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January 28, 2008

Up the Mountain

And here begins the short episode that I refer to as the Dabbahu Debacle. When I arrived in from installing site #2, the petrologists were back from their problematic camel trek—and scurrying to get ready to head out on the helicopter to go at it again. The decision had been made in the few hours I was in the field to drop them up atop Dabbahu, the volcano they'd been trekking around, to access rock up towards the summit. They were to camp, the same group of them, with just the police guards (no locals this time). Interesting. Good-bye, and good luck.

Abdu, the diplomat, went along just for the ride, but ended up pulled in to work. It turned out that, surprisingly, there were people living up high on this volcano. Lots of them. And they weren't particularly happy with the unannounced arrival of the foreigners (and I don't just mean the white people. Anyone who doesn't live on the mountain, I imagine, is an outsider to them—especially these people from such far-flung and bureaucratic places). So Abdu stuck around while Chris went back with his helicopter for the second load and tried to reconcile the situation. He came back on the second flight, but there was a call on the sat phone from John in the evening saying the locals were again not happy, not letting them do anything, saying they wanted to talk to the administrator in Teru before doing anything, presumably standing or sitting around with their guns. When Tim found Abdu to discuss, Abdu said he had told them he'd return in the morning with the Teru official. Huh. Think he could have clued us in to that? Just an idea. Might have been helpful.

That, and JR called in from her field camp to say that her guards are eating through all the food and are unhappy with it besides. Send more food, she said. And different guards.

*And*, the kids are getting bolder. Several made their way into camp on different occasions to pick up partially full bottles of water, which we then shoo-ed them away from. One we had to get up and chase down before he left his bottle behind. It may seem harsh, but we just can't be handing anything out yet. We still don't know how much of what we brought we'll use, and people will expect things daily—and ALL of them will want something—if we start handing out now.

[A typical scene: Dust and discussion.]

So, next day, while I'm already out at a GPS site, Tim flies in with Abdu and the fat cat from Teru and another official, also from Teru, and they pick me up after they've had their meeting on Dabbahu to hopefully smooth things over for the petrologists. We've kind of kidnapped the Teru officials, actually, according to Tim's and my plan—we just don't tell them that after the meeting on Dabbahu they'll be coming to two remote sites with us, in case we need their help. We've already heard from several people that the guards of these sites are annoyed because they haven't been paid in over a year. In the past, the sites have been accessed by camel trek, so they're not exactly the easiest sites to get to.

The situation at both sites turns out to be fine, politically. Unfortunately, as far as the instruments go, things are not so good: Both are fried. The receivers are pretty hot to the touch and I can't communicate with either of them (via my computer, but thanks for imagining me trying to have a nice chat with a piece of circuitry), and forcing a reset has absolutely no effect. The good news, in my view, is that it's an equipment failure, not vandalism, which boosts my faith in humanity, and we'll probably be able to get some data off the instruments besides. Tim pays the guards their last paychecks in a roundabout way—neither are present, so he pays the daughter of one and photographs it to document the transaction (how is your finance person going to feel about the picture of the topless woman submitted along with the receipt back at Leeds? I ask him), and for the other he pays the Teru official, which we both find a bit dodgy because we expect him to take a cut. But what can you do. And we pull both sites completely.

[The solar panels on the systems looked trashed, but were surprisingly still working.]

The first site, at the base of the now infamous Dabbahu, is on a nice hill but is nothing particularly spectacular. Gabho, the neighboring volcano, on the other hand, is amazing to me. A total moonscape. The substrate is soft and light-colored and smooth, and in the evening light is serenely surreal. I somehow can't seem to catch it in my photographs, but I try.

[Abdu and the main Teru offical.]

Also, there are boinas. Boinas are the whole reason there are people up high on Dabbahu where the petrologists are now struggling, and why this area where we're waiting for the helicopter is supposedly swarming with life in the mornings. It's hard to believe now in the quiet of the afternoon, but I have to believe it—there are fresh people and animal tracks everywhere, a string of trails, and there were two donkeys still hanging around when we first arrived.

Right. Boinas are volcanic steam vents. Fumaroles, for those of you with an Earth science vocabulary. The people here build up rocks around them, and drape mats of vegetation in a funnel-shape over them, so that the steam condenses and then collects in pools below. The lesser Teru official (the thinner one, without the glasses) dipped into the boina to drink some water and immediately spat it out. Tim filled a water bottle to take back to the geochemists. Red-brown, the color of tanens. Not what I'd want to be drinking, I don't think. I don't know if people drink this water directly or if they distill it somehow first, but I think it's direct. The petrologists said the people up high on Dabbahu look surprisingly malnourished (compared to the people of Digdiga and Teru, which aren't exactly plump but who seem mostly healthy), kids with distended bellies and such, and that the water in this region is high in fluorine—high enough that the people living here suffer from fluorine poisoning. Yellow eyes and fingernails, among other things.

[Tim's big find: A piece of charcoal! We can date the deposit! Or maybe it's just a piece of volcanic glass. Bummer. Check out the color of the contents of the water bottle--that's the boina water.]

After we'd pulled the sites and our field work for the day was done, Chris picked us up and we dropped the officials back in Teru.

[Waiting for our ride in the intoxicating afternoon light. The man on the right just showed up out of nowhere to see what we were up to.]

[Goodbye to the local.]

On our way to Teru, we circle over the vent that spewed out ash during the 2005 event. It's hard to tell scale on this; that main opening is at least a few hundred feet long.]

[A crappy photo--taken through the helicopter window--but a better perspective.]

The approach to Teru was a bit dusty.

Um, how much did those guys love being dropped in their town by helicopter? I mean, there's no landing pad, no airport, no hospital roof to land on—we just landed in the dust at the edge of town and opened the doors and they got out and strolled into the gathering crowd. And I mean strolled. The people were so excited and interested that Chris had to gesture and yell to them to step back from the helicopter so he could take off again.

[This boy is cruising along with a 'car'--a stick with a wheel attached to the end.]

Just another day.

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January 27, 2008

Day "Off"

That said, the part about routine and co-locating sites and using the existing GPS sites and all, we'd already messed up by day 2. Chris dropped us off at our new site, I turned my handheld GPS on, got oriented, and told it to guide me to site DA10—to find that it was 4.65 km away. 4.65 km! 100 meters, fine, but 4650? What happened? That's too far to walk in the given time, and besides, there's no way our one set of guards can keep watch on instruments that are that far apart. The MT crew was perfectly happy with the site, so there was no motivation for them to move, and helicopter time—well, it's expensive. Like, it's *really* expensive. It's usually expensive, anywhere, but when you've contracted a helicopter to fly up from Kenya with its pilot and engineer to a remote field site in Ethiopia, it's even more expensive. Like, even a *lot* more expensive. Had I made a mistake inputing the GPS coordinates into my handheld? Sophie, what have you got? Same ones. There must have been a little something (one number is all it takes) lost in translation on the pilot's side of things—either he misunderstood Sophie's French accent, or there was a misunderstanding over the format the coordinates were in. Sigh.

I called Tim on the sat phone, and he said not to bother putting in a site—when would anyone ever be back here? GPS only gives results when we can measure a site at least twice—we don't care so much about where a mark *is*, we want to see how where it is *changes*--that is to say, how it moves. So that was that. At first I was frustrated, but then I realized I had the afternoon free. So I went off a bit to explore. And I wasn't even followed by a guard—it was just me. I tried to stay mostly within sight of the MT crew, just to be prudent, and because I wasn't sure when they'd be done. It was lovely.

[On the way in.]

[The MT group hard at work.]

Look for signs of life in these--seems middle of nowhere, but there are trails and rock structures at every turn.

[Looks like a lookout. Pretty good spot for one.]

[Mmmmm, lava.]


[Always nice to fly over the rift.]

[Scale on the cliffs is at least a hundred feet, maybe several...]

[Note person in lower left.]


From my tent, I can see the helicopter pilot and engineer projected onto the wall of their tent (palace) like it's a scene from a cartoon.

10 PM Have I mentioned how ridiculously dusty it is? It's really dusty. The wind is still blowing from the opposite direction—although I misjudged while brushing my teeth and spit toothpaste directly onto my foot—and bringing lots and lots of dust. Although the stars are still out. Earlier, they were more diffuse, and now they are a bit brighter.

[Example of the inside of my tent on a particularly dusty day. Every morning, I would zip up my sleeping bag and turn it over so as not to get dust inside, and every evening I would pull it out of my tent to shake it out before getting in.]

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Getting into the Groove

Looks like I'm going to have to do some serious summarizing for the rest of the trip, or I'll never get any more of this out. Where are we? We've driven to Digdiga, had our day with Crazy Abdu and the camels along the way, set up camp at the school, taught class and ate an ostrich egg, serviced the continuous GPS sites, some of the petrologists left for their camel trek around the volcano Dabbahu, and we've just started work by the helicopter. Which means the structural group is out in the field, and that we've seen the rift.

The days begin, for me, to have some routine. Here's the scheme:
MT and GPS work together to survey sites across the rift via helicopter. The idea is to co-locate (put in the same spot) our instruments so that we can share logistics—most importantly, guards, so we can hire one set instead of two. They have two sets of MT instrumentation and I use two of our three GPS sets, so that we always have two sets running in the field and each set records for two nights. This is how we do it:
Day 1 Install Set A at X
Day 2 Install Set B at Y
Day 3 Pull Set A from X, install at Z
Day 4 Pull Set B from Y, install at W
Day 5 Pull Set A from Z, install at V

Mostly, this works. There is one problem, however. GPS needs bedrock. MT needs sand. Just keep this in mind.

Also, in case I failed to mention it before, there are already GPS markers leading up to the rift from the west side (the side our camp is on) that were put in via camel trek two years ago as continuous GPS sites and subsequently vandalized, and the idea is to use these sites as part of the transect. The MT crew is picking new sites on the far side of the rift, where we have yet to go with GPS.

And by vandalized, I mean that all the metal was taken. In one case, the wires were even stripped to get at the metal inside. This is why we have the guards.

[At one site, DA10, even the stainless steel marker that was cemented into the ground was taken, and I had to set a rock in the hole and set the mount over what I thought would have been the mark's center.]

As much as I've thought of GPS as a pain in the butt at times, it is seeming beautifully low maintenance compared to MT. I take about 15 minutes to set up (if there's already a marker—45 minutes if there's not and I need to install one), and about 5 minutes to take down. The MT crew needs about three hours to set up and about an hour and a half to take down (they check data quality before doing so). So here's our schedule:
8:30 AM MT gets dropped off to take down.
10 or 11 AM I go out and get dropped off, half the MT and their equipment get shuttled to the new site. I break down the GPS and when the helicopter comes back for the rest of the MT group and gear, I hop on as well to get dropped at the new site.
The MT group finishes usually around 2 or 3. We call on the satellite phone for a pickup and Chris, the pilot, arrives shortly.

There are good and bad things about this schedule for me. It means I have my mornings to organize without a big rush to get out early, and it means we're back at a reasonable hour in the afternoon. It also means, however, that we miss lunch in camp, which sometimes affects me greatly. I didn't have a chance to get to the grocery store in Addis as planned, and am left with energy bars and biscuits, both of which for me are definitely a snack and not a meal. Not unless there's cheese and salami involved, which there wasn't. I don't think I have the worst blood-sugar issues ever, but suffice to say, some days were a little rough.

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Our Daily Bread

I’m a little homesick for Pearl Street.

I’m a little dirty and dusty. I think I pulled as much dirt off my face with a wet wipe this morning right after I woke up as I did last night before I went to bed.

The tents are covered with dust, not nearly as bright as they were the day we set them up.

One of these days, I walk down to Ishmael's with Meron to see how ingera is made.

[Polishing the pan.]

[Meron pours the batter.]

