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© 2011 Sabrina Swenson. All Rights Reserved.
January, 2010
I flew into the capital Addis Ababa and spent just a short amount of time in this city.  When I go to other countries I find the larger cities are usually not the most interesting draw of a country and generally head out to the remote regions as soon as possible. 
Ethiopia is a fairly large country and so, along with poor road conditions, it took me many hours to get anywhere I wanted to go.  They are in the midst of building modern roads throughout the country and I did see them in several locations however, since they are not finished yet, you are not allowed to drive on them.  Therefore, mass amounts of patience were required for traveling throughout this country.  
I specifically came to Ethiopia to see the Mursi tribe in the South and the Danakil Depression in the North.  Both were about 19 hour bus rides from Addis.  As always, I took local transport.  If you're flexible (literally) and are up for some adventure, this is definitely the way to go.  Traveling authentically, I call it.
I first headed South to the Lower Omo Valley to see the Mursi tribe.  The ride from Addis to Jinka, the point from which you enter Mago National Park to see the Mursi, was a local 52 seat bus. Africans, never ones for limiting the amount of passengers simply due to seat availability, cram in as many passengers as possible.  I always try to get a seat near a door (self preservation) and so picked the seat immediately behind the back door.  Apparently I wasn't thinking as not only was it incredibly dusty but also, due to the poor road conditions, was very bumpy.  At numerous times I was literally airborne. 
Once in Jinka I overnighted and then hired a 4 wheel drive and driver to head through Mago National Park.  The lower Omo Valley is home to many people in a small area.  There are many tribes around the Mago National Park the Mursi only being one.  We drove a few hours and finally came upon a Mursi village.  The Mursi are well known for their women wearing lip-plates in their lower lip.  The women's lip-plates are made of clay and are as big as 15cm (5.9 inches)  in diameter.  They start them with small lip-plates when they are young and increase the size with age.  The plates are inserted into a slit separating their lower lip and jaw.  Due to the obvious discomfort women often leave them out leaving their distended lips swaying below their jaw.   I saw many women with the lip-plates out and marveled at exactly how far a lip can actually stretch!  The Mursi number approximately 8,000.  They have simple huts and move according to the season.  In addition to the women wearing lip-plates, they also practice scarification.  They cut themselves using a stone, knife, hook or razor blade.  Ash is rubbed into the cuts therefore making an infection which promotes scar tissue growth, resulting in the desired raised scars in various designs.   We continued to a few other Mursi villages before heading back to Jinka. 
On the return to Addis I was a little smarter in my picking of a bus seat and snagged a prime spot in the front across from the driver.  I arrived just in time to watch as the driver proceeded to tape the steering column together.  I guess there's nothing that a little duct tape can't fix.  As we drove, at one point, I heard the entire bus laughing.  When I turned to see what they were laughing at, I saw my long hair being blown from the open window directly into the face of the man behind me.  When I apologized he said "no, I like it!" to which the whole bus erupted in laughter once more.  Apparently now seated in the front of the bus (and being the only foreigner) I had become entertainment for the masses.  
I found throughout the country that there weren't many foreigners.  I think I counted only 20 others the entire 16 days I was there.  As such, children usually point and yell "faranji" which means foreigner in Amharic; the language of Ethiopia. They also seem to be fascinated with our hair, I guess because the texture and color is so different.  Throughout my stay people everywhere kept feeling my hair. Many would even lift it up and put it on top of their head saying they wanted it!  I found on the long bus rides I took traversing the country inevitably at some point I would feel a pull and out of the corner of my eye would spy someone else feeling my hair!  
Back to the bus...  After lunch I got back on and I noticed the driver and his buddy had a heaping bundle of chat (an intoxicating leaf that's consumed primarily in Ethiopia and Djibouti although it is illegal in nearby Eritrea).  They were chewing away with ever increasing speed.  They offered me some and I tried one leaf.  I found it to be very bitter and all around awful, I declined their offer of more.  They, however, continued their copious consumption of chat.  At one point both men impulsively burst into song.  The fact that they were singing completely different songs mattered not!  The driver also took to yelling (what I believe to be obscenities) and shaking his fist at every man and cow we passed.  It was at this point that I wondered if there weren't some law against chewing chat whilst operating heavy machinery...  
