Welcome to Ethiopia

Saturday morning, December 31
This year I read a New Yorker article about a scientist who’s studying the human experience of time, and is specifically interested in how time seems to pass slowly when you’re young and then steadily accelerates. Or why near-death experiences make time slow so much that people feel they’re seeing their whole life flash by. His research made him conclude that it doesn’t actually slow, but being hyper-alert makes it seem like time is passing glacially. I think that’s true to some extent in traveling. When you’re in an alien place, you notice everything — vastly more than when you’re sitting down to your work desk in the morning. So maybe another reason to travel is that it lengthens your life — or seems to.

Certainly it feels like we’ve been here much longer than 48 hours. Our Omo Valley expedition leader, Endalk Bezawork, called a little after 10 Wednesday night (minutes after our arrival at the guest house) to confirm we were there. Thursday morning, he showed up precisely at 8, as promised. But we had to go to a bank for an ATM and to make a deposit for our trek later on. And we wanted SIM cards and air time for our phones. All these chores gave us our first glimpse of Addis, which struck me as being a rather more appealing African capital than Dakar or Bissau or Banjul. (Or maybe I’m just getting used to African capitals.) It was 10:15 a.m. by the time we finally broke free of the traffic (jammed worse than usual by the vast throngs of Orthodox Christians being disgorged from churches where they had celebrated the feast of St. Gabriel.)

The open road — where we spent the majority of the day — proved delightful. With few potholes and little other vehicular traffic, it took us past vast farmlands rimmed by rugged mountains that reminded me of California or South Africa, only greener. From time to time, we wove through boys shepherding cows or goats or dodged gaggles of children streaming to or from school. So the drive, though long, felt fun to us, if a quiet, dusty, bouncy form of fun.

Because we’d gotten such a late start, Endalk changed the plan and decided we should spend the night in Sodo, rather than going all the way to Arba Minch, our original goal. But we would still be able to see everything in our travel plan. By the time he assured us of this, I trusted him. My initial impressions make it clear he’s one of the better guides we’ve ever had anywhere. He’s almost 26, has a mind like a trap, a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of this area, and the organizational skills of a Manhattan wedding planner. Moreover, he displays a natural social grace and charm so powerful that everyone we meet everywhere seems to love him. One of the best things is that he was born and raised in the Omo Valley, in a tribe that lives near the Hamar tribe (one of our destinations). So he’s more of an insider here than I am in San Diego.

Dorze woman grating the enset meat
The final product: false banana (enset) bread
A Dorze elephant house

Yesterday, the value of all those skills become increasingly evident, as we drove up a high mountain to visit the Dorze people, renowned for their houses reminiscent of elephants, for their pottery and weaving, for the way they use the “false banana” tree to supply most of their needs in life (except bananas — which grow on a cousin tree). We got to see every step of the cloth-making process — from the cotton balls in the fields, to the girls spinning them (by hand, rather than on spinning wheels), to the men weaving the thread into cloth, to the beautiful final products for sale in the village center. In our stroll through the village, we chanced upon two neighboring families, creating a great clamor of disagreement. But among them were three village elders (all men), and we learned it was a mediation session. Once the elders had made their judgment, the falling-out would be a thing of the past, we were told. We drank liquor made from the village corn and ate the weird bread-like substance baked from the fermented (4 months!) meat of the false banana leaves. The elephantine houses are built largely from those same trees, and we got to enter and see what was inside a venerable old one.

It was a riveting visit, and the afternoon, though different, was no less exotic. After a leisurely lunch in the center of Arba Minch, we headed into the nearby national park for a two-hour boat ride on Lake Chama. It’s a beautiful place, home to families of hippos and gigantic crocodiles and flotillas of birds. Most of the birds were away at another Ethiopian lake where they hatch their eggs and tend the babies till they’re fledglings. But the huge hippo heads popped up repeatedly during our ride. At the “Crocodile Market” (a sunny bank so named by the locals), we found 6 or 8 monsters, mouths agape in order to warm their tongues in the setting sun’s light (according to Endalk.) In a few minutes, we’ll start our descent into the Omo Valley, where by all accounts the human residents make all of the foregoing ho-hum.

Fishermen on Lake Chamo routinely get eaten by the crocs.

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