[Cover for a few minutes...]

[And pull it off. Ready to go.]

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January 26, 2008

We Got Wings

6:54 AM, 67 deg F / 19.5 deg C in my tent.
The day on which the helicopter is supposed to arrive.

My hair still feels nice from my shower yesterday. It’s glowing red in the light of the sunrise. I love the idea of seeing myself for the first time in a month, and seeing a different person in the mirror. Surely my hair will have grown and my face will look more tanned and rugged.


And the helicopter DID arrive! After we set up the official landing pad and called in the coordinates and.... Oh, wait. I think what actually happened was Tim said to the pilot, 'here are the coordinated for the GPS site on a nearby hill, and you'll see our camp, so just land somewhere in-between.' And that's what he did. In a grand cloud of dust.

[A take-off later in the day, but you get the idea.]

Actually, the reason I don't have pictures of the helicopter's first landing is that I was distracted by these little guys. You can't tell how small they are, but they're bitty little baby goats! So cute! So soft! So clueless! And so many of them!

But back to it--the arrival of the helicopter was, of course, quite a bit of a to-do in town. Everyone, more or less, or at least all the men and children, came out to check it out.

[A small group off men discuss a ways away from the helicopter. The structure to the right is a goat enclosure.]

We put the helicopter to work almost immediately, getting a highly attended safety briefing from the pilot which was translated from English (the pilot is British Kenyan) to Amharic (the national language of Ethiopia) by Shimeles, to Afari by the tall police guard Mohammed. Needless to say, not a short safety briefing. And, as Tim mentioned in his e-mail update, one of the major items was insisting that the magazines be out of the AK-47s at all times in the ship. That, I must admit, is a new item for me.

After the safety briefing, we put in the structural group at their field camp somewhere in the rift.

[Ellen and JR get ready.]

Despite all the excitement, Tim said by the fifth take-off no one was even out watching.

I was on a flight later in the day, to put in the first of the GPS campaign sites. I'll let me journal entry sum it up:


Tim asked if I was excited to head up in the helicopter, and I shrugged. It seemed like a complication to me, although I figured it’d probably be pretty cool.

Then, later in the day, I got into the helicopter. And as soon as we started taking off, I was mesmerized. I was elated. I was fascinated and full of thoughts and observations, only of what was changing before me. I was sucked in. I saw the landscape change from flat dusty plain to lava rock, and cracks—first small, and then wider, and then offset, and then hugely offset into a valley.

[Clearing the dust.]

[Our camp and the town of Digdida, in all their glory...]

[Heading out over the dust plain.]

[Skirting a volcano. Note the small, circular features--these are rock livestock enclosures.]


[As the crust pulls apart, the center drops down.]

When we landed, Shimeles—who had been on the first flight in—said Just walk a little bit, and you will see everything. So I walked a little bit. And I felt like I saw everything. The world dropped away below me into the rift and I felt like I was standing on the brink. I was standing on a lava cliff, columnar basalt dropping vertically into a land of broken bits and long lines of cliffs. Browns, blacks, tans. I could dive into creation. I imagined on my way to the GPS site—carrying my two heavy cases alone, amazingly enough [usually there’s enough help around that I’m not allowed to do anything myself]—that I was walking across ocean floor. This is where it starts. (This may someday be ocean floor….)

[In years past, the group accessed this area via camel trek. But this is as far as they got. Any guesses as to why....? Note that I'm standing at a 100+ ft drop.]

[View straight out across the rift.]

One of the guards came over to see if I needed anything and spoke to me friendlily in Afari, gave up and went back to his spot with the other guards in the shade. So, I got to set up the site all on my own. It was nice.

[The last GPS site in the transect, 3 km from the center of the rift. The mode of work once the helicopter arrived was as follows: Install a GPS instrument and an MT instrument co-located (in essentially the same place) and leave the instruments with 2 guards for two days. Pick up the instruments and move them to a new site. We did this every day, so two sets of instruments and two sets of guards were in the field at all times (when things went well) (there was an issue or two with GPS co-location....]

[The MT group working to install their sensor.]

[Conflicting interests: MT needs sand, GPS needs bedrock.]



[Waiting for our helicopter pick-up.]


[Our guards.]

[On the flight out. Check out those cracks!]

[Back to our neighborhood volcano.]

There was a new addition to our camp by the evening: A biiiiiiiiiig tent with a veranda for the pilot and engineer. “…..our tent,” said Chris, the pilot, and Tim said, “Your palace, you mean?”

In other news, the camel trekkers called to say they made it back to Barantu but the camel drivers hadn't shown up—with the group’s rocks and probably group gear. The cars we'd sent to retrieve them returned with Abdu and the group stayed on in Barantu to spend the night. The thought was that the drivers were probably staying out to argue for another day’s pay. Word came sometime after 9 that they’d arrived demanding dinner, and I think word was this morning that most the gear had gotten back to the group with some exceptions like a long length of rope. Cheeky, cheeky, cheeky.

There are too many people in camp!

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January 25, 2008

Dawn to Dust

Dust. Dust. Dust.

Maybe I should shake out everything in my tent instead of just my sleeping bag. I zip it up and turn it over every morning when I leave my tent so that I don’t get dust inside it, and then carefully pull it out and shake it out every night before crawling in.

Stars are here to the night sky before the moon comes up what pimples are to my shoulders. The joy of the hot, dusty desert.

There is a sound from outside which I hope is an animal and not a person…but I’m not convinced. It sounds like a crazy old woman. Now it is gone. I think I hear it in the distance still, moving away.

Will the helicopter arrive tomorrow? Chris, the pilot, is in Addis today but has been told (it seems) that he needs a military observer on board after all, but he doesn’t have the capacity (fuel, presumably) to bring the weight that far.

The fuel trucks arrived today, three of them, with Eyaya and Dani who’d gone yesterday to Mille to meet them, and one has a leak. Eyaya said it lost a lot of fuel from Mille to Digdiga. Oh dear, as Tim would say.

[The arrival of the fuel trucks. Such an event. Notice that I'm not the only one taking a picture...]

On my way to the bathroom, an older woman carrying water on her back, bent over, her arms wrapped up behind her to hold the jerry can, her low-hanging breasts swaying forward and back as she labored.

[Traditional Afari attire for women: Dark blue and black material wrapped around the waist as a long skirt, scarf if anything on top, beads and braids in hair.]

In the bathroom, an updraft kept my toilet paper from dropping into the hole. Instead it hovered just against the cement.

[The bathroom: (oh, the bathroom:) A concrete structure encasing several small and one or two larger ‘stalls’ each containing a hole in the floor, with a low cement block on either side for your feet. The small ones are for the students, the bigger ones for the teachers. The smaller ones are so small you can barely get inside and close the door. The walls of the nicest one are riddled with abandoned hornets’(?) nests. There is a big rock inside which can be shoved against the door to keep it closed against the wind. I shouldn’t say but will anyway that for pretty much the entire time in camp I had a low-level yeast infection or something that kept me needing to pee frequently and on very short notice, and every time I walked over to the concrete block it was all I could do to get over to that thing and just barely kick the rock against the door before peeing myself. Also, almost everyone in camp had a G.I. issue at some time or another, and the place stank to high heaven—I had to hold my breath every time I stepped in, envious every time of a guy I had just met in Boulder who had no sense of smell. (Would he be offended if I told him I thought of him every time I stepped into our outhouse? I wondered.)]

The structural group (JR, Ellen, Bekele, Tesfaya, Berahu) plus petrologist David Pyle arrived in camp. That makes for—scientists, camp staff, our drivers, fuel truck drivers, police guards from Semera—35 in camp? 33?

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January 24, 2008

Goats, Chat, and Camel Drivers

Wow. It’s January. That’s a little crazy. [Hot in the Ethiopian desert, remember.]

Yesterday* was eventful. The goat was butchered, the chat truck came, the camel drivers went on strike. And we got a lesson in the Afari language. [Gotta love a journal entry that starts that way.]

[*written Jan 25]

Tim and I went in the morning (but not early) out to DA35, here in Digdiga, and installed a campaign marker for the upcoming gravity survey a few meters from the continuous (permanent) GPS site. While we were drilling, a man approached yelling from the back side of the hill. Our police guard from Semera, the smaller Mohammed (because of course there are *two* police guards with us named Mohammed—this brings us to Mohammed #4, I think), who had been out of view, stood up and calmed him. This is why we have guards. Speaking Afari and carrying an AK-47 works wonders. The angry man calmed down and moved on and we got the campaign GPS going and I took a look at the continuous GPS site—no satellites. Hmmm. Antenna cable just barely hanging on to the antenna, maybe by one thread. Bummer. But at least an easy fix. I screwed the antenna on tight and the receiver was back to collecting data.

[The beginning of our campaign GPS work: Glue a metal marker into a hole drilled in the rock, set up the instrument over it and measure, come back and do it next year or whenever and see how the position has changed. Or, in this case, measure for just a little bit to get the height to within a centimeter to use as a correction for the coming gravity measurements.]

When we came back to camp, we parked and headed off with Belay to Ishmael’s to see if he had any soda in. There was quite a crowd gathered outside—around a truck. People and a few long stalks of sugar cane and big bushes of chat in the bed of the truck, and the crowd of people receiving the big bushels of chat gathered round.

[What's all the fuss about? Photo: Tim.]

[It's...... the chat truck! Note the guy just to the left of the truck with the huge bushel of chat and the AK-47. Chat is a mild narcotic which works on you as you chew the leaves. You do swallow the leaves, which makes it seem to me that the act should be described as *eating* chat rather than *chewing* chat, but you chew the leaves up pretty good before swallowing to release whatever it is they've got inside. Folks will hang out chewing chat all through the hot hours of the afternoon, sitting around on mattresses on the ground in cafes or behind store counters (in places where there are cafes and small stores) or otherwise dark rooms. I came into the back room of Ishmael's once towards the end of the project when a group of our gang was back relaxing with some chat and I said Woah, it's dark in here, to which one of them said, 'It's only dark in here because you just came from the light.' Which was kind of funny, because I had just come from Ishmael's front room, which is already dim. 'No,' I said, 'I think it's dark in here because there are no windows.' I mean.....well, *I* thought it was funny. Photo: Tim.]

Men wandered around like beauty pageant winners with bouquets against their shoulders. A man followed us into Ismael’s trying to sell. Abdu was already there, and showed us back into a dark room where we sat on a mat across from three women. A little boy used my knee as support to stand up and I said salam, and he looked at me and at Tim and at me and then turned crying to run for the door but tripped and Ishmael happened in just in time to scoop him up and cover his cheek in kisses.

See these three beautiful women? Abdu said, gesturing to the women across from us. That one is coming back to Semera with me. She has already agreed. She will be my wife. (He is, of course, joking.) (We hope.) Later, Abdu shamelessly pointed at the woman on her right: For Tim, this one, he said. I don’t know that my English wife would like that very much, said Tim. He took some photos of the women in the lovely low light, and of a small boy crouched against the dust-colored door.

[Photo: Tim.]

After our sodas (Cokes for them, Mirinda for me—a frighteningly but deliciously orange drink), we got up but paused in the front doorway. It’s quite a beautiful scene, isn’t it, said Tim. In the kitchen, a woman nursed a baby. Another was cooking. The only girl from our the English class was hanging shyly in the doorway from the kitchen to a back room, and the main room was filled with men and boys. “The whole community in four rooms,” I said. As we turned to leave, Belay and I caught sight of a boy—the one who a few days earlier had been running barefoot through town at high speed with his “car” (a stick with a wheel fixed onto the end)—running around to pick up errant leaved branches of chat. As we walked out, a goat munched on the scattered leaves the boy had left behind.

