The Lowest Point in Africa, Exotic and Ordinary

Exploring Djibouti with my kids helps me see the ordinary in the exotic. A trip to the salt lake makes me think of wild things and camel caravans. But the kids play like it is a day at the park, in the sandbox.

At 155 meter below sea level, Lac Assal is way down low, the lowest point in Africa. This salt lake is the second most saline body of water in the world and boasts bone-crushing air temperatures of over 50 degrees Celsius. That’s too hot to even translate into Fahrenheit (but for those who must know: 122 degrees). Hot springs border the lake for anyone up for more scorching fun. Black lava-strewn volcanoes, the white salt crust layer, and the clear water of the lake form a trifecta of contrasting color and texture.

Paul Morelle, an early explorer in Djibouti said, “The green makes one think of acid. Yellow like burning sulphur. Blue like the dark, obscure night. White like a breathtaking abyss.”

My kids see brilliance and wide open spaces, peaks and crevices to crawl around.

Salt from the lake is harvested by groups of Afar men who load the salt onto the backs of camels and begin the arduous trek to sell and trade in Ethiopia.

The scene: lava, salt crystals, bouyant water, camel trains, Afar men wearing traditional sarongs, appears to an outsider to be as exotic as life could be.

But to my three children who have visited the lake many times with tourists and family members and just for fun, Lac Assal is ordinary. Fun and interesting, but nothing like the exotic carpets of green grass they encounter in Minnesota. Nothing like the unusual canopies cast by towering oak and maple trees over the boulevards in downtown Minneapolis.

This is one of my favorite things about raising children in Djibouti. They encounter stunning beauty and they appreciate it and then they enter into it. Pick up salt balls, jump rocks across the hot springs. Pluck blades of grass and trace oak leaves. All of it is deliciously exotic to the child who opens up their eyes and all of it is comfortingly ordinary to the child who climbs trees and climbs salt mounds.

What do you find exotic or ordinary, or both, where you and your children play?

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  • Camel Carvings 1 of 11
    Camel Carvings
    a pit stop on the way to the salt lake
  • Salt Balls 2 of 11
    Salt Balls
    naturally formed salt balls the size of walnuts
  • Exploring 3 of 11
    Exploring
  • Salt Crust 4 of 11
    Salt Crust
  • Salt Carvings 5 of 11
    Salt Carvings
  • Piles of Salt 6 of 11
    Piles of Salt
    kicking at salt, just like at the playground
  • Salt Plains 7 of 11
    Salt Plains
  • image-13 8 of 11
    image-13
  • Hot and Windy 9 of 11
    Hot and Windy
  • Camel Caravan 10 of 11
    Camel Caravan
    the camels will be loaded with salt for the trip to Ethiopia
  • Three Colors 11 of 11
    Three Colors
    Black lava, white salt, blue water

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