Winter choked me with its brutal claws as I walked the kids the half-mile to school in single-digit temperatures with wind chills that sounded like alternative rock band names, “negative twelve.” We lived in mildly urban Pennsylvania where the sidewalks pose threats in their unevenness on a good day.
Back to brutal winter. Icy sidewalks. The snow piled over the children’s heads because it kept snowing and snowing and snowing. We even abandoned our normal route to school, deeming it too dangerous as many folks either didn’t tend their sidewalks or did so lazily. Instead, we zigzagged through the neighborhood to stay close to the hospital, as the hospital (despite a vested interest in injury) did a fantastic job of maintaining passable sidewalks.
The household routines resembled something like this: snow shoveling, building igloos, and digging paths for constant oil deliveries to fuel the furnace. Since I worked retail, I witness a special breed of “French toast” panic from a public-at-large buying every scrap of bread, milk, and eggs available. Me, I bought Brussel sprouts, a tangy Côte de Rhone (it gets my husband frisky drunk), plenty of coffee (and please no Maxwell House or Folgers because even cardamom won’t fix that) and the half gallon container of half and half. Who needs bread? Eggs? Seriously? Toss me some bananas and almond butter and I’m good, thanks.
This no good bitter cold and endless torrent of snow prompted a plan of escape from my crazy traveling companion, M. We’d done France. We’d done Tunisia. M wanted Mauritania, for its endless sun, heat, and Sahara. I didn’t care. We had an established system: he emailed tickets, I packed a small suitcase and went to the airport. This time, he can’t get the tickets. He called me.
“I know,” he said, “you have a hot nut for Djibouti.”
After verifying my comfort level with the change of itinerary several times, M was comfortable with the idea of booking a trip to Djibouti with a side trip to Yemen. Only later did he realize that perhaps he never asked me to go to Yemen. He reminded me, for my own good, that Djibouti is a “sh*thole” (albeit one he finds relaxing) and that the conditions would be far more extreme and Third World than Tunisia. This did not deter me. I fell in love, of the literary romantic sort, with Djibouti somewhere during my study of French colonial Africa.
The Republic of Djibouti gained its independence from France in 1977, which makes the country younger than I am. The country has no water, no arable soil, and an active volcano that last erupted in 1978. The country, a speck, sits at one of the most pivotal and severe geographical locations on the planet— the horn of East Africa, the Red Sea at its feet harboring a density of pirates, Yemen opposite it. Its African neighbors are familiar names to American ears—Ethiopia with its famine fame, Somalia and its troubled anarchic contemporary government, and lesser known but dramatically poor Eritrea.
Three weeks before our travel, three weeks before my husband will deliver me to Washington, D.C., where I will board a plane to Paris and then another to Djibouti, I went into the refrigerator at work. I piled cases of salads into my arms and I departed, prepared to pass them to my boss. One of my coworkers was changing the garbage in our kitchen. At my bidding, he held the door for me. I saw the empty trash receptacle, a rectangle in dull gray plastic stained with tomato sauce.
I did not see the lid on the floor beside it, which, when I stepped on it, transformed into a skateboard. The ride lasted a few seconds, probably five feet. The salads flew toward the pizza case, bouncing against the hand washing sink. I fell on my side, impacting primarily my right hand which had curled into a fist. I landed on the fleshy exterior, not the thumb or the knuckles.
I broke my hand. Closed spiral fracture of the fifth metacarpal. Sitting in the urgent care, talking with the young resident who bound my hand with ace bandages, I reiterated that I would be leaving the country soon. At the orthopedic twenty-four hours later, I repeated this. After expanding my doctors’ knowledge of geography, I agreed that my caregivers should cast my dominant limb and that the cast will be removed the day before I leave. To prevent issues with airport security or discomfort in the high temperatures, a brace will replace my plaster.
I had never broken a bone before. The cold weather continued. It was March when this started, and April certainly brought shower upon shower. I walked around with my arm in an umbrella bag. I could only wear one of my leather gloves. My fingers never got warm. I painted my nails for the first time in years, black with silver glitter. My nail polish did not chip. It offered proof that I did not use my hand.
My hand had a quasi-permanent smell of sweat and hand-sanitizer, sometimes a bitter smell, perhaps even acrid. My daughter told me it stinks. I thought it smelled like me, only intensified. They sliced off the cast, decorated with names and pictures and a glow-in-the-dark skeleton my husband painted, and in seconds, before I can flex my fingers, they tossed it into the trash. My shell! Discarded without a second thought! They send me for an x-ray, asked for what feels like the 100th time in three weeks if I could be pregnant, and slapped my hand next to the little R tile. They asked me to flatten my hand, which after weeks in the same position seems impossible.
The x-ray revealed that my hand had not healed. Not fully. They wrapped my hand in a wrist brace and told me not to use it for anything. I swore not to remove the brace except to shower. A shower seemed like a magnificent gain.
