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March 27, 2007

The Blue Nile

I started perking up again last night. I brought some of the reading material on Ethiopia that I had printed out back in Boulder to dinner with me and read it until my dinner came. I was alert again to Ethiopia and its history, wanting to learn more, wanting to see more. The friendly hotel guest (an Ethiopian ex-pat now living in Sweden who had approached me several times since I’d arrived from Afar) came over and sat down and we talked a bit about adoption (I don’t know why they come from Spain to adopt, he said, there is no cultural or historical connection between the two, whereas there are plenty of countries in Latin America…) and about the famine in the ‘80s, which he said was caused by a water shortage and had the government been clued in to helping its people could have been managed internally, and the Blue Nile, which seems to be a favorite topic of his. He has said several times (in at least two different conversations) that resources located in a country belong to that country, and that Ethiopia gives its water from the Blue Nile to Egypt. 85% of the Nile in Egypt comes from the Blue Nile, not the White Nile, he said, and also said that Ethiopia has the climate and fertile soil for growing and just needs the water—which it has and doesn’t use—and then could feed China in 15 years if China keeps up its growth rate.

My work is mostly done. The equipment is organized, I rinsed off some of Ian’s dusty tools and threw away the toolbag, looked through my e-mails for forgotten instructions from Eric. At around 12:30 I gave in and left for lunch alone. I’m sitting on the balcony of the Marseilles, which is nice because I get to check out the hustle below. (Wouldn’t that be cool if all the people in the street really were doing the hustle?)

Africa feels like a last frontier, which is funny since this is where everything started. Everything for humans.

My favorite is the hair in individual curls, almost ringlets—kinky-hair ringlets, I guess—sticking up and out from a man’s head. There is some singer in the States that has the same hair, and it gets me—the long lanky body, milk chocolate skin, easy build, slightly funky style.

I want to curl up and sleep. Into a ball like a cat, with my tail wrapped around.

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March 26, 2007

Back to Work

On the balcony of the Ras Amba again, for breakfast. I don’t think I’ll really have any time to sightsee—the two places I was looking at take too long to get to. I read about an old volcano not far from Addis with views of the rift valley to the NE and lakes to the S and thought that would be a lovely day adventure, to climb it and look around, but with public transportation I would need 2-3 days and some careful planning.


I am tired again today. I do okay when engaged, but when I’m left to myself I want to sleep. It is a bit after 9 and I just now motivated to come to dinner, although I’m still not very hungry. Some soup sounds nice. I’ve kept myself awake since coming back to the hotel with the TV. Just staying alive and passing time until I can sleep and hopefully eventually feel better. Sometimes it is hard to breath, and my voice is a little raspy when I talk tonight.

It seems that there is a child adopting convention going on here or something. So many white adults with Ethiopian children running around. There are three Spanish couples dining together in the same room as me. It’s fun to hear the Spanish—it’s not often that I hear the Spanish from Spain. It’s hard to believe that that woman is smoking in front of their new babies. Oh, their lungs, their poor lungs…. [I have since seen several articles about Ethiopia as a hot spot for adoption.]

I spent the day at the U today, starting at about 10. Downloaded the GPS receivers, started in on the log sheets, spent a little time on e-mail. Couldn’t be bothered to go to lunch when 12 rolled around—not hungry again. Good thing, because when Atalaye and Elias came back from hearing MS defenses at 1, Atalaye took me back to his house for lunch. We ate with his lovely wife and his two adorable sones—the youngest is a little clown. Very funny. The meal was very nice, and I was constantly distracted by “Madagascar,” which his sons were watching and which was making me laugh.

When we got back to the U, Wondwossen and Debebe and Zewdu and Gabrekidel were standing outside the Observatory in dress clothes, all of them, looking very sharp. I joined Elias and Feleke inside, putting money in piles and writing out receipts for the per diem. Then we called in each person one at a time and gave them their money. It felt a bit odd, like I was doing a good deed, so generous am I, thanking them and them thanking us, as if I actually had any control over the situation at all.

Atalaye then drove Elias and I to EMA to pay the rental for the vehicles, which we weren’t yet able to do, and Feleke invited us to coffee/tea with the gang. Some told stories about their field experiences working in Afar—heat, duststorms, camels. It was nice to see them again.

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March 25, 2007

Sleepy Sunday

Addis. Morning. Singing from the churches over loudspeakers. Roosters crowing and the sound of traffic below, dogs barking and the sound of pounding; somebody building something or tying to make something work. The air is mild, a slight breeze, neither cold nor hot, just comfortable. I am wearing clean clothes. I have slept without setting an alarm, falling asleep shortly after 10, but waking up at 5:30. Fell slowly back to sleep and woke again at 7:30 or 8. Pulled out my computer and camera and organized pictures a bit, still lying on my bed, and then found the scrubby that I had stashed in my stay-in-Addis bag and began the dead skin removal process in the shower. I am still groggy, feeling like I have the beginnings of a head cold, but I think it is just exhaustion and altitude. I will try to drink lots of water today.

I feel relaxed. I don’t have to answer to anyone, organize anyone, coordinate with anyone. Not yet, not today. I will meet Aklilu here at the hotel tonight, but the morning and afternoon are mine. I will go to the University and organize and get as much done as I can.


Afternoon: 4:42. I skipped lunch because I wasn’t feeling well so now I’m sitting down for a snack upstairs on the terrace of the hotel. I suffered from one bout of diarrhea and multiple head rushes at the U today, made it through a two-liter bottle of water and have peed what’s felt like 1,000 times, just a small amount each time.

I’m tired of being in a different place. I’m just tired. Today walking to the U I loathed interacting with anyone on the street, loathed drawing looks for looking different, being different. With the group of people it was fine, there was a cushion, a shared burden, but alone I felt more like a target. Fortunately it wasn’t that bad, being in a city where ferrangis (foreigners) aren’t *such* a novelty.


10:34 PM. Traditional music in small bars with Aklilu and his wife. A pretty quiet night, not many people out on a Sunday, a whole street of these bars with the northern (Ogaden?) culture represented. We were the only patrons of the first place, which was novel but then a little uncomfortable, all the performance directed towards us. We were a bit more anonymous and a bit more relaxed in the second bar. Lovely to meet Aklilu’s wife.

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March 24, 2007

Back to Addis

[A shot to show the contrast between Afar and the Plateau--continuous mountains, a variety of plant species, and agriculture.]

[Fault offset along the road.]


They’re at the airport and I’m in bed. Exhausted. I could barely stay vertical at dinner. Sitting was taxing on the legs and back and bum, too much sitting, and eating was so much effort and I was so exhausted, and I am sad that they are gone, but I am glad to be in bed.

I feel a little sick. Hopefully it is just the exhaustion.

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March 23, 2007

Leaving Afar

Yay! We made it to Dessie! And we’re in a real hotel that’s like a bad US motel, except clean. It’s nice. And I’ll hopefully be riding in a car with Ian tomorrow, which will be nice.

We started just a bit after 6 this morning, went to Saha—saw the steam vents—went to Aseijta, ate there in a restaurant that was more like a family’s home, I was already tired and crabby, went back to Semera and packed up the truck and paid tips to the guards and the janitors of the guest house and said thank you to the officials, bought some water and cookies (me—I had a headache) in Logia and were on our way at 3.

[A 'scarecrow' set up by the guards of Saha to protect the GPS site.]

[Heading to the steam vents.]

[The main steam vent. Why anyone would want to sit in a cave emitting hot gases into air that is already over 100 degrees F is beyond me, but of course I did it along with our two guides. Within seconds I was slick with moisture. The main benefit is coming out to seemingly cooler air--nice effect. By the time we were halfway back to the car, though, I was feeling hot again. Pictured here: Debebe breathes in steam and our guides play serious.]

[Specks on the plain in the upper left are ostriches.]

[Abdu says, We go down this way.]

[Springwater seeps out at the base of the cliffs, allowing grasses to take hold and providing drinking water to nearby villages. Our guides drank straight from it--something I opted out of. Oh, thanks, I have some water in the car, I said.]

[Sand blowing over the road on the way back from Aseijta.]

