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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.

Posted by beth at January 17, 2008 10:55 PM

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I cannot imagine camel's milk but one of my aunts lived on a farm and gave me fresh cow's milk. Ewwwww. It was warm (which I definitely don't like) and it didn't taste like the store-bought milk I was used to.

Posted by: mz. em at March 27, 2008 6:27 AM

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