Soon, I transformed into a woman in transit. I packed my laptop bag (and MacBook Air) and a lightweight, leopard print suitcase that classifies as a carry-on in the smallest of aircraft. Whatever I bring, I must cart myself as M wouldn’t serve as my pack mule. I wore a thin pleather coat, a Pashmina silk scarf and very comfortable black pants for our journey. We left Dulles Thursday evening, spent Friday in Paris, and flew to Djibouti Friday night arriving on the Horn of Africa around seven a.m. Saturday. AirFrance— the only “Western” airline to service Djibouti—flies in once a week and flies out once a week. You arrived Saturday morning and you departed Saturday evening. Meanwhile, the flight crew spent the day at the luxurious, five-star Kempinski Palace experiencing the kind of Africa that doesn’t really exist.
M has a tendency to ask me “if it’s real yet.” He asked this when we were the only white people on an airport shuttle packed with Arabs. On this particular trip, I can tell you what made it real. I stood in the aisle of the plane waiting to disembark. I had my backpack on my shoulder, my scarf around my neck in case I needed to cover (we were entering a Muslim nation after all, though a liberal one). I had my right hand against my chest to protect it from the bumping and shoving of the crowd. In my left hand, I clutched my passport, with my customs forms (carefully though slightly inaccurately filled out by M. This is how he finds out I was born in New Jersey) tucked into the page with my visa.
We stepped from the plane onto metal stairs, no tunnel suctioned to the side of the plane, metal stairs like when departing from some commuter plane between Detroit and Philadelphia. The heat and humidity, even at seven in the morning, circled me. The sun glared from the empty pavement with only our plane in the middle. They have a shuttle to the main terminal, the only terminal. This confused me as I could see the building. It was not that far, perhaps half a small city block. Suddenly, my passport slid from my hands. I reported the oddity of my slimy passport to M who corrected me. My palms were sweating. The passport was fine.
We decided to walk to the airport and I struggled to understand why we would need a shuttle to go what my rural Pennsylvania family would call “spitting distance.” An armed soldier, dark skinned, watched us but neither smiled nor grimaced, not really acknowledging yet staring directly at us. Imagine my trepidation as the customs officer asked me to lay my hand flat for a fingerprint scan. That was tricky, but I managed.
The heat never relented in Djibouti. I wore a headscarf not out of religious necessity but to sop the perspiration. Djibouti averaged 90 degrees Fahrenheit with 90 percent humidity making the heat index something like 110. The only relief came standing on the porch of our hotel with the fans whirring overhead, outdoors. We’d walk in the morning, usually for an hour, stopping at a juice bar where the children begged for change and food. By the time we returned to our hotel, we had wet rings around our middles and had consumed large quantities of water. We stood on a rickety chair to reach the air conditioner unit, but surprisingly, it worked even when it dripped heavily along the interior wall and the staff moved a garbage can beneath it to catch the run-off.
After we dried out, we’d head into the city again, visiting the Nougaprix supermarket (on sale this week Nestle Quick chocolate powder). We didn’t have many options in the heat of the afternoon in the middle of the prayer break. I fell in love with these little spongy snack cakes that cost the equivalent of eight cents and huge ice cold bottles of water. When I walked the streets, children would reach for my hand when I ignored their pleas. No matter how much I said rien eventually one of them would inadvertently grab my broken bone. Then they’d hear a string of American curse words.
During the next few days, something magical happened. After struggling one-handed in and out of the sleeveless, ankle length sundress and peeling free of the now very sweaty wrist brace, I stepped into the room temperature shower and noticed that I washed my hair with two hands. The heat and humidity had returned circulation to my wounded appendage and allowed me to bend and use my fingers without trouble. We visited the salty Lac Assal, dipped our digits into hot springs that the natives used to boil their eggs, and lounged on islands in the Red Sea that I was told have some of the best scuba diving in the world. M climbed volcanic rock formations and visited caves. My orthopedic doctor would not advocate such behavior so I lingered behind, like the cold-blooded, winter-battle-scarred creature that I was, content sitting on a boulder in the grueling sun.
Sometimes, traveling to extreme climates and experiencing extreme weather can fix what’s broken. I could use my right hand. I imagined my first shower at home, which would be extra special because we had a hot water heater. I would wash my hair with two hands and not fight with my towel to dry myself. Yet, the weather at home ended my high expectations. It rained and felt horribly cold when we returned home. I lived in sweaters and mourned the lack of perspiration dripping from every orifice of my body. Even though it was the end of April, I felt chilled and my hand seized to its bent and decrepit condition.
ANGEL ACKERMAN enjoyed a 15-year career as an award-winning local print journalist before she turned her attention to family, pets, school, volunteerism and travel. With a BA in English/French and a second BA in International Affairs, she is a masters candidate at West Chester University studying world history, specifically post-colonial Francophone Africa, Muslim relations, and how these topics interact with contemporary Western politics. Meanwhile, she works part-time in retail. Her recent publications include the poem This Paris in StepAway magazine, academic encyclopedia entries on Djibouti and an upcoming essay on chickens.