Greetings from Afar

Sunday (November 5) we arrived early in the morning in Addis Ababa, and my ex-coworker friend Shane picked us up at the airport. We had to actually leave the terminal building and walk down a ramp, since no one besides passengers and VIP greeters is allowed to go in. Shane took us to his pleasant house, surrounded by a concrete wall topped with razor wire and glass shards. Two bedrooms, one bath, plus another unit behind it where we slept. He lives there with his wife Brukty, who is a children’s television producer, and his charming kids, daughter Justice (9) and son Amani (6). We pretty much spent the day hanging out with the kids; Shane and Brukty sequestered themselves at her office nearby, working on a speech she’d be giving in Japan. Semira, the nanny, cooked meals constantly, and we had tons of great Ethiopian food over the next few days.

Monday was about the same, except that the kids went to school. We went out to get postcard stamps (cheap at 40 cents per postcard, but boring), and SIM cards for our phones ($1.20 for the cards, 40 cents to cut them to size), which involved registering them with the government (free). The Medhane Alem cathedral nearby seemed too crowded to visit, so we continued walking back to Shane’s house, where we stayed the rest of the day and I got some work done. Monday night Shane took us out to Fendika, a music / cultural dance club. On Mondays they feature a local jazz band, which was excellent: an alto, a trumpet, bass, drums, and a keyboard which was set to an electric piano sound the whole time except for one song. They played without breaks for two and a half hours. After an hour or so, they invited some other locals to sit in, including a couple of other sax players, a guitarist, and an accordion player. Shane said the place is run by a dancer, and is somewhat of a local venue for musicians and dancers to perform for fun, after doing dinner shows at tourist places.

Tuesday there were two events on the calendar. In the afternoon, there was a presentation about the latest project of Brukty’s company, making seven episodes, in eight Ethiopian languages (out of 80), each of which teaches some kind of good behavior. After that Shane took us to a developer incubator, and I was the special guest, talking at random about what it’s like to work on a big legacy audio program.

And in general, people seem pretty well-behaved in Ethiopia. It’s a nice place, but it’s still quite poor. There are several miles of freeway between Addis and Adama, and many of the streets we went on in Addis are paved, but the ones that are are desperately gridlocked with traffic pretty much all day. Shane’s street has cobblestones, but to get to it you’ll wish you had a 4×4 or other high-clearance car. It is quite overpopulated; there are 100 miillion or so now in the country, estimates of 6 to 10 million in Addis, sprawling over a huge area. There is a subway line, but it doesn’t serve very many people. Traffic is not just cars, it’s tuk-tuks, donkeys, horses, cows, farm equipment, trucks, buses, and pedestrians, and they all somehow manage to share the same travel space without getting run over, much. Construction standards span a wide range of qualities, but the distribution is similar to income equality in America: people sleep and work in shacks, and basic buildings, and nice houses with concrete walls, and even nicer houses and offices. We’ve felt pretty safe walking around, but Shane warned us about how pickpockets will use magazines pressed into our chest to distract us from the activity below, and indeed, some guy pulled that on Ray (to no avail, my wallet is zipped in a vest pocket at chest level).

Wednesday thru Saturday was our tour to the Afar region to see geology in action. We flew to Mekele, Ethiopia’s second-largest city, and after some drama where we waited for two of the guests to go ATM-shopping to raise enough funds to pay their bill, the tour left for Erta Ale, a volcano containing a lava lake. Maybe I wasn’t drinking enough water or something, but I had no appetite by lunchtime, and when we got the base camp, I just felt like sleeping. I certainly did not feel like walking three hours up the volcano in the dark over rough ground, and then descending into its crater down a steep slope so that I could inhale clouds of sulfuric acid. So I stayed below, though most of the other campers did the climb. They slept for a few hours just below the rim, hopefully out of smellshot, and then descended starting around 4:30, while the temperature was still a pleasant 80F, before it got up to 105F by midday.

Thursday we visited a salt lake, said to be connected somehow to the Red Sea. There was an adjoining hot springs, about the same temperature our hot tub would be if we fixed it so it worked again. Then we went to a very basic guest house in a small town.

Friday we headed toward Dallol, stopping at a potash mine to camp. These camps had no toilet faclities whatsoever; one simply found a spot near a big pile of rocks a short walk away.  At sunset we went out to another salt lake, this one located next to a salt flat. Earlier in the day we had seen a series of camel and donkey caravans doing the 7-day walk from Mekele to the salt flat. Workers at the flat carve out slabs (approximately 3” x 12” x 15”), several of which are tied onto each camel or donkey. They then walk back to Mekele with their heavy loads. Presumably they deposit them and turn around and do it all over again. Anyway, the scene at the lake was otherworldly, just flat white ground (you could have a festival there) very gradually turning into a lake (you can walk in about one inch of water hundreds of meters out into the lake). They poured everyone Ethiopian wine, which in this case wasn’t actually very good.

Saturday we drove to Dallol. The trucks parked at the base of a rocky hill. We walked up the hill, and were greeted with another otherworldly scene, this one with saturated psychedelic colors, and the strong odor of hydrogen sulfide. We continued on, through several other little areas with completely different yet similarly unusual textures and colors. At the end there was another saturated-color area, and here one of our group members passed out, probably from not eating. There was a doctor in the house, he called for sweets, and someone delivered: she was up and walking around again in no time. We stopped at various other interesting formations, and at the place where the salt is carved into slabs to be strapped onto the waiting camels and donkeys.

