The little defoliating bastard. He was eating all the pretty pink flowers in the trees. Moments later he made a mad dash across main street and almost got hit by a Toyota Hilux. Silly monkey was eating my pretty flowers and deserves whatever comes his way. Later in the day a (the?) monkey made an ambush on the offices. With Beady eyes and red in tooth and claw he made a feint through the open door and but was deterred by his rock-throwing pursuers.

And later in the day…30 minutes to prepare raw meat? No, not sushi but Kitfo. It’s more of a raw meat mash with a couple dozen spices thrown in. YUMMY.

With the investor’s gone I was allowed some time to decompress. Or rather suffer constant travails. First let me introduce the house.

While it might look like a house. Be built like a house. And taste like a house. It did not function as one. Since moving my belongings in on Sunday there was no water available. Dust coated everything. It was a hollowshell that bellowed self-importance but ultimately had little to offer other than a pretty exterior

Returning to Mekelle near 9pm we stopped to collect our bags. As we took a moment to ground ourselves after what had been a tumultuous 5 days I received a call. Aberash, the recently hired in-country representative, wanted to meet with me. I mentioned a hotel that I was considering staying at and told her that after I had checked in I would meet her in an hour. 5 minutes later I received a call from Aberash informing me that she was at the hotel waiting for me. Ooops, it would be the first of many communication breakdowns. Normally I am none too picky about my appearance. Typically I don’t smell bad (though not particularly good either) and although some might disagree (shhhh) I’m not to prissy about my appearance. Shirt. Check. Drawers. Check. Shoes. Check. Maybe some pants for good measure.

However, having spent the last 5 days wandering around one of the hottest places on earth, being blasted by acidic and sulfurous geysers, and living with camels and their falafel, I was a singularly filthy human being. Taking a quick rinse from a mixture of sink and overhead pipe I gave the ears a good scrub and put on my cleanest dirty clothes.

Erik of course had no incentive to gussy himself up and so remained begrimed. A quick introduction with Aberash and then we met up with Christo and Christina to swap photos. The Russian, although invited was nowhere to be found. Hmmm. (a few days later Erik received an email from Mark informing us that he no longer wanted to be our friends and that furthermore he never wanted to see us ever again. He asked us, somewhat unpolitely, to forget his email address). Erik and I celebrated a successful trip with a few of the local wobbly pops and slumbered nearer to dawn than was wise with an 8am meeting with the regional investment office looming only slightly above the horizon.

Awaking at 6am with more than a few groans I packed my bags once again. Meeting Jim and Joerg was a sudden submersion into the real world once more. Together, they formed the exploratory arm of MCI’s investment team. Jim worked with KPMG as a management consultant and had been provided by KPMG in a pro bono effort to fulfill the MCI mission. Joerg was remarkably friendly East German who had pursued (been sent? Wandered into?) graduate education in the Soviet Union and at some point in the last several decades become heavily involved in investment promotion in developing countries. With experience in over a hundred countries his knowledge and ability to navigate the confusing arena socialist turned democratic capitalist governments was invaluable.

4 days of meetings and countless handshakes and macchiatos later I had gained intimate knowledge about every major industry in Mekelle and grinned toothily at the region’s president, the city’s mayor, several thousand goat and sheep skins, and a slew of doctors, directors, and executives.

The next morning was a mad dash for Dallol and the site of the bandit attacks 3 days earlier.

Teeming with guns, some operational, some most likely not, we joined up with a mass of French people whose Capri pants and euro-feel was as comforting as it was out of place.

Dallol was miraculous as only a vast expanse of delicate, wafer thin structures, boiling pits of sulfuric acid, and impossibly vivid yellows and greens can be amidst a monotous sea of lava rock and dust.

We also had the opportunity to visit surface salt mines that had been mined nearly continuously for thousands of years. But besides thousands upon thousands of camels, armies of salt workers, and hundreds of thousands of blocks of salt ripped from the earth through a mixture of brute force and primitive metal tools there wasn’t much to see.