After lunch, Tim got an anxious call from John on the petrology camel trek: The camel drivers had gone on strike. They’d unloaded the camels and threatened to throw away the rocks. It was, of course, over money. We’d planned to pay 100 birr/day for camel and driver both, and they wanted 200 birr/day—100 for camel, 100 for driver. That is, they said, what the last group paid—the last group being the BBC. So I’ll take a moment here to (start to) talk about money in Afar. Here’s the problem: Everyone wants money. That’s a given, right? The Afari are not business men, do not make much money, and not consistently. And, the men have all the time in the world, since the women are tending to the huts and the children and the food, so why not got on strike? Why not sit around for two hours or more, discussing? Because really, what else is going on? There are no cell phones here, no internet, no daily planners—no running water or electricity, for that matter. So. We have our agenda, and they have theirs—ours has a time limit, and they could care less. And, of course, we need them.

If you pay a guard 100 birr/day one trip, you can’t come back the next trip and expect them to accent 70 birr/day. If a ferangi (white foreigner—obviously very, very rich) comes along and pays what they can afford for a guard and then the Ethiopian nationals like Elias and Gezehegh come along later and want to pay what *they* can afford based on their funding, the Afari won’t have it. So groups like the BBC, who pay way more than groups funded by the Ethiopian government can pay, and our group with its funding mostly from the UK and US, make it difficult for Ethiopian geologists to get anything done on their own in this region. It’s easy for foreigners to cause inflation like this in regions like this—I even heard a waiter in Christchurch, New Zealand, complaining about his fellow Kiwis not tipping, even though it's not part of their culture.

And another thing, back to the camel drivers—it’s not unusual to see one man driving a string of six or more camels, but yet when we come along they *obviously* need one driver per camel. Camels are very high maintenance, you know….when there are foreigners involved.

Anyway. BBC had paid 200 birr/day, apparently. Tim put Abdu on the phone with Gezehegn and then Abdu talked with the elders on the trek, emphatically and unhappily: I told them *you* are responsible for the success of this project, he said to me afterwards. You are the ones making this problem. He’d stood talking and gesturing against the barbed wire fence of the school complex for some time.

Right, and sometime in there the goat’d been slaughtered, over on the other side of the shower, just outside the fence. I saw Sahid (local camp help) and another man, Sahid with a knife glinting in his hand, but opted out of going over to take a look. I’ve heard that the slaughtering process is quite efficient—slit slit and they just pull the skin right off the body. I don’t feel like I need to see it, though.

Later, Meron called me to the kitchen—probably because I’d asked her to get me the other night for the cooking of the ostrich egg. As I followed her, I said to Tim, also heading that direction, “I hope it’s not to show me the dead goat.”


Fortunately, the goat was already in pieces, Sahid and the other man working with a knife to make them smaller. The other man picked up the guts to show us—spongy and tan, not looking like anything that would come from an animal’s insides. I was thankful that they didn’t offer any of it to me.

In the afternoon, at almost 4, Tim and I headed out with Belay and our police guard smaller Mohammed to install and measure a campaign marker by DA25. We chose some rock at the base of the hill right next to a major thoroughfare—hoof-trampled sand. After setting up the site, Tim headed up the slope to have a sit near Belay and Mohammed and a local who wandered in.

[And to make a little call on the sat phone.]

I stood on the plain looking outward, taking pictures of the lengthening shadows and eventually watching a herd of goats and sheep (sheep, as Tim pointed out, always at the back) approach with three young herders.

At first, the boys were curious but shy, and wouldn’t come look at their picture on my camera after I took it. A young man also materialized, and Tim took some pictures while I took down the GPS and emboldened them, and when they came over my way I took some more. I didn’t notice until Tim pointed it out that they had a newborn sheep—born just that day. When I asked to take the boys’ picture, they put the newborn down behind them and posed, and when I tried to ask if I could get the sheep in the shot—guard Mohammed understood, and passed on the thought to them—one of the boys turned to pick it up by the neck and place it in a heap before them, its stub of umbilical cord exposed. Mohammed leaned in to rearrange it for the picture.

[Check out our friend in the foreground. How very GQ, no? What a nut.]

After dinner, sitting around, just about ready to go to bed, Abdu the teacher came and sat down with us enthusiastically, sitting down next to David on the solar panel box and immediately putting—slamming—a hand onto David’s leg. David and I snickered—I doubt David minded, probably not having issues with his masculinity, but still, I doubt he gets that much in the UK. Abdu went on to teach us (again) the numbers in Afari with much repetition, which killed us—every time we nodded after reaching ‘ten’ (‘tabana’) in a thank you, that’s nice, okay, Abdu started again with ‘one’ (‘iniki’). He ain’t a teacher for nothing, I guess. After a while, he excused himself and came back with a sheet of paper filled with English-Afari translations, spelled phonetically so that we didn’t really know what a word was supposed to be until he said it (like ‘it’ for ‘eat’). He put words together into cryptic thoughts, like “house door milk.” The others were thinking he was inviting us to his house for some milk, but since he lives in the school I was a bit skeptical. Or, at best, confused. The lesson went on until we could politely excuse ourselves, which we did with relief.

Note that, according to David, Abdu was a “shifta,” or bandit, along with the town chief until something shifted and the chief became the chief and Abdu became a teacher. He has delicate patterns tattooed onto his forehead that I just today noticed, in the light.

The stars were fantastic before the moon came up. It’s rising later every night (obviously) and is waning—last night it looked just a little squashed.

I have nice little fantasies of a lovely, clean porcelain toilet in a large, clean private bathroom and a nice private shower with hot water. Mmmmmm.

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Waxing Poetic

Two days to helicopter! Not even two weeks yet in Ethiopia…three weeks of the project to go.

Lovely sunrise. This time there were already other people up and talking. Now there is a sound like a radio between stations. Very relaxing. Mmmm…or maybe not.

How quickly the sun rises from orange to yellow. The erratic brushstrokes of clouds in a patch overhead—angel-white in the morning light, contrasting with the heavy grey of the clump of clouds passing below them—make me want to paint.

Ode to the Afari

I want to be strong like the rock-throwing boys,
I want to be strong like the stick-wielding girls—
The men with the beaded Kalashnikov straps,
The women with the beaded headbands.
I want to be strong like the woman who carries,
bent forward, a 5-gallon jerry can of water
on her back,
Like the man who runs back and forth behind his
herd of camels all day.
Like the old women with their creased, worn faces
And the men with their henna-dyed beards,
Cooking all day and negotiating all day and praying
and climbing the rocks, crossing the plains,
searching for water, for brush for my herds.
Using my herds to feed my family—
The rock-throwing boys, and the stick-wielding girls.

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January 23, 2008

Laundry Day

The sun’s just up, and the goats and sheep are going crazy. Puffs of cloud are catching morning color in the sky above me; yellow, and a luminescent white that fades even as I write. What a wonderful time of day. Now there are people talking, and a radio on, and the sound of Graham fussing in his tent behind me, but when I awoke, just before sunrise, the world was still quiet. How nice.

Dani took our laundry this morning so I changed into clean clothes: Shirt and skirt. Appropriate, since today’s the day Tim’s arranged for us to give an English lesson.

I’m quite sure that for years to come the children of Digdiga are going to be saying, “Nice to meet you, Tim” to whoever they happen to meet.

After Tim had taught polite (very English) conversation, I taught the numbers. I wrote my name and the word numbers awkwardly on the board and held up a finger, saying “What’s this?” since some of the kids already knew some English. “Finger,” the only girl in the class said. I should have known better. Poor girl—the laugh should have been on me really, but I’m sure our chuckles embarrassed her.

While we taught the English versions, I asked the kids to teach us the Afari versions, so Tim and Talfan and David and I repeated and immediately forgot the Afari numbers while the kids said the numbers in English like champs.

When I went to take the class picture at the end, I started on the typical ‘1-2-3-click’ but the kids thought I was continuing the lesson, so when I said “One” they said “One!” and when I said “Two” they said “Two!”—the picture was taken, as you might be able to tell, on “Four!”

[Class photo. A sampling of the kids in town, plus the principal and our friend the teacher, Abdu. There are only three Abdus, by the way—Crazy Abdu, Abdu ‘diplomat’, and Abdu teacher. Nothing like keeping track of the Mohammeds.]

Late in the morning, Abdu ‘diplomat’ had a surprise. He had it behind his back when I wandered over that way, and Tim said he had something to show me. For 10 birr in town, he’d bought and ostrich egg!

Quite impressive, beautifully smooth. I felt bad for the ostrich but it was a treat for us. So heavy, seems so strong. Abdu said it was a gift for me, that I should take it back with me, and I said it’d never get through but Tim had the idea of draining it—clever, and I guess obvious—so the egg was drained from a small hole in the shell and we had scrambled ostrich egg for dinner. I would have enjoyed it more if I didn’t see how much oil went into cooking it…

[Our 'kitchen'--the same schoolroom our water is stored in.]

Unfortunately, Eyaya didn’t remind me until it was too late that, being Friday, it was a fasting day, so none of the Christians would try the egg. We also bought a goat too late—why did Meron even approach us about buying a goat today? So instead of slaughtering and cooking the goat this afternoon, since half the camp wouldn’t eat it, we tied it to a storage tent to wait for tomorrow. Poor goat. It seems very uncomfortable. I’m trying not to establish a relationship with it. No eye contact when I pass it on the way to the bathroom.

[And this will be the goat's fate. Don't know quite why they hang the skins on the school's barbed wire, but there were three or four of them there already when we arrived.]

I love Dani. I got a clean bra, shirt, pants, and head scarf.

[Dani’s the best.]

And, I’m dusty already.

[One day of dust. It *was* a clean shirt. And that's just an around-camp day.]

I spent some time this evening after dinner sitting in a plastic chair by my tent. I watched the moon rise. The sky above the hill got lighter, lighter, lighter with its nearing—it was almost killing me. The moon rose red. It’s now bright, shining white.

Sophie and Shimeles (MT group) arrived with another police guard and another driver today. Since the petrology group is out on their trek, that puts us at I think 21 in camp.

I charged up my iPod some on the generator tonight and I’m listening to Crowded House.

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January 22, 2008

Shortcut to DA45

Got up and had breakfast, tossed some things in Belay’s car and headed off to Finto with Tim and Abdu (‘diplomat’) and guard Mohammed Unda (Mohammed #3, I believe?) from town to show us the way. He said there were two ways to get there. We took the northern one, since we were coming from the north.

Lots of wildlife today—gazelles and lots of seguri (Afar for dik-diks or something similar—tiny deer), which were barely bigger than hares… my first time really seeing them (might have caught a glimpse of one last trip, but not sure)… baboons including two different groups up in trees, perched like birds’ nests.

[Didn't mean to scare them.]

[But we did.]

A hare on the way back. And at a riverbed where we stopped for something, lush vegetation—large trees—and these great medium-sized funny-beaked birds that looked very tropical and were very chatty, with a beautiful whistly song.

No problems at Finto. I puttered with the site and Tim paid the guard when we were done. [We hire a guard or guards to be responsible for the instrument and pay them ahead a few months].

[The view down at Finto from our site.]

[Tim sits. Guards behind.]

[Site guard.]


[Local guard, visitors, and our guard Mohamed from Digdiga with his argyle socks.]

I stood out in the street taking pictures of kids while they got started with the money stuff.

Abdu told us that the guard said he polishes the solar panel every day. Indeed, it looked very clean.

[A crowd gathers. I had to keep stepping back and taking another picture, and then another, and then another, because more kids wanted in. And note that they are ALL BOYS.]

[It seems that there is always some young man that wants in on the picture with (or without) the kids. In this case, it was this one.]

[I was lucky enough after the mayhem to get this girls to stand for me.]

[Everyone puts on their best serious face for photos, but I waited just long enough for these girls to start cracking nervous smiles.]