I just couldn’t stay awake for the first part of the drive. Woke up once we were leaving Afar and entering the Plateau—weird transition, from lowlands and desert to high, mountainous, and grey-green, with plots of farmland. Met Ian and the others at dinner in Dessie, which was lovely (and had *different food*--goulash, a fried fish in red sauce yummy thing, not pasta or shiro or tibs) and then back to the hotel. Watched a little bit of “My Cousin Vinny” on TV with Ian. He and Derek are leaving *tomorrow* night, same as Ellen and Mike, not Monday night as we all thought, which is a big bummer. Sad. That means they’ll be rushing off in a hurry tomorrow and I’ll be around for another four or so days ‘alone’.

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March 22, 2007

Second-to-last Campaign Day

Debebe woke me up from the beginnings of a dream by lightly kicking my foot. “Why are you so tired?” he asked. “All day and all night you are sleeping.” I couldn’t come up with a good justification for him. Then I told him we didn’t have the toolbag. “Why not?” he said. “We forgot,” I said. “You are so forgetful,” he said. Then went on to tell me several times in different ways that I should make a list and check it before leaving.

We were inside in the same café, same configuration we were in when it was raining. Dichiotto. I spotted an open table outside and came out to sit on the street. It’s nice. It’s sunny but still cool, a light breeze moving through. I share the patio with three boys who I’ve interacted with only briefly—just looks and smiles.

I am tired of the food, I am tired of trying to communicate and fixing errors and being responsible. I am tired of being in the car. I am tired of not being engaged in the conversation, I am tired of bad soundless TV over meals, I am tired of the same landscape. I am probably dehydrated, and am hot, and have mild menstrual cramps. The car lulls me to sleep. So yes, I am tired.


[Salt pans between basalt-striped fault scarps.]

[Fault offset along the road.]

[The group gathered around the GPS site at Manda, our last stop along the road.]

[The guards at Manda. Note the gun, and the shelter they had built behind them.]

[Street in Manda. View from cafe in which we shared a Coke with the chairman as a thank-you.]

[I realized as the trip was coming to an end that although it seemed they were everywhere I hadn't really taken pictures of goat herds and camels. I still don't have photos of goat herds (we saw them mostly as we were driving, not when stopped, and same with the camels) so here's my last-ditch effort at a camel shot. It's amazing that they can trot over these rocky surfaces, when spooked.]


Morale has improved. The two sites are pulled, and once the two sites are pulled tomorrow we will be done. Done! Hooray! And having drinks with Feleke and Ian. I am so ready for it! Tonight’s not bad, though—Debebe has put clean clothes on (the ones he washed yesterday) and I have on one of the dresses that I bought a few days ago in Dichiotto which wowed them somewhat, since I look like I’m actually female, we are sitting outside at Wintana with a nice breeze blowing through and had a nice cheers with our four beers to start off the meal. No more Dichiotto! I said. And I was glad.

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March 21, 2007

Another Tired Day

Exhausted again, still, again. It’s 10:42 AM and we’re stuck in Logia waiting for our car to be fixed. Problem with some ball bearings. We have eaten breakfast—with the seismic crew—and then waited a while at the parts shop—which I would think was a shady operation was that not just the way things work here, a dark and small store front with a work bench full of greasy and dusty parts in back—and now are waiting on the porch of a café where the owner boisterously speaks some English and wears a sheer shirt (drawing) with a weave like that which stretches over his very round belly. His daughter leans against him picking her nose. Abdu drinks Coke and water and chews chat—Wondwossen, as usual, engages in conversation; Debebe mostly listens, looks blank and uninterested, sometimes smiles slightly and interjects. There was a breeze coming through on he porch of the parts shop, but here there is no movement and sweat clings to the sides of my nose. Next to us on the porch are the bar girls, says Wondwossen, tired from last night and resting, drinking coffee and chewing chat to gather strength for tonight. I want to go back to the parts shop where it is cooler, and take a nap.


We haven’t done anything for *fun*, I think, except going to the Hilton that second day to drink and tell stories and swim. I like fun. I miss it.

We missed lunch today and yet I’m not hungry. Wintanas, food in front of us, the TV on the usual action channel, the others eating. I finished off my Shwepps but I have no desire to touch my pasta—the same thing I’ve had for the last at least four nights (since we’ve been back in Semera, where they have it). Debebe asks me to eat. Where is Aklilu? I miss him. He called yesterday, whicle we were installing the site at Elidar—or it might have been the evening before—on Wondwossen’s cell phone to say, “This is Aklilu from Colorado!” He asked when I’d be back in Addis and told me to call him and said, “I miss you!” to which I said an immediate “I miss you too!”

I am so very tired. Pooh.


Okay, a brief chronology of today: tired, hot, impatient, mild cramps, a tearing seam at the back of my pants. Woke to a car problem, so we didn’t get out until after 7. Went to the ‘garage’ in Logia, left Zewdu there and walked to breakfast where we ran into the seismic folks. They left and Zewdu showed up and ate and we went to the car parts place, left Zewdu there and relocated to the porch with the chat and the big belly and the bar girls, eventually Zewdu came and said the car was fixed and we were on our way to Saha. I promptly fell asleep in the car. I woke up about 12.5 km from Semera (said the GPS) because there was too much bumping to sleep through. The ‘road’ was more of a route—there were tracks, but I don’t imagine them surviving a rain in most places. We set up the site, I got really frustrated because I was feeling like I had to do everything myself if I wanted it done right and we skipped doing any touring because it was already 2:30 by the time we finished and they said it was the wrong time of the day. I was fine with that, being tired and a bit angry.

[Abdu and the guard.]

We came back, took a short rest, and Zewdu and Wondwossen and I headed off to check the Semera continuous GPS site while Debebe did his laundry in a plastic basin in the courtyard of the guesthouse. The site was fine.

[The GPS antenna at the Semera police training center.]

[Inside the receiver case.]

And then on our way back we stopped by the bazaar... (To be continued...)

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March 20, 2007

The Three Kings of Aseijta

GI problems last night—woke at about 3 and sat on the toilet for a while, woke this morning just a bit after 6 and did the same. Not so fun. It stressed me out last night, not so much this morning, and we’ll see how today goes. So far so good, but we’ve only been on the road an hour, and the good road. We’ve stopped for breakfast, though I won’t be eating anything. (Yesterday Zewdu and I had tibs for breakfast. The same cat that I had fed the last two times came and once again stood under my chair, looking up at me between my legs and meowing. I gave it a bone with lots of chewy meat on it and it ran off under another bench with it to work it undisturbed. Another cat came, a tabby, and sometimes meowed softly but mostly used a different tactic. I felt something on my inner calf and looked down, thinking it had rubbed up against me, but it instead was touching my leg lightly with a paw, reminding me that it was there.)

Zewdu and Wondwossen and Debebe eat something with sardines, and I have just finished my shai. Zewdu sits on a couch with a patterned red, white, and tan cover with a green-blue corrugated metal wall behind him. The light comes in from the doorway and a window and lights up his cheeks, the bridge of his nose, his chin, his forehead, his lips. It shines off his eyes when he turns towards us.

[Zewdu, Wondwossen.]

A metal bucket filled with an aromatic wood smokes in the center of the room. The smell is nice; it makes the place feel cozy and homey. It has just started to rain. “Rainy day in Dichiotto,” said Wondwossen, and I squinted towards the doorway. Is it raining? I said. I didn’t see any signs of it. Yes, said both Wondwossen and Debebe. Then I heard it on the roof—also corrugated metal. The café feels even cozier.

Twice on the way here we stopped to see baboons. Both times, the same thing happened. There were many of them, on the right side of the road—Debebe’s side. But when we stopped, several came over to my side, including a big male. It stopped in the left lane just alongside us, looking at us. Both times. The first time, my camera stopped working—battery died after one picture. The second time, I had a fresh battery. Two males barked and squabbled briefly on the road in front of us and then the bigger one came around to our car—the one I took a picture of. The males have that impressive “mane”—that bushy, almost soft-looking hair around their head and shoulders, the color of the desert brush.


[These boys were hams and were smiling the whole time except when posing for photos. The ringleader wanted to wear Debebe’s hat for every picture.]

[I call these kids the Three Kings of Aceita. Pity I keep getting closed eyes in my favorite pictures!]


Almost 10 PM, and I am exhausted. I wanted to go to sleep at dinner, and I want to go to sleep now but I am waiting for a call from Eric on Derek’s cell phone. I hope he calls soon.