Waking up in the morning we were still uncertain where we would go, what we would do. The night before it had not been fully determined if the Eritrean military had a hand in coordinating the attack. Had we had entered into a new chapter of the Ethio-Eritrean perched on the tip of Africa’s Horn.

Utilizing impeccable logic we determined that it would be relatively safe to visit an active lava lake experiencing recent volatility.

After 6 punishing hours driving we arrived to “corruption corner.” The Afar, interested in obtaining a portion of the significant tourist proceeds flowing to their lava strewn desert had devised an elaborate social etiquette system for bribery. We had been informed that we would need to pay 350 ETB before arriving and had budgeted accordingly. However, the process was not as simple as handing over a plain manilla envelope with nonconsecutive small denomination bills. Instead it was necessary to spend hours in pointless conversation tentatively broaching the subject, until the chief and his assistant had convinced themselves that they were justified in accepting our money as in the best interest of bureaucratic order.

A crisis of conscience for a tribe that has famously been described as one of the most violent and aggressive in Africa did not seem to fit. But hey, maybe they’re just misunderstand.

As dusk rolled through the black lands and burnt grasses, we arrived at the foot of the volcano. Eating dinner and waiting for night we sat watching the full moon sitting heavy on the horizon, looming large and jaundiced. The skies were muddied with massive clouds stranded listlessly above.

And under the yellow cast we walked. No flashlights, no noise. Passing camels and Afar we meandered across the sharpened landscape. Finally, nearing the base we looked up and began our ascent. Hours after setting out we crested the flat-topped mountain. A kilometer in the descent an eerie red glow spewed from the earth, mixed with smoke and gas.

Descending to the edge of the caldera required a 20 minutes scramble over hollow and shifting rocks. Reaching the edge and looking down was like peering into the primordial furnace of life. Animated and ever-changing, the lava bubbled and hissed and spat like a petulant child. It was beautiful beyond reckoning. The rest of the night time blended as we wandered around the lake’s rim, dazed and beholden to its miraculous nature. Near dawn we found a flat spot and settled down amongst shards of volcanic glass. Considering the blinding full moon, a post-apocalyptic landscape, and hell boiling over not more than 100 meters away I consider that I slept quite well.

Waking well before sunrise we crept around careful no to wake our guide too early. Cactus Jelly and flatbread sated us and with the first rays of light we left Bera Hile and our fortified hilltop school complex. 3 hours later after crossing two gorgeous rivers flowing over dark granite we came to the Town of Ama dile .Ama dile would serve as the base for exploring the Danakil over the next 4 days. After a brief lunch of shiro (apparently it was the third straight of fasting for a minor saint or miracle) and we began the drive to Dallol. 15 minutes after leaving the village 2 empty land cruisers, save wide-eyed screaming drivers, came hurling out of the indiscriminate desert. Hoptem yells and they respond “Shifta” In the border regions with Eritrea no word inspires as much fear as shifta. Bandits – we spin around, dirt flying into the arid heat. We return to Ama dile in a third the time.

As the story unfolds it turns out that 7 vehicles and 28 French tourists had been “detained” by the Shiftas. Kidnapped? Killed? We waited as a militia formed. Mounting Howitzer-esque weaponry upon the top of our Land Cruiser Hoptem and the local militia swarmed out of town towards the east. Over the ensuing afternoon cars and men limped back. By nightfall and after much worry the last tourist had returned. However, two Ethiopian drivers had been kidnapped and were still with the Afar bandits.

I fell into a burning ring of fire
I went down down down, but the flames crept higher,
And it burns burns burns, the ring of fire, the ring of fire.

And the earth’s gaping maw swallowed me whole

Joke: A Swede, Two Spaniards, an American, A Russian, an Ethiopian, and a handful of Afar tribesmen are sent to the hottest places on Earth.

