Monday, May 16, 2016

On the Road: Qatar

Back in the East

This was my shortest visit to any country on my trip. I stopped in for only four days. Qatar didn’t warrant more time I’d figured. It was just a small country with one city. In 1971 seven sheikdoms in the Arabian Gulf united to form the UAE. Qatar, like Bahrain, decided to remain alone. Now the country thrives thanks to its huge oil and natural gas reserves. There’s so much money the Qataris don’t know what to do with it. They basically threw cash at the selection committee to win the bid for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and so ambitious is the ruling family (House of Thani) that they want to create the world’s first air conditioned open air stadium for the event. It’s surreal what great wealth can accomplish. In the capital of Doha there stand several imposing sky scrapers that are mostly empty. So why the hell spend the money for unnecessary buildings? Well, the answer is quite simple—to impress. And Doha does not fail in that department. The city is an ongoing experiment to make desert living not only tolerable, but also glamorous. The goal is to be like Dubai in 30 years.
Qatari National Flag
Modern World

My travel has been rather random. I keep jumping back and forth between developed countries and more rustic destinations. The two are good in their respective ways. While in Africa the food was cheap and the accommodation very reasonable. And to save on expenses I avoided nice restaurants and hotels. So I was slumming it in places that didn’t have hot water or good Internet. I was getting sick of the food in the meantime. I should commend the people in Africa for eating largely healthy. One local man in Kenya had put it very succinctly that in Africa people who are skinny tend to be poor, and those that are fat tend to be rich. In America it is the opposite. The rich eat healthy. Or at least it seems they don’t eat fast food crap or processed foods, but organic, freshly made dishes. In Africa the latter is the standard. The wealthy are the ones that prefer the crappy processed stuff because it is varied and loaded with flavor. Such a contrast between the two worlds.  As for me I like the crap from time to time as well, granted it’s the right type. 

I arrived in Doha and stayed with a CS host originally from Egypt. Near his house were some places to eat. I ended up going to KFC. I couldn’t even remember how long it had been since I’d last eaten at one. At least five years. I got a set meal with a chicken sandwich and fries. The medium sized drink cup that came with it was huge. As I waited for my food I looked at the people in the restaurant. Most looked Asia—Indians, Filipinos, Thai. Doha was very diverse in this way. But it wasn’t necessarily a good thing. The city was running off the exploitation of foreign labor. And the people working all the service jobs were getting the absolute minimum in wages. A Filipina had taken my order and an Indian passed me the food.  I sat and stared at it a moment.  I’d chosen KFC because it was close and cheap. I should have walked further.  The objects on the red tray before me were turds masquerading as food. I shook my head in regret. To think, I’d once practically lived off fast food junk. Now I couldn’t understand how people could even call it a meal. A cardboard lettuce sandwich probably had more nutritional value than what I was about to eat.

Back at the apartment I rinsed the taste from my mouth with a glass of water. Then I kicked back on the couch to use the Net. The connection was damned fast. I could watch Youtube videos and face chat on Skype. My host Mohammed had his computer out more than me. He spent his free time playing online games (League of Legends), so though we were in the living room together for hours, we hardly said a word to one another. In a separate room Mohammed had a washing machine. The sight of it almost made me cry. For months I’d been washing my clothes by hand. Now I just threw it in the machine. Afterwards I took a hot shower. Halfway through I decided to make it a bath and I soaked in that water for a good length of time. Such simple moments of joy like this one made me feel more at peace with the world.
Doha Skyline
Fanar Tower
Giant Sea Shell
Modern Residential Area
Islamic Monument
In the Airport
City Sights

Doha did not have so many monuments. Its skyline was the city’s famous feature. The tall buildings lined the Arabian Sea and traditional dhow boats floated in the aquamarine water. Latticed boom cranes on unfinished constructs promised more to come. A taxi driver told me the waterfront is the same as the tall built up skyline along the Huangpu River in Shanghai. Quite amusingly, in Shanghai I remembered the Oriental Pearl Tower standing out most because of its phallic-like appearance. Not to be outdone Doha had the Burj Qatar tower. The locals jokingly referred to it as the Condom Tower and it looked exactly like one, even having the grayish off white color of some condoms. From there the coast curved inland providing varying views of the buildings from a seaside esplanade. The buildings were most impressive at night. I went with Mohammed and his Egyptian friends to drink karak and see the lit up skyline. Karak, by the way, is a type of milk tea with spices. I took photos with the colors reflecting off the sea.

