Isabel asked me a little while ago: “What is the best food you have ever eaten?” The timing of her question was perfect, as it was about 92 degrees and the air was so thick you could sip it up with a straw.
Without hesitation my mind zipped through 22 years and thousands of miles back to a stretch of Red Sea coast just south of al Hodeidah in Yemen. It was spring, which in that part of the world meant high temperatures and high humidity. My friends Tim and Nick planned a three-day backpacking trip along the coast and they invited me to join them. Being a sucker for a dumb idea, I agreed.
There was nothing along the coast where we hiked except for two or three small fishing villages inhabited by Yemenis who turned out to be fairly suspicious of our motives for sleeping in the hot sand. I can’t say I blame them for being suspicious. Here were three “Amrikis” walking along a stretch of coast that never saw a tourist, taking pictures, speaking Arabic, and sleeping just outside the village at a time when the daily high temperatures were close to 110 degrees.
We were dreadfully underprepared for the conditions and on the first day I came as close to heat stroke as a person can get without actually succumbing. In the early afternoon we stopped in the meager shade of a few palm tress—some standing, some fallen—and had a nap. Though calling it a nap implies some sort of agency on my part. Really what happened was I took off my pack and the next thing I knew it was late afternoon, there was sand stuck to my face, and my muscles were all cramping up pretty bad. I had passed out next to the fallen palm where I had sat to get my pack off.
We had assumed we could get water—though now that I think about it I really don’t know what we were thinking. When we all got up that afternoon we scouted for the wells we had heard were present on that part of the coast. Eventually we found a pit in the sand with some stagnant water full of mosquito larvae twitching around in the heat. Even they seemed really uncomfortable. This was the well.
And, even though we were fairly dumb, we did understand that we needed water or things could get a lot worse. So, we used a tee shirt to strain water into our bottles. We managed to keep most of the visible wildlife out of our water containers and hiked on to a spot where we could sleep.
Yemen is not too far north of the equator and the sun sets fairly early there year-round. And even though we had probably burned several thousand calories hiking in the heat of the day, none of us felt hungry. We built a small fire from driftwood and bought a couple of fish from the fisherman next door. We tried to roast the fish on sticks with little success. We went to sleep by eight o’clock that night with semi-raw fish and who knows what all-else sloshing around in our guts.
The sand holds on to the heat of the sun far better than the air does, so that night was terribly uncomfortable. It was like trying to sleep on one of those heating pads people plug in and adhere to lizard enclosures to provide the cold-blooded creatures steady warm temperatures. The problem is, I am not cold-blooded and it is hard to sleep when you are being slow-roasted. Eventually exhaustion won and I fell asleep.
Hunger woke me at 4 am, and I laid still for a while, hoping it would just go away and let me drift back to sleep. It didn’t go away and when I opened my eyes I was rewarded with a sight I will not forget. The Southern Cross was there in the dark night sky, hanging out over my head like it had been hoping to get my attention, to catch my eye—just to say “hey.”
I was by then awake enough to have to actually do something about my hunger, so I reached into my backpack and grabbed some Turkish soldiers’ bread called kudam. I ripped off a chunk of the dense bread and crammed it in my mouth. And within a few seconds I spit it back out and my mouth felt like it was on fire.
Turns out some painful biting ants had crawled into bag and gotten into the bread and were not pleased with my efforts to reclaim the bread. I fell asleep full of resentment and more than a little hungry. When dawn came I just wanted to get the hell out of there.
The second day was better, in the same way that the second day of radiation therapy is probably better—not because anything is really improved but because the parameters of the pain have been set and you know what to expect a little bit better.
We hiked a few miles and set up camp late in the afternoon. Nick thought there might be a small town a mile or two inland and set out walking. I joined him. And he was right. In the village we bought some bottled water, had a bowl of bean stew at a shack, and then discovered the best food I have ever eaten. It was at a non-descript little market stall with a portable generator. The man who ran the stall had a big cooler full of homemade popsicles. We each bought one and ate it at brainfreeze pace. We then each bought another and ate those as we walked back to camp to tell Tim what we had found.
I made the roundtrip one more time with Tim and ate two more of the popsicles. They were made of Vimto and nothing has ever tasted better to me, before or since. After fortifying ourselves with popsicles we hitched a ride back to my apartment in Hodeidah, where Tim and Nick showered and caught the next bus out of the coastal plain and up into the mountains, where they lived in 7,000+ foot altitude of the capital, Sana’a.
So, I told Isabel about the backpacking trip and the near-heat stroke and seeing the Southern Cross and the ants biting my tongue and then the miraculous taste of the Vimto pops. And now, at least for a couple of days, I will remember that sometimes the simplest things really are the best.