Tim and I decided we’d like to take the other way to Finto back, to see it (and record it on our handheld GPS), and we tried to express this. Instead, our site guard (the one living in Finto) offered to show us a shortcut to DA45, the next site we wanted to visit. Shortcut…the very word makes me nervous. Uhhhh…is this such a good idea? But the guard got in to share the front seat with our day guard, Mohammed, and we followed the pointing hand of our guard offroad over sometimes flat but frequently bumpy terrain (brush and streambeds), and after a few km we stopped the car and… the guard got out. He explained the rest of the route to Mohammed in Afari, and sent us on our way.

Belay was not happy. Tim and I were skeptical. Abdu was optimistic. Tim and I kept track of the distance left to the site with his handheld GPS and maybe halfway through the 18 km Abdu said, This was a good idea. What?? said Tim and I. We don’t even know if we’ll make it yet! You’re an optimist, said Tim. Even if it’s a bad idea, we should say it’s a good idea, said Abdu.

About 5 km from the site, we came to a riverbed that looked promising. Wouldn’t the going be easier along its smooth floor? So we drove down into it…and almost immediately got stuck. No more Belay driving in the sand. And what’s more, he tried to get out before everyone was back from scouting out the terrain up ahead, leaving only Mohammed and I to push, digging our feet into the sand, filling our sandals with sand and gravel, and though we gained a bit of ground we mostly just dug ourselves in deeper. When Tim and Abdu got back, we dug around the wheels again, put rocks in front of the back wheels, tried again with everyone, stopped, pulled one of the rocks out, and when Tim explained to Belay that he should drive to the gravelly patches and away from the sand once he got moving, Belay said ‘Okay’—handed Tim the keys—‘You drive!’ Not bitterly, but seeming happy to hand over the task. So Tim, looking a little taken aback, climbed in and the rest of us took our places behind the truck. Again, we dug our feet into the sand, and Tim made slow progress until he finally pulled up ahead of us, out of the riverbank, and there we were, 100 meters or so later, back on the main road to Digdiga. Shortcut over.

When we’d approached DA45 that morning, a group of boys in a riverbed just before the nearest village threatened us with rocks. Abdu rolled down his window and reprimanded them. He said they get angry because the cars scare their goats away. (I said maybe they shouldn’t bring their goats so close to the road…) In the afternoon, while Tim and I were at DA45 where I was downloading the data while Tim had a look around, Tim announced that he could see the rock-throwing boys down below. They were taking positions, advancing. Then Tim announced laughing that Abdu was chasing them all with a stick and they were running down the road in retreat. By the time we were done with the site and headed down, the boys were all hanging happily around the car. Oh, they are now friendly, we said to Abdu. You have tamed them. I said Salam and the boys all answered, immediately, even the fiercest of the bunch with his small, sharp features—a striking kid—Salamno, some with smiles even.


As soon as we got back, while it was still light, I got a shower. First one, from our little battery-powered shower. Cold at first, then warm as I became cold from standing around with wet skin.

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January 21, 2008

Adventure to Teru and Barantu

Let’see: Left this morning with the petrology camel trekking crew so I could service Barantu and then Teru on the way back and it turned into a bit of an ordeal [big surprise]. I rode with Belay, Gezehegn, Lorraine, and Charlotte, because Charlotte found a Phil Collins greatest hits tape in Balay’s car and this somehow excited us. Apparently we weren’t the only ones who had ever been excited about the tape, because it sounded like Phil was singing from under the future Afar sea. [In lots and lots of time, the land here will sink enough that water will come in and there will be a sea like the Red Sea. Probably by that time there won’t be any Phil Collins tapes around, though.]

The drive is beautiful—over some cool lava frlows with a pavement of small columns, big volcano in the background, and cinder cones near and far. We made it to Teru fine.

In Teru, the town seemed to [seemed to? I find this funny now. Of course, it absolutely did!] gather outside the administrative building where we’d gone to sort the petrology group’s guards for the trek.

[John. Classic.]

[And the man says, Want to buy this? I always say No thank you, but it's very pretty.]

We eventually loaded two guards in our car and two in Eyaya’s and we headed off to Barantu—and got stuck in the sand. Eyaya made it through but we didn’t, and we tried to get out and Eyaya came back and with sticks and digging and pushing and Eyaya pulling with his car, we got out—and then got stuck again about ten feet along. Belay hasn’t mastered the art of *not* revving the engine once stuck and kept digging himself in again and again and again. Did it again from a different direction. Eyaya’s cargo (John and Abdu and Osman) came along (they’d been left up ahead) with all sorts of brilliant strong ideas about what we needed to do (most of which we’d already been trying)—whew, good thing they came along to save the day—and those didn’t work either. (I have to admit to being smugly happy about this, after they rushed in so, so very knowingly.) Eyaya went back to Teru and came back with a pick-up truck and *then*, after much prep work and people who are probably getting trucks unstuck from the sand all the time, the truck got out. Hooray!

[It's never good when you're clearing sand out of your tailpipe.]

[I handed my camera off to one of our new local friends, and this is what I got.]

[Sometimes, you have to put down the AK-47.]

[And---we're out!]

[I had to sneak this picture, aiming without looking through the viewfinder. The girls were alternating between shy and aggressive, one of them threatening anyone who came near her (the locals; we ferangi weren't harassing the poor girl) with a stick. I'm telling you--these girls are tough.]

We got in and headed off—at high speed, Charlotte and Lorraine with their eyes shut—to Barantu. And made it.

And then proceeded to hang tight while Dr. Gezehegn headed off to meet the officials. Abdu found the guard for our GPS site and he, the guard, and I went up to download it.

[Taking care of the site--now that we're here.]

All was well but he didn’t want us to pay him in public so we went back down to the ‘café’ where we’d been waiting and in a bit Abdu beckoned me back out and we went up to the guard’s home. Which was very exciting, since I’d never been in a traditional hut before. We ducked in—very awkward, because the opening is very low—and squatted inside. Two people were back along the far side and a woman was cooking over a fire, a young child at her side. She fried bread—Ethiopian fast food, said Abdu when I asked if it was traditional—which was offered to us and which we then took out with us to offer around back at the café.

[The cafe.]

When Gezehegn came back, nothing was resolved—the trek was planned for an area along the disputed border of two kabales (precincts) and each wanted representation on the trek. Over 30 men joined around Abdu to crouch in a circle (most were onlookers) and discuss. The final, simple, obvious solution: Four camel drivers from one group, four from the other.

[Not even the main discussion.]


After the matter was resolved—at maybe 3:30—we unloaded the cars, said goodbye and good luck, and headed out. To Teru. I got up on the roof of the administrative building via a sketchy ladder to download the GPS in peace. Well, relative peace. I had to pee pretty bad as soon as I got up there. I figured the roof was constructed for rain, so the run-off probably wouldn’t go directly into the building, right? But the sound might be suspicious… and the smell… Yes, I actually did think these things. And I held it.

[The black towers are vengence towers, there to remind neighboring tribes that they've still got it coming to them. As in, you killed one of ours, we've still gotta getcha back.]

[From my tent at night:] Foxes or jackals calling, a falling, whistling noise, interspersed with high-pitched barking.

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January 20, 2008

Gettin' out into It

Hmmmm, let’s see: I watched the sun rise while I brushed my teeth, had a lovely breakfast of fresh, pancake-y bread and honey and peanut butter, the local chief came ‘round in the morning quite friendly and looking quite jovial, and Tim and I headed off with Tedi driving and a happy local guard to Yirga Alita to service the GPS.

[The chief says hello.]

Things for the GPS looked grim. The guard said the people living there had left when there was a flood. [We only install instruments where there are settlements that we think are permanent, otherwise the instruments get vandalized.] There were plenty of stone structures but no signs of actual life in sight. Tim and I both figured the instrument was gone--but it wasn’t. Operating and fine. After just a little bit, me sitting on a rock in the little rock-walled and thorn-bush-lined enclosure around the GPS and Tim waiting with Tedi and the guard outside, a herd of goats appeared on the ridge above us and then came down towards us and soon there were little bitty goats up against the thorn bushes which the guard shooshed away. Delightful! Wish I could have gotten a good look at them. While I worked, Tim used my camera to shoot the herders, the guard, and himself and Tedi with the AK-47.

[Photo: Tim.]

[Check out the teeth: This is a typical cosmetic thing to do. Photo: Tim.]

[Photo: Tim.]

[Photo: Tim.]

[Photo: Tim.]

[Photo: Tim.]

[Photo: Tedi.]

[Photo: Tim.]

[Photo: Tim.]

[Photo: Tim.]

[Photo: Me.]

[Photo: Me.]

Then to DA25, which didn’t look as good. Tedi said he felt sick—GI problems—and we thought DA25 would be a quick stop but we ended up spending three hours there. The connector for the solar panel had failed—a wire had come loose—and blah blah fixed it temporarily at least and our guard had a nice nap and then we moved on.


[Tim gets a lesson on the fold and tuck.]

Beautiful spot, though, and I was reminded how sometimes there’s just not enough time to look around. My attention was on the instrument. Bummer! (Although without the instrument, I would never even be here…)

In the evening, ended up in a religious discussion with three of our Ethiopian colleagues—one Muslim, one Christian, and one atheist—sounds like the beginning of joke, doesn’t it?—and at times, it was indeed quite funny. Like when X made an argument for God by asking who created what (who created that battery? Humans. So who created humans?...) and later Y said atheists are sub-human and not created by God and then I was seriously confused about the nature of creation.

Abdu suggested a walk and he and Osman and I strolled through town and went into a ‘backyard’ to see goats. I love goats. “Let us witness some of their love,” Abdu said. Two tiny goatlets (I know they’re kids, but I wrote that in my journal and it kills me) were trying to nurse off the same adult, who promptly turned and gave one of them a good solid head butt. So much for witnessing their love. Then Abdu picked up the denied kid and I got to *pet* it! So soft! So cuddly! Okay, not cuddly… but so soft! Gray and white. Very cute.

Graham and Dani and some of the drivers erected a shower today. A stall of posts and blue tarps, and a battery-powered pump and shower head for the water. Such luxury.

The moon is almost full and is bright bright bright.

The food has been fantastic!

Oh—and windy in camp this afternoon— = DUSTY. Everything in my tent covered in a layer of fine dust. Great.

Gazelles today! And an ostrich and a big, long-necked, tan-white bird with a black Mohawk the Afari call andola [turns out it’s a kori bustard].

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January 19, 2008


[First night of camping, in our temporary set-up. Photo: David.]

We watched the sun come up from our sleeping bags, and now that dawn has broken we have visitors to camp: First, the two girls that lingered after the rest of the kids last night: A girl who looks about ten with a scarf wrapped round her shoulders, brown-tinged hair around her face, and the pocket-size girl, as Charlotte and I have deemed her, a very small girl who looks to be collapsible and pocket-sized. Very, very sweet. She wears a dark dress with a light-colored pattern on it, and a beaded headband. Both girls, especially the small one, look very skeptical.

[Polly Pocket. Photo: Charlotte.]

[I so wish I could take credit for this photo but this one, too, is Charlotte. I'm so glad that *someone* got pictures of Polly Pocket, at least, because she's got to be one of the most beautiful girls in the world.]

Donkeys bray.

Looks like we’ll be staying in the school compound after all, so most the group is busy unpacking the water. Two locals walk out of the compound, one with a radio in his arm playing music.

[Tim had asked Ethioder, the travel company that we always use to provide vehicles and drivers, to take care of water. Because, although there is a borehole well in Digdiga (right behind our camp, by the way), we needed to bring our own water. All of it. Water for drinking, cooking, washing. And someone for some reason (and it may be a perfectly good one) decided that it made the most sense to bring this huge amount of water up in 2 liter bottles. Or, as it turned out, 1.8 liter bottles. Unloading the water truck took all of us over an hour.]

