Friday, July 27, 2007

Su BAr Ru

The outskirts of Beer Sheva – She was in her early 50s, with short big-hair and large rimmed plastic glasses. “What kind of car is it?” she asked skeptically, in Hebrew, from the other side of the counter.

“Subaru,” I answered. Two weeks of walking and taking cabs has been tiring and expensive. Whether to work, a nearby restaurant, or home from the Old City, every trip costs 25 shekels ($6). The distance just doesn’t seem to matter. It makes me nuts, and I’m wearing the soles of my shoes thin walking the hour home from work. The upside is that I like cutting through the Old City, buying some pistachios, and meandering through East Jerusalem. The downside is that it is almost all uphill (both ways) and trekking in a sports coat, in the summer, in the Middle East, isn’t pretty.

“What? We don’t have this,” she replied with a tone that implied that I was making up the names of cars.

“Subaru,” I repeated. “Forester.” I’ve been shopping for used cars. Well, not really shopping since I’ve only responded to one ad in the Embassy’s newsletter. The Sunday before, I’d driven to Gadera, south of Tel Aviv, in a rental car, on my way back from Haifa, to meet the owner, a tall guy from Michigan named Dave who works with the corps of engineers in Beer Sheva, and to test drive the car.

Driving here is like a race. You’re trying to escape the cars next to you as much as you are trying to actually reach your destination. Adding to the experience, Israeli roads have a special feature I call “the disappearing lane.” Two lanes merge to one with little notice. You have to anticipate the disappearing lane and speed ahead to beat the merge.

The Subaru performed fine in our test drive, but what do I know? I’m a city person – walking, riding buses and subways, and taking taxis when I need some social commentary.

So, I had to have the Subaru inspected before buying it. This meant renting a car and driving to Beer Sheva to take the Subaru to an “official garage” for a pre-sale inspection. When I called the garage for directions, I realized that no one there spoke English and that I was going to get lost. The place was on the outskirts of town in an area that didn’t have street names, several turns away from the junction that would take me to Dimona. The lack of street names wasn’t a big deal since I hadn’t been able to find a city map of Beer Sheva, Israeli’s fourth largest city. I found maps in atlases that showed the roads coming and going, but nothing for inside the city, perhaps a statement of some sort.

Getting lost isn’t so bad if you know in advance that it is going to happen and have a chance to caffeinate and snack. So, at a rest stop on a desert road outside of Beer Sheva, I stopped for a coffee and some grill flavored bisli, an Israeli chip that is a cross between dog food and Fritos. The ride, thus far, in my little white rental car with poor acceleration, had been nice. The rocky open valleys surrounding Jerusalem are gorgeous and I cruised down the hilly road in my soapbox racer listening to Galgalatz, a radio station that alternates between Israeli and English songs.

Before settling on Galgalatz, I skipped around between a range of Arabic, Hebrew, and Russian stations. Galgalatz’s variety was equally impressive – in a half hour they played Smokey Robinson, Stone Temple Pilots, and my new favorite hit, Ani Holech (I go/walk/leave). The only lyrics of Ani Holech that I understood were the chorus (Ani Holech), repeated again and again in grouchy vocals. I’m left assuming that the song is about an old man wearing a plaid hat and a white ‘members only’ jacket who is trying to return cold soup at a diner.

After racing through Jerusalem’s surrounding valleys, I passed some very green vineyards. I’d brought my camera and was going to take some pictures, but I knew that I didn’t have time to stop because I had to account for getting lost later. I figured I’d photograph the vineyards in the late afternoon light on the way home. I zipped past small packs of orthodox Jews in white shirts and black pants and young soldiers in olive colored uniforms looking to hitch a ride. The scenery changed again, tall fir trees became dusty rocky ridges. I slowed at a scene of a young boy herding a herd of goats around a water tanker with a Joshua tree placed teasingly in the background. On the way home, I told myself.

Percolating and full of bisli, it actually wasn’t that hard to find the garage. All of the signs were in Hebrew – usually signs are printed in Hebrew, English, and Arabic – but I stumbled upon the general area and only had to ask a couple of people for directions. It was more difficult directing Dave there, since he can’t read the signs and I could only use landmarks.