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March 19, 2007

Another Long One

We got the two sites in we’d aimed to put in, and I mostly slept through the flat tire (I didn’t even get out while they changed it, just went back to dozing, which I later realized was probably bad form), we saw a heina on our way back—a good view, not far away, crossing the road hesitantly and confused in our headlights, then lopping away with its funny awkward run—and got along. Mostly. But it was a 14 hr day—we had to talk to the officials here about going to Manda so didn’t leave until I think 8:30, and went straight to Wintanas for dinner when we came back, not arriving there until about 10:30 PM. Tomorrow, probably revising the plan to do less. Long driving day.

[We write out a receipt in a receipt book every time we pay a guard to account for the money spent. We have the guard sign the receipt. Few if any of the guards know how to write; I imagine their conversation with the surveyor in our group must go something like: Surveyor: ‘We need you to sign this.’ Guard: ‘You want me to do what?’ Surveyor: ‘Here, just scribble a line or something right here.’ In this case, Debebe drew with a ball-point pen on the guard’s thumb and got his thumbprint.]

[Installing the site at Manda. Manda is only 15 km or so from the Eritrean border, as I later found out.]

[The plant in the foreground stood out against the dullness of the rest of the landscape. Until this stop, every time I saw one of these, I thought how amazing it was that out in this land devoid of water there could be a tree which produced full, bulbous, bright green fruits. They must be heaven to come across in the heat and dryness of the day.]

[But it turns out there’s really not much to them. I put my hand around one of the fruits and it just squished airily in my fingers. Debebe opened one for me.]

[Girls getting ready to go to school. Many of the rural schools hold classes in either the morning or the afternoon so that kids can help out around home.]

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March 18, 2007

'Off' Day

Tired. All of the GPS team is tired. Ian and I are, anyway—and how can the others not be? The drivers at least must be. There has been so much driving on this trip—more than the usual campaign? Less? The same? Derek said last night that the GPS seems particularly taxing—way too much driving, too many long days.


Wondwossen just said that I looked like I was in the city, that maybe I think I’m in the United States. Maybe not the city, I said, but I do feel clean. I am wearing my skirt, now dirty—without underwear, because I’ve just washed it all, which hopefully Wondwossen did not notice—and my thrift store button-down short-sleeved red plaid shirt. With my camera slung over my shoulder. I’m pretty sure I’d rather be a photographer than a geophysicist. I think I love having this camera. It will be good to learn how to use it to get the colors I want (the ones I see). I’ve at least progressed to setting the aperture and/or shutter speed.

Today was dreamy. We had to wait to talk to Indris at 8, so we went to breakfast with Derek and the Ethiopian seismic group (Mike and Ellen have been opting for breakfast here at the guesthouse—muessli) at the café with the fruit blends. So breakfast was outside on a café porch, and the sky was clouded over and there was a cool breeze. Refreshing. After breakfast Indris took us to meet our guide for Saha on Tuesday—the one Derek said was fun but crazy. We packed up and left just a bit after the seismic crew, at around 9:20. I realized that all our spike mounts are out, so although I was planning on setting up over the campaign site at Silsa again we couldn’t. That was a relief. Partly because of discussions with Derek and Mike and Ellen and Ian last night as we passed Mike’s whiskey bottle around, I’ve switched at least for today to an attitude of not pushing so hard. I know it’s not my project, but it’s just too much.

I slept almost all the way to Silsa, and woke only at the guard station. Do you want to fix the site now or go for lunch first? Wondwossen asked. I was pretty groggy. The others had no input. It was only 11:30, but I opted for lunch. We went to the military camp restaurant—our old haunt—and each took a different bench (I didn’t do it on purpose) and the server—the same thin, faintly smiling boy who has been there every time before, who shakes a hand by shaking it up and down, and who was happy to see us—came around and gave us each two pillows, propped against one arm of the bench, and we all had a nice lay before our food came. Debebe fell asleep, and maybe Zewdu as well, but Wondwossen turned on his radio which we had bought batteries for in Logia this morning when we bought water and he tuned it after some time and effort to BBC and so I lied on strips of animal skin woven and stretched over a wooden frame listening to news of the world through a scratchy radio broadcast behind my head, out in the dusty Ethiopian desert.

[Our usual Silsa lunch spot.]

[My essentials: Satellite phone, notebook, camera.]

[I'm showing off the bench, which is typical for the region.]

Shiro for lunch, the first time I’ve been okay eating it for two or three days, and I ate all of my helping plus part of another, though I only made it about 2/3 of the way through my injera. Tea after lunch, and then, refreshed, we were off. Put the receiver in, and it worked. No hassles. Connected, documented, left.

[The stacked-rock towers in the background are burial pillars.]

[A view back of the road south to Semera. The line on the left is a train of camels, which are packed up, not ridden, in this region.]

Almost as soon as we were on the road, I told Wondwossen that I’d brought my music and he said to put it on, so I played Debebe’s requests—or the closest I had—and we rocked out to Shakira. Three ostriches running along the road in front of us and then turning off to run away.

[The ladies. Female ostriches are medium-brown, while the males are dark.]

[Male ostrich with sand dune to the left.]

[Detail of above.]

Back at the guesthouse at around 4:30. Beautiful. Decadent. I SHOWERED and then downloaded and organized pictures, walked out to the end of the road and took some pictures.

[The first shot was of my pants. I couldn't resist. I don't sweat much--I assume it just evaporates--except for where I'm in contact with something else, like the car seat. Here, in the guesthouse courtyard, I hung my pants with their salt- or dust-ring on display. Long hours in the car.]

[Garbage--plastic--is everywhere, and catches on bushes and brambles.]

When I came back I lied down to write but my pen ran out of ink so I went to ask to borrow one from Debebe. He was talking on his phone but motioned me in welcomingly, patted his bed for me to site down. We chatted after he got of the phone until Feleka came in, back from another long day. I left to find Ian, just coming in with a couple of batteries. Debriefing, to dinner at Wintanas where Ian and I sat with Debebe and Feleka and made each other laugh and talked about going out in Addis when we get back, which would be fun (I think we’re all ready…) and then we came back and Ian and I went over things for the next few days and swapped computers.


Wow. Okay then. I just closed this for the night, debated about my bladder, decided to get up for a final pee, went into the bathroom and didn’t turn the light on—again, debated, but I could see well enough. Would there be something creepy in the toilet? Doubtful. Sat and peed. Turned and picked up the roll of toilet paper. Didn’t tear from it because I could see a dark spot on it. Goober? (How would any sort of goober get there? Not likely.) Spider? Probably a small spider. I reached up and turned on the light, still on the toilet and still with the roll of toilet paper in my other hand. I was partially right: Arachnid. But not a spider. What was it then? Spider-like, but with a curling tail. No way. A very small scorpion.

Needless to say, I didn’t wipe.

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March 17, 2007

Farther Along the Road to Eritrea

I can only assume I was too tired to write in my journal. There is no entry for March 17.

We drove out to install two more sites along the road to Eritrea, A035 and GUSE. This country is like extreme basin and range (horst and graben), for those of you who know what that is. It's like a compressed drive across Nevada; valley and then ridge and then valley and then steep ridge, with all the ridges made up of basalt from past lava flows and the ridge and valleys created by the pulling apart of the crust.

[Our guard at site A035.]

[Salt pans in the valley.]

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March 16, 2007

Boob Grab

Exhausted. And still grimy. Still haven’t gotten a shower. Up this morning for breakfast at 7. Our car needed to be fixed (Zewdu, the new driver, took it to town) so I watched groups disperse while I organized data and metadata and equipment. When Eric and Cindy and Aklilu left, we exchanged hugs goodbye and I offered reassurance to Eric that all would be well.

When the car was fixed, we went back out to OTTO—the last site we were at yesterday—to modify the mark and restart the survey.

[GPS survey marker.]

[Dichiotto guards.]

Then we drove farther east along the road towards Eritrea and got lost. Sort of. We missed the turn-off towards Eritrea and headed off towards Djibouti. It could happen to anyone.

