127 degrees with no water or shade.
Welcome to Hajj.
It’s one-hundred-and-twenty-seven degrees outside. We are walking through sand and pavement and a graveyard of plastic bottles, cowering into the corners of structures, trying to avoid the burning flame of the sun by stacking atop one another. There is nowhere to hide. Every centimeter of your body is exposed to the sun, not including the 10-20lbs of carry-on luggage that you are carrying with you. Have you ever sat with your back in front of a fireplace for too long, and felt your skin start to boil? It’s that kind of hot.
I was carrying my backpack, ready for the trek.
The journey would be tough, they said.
Total hours of sleep = 3.
And those hours were next to a group of random people on the floor under the stars (which is another story we’ll post about later). What you need you know is that we’re on almost no sleep, and virtually no food. Breakfast consists of 3-6 pre-packaged, processed carb items complete with room temperature boxed milk and a spoon who’s plastic stem can only survive 5 lifts to a hungry mouth.
I had three water bottles, one can of soda, and one can of some orange drink that has juicy bits inside. This is probably my favorite part of the trip (seriously). Within a few minutes, my mouth was collapsing unto itself. Like when you wake up from snoring all night and take in that first breath into a mouth where your tongue is stuck to your cheeks, and your lips crack at the sudden movement. Yes, it’s like that.
One bottle down.
I meet a child who is pushing a 200lb woman in a wheelchair. He is barely tall enough to reach the handles. Like pushing a boulder up a hill with your arms pointed towards the sky – using only your fingertips. This boy from Mali (who I have referenced in a poem, written here) was working so hard it melted (my already liquified) heart that I gave him half of another bottle of water, which by now had become luke-warm-to-hot.
Side note: We got bottles of water from frigid ice coolers, the kind construction workers in the US use while chomping down egg mcmuffins. Exposing your water bottle to the outside, while holding it in your pulsating hot hand meant it became luke-warm in less than a minute.
So instead of drinking the water, I poured it over the boy’s head. I still remember his smile; it was like a kitten playing with a dangling ball of yarn.
Two bottles down.
At this moment, I turned around and looked for my dad. Not behind me. Looking for my wife. Not next to her. Looking all the way in front. Not there either.
I started to ask around, and someone said he was way in the back. Expletives to myself – how could I have lost my dad? Irresponsible. I run. Running, in italics. I forget how arid the air is and my lungs choke on hot-nothing. I see someone keeled over, holding themselves from exhaustion. I run faster. The man helping him is my dad.
One of the group members said he would stick with my Dad to make sure he was safe. This kind man stuck with my dad and also exhausted himself. He looked at me and said, “do you have any water?” I thought about my 3rd bottle. It’s the only one I have left.
“Here” – he slams it down so fast you’d think he was in a fraternity in college. He said, “do you have anything more?” I had a coke and a juicy orange thing. Not going to work for him. So I run back to the group and find my wife.
“Give me your water bottle!”
She looks at me, puzzled, probably frustrated and annoyed. But she looks again into my eyes and can tell it’s dangerous. I take her last water bottle. We are only in the first-third of the journey.
I run back, backpack and two-toweled and white-croc footed and bring it back to my dad who gives it to his friend. He pours Gatorade into it and tells me he is going to be ok. I breathe one sigh of relief, only to realize how incredibly broken, dead, and hopeless I feel. I’m full of despair and feel like imploding. I felt like a little boy, in front of his dad, who was too tired at the park and needed him to carry him home.
Then I noticed something. One of those things that you might have been looking at your entire life, but never really seen. I saw a sweaty, thick, blunging vein sprawled across my father’s forehead. The kind you see in cartoons when a hammer drops on someone’s toe. It was pulsing like a worm underneath the hot skin.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
My father looks at me and says “I don’t think I can do this anymore.”
So the little boy inside me froze.
Dad, you can’t say this to me. I was about to say this to you. I need you, but you’re telling me that you now need me? How can I help you? Can’t I even help myself? I’m on no sleep, no food, and my gas tank is empty. I can’t help. I can’t make it myself.
I wish I could say that I saw a vision, or that I saw inspiration, or that I remembered a phrase or a saying that changed something inside me. But among the chaos, the heat, the litter, the chanting and pushing and shoving, there was nothing there. Nothing but the irrefutable, sweaty, dirty, desire to survive.
So the little boy inside me grew up.