“What? Subru? This doesn’t exist,” the woman at the counter said, annoyed.

“Su-bar-ru, Su-bar-ru,” Dave said, losing patience with the communication problem.

“Su BAr Ru?? Ah, Su BAr Ru . . . why didn’t you say so?” she responded, shaking her head.

“Su BAr Ru, Su BAr Ru,” Dave and I said, nodding our heads and smiling.

Once we’d confirmed the existence of Su BAr Rus, the inspection was painless. We were sent to a group of cashiers, passed between them, and then on to a garage along the side of the complex where a man named Rafi inspected the car. No one spoke a word of English, and actually, until Rafi went through the inspection report relatively slowly, so that I could translate for Dave, no one made any special effort to be understood.

Jerusalem is swimming in English. At lunchtime, I walk through the Ben Yehdua pedestrian mall and I hear more English than Hebrew. At restaurants, stores, and even kiosks, in East or West Jerusalem, you can fall back on English, someone will understand. The garage outside Beer Sheva was the first Hebrew only environment that I’ve been in here, so far.

The car passed inspection and I made arrangements with Dave to make the exchange. Hungry, I drove down the thoroughfare looking for a place to eat. On my way to Gadera the Sunday before, I’d found a Burger Ranch – an Israeli fastfood joint – in a shopping center outside of Ramle. For 36 Shekels ($9) I got a spicy schnitzel sandwich (fried chicken in picante sauce that dripped on to my tray in a steady flow), fries, and a Sprite. Rip off! And it wasn’t just because I’m a foreigner – locals were eating there too! Some people think Jerusalem is nicknamed “Jerusalem of Gold” because of its beauty. I’m convinced the nickname comes from the cost of living. I’ll analyze my receipts for you in a different post, though. The important thing is that I was determined to do better than Burger Ranch.

Down the street from the garage, I found a warehouse-sized grocery store with a cafeteria. I got a freshly grilled, spiced ground meat kabob sandwich with all the fixings and a bottle of water for 18 Shekels ($4.5)! It is the best deal that I’ve gotten in Israel, and I happily scarfed it down in the meat section of the cafeteria. To my right, a row of potted plants separated me from a handful of guys eating dairy meals. Behind me, sat four industrial workers eating and chatting. Three of them sat at a table in the dairy section and the fourth next to them, but at a table on my side of the plants, eating a meat- stuffed pepper.

Since I had the rental car, I figured I’d do some shopping. As I fumbled my way through ordering sliced cheese in Hebrew, the woman at the deli counter asked me (in Hebrew) if I was from Russia. She assumed I was a new immigrant. I got similar questions at the checkout counter, as I struggled to fill out my “Super Card” form and then bag my own groceries as the cashier looked on. There was a Bedouin woman wearing a niqab (the Islamic face covering) in the aisle next to me. Hearing her buy groceries in Hebrew was alone worth the trip from Jerusalem.

Driving home, I pulled over to check out an ancient stone house in the middle of the desert, a few hundred feet from the road. I circled the roofless house, built of stacked flat stones, and went inside. In one of the back rooms, there was a cannon ball sized hole ripped into one of the external walls. It was a window into a desert whose brownness was only interrupted by a couple of dark green Joshua trees. With the afternoon light and the billowing desert dust, it was a trophy picture, justice for missing the watering goats earlier. I pulled my camera from its bag and turned the switch to no effect. The battery was dead.

So, no pictures from the road to Beer Sheva, sorry. I did buy the Su BAr Ru though. So maybe, I’ll go back. In the meantime, I need to name the car. Suggestions welcome.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Samer and Zion