We stopped to ask directions and happened to pull over by a stand with batteries, which we needed for the handheld GPS. (I put the GPS in Debebe’s charge, showing him how to use it and then sitting back to relax and check out the scenery. He watched it as we came to within 13 km of the site and then began to grow farther and farther away again. When he told me, I blew it off, thinking it was just the way the road was bending and that we’d grow closer again soon. When we didn’t, Zewdu figured it was time to stop and have a look around. Somewhere in there the GPS batteries died.) While Zewdu and Wondwossen asked some locals where we were and how to get to where we wanted to go, Debebe and I went to buy batteries. We picked them out together and while I looked down to fuss with my belt pouch to get some cash for the man behind the counter, I saw a hand come straight for my boob. And make contact. Back up: Cindy had told me back in Addis that the folks in the rural areas like to establish gender right off, and she said the women and children may go so far as to cop a feel to confirm someone’s sex. She said my earrings would probably help, but that I might want to take off my hat when meeting new groups of people to help them along. I wondered if that would help, though, really, since my hair was so short. In the field, I wore field pants and androgenous sandals and a button-down shirt which I bought in the men’s section of the thrift store back home. (By the end of the trip, having only rinsed it out once, it was saturated with dust and there was a hole ripped in the elbow. Aklilu asked, when I got back to Addis, what happened to my shirt. ‘I left it in Semera,’ I said, and he smiled with approval.)

So anyway, here I am in the middle of nowhere and salt flats and shepherds on the road to Djibouti and there’s a hand on my boob. Not quite sure how to react, I didn’t, but I didn’t need to; Debebe’s hand immediately came to my rescue and pushed the invading hand away, following the gesture with what I assume was a lecture amounting to something like, “Hey man, yes she’s a woman and where she comes from that’s not cool.” I looked up at the man attached to the hand. He was dressed as a shepherd, in a sarong, held a staff, and had his hair in a chin-length jerry-curl. And he had a smile on his face.

We paid for the batteries and left. Walking back to the car, I thanked Debebe.

On the right road, we found the wrong station, but it was a station we needed to occupy just the same so we set up over it and left the other station for the next day. DOIW. A local boy led us to the marker on a steep slope across from a small settlement. While he took Wondwossen to find a guard for the site, Debebe and I improved the marker and set up the site.


[The site.]

[They typical Afari shelters, if you can see them. Dome-shaped dwellings made of a wooden frame stretched over with mats (made mostly of plant matter, I think, but maybe some skins too). Easy to put up and take down, suitable for nomadic living.]

We took a different way home. Zewdu wanted to start back as soon as possible so that we could hit the pavement before dark.

Back in Semera, we met up once again with the other groups. I told Ellen and Ian my boob story and we had a good laugh. Ellen said it was a good thing it was me and not her, because she wouldn’t have been nearly so calm. She hates the stereotype that western women are easy. That hadn’t even occurred to me. If I thought that was the case, I would have reacted differently—that is to say, I would have reacted. As it was, I chalked it up to cultural differences and was thankful that Debebe was there to take care of any misunderstandings. Whew.

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March 15, 2007

The Long Road to Semera

A very disappointing start to the day. We didn’t check the site at Afdera last night—the only one we didn’t check—and this morning we found that the receiver was recording but the antenna was wonky—it was not screwed down properly—cross-threaded, so 3 threads up from the base and slanted besides. Back to rethinking my career?

[Aklilu and Wondwossen, with the town of Afdera in the background.]

We picked up all the sites on our way down to Semera.

[Site at the military camp at KM103.]

[Guard Mohamed at KM74 / Gulbule.]

[GPS setup at Silsa.]

[These older kids didn't want the younger boy, whose head is visible in the back, to be in the picture.]

[And the younger boy attempted retribution, which obviously wasn't taken so seriously by the older kids.]

In Silsa, we agreed to give a young woman a ride to Semera. Her family—the one I had taken photos of—had moved to Silsa in hopes of making money, but there was apparently not much to be had so she was moving down to Logia to start up work there. She is beautiful and seems smart, though we couldn’t communicate directly with language. She sat on one side of a big pile of stuff on the back seat and me on the other, and mostly she and Wondwossen and Aklilu conversed but sometimes she and I asked each other questions via Wondwossen, who would translate. “She wants to know what you think of this place,” Wondwossen said, gesturing to the countryside. I looked out the window. “I think it is beautiful,” I said. “Euh?” said Wondwossen, surprised. “It’s barren,” I said, “and there isn’t water, but it is beautiful.” “Ah yes,” said Wondwossen, “if there was water it would be very beautiful. There would be many things.” Oh, no. Before he could relay the wrong message, I tried to correct him. So much was lost in the space between my mouth and their ears sometimes, and vice versa.

I heard the terms “HIV,” “AIDS,” and “sexual intercourse” in their conversation in English, sticking out to me like sore thumbs. It struck me odd that the last one, in particular, would have been said in English. The AIDS education must be in English. I later asked Wondwossen about his and Aklilu’s conversation with this young woman, mentioning the terms I had heard. He said that she knew a lot about the issues, more than he did, that she was aware. That before, a thin sick man could be beaten to death because he was assumed to have AIDS, but an effort has been made to educate people on how to assimilate and accept, that AIDS is not transmitted by sharing space or food or casual touch, and that things have gotten better. That she knew about condoms, and that condoms are readily available, sold in any store he said, and they are cheap. He went on to say that she is 17 and married, which I knew, and she’s already been pregnant and had a daughter who died after 8 months. Fathers will promise their daughters to their friends’ sons, the girl may go to live with the future husband’s family as young as 12 or 13, and when she has gone through puberty (“when she grows breasts,” Wondwossen said) they will marry and seal the deal.

She came with us to two more sites, one of which we installed and one of which we just picked up, the latter of which she helped with. We reached the site in the evening as the sun was descending, which made for lovely light. I fell for the girl pictured below.

[Shy girl, with some photo modification by Andre Bassett.]

She was beautiful and seemed quite confident and comfortable with her self, but when I asked if I could take her picture she smiled shyly and shook her head. Aklilu, being Aklilu, went immediately over to her and said Of course you want your picture taken! (I imagine) and squatted down with his arm around her to pose and gestured to me to go ahead, and I waited until he’d stood back up and stepped away and then snapped this shot, and felt a little bad since she’d been pressured into it but the curiosity and joy of her and her brother and the man who was guarding the site—her father? grandfather?—when they saw the image on the back of my camera was indication enough that taking her picture had been alright.

We dropped Howa off at a street corner in Semera, right before we turned off the main road towards the guesthouse. Will she be all right? I asked. Yes, she will take a taxi, Wondwossen said. We pulled her plastic bag of things down from the top of the truck. Does she have enough money? I asked. Wondwossen said something to Howa in Amharic, and Howa smiled and replied. Yes, said Wondwossen, amused. She says she has money. Howa nodded to me in agreement. I wonder where she is now, hoping that she found her uncle in Logia and is being treated well.

We were the last group back. The seismic group headed off to dinner as soon as we got there, already showered and hungry and tired of waiting. Eric and Ian and the others waited. There was no water in the shower, so no long-awaited scrub. It had only been several days, but it seemed like a long time. The dust is very friendly. Eric hadn't been able to take a shower either, but did take a dump-bath from a full bucket in his bathroom.

Dinner with the whole group was nice, but work awaited back at the guesthouse. Eric and Cindy would be leaving the next day. The GPS group met about the upcoming plan. One of the drivers would be taking Eric and Cindy back to Addis. Which one? I had assumed it would be Eric's driver, but that was not necessarily to be the case. I emphasized how happy I was with Aklilu and how well we worked together. Eric let the drivers figure it out. Except that he was the one to draw the name out of the hat, as it turned out. All three wanted to stay, I imagine because of the per diem. When Eric came back into the room and sat back down, he said, "I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is we know which driver will go back. The bad news--" looking at me--"is that it is Aklilu." This was a blow. There was a moment of silence. "I'm sorry," said Eric. "I'm so sad," I said.

As consolation, Eric assigned the Ethiopian Mapping Agency surveyor who had been working with him to work with me, putting my group at Wondwossen (still), new driver Zewdu, new surveyor Debebe, and myself.

I was up until 2 AM re-organizing equipment and troubleshooting receivers which had failed in the field. I tested one of the three receivers that had failed me in the field and it booted up just fine on the first try. What had the problem been? This meant that we would have to go back to Silsa to install the receiver at the continuous site, but it was certainly good news that the receivers worked. Maybe my career would be saved.

