Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Southern Cross

I woke up at three in the morning, hurting and headachy and HUNGRY. The sand was
uncomfortably hot, but my body and my mind were so tired, I must have fallen asleep anyway…at least for a few hours. Now, my stomach was moaning and my muscles were demanding repayment for the energy I had wrung from them all day long. I remembered that I had some heavy Turkish soldiers’ bread (kudam) in the hood of my backpack. Kudam is, by far, the densest bread I have ever eaten. It is said to have nourished the Ottoman Turkish army in their massive conquests hundreds of years ago, and I can see why.

In the starlight of a Red Sea beach somewhere south of al Hudaydah I reached into my bag and let my hand root around like a famished rodent. My fingers quickly found the brick of bread they were feeling for and ripped off a chunk to direct mouthward.

In the dark, I crammed the wad of bread in and started chewing. As I did, it felt like shards of glass were stabbing my tongue and the inside of my lips. I had no idea what was going on, but my self-preservation instinct took over and I spit the bread out faster than I had shoved it in.

My mouth felt like it was on fire and I could not make the feeling go away. I reached around in my backpack and found a small flashlight, which I turned on and aimed at the bolus of bread on the ground. When I looked closely I could see ants in the wet wad of bread. I am not a myrmecologist, so I do not know specifically what kind of ants were chewing on the insides of my mouth, but I can tell you they packed one heckuva bite. My mouth REALLY hurt.

I took the bread out of my backpack and saw that it was indeed crawling with red ants. I threw the bread into the dark of the dunes and cursed.

My friends Nick and Tim and I had decided to take a three-day hike along the Red Sea from near a town called Bayt-al-Faqi north to my “hometown” al Hudaydah. This stretch of Yemen is in what is called the Tihama—the flat coastal plain that often hits 115 degrees in the summer. We had not carried enough water that first day and I had come close to suffering from heat stroke. We were dreadfully unprepared for how tough it was and that first night when I bit into the bread and then the ants bit into me, I wanted to just cry and be back home in my bed. (Not my “home” in al Hudaydah, but my real home back in Delaware with the Wonder Bread down in the bread drawer and the air conditioner set at a comfortable 72.)

Delaware was not an option there on the beach at three a.m. and crying wasn’t making anything better, so eventually I decided to lie back down and try to get back to sleep. The inside of my mouth had swelled up painfully wherever the ants had bitten, but my fears of anaphylaxis proved unfounded. Once I got used to the pain, it actually felt kind of cool in the same way your tongue exploring the soft pulpy gap where a tooth has just fallen out can feel kind of cool.

As I lay flat on my back in the still-too-hot sand, feeling the pain in my mouth slowly subside to an acceptable ache and listening to the small waves on the windless night as they made half-hearted attempts to reach us far up the incline of the beach, I noticed the stars for the first time. We were far from any source of light pollution and the stars were thicker and brighter than any I had ever seen. As I scanned the skies I noticed what could only be the Southern Cross.

And in an odd way, I place my coming of age as an adult at that exact moment. Twenty-two years old, eight thousand miles from home, on a beach in Yemen at three in the morning with some fresh ant bites in my mouth. The full ridiculousness of the situation dawned in me there in the starlight and I had to laugh out loud. My friend Tim asked with a groggy voice what I was laughing at and I just said, “Nothing…go back to sleep.” And that is just what both of us did.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


I have been running on the Farmington Canal trail through Hamden a lot recently. Isabel has gymnastics class several times a week and the trail is a short drive from her gym. This gives me two or three excellent opportunities in the midst of an often-busy workweek to get out and run four or five miles without feeling like I should be somewhere else, doing something else.

Since the New Year, I have seen the same hawk, perched in the same tree, each time I have run the trail. The time of day is always the same, the tree is always the same, and the bird is always the same. I am not really sure how I even saw it the first time. It sits so still and its mottled feathers match the bark of the trunk it tucks up against so perfectly that it is sometimes hard to spot, even though I now know exactly where to look.

I have gotten to the point that I now stop and say hi to the bird. (My daughter thinks this is slightly crazy.)

Each time I have run the trail these past three weeks, it has been cold and often it has been snowy. There have been very few other humans out there in that oddly beautiful little valley running through some fairly developed neighborhoods near some heavily trafficked roads. I have had a lot of time and space and quiet to let my mind wander the way it will during a good run.

Where my mind has wandered lately is to the idea of “change.” New Year’s resolutions are all about making changes. Barack Obama ran hard on the notion of making necessary changes. My wife and I have been contemplating what sorts of changes to make in our lives.

Yet, the status quo has such power and things can feel so frozen.

As I run through that valley and hear the stream gurgling through the snow-covered rocks, it feels like winter will not end. Actually, that doesn’t quite explain the feeling. Rather than winter not ever ending, it feels as if the changes the Earth and Sun need to go through to make winter turn to spring will never happen. It is not a feeling of hopelessness, but rather one of powerlessness. Spring absolutely WILL happen. There is just nothing I can do to make it happen any sooner. And as a result, winter feels like the permanent state of affairs.

A few days ago I thought about getting the hawk’s opinion on this idea but when I stopped to try, one look at him told me he would not understand. One look at him told me that he is patience personified, (or should I say “avified?) That hawk would not want to make spring come any sooner. That hawk is waiting. It is what he does. He waits. Spring comes.