French Hill, Jerusalem – “Erev Tov,” I said hesitantly, my hand on the open windowsill of the white cab. “I’m going to the Germany Colony.”
“Ok,” replied the cab driver in Hebrew, as he waved me into the car. He was in his late 20s with receding black hair. Parenthesis-like smile lines framed his face.
“How are you?” I asked, searching the rearview mirror, dashboard, and ashtray for ornaments that would signal his religion or language preference.
“Good,” he smiled, bobbing his head to the side, and shifted gears.
“Good, I’m going to Rahel Emeynu Street.”
“Ok,” he smiled and nodded his head again, tilting it toward his right shoulder. We lapsed into silence, cruising through the Jerusalem evening, past the Old City’s walls, a view of the Dome of the Rock jutting out over the Muslim Quarter, past the New Gate and to a stop at the Jaffa Road streetlight. The cabbie pulled a tin of candies from his front pocket, ate one, made to return the tin to his pocket, but then asked (in Hebrew), “Would you like one?”
I smiled. I usually don’t accept candy from strangers unless they ask three times, but took one and replied, “thank you.”
I looked at the driver again, trying to find some confirmation beyond the stereotypical generosity, but there wasn’t anything there to help me. So I just asked him Arabic, “Do you speak Arabic?”
“Yes,” he replied in Arabic, smiling, skeptically.
“Can I ask you a question?” I continued. He seemed like an affable guy, and I thought it might be my big chance to crack the code.
“Please” he said in Arabic.
“I’m having a problem. When I enter a cab, I don’t know whether to say “Boker Tov’ or ‘Sabah al HHear.’ Is there a way I can know whether to speak in Arabic or Hebrew?”
He laughed and pointed to a little white sticker with blue Hebrew writing above his safety belt. “Look for the driver’s name, it is written here.”
“Ahh, usually I look for a David’s star or a hamza,” pointing to the mirror. “Or I’ll listen to what music is playing, but it is hard to know.”
“Listen, 80 percent of the cab drivers are Arab. Unless you’re in Rehavia or the German Colony or a place where there are only Jews, most of the time he’s an Arab. Sometimes, drivers wear a kipah,” he explained as he patted his head. “They’re scared and they don’t want people to know; maybe they won’t want to get in.”
He shrugged and I smiled and shook my head. “What a strange place.” A moment later I called out “Allah ya’tik al afya,” and he pulled over.
We shook hands, “What’s your name?”
“My name is Ben.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“Nicer to meet you. See you, in’sha’allah.”
Ma Salaama.”

So, this morning, running late, I hopped into a cab and blindly launched into Arabic with the driver, a middle-aged, tan guy with black and silver hair. As I said, “Good morning, I’m going to Agron Street,” I noticed that he had a black kipah resting on top of his head.
“Ok, come on,” he replied in Arabic, not missing a beat.
“Let’s use the meter,” I continued.
“Ah, why don’t we say 20 Shekel?”
That is five shekels less than what the meter would cost (four Shekels is a dollar); I enthusiastically agreed. Something was strange, though. We were speaking Arabic, but he was wearing a kipah and wearing shorts.
“Where on Agron Street?” he asked in Hebrew, enunciating each syllable.
Tired and ambivalent about taking a principled Arabic language stand, I told him where, in Hebrew. We chitchatted a little more; he asked me where I was from and what I was doing here, and I explained, all in Hebrew.
“But you speak some Arabic, no?” He continued. “You spoke to me in Arabic.”
“Yeah, I speak Arabic. Where are you from?” I asked, trying to determine if this was a well-disguised cabbie or what.
“I’m from Iraq, we’re Iraqi Jews.”
“And where were you born?
“Here, in Jerusalem,” he stated emphatically. “I was born here, we all lived here, all the Jews from Iraq. I live in Pisgat Zeev now. I grew up here on that street” as he pointed out my window.
“And you speak Arabic?”
“Of course!” He exclaimed. “We grew up speaking Arabic, with our family. Look, we used to be friends,” his voice rising. “We would go to each other’s houses and weddings and we would visit one another,” he lamented. “All the time, we would go to Nablus and Ramallah. We would just drive there. We would shop there.”
“What about now?”
“No, we don’t see each other anymore,” he shrugged. “Sometimes we ask or hear about this one or that one, but everything changed. It is a mess.”
“What changed?”
“From 1988, the generations – not just them, but us too – they’re filled with hatred. Hatred. We were friends, but not this generation,” he said as he shook his head.
“Have you visited Iraq?”
“No, my parents lived there, a long time ago. The Americans, you don’t like the Iraqis.”
“How do you mean? Because we went to war or because we want to leave?”
“You don’t deal with them well. You kill them.”
I’m much better speaking about Iraq in Arabic than Hebrew. As I considered a response, he asked, “Where are you from in America?”
“Pittsburgh, it is in Pennsyl – ”
“Pittsburgh! I know Pittsburgh, I was there.”
“Really? When were you there?”
“I took a Greyhound trip from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles in 1990. Three days we were on the bus! We stopped in Pittsburgh, for an hour. We had a rest. I went outside of the station and walked around and looked around.”
“It’s pretty, no? The rivers downtown and the hills.”
“Yes, I took pictures. I remember there was a [cable car], like at Masada, that goes up the hill. I just showed the pictures to my son a couple of weeks ago,” he said with a big, nostalgic smile.
“That’s great! Wow, three days on a bus. That’s a long trip.”
Laughing, “Yeah, it was long. We started at 2AM on one day and didn’t finish until 6AM three days later. And then we had to come home early because of the war. They told us all to come home because of the war.”
We pulled up to work, “this is good, here, thank you. What’s your name?”
“My name is Ben. Nice to meet you, Shabbat Shalom,” and we shook hands.
Smiling, thinking about the incline in Pittsburgh, perhaps, Zion said, “Yes, Yes, Shabbat Shalom, see you.”