Whenever we would stop to stretch or for lunch, when the driver was ready to go he would honk the horn once.  This gave the entire bus only about 60 seconds to get back on before he would pull away.  I learned quickly to stay near the door and board immediately when he honked.  After one minute he would simply start driving down the road at an ever increasing speed.  Man, woman and child could be seen running alongside the bus thrusting themselves inside while it barreled down the road.  If you've not been to Africa, the complete and utter lack of safety precautions in everyday life is truly astounding!  We eventually made it back to Addis and as I stepped off the bus I once again thanked God for delivering me safely from African transport!
Once back in the capital I then proceeded North on a bus to Mekele, the point from which you depart for the Danakil Depression.  It was another long bus ride and once again I was the only foreigner.  Again, if you are going to a country like this, traveling locally is so much more rewarding.  Please note: you really do need to be flexible both literally and flexible with your time.  On this journey we had the obligatory two flat tires and even got stuck once.  The entire bus got out to push this massive vehicle.  It did work and we made it to Mekele.  From there I hired a 4 wheel drive and driver for a couple of days.  We drove from Mekele just to the outer ridge of the Danakil where I spent the night in a dirt floor hut.  There was no bed, just a reed mat.  I cringed as I went in to sleep and from the light of my head lamp saw a huge spider on my mat right where my head was to be.  After scaring him away I hoped it was not poisonous and that it wouldn't be back.  Between that and the heat it was difficult to sleep.  There was, however, the most magnificent night sky.  With no city lights anywhere to be seen the sky was perfect for observing the stars.  This place, on the edge of the Danakil, was so remote that there weren't any toilets what-so-ever; not even squat toilets.  You simply just walked off into the distance and went wherever.  (I simply cannot tell you how thankful I am when I return from these trips to a clean bed and modern plumbing!).  Bright and early the next morning my guide and I and the obligatory scout and three policemen with weapons were off for the Danakil.  The scout was absolutely necessary as this area is completely flat and desolate.  It all looks the same and without a scout that knows his way you could easily get turned around and never be seen again.  The three policemen are necessary because tourists have actually been kidnapped in this region.  I thought this was a lot of personnel just for me, myself and I but was thankful to have them all along.  
After an hour of driving we parked the vehicle and set off on foot over terrain that made it impossible for the 4 wheel drive to maneuver.  The landscape became very lunar.  They don't call it the daunting Danakil Depression for nothing.  This is the lowest point in Africa and officially one of the hottest place on earth.  Funnily, the whole reason I picked a trip to Ethiopia was because on my last trip to Mt. Everest base camp, as I was freezing in the Himalayas I thought to myself "wherever I'm going next better be warm!".  As such, when I returned home I searched for the hottest place on earth and a new trip and destination was born.... the Danakil Depression.  It lies 100meters (328 feet) below sea level and is about one of the most inhospitable places on earth.  In fact it's so surreal that it doesn't look like a part of earth at all.   I went to Dallol which has great warts of twisted sulfur.  There are also huge pools of sulfuric acid.  You can smell the sulfur before even approaching the Danakil Depression.  It was overwhelming.  I could also hear sulfuric acid gurgling in some of the holes in the Depression.  This place is truly like no other on earth.  It was everything I expected it to be; it's simply out of this world.  It was incredibly hot and they actually advise anyone with a heart condition not to go.  We walked around for ages and I got some great pictures. The further we walked the more vibrant the colors became; bright yellows and greens dominated.   I found this place to be one of the most fascinating and unusual on the planet.  
