bus trip about 300 feet from our house. We simply walk out of our courtyard, turn right, and walk that 300 feet or so. And then the bus comes almost exactly on time.

The public transportation system here is heavily used, and popular--mostly, I think because they are  really, really on time, at least in the city we live in. If, for example, the bus website says a bus will be on our street at 8:48 am, then we can get onto that bus at our bus stop somewhere between 8:47 and 8:49 am, every day. It seems to be that regular.

Okay, so articles appear in the papers here saying that the public transportation system stinks. I don't know what they're talking about. Haven't these people ever been to Pittsburgh?

So, today, we board our bus in the morning, and as we ride, it occurs to me that riding a bus here is in fact a different experience.

First of all, Shloimy, there's the ride itself: on the ride into Jerusalem, once we leave Maale Adumim, we see
a herd of camels, some arab children on donkeys, a herd of sheep with two sheherds, then one enornous traffic jam as we enter jerusalem city streets--from the 21st century to the 8th century then back to the 21st century, all within a 35 minute bus ride. For less than$1.40 a ticket!

The bus is on the highway for less than 10 minutes--but what a 10 minutes!

Then there are the people boarding the bus in Maale Adumim. In Pittsburgh, I think you'll see a lot of  poor people and students riding the buses. This is not, of course, universally true. For example, during rush hour, you'll see many downtown office workers, nicely dressed, traveling, as well as a number of higher-paid professionals, who simply like the ease and convenience of buses, vs cars in the downtown area. These are usually people who live near bus stops, where the convenience is obvious.

But here, you see a mix like this throughout the day. You also see more retired and more young 20-somethings, too. You'll also see women with baby carriages getting on the bus. In fact, many buses have had removed a row of seats opposite the rear doors.

seats removed opposite rear doors
  Women with baby carriages get onto the bus thru the rear doors, not via the front door; they board, park their carriage into this open spot, put down their bags, rummage thru their pocketbooks, and then, sometimes as long as 5 minutes after boarding, they will make their way forward (leaving baby behind) to pay. I have watched such women, plus the elderly, who also board, go to a seat and, sitting, find change; then, they, too, get up, move forward, and pay.What an amazing place. The babies left alone while mother goes to pay, the elderly who pay only after taking a seat--it's all taken as normal. The driver doesn't complain, the passengers are vigilant--and, as nearly as I can see, every one of the late-payers actually pays!!

 Then there are the soldiers. Lots of soldiers.

In Israel, it seems that thousands of soldiers throughout the country are released from duty each Friday morning, so they can return home for the Sabbath day. All day Friday, you'll see soldiers on buses, carrying heavy knapsacks that seem to contain every possession they own. They are also, by the way, carrying their weapons, M-16s, I think. So in Jerusalem, near bus boarding points, you'll see every Friday hundreds of soldiers with knapsacks and weapons, waiting for and boarding buses.

Then, on Sunday morning--as, for example, today--the process reverses, as these same soldiers now return to their units.

It's an interesting way to spread thousands of armed soldiers throughout the country twice a week, armed.

I overheard two young ladies talking about a couple of these soldiers after services one Saturday morning. One asks the other where they could go to meet these young men, to flirt.  "So where can we go to meet them?" she asked. The other one  said, "No place. There's no place to go to meet them.  All they do when they come home for the weekend is sleep, do laundry and then sleep some more, until Sunday morning."

So here we are, on Sunday morning,  the bus filling with soldiers, both young men and young women, carrying in their knapsacks (I assume) their now- laundered clothing,  and their weapons. As they board, they seem to plop down into their seats, cell-phones to ear, chattering away until it's time to alight.

You don't see that in Pittsburgh.

Another non-Pittsburgh sight--men carrying large caliber pistols on their hip, in public, visible.

It's legal here, Shloimy, under certain circumstances. I think the main circumstance is, if you have served honorably in the army; no military service, no gun. That's not set in concrete, I've been told, but it's really, really difficult to get a gun permit if you haven't been in the service; and service here means active Reserves until something like age 50; which means if you see a 30-something wearing a gun, he's really still in the army--he's not just a civilian who wants to carry a gun.

So today we see men in civilan dress wearing guns, and  today, I saw something I hadn't yet seen:  first, I see  a young, long-haired, slightly unkempt hippy look-alike-- unshaven, rumpled-- wearing a pistol on his hip. A pistol-packing hippy?  Shloimy, You've got to see that to appreciate it; and second, another first for me --seeing a  young man not in uniform, dressed only in t-shirt and jeans, carrying both an M-16 and a 9-mm heavy-duty weapon in a holster, cowboy fashion--low on his leg, ready for a fast draw.

Only in Israel, right?

Another difference is that the buses here do not always follow the same route. Each day, it seems, depending perhaps on how busy a route will be, a bus could take two or three different routes, which means that you better go online to check schedules on a daily basis.

Remember that, Shloimy. Don't make assumptions when you come here.

Got that?

 So if a bus came yesterday to your stop at 2:30 pm,  can you  assume it will come at 2:30 today?

No. Check your online timetable.

  Or, on a similar note, will the bus that picked you up yesterday at 9:03am travel the same route  today?

What's the answer, Shloimy?

Very good. Don't assume anything. Check the online schedule.

One of the mysteries of this place  is a bus mystery: in the morning, the bus we take picks us up as it heads down our street, but in the later afternoon, as we return, the bus  will only go up our street.

How'd they do that?

More important is, why'd they do that?

Is there a reason for this to happen?

Shloimy. Listen to me. Do you want to be a successful Israeli?

Then don't ask so many questions!

You'll just confuse yourself.

Another difference with the bus system here  is the radio.

Did I tell you about the radio?

In each bus there is a radio. This radio is controlled by the driver who, it would appear, has exclusive control over its volume and station.

So, we have heard talk show Israel, or something like that, hard rock, religious rock (I think that's what is was), and music that, to my ear at least, sounds an awful lot like some kind of  arab rock (don't ask). We've heard interview shows, and call-in shows, and today, being that we are in the days leading up the Holy Days of the year, we got to hear a tape of a (pretty darn good) cantor singing High Holiday prayers accompanied by an all-male choir. It was actually (at least to me) pretty good stuff--but on a public bus? In the middle of a Jerusalem  afternoon traffic jam?

This isn't what you'd hear on a bus in Pittsburgh!!!

 Then there are the drivers.

Bus drivers here are a diverse lot. Some are religious--they wear a yarmulka. Some seem to be auto medallion collectors (losing the medallions from your auto seems to be a universal experience), and show off their collection of hood ornaments (above the windshield). A couple like to sing. And at least one gets angry.

Yes, very angry.


Yes, there is a "but" here.

It wasn't my fault.


But he did yell at me--in Hebrew.

And you know what's really weird about it?

I understood him!!!

But it wasn't my fault.


Well, maybe it was my fault.

You know, just a little.

Well.......maybe that's not accurate.


Maybe it is.

How could it be my fault?

Isn't the customer always right?

Oh, wait.

This isn't Pittsburgh.


I've got to get back on that bus tomorrow.

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