A few more pictures from the Old City:

Friday, July 13, 2007

Living on A Seam

East Jerusalem – A week ago, on my first evening here, I walked to a nearby coffee shop at the Hebrew University. It was 6:30 PM, and I wanted to drink tea outside and stay awake a couple more hours. With Shabbat fast approaching, the campus was almost entirely deserted. A dark haired student in a tight black shirt waited for a ride in front of the (closed) Aroma Café. It seemed like she’d been forgotten, sadly waiting to be picked up for Shabbat dinner with her family. A shorter dark haired student came around the corner and called out in Arabic, “What are you doing? How long are you going to sit there waiting?” They laughed and began a rapid conversation.

The next day, I went to the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. Descending into the Old City through Damascus Gate, I passed toy, vegetable, and shoe vendors who had lined the staircases with goods; child touts hollered prices.

At the Central Café, a spot along the way to the Al Aqsa Mosque, I drank a Turkish coffee. Like at any café in Egypt, men sat inside smoking hookahs and playing cards. Outside, however, Hasidic Jews with curled sidelocks and black hats passed Muslim fundamentalists coming from the al-Aqsa compound. The Fundys wore flaming beards, similar to their Jewish counterparts, but instead of black coats, they wore gray thobes that just brushed their ankles. Short thobes are a sign of modesty before God; men would have to stoop for their thobes’ edges to touch the ground, not show their ankles, and avoid looking silly. These men walked with regal posture, though, seemingly showing off their black socks and lace tied shoes. Between the Hasidim and the Fundys, tourists streamed by my perch. They wore shorts, fanny packs and sunglasses, and spoke Hebrew, Arabic, Italian, Greek, Spanish, Russian, or English.

At the café and throughout the Old City, I tried to speak with locals in Arabic. To my frustration, they mostly replied in Hebrew, mistaking me for an Israeli. I’ve practiced my poker face in return, pretending not to understand. The language issue is interesting. With the same assuredness that Americans approach the world in English, Israelis walk around the Old City speaking Hebrew. On Saturday, I listened to an Israeli tourist ask a shopkeeper how much a ceramic bowl cost, and the shopkeeper responded in Hebrew. The tourist moved on and the shopkeeper sat down on a stool and continued his conversation, in Arabic, with his friend in the stall next door. The other night, I took a taxi home from work (downtown and in West Jerusalem) and negotiated the price, in advance, in Hebrew with the driver. On the ride home, the young, dark driver spoke on his phone, in Arabic, to a friend. Like the girls outside of the University, I had no idea that his native language wasn’t Hebrew until he started speaking Arabic.

Despite the overlay of Hebrew and other things Jewish (like the Hasidim), East Jerusalem and the Muslim Quarter feel like an Arab place. Just a few blocks away from Jaffa Gate, though, in West Jerusalem, there is a different world. Last night, walking home from work, I jaywalked across Jaffa Road. Immediately, a policeman, who looked like Moshe Dayan but without the eyepatch, approached me and demanded, in Hebrew, to see my ID. I showed him my passport, and he said, in English, “You crossed the street when the light was red.”

