I woke up at three in the morning, hurting, having a headache and hungry. The sand was uncomfortably hot, my body and my mind so tired. I must have fallen asleep, at least for a few hours. Now, my stomach was moaning, my muscles were demanding repayment for the energy I had wrung from them all day long. I remembered 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. I can see why.
In the starlight of the 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; I spit the bread out faster than I had shoved it in.
My mouth felt like it was on fire; 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. 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 heck of a bite. My mouth really hurt. I took the bread out of my backpack, 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 Bayt-al-Faqi north to my “hometown” of 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, 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. Crying wasn’t making anything better, so eventually I decided to lie back down and try 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.
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, 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; the stars were thicker and brighter than any I had ever seen. I scanned the skies and noticed what could only be the Southern Cross.
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. I had to laugh out loud. Tim asked with a groggy voice what I was laughing at. I just said, “Nothing, go back to sleep.” And that is just what both of us did.
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