[Our water stash, unloaded into one of the classrooms. Photo: David.]

[Later] Tim and Gezehegn and I think Mohammed student and Abdu and Loraine and Charlotte and Osman are in the neighboring (one hour away) town of Teru meeting with officials and arranging for camels for the petrology group’s camel trek.

I am working on getting organized. No shortage of flies here. In the large red tent, which is open on one side, sitting ‘round with David and Talfan. I have a mild rash on the backs of my hands.

And, I just got my elbow kissed. Sitting outside one of the drivers’ tents to say hello, and an older woman walked up to me, dark skin creased, a beaded necklace—she’s outside our big tent now, just walked up, is patting her belly, just asked for water but she’s already got Eyaya’s bottle in an arm. He happens by and gives her an almost-empty bottle of water anyway, and she is grateful and looks happy.—the same woman, she took my hand in hers and kissed it, and then again twice, and then took my elbow and kissed it, and then my hand again, and I was wondering if I should then kiss hers and Meron looked back, said baka (enough), and then the woman went to her instead and stood her up and kissed her hand and Meron kissed hers and I escaped back to the big tent.

[There is a hand-kissing custom in Afar whereby instead of a handshake two people greet by taking turns kissing the other's hand, generally 1 kisses 2, 2 kisses 1, 1 kisses 2 again, and then I think it's done. But none of us really wanted to get into this because none of us really knew how to know when to end it.]

[Another visitor to camp: He asks, Is it valuable?]

When Tim and the others come back in the afternoon, we decide to venture out in search of cold beverages.

The big local event is walking down the length of town to it's one cafe, which we call Ismael's because it's run by Ismael.

[The street of Digdiga.]

Of course, the big event for the locals was watching Tim walk in his local attire.


Digdiga is a town of about, say, 100 or 200 people and 20 or 40 homes (I'm bad with numbers). The whole region is pastoralist, mostly nomadic with only a few permanent communities. There are places like Saha and Digdiga with government-built clinics and schools, which attract year-round communities. There are others, like Yirga Alita where we had a GPS site, that disappear when the water does.

Digdiga is somewhat major because, like I said, there is a borehole well, and also it is along the main road. I mean, that's obvious, right? It's pictured above. Busy, busy, busy.

[Through our barbed wire.]

[The borehole well just behind camp.]

[Lonely tree.]

[The neighborhood.]

[Eyaya, driver extraordinaire.]


[Our newly-set-up tents, glowing in the evening light. The glow won't last long--oh no, oooohhhh nooooo.]

[That night] Our first camp meal: Fantastic! *Rice* and break and ingera and vegetables (carrots and potatoes and onions) and shiro (bean paste). Very good. If I keep eating like this, I’m going to be putting on weight rather than losing it. [Note: They cook the rice with cardamom, and it ends up resembling something like love. David and I kept looking around and ladling just a little more rice onto our plates, and then a little more, and then—what, no one else is going to eat any more of this?—just a little more.]

Amazing lighting tonight, the low yellow light of the sun. Fabulous.

Another Land Cruiser arrived with the first part of the MT group: Graham and Kathy with driver Workineh. That puts us at I think 23 people in camp.

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January 18, 2008

Semera to Digdiga: Welcome to Your New Home

From the camera and from the journal:

[Lunch stop.]

[Blackmarket petrol: Last available.]

[Traditional Afari hut.]

Our convoy today increased once we left pavement from our four Toyota Land Cruisers with the scientists, police guards (w/ AK47s), a local administrator (Abdu—not the crazy one), a local geologist (Osman), and, of course, drivers, to include the addition of a water truck (lorry loaded w/ 2 liter water bottles) and a pick-up loaded with petrol and a large tent. Most of the route today was dirt track, mostly dry with only one ‘stream’ crossing that could have been dicey, but we all made it through.

Saw a bunch of interesting birds—large grouse-like ground birds (francolins), large black-and-white birds our driver referred to as eagles, a medium-small iridescent turquoise bird, and a large turquoise-and-white bird with a long tail. I didn’t see the dik-diks (miniature deer) that others saw, but there were two foxes not too far from the road, and no shortage of goats and ‘sheep’ (Tim calls them geep because they seem like a cross between a goat and a sheep) and cattle (with biiiig, full horns) and camels.

I have a watch mark already from the sun, from yesterday. I was wearing long sleeves and a hat so I didn’t put sun block on. Some of it washed off in the shower, but not all of it.

Brown day. Clouds.

On the road to Digdiga: Brown, black, rubbly.

We’ve just arrived at our base camp in Digdiga, from where we’ll do the work—brilliant. A camp, which means room to move, open space, fresh air, and I won’t be in a car all day every day like last time besides, because some work will be by helicopter. Lovely. This could be quite a nice month after all.

[Welcoming committee.]

[Our new home.]

The town officials told us we could crash out in the school complex for the night since we arrived pretty late, and we'll figure out what to do longer term tomorrow.

Dinner tonight was tuna on bread—I imagine once camp is established we’ll be eating something slightly more elaborate—and now we’re sitting around a candle chatting.

Tim: “Is there anyone in the bathroom?”
John: “Bathroom’s probably not the right word but there’s a shack over there that’s got no one in it.”

Charlotte is reading the Bible. John is delivering shots of whiskey. It’s about 9 PM. Bedtime, all gridded out on a tarp, 3 x 3, with John and Tim in cots alongside. 74.5 degrees F. Someone in the compound is singing along enthusiastically to a radio. My lips taste like DEET. The drivers' sleeping quarters are a step above ours—to protect against the wind, they’ve formed a blockade with their cars and set up their foam mattresses side by side between the cars and the wall of the schoolhouse. Their conversation sounds a lot more interesting than ours too—lots of big laughter. We’re pretty mellow.

It’s really quite lovely out: Cool enough to sleep in a sleeping bag straightaway! A nice breeze, temperature-wise, but it also picks up some sand. We’ve been told that it will probably be windy tonight.

I hear voices echoing from inside the school where some people are sleeping and there is an occasional child’s voice from off in the village, and that’s it. The moon is over half full, and is waxing, and provides a decent amount of light. It’s Talfan’s first time sleeping out under the stars.

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January 17, 2008


We’re not yet to base camp, but I have work to do. I have to revisit Saha, a village—really, just a place with a school building and a clinic building as far as I can tell—just a bit north of Semera. Last year, I installed a campaign marker and measured it. This year, I need to install a continuous (permanent) site there. Fortunately, it’s the only continuous site I need to install. After this, it’s just servicing existing continuous sites (downloading data, mainly) and measuring campaign sites.

“Ellen gave me the number of Abdu, who she said is really good for Saha,” Tim tells me. Ellen works mainly with the seismic group and was here last year when I was. “Really?” I ask. Ellen seems to me to be very reasonable, and this doesn’t sound like something a reasonable person would say. I worked with Abdu last year, and I personally would describe him as somewhat crazy. In fact, that is how I come distinguish him from the other Abdu we work with. I guess he could be Saha Abdu, but he’s not. To me, he’s Crazy Abdu.

Still, we have to use Abdu. He knows the way, and the way to Saha changes with the rains. So we pick up Abdu so he can lead the way with his barking commands of Right! Left! (in Amharic) with his whole arm pointing the way from the back seat.

Last time, he brought a buddy along who he said needed a ride. Fine and good, but it turned out the man needed a ride *back* as well—which means he didn’t really need a ride to Saha at all. At the end of the day, Abdu claimed he was a guard and that we needed to pay him accordingly. This time, Abdu said we needed to bring another guard, and we said no way because we already had Mohammed (and this is just the SECOND Mohammed introduced so far), an official police guard assigned to us by the Afari government. Also along was Osman, a geologist based in Semera who had also been assigned to us. Since Abdu couldn’t bring along another guard, he pulled a young woman and a girl into the car because he said they needed a lift. (It’s always something. Have I said that already?) I had gotten the front seat and looked to Mohammed and Osman in the back—Are you sure? I asked them, but I think they didn’t get it. *They* were going to have to put up with five people across the back seat, and I was leaving it culturally up to them to make the call. All the way to Saha? I asked Osman. It’s going to be uncomfortable, I said. No, said Osman, not all the way.

Of course, they came all the way to Saha.

[Me, Mohammed out of sight behind me, Osman, and Crazy Abdu with his women.]

Since I had some elbow room up front, I scratched the following in my journal on the drive:

On the road to Saha: Mirages. Tiny birds flying away from the car along the ground.

Dunes to our left now. Ostriches on the right. The males run; the female stays, flapping her wings. Maybe, they say, protecting an egg.

Now, a large herd of multi-colored goats. The child watching the herd gets up from under a tree to run out and wave.

By the lava flow, two brown birds that blend with the sands, long necks, like egrets.


Abdu has a camera phone, which Ellen told me later that he showed them excitedly last time, not even mentioning that his wife gave birth that day. (Camera phone, baby—I mean, which would *you* consider a bigger event?) None of the photos on the phone were of the baby. He showed me a photo of Ellen and photos of other scientists I didn’t recognize. He took one of me.


Saha was a busy, busy place this time. At least five camel herds went by while we were there. When the first two big herds came by, I took pictures from our site, but when another two approached I wanted to get (politely) a little closer. I figured I’d walk up to the front of the clinic and get a decent shot from its cover, but Abdu followed me and urged me out: “Come on,” he said, waving me ahead with his hand. I had thought the herders were singing as they went along—What a nice way to pass the journey, I thought—but I now realized the driver was making noise to keep the herd moving, whoops and hollers and shouts, running back and forth behind the herd with a stick.

We approached the second herd and the driver came running out to talk to Abdu, who knows everyone around here, and they seemed to be negotiating—I thought I heard the herder say 7 birr, and guessed he was asking for money for the pictures I took, which of course annoyed me, but they kept talking and Abdu said ferangi (white foreigner—which usually means someone is eyeing us for money) and somehow it ended with the herder handing Abdu his stick and running off. Come on! said Abdu, and—suddenly, somehow, there we were driving the herd. Or, Abdu was, running along back and forth and making noise and hitting the slower camels with the stick while I took pictures.

When we were getting a bit past the GPS site and I remembered the responsibilities I’d had before I became a camel driver and I was starting to feel a bit guilty for leaving Eyaya and Osman to do the drilling—and was wondering how long and how far we’d be driving this herd of camels besides—we stopped, and the herd stopped, and I looked up ahead to see the original driver standing out front with a single camel. “He is milk the camel,” said Abdu. “You can photo.” But I didn’t, unfortunately, because it wasn’t a very good shot. When he finished, the driver brought over his basket of milk and handed it to Abdu, who handed it to me. ‘Well,’ I thought of possible health risks, ‘at least it’s fresh.’ And I took a sip. And handed it promptly back to Abdu, who took a gulp. Mohammed, the police guard, appeared with an empty water bottle, and he and Abdu briefly tried to transfer some of the milk from the basket to the bottle. Since it didn’t work so well, the three of us just passed the basket around, me taking small sips—I’m not a big milk fan to start with, unless it’s chilled and with Oreos—and them taking gulps. Warm, frothy, and smoother than I’d anticipated.

When the milk was gone, the driver and herd left, with no money exchanged. “Vitamin A,” Abdu and the soldier said as we walked back to the GPS site. “Vitamin C.” They seemed quite happy indeed.

Oh, and right, we installed the site. Turns out the batteries I brought to run the drill stunk, so the going was very slow, and we had to take a few “mandatory rests” to charge the batteries off our solar panel. So the whole ordeal took us probably four hours instead of one and a half.

[Osman and Eyaya drilling.]

[The finished product: The GPS antenna is on the mast, and the receiver which stores the data is in the box under the solar panel.]