“Yes, I did. I’m sorry.” I couldn’t believe that this was an issue and was wondering why I was being hassled.

“Why did you do that?” he replied, his “th” sounding like a “z.”

“Well I looked both ways and didn’t see anything coming, so I crossed.” I said with a smile, amazed that this was really about jaywalking and not a “random” security check.

“You crossed and the light was red,” he said again, with a frown, not amused. He thumbed through my passport, stopping on the page with a UAE stamp.

“I didn’t look at the light, I’m sorry,” I said, wanting the interview to end.

“Don’t do that again.” He ordered me, handing back my passport and searing me with his pale blue eyes.

Except for the speeding between green traffic lights, West Jerusalem is orderly. They have the rule of law here, meaning there are laws and people follow them, whether it is out of a sense conviction or a fear of consequences. There are cameras at intersections, and they send you a ticket, I understand, if you speed through a red light. So, ironically, in a city known for its tension and pressure, people come to a stop in their cars when they see a flashing green or yellow light. Or if they are walking, they wait patiently for the little green man to appear before crossing the street. A few blocks away, in front of Damascus Gate, you can cross the street whenever you want - it is just at your own risk.

A block away from my interview with the traffic police, security guards and metal fences surrounded a big square. Inside the fences, nine or ten 3-3 basketball courts with portable backboards had been set up. It was “Streetball, 2007,” and roughly a hundred kids, ages 8-18, in different colored jerseys battled it out, Hoop-It-Up style.

I joined fans and family after passing through security and answering the guard in Hebrew that I didn’t have a weapon. With tip-off, the speakers blared “Eye of the Tiger” and Israeli streetballers of all shapes and sizes -- wearing kipot and tzi-tzit, sporting dreadlocks, and wearing Michael Jordan armbands and baggy shorts – pounded on each other, in Hebrew, under the watchful eyes of referees who seemed to be playing hard to get. It was hockey meets basketball, and the phrase “no blood, no foul” was never more appropriate. It looked like fun, though, and I missed playing ball for the first time in two years.

After watching a couple of games, I continued home, past a crafts store filled with orthodox Jewish women and through an arched gateway that framed Jerusalem’s walls and Mt. Zion. I walked down the hill and a black man in a habit, perhaps a Coptic priest, stepped out of the New Gate on my right. I proceeded through the gate and then made a left into the heart of the Christian quarter. Above me, an old couple sat on a balcony drinking tea. I wondered for how many years, or perhaps how many generations their family had lived in the Old City. Winding my way through the Christian Quarter, I passed ceramics and wood sculpture shops that were still open, but not expecting business. There was still another hour of light, and maybe there would be one last sale for the day, but it seemed more like a time for an evening sit with neighbors.

I’m going to my cousin’s up north for Shabbat tomorrow and I wanted to bring him some pastries. As I wrote about in Live from Jordan, I faced a similar task four years earlier – searching for Kosher pastries in the Muslim Quarter. Having crossed into the Muslim section of the Old City, I first stopped at a bakery where a middle-aged man with a warm face asked if he could help. I said to him in Arabic, “With all respect, I’m looking for Kosher sweets, I’m going to a Kosher home tomorrow. Do you have any?”

He gently shook his head, and welcomed me to come back another time. I stopped at a second place several stalls down and asked the same question to another baker. Surrounded by homemade baklava, he told me in Arabic that everything he made was hand made, and that his boxes did not say “Kosher.”

As I wondered whether I should buy some nuts instead, I felt a measure of satisfaction with my failure. Not only was I being answered in Arabic, but strangers were respecting my cousin’s religious redlines and not trying to sell me a false bill of goods. I came upon a third store, and it might have been the same store where I bought the pastries four years earlier. A young friendly man in glasses proudly showed me a box of chocolate ruggelach that had come from Tel Aviv and that was marked Kosher. I bought a kilo of Kosher pastries from him, and we traded small talk in Arabic about our favorite spots in Amman.