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March 14, 2007

Back to Afdera

On our way out slightly after 6, to finish the continuous site and the drill battery worked but the receivers didn’t. Did they overheat or get bashed around too much on the ride, on the top of the truck? Should I have brought them in? We packed up and left at 9:30 AM, stopped to check on the Silsa campaign site where they wanted an advance and started asking for a bonus, and I spent a good part of the afternoon feeling sheepish and trying to think of a career change. Checked on the campaign site at KM74 and left my sat phone there—10km down the road Aklilu asked, “Where is your phone?” Yep. I *thought* that I was missing something when I left the site. So we went back for it. Somehow that lifted my mood—it distracted me from thinking about career changes. Besides, I fell asleep until KM103, where we checked on the equipment and said hello to the sergeant and had a coffee. I stayed awake all the way to Afdera. We got in around 4 PM. Early. It’s hot. I’m tired.

[Me with the women of northern Silsa. My precious little brat in red, and note the young woman in the red dress because she was quite sweet and will be written more about tomorrow.]

[Afdera. Note wheelbarrow on roof and salt pans in the background.]

[Wondwossen sits at our 'hotel.' In the background, each number marks a door to a room.]

[Street leading out of town.]

[This cat was my favorite. There were many stray cats, most of which would hang around the restaurants and wander through under the tables or between patrons' legs looking for and sometimes begging for scraps. Most the kitties were skittish and/or didn't look healthy enough to touch, but this one knew what love was. And he or she liked it. I had already been petting it (with the back of my hand) earlier, and I knew that when I called it I'd have to take the shot right away. I was right; this was just a slight pause before kitters came over to get some cuddles.]

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March 13, 2007

Night in Silsa

Up at 6:40, to breakfast in Logia. (Last night on Graham, Atalay, and Yaya’s way there for dinner they saw that a child had been hit by a truck—nearly ran over it themselves, Graham said.) Breakfasted and discussed with Graham and Atalay. They left for more recon and then Addis and we stayed around, and Aklilu took the car to the shop and Wondwossen and I hung around and I wrote some and we watched some TV—a Denzel Washington movie from his younger days—and then Wondwossen left to go shopping and I still stayed in the shade of the restaurant. I drank 3 Ambos (mineral water) while there, in maybe 2 hours, and not even a hint of having to pee. I’ve only peed twice a day, once in the morning and once at night, since being in Afar.

We reunited and went to fuel up and headed out.

[Aklilu fuels up.]

Stopped at the Chinese road workers’ headquarters in Serdo (the road to Afdera is being built by the Chinese) (don’t ask—I’ve no idea why) but they break from 11:30 to 2:30 so no one was around to tell us about their GPS surveying. We moved on. To Silsa, had lunch at the military restaurant there which was nice and mellow. Lugged everything up for the continuous GPS installation but halfway through drilling the battery ran out of power and the other one was dead. It was 6 PM. Packed up, went back to the restaurant.

[Wondwossen, Aklilu, and two of the soldiers standing by and helping out.]

Saw the seismic group when they came into town, retrieved them and brought them to the restaurant. Cots were set up outside for us—mine and Derek’s and Ellen’s with mosquito netting—which was nice. It was good to sleep outside, except that we were right up against the restaurant and both the TV and generator were blaring when we went to sleep. Mike said he watched bats or swallows swooping for insects and one tried to nip at his radio antenna; Derek said he’d heard hyenas in the night.

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March 12, 2007

Loooooong Day of Installs

This morning, met at the trucks at 5:30 AM to take advantage of first light and headed off to the Afdera military camp around 6, when the sun was coming up. The folks at the camp first directed us to park and the base of the ridge we were meaning to install the equipment on, which would mean a long walk up. The up side of this was that, while a better route was being negotiated, I got to watch baby goats playing on a short cliff. There is very little water in Afar, and no cultivation that I know of. The Afari people are herders. This means that there are goats everywhere. Lots of camels and a fair share of sheep as well, more than enough donkeys to bray first thing in the morning, but more than anything there are goats. (Oddly, I have few pictures of the livestock.) Not being around goats much in the states, I wanted to laugh out loud at these kids. It was like they were testing out their hooves. One would run up the cliff (which was nearly vertical), and the other would follow, but then the first one would turn on it and fend it off just before it reached the top and they’d both run down, and the one in back would turn and run back up and then the other one would turn and see that the other one had run up and it would follow. This sort of thing indefinitely.

We got permission to drive right up onto the ridge and took it. What I didn’t mention was that if we had had to park at the bottom, we would have been walking through a trash dump—which we’d walked through the day before. It was pretty much where the goats had been playing, which is a little odd since the main component of the dump was goat parts. It was more an area of dispersed trash than an actual pile, but you had to watch your step to not put a foot down on a leg bone or part of a skull.

We’d already split into teams and Eric and Ian and Feleke and Debebe and their drivers, and Cindy and Manahloh and theirs, had headed west. We were east. My team was composed of driver Aklilu, surveyor Wondwossen, and myself. The eastern seismic group—Derek, Ellen, Mike, local guide Indris, and their driver Rush, and also Atalay and Graham and their driver Yaya who were just there for the first two days to permission the sites—were working in the same region, at mostly the same sites, but at a different pace. The seismic stations take 3-6 hours to install, whereas the GPS campaign sites only take about an hour—if all goes well. Sounds like GPS gets the easy way out, but the flip side is that once the seismic site is in the group doesn’t have to go back to it until their next trip out in October, when they’ll download the data, but the campaign GPS sites have to be picked up after three days. So we had to go to every site at least twice. Lots of driving.

After we finally finished in Afdera (drill problems, problems with the regulator for the solar panel) we said goodbye to the seismic team and headed south, on the same road we’d driven the day before.

To amuse myself on the drive, I made up some limericks for the others between naps:

There was a young woman named Ellen,
so calm that she must be a felon.
Lazy she’s not,
and works hard though it’s hot,
so I’m sure that it’s her I’ve been smellin’.

There once was a lad we’d call Ian,
the best lover of beer that I’ve seen.
He fell asleep in a bar
and woke up in Afar
And now he just hopes that he’s dreamin’.

We worked with a fellow named Derek,
[I couldn’t think of anything to rhyme with Derek]
He’d make like a mole
and dig a big hole
[that problem of rhyming with Derek again]

Yesterday, we gave a soldier a ride from Silsa to the military camp at kilometer 103, one of our proposed GPS and seismic sites. His face was blank and hard at first. I’d heard that the Afari are not quick to smile, but many of the military and other people living along this main road are not Afari. Regardless, this man was very serious. At first. But I don’t know that anyone can hold up to Aklilu. I couldn’t understand what was being said, of course, but it wasn’t long before I heard the man chuckling in the front seat in response to Aklilu’s boisterous speech. Ha! Broken. We saw the sergeant again on our way down and he was very friendly, and joined us for a coffee after the installation.

Our next stop was at a clinic at kilometer 74, also called Sebaraat (which means 74) by Amharic speakers and Gulbule by the locals. The clinic itself was not a good site for the GPS, so we wandered around on the black basalt cliffs behind it and installed a marker there. At the military camps, there was no need to hire a guard to watch the GPS. Here, however, we hired a young local man to keep an eye on our instrument. Note that most sites are completely exposed and that the temperature was consistently over 100 degrees F—how do they do it? Most guards built small shelters just tall enough to sit in.

[Aklilu, Wondwossen, Mohamed.]

Then it was on to Silsa, an actual town like Afdera. There was already a marker there, which was a relief because we didn’t have to spend time scouting out a good place and drilling, but we ran into another problem. A lengthy argument over cost ensued before we were able to set up. The chairman of the area argued that they are paid 50 Birr per day and 50 per night by the truckers for guarding the salt trucks, whereas we only offer 50 Birr per day. I had thought that it was important that we stick to 50 Birr per day everywhere for consistency (which Eric later told me was not so important) so we did not compromise. Wondwossen lead the negotiation. After much heated discussion which I did not understand, with the chairman’s hand on Wondwossen’s wrist and then on the wrist of a local woman who was translating and then back as he spoke emphatically, I said we would not install there if it was going to be an issue. After more discussion, they agreed to 50 Birr/day. The best part was when the chairman turned towards me—I was hovering, having nothing else to do—made eye contact and then cleared his throat and hocked a loogie onto the ground.