The Russian receives disability payments from Israel for insanity. The Spaniards, after years spent traveling have a deep-ground mistrust of Africans, The American has been coughing for two weeks and the Swede gets grumpy from time to time. The Ethiopian speaks limited English, and the tribesmen want nothing more than your money. All of it.

A recipe for success?

Day 1: After buying a couple crates of fruits an vegetables in addition to rice and pasta we began the lengthy drive to Berahile. 4 hours on dirt mountain road and we arrived a little past lunch. Feasting (fasting) on beyanitu we returned to the guard station. Alas, no guard was to be found.

So…a Russian, a Swede, 2 Spaniards, and an American wander to the hottest place on Earth. And there is one Ethiopian. Sensitive but ultimately hapless in the face of discordant multinationalism. After a late start caused by dithering, black market transactions, general shopping, fruit shopping, and bidding farewell to our guide’s family we started the bumpy trek to Bera hile. After several stops we arrived to find the man with the key for the room where we needed an “official” piece of paper to be missing. With the man, the key, and the official piece of paper out of our reach we settled down to a game of competitive pick-up sticks with the local community. Ultimately, it turned out that the man and the key were 26 km in the direction from whence we came. Ultimately, the guide and the Russian were sent back (the Russian as collateral) to retrieve either the man or the key. 3 hours later they returned and we dispensed with 3 minutes of bureaucratic paper work in order to provide justification for a thoroughly unnecessary governmental position. Unfortunately, by the time this process had been completed darkness had descended upon us and we were unable to proceed into the night. (for fear of the wild things…and falling off precipitous cliffs.)

Thus began the first bout of haggling that would ultimately save us hundreds upon hundreds of Birr (~50 USD). We had already paid for 2 scouts and a guide for the day which were legally required for proceeding past Bera Hile. Surprisingly after nearly an hour of valiant arguing from our guide, Hoptem, and myself (modest aren’t I) we retrieved 300 Birrr. In Africa this is triumphant indeed! We had been refunded money by the civil service. WOW.

Flush with success the Russian, Erik and myself opted for a spot at the “hotel” – someone’s house quickly emptied of their belongings and converted into a place for faranji co-habitation. At the price of only a dollar this was a steal. Once our bags touched the floor the priced was quadrupled and incensed we left.

Returning, to the guard station we equivocated and finally settled on staying at the locally elementary school. Sometime soon after this our guide threatened to quit on us and call his manager to have another driver sent. After a couple beers, dinner, excessive cuddling with local children and 4 hours later Erik and I approached Hoptem about the next morning’s plan. After some heavy handed bargaining (i.e. Erik saying “let’s leae at 6 am” Hoptem – “No”. Erik – “Let’s go at 6. Hoptem – “No” Erik – “so 6 it is” Hoptem – “OK”) we arranged to leave early the next morning.

So that night we spent in Berahile, miles from nowhere and miles to nowhere. Somewhat confused about our experiences the Russian attempted to sum everything up with a pat “T.I.A” – This is Africa. However, that worn traveler’s saw doesn’t quite fit, and never did.

I finally left Addis on Sunday morning. Erik and I had visited the bus station the day before, purchased our tickets and even managed a stop and the euphemistically named tea shack. We were told to get to the bus station by 5am in order to ensure a seat. We went to the Addis Ababa Restaurant (site of my first meal in Ethiopia) to celebrate what had been nearly 2 weeks of planning to organize a trip to Danakil. Tej, doro wat, and tibes rounded out our meal and we returned to the hotel full and happy. Instead of packing up my belongings which after 2 weeks had become indiscernibly strewn across my room I worked on my computer as it was having a good spell (it had been temperamental for the last several weeks since I had received an Arabic virus from friends in Cairo). Falling asleep at 3 with bags still unpacked I woke an hour later and hastily began piling my belongings into my bag. Only slightly tardy we left for the bus station and arrived to the bewildering sounds and smells of early departure at the Addis Ababa bus station.