This roughly stitched seam that I cross everyday, which is filled with tourists, pilgrims, believers, and everyday people doing their thing, is fascinating. You can literally see and hear where two worlds separate, or perhaps come together. As I hail a cab in my neighborhood, study the car’s dangling windshield ornaments, and try to guess whether I should say “Merhaba” or “Shalom,” I’ll keep you posted.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Frankfurt . . . sigh

The Kuffler & Bucher in the Frankfurt Airport – Kuffler & Bucher is the place where I paid $12 for a banana, a bottle of water, and cheese toast on white bread. It is 7AM here, my internal clock reads 1:43AM, and I’m tired. The cheese was gooey and the tomato in the middle was cold. A 50-year-old Indian man with a soft face made it for me.

My bill came to 7.50 Euros or $11.17. The cashier, a young Indian woman with long black hair rounded it up to $12; she didn’t feel obliged to make change in dollars. I found her authority to round up ironic.

Moments earlier, Frankfurt airport’s finest wouldn’t let me into the Red Carpet Lounge. I have a United Premier card, but I’m not a “Premier Executive.” If I was a Premier Executive, then I could have drank free coffee while lounging in a snug two-seater sofa, snacking on a free croissant, and reading a free Financial Times. The hospitality team informed me that I had 46,000 United miles prior to boarding my flight. You need 50,000 miles to enter the Red Carpet Lounge. I argued that I surpassed the 50,000 mile marker somewhere over France. The head hostess--a young South Asian woman--looked at me like I smelled of bad bratwurst and in a preachy tone explained that they would have a “very crowded lounge” if they let everyone in with such an exception.

Clearly, the bold and the beautiful of the Frankfurt airport would be very displeased if joined by the likes of me. Behind her, her flamboyantly gay French North African colleague who had discovered my 4000-mile shortfall on his computer shrugged his shoulders sympathetically, indicating that his hands were tied on this issue of maintaining the airport’s social order.

Extreme frustration; I’d already been turned away by the First Class and Business Class lounges. A dark haired German woman at the Business Class lounge had directed me to walk to the other end of this Mall of America sized airport and the Red Carpet Lounge. Along the way, I passed through security where a pale German in his late forties with a buzz cut and an earring patted me down exhaustively. At least he didn’t give me the usual Frankfurt squeeze – searching for a grenade, I’m sure.

So, it turns out a United Premier card gets you a table in the non-smoking section of the Kuffler & Bucher. Cigarette smoke fills this cavernous airport, except here, in the K&B non-smoking section, where a big sign with a picture of a crossed out cigarette reads “Nichtraucher” and “Non-Smoking-Area.” An Arab man and his wife just sat down two tables away from me and lit up.

Behind me sits a Lebanese or maybe Palestinian family; the children are running around and having fun, their shrieks adding to the background airport noise of cell phone conversations and announcements in German. There is a non-parent female adult with the family. She is telling the husband, in detail, about the alternative dispute resolution and mediation programs she is running in Jordan and their percentages of success. Yes, it is 7AM.

Two U.S. soldiers in camouflage walk in to the K&B. One is Asian and the other Latino. A cafeteria worker from somewhere in West Africa wipes down a table for them. A flock of six muhajiba young women stroll by, carrying red duty free bags and giggling. Here comes a well endowed, toothpick thin, bleach blond Russian, pushing a stroller. The two blonde backpackers, who had been listening to I-pods and reading at a table across from me, stand up. I wonder how I-pods have changed the dynamics of long backpacking trips.

A group of twenty older Germans wearing erect backpacks slung over both shoulders descend upon the K&B. Wait, after a quick pow-wow, they are moving on to the smoking section instead, the official one. A women’s youth sports team, wearing red warm up suits with white “Venezuela” decals stitched on the back just took the tables the Germans were going to occupy.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever been in a place so diverse. Should I be thankful that all of the airport’s lounges turned me away? I would never have gotten a chance to see this melting pot that must have the Third Reich’s leadership spinning in their graves.

No. I’m going with my instincts on this one. I hate the Frankfurt airport/ashtray. The bathrooms are disgusting, there is nowhere comfortable to sit, and people use German as if it is an international language akin to English, expressing surprise that you can’t understand them.