[Mohammed, Abdu, Osman.]


And my scribblings on the drive back:

The little things piss me off, and I remember some of them from last time. Like, the seat belt REALLY pissses me off. [The seat belt catches when there is sudden motion, as seat belts are supposed to, which means it seizes up constantly on the bumpy roads, and when I tried to lean forward to get something from the floor it would stick.]

Beautiful, beautiful evening.

It seems that everything that can possibly shimmer in the sunlight does—mostly things that are living. Birds careening away from the car, oryx, baboons alongside the main road. Why is it that we shine? The baboons outlined from a distance by their fur halos.

[And then, when we got back, we got into an argument with Abdu about pay. I went to pay him 100 birr like I did last year, which to me seems generous, and he wanted double that, because he said that’s what the seismologists paid him last time. We compromised at 150. Come to find out from Ellen that they indeed paid him 200—the time *before* last, because of a big argument that she and her fellow student, M--, just didn’t want to fight.]


Okay, I know it’s already been a long day with a long story, but there’s always another ordeal.

This time, it was getting up to the roof of the Semera police training center.

Because of the problem with the batteries for the drill, Saha took forever, and we didn’t get back until kind of late, and so by the time I got to the police training center with driver Belay and camp manager Dani to download data it was already 5:30. My preferred way to access the site is through a glassless window in a classroom which looks onto the landing that houses our equipment, but the door to the classroom was locked. “The man with the key is already gone for the night,” the men there told me. “You’ll have to come back tomorrow.” But tomorrow early we were planning to head out for the long drive to Digdiga, so that was no good. Think. “Is there a ladder?” I asked. Ladder, surprisingly, was not part of their limited English vocabulary, so I mimed it, and there was a flurry of talk and action. Dani and Belay went running off jovially with one of the men and the three of them came back with a beautiful, sturdy, long, metal ladder, which is what we used to install the site last year in the first place. Perfect. I climbed up and began downloading data in the dark. Dani and Belay came up to join me. “That man is crazy,” said Belay. “He wanted 50 birr for the ladder.” What?? “Really?” I asked. “50 birr?” “Yes,” said Belay. “I gave it to him.” Great. 50 birr for a ladder. That’s half a day’s pay for our police guards. We could probably MAKE a ladder around here for 50 birr. (Just to put it in perspective—50 birr is about 5 bucks US.) The download was taking forever, and after 45 minutes or so the man who’d rented us the ladder popped his head up over the ledge. He seemed friendly enough. “He wants to know how much more time,” Belay translated. “Ummm…. Sorry, it’s still going to be a while… maybe 20 minutes?” A brief exchange. Belay says, “He wants 15 birr more for the ladder.” Great. So, what, does he charge by the hour? A freakin’ ladder….But what can you do, when you’re at the top of it and you know you’ll want to get down?

From my journal:
Tonight, a special dinner for a special price: For 60 birr each [almost as much as the ladder!], a buffet! Fantastic. Platters and platters of food came out, two of each dish, and when Tim saw a plate of fries come out his face lit up with recognition and he exclaimed, I think involuntarily, Chips! I guess we all like something familiar.

Charlotte went with Yaasin after dinner in search of camel meat. She said she was paraded the length of the street between Yaasin and his cousin, each holding one of her arms, and by the end of the street she was surrounded by young men, most of which were bigger than Yaasin and his cousin. They apparently asked around for camel meat but were unsuccessful; instead, they sat down at a place next to his sister’s or cousin’s and ordered camel’s milk. Charlotte can’t stand milk. They brought a large container, which scared her, but then a smaller glass, which she figured she could handle, taking a sip and passing it on. But then everyone wanted their own glass and she was stuck with hers, and everyone leaned in to watch her drink it. She said she was skeptical, and made them try theirs first.

The temperature outside is still lovely, but in our room it’s hot and humid—I took a wonderful shower tonight and now the water won’t shut off. It’s just gushing onto the bathroom floor. So it goes.

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January 16, 2008

Nazaret to Semera

The following is mostly just the stream of thoughts and info that I wrote in my journal as we drove along.

Before I got to it, though, we made a couple field trip stops for geology.

[A difficult place to be walking in sandals.]

[The science gang: Mohammed, Yaasin, Lorraine, Dr. Gezehegn, Tim, John, David, Talfan, Charlotte.]


Field trip stop two was not too far down the road. Eyaya said, basically, if we continue like this we'll never get there.

[Dr. G. explains.]

[Charlotte takes notes.]

[Yaasin and Mohammed document.]

I asked Yaasin [the undergraduate student along, who happens to be from Afar] if there is a road all the way to where he’s from. He answered by saying it is a plain; if you want to drive there is nothing to prevent you.

The plain here seems to go on forever, yellow in the sunlight and spotted with acacia, but at the end of forever there is a cut-out of layered blue mountains. Some of them are sharply peaked, like the huts of the Oromo. Occasionally, a volcano-mimicking black mound created by ants or termites. We are in Afar now.

Eyaya points out a bus packed with people and says to us, “You know what we call that one?” “What?” I ask. “Al Qaida.” I don’t say anything, or maybe just huh. I’m not sure what to think. He explains: “Because they kill so many people.” Got it. Note to self: Do not take the bus.

Finally, no signs of civilization, except the road and a very tidy series of electrical poles.

We are in Esa country—people from Somalia. There are conflicts between the Esa and Afari, so here no one grazes their cattle, no one lives, Eyaya explains. That is why the grass is so tall. That is why there is a lot of military along here (which I have not seen). There is a town here, Gadamaitu, which is contraband. The birds depicted on the 1 Birr note lives here; Eyaya pointed one out to us.

No more trees. Only bushes. Okay, the occasional tree.

Sometimes they kill a driver of a big truck on this road, and when the government asks the Esa, they say It was the Afar, and when they ask the Afar they say It was the Esa.

205 km to Mille.

Gadamaitu: Vegetable oil is very cheap, is stacked in yellow jerry cans, comes straight from Somalia. “There is also a lot of electronics.”

Back into volcanics; a cliff of columnar basalt not far off the road and, closer, a tank.

Coming up on a military base.

Small town (Felowha) of thatched huts—acacia trees locally referred to as guyani. Nothing else is grown with this tree. Cattle will not eat it. It is grown for charcoal. The government doesn’t want to grow this plant. Some palms mixed in with the huts to our right, dark volcanic hills. To our left, tall grasses along the Awash river. They cut the acacia, but it grows back.

Now we come to Amas Aburri. 20 km from Gewane. More thatched huts, and a good deal of permanent, multi-story buildings—there is an agricultural technical college. Also the domed huts of the Afari.

Looming ahead is Ayero. Tall mountain. Dark but glazed in yellow grasses. The trees are back—I assume because we are close to the Awash river.

And…back to scrubland. Tan termite mounds.

Cotton plantation down in the plain of the Awash. Lime green. Irrigation from the Awash.

Gewane. Man standing on the outskirts outside a thatched hut with a sheep under his arm.

Like Lorraine said, big sky.

At the town of Indifu, back in Esa territory. You can tell the difference between the two, said Eyaya. You can see it? No, I said. The Esa have long faces, said Eyaya, like in Somalia. The Afar is more round.

Passing lots of cell towers.


Not even any brush in this area, hardly—just dried grasses.


Adaitu = end of Esa. Stopped for a coffee.

Traditionally dressed herders. Women with bolts of bright red fabric, girls with beads hanging down the middle of their foreheads.

We are listening to a worn tape on the car radio: Tedi Afro = popular singer, concerts around the world. Says Dani: Like Michael Jackson! Lorraine and I hope that is the only way he is like Michael Jackson.

People begging alongside the roads, hand out, palm up.

Plain: Flat flat flat flat flat.

Birds perched at the very tops of trees and bushes.

Here, past Mille a bit, not even grasses. Silts, and some shrubs.

On the edge, layered basalts. Quite impressive.

Eyaya says the Awash dam is done and the area is now filled with water. So, the road has changed. Before it was cotton, now it is for sugar plantation.

Here we are—back in Semera. In the guest house.

My mosquito net was left partially down (usually they are bundled up into a hanging knot when not tucked around the bed) and open through the evening so that after I tucked it down around the mattress I shone my flashlight about and found a collection of mosquitoes assembled up in the corner. Enclose myself with mosquitoes or let them come and go freely? So I opened up the net and pulled my sheet completely over me.

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January 15, 2008

Leaving Nothing Till the Last Minute

Fortunately, all we had to do on Monday was get our equipment from the foreign goods office of the University, tie a few things up at the Geophysical Observatory, check out of the hotel, withdraw some money and hop online one last time at the Hilton, run a few last errands, and get back to the hotels to load up the cars. Needless to say, we didn’t get on the road until about 4 PM, which was our latest-possible-get-out-of-town-cut-off. And, on the way out of town, we stopped at a machine shop to pick up some metal pins for the GSP markers.

Still, we made it out. That in and of itself was a great feat.

Our convoy included the GPS group (Tim and me), the petrology group (David, Talfan, Lorraine, John, and Charlotte, all from the UK, as previously introduced, plus Addis Ababa University professor Dr. Gezehegn and his recently graduated student Mohammed (oh, and that’s just the START of the Mohammeds) and his current student Yaasin), and camp staff (Meron, our cook, and Dani, camp manager). And, of course, one driver per car. Four cars (Toyota Land Cruisers) total. I was in a car with Meron, Dani, and Lorraine, with Eyaya driving. Eyaya is the best.

We drove for all of a couple hours and stopped for the night in the bustling town of Nazaret. And I’m not being sarcastic this time about the descriptor ‘bustling’—this town was way larger than I’d expected, with big concrete hotels and everything. Since I’m not taking any malaria meds—I think I’m the only foreigner making this choice—I lathered on the bug juice and diligently used the mosquito net over my bed. It may seem dumb to not take malaria meds, but here’s my reasoning: There is essentially no risk in Addis and none at our destination in Afar, so we’re taking meds for the one-to-two nights on the road on the way up and on the way back that we’re in malaria territory. Why pump chemicals into my body for nothing?

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Almost Leaving

Well here I am at the Hilton hopping on for the last time to the internet to say a few little words before we start our trip north. We've been rushing around all morning getting things in order so that we can head out this afternoon. I think the big question at this point is whether everything we're planning to bring will fit into the three cars we're taking, but other than that things are looking good. If a little confusing, coordinating multiple groups and their gear. Tim was changing money (the Hilton is a good place to do it) and I'm taking advantage of their internet connection.

Yesterday afternoon and evening was spent, from 1:30 until almost 11 PM, getting our equipment out of customs. This is actually pretty quick, but it surely felt like a long time yesterday. Waiting and waiting and more waiting, with a few scene changes (but no food or drink) in between. Fortunately, all the GPS stuff is now in one of our cars and seems intact. Hooray! Outlook for getting work done is good.

Today, we'll drive as far north as we reasonable can, and I unfortunately think I'll be dozing for a good bit of it because I'm feeling quite sleepy. Happy enough, though, which is good.

And if I'm writing funny it's because I'm surrounded by Brits. Well, a variety of folks from the UK. I'm afraid I won't be able to speak English when I get home.

My mother has agreed to post any updates on the blog that I can pass along to her, which will probably be few and far between and a bit botched by the satellite phone. Thanks, Mom!

Preparing for heat and lava....

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January 14, 2008


And I don’t mean culture. Although I suppose a country’s bureaucracy is a reflection of it’s culture, and Ethiopia loves paperwork. (In even quite remote places with dirt floors and no permanent structures you can sometimes get a stamped receipt in a restaurant.)

