January 17, 2012
According to our seatback monitors, we’ve just crossed the border into Northern Sudan. My feelings on leaving Ethiopia are mixed. We didn’t have a chance to see many things that probably would have been great: the castles of Gondor and churches hewn into the rocky cliffs of Tigray; the ancient stellae of Axum. Other travelers spoke highly of Awassa in the south and the little-visited western provinces. And the Afar Depression, lowest and hottest place on earth, where great camel caravans still carry salt and a spectacular volcano simmers, is something I’m truly sorry to have missed.
Still, we saw so many amazing things, it felt like we were journeying via time-travel machine, rather than planes and Land Cruisers. In the south, prepubescent shepherd boys would ignore their flocks to race down and perform weird tribal welcome dances, in the hopes of our stopping to exchange the photo op for a handful of birr. One day we passed a gruesome sight — a dead horse on the shoulder being feasted upon by a host of condor-sized vultures, hopping up and down with excitement about the feast (or so it appeared.) Ubiquitous were the donkeys and people laden with yellow plastic 6-gallon jerrycans. The cans hold the water that must be gathered at wells or tanks. It seems so ironic that Ethiopia, the “water tower of Africa,” source of a big portion of the water that flows to the Nile, would be so stingy with it’s own parched residents. But getting the water to the hands of workaday Ethiopians (or the random tourist passing through) requires big investments in pumping and purification stations, pipes, and the like. Lacking that, staying healthy is a constant challenge.
Apart from the strange and marvelous sights, what impressed me most were the Ethiopian people we got to know. If our time with the Omo Valley tribesmen was short and constrained, other encounters were just the opposite. We spent 8 long days with Endalk and Sharom in the south, and over the course of that time, we developed deep affection for the intelligence and impish charm of the former and profound respect for Sharom’s careful driving skills. We had only three days with Belay, our highlands trekking guide, but conversations with him ranged even farther; we discussed everything from Robert Mugabe’s mental health to US foreign policy to how Belay should use Internet marketing to build his guiding business. In Addis, we stayed at the guest house on four separate occasions, the last one for the better part of two days. Each time we returned, we developed a keener sense of what made the cast of characters there tick.
I had trouble falling asleep last night, thinking about one of the waitresses in the guesthouse restaurant (where we ate hamburgers on three separate nights). She spoke perfect idiomatic English, and last night we heard a tiny bit of what’s likely a long and complicated story. When she was little, her mother and stepfather got visas for America. So she lived in various parts of Southern California: Orange County, Pomona, even San Diego for a while. But her mother had died, and her stepfather had “become a bad guy.” She’d returned to Ethiopia to live with her grandmother, but the grandmother had died too. She’d gone from living high to struggling for survival, she said, matter-of-fact but wistful. “Could you fit me into one of your suitcases?” she’d asked.
This woman was so astute, so competent, I could easily imagine her running an emergency room in an American hospital or doing something equally demanding. But twists of fate had brought her to waitressing at a budget hotel in Addis Ababa. If my suitcase had been big enough, I would have been honored to transport her. Instead all I can do is give her a few sentences here.