The things we saw on the tour were incredibly interesting, and the ability of the tour company to be modular and flexibile, constantly joining and splitting people and cars to provide them with 2, 3, and 4 day tours, was quite impressive. What was not impressive was the food and the guide.

First of all, the food was not Ethiopian. Now I appreciate that there are Westerners who are already out of their comfort zone being in Ethopia in the first place and don’t want to compound it by having to have to eat food using spongy sourdough bread instead of forks, and having to have unfamiliar spices. But I wish the tour company would appreciate that there are also people, like us, who are trying to get more of an authentic experience, and who want Ethiopian food. One day we ate lunch with the drivers, who had goat stew (served on injera, of course) provided by the restaurant where we stopped, instead of the pasta and vegetables brought by the tour company. The company seems to feel that the European food is somehow safer than the Ethiopian food, less likely to provide food poisoning. But maybe it’s the other way around: the goat stew was piping hot, yet the reheated vegetables were tepid at best.

The guide was a nice guy, and was effective at herding tourists into seats and beds and trucks. But at no point did we have any kind of “orientation” where the geology or history or culture of the region was explained at all. I’m pretty sure most questions asked of the guide about any of these would have been met with blank stares.  And since there was one guide for all the people on the tour, so one could not ask questions while driving, since the drivers spoke hardly any English.  (Exception:  two of the guests had hired their own private guide to travel all over Ethiopia with them.)

The tour ended at Mekele for the flight home. I went looking for post cards and actually found some, my first in Ethiopia, with much help from passers by and their cousins. One of them was a sort that I have run into occasionally in traveling: the guy who speaks kind of good English and has some kind of education, and talks with you a while before he asks you for money, directly or indirectly. I thought that he should become a guide for WorldSun Tours, and showed him where their office is. Not sure if either of them is looking for that, but now they have the opportunity to find out.  (Later, in a guide book at Shane’s house, I discovered that the type has a name: Plonker. I think I am one of those, too. I am plonking right now. Send money.)

We had a small meal at the airport before the flight back to Addis and I had diarrhea that night. Fortunately, whatever it was, got done with whatever it was doing, because on Sunday morning (November 12) began the next tour: birdwatching.  Or birding, as it is now called. I have a notion of what changed, though I don’t know if anyone else shares my opinions. “Birdwatching” I would call, watching birds do what birds do, like People watching, or even television watching. “Birding” is the compulsive accumulation of species and as soon as you’ve checked one off, you go right on to the next.  It is another case of tourists training the guides to do bad things. Just as high maintenance eaters encourage guides to line up endless meals of pasta and vegetables, so do the birders with their golf counters encourage guides to ignore every bird they’ve already checked off and move on to the next.

I associate this behavior with the word “do”. When someone says that he has done Rome, or done carmine bee eaters, or done some woman, I suspect him of not respecting his target.  For the record, Dave and I don’t have “life lists”. Our guide tells us we saw 235 species between Sunday and Thursday, but I couldn’t pick most of them out of a lineup.

The bird tour was: Sunday in the highlands northwest of Addis Ababa; high point of the day, setting out lamb bones and watching a variety of vultures have a snack on them. Monday we stopped at a lake and saw some shorebirds, then drove to Awash National Park.  We stayed for two nights in its humble little lodge, so that all day Tuesday we could take drives and walks through the forested and grassy savanna and especially along the river Awash, where there were monkeys and baboons.

On Wednesday we were off to a hotel in the town of Hawassa, stopping at various shores of Rift Valley lakes along the way. The high point of that day was watching a squacco heron stalk a fish (it hunts just like a cat) but the guide said we had already seen that bird so on to the next one.  The lodge in Hawassa had marabou storks and vervet monkeys. Thursday we drove back to Shane’s house, for the end of the tour. We stopped at a place where a friend of the guide knew exactly where there would be a nightjar and an owl sleeping in the midday heat. A couple of other owls had moved their roosts. At that point I was more interested in the little red-cheeked cordon-bleu, but again, we’d already seen him.

Friday was our last full day in Ethiopia. We went to the National Museum to see the skeleton of Lucy (not decorative like the Cappuccin skeletons, but older): it’s surprisingly good. You get used to seeing dusty Natural History museums with typewritten labels from the 1960’s or the 1920’s, but this one is worth going to.

Saturday we tried once again to go to the Medhane Alem Cathedral but it was closed for a wedding. The wedding party was dancing around the perimeter of the cathedral so we made videos of them and they made videos of us.

And then to the airport for a long trip home. Addis to Jeddah to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to America. About 30 hours of travel. I know better than to do this, but at the planning stage, everybody wanted to be home before the Thanksgiving rush, so here we all are.

This was the trip of the new planes. We did an Icelandic Dreamliner on the way there and the A380 on the way back.  The A340 we took from Addis to Frankfurt had a very functional touchscreen entertainment system, the one on the A380 was much worse.  And I thought those planes were brand new.