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The Wandering Israeli: From Soldier to Backpacker

israeli group in the salt flats of bolivia holding israel flag

Imagine

You’re an energetic 18-year-old, fresh out of high school and full of anticipation for the future. But then, you’re obligated to postpone all your plans for a few years. Instead, you’re given a military uniform, go through basic training, and start a job concerning national security (oh… no pressure). Fast forward 2-3 years, you’re discharged from the army and have all the time in the world to unwind (as you try to remember what you wanted to do at 18). What would you do?

My bet is: Travel.

israeli backpackers traveling india

It’s a Phenomenon 

The previous hypothetical is the actual reality of Israeli youth. As they hit 18, guys and girls in Israel enlist to compulsory military service for a few years. But when it’s time to discharge from duty, their service would naturally leave its mark. Israelis between the ages of 20-24 find the need to escape and have fun after being relieved of great responsibilities. Each year close to 50,000 post-military travelers find themselves backpacking around the world before the next significant chapter in life. That’s how the Israeli backpacker became a global phenomenon.

israeli backpackers sitting by a lake in south america drinking coffee and having a picknick

Community of Travelers

The backpacking tradition among young Israelis has been going on since the 1970s. So local foreign businesses in popular touristy sites learned to adapt to the Israeli traveler. For example, some hostel employees are able to speak Hebrew, restaurants provide Shabbat meals, and language workshops are designed for Israeli backpackers who’d want to learn the local language. Over the years, the backpacking population in Israel created a community of alum travelers to guide the next generation of backpackers. They’re accessible on various platforms, such as social media, websites, and meetups that provide space for questions, tips, and concerns.

salar de uyuny or salt flats in bolivia where Israeli travelers or backpackers are laying on their backs creating a star on the ground making a cool picture

Where Do They Go?

On average, an Israeli backpacker will travel for about 6 months post-army service. Usually, the destinations are pretty much the same for everyone. Roughly speaking, 30%  travel to South and Central America in 2 waves depending on climate and popular events. Whereas 60% travel the “Hummus Road”, popular destinations among Israelis in India and Southeast Asia. Those who travel Latin America prefer a trip that involves a lot of trekking, Spanish learning, and extreme outdoor activities. The personality of the Far East is, for the most part, easy going. So, travelers who backpack in India and SE Asia aim for a more relaxing and spiritually focused trip.

They Grow Up So Fast

Setting out on a backpacking trip has become a rite of passage in the lives of young Israelis. In fact, it’s almost an expectation from individuals in their early 20s. Some would say that the army service conveys an abrupt interruption of their growing up. As Israelis are to assume national security obligations, their maturing process is inevitably expedited at the age of 18. The post-army travel would work as a way to close the gap of those accelerated years of maturation. It allows Israeli young adults to reconnect with their inner youth. In Hebrew, this trip is called “Hatyul Ha’Gadol” or rather “The Great Trip”. A trip where they’ll face experiences and challenges outside their comfort zone, which will shape who they are in years to come.

The Innovative Mind Comes From Somewhere

While in most western countries high-school graduates enroll in college, their Israeli peers go on a different route. Israelis enlist to a couple years of army service, followed by a 6-month backpacking trip. Their military training exposes them to cutting edge technology, teamwork, leadership skills, and mission orientation. These acquired skills foster in them a sense of adventure and ambition to explore the world. It’s only natural that Israelis are crowned as the most innovative nation in the world. Combined with an innate curiosity to learn and the classic know-it-all Israeli chutzpah, the sky fails to be the limit. I mean, the Start Up Nation had to start from something. There’s no better way to get innovative ideas other than exploring the world.

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Arielle Dadon
Arielle Dadon
Arielle is an avid sun worshiper when it's not hot outside, has a talent for brilliant yet unrelated conversation starters, and will always notice life’s ironies which all make for great stories! She's always up for an adventure and never misses an opportunity to sing along to Disney classics. If you ever find her unable to produce a coherent sentence, she's probably in the midst of a laugh attack.

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