Outside Go: Summer 2007

Gone and Back

by Jake Halpern

Jake Halpern dreamed of escaping Tel Aviv to snorkel in Egypt’s Red Sea. But the trip’s most exciting part was never actually getting there.

I was about a quarter of the way to Egypt when I realized that I’d forgotten the key to my gas tank. My Fiat Uno was an old relic of a car that had a number of quirks, including a gas tank that could only be opened with a miniature one-inch key. The key, as luck would have it, had no hole for a key chain and so I was always leaving it in some dusty corner of my Tel Aviv flat. In any case, I knew the key was missing the minute I pulled into the petrol station, just outside of Jerusalem. It was a strictly “full service” station and the grimy-faced attendant shook his head in disgust when I told him I’d left the key in Tel Aviv.

“Well, how much petrol do you have in car?” asked the attendant in accented but very competent English. He had one of those typically brusque demeanors that Israelis often pick up after extended periods in the army in which neither happy memories nor significant career gains are made. I explained that I had about an eighth of a tank. The attendant nodded his head and then asked, “Are you feeling lucky?” This struck me as a rather odd question given my predicament, but I simply shrugged my shoulders. In response, the attendant explained that if I were feeling lucky, I should take the steep road down through the mountains, build momentum, and then coast all the way to Tel Aviv.

“And if I’m not feeling lucky?” I asked.

“You’ll want to buy a round-trip bus ticket,” said the attendant. “But tomorrow is Shabbat, and nothing will be running, so you’ll have to stick around.”

This was an abhorrent thought. My patience with Jerusalem – with its busloads of overweight pilgrims from Huntsville, Alabama, and its sweaty yeshiva thugs who hacked you to death on the basketball court – was exhausted. What I wanted now, what I really needed now, was to cross the border into Egypt, where I planned to spend as much time as I could underwater, snorkeling along the reefs of deep-purple coral.

The truly decisive factor, however, was my traveling buddy: Manders. In the three years since we had graduated from college together, things had gone precipitously downhill for both of us. I was in the early stages of my career as a freelance writer and wasn’t getting much work. As for Manders, he had often quipped that he would follow Hugh Heffner’s footsteps and enter the “skin industry.” As it turns out, Manders had entered the skin industry – and I mean this quite literally – he had landed a job where he sold actual human skin to burn victims. Indeed, he typically spent his days going to various “body banks” to collect skin from cadavers.

Despite the undeniably morbid nature of Manders’ occupation he was, at heart, a zealous optimist; and he insisted that our predicament with the car’s gas tank was in fact a rare and exciting opportunity. As he saw it, the entire purpose of travel was to make heedless and ill advised decision that might cause some immediate discomfort but that ultimately furnished the sort of stories that you could tell your grandchildren and which – at the end of your days – would serve as proof that you had, as Thoreau once put it, sucked out all the marrow of life.

Manders’ plan was simple – even elegant. He had us unload every single item from the Fiat that weighed more than half a pound so that we minimized our load. Soon suitcases, books, water bottles, tapes, towels and a great deal of other crap was stacked up on the curbside of the gas station. Manders even argued that we should strip down to our underpants to make ourselves truly streamlined. Of course, I refused this last request, but I agreed to all of his other suggestions.

And so, as the sun set over the Judean Hills, we drove to the crest of the mountain road that led down towards the En Kerem monasteries and the Mediterranean beyond. Moments later, we were careening down the narrow mountain road like champion bobsledders, high off the rush of our own gravity-driven momentum.

“Don’t you dare hit the brake!” yelled Manders.

The speedometer inched its way toward eighty miles per hour and kept on going.

“Holy smokes!” yelled Manders. “You have a hard right coming up.”

The car’s tires whinnied and screeched under the pressure of the turn.

“Yoweee!” yelled Manders. “What a story this’ll be!”

And it was.

We made it back to Tel Aviv – just barely – and we promptly forgot about Egypt. Instead, we sat around, smoked apple tobacco on my hookah, and pondered the true meaning of life and travel.

“You see,” said Manders as took a long draw on the hookah. “You’ve got to live life as if you plan to retell every minute of it!” One might be tempted to think such an outlook wouldn’t be conducive to living in the present, he mused, but this plainly wasn’t the case. By constantly forcing yourself to look back on the present moment, from the perspective of the future, you are more likely to make inspired decisions. More than anything, this is what gave you the great stories in life.

“Fair enough,” I conceded. “Though I’m sill glad we didn’t strip down to our underwear.”

“Hmm,” said Manders contemplatively as he puffed out a smoke ring. “That’s debatable.”