One other prominent landmark in Doha was the Museum of Islamic Art. Designed by I. M.Pei, the same man who made the pyramid at the Louvre in Paris, the museum building is best described as a fusion of modern geometric design and classic Islamic architecture. Admission was free. I entered and found the interior layout as impressive as the outside facade. The exhibits though were not so interesting. The museum exhibited 1,400 years of Islamic art covering three continents, yet it could not compare to the impressive art found in India or China, let alone the graceful painting and statues of European museum collections. I took photos nonetheless. I also laughed when inside an exhibit about the Qajar women of Iran. During the Qajar Dynasty between 1785 and 1925 the Iranian people had strange notions regarding feminine beauty. The most desirable of women were those that had a unibrow and mustache, and for those ladies that lacked these, they used make up to pencil them in. One black and white photo from the era showed a plump woman of the shah’s harem and she looked exactly like a dude. If I were only so lucky to have a harem of my own, that's the last type of woman I'd choose to be in it.

I went to the Souq in the city too. It’s the place where people hang out on the weekends. The buildings were not originals but it retained the feel of an old outdoor Arab market. Mohammed’s friend Abdullah took us in his car. We sat at an outdoor cafe had Arab sweets including kunafeh, a breaded treat with cheese. Nearby local Qatari musicians performed traditional songs with a guitar like instrument and drums. Mohammed said the men were supposedly singing in Arabic but that he did not understand a single word. I shrugged my shoulders. It was all gibberish to me. Another night we went to an outdoor mall called Katara. The layout had been planned to resemble a traditional Arab town. And in the back beside the sea was an outdoor amphitheater. We went late in the evening and there were few people. We walked around and drank karak. This was what ordinary people did at night. The only other interesting thing was to visit a licensed bar and pay a fortune for alcohol. Elsewhere drinks were prohibited. The penalty for being caught could be jail time, deportation, or God forbid, 40 lashes. It wasn’t a problem in my case. For the short time I was there I could resist the need for alcohol.
Local Souq

Museum of Islamic Art
Inside Restaurant
Art Display
Overlooking the Water
Abdul Wahhab Mosque
Outside View
Mohammed Gaming
Second Class Citizens

To build their modern and grand city the Qataris couldn’t be bothered to dirty their own hands. They've instead used their vast oil wealth to bring in foreign laborers. The people come predominately from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Thailand. The foreign workforce makes up 90 percent of the population. In many cases Qatari business owners pay them so little these laborers can’t afford to live in regular housing while working in Doha. So they end up in small temporary enclaves that resemble trailer parks. What’s worse is the Qataris treat them like animals. They have them working outdoors in the summer months in 50C temperature. It’s not uncommon for workers to die from heatstroke. And if a worker were to complain they’d get a laugh in the face or threats of deportation. That’s how it goes. Professional workers have the same problems. One of Mohammed’s friends who was an engineer from Egypt was debating quitting his job and returning home because his employer refused to grant him holiday time, which by law, was his right to have. 

Qataris of course have it easy. Each company is required to be at least 51% Qatari owned and must also employ a quota of local nationals. But these people don’t work in most cases. They just show up around once a month and sit for a few hours. For this they are paid more than the other employees who are working their asses off to keep the businesses running. Mohammed said that when the Qatari guy in his office made that rare appearance, he would do nothing more than smoke and eat nuts while looking down at his coworkers with unveiled contempt. This arrogance and privilege extends to everyday life. In any conflict of interest between a local and foreigner, whether it be a traffic accident or a housing argument, the police and judiciary system will almost always back the Qatari. The best thing a foreigner should do in such situations is to simply apologize and walk away--even if they are in the right. The Qataris have all the wealth too. Of any nationality in the world, per capita, they are the richest. Qataris have so much disposable income that they don’t like to drive a car for more than a year or two, preferring to buy a new model. The local market is so saturated with used cars that it’s one of the cheapest places to buy one. Gas is very low in cost too. 