After boarding the bus, Erik managed to squeeze into a seat on the back row. I, however, was left standing in the aisle and repeatedly told that there was a seat for me. After 20 minutes and another dozen seatless souls filled the aisle I began exaggerated faranji antics including but not limited to moaning, waving my arms, frowning and smiling in quick succession, and talking rapidly in English. Ultimately, I was offered a bench seat between two Ethiopians. On my left sat a man whose eyes told a story of years being mistreated. In his hands he carried his prayerbook and would frequently fall into prayerful reverie. To my right sat a less interesting chap whose defining characteristic over the next two days was to fall asleep on me.

Although used to moderately uncomfortable Latin American buses filled with screaming children, intoxicated men, noisy expectoration, and heat I was less well prepared for the sugar cane. A popular snack, sugar cane, is typical bought in 8-10 inch sticks. Over a period of anywhere from 5 minutes to 2 hours of chewing the sugarcane is reduced to a fibrous mass and deposited on the floor.

Also, as it turns out Ethiopians have a deadly fear or moving air. This translates to oven-like conditions and the bus interior turning into a large trash can/compost heap (the other option of course being to litter the roadside). With nearly 2/3rds of the bus’ population chewing sugar cane this amounted to a lot of spitting and half-masticated sticky cellulose.

We arrived a little past the halfway point in the town of Hayk. Walking to the lake a kilometer outside of town we were treated to a beautiful sight of a large lake ringed by mountains and maintaining the idyllic alpine environment characteristic of a European mountain refuge.

On the second day we arrived at Mekelle earlier than expected and began the arduous task of finding a hotel room, finding our elusive comrade (arranged through email), and finalizing details with the tour agency for a departure early the next morning.

After several debacles where we were asked to pay 2-3 times the going rate for a room we sunk exhausted into the seats of a nearby juice shop. Pantomiming frantically we conveyed our desperate need for juice. Mango? No. Guava? No. Aninis (pineapple)? NOOOO! Avocado? Yes! Yes! Yes! And thus I had my first encounter with avocado juice. Delectable beyond all imagining it forms a synergy between savory and sweet and has a thickness and fullness that intimates faultless nutritiousness. Never will I forget the first time that a taste so pure, so soft, and so green has passed my lips. Ambrosial.

Re-energized we set off towards a final hotel. Bargaining them down slightly we accept our rooms and fled to the showers to wash off the elaborate caking of mud and grime that only repeated bouts of sweat can cause.

Next we left in search of Mark. Mark was our email contact who had expressed interest in joining us to Danakil. We hadn’t received a return email from him in 5 days and with departure planned for the next morning we were a little nervous. Stopping off at the tour agency we heard news that a Spanish couple with their own vehicle was interested in going to Danakil. Overjoyed we went off in search of them. It turned out that we had seen them multiple times in Addis and I had spoken to them briefly there. They had traveled from Spain in a self-customized Land Rover and had spent the last 5 months traveling through Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia (www.perafrica.blogspot.com). They were soon to begin a 5 month volunteer placement with a spanish NGO in Wukro, a town about 40 km north of Mekelle. Afterwards they would head south and then return to Spain via the West coast of Africa.

Drug of choice: Dextrokuf

As I write this Dextrokuf (per the the informational pamphlet that came with it) is packing a mighty wallup i.e. “a central action” on the “cough centre in the medulla.” I am sure my medulla will be happy to know that it has a cough centre.

The package also proclaims in big bold letters:

THIS IS A MEDICAMENT

Thank you Kuwait Saudi Pharmaceutical Industries Co.!

So my work here has started to take shape. Since Friday I have spent most of my time researching Ethiopia. Huh? Seem a little broad. Well, right now, without looking can you tell me anything about Ethiopia? Injera? Wat? Do Wop? Er, close…

Turns out that Ethiopia is the second oldest Christian kingdom after Armenia. The only Africa country to remain sovereign during the colonial “scramble for Africa.” The headquarters for the African Union and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. The largest livestock producer in Africa. 10th largest in the world. The origin of coffee. And possibly cotton.