With the situation resolved, we set up the site and I was able to take a few pictures. I fell for the child in red, who I thought was a boy until we saw her several days later in a dress. She’s a mischievous little one. She’d hide behind mom or sister, and then when she thought I wasn’t paying attention she’d run up and touch me and run back. But then when I turned and *offered* my hand to her she got a fiery look in her eye and picked up a rock and threatened to throw it at me. Little brat. It’s okay—by the end of the afternoon we’d progressed to holding hands. I wish I’d gotten a better picture of her—she was absolutely beautiful. Especially with that belligerent fire in her eyes. (Several days later, when we were back, she and I were walking hand in hand down the rocks back to the car. She stepped on a burr in her bare feet and paused to pull it out. “Ow!” I said, and she, apparently not familiar with the term “ow,” threatened me with that like she had with the rock. Still holding my hand.)

[I had a hard time getting everyone coordinated, so I am going to make a photo collage of this and another photo that I took of the same crew.]

Aklilu hurried my photo taking along. We have to go, he said. The checkpoint will close at 6. I looked at my watch. 6:00.

Aklilu, Wondwossen, and I drove to the south side of town to find the checkpoint indeed had closed. Meaning the soldiers would not lower the rope for us to pass through. They told us we would need to get clearance from their superiors at the military camp if we wanted to pass through.

The soldier we talked to in the camp at the south side of Silsa told us if we were in a hurry, we could proceed, but at our own risk. Aklilu wanted to go, Wondwossen thought it better to stay. We drove a soldier to the gate and I thought we were going to stop there to discuss but they lowered the rope barrier and we drove through. We are going to Semera? I said, and they said yes. Is it safe? I asked, and Aklilu said Yes! It is safe! I know these people!

Passing large boulders along the road sent shadows leaping towards me as we rambled along. I first thought every one was a person jumping out from the bush. The first set of car lights made my heart jump, but after that I welcomed them. Truck traffic along the route: Company. Also, after about an hour (less?), question as to whether we were on the right route. For that first hour, I estimated my fear level at about 25%. Constant but small, not at all overwhelming. The first fork where Aklilu and Wondwossen said, “which way do we go?”—it now being completely dark out—kicked the percentage up a bit. There is a new road being built—or they’re paving the old one, it’s not really clear—and the dirt tracks seem to branch and merge at random—do all tracks lead to the same place? Hard saying. For a short bit I leaned my head back out of the window and observed how the stars didn’t move, how I had no indication that we were, even, besides the grumble of the engine and the slight rocking of the car roof against the night. There was a stretch of road after we’d started guessing at the route that kicked my fear up the most, silent with no other traffic and were we even on the right track and who’s out there? I was tired besides, and without being able to find my GPS (where had I put it? I’d had it all day) I was no help and it was just frustrating for me, so I allowed myself to fall asleep.

We got into Semera about 9—too late to go to dinner. I am dry. Drank lots of *cold* water from the freezer, though, and took a shower. Much better. Breakfast tomorrow will be great.

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March 11, 2007


Wow, I’m behind on journaling. I’ve hit the part of the project where there’s no repose during the day from waking to bedtime, and at bedtime I want to go to sleep as soon as possible because I know there’s not enough time for a full night’s sleep between now and when I have to get up.

Drove from Semera to Afdera today along with one of the seismic crews and Graham and Atalay (three cars), stopping at four places along the way to recon and permission both seismic and GPS sites. Afdera’s surroundings took me by surprise—I hadn’t really looked at a map beforehand and didn’t realize we were going to drop down into a large basin with a large lake. Very strange after so much dry and sparsely-vegetated desert. There’s not exactly a ton of plant life here, but there are more than just the three types of brush we’ve been seeing for the past two days. There are even some palms. Salt pans as well—the region is known for salt, and there are constantly trucks taking salt from here south—and volcanic mountains. Also, when I said drop into a large basin I meant it—the handheld GPS reads about -85 m at the Afdera hotel. Our GPS site, which is up on a ridge, will be at about -35 m.

[The "main road".]

[Scenery from the main road: Distant volcano.]

Sweat drips down my face and my skin is slick where one arm rests atop another. Sleeping in a small hotel room with a door that doesn’t lock from the inside, and a bedframe which is wood stretched across with a grid of strips of animal skins with the fur still on. Very cool.

But the coolest thing of the day was having an ostrich chick dancing on our table at lunch. We ate at a restaurant/cafeteria in a military camp and a man came in with an ostrich chick (which is, of course, about the size of a full-grown chicken). He sat on the other side of the room but when he saw us taken by his gem he brought it over and put it on our table, letting it scuffle around a bit before he picked it up and retreated back to his seat. An ostrich chick. That’s so cool.

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March 9, 2007

New Home

Got up and went to breakfast in Awash, the town just north of Metehara where we’d actually intended to stay last night, but there were no beds available. Breakfast on a rooftop, bright green birds on a tree nearby. After breakfast, Eric, Cindy, Atalay, and Graham went to try to find Mohamed Yayo, the Afari official (second in command, if I understand right) who would tell us where we could and couldn’t go in Afar. The rest of us foreigners, plus Manahloh and Feleke, went in search of sieves. It’s a strange thing to go in search of in a tiny town with stores that are little more than stands on either side of the street. Still, we found some odd things that I wasn’t expecting, so I guess finding a sieve wasn’t out of the question. We bought a pot for Eric’s group to use on their camel trek (more on that later) and grain bags to use for the seismometers. I believe this is the first place I’ve been where I’ve seen “USAID WHEAT” printed on the bags—and also nice-looking white SUVs with “UN” in bold black letters on either side. When the search for sieves became old and tiresome (and hot), I walked back to our home base—the breakfast restaurant—and sat down beside Aklilu and Debebe on the front stairs in the shade. Aklilu left us when the shade left the stairs and joined the other drivers and surveyors in the shade of a tree, where they’d brought chairs out from inside. Nearly every time I heard laughter from the group I looked up to see Aklilu responsible—either the one laughing or the one making the others laugh. He’s got a big, easy smile and expressive eyes, both emphasized by his dark, round face. I liked him immediately. “Aklilu is always laughing,” I said to Debebe. “Yes,” said Debebe. “I think if continues with this attitude, he will live a long life.” He’s probably right. And even if Aklilu doesn’t live a long life, he’ll at least live a fun one.

The shade won us over, and then the indoors, where it was even cooler. The sieve-seekers, who had returned unsuccessful, began a game of poker and I declined. I went outside to draw but had barely started when I was approached by two young women. One boldly took my notebook and pen and wrote her name for me. She pulled up a chair and sat next to me. We chatted a bit in limited Eniglish—she was making a very good effort—but sat mostly in silence until the PIs returned from their meeting with Mohamed Yayo and Hana, my new friend, got up hurriedly to give them her chair.

After making their way through a maze of different people, the PIs had finally gained a five-minute audience with Mohamed Yayo in which he approved the general field plan and gave us permission to stay in the government guest house. We piled back into the cars and drove to Semera, the seat of Afari government, and moved into the guest house. The guest house is essentially a simple hotel or motel, a ring of rooms around a courtyard, clean and with a bathroom in each. We all shared rooms because of limited space; I shared with Cindy and Ellen, and as there were only two beds Ellen and I each took a turn sleeping on the floor. The guard slept out in the courtyard on a mattress under a mosquito net.

[The entrance to the guest house.]

And I almost forgot about the gem of the day, which was this truck that Ian and I saw in Logia, the town just before Semera where we had dinner. I obviously couldn't hold my hands still enough for the exposure, but the shot still gives a little idea of what the truck was all about. Those things hanging from the truck are chickens. I counted over 20 across the back alone. Wow, we said, a lot of chickens. As we watched, a wing moved a bit. And then another. And then a head. Wow, we said, they're all alive! Ian pointed out that there were also goats in the bed of the truck. To top that off, six men climbed in with the goats and it drove away.

[The chicken truck.]