Because Qataris live like royalty it is exceptionally difficult to become a national. The best hope one has is through sports. Qatar doesn't have a large local pool to draw talent from, so like most other things in the country, they import it, and to play on a Qatari team in international competitions an athlete must have citizenship. Therefore, volleyball players, runners, footballers and so on, are mostly foreign born. What is particularly interesting about this is that once the athlete stops competing, their citizenship is often revoked. This can be a problem for those places where a person must give up their own citizenship to take on another. Money is the motivating factor. Even so, Kenyan javelin champion Julius Yego turned down $9.5 million from Qatar last year. The venture is not without its risks. If an athlete is injured before they can earn their paycheck, it could spell disaster, being both poor and stateless. Some also see it as poaching, or in other words, stripping a country of its talent. At any rate its only a select few who have the option of considering such a move. Most people in Qatar could never dream of becoming Qatari. Not the business men or wealthy residents either. You need to have the blood. Otherwise you're just a second class citizen.
Foreign Workers
Stop Over

The days I had in Qatar served as a transitional period between East Africa and the Caucuses. I was glad to spend what little time I could in the country and wished I'd booked my flight to stay longer. But those days I don't set aside in one place I will be able to enjoy in another. Besides, time is not the big issue for me. I'm in for the long haul. Now I'm working my way back to Europe 10 years since my last visit. Should be exciting.
Boats and Building

Thursday, May 12, 2016

On the Road: Ethiopia


Here came the 16th country in my travels. The number holds no significance. I only wanted to emphasize the point that I’ve been on the road for some time. And Ethiopia was decidedly different from the African countries I’d already visited. To put it another way, this was a place all its own, for when the rest of the continent fell piece by piece to colonialism, the Ethiopians alone remained independent. But it was not without a struggle. They lost their coastal territory to the Italians and British, and later suffered the 5-year occupation of Mussolini’s army. Yet in the end they maintained their autonomy, and to a great degree, their unique culture and religion. For me it was an eye opening experience. The writing alone struck me as mysterious. The Ethiopians speak Amharic and use the Ge’ez script. The characters are little different from those introduced thousands of years ago. Moreover, the Ethiopians never adopted the Gregorian calendar. They instead use the Julian one with its 13 months and 8 year gap behind the Western world. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. There is a whole lot more about what makes Ethiopia so unique.
Ethiopian Flag
Addis Ababa

To fly in from Kenya I used Ethiopian Airlines, the first airline in Africa. The company has since maintained its position as the largest on the continent. The airport in Addis Ababa was right outside the city. I called my CS host and after some waiting, I met him at a cafe. Then we took bus after bus to his small apartment in a quiet suburb. As always it was disorientating arriving in a new city and my host Tesfa kindly pointed out specific landmarks so that I could later find my way alone. We were also with his girlfriend Betty. Once I’d dropped my things off we went for dinner. This was my first time to have authentic Ethiopian food. I ate a kind of chickpea paste called shirow, and little fish bits in a spicy sauce. We ate our food with a thin spongy bread called injera. It was the staple food of Ethiopia, made from tef, a grain grown throughout the country. I washed it all down with local beer. For 60 cents a glass at a restaurant, Ethiopia had the cheapest alcohol on my trip so far.

I spent four nights in Addis. That was more than enough time to see the sights. I went first to the National Museum. In the basement I saw the impressive exhibit on human evolution. Glass cases contained hominid fossils dating back over 3 million years, and one of them was the skeleton of Lucy, an important find made in the northern part of the country. Oddly, due to their strong religious beliefs, many Ethiopians reject the idea of evolution.  Yet there was the proof for anyone to see. And at another museum across town they had skeletons of a different kind. They belonged to people who had died during the Red Terror. It was in 1974 when a Marxist Leninist group called the Derg overthrew the royal family. The leader, a man named Mengistu, had the last emperor of Ethiopia disposed of by suffocation. He also had other political enemies killed along with anyone whose loyalty he questioned. Tens of thousands died. The Red Terror Museum recounts this dark chapter in Ethiopian history. I knew nothing of what had happened, so learning about it for the first time with vivid photo displays and human remains was a jarring experience.