It’s also a country filled with amazingly kind and beautiful people. Upon arriving at 4 am from Cairo I was directed from the airport to a taxi and driven to my hotel. My hotel, which I had made reservations for, was locked. Not knowing what to do I vainly rattled some barred windows. My taxi driver made similar efforts to no avail. After 15 minutes, he saw a side door made of aluminum sheeting and started banging wildly. Sure enough, someone came to the door and cracked it slightly. I asked for my room. He said there was no room. Or rather he shook his head sleepily. My taxi driver spent the next 10 minutes arguing my case. Finally I was led upstairs where  I requested to sleep in a chair in the sitting area until someone from the reception came and I could clear up the confusion. After getting settled in my chair and arranging myself (propping my feet up on my bag, the occasional lingering scratch, a groggy chortle) a door magical opened and I was ushered into a room.

Waking around noon, with no idea where I was, I wandered outside and asked the first person I saw where I could find a guidebook for Ethiopia. 30 minutes later a lightly used Lonely Planet appeared. (At the time I didn’t appreciate how miraculous this was. I spent the ensuing two weeks visiting every bookstore and large hotel in the city looking for western published books and found nothing.) Fitsum (the guidebook procurer) even helped me wrap it in tasteful off pink construction paper to hide its telltale guidebook status (i.e. lonely planet in large font and a picture of a tribesman and woman painting each other magnificent hues.)

Opening the guidebook I saw mention that the Addis Ababa Restaurant was nearby and served home brewed tej (honey wine). Making a beeline for it I ordered a baharawi (mixed platter) and a bottle of tej. Next to me a small furniture construction business was having an office party. Falling into conversation with the man nearest me he ended up treating me to some of his trey sega (raw meat). And thus occurred my first opportunity to fill my body with tape worm.

The next day joining Anthony, Fitsum, Facil, Eskedar, and Regis for chat (a mild leafy stimulant somewhere between tea and coffee) we whiled away the afternoon talking history, politics, and religion.

Spending the next two days exploring the city, I enjoyed a day up in the Entoto Mountains to the north of Addis exploring King Menelik’s original imperial palace and the juniper forests of the highlands. The day after I headed off to the national museum with Regis, hung out with Lucy(of paleoanthropological fame) and a slew of Ethiopian art pieces, agricultural implements, and imperial finery. When I decided to check out the Holy Trinity Cathedral, Regis (a Frenchman born in Addis to a French father and Ethiopian mother had lived in Ethiopia for 3 years as an infant and then whisked off to france where his parents separated and he was denied insight into his Ethiopian heritage when his mom moved to the US) had had enough and returned to Piazza. After exploring the Cathedral and the sprawling and overstuffed cemeteries surrounding it I began walking back to Piazza (my hotel) when I was approached by an Ethiopian man with an odd Irish accent. Thus began my acquaintance with Elias. Initially uncertain if I was victim of an elaborate scam, it turned out that Elias worked for the Irish non-profit GOAL near the city of Harar (in the Eastern portion of the country). He did finances and logistics for them and was in town while his boss met with donors to discuss the organization’s use of money. Elias had to be available in case any questions came up and was thus stuck in the city with nothing to do.

After a machiatto we walked a little farther where he introducing me to Tega Bino as we sat in a small restaurant lit by candlelight. (It was out of necessity – power across the area was off). It began to thunder and the heavens poured and we shared drafts.