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March 8, 2007

On the road

We got our equipment out of customs finally Wednesday evening and, rather than checking the equipment thoroughly at the Observatory before leaving, packed it into the six cars we’d been assigned and hit the road for Afar since we were already behind schedule. Three of the cars (trucks, really) belonged to the Ethiopian Mapping Agency, to be working with the GPS crew, and three belonged to Ethiodere, a transport company that works with tourists as well, to be working with the seismic crew. Each car came with a driver. We also had the pleasure of working with three surveyors from the Ethiopian Mapping Agency. So our group was large: Ethiodere drivers Yaya, Rush, and F** (shoot, the one name I can't remember); EMA drivers Aklilu, Zewdu, and Gebrekidane; EMA surveyors Feleke, Wondwossen, and Debebe; PIs Eric (Purdue U.), Cindy (U. Rochester), and Graham (Leeds); Atalay and his MS student Mahnohlo (Addis Ababa U.); PhD students Ellen (soon to be U. Rochester) and Ian (Leeds); and post-doc Derek (Royal Holloway, soon to be Leeds). And me. We piled into the cars after we piled what seemed like a ridiculous amount of equipment into them (we weren’t actually sure we’d be able to do it), and I ended up in a car with Aklilu, Eric, and Ian: The foreign contingent (+Aklilu) of the GPS crew.

[Group effort to load a seismic box onto one of the trucks.]

This is my story of the day:
I didn’t have to pee desperately, but I figured I should when we stopped in Metehara, not sure when we’d be stopping again. Eric told Feleka that I was wanting a restroom so Feleke took me back behind a bar into a motel courtyard and spoke with a woman there, and then gestured for me to follow him to a narrow hall between concrete buildings and waved me back into it. He stayed in the courtyard. I ventured in. Narrow, and dark, and not looking promising. There was a door to the left, but it had a padlock on it. Was I supposed to try to open it anyway? The hall ended straight ahead in a rubble-filled nook; nothing in the rubble looked like a toilet. To the left was another corridor—seemingly narrower and definitely darker, since there were no windows in the concrete and no sun could angle in. Was I supposed to go back there? It smelled of urine. I guess in this case that would be promising, but I was wary. Could I just go back out to Feleke, though, without giving it a fair try? I stepped reluctantly into the corridor. There was a door on my right and another two to the left, but they were padlocked like the first. The only open door was all the way to the end of the hall, on the right, where the hall was the darkest. I walked tentatively down to check it out, but it was so dark I could hardly see inside. From the entryway, no sign of a toilet. Just a bucket. Am I supposed to pee in a bucket? I almost turned back but changed my mind and stuck my head in through the doorway to see around the corner. I had to be a trooper. I had to give it a fair try. I had to do that for Feleke….who I had just met. I strained to see the white of a toilet through the darkness, but there was nothing.

I went back out into the courtyard. Everything okay? asked Feleke. I didn’t see a proper toilet, I said. He addressed the same woman as before and I followed the two of them back into the dank corridor and at the end, looking into that open room on the right, Feleke turned and asked me, You wanted a proper toilet? Yes, if possible, I said, thinking he would explain to the woman what I really meant and she’d redirect me to something a bit more familiar, but instead he said, Here it is, as if I had just overlooked it, and the woman picked up a cup from the bucket—which turned out to be full of water—and rinsed the floor of the room repeatedly, covering all corners. Then they left me and I bravely stepped in, tested out closing the door behind me but the bucket was in the way, and moved on to the area that had been so hard to see—a grate in the floor, now that my eyes had adjusted—pulled down my undies and up my skirt and squatted over the wet grate. It took a moment to start, but I did, and I peed slowly to avoid splattering my shoes, which I don’t think I’ve ever done inside before. Always something new.

That night, I summarized:
So tired, so tired, so tired. Story of the day was peeing over a grate for the first time. Hot and sweaty. First time sleeping under a mosquito net. It’s kind of cool.

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March 6, 2007

Already Reaching Limits

I am sitting on the terrace in my skirt and linen shirt with the sun at my back, warm on my neck. The dogs are done and the roosters have taken over. A breeze rustles the awning and is almost chilly.

I yesterday reached a people limit. I realized that I was done with anything approaching small talk (which I can often be quite good at, if I do say so myself), and it was becoming difficult to be in a group. I considered leaving lunch early to just sit down at the street and watch people and be on my own for a bit.

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March 5, 2007

Time in Addis

The next few days consisted of eating fresh papaya and scrambled eggs with cheese at the hotel restaurant for breakfast, heading off to the Geophysical Observatory of Addis Ababa University where seismologist Atalay and geodesist and gravity specialist Elias call “home,” and organizing equipment and information and trying to get our equipment out of customs. Ellen, a soon-to-be PhD student of Cindy’s, and I went to the nearby national museum to see Lucy. Yes, you’ve heard of her. A small female ape-like human-like creature who was believed to represent the missing link between apes and humans until other, equally-old and older fossils were found which suggested that Lucy belonged to an offshoot branch that died out. The museum was fantastic. We only had time to see the basement level, which displays prehistoric life from Ethiopia—huge tusks of elephants’ relatives and a long, thin, toothy jaw of a prehistoric croc, the sharp and long teeth of a saber-toothed cat compared in an artist’s rendition to the surprisingly smaller ones of a modern wildcat. The displays were very good for putting these once-common beasts in perspective. And then, of course, there was Lucy—not the original bones, but replicas, still very impressive. Talk about putting things in perspective—standing to face the diminutive skeleton of a related being, trying to imagine her walking through grasses, was humbling and intriguing.

When we came out of the museum, we became immediately enthralled by a group in traditional dress singing and dancing on the museum’s lawn. I asked the man standing next to me if he spoke English—Yes, of course, he said—and asked if he knew where the group was from. He shifted his weight to put his arm against mine and explained that he was a reporter, that the group represented the Gamo people of southern Ethiopia, that the film company he works for produces cultural programs which are aired throughout Ethiopia on the Ethiopian channel (there are only one or two).

When our new friend saw the man in charge of the event, he brought him over and introduced him to us. We asked about the weaving, which the Gamo people are (we learned) known for. This man is working to promote the Gamo people and their weaving to increase their status and pride, as a marginalized people. Their dress was white with brightly-colored woven decorations—vest and pants, for the men, with a panel in the crotch to make the pants loose and mobile. They danced with blunt spears. One man, maybe in his 40s, grinned, his face round and dark, and he pleased the camera and crowd with eye contact and moved his head and neck as well as his feet. Ellen and I wondered what they could possibly use to die their threads such bold and pure colors.


That night, I rose after dinner to call my boss, Jim. But then I realized it was 12:30 PM his time (10:30 PM mine), and figured I’d wait half an hour to let him have a peaceful lunch. I lied down on my bed to write in my journal. I woke up at 1:45 AM. Shit. I lay in half-sleep, half-awake trying to justify not calling. But given their security concerns I knew I had to—a missed check-in would be bad. So I got up and tried to be quiet going downstairs and there was no one at the upper desk, and then there was no one at the downstairs desk. I tried to go outside downstairs to call on the satellite phone but the door was locked. The guard outside stirred and looked in and moved to the door, I thought to let me out, but instead put his face up to the window, said a word I couldn’t understand, and pointed upstairs. He looked like a ghost, or at least like a street person, a loose wrap or hood around what looked like a short afro, his face square and eyes lightless. I wasn’t sure if he was telling me to just go back to my room, but I turned around immediately—he was creepy—and I went upstairs. Great, I thought, if this door is locked too I can’t get outside to use the sat phone, and I don’t have a way to call on the land line (that I’d thought of, anyway), so do I just miss my check-in with Jim? And then I can’t get in touch with him until doing e-mail the next morning at the Observatory, and by then he’ll likely be quite worried. I tried the door and it was unlocked. Small blessings. I went outside, careful not to close the door all the way behind me in case it *would* lock, walked to the top of the driveway where I saw what looked to be the same guard, which was weird, and called Jim. At first I said he couldn’t call me on the hotel’s land line as planned because the staff was gone for the night, but the connection was bad and he convinced me. He was to call me in 5 minutes. I went inside and to the downstairs desk, quietly, where the staff had told me earlier the call would come in. Waited. Waited. I realized and lamented that I didn’t have a watch. It seemed like it had already been too long. Then the phone rang—upstairs. I ran. Picked it up counting on it being Jim. “Jim?” Nothing. Then a foreign word. Uh-oh. “Jim? Hello?” “Hi,” he said, and all was well. Except me having to explain why I hadn't called his sooner.

The dogs in the shanty town down below are barking, a chorus of night music that seems it will have no end. I do not mind it, but how do the people down there sleep?

