At 3:30 in the afternoon in Djibouti, east Africa, the hottest country in the world, no one should be walking down the sun-drenched, cracked sidewalk. There is no shade, even the goats and black-headed sheep cower beneath rusted trucks with no wheels and pray for evening to come quickly. It is late May and heat rises from the pavement in waves, presses down from the clear sky like a hammer. The humidity is so thick I imagine scooping water from the air with my daughter Lucy’s Dora the Explorer beach bucket. Gusting winds whip up miniature dust devils that dissipate when the wind grows weary, like everything else.
Tom’s work schedule at the University in the early morning, the kids’ evening judo practices, and Lucy’s nap times meant we had to take this walk when we should have been indoors.
No, no human being should be walking in the searing, suffocating heat of this mid-afternoon hour. And yet, my family of five has set out for a stroll. Tom pushes Lucy’s stroller. I hold Henry and Maggie’s hands until they slip and slide and eventually slither away from my sweaty palms.
Our faces are already splotchy and red, the backs of our shirts plastered to our damp skin, and we have only been walking for five minutes.
“I hate this,” Henry says and kicks at a plastic bag wrapped around a thorn bush.
“It’s supposed to be fun,” I say.
“It’s almost like torture,” Tom says. To avoid driving our youngest child off the narrow sidewalk and into the street, Tom picks up the stroller and heaves it over a rotting cat carcass. Green and white taxis swerve by at terrifying speeds and dangerously close to the curb in a mad rush to deliver khat, a leafy narcotic that arrived fresh daily from Ethiopia. Maggie wrinkles her nose and looks the other way. “Write that down,” Tom reminds me.
I pull out my black and white notebook and scribble, “smelly dead cat.” Then I add, “Fanta can, used menstrual pads, yellow and pink plastic bags, toilet seat cover, burst car tire, bicycle seat, pile of still-burning trash.” The list continues.
“How far?” Maggie makes no effort to hide the whine in her voice.
“Just to the railroad tracks and back,” I say. “Exactly 1.75 miles, like Grandpa said.”
Maggie rolls her eyes and Henry half-heartedly jumps over a stack of precariously balanced watermelons.
1.75 miles is how far Grandpa and Grandma walked together for the Pieh Family Olympics and they kept a list of everything they saw. They live in Minnesota so their list included things like robins, lilac bushes, Long Lake, and Rice Creek. They may have listed one piece of trash, but now I’ve forgotten.
My older sister lives in North Carolina with her family, my younger sister lives in Oregon with her family, and my brother and his wife live in Minneapolis near our parents. The Pieh Family Olympics were created by my father in an attempt to connect us across all the borders and oceans in between. The events will include timing how long we could each balance a spoon on our noses, who could launch a raw egg the furthest, and who could carry a knife the longest, using only one finger. Our 1.75-mile walk and list of the scenery is the first event.
By the time we reach the railroad tracks, having stopped twice to chug bottles of water, Henry, Maggie, and Lucy are crying. Our clothes are soaked with sweat, our faces now the color of ripe tomatoes, and our legs trembling like Jell-O. Now at the tracks, we turn, with mighty sighs of relief, for home.
“I can’t go on,” Maggie says dramatically, and wipes beads of sweat from her forehead onto her sleeve. She sits down on the curb and cries harder.
I’m exhausted, too, and frustrated. Why can’t my family do this one simple, silly, stupid thing together? Why does it have to be so draining to walk less than two miles? Why does my list contain all these ugly things?
I try to wipe away my own sweat, but my arms are just as wet and all I do is smear dirt across my cheeks. “Get up,” I snap at Maggie and Henry, who has collapsed beside her. “Get up.”
They push themselves up and shuffle down the road, their shoulders shaking with their sobs.
“You wouldn’t be crying if you were walking this far at Disney World,” I say.
Tom guffaws behind me. “Disney World?” he says. “Great comparison.”
I immediately regret saying it. Probably it is my own heat exhaustion talking. But it makes sense, too. No, they (maybe) wouldn’t be crying if they were walking from ride to ride at Disney World. Instead, we are kicking plastic bags and stepping over dead cats.
But what if I look up, away from the street? What will I see then?
I peel my eyes from the condoms and bloodied medical tubing, the broken plastic flip-flops and dirty diapers. Over the top of our house, shimmering in the heat, is a blue gantry crane of Djibouti’s port, and beyond that, the ocean. On my left is a bleached white minaret of a mosque with curls of peach bougainvillea vines wrapped between the lattices and past the mosque is a dormant volcano, poking up like a giant termite mound from the flatness of the desert. The neem tree close to our house hosts a brilliant green parrot and a red weaver flits among the branches.
Though it is not yet evening and the sky is clear, the air is filled with dust, which gives the volcano, the minaret, and the gantry crane in the port a pinkish, amber glow. A camel train, led by a nomadic family, saunters across the desert and I imagine I hear the hollow ring of the wooden camel bells.
No, we aren’t at Disney World. We aren’t even in Minnesota, strolling along an oak-tree-lined boulevard beside a bubbling brook. But we can see the ocean and a volcano. And we are together. Sweaty, complaining, tired, together.
I take out my notebook again and write about the minaret, the port, and the volcano.
I write that behind me, I hear Tom’s footsteps and the creak of Lucy’s stroller, and Lucy’s infant babbling nonsense. I write that in front of me, I see twin six-year-olds racing to see who will get home, to the ice cubes, first.