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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.

Posted by beth at January 28, 2008 11:14 PM

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