Long hours, no food, just a few more steps, we’ll do all this for you today so that all you have to do is pick it up tomorrow—but is there any chance we can get it today? I ask—, ours is a rush process so that helps, just two more steps but now the computers are down and it is already after 6 and everyone helping us wants to go home, so come back tomorrow, but can’t we just check once more? I ask and the computers have come back up, so there’s that step taken care of and now it’s just the inspection. Nothing is ever “just” one thing or another, which is why I wanted to push through as far as possible that night—who knows how long each step will *really* take, and who knows what unexpected things will come up, and whose signature you’ll need, and whether that person is gone for the day.

The last-step-inspector was nervous. It was a conceptual inspection, just the manifest, and his boss said Just sign it! and he hemmed and hawed and told us to come back tomorrow and I said But we leave tomorrow morning, and he studied the papers again and it was all very frustrating, but really, probably the man’s job was on the line. With all that paperwork, it wouldn’t be hard to track a mistake back to him. How could he know how harmless we were? Eventually he steps away from his desk and from us and makes a call and comes back and signs his name, and stamps, and signs his name, and stamps, and signs his name, and stamps. It must be 8 PM already.

Now it almost really feels like we’re on our way out. We go to claim our goods from the cargo store. The GPS stuff, which has been sent thankfully on a single pallet, is all there. The MT stuff, sent as 12 pieces, is 83% there. Two pieces are missing. These two pieces may have gotten separated from the rest for appearing to be dangerous goods; one is a box of batteries and one is a gas container for the LiDAR plane. The container is completely empty and therefore should not have gotten classified as dangerous, and besides, Graham has cleared everything from the UK before sending it out so everything *should* have gotten through no problem, but at 10 PM when the two pieces still haven’t shown up and we don’t see them anywhere we load up the rest of it onto a big flatbed taxi which we have to negotiate down to a reasonable price and then negotiate the porter fee (they charged us for the loading of the truck which occupied the hands of about twice as many men as necessary—especially considering that we could have just done it ourselves had they let us—and took all of about 5 minutes) down to a still-unreasonable but slightly less ridiculous price and hop in our vehicle to head back to the University where we must drop the equipment at the foreign goods office.

We make it to the office fine, but the big flatbed pickup runs out of gas about 50 feet from the building. We push the truck forward to the door to unload it. It’s always something. When we’re done in the foreign goods office, to which we’ll have to return to retrieve our equipment tomorrow, we say goodbye and good luck to the truck driver (not our problem—we paid him, probably too much even, and that’s that) and warn the guards at the University gate of the problem and head out.

When Graham called Tim partway through our ordeal, he was just sitting down with the gang to a steak dinner. At least Tim ordered some pasta for Talfan and I to enjoy when we got back to the hotel, in case the kitchen had closed by the time we made it in.

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Ethiopian Food Primer

The two women staffing the front desk at my hotel were eating when I came down to use the internet and shared their food with me. One fed me.

This is not so unusual. If you’ve eaten Ethiopian or Eritrean food (but don’t confuse the two, or you’ll surely upset someone), you know the gig: The staple of the Ethiopian diet is ingera, a flat, dense but bubbly ‘bread’ which is rather like a huge slightly sour pancake and is made from tef flour. Tef is a grain not unlike wheat, found only in this region of the world. And eating can be a very communal venture. The ingera is spread on a round platter and the main course goes on top of the ingera. You then break off pieces of the ingera and use them to scoop up the food on top—only with your right hand, mind you. It’s common to share a platter among several people, and if someone else in your group’s food comes before yours, they will offer up theirs to get you started until yours arrives. It’s not rude to accept. I love this.

The main courses vary a bit depending on day and religion. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians fast every Wednesday and Friday, and for the 40 days before Easter, and for a few days here and there besides. Fasting means no red meat, no poultry, and no dairy, and I think technically no food before a certain time of day (10? Noon? 3?), but some things just aren’t very practical in the field. On fasting days, there’s shiro (bean paste), lentils, other grains that look like lentils and are just as good, and, if you’re somewhere where you can get greens, greens. (Not many greens in Afar—they just don’t keep.) Oh—and ingera. I mean, in addition to the base ingera. You can have fir fir ingera, which is ingera soaked in vinegar and chopped up. You can also get pasta with a wonderful red sauce, spiced up with berberi, their staple spice, and *this* dish is actually usually served in a bowl, no ingera involved, *but* if you’re Ethiopian you may want to order this pasta served over ingera, and I’ve seen this more than once.

Meat dishes are usually spicy and rich. The pride of Ethiopia is doro watt, or chicken sauce, which takes a long time to prepare and follows some strict rules, like that the chicken is cooked in twelve pieces. One of my colleagues on the trip, when describing his ideal woman, said, “She must be able to prepare a very good doro watt.” In fact, I think it was the first thing he said. “What if there are only eleven pieces?” I asked. “Oooooohhh….” I was told that a husband will count the number of chicken pieces and if there are fewer than twelve, it means she is giving a little something away…like, more than just a piece of chicken, from what I understand.

But I’ve only had doro watt twice, so while it is the pride of Ethiopia and cooked for special occasions, it’s not exactly the most common fare. Much more common is tibs, which is chunks of red meat. Could be beef, could be sheep, could be goat. Some tibs are, for me, exquisite—tender and flavorful and moist and all around wonderful. Most tibs are, for me, not so exquisite—dry and chewy and fatty goat chunks. Still, that’s just me. Some people love all of them. Tibs are often served with a little pile of berberi (or something similar) beside the pile of meat, and you can dip your ingera and tips in this powder. Quite good.

Ingera. Some people love it, some people can’t stand it. If you’re Ethiopian, of course, you love it. My take on ingera: Yes, of course I like it! …Just not every day.

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The Language (and Other Things)

On our third morning, I was late to meet Tim on the main floor of his hotel (not enough room for everyone, so I was staying at a—nice—hotel next door) because I got stuck in an Amharic lesson with the receptionist downstairs, who spent 10 minutes writing out greetings and numbers for me in the back of my journal. If only Amharic is said how it’s written—dehina aderic, for example, sounds like deninaderc—and if only there was ONE way to say good morning instead of three (one to be said to a man, one to a woman, and one for the plural). What’s more, Amharic has its own alphabet, which is unique to this area and derives from the ancient language of Ge’ez and, just to make things particularly complicated, has a different character for each consonant-vowel combination, so where we have one letter for ‘k’ and one for each of the vowels and can combine them as we like, they have a character for the sound ‘ka’ and one for ‘ke’ and one for ‘ki’ etc. So their alphabet can be written up in a chart. Plus, they have some sounds that we don’t, which of course gives Amharic speakers grounds to make fun of me. Such as my friend Feleke who claims I mispronounce his name every time I say it. It’s not my fault, I told him, that his parents gave him such a difficult name.

[Denver Street—that’s right. And, below, it’s Amharic equivalent, which is why I’m putting this photo here. This sign is actually from Axum, a town in the far, far north of Ethiopia that I visited for my own enrichment at the end of the trip. I think there’s some sister city thing going on, which is kind of funny to me because I don’t really see much in common between Axum and Denver. Certainly not the size—Axum is tiny tiny.] [And actually, when my friend Becky and I saw this, we said: What, this street has a name?]

Afari, on the other hand, is actually easier for me. As far as I know, one greeting fits all—rather than having to adjust for man vs. woman vs. group—and there are fewer weird sounds. And by weird I of course mean *different*. There are, however, still a few, and the Amharic speakers have trouble with them too. The Afari language can be quite guttural. There’s an ‘a’ sound that’s gravely and in the back of the throat and just sounds painful. The language seems to match the people, who match the place: Raw, rugged. The guttural ‘a’ goes with the way they spit to the side in the middle of a conversation, men and women and kids, and the way they fully insert the tip of a finger into a nostril to get something that just doesn’t belong up there out. I mean, it makes sense. Why keep something around that you just don’t want. And as far as boogers go—in a dusty desert like Afar you get some pretty good ones.

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Wedding Season

Partway through lunch one day we heard a commotion of honking cars out on the street. The restaurant staff went to the windows to check it out so we left our table to do the same, out to the balcony to look down on the street two stories below. “Oh, it’s a wedding,” said David, and indeed it was—a bride and a groom stood in the bed of a pick-up which was making its way slowly up the road, the man in a black tuxedo to the left and the woman in a traditional white dress to the right. The bride’s train spilled over almost onto the pavement.

That same night, the restaurant and lounge upstairs in my hotel was shut down for a wedding party, and one was just one their way in or out in the Ras Amba when I went over to meet up with Tim and the others. I thought it rude, but after walking by them and seeing how beautiful they were, all decked out and amped up, I did it: I turned around and walked back and asked if I could take their picture. And they said yes.

The woman behind the bride in the black and gold dress, by the way, was tickled to see that she’d made it into the photo, and the bride was pissed.

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The Trip Gets Started

It amazes me how time flies. Actually, it amazes me how time moves at such different speeds in different situations. In Afar, in a dusty camp behind a school in a small and infrastructure-less town, time crept in miniscule, immeasurable, individual intervals. No hurry there. In Tanzania, time was dragged out as a few days contained in one—the day in which we ran errands and met someone, the day in which we drove and broke down and met someone and got the car working again, the day in which we were game driving, the day in which we bedded down. Here, in Boulder, time flies. Speedy, speedy, almost two weeks gone since I’ve been back already? That’s the same amount of time I spent in Tanzania, and over half the amount of time I spent at camp in Afar.

Where to even start with the adventure? Since this is a blog, I get the easy way out: Start and the beginning, and work on in time from there, of course!

So I’ll summarize the time in Addis, which was full of preparations and which went pretty fast and which I already commented on in the blog while I was still in Addis, even.

Tim and I arrived early early on a Friday and David and Talfan, of the petrology group, were already there. Graham, from the MT group, arrived at a reasonable hour on Saturday, and Lorraine and John and Charlotte, the rest of the foreign contingent of the petrology group (except for David Pyle, who wasn’t coming until much later), arrived on Sunday. The time in Addis was spent buying food (mostly David and Talfan), getting equipment out of customs (Graham, Talfan, and myself), testing and organizing equipment (me), discussing the camp and field plans (Tim with assorted), extracting money from the banks in the Hilton (Tim), gathering gear for camp (mostly David and Talfan), and trying out different restaurants (all of us). And, discussing science over beers back at our hotels. True story. Not that science was the *only* thing that was discussed over said beers.

[A traditional Ethiopian dinner at the Guion hotel with (clockwise from lower left) Lorraine, Talfan, David, John, Graham, Tim, me, and Charlotte. Photo compliments of David, taken by a nice American tourist.]

Don’t let me fool you into thinking the foreigners were the only ones doing any work. The Addis Ababa University contingent of the Afar Consortium (as the science group is officially called) had been busy for some time laying the ground work for the field season, including a trip up to Afar to talk to officials and smooth the way, and also time dealing with paperwork, paperwork, paperwork for getting the equipment out of customs. Everyone involved, of course, had done a good deal of prep work before any of us arrived in Addis Ababa. This type of thing doesn’t just materialize spontaneously. I could probably pretty confidently say that I was the one that prepared the least.

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January 12, 2008

Field Plan

Just figured I'd jot a few words on the field plan while I have a chance. Tim (Leeds) and Gezehegn (Addis Abeba University) and I are hoping to head out on Monday afternoon... which means no internet contact after that. Until then, Tim and I and whoever else is around (so far, there are two petrology (rock) students and some of the magnetotelluric (MT) crew should be arriving today) will be running errands. Tim and I are at the university now, and once I finish with this I'll be off to the storeroom to sort out the GPS equipment and tools that we already have here. We'll need to make a trip to the grocery store to get food--lots of dried fruit and nuts and such to supplement what will probably be an otherwise limited (read: monotonous) menu--and perhaps another trip to the Hilton to change money (and have an expensive drink by the pool), check into camping gear, and talk game plans. Hopefully we'll have a little time for R&R or cultural exposure (there are several museums that we'd like to check out--I'd love to get back to see Lucy in the national museum just across the way).