I didn’t do much else in Addis. I went swimming at an indoor pool with Tesfa and his friends. Most the people there were pitiful swimmers. I also went to the big market to look for t-shirts. Getting around the city was not so difficult once I figured out the bus system. But I still saw Addis as a jumbled mess. It had grown to cover several hills in a poorly planned manner. So to me, the buildings looked like a colony of mushrooms. They swallowed up the horizon in every direction and many of them were shabby and rusted. To say the least, I did not like Addis. And to say more, I thought it the worst capital city I’d visited in Africa. The people were not all that friendly either. One guy tried to scam me by taking me to a local bar where he expected me to pay for everyone there, and at ridiculously high prices. I gave some money. After that the owner was still nasty because I’d refused to cover the full amount. He accused me of being an Arab terrorist.  I kept my cool before finally Ieaving the place rather annoyed. The experience also made me distrustful of any Ethiopian who said anything to me in the street, and even then, another Ethiopian succeeded in scamming me in another city. I’ll get to that later.
Addis Ababa Monument
Holy Trinity Church
Side View
National Museum
Lucy's Bones
Red Terror Museum
Victims' Faces
Market Area
To Live and Die in Africa

In total I’d only spend about four months in Africa. I wouldn’t say that is very much time to make sense of a continent. I hadn’t even visited that many of the countries. Yet by the end of my stay I came away with a certain understanding that Africa is not the place I’d thought it to be. The way the West portrays it in the news, I couldn’t be faulted for having thought it the armpit of the world. A large part of the stigma I held stemmed forth from the 1980’s when Ethiopia was at war. The Derg government was fighting separatists in Eritrea and the northern Tigray region, a situation that caused severe famine. Foreign journalists went into the areas most devastated and for the first time showed video footage of children starving to death. The world was shocked. And one man, an Irish rocker named Bob Geldof, was so appalled that he took personal action in 1984. Using his stardom he brought together fellow musicians and recorded a song to raise money for the victims. The charity event put Ethiopia in the spotlight, and the country as always managed to find its footing. In the end the Tigray separatists overthrew the Derg and created a new democratic government. While not a perfect government, it has maintained order and stability until the present.

The point of this is that the images of starving children were so powerful that they became lastingly associated with not only Ethiopia, but Africa as a whole. The same applies to the images of war and violence that the news has shown over the decades from one African country or another. While not false in their reports, the media is biased in what it presents, and it has created the belief that the norm in Africa is suffering and chaos. This of course is not true. War and famine have happened, but sporadically and in isolated parts of the continent. The norm is stability. It may not be an easy existence for everyone, and for the majority in fact, life is dependent on subsistence farming. But the people are not starving or chopping each other up with machetes. And as Africa continues to develop, the people in the big cities are leading lives that mirror those of Westerners. They get an education, work a job, follow pro sports, go out on Friday nights and so on. This adds up to normal, peaceful countries. But that’s not to overlook those which do have serious problems. They just happen to be the exceptions.

Now, I wanted to consider what Africa has that the West is lacking. I’d say the family connections are stronger. There are also bigger circles of friends. This interaction is good in so many ways, and regrettably, many Westerners don’t get the same fulfillment in their lives because of a diminished need for others. But there was one more thing. In Africans I see hope. The people look at tomorrow with different eyes, knowing that their countries are changing, and that those new things coming will make for a better place. It has something to do with their past too. A spark ignites the African heart. It compels them forward through the richness of each day. I can’t describe it any better. Life on the African continent has a rhythm all its own. Oh how somber it is by comparison in the West. I need only to think of my own society where the drumbeat reverberates to the tune of corporate interests. America is a land full of people working jobs they don’t like to buy shit they don’t need. I could rant for hours about the establishment. But it’s beside the point. I just wanted to say that in Africa people may not have so many diversions. But honestly, they don’t need them. They have something different. From what I have seen it’s good. There’s more social interaction--and in a way--more humanity too. Don't believe me? Take a plane over and see for yourself.
City Life
Bahar Dar and Gondar

From Addis I had a choice--north or south. I chose north. A bus got me to Bahar Dar on the shore of Lake Tana. The lake was best known as the source of the Blue Nile, a river that joins forces with the White Nile in Sudan to make the greater Nile River. All the water then continues northward through Egypt before emptying into the Mediterranean. As for Lake Tana, it also had islands with old Orthodox monasteries. I signed up for a boat tour and went to four of them. Only the last was impressive. It had a straw roof that protected the thousand year old building beneath. The atmosphere also felt more authentic. When our tour group arrived some locals were reading from the bible. Or rather, I should say they were singing, because that’s how it sounded, almost like an Islamic prayer. They were used to tourists coming and largely ignored us. So I felt like I was seeing something traditional. The only downside was that to get from the boat dock to the monastery, we had to pass by several gift stalls with aggressive vendors.

