Monday, June 3, 2013

Awash and Afar

Things have gone well in Ethiopia, sorting through business/political matters for healthcare program, meeting partners, reviewing areas of performance. I'm so impressed by Dr. Alemayehu ... he designed, indirectly, a very nice and effective time for me. He is truly a gifted healer.

I had a great time this past weekend in Awash / Afar, very restful. Quite a primitive place. All driving in Ethiopia sucks -- sooty diesel trucks traveling 25 MPH on two lane highway, inexplicable traffic jams, all sorts of livestock and people (occasional naked tribespeople ...) ... the lot. That aside, after 6+ hour drives each way (and a fuel filter bypass breakdown on the way back, plus a flat tire an hour later..), Awash National Park was amazing. Think of a bunch of thatch-roof cabins spread around a waterfall canyon in an area roughly the shape of Yellowstone, but with lions and other African fauna. When we arrived after the long drive, we captured a lounge area on the second floor of a hut dining structure, ordered a beer or mineral water ... I fell asleep in the cool breeze to the sound of the waterfalls, was out like a baby for a couple hours.

When I woke, Alemayehu said "let's use our time" and we piled back into the big Toyota Land Cruiser and headed north into Afar, a tribal state made up predominantly of pastoralists. (One of our partners provides social and healthcare to the tribespeople, especially for women's enablement, e.g., microfinance, feminine hygiene.) We drove a 'short distance' (compared to the aforementioned welfare program) 30 Km off road, into the volcanic valley where there are hot springs. The springs and water catchment create a jungle-like biome, compared to the arid savannah predominant in Awash.

When we arrived latish (6 PM) at the hot springs end-of-road, we were chastised by the area ranger for not having hired a 'scout' at the national park to take us about. (A scout is a 20-something kid with an automatic rifle who for a fee escorts you about your hikes, etc. The idea of the rifle is to ward off lions, hyenas or such. I saw no such need, my sharp penknife secure in my pocket ... ). The ranger proved quite convivial, escorting us to the hot springs, an about 1 Km further hike through marshy/sketch paths (I fell in the mud twice, once going, once returning ...).

As we walked, we saw many animals -- warthogs, water bucks, gazelle, others, many birds -- on the edge of the tree lines, awaiting further darkness before venturing into the waters / marshes. The last couple hundred meters were through deep forest -- jungle, I'd say (picture above). When we arrived at the deep, clear hot spring pool, Alemayehu quickly stripped to his skivvies and jumped into the pool. He urged me to join him. I resisted, but after a couple minutes I joined him. The water was about 130 degrees F, and soft as can be given the decaying vegetation at bottom and such. Squishy mud in the toes. It was great, very great.

As noted, on the dusky return hike, I slipped into the mud once more (hard dirt crust covers mud holes). (Holy Tarzan, quick sand?) We piled into the truck and made the 30 Km/90 minute return drive to the highway. As we approached the tarmac, Alemayehu hollered, "Praise the Lord." We'd made it. Perhaps some had doubts. We turned left and headed east to Awash town and scurried up some roast chicken and beer for late dinner. (Late being relative, because I tend to think Africa doesn't really have much to do with time, as we've grown to obsess about it in America.)

I slept like a baby across the night, wind and cataracts roaring. Next morning, the others hiked about while I wrote notes and edited photographs on my Macbook, and slept some more on the outdoor porch. Long drive home with two breakdowns, as noted -- handled with aplomb by our extraordinary driver. He handled the large Land Cruiser with grace and, when the fuel pump proved clogged at the first breakdown, he implemented an engine-running fuel-pump bypass. (I did some lightweight EMT work, helping clean his eye which was splashed with diesel.)

Amazing. Tonight my hosts took me for a final dinner in Addis, hitting the western-style Lime Tree restaurant, which I last visited with US embassy staff and Abeje. Being so kind, Alemayehu bought me gifts of 5 Kg of Ethiopian honey and about the same amount of Harrar coffees. (I had brought second bag full of medical and technical equipment that I delivered to the LeAlem clinic ... they were intent that I return with the second bag still full ...)

So it goes. 16 hour flight leaves Addis at 10 PM Tuesday, stops in Rome to refuel, and arrives Washington Dulles at 8:30 AM Wednesday. Back at the office about noon.

Look forward to getting home, moving on to the next chapter.