On Monday, the big task is to get the GPS equipment out of customs. The University (and when I say such, I mean Addis Abeba University) has written a letter and hopefully with that in hand things will go smoothly... but you never know. If we get the equipment in the morning, I will head with Tim and Gezehein in the afternoon. If not, I guess I get delayed. Hopefully I'll be able to go. We'll do the drive in two parts, staying somewhere along the way on Monday night. On Tuesday, we'll get the rest of the way to Semera, where I was based last time, and we'll meet with the Afari officials there and stay in the guest house. Unfortunately, I may not be in on the meetings with the officials (although I'd *like* to be--I'm curious to meet them and hear from them what they have to say about security and otherwise, see how a meeting like this goes) because I need to install a continuous GPS site in an out-of-the-way place called Saha, which I visited last trip. That should actually be the hardest thing I have to do (read: am responsible for) this trip. Getting it over with at the beginning!

After we finish up in Semera, we'll head up west of the rift to a town called DigDiga, a place I haven't yet been. This will be the site of our base camp from which we'll do the rest of the work. Tim and Gezehegn and I will be the first to arrive, so we'll maybe stay elsewhere until the magnetotelluric group gets in and establishes camp--they're the ones taking the lead on that, because they've done it before. I will start establishing benchmarks (markers in the ground) to be used for the gravity survey (but that also need to be surveyed with GPS) and servicing existing continuous GPS sites in the area (downloading data, changing the sample rate on select sites to be used for the LiDAR survey, upgrading to better solar panels and replacing batteries where needed). All these sites will be new to me, so it should be pretty interesting.

Then, the petrologists and magnetotelluricists (I made that word up) and structural geologists and gravitationalists (I made that word up too) and the helicopter crew and anyone else (all these crews come with trucks and drivers and we'll have a host of guides and guards) will show up and we'll get our camp on. Some groups will work out of base camp the whole time, some will be trekking. I may do some trekking with the gravity crew--this is yet to be determined. If I do, it will likely be with camels. Fun. Or, at least, interesting. Probably grueling when it comes down to it--dust and heat and difficult terrain--but interesting. Regardless, I'll get to see the rift from helicopter. This should be spectacular. The helicopter is supposed to arrive on the 26th.

Then, after installations and trekking and fixing broken things and breaking fixed things, the groups will head back in staggered fashion to Addis. I'm scheduled to be out for the duration of the project, which puts me back here on February 13. Subject to change, possibly, though. So, once I'm out of e-mail contact, I'll try to check in periodically with my folks on satellite phone or cell phone but no more blogging for a while. Sad. I'll try to keep a good journal so I can relay the adventures upon return.

As much as I could go on forever, I should probably get to that GPS equipment. I'll make it a goal, though, to summarize the goals of this project at some point so that you have more than strange vocabulary to go off. (I mean, everybody knows what magnetotellurics means, right?)

And if you didn't get enough parenthetical statements in all that, let me know. I'm sure I can come up with a few more somewhere.

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January 11, 2008


To answer Tom's question:

The people with the guns in the Ethiopia photos are just... people. The rifles are common in the Afar region--as far as I know you don't have to be anyone special to have one (thought the men with guns wearing fatigues are in the military). The area has a long history of tribal warfare--if not guns, it's long knives worn at the waist. Scarce resources and feuds between clans. The Afar region is know to be particularly brutal, both in living conditions and in violence. The Afar people have been often described as "fierce." The men with guns in my photos from March were our paid guards, but I don't think they had to go far to find the rifle to go with the job. Like, maybe to their home. There has been a separatist movement in Afar for some time, no less complicated by the fact that the people and their region span three countries with disputed borders (Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti), so I believe a number of the AK-47s have made it in for that reason as well.

This doesn't make me particularly nervous, especially when the guys with guns are on 'my side.' I wouldn't ever want one of those things aimed at me, though.

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Just Arrived

Made it! Safe and sound. And tired.

Here's what I had to say upon arriving in Addis Abeba this morning, after my flights from Denver to Chicago to London to Addis (via Amman):

In the Addis View Hotel freshly under the covers, in a lovely room with pretty wood furniture and a large bed. I've got a separate living room with three chairs and a TV. I'm excited to get organized, and I could start now since I've got the energy, but sleep seems like a wise idea.

5:38 AM. Our flight came in late--4 or so? Overall, a long period of travel--I left my apartment around 7 AM Jan 9 Colorado time and arrived here at the hotel at say 5:20 AM, which makes for a (with a 10 hr time difference, which I *think* is right) 7 AM one day - 7 PM the next --> 36 hour trip. Could be worse.

On the flight from Chicago to London I was seated next to a man in his 60s with an accent from Virginia and boots from Texas. He lives now in San Antonio, teaches at a Southern Baptist seminary, and was asking me questions about what I do and stuff he's seem on the History Channel--and the age of the Earth and global warming. First, though, when I said I was in science, he asked, "Now, you wouldn't know how to use a GPS by any chance, would you?" When I told him it was actually my specialty, he thought God had sent me. He and his colleague had a handheld GPS they'd borrowed and didn't know how to use. When we disembarked in Heathrow, we found a window and I gave them a little tutorial.

Dogs take turns barking.

Tim and I got to chatting with the man sitting behind us, and then his son as well once he moved over from his seat across the way, while we were on the ground in Amman. The man had grown up in Ethiopia--his father constructed missions and medical clinics--but hadn't been back in 35 years; his son gave him the trip for his birthday. we talked of the Afari customs and events: The man said when he visited Afar the custom was for young men, in order to take a wife, to present a man's testicles to the potential father-in-law. Tim had heard and I had read as well that men to come of age killed another man from a rival tribe. But, Tim said, he's pretty sure they've put an end to that practice now. Afar is pretty strongly administered, he said. [Note: It's a very, very harsh place to live and resources are amazingly scarce, which probably accounts for the violence.]

I hear music from outside. A loud radio? Something broadcast from the church?

I was almost ecstatic coming out of the Addis airport. Giddy is a better description, I guess--standing and walking, the smell of a developing country (what *was* it this time? It's not heat and humidity here--was it mild rot? Pollution?), the cool air, and we got all our stuff through customs--no hold ups! They looked at the little printer I brought (to print off and give pics to folks we meet in the field) and that was it. Fantabulous. No delays there, then. (Last time, my luggage got held up in customs and we had to make multiple trips to the airport to get it.)

The road outside the hotels is torn up; Tim said they did it in November saying it had to be done in two months, but it's still rubble. They've bulldozed part of the shanty town across the street to make room for it.

It's past six now, so I should to sleep.

Will be nice to get clean tomorrow.

Cat screaming. And doors sliding somewhere close, the sound of someone going up or down stairs.

It's good to be here. I'm looking forward to breakfast...!

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January 9, 2008

At Least They Have Wireless

Booooooo! There's no restaurant in the M terminal of Chicago O'Hare airport! I'm almost starving! Luckily, I bought some $7 cold linguine from a vendor. Jeez.

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Restricted Travel

What a nice start to my trip! Here I am at the Denver airport, checked in and ready, and this is what has happened so far: My friend Kate picked me up at my apartment and gave me a ride to the airport. I love Kate. This was particularly nice, as though I had only two pieces to check one was a solar panel in a cardboard box (awkward) and the other was an overweight suitcase with a bit a stainless steel thrown in to make it extra portable.

This is what happened to me in line while waiting to check in: I got to overhear the lovely and inspiring conversation carried on by the three people in front of me, in which the tall, brawny, late-30s or early-40s man said, “I think all Muslims should be banned from flying.” I thought I misheard him at first, but he went on about it for quite some time to confirm his beliefs. “I'm serious. I wouldn't let 'em fly. I think they should just ban all of them. I mean, it can't be hard, just look at their names—Mohammad, ... I mean, look at who's causing all the trouble in the world.”

I felt like saying (but didn't—sorry): “That's interesting, because I hate all Christians.” Or maybe, “That's interesting, because I hate all Christians, blacks, and Jews. And while males.” I wasn't sure I'd get my point across, though.

He also said, when they'd moved on to talk about California, “It's like God made a beautiful place and then riddled it with problems.” Oh, the world, you mean? I guess I ended up in a somewhat cynical mood....

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Ethiopia, Round 2

I'm off to Ethiopia! Again. Feb 9-? My return flight is scheduled for Feb 21, but that may well change. I would like to explore the country a bit, especially since I am reading about it's history this time. Until then, I'll be doing science. Go go go!

I'm not sure how well I explained the project when I was on it in March, but here's the basic idea: There's a rift opening in the Earth's crust in northern Ethiopia. I'm working with a group to instrument either side of the rift to determine how fast (and how much) it's opening. This time, we're a part of a bigger endeavor--structural geologists (how things are layered and folded), seismologists (earthquakes), petrologists (rocks), and a group doing LiDAR, which is a laser. The laser will be fixed onto the bottom of a helicopter, and as the helicopter flies around the laser will 'ping' the ground--resulting in a very high resolution topo map of the rift. This 'image' can be used to see things we wouldn't be able to see with a photo, since a photo won't tell us elevations, and another survey down the road (timewise, of course) will show how things have changed. I'm, as usual, helping out with the GPS stuff. And the gravity stuff, which I forgot to mention. Measuring changes in gravity in the area (yep, we can do that) can show where solid rock vs. molten rock is, and also how thick the rock is.

I don't know much about how the project will work out, but sounds like we'll be camping! A base camp with big tents and a cook and a fuel cash for the helicopter. I've done this on ice before, but never on the dirt...!

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January 5, 2008

Car Trouble

Well, it happened.

Finally, some would say.

My car broke.

I've been anticipating this for some time, so it's no surprise to me, nor I'm sure to anyone who's been in my car. It's been a good car, don't get me wrong. I bought it a few years ago for $1000 and have put very little money into it since then, so I've more than gotten my money's worth out of it. And it being my first car, and me not being a car person nor very mechanical nor (as it would follow) interested in these things, the car suffered from some neglect for sure. In fact, yes, it probably broke because of neglect. Which I didn't mind until I realized, sitting there in the tow truck alongside the road as the driver winched my car up onto his platform, that I'd just unecessarily created this piece of junk. What was useful just a week before is now a big piece of garbage. But I get ahead of myself.

The car has been burning oil like crazy and accumulating odd sounds from under the hood, probably as a result of low oil levels, and it doesn't handle well in the snow besides, so I've been thinking of replacing it. When I got back in Boulder from my holiday trip to Seattle, the noises were amplified--or there was a new, very pronounced noise. A rattling from under the hood. Very, very loud. Rhythmic in time with my revolutions. Not good. When I opened the hood to have a listen, the sound seemed to be coming from the belt area. So I bought a new belt.
But then I took a look and thought maybe not the belt after all, because the belt looked okay, and went about checking fluid levels, but couldn't find the dipstick for the tranaxial fluid. Or whatever it's called. Hopped online, found that Grease Monkey checks that, and was on my way there when it died. Snap or clunk sound, loss of power, smoke, me pulling off on the side of the road. It happens. Rattling like crazy as we came to a stop. AAA once again saves the day. Man, I get my money's worth out of that membership. I had the car towed to my apartment complex where it is waiting to (hopefully) be donated. At which point I'll get myself maybe a nice used Subaru.

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January 4, 2008

Preparding for Adventure

Here we are just inside 2008 and I'm getting ready for adventure again. Back to Ethiopia, same project I was on in March of 2007 (see blog entries for words and photos--that's a trip I actually documented). This time, similar but a little bit different--I'll go into it sometime when I have a little more battery life left on my computer. I'm leaving the 9th, so I promise it will be sometime before then. Time to get packing!

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