The same day I visited the Blue Nile Falls. Outside of the rainy season it was not much to look at. The water only came flowing over in twin torrents. The dam upriver also lessened the volume. But there I was with my camera and nothing to do but take what pictures I could. In my group came a pair of Ethiopian women. They were dolled up nicely and quite full of themselves. I watched as they snapped loads of photos of one another with their smart phones. A few times I took shots of my own.  In the meantime a crowd of locals had gathered. They wanted to sell us trinkets. A few begged for coins. I ignored them and kept taking photos. Another guy in our group was using his camera too. One of the locals accused him of stealing a photo. He wanted money but the guy hadn’t taken one of him. I shook my head. Ethiopians were particularly bad at squeezing foreigners for every cent they could get. I had to say no to so many people. But occasionally I handed over money.  If someone helped me for example.  It still irked me. Couldn’t a local just be nice to a foreigner and not ask for anything in return? From my experience in Ethiopia that was a rare thing.

My dealings with people worsened in Gondar. I came right off the bus when a local guide approached me. He told me about a great hotel operated by his family. I foolishly followed him. He then spoke about tours I could join. One was to Danakil, a region I had it in mind to visit, and he put me in contact with his sister who worked at the tour agency. Soon I was meeting his friends and we were going out for drinks. I paid for everything. The guide Babi said he would give me some of the money back. It was a lie. He was using me like an ATM, taking out as much as he could before I wised up. It was my own fault for having trusted him. The bastard ruined my experience in Gondar. But he had told the truth about the tour. I’d verified contact number and email he gave me. The tour agent, however, was not his sister. At any rate I saw the castle in Gondar, one of only a few in Africa. It was impressive in its size and design. Now if only I had hired a guide at the entrance. Then I would have an idea of the history behind the stones. In Ethiopia I found that many monuments did not have plaques that explained things.  Perhaps it was done on purpose. Then tourists would be more inclined to get a guide and therefore spend more money.
Orthodox Cross
Tana Lake
Old Bible
Lake Tour
Cute Bird
Inside a Monastery
More Artwork
Coffee Receptacles
Posing at the Falls
Gondar Backstreet
Gondar Castle
Inside View
Axum and the Churches

In times of antiquity when the Romans were marching along every shore of the Mediterranean, there existed a smaller empire in the northern mountains of Ethiopia. It went by the name of the Aksumite Kingdom. The people thrived on trade in the Red Sea, and with their wealth the Aksumite rulers built great monuments. Some still stand in the present day site of their capital. Most recognizable are the stella obelisks they cut and erected. Amazingly many remain intact. Mussolini couldn’t help taking one back to Italy with him in the 1930s, and decades later, the Italian government kindly returned it. Elsewhere in town were churches. The Aksumites had converted to Christianity in the 4th century and the religion spread across the region like wildfire. Islam did not follow. After Ethiopia had given refuge to Muslims in the early, turbulent years, the prophet Mohammed had declared that he would never attack unless Ethiopia attacked Islam first. Subsequent Islamic leaders respected Mohammed’s decision (with the notable exception of Ahmad Gragn in the 16th century).  So Ethiopia retained its religion while Islam took over those countries around it.