Surrounding the Danakil Depression on all sides are salt flats.  I watched a huge caravan of camels (about 600) walk in the morning about an hour to where they were cutting out salt from the earth before shaving it into blocks and loading it onto the camels backs for the walk back to the nearest village.  The camels eventually walk on to Mekele where some of the salt stays with the rest being transported to the capital Addis.  This is some serious back breaking work done by hundreds of men.  They each have a different job.  Some hack at the salt flat making small pieces.  Others pull those pieces out of the ground.  Some sand those pieces into perfect rectangles;  larger ones for the camels backs and a few smaller ones for the few donkeys they have.  Some men secure several of the salt tablets onto the beasts while others head them back to the nearby village.  Day in and day out these guys do this.  Looking around there seems to be an endless supply of salt here.  Once away from the Danakil the only thing you see in every direction is white pristine sparkling salt.
We eventually headed back to Mekele.  On the way we stopped in another village to have lunch and I was once again surrounded by a bunch of kids asking me questions and feeling my hair.  They also wanted pens.  It's hard to believe, but they don't have something as simple as a writing instrument.  I gave out the pens that I had and they fervently began writing on their hands (they don't have paper either!)  They were a wonderful group of kids and after eating my lunch one boy wanted to take me to his home which was across the road from where I had just ate.  I (and the heard of young boys now following me) walked into his home where his mother was making tea.  I sat with them and chatted as a very small boy came up to me wanting to sit on my lap.  I picked him up and tried not to cringe at his filthy state (I'm talking possible fleas and lice here).  They were all adorable and loving and in spite of their living conditions seemed to be very happy.  I find this a reoccurring theme throughout the world.  A lot of stuff doesn't necessarily equal happiness and the lack of a lot of stuff doesn't necessarily equal unhappiness...   Eventually my driver and I needed to leave.  I said goodbye to the boys and watched their smiling faces as we pulled away.  
I found myself another bus back to Addis and then made my way East to the city of Harar.  The city of Harar is quite different from the rest of the country.  It is a walled city and is more reminiscent of Fez in Morocco.  It has countless mosques and shrines and a plethora of alleyways all squeezed into a small area.  The women are all covered in this area. It's also well known for it's water shortages and as such water is only available at certain hours of the day.  Throughout my travel in Ethiopia this and power outages were very common.  The city of Harar is also well known for it's hyena feeding.  Every night from just outside of one of the gates to the city the hyena man starts calling the hyenas to come and feed.  Hyenas are far bigger than people realize and their jaws are some of the strongest in the animal kingdom, quite capable of crunching through bone and skull.  They are Africa's second largest predator.  Each morning the hyena man collects offcuts of camel and/or beef from the butchers.  Once the hyenas have gathered he has a basket with the meat (which is cut into small strips) and starts feeding them by hand.  They, surprisingly, don't ever bite his hand but rather bite the meat only.  I was even able to give it a try.  Repeatedly I would put a small stick in my mouth and hang meat on the end of it.  One hyena after another would come right up and bite the meat off of the stick. The hyenas and I were eyeball to eyeball.  They were so close I could smell their bad breath.  Considering they only eat raw meat I guess the bad breath was inevitable!  They really are unusual creatures.  They kind of remind me of a very large feral dog with green glowing eyes that's led a hard life.   
I finished up my time in Harar then headed back to Addis and my flight home.  I found a reoccurring element in this country to be a strong sense of community.  People don't hesitate to help each other out.  I guess they figure they are all in this together.  Twice I was in a taxi when the engine quit and the driver was not able to start it.  The driver simply rolled down the window and yelled at random nearby men to come and push the vehicle so he could start it again.  No one every said no or complained, they just all help one another.  I also was given help wherever I went.  I think especially because I was traveling solo, I felt everyone wanted to take care of me and make sure that I was safe.  Another reoccurring sight I observed while walking around this country was that so many people were disabled with problems that could have easily been overcome or avoided had they had proper medical attention.  It's very sad but a way of life in Ethiopia.

Mursi tribe woman and child.
Chat chewing bus driver (note the tape holding the steering column together).
Coffee is served.
Hauling salt to town.
Dirt floor hut I stayed in on the edge of the Danikal Depression.
Camel caravan
Salt flats surrounding the Danikal Depression.
My vehicle parked on the edge of the Danikal Depression.
The Danikal Depression.
Salt flats surrounding the Danikal Depression.
Men pulling salt out of the earth.
Hungry hyena