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March 4, 2007

First Full Day in Addis

Good morning, Addis. There are roosters crowing and the megaphoned singing from the nearby church has finally stopped and my mouth still tastes and feels a bit like the thick papaya juice which finished off breakfast.

[The entryway to our hotel, the Ras Amba.]

We all wore sleeves and long pants today. The air was not hot but the sun was warm, and became warmer throughout the day until it finally started to cool off while we were at the Hilton in the afternoon. To get to the Hilton, got on and then a couple blocks later off a minibus (public transportation) because the route had changed and it was going to go the wrong direction. Walked to the Hilton. Cindy got her shoes polished on the way. We took pictures of the kids and I ended up allowing them to brush mine, but then they put polish on the front rubber part, so I ended up with polished Keens.

They got mad that I wasn’t going to pay them as much as they wanted—Kiwi! They exclaimed when Cindy argued the price of hers, pointing to the polish—apparently a nicer brand than that used by the kids by the U—and Hilton! Nicest place!—and refused to take my 3 Birr so I left it on the ledge I’d been sitting on and walked away.

I am jetlagged and extremely tired and would love to just curl up into a ball and go to sleep. It was lovely to have an easy day today, organizational but not stressful for anyone, spending the afternoon at the Hilton where we sat and relaxed while still trying to stay awake, drank a beer and chatted, Ellen and Cindy swam. To go home, we caught a taxi at the same spot where Cindy'd had her shoes shined and some of the same kids were there and one asked me for more money for his friends. I gave him my piece of candy from our bill at the Hilton and he accepted it with a smile.

I was so tired I didn’t know if I’d make it through dinner, but I did.

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March 3, 2007


A travel day ends. The anxiety of the kidnappings has melted away and I am excited to be here, happy to be with this group. From the airport to our hotel at 12:30 AM, dropped our bags in our rooms and headed immediately upstairs to the terrace for a beer. Made each other laugh, talked about the project past and future.

Already my mind full, on the way from the airport to the hotel. Dark night with stars, glimpses into Addis outskirts at night: Lights decorating bars, prostitutes on the sidewalks, guards walking with guns hanging down at their sides, a stray dog running along the street.

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There was nothing. And then, there was Khartoum.

It’s amazing how much desert there is—how expansive the Sahara is. I fell asleep over the Mediterranean and woke up over the Sahara, and that’s all it’s been since. At first I wasn’t sure whether I was looking at sea or clouds or land. Then I saw some texture—could still be clouds though—and then, a thin dark line across the plane that seemed to disappear if I didn’t look straight at it, and even sometimes when I did. A road. But to what? From what? And why?

Mostly nothing descript, and sometimes sand dunes in patches or in stripes. The Nile, with a thin strip of cultivated land divided into weakly green squares on either side. Small clusters of structures distinguishable from the surroundings not by color but by form: small-scale, geometric. The villages we flew over seemed to be made up of walls (pens for animals?), not roofs. Some low, rocky ridges aligned like cat scratches rising from the sand surface; a mound off away from them and another, and then two more at the head of the scratches—volcanic? Old volcanoes covered by the sand, or new ones rising out of it?

As we get closer to Khartoum, signs of life increase, but barely. The infrequent settlements are still small. What look like scrawny trees sparsely line subtle (and dry) streambeds. We circle the city, my seat-mate Katja and I on the side of the plane facing away from it with a view of the city’s outskirts. How is there a city here? What sustains these people? we wonder aloud. We then see a thin river, with more fields on either side than the others before.

The city is low and tan and white and beige and khaki with some green roofs and greenish trees, taller and fuller than the ones along the dry streambeds—dark green foliage up against concrete buildings. The sky is muted by dust, as it has been over much of the Sahara, the horizon a haze.

As we rounded the city and started our descent the sun appeared bright and diffuse over the desert. It lit the irregular waterways and sunk as we did. As we landed, it moved among rooftops and its outline sharpened and its color deepened until it was a solid orange disk ready to slice into the desert, though it seemed it would never fall.

But, it did.

After letting some passengers off and others on, we flew over Ethiopia in darkness.

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I feel like a huge weight has been lifted, like I could fly—on my own, without a plane. Mom said they knew about the kidnappings in Ethiopia even before they talked to me, even before I did—they didn’t want to tell me and freak *me* out. Whew. This doesn’t help the group of tourists taken from Afar, but it helps bounds with my peace of mind. “I was afraid you’d be worried,” I said, and Mom said, “We could worry every time you get in a car for that matter.” I don’t know if that’s really how they feel, but it was a relief.

There’s too much time to think about these things heading over the Atlantic.

It turns out that Cindy, Mike, and Graham--three others on the same project--are also on this flight from Amsterdam to Addis. Eric just hadn't told me. So, now no worries about being picked up at the airport or finding my way from the airport to the hotel. So often, it's drama over nothing.

Cindy handed me a short article on the abduction(s) shortly before we took off. I suspected a little more detail would shed some light on the situation. The group was only 25 miles from the Eritrean border, so I’m not so surprised anymore. Still, there are questions which need to be answered. And, of course, a group which needs to be released.

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March 2, 2007


In plane waiting to head to Amsterdam. Three messages waiting for me on my cell phone when I got off the plane from Denver, including my boss, Jim, requesting that I call him back and saying the PI’s flight was delayed and he’ll miss me in Amsterdam. So I called him back from the Minneapolis airport on my cell phone, shortly before boarding the plane for Amsterdam. “I don’t know if you’ve read the news this morning,” he said, and trailed off. “No,” I said, and he said, “Maybe you should just get a paper and read it for yourself…” “Great,” I said. “What is it?” “Eight tourist were kidnapped in Ethiopia,” he said, “from Afar.” “You’re kidding,” I said. Not that he would kid about that. I had a feeling of go figure. Jim said Eric said we’d stick to the main roads—but I wonder how “main” the main roads are, and how secure, and how to know?

I boarded the plane and called my dad to say hi before my trip and debated whether to tell him Jim’s news. I didn’t. If he doesn’t already know, why worry him? But I did call my brother and left a message saying that I was aware of the kidnapping and that we’d assess the situation and be careful, so that he can pass that on to my folks should they start to worry. I don’t want to scare them, but also don’t want them to find out and then think we’re being careless.

My boss was a bit stressed. “I didn’t send anyone on this project last year because of the possibility of something like this happening,” he said, “and now it actually is happening, and you’re going over there.”

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En Route

The easiest thing for me to do is to post mildly altered journal entries. It may be a cop-out, but it's what I'm going to do. Sorry.

So, let's start....


This is livin’. I’m sitting with my legs propped up in front of me, a cold drink at my side, kickin’ back with a view, nothing to do. Unfortunately, my view is of a gray sky with a dirty white building and gray tarmac and white airplane gate below it, gray baggage transporters and exhaust from passing planes. My feet are propped on my backpack, which is heavy with cameras and a drill battery which I took out of my checked luggage so the suitcase would be under the 70lb limit (without the battery, it weighed in at 69lbs). My cold drink is an iced coffee, and my companion, from whom I took the idea to prop my feet up on my backpack, is an older, serious-looking man in a suit listening through headphones, sometimes reading the paper in his lap and sometimes just looking out in front of him. Waiting to board a plane out of Denver. First to Minneapolis, and then to Amsterdam (about 8 hours), and then to Addis Ababa, the capitol of Ethiopia (about 9 hours, including a stop in Khartoum, Sudan). I've a bit of a journey ahead.


I’m going to Africa! Somehow, this is an entirely new adventure—bigger than going to South America or Asia, bigger than going to Antarctica—probably because I’m lucky enough to have been to those places. Africa is a place I’ve dreamed about since being a kid—hasn’t everybody? Isn’t it a place that National Geographic dotes on, a place of women with wrinkled, hanging breasts for all to see, of colorful or shiny decorations which stretch out the ears, the lips, the neck, of face and body paints and everything tribal? A place of barren landscapes, of dense, impenetrable jungle, of large and viscous animals and of incurable diseases? It is colonization, cruelty, mist and mystery, depletion and deprivation, oppression and exploitation. It is diamonds and oil, hunting and touring. It is a place of survival. Heart of Darkness and gorillas and elephants, apartheid and genocide, cannibalism and communism. It is hunger. It is AIDS. It is the origin of human development. “The Gods Must Be Crazy” and “The Constant Gardener.”

What will it *really* be like? And Ethiopia, such a small piece.

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