Axum’s greatest monument to Christianity was the Orthodox Church of Mary of Zion. Built beside the foundations of Ethiopia’s first church, it attracted many worshipers daily. After mass they circled the church three times before dispersing. I took photos of the white robed people making their rounds. Then I went to see another building in the same complex. This was a special building that only one attendant could enter. He looked after the Ark of the Covenant. According to Ethiopians, Menekil (the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba) had brought it to Axum after leaving behind a forgery in Jerusalem. It's a belief refuted by other Christians. But regardless, there were a lot of people visiting the church complex. It had to do too with the build up towards Easter. The rest of the world had already celebrated the holiday  in March. But in Ethiopia they held Easter at the end of April. Their Christmas and New Year’s also did not correspond to the familiar Western dates.  Another thing they were doing was fasting. So they had no meat for the 55 days before Easter. Not all Ethiopians adhered, for in Addis I’d seen people eating hamburgers and pizza. The minority population of Muslims too could eat what they desired, pork notwithstanding.
Bus Ride to Axum
Aksumite Stella
Town House
Inside Church
Cross on Hill
View Below
In Axum I’d met a Swiss couple. We hired a vehicle to take us to the churches outside the city. The churches were special because people had carved them into stone facades. The first was called Abune Yemata. It was high up on a sandstone cliff and getting there proved intense. We had to climb up sheer rock walls with small handholds. I’m a bit scared of heights too. Some locals helped us with the ascent and afterwards asked for a tip. The church was a small cavernous room. The builders had painted religious pictures on the ceiling and walls. Our guide explained that the figures were the apostles and other Christian saints. We went next to another church called St. George. A village surrounded it and locals were had at work tilling the fields in preparation for the planting season. Like elsewhere in the country they used cows that dragged a wooden plow. Next to the church we had beer with the locals. It was a disgusting brew, flat and sour, as if someone had left a half full can of Budweiser on the kitchen table over night. I imagined it was what the first beers had tasted like five thousand years ago. After all, wheat and barley were the first plants to be cultivated, and it wasn’t long after when humans had figured out how to ferment the grains into a drink. It’s fitting then that civilization, for better or worse, developed alongside beer.

The Swiss couple was very friendly and energetic. They’d just begun their trip. From Ethiopia they planned to travel indefinitely. Back home they’d saved up over $70,000 in 14 months. Split between them that was 35,000 bucks each. With that kind of money I could traveled for 3 years. It seemed hardly fair that they could set aside so much in so little time. But that’s how it is in the world. In some countries the cost of living is higher and savings stack up at a quicker rate.  I suppose I was happy for them.  They were pleasant people and the company did me good. Best of all, when we were together, their whiteness attracted the attention of the local touts. It was a huge relief. They unwittingly served as my own personal human shield.
On the Way
Going Up
Local Priest
Ceiling Artwork
Church Entrance
Second Church
Swiss Couple
Plowing the Field
Banged Up

With Gati gone and me mostly on my own, I was feeling the road had worn me down. My last week in Ethiopia I’d also come down with a bad cold. I should have stopped to rest but I didn’t see how I could. There was too much left to see and only a small window of opportunity to make it happen. So I trudged onward in poor spirits. I’d now been traveling for 15 months. That was far more time than I’d planned to go for. Overkill even. Why then did I continue? Well, the world is an incredible place full of countless wonders. I had to try to visit those places I really wanted to see before returning home. With that in mind I next went on my tour to the Danakil Depression. In the inhospitable, barren north of Ethiopia the depression sat below sea level among volcanoes. I was in for an amazing four day journey.

My body wasn’t the only thing giving me problems though.  My clothes had become stained and faded. Even worse was my backpack. I’d bought it in Japan from another American for $50, a real steal if you ask me because the 55L pack was a NorthFace. But after so much traveling it had torn in half a dozen places. Each time I’d taken it to someone to have it patched up. In Ethiopia a tailor did the work free or charge. It was a welcome gesture and reminded me that the locals were not all bad. The thing was that those who spoke good English seemed to target foreigners. I didn’t need that this late into my travels when I was worn down from having had said “no” to thousands of people already. Some Ethiopians even had the audacity to say “hello” with a warm smile abruptly followed by the words “give me money.” It made me want to scream.