Over the next several days I began developing my routine – I would work reasonably well during the day and at night fall I would venture forth with Elias to Abdo’s for sheesha and chai.. Abdo is a muslim from Harar who owns two shops in the sprawling alleyways of Piazza. The shops are congregation points for men escaping their wives, women seeking money from men escaping their wives, and chat. Abdo also possesses a magical ability as a DJ. His music selection was phenomenal and encapsulated mood and thought perfectly. Ranging from old school blues, to modern singer/songwriters, to soul – for hours we would sit mesmerized by the music, talking and listening. It was a beautiful introduction to the meandering flows that are central to Ethiopian life. Unfortunately, after adopting this life of busy days and wandering nights I woke up on Sunday with my throat and lungs screaming bloody murder.   Consuming water like air I tried to drown the pain. Thus Dextrokuf entered my life with its promises of stifling my cough center and providing me with vital medicament.

Meeting on Monday (avec chapped lips and a phlegmatic cough) with Dr. Yemane of the Center for National Health Development in Ethiopia, a part of the Millennium Villages Project, I started delving into the world of development intricacies that I would slowly grow to know. Spending the day talking with Dr. Yemane and Amir I became acquainted with the role of the Earth Institute in Ethiopia. The scale of the engagement was far larger than I had anticipated. With nearly a 100 people employed in various capacities the project functioned to the direct of 50,000 villagers spread across 10 villages and also the indirect benefit of millions as the primary technical facility for the government led Health Extension Program to improve community health throughout the country through the placement of trained health practitioners in villages and towns. What was even more surprising was how close the reality seemed to be to what Sach’s (the Director of the Earth Institute) had called for in his book, The End of Poverty.

I spent the rest of the week either researching in the library of the Institute for Ethiopian studies or meeting with Dept heads for the Environmental Protection Authorities for Addis and the country. Now full of information, tomorrow I depart for Mekelle via the Danakil Depression, a land of murderous Afar nomads, spectacularly hued sulfurous lakes, and seething pits of lava. Supposedly, it has formed the basis for some conceptions on what the bowels of hell look like.

Update on my dad: he has been moved out of the ICU and is starting the long process of recovery. Please keep him in your thoughts and prayers.  

My dad underwent surgery yesterday to insert rods to stabilize his fractured vertebrae. If you know him please have him in your thoughts and prayers.

So it is about time to give some perspective on my life.

I will be beginning a 4 year dual degree program in law and urban planning/environmental science in the fall. Since graduating from Pomona in 2006 I lived in New York working for the NYC Parks Dept and then NYC Global Partners (non-profit affiliated with the NYC mayor’s office and housed at the UN). The last several months of my life in New York also included ample prep for the GRE and LSAT – both of which I love dearly. In December I completed applications for graduate schools. Finishing my applications after countless coffees and pacing I finished packing, applying, and backing up my laptop’s hard drive moments before I left for the airport with my family (sans John) for Egypt.

I left for Egypt with a one way ticket into Cairo. I had accepted an internship with the Earth Institute of Columbia University to work in the Kenyan town of Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria. In Kisumu, I was to work with the city’s Department of the Environment and the Earth Institute/United Nation’s Millennium Development Group to address the challenges facing a rapidly growing African city of nearly half a million people. through community needs assessments, GIS environmental modeling, educational programs and profiling the regulatory environment for foreign direct investment.

Unfortunately, Kenya had more difficulty than anticipated moving from its 3rd president in its 45 year history to its 4th. With violence mostly along ethnic lines Kisumu and the surrounding rift valley region was the hardest hit as it is the home of the opposition leader and the Luo tribe. In Egypt I continued to follow the reports of escalating violence. It was time to look for another position. Feeling like a displaced person I cast a wide net and started making contacts in Africa.

Luck had her way with me and The Earth Institute launched its project in Ethiopia in the city of Mekelle in the middle of January. While I will still work on profiling the regulatory environment for FDI the rest of my work would focus more on energy and sanitation issues. I will also still be working from the municipal offices but given the newness of the project I am left to define the nature of my work far more than would have been the case in Kenya.

And tomorrow I start.

Flickr Photos

December 2019
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