Ixnay on the sauerkraut. I vote for more non-stop flights to the Middle East.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Huevos Rancheros, the Peacemaker

Dupont Circle - My brother and I ate Mexican food last night in Northern Virginia. Neither of us ate huevos rancheros, but we polished off two baskets of chips and a couple troughs of salsa. Is there any ethnic food with a better free appetizer than Mexican food? You can count on fresh bread and olive oil at an Italian restaurant, but I find it impossible to contain my excitement when those fried tortilla chips are placed before me on that red tablecloth (they’re red to hide the salsa dribble).

My obsession with huevos rancheros started in a roadside diner in Northern Arizona in 1997. My buddy Brian and I were half way through a seven-week camping trip that would have made Clark Griswald envious. We started in Indy and did a lap around the western part of the country, hitting 12 national parks, Vegas, and several friends’ couches in the 9000 miles in between.

Up to that morning in Arizona, we had some great times, camping with a few buffalo in South Dakota, playing Frisbee on the sides of some Colorado roads, and hiking the Narrows. The only thing missing from our trip were the free love campfires and drum circles that we’d expected to find in America’s parks. The only people we’d met, so far, were German seniors in rented Tiogas campers, intent on burning their fair skin a lighter shade of red.

Brian is my “most fun friend,” but three weeks of driving, hiking, cooking, eating, and then sleeping in a tent with the same person is intense. At a certain point, you cover all the road trip games, brainteasers, and greatest little league moments. Around day 19 of such a trip, your traveling pal’s idiosyncrasies cease to be endearing. They leave their dirty socks on your side of the tent, they can’t throw the Frisbee straight, they keep playing Phish on the car stereo . . . Basically, you’re ready to explode.

This happened to me the summer before, too, when I backpacked through Europe with another pal, Tony. We split up for a couple of days, vacationing separately in Barcelona. It’s tougher to separate when you’re traveling together in a car, unless you make invisible walls with duct tape like Les Lessman on WKRP in Cincinnati.

Anyway, Brian made a wrong turn on the way to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, we drove fifty miles out of the way before we realized it, and we both combusted. He yelled at me for being a worthless navigator and I screamed at him for being a moron. We’d yet to eat breakfast and things deteriorated further when Brian tried to retrace the fifty miles in 15 minutes. Somewhere between Page and Kaibab, we pulled over at hole in the wall diner, famished and furious.

We were on the verge of sitting at separate booths, but out of a fear of losing the trip we squeezed into a booth across from each other. In that formal clipped tone that people use when they really just want to tell you how much they loathe you, Brian said, “The special sounds good.”

“Yes, that does look good.” I replied as I pictured pulling the hockey move on him. He was wearing the same stinking San Francisco t-shirt that he hadn’t changed in two days.

We both got the special. Huevos rancheros.

I was in love from the moment that my fork broke the seal on those eggs and the highlighter yellow yolks spurted out over the red sauce and on to my crispy tortillas and cheesy yet crispy fried potatoes. It was the perfect food.

Brian felt the same way. We got back into the car, drove to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and continued to look for a drum circle. It turns out that huevos rancheros are not just the perfect food, but a peacemaker, too -- and not just between me and Brian.

There are accounts that Jimmy Carter served huevos rancheros to Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin at Camp David. It was over a mouthful of corn tortilla that Begin called Ariel Sharon and asked for his support in dismantling the settlements in Sinai. In fact, the story is told that Zbig Brzezinski split Cyrus Vance’s portion of huevos evenly between Sadat and Begin, demonstrating that the U.S. was a true honest broker. Vance was outside locking up his bicycle after a morning ride.

Insiders have not denied that at Camp David II, Bill Clinton served Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat homemade grits. Poking around in his grits with a spoon, Barak mumbled, “Ma ze?” or “What’s this?”

Inadvertently, we believe, the motion from Barak’s spoon flicked some grits onto the stubble of Arafat’s beard. Clinton himself intervened, preventing a food fight escalation between the two men. Talks eventually broke down and analysts have asked the question, what if they would have broken bread over huevos rancheros instead?

We’ll never know.

My next post will be “Live from . . . Jerusalem.” I leave Thursday, hopefully.