I think anonymity is a thing people take for granted. Rather than embrace it most people want to avoid it. But I say, what’s wrong with being a nobody? I miss that feeling. I miss walking around San Diego where people don’t bother me or give as much as a second glance in my direction. On the road though, I did enjoy a bit of anonymity thanks to my dark face. I'd written about it before when I visited countries with brown people. There were also big metropolises where I could blend in. Yet I always had to contend with the different culture and languages, and moreover, a general sense of confusion. It was a constant challenge. At times I’d become empty inside and more homesick than ever. In Ethiopia I often felt this way. However, I couldn’t have it both ways.  I remember that being in San Diego all those years ago I was bored out of my mind. With a whole world waiting beyond the horizon how could I content myself with one little city? I don’t know where I stand anymore. Does the excitement of travel still outweigh the comforts of a fixed life in a familiar place? For a little longer perhaps.
Ethiopian Coffee

We set off from the city of Mekele in a convoy of 4x4 Toyota Landcruisers. The snakelike highway wound lower and lower in elevation until we were driving through a flat, featureless landscape shrouded in thick haze. In a little shithole town composed of branch huts we stopped to pick up a military escort. They were a necessity because four years before Afar bandits had murdered tourists in the Danakil area. The armed soldiers led us in their vehicle to Assale Lake, a source of salt rock that the locals cut and carried out by camel. As the caravans moved beside the road, we stopped for photos. I asked our guide if the local community received any money from what we had paid for the tour. He said no. How bizarre. These laborers were seeing droves of tourists come almost daily. They didn’t benefit from our presence but were nice enough to smile and wave at us. After we were done we had a party on the lake shore with wine and spirits. I was too sick to do anything other than lie in misery and wait to return to camp. To my great relief, one of the tourists was a doctor who had some pills that helped to suppress my fever. Who knows? Had he not been there maybe I wouldn't have made it back from the tour. I'd later buy him a beer to show my appreciation.

The second day I was not feeling much better. We went in the Landcruisers to a sulfur spring called Dallol. This was the most consistently hot place on earth and we had to see it in the early morning before the temperatures rose. After leaving the vehicles we walked up a hill, and at the top, the ground took on majestic shapes and colors. The rocks were stained yellow, orange and brown. Here and there I saw pools of carbonic water, opaque in their greenness. Our guide led us right to the edge. In fact we were free to go anywhere we wanted in this sulfuric wonderland. There were no marked paths, rails or anything of the like. It didn’t seem so dangerous. Only the escaping gases were to be avoided. The noxious fumes burned the nostrils and I stayed downwind of the many smoking fumaroles. After about an hour we left to drive into the lake. The water was only a few centimeters deep. We went to where the locals cut salt. They made square slabs and loaded them onto the back of a camel. Our guide informed us that one load was worth about 70 cents. The poor men were slaving away in an lifeless wasteland in exchange for a pittance and in such extreme heat. I couldn't see how working could get much worse.
Camel Caravan
Salt Disks
Geothermal Pool
Crystallized Salt
Sulfur Wonderland
Odd Shapes
Salt Collection
Cutting Away
Security Soldier
Shallow Lake

Last on out tour was the highlight. We went to Erta Ale volcano, home to one of the world’s six lava lakes. Again we needed soldiers to take us. The volcano was a three hour hike through a black wasteland. We did the hike at night to avoid the heat, but I was still dying the entire way from my fever and cough. We had about 30 people in our group including the guides and escort, and I straggled in with the very last people. Even the camels carrying our dinner arrived ahead of me. The camp was on the volcano rim. In the mouth burned the lava lake. It occupied an area some 40m diameter and I went as close to the edge as possible before the heat held me back. Inside I could see most the lake was black on the surface because the magma had cooled. In places the black layer cracked and shot up bubbling orange ooze. This was the fury of Mother Nature. At one point the wind shifted and blew volcanic smoke in our group’s direction. The toxic flush seared the inside of my lungs and left behind an almost lemony taste. I fled downward. When the wind shifted again it was safe to return and I marveled quietly at the lava and for a moment, acknowledging how fortunate I was to lay eyes on such a rare thing.
Just Arrived
Magma Bubbling
At Dawn
Volcano Selfie
Africa Done

In Ethiopia I’d considered staying for a month, but I left after only three weeks. It was enough time to see and do what I’d wanted. Moreover, I was getting tired of Africa. When I finally boarded my plane to leave, I had no regrets, no lingering thoughts about the places I didn’t see. I was ready to move on. New pastures awaited me in another part of the world. Besides Africa was not going anywhere. Perhaps one day I'll be back.
African Landscape