Ethiopia (1): Where science fiction becomes reality

Why do two colours, put one next to the other, sing?

Can one really explain this? No.

~ Pablo Picasso

Ethiopia what have you done to me? It took me only four days to miss and appreciate my daily routine that I have back home. How many things we take for granted, we only realise when travel. Third day in Ethiopia and second day into the tour to Danakil Depression I was nearly hallucinating to go back to my pencil dresses, high heel shoes, favourite perfume scent and all the ordinary life that suddenly felt so luxurious. I was brutally ripped out of my comfort zone. Those who don’t know me, might get me wrong, but the truth is that I love and chase the challenge, if no other choice I can survive without running water for days (not that I enjoy that, who does?) and rarely I moan about inconvenience. Going off the beaten track can never be easy, that’s the charm. Why was I so affected then? Was it a flu that I brought from Addis Ababa, was it a melancholic mood that I brought from home or simply the nature of the place (Danakil was named the cruelest place on Earth by National Geographic)? I really don’t know.

Me and Ethiopia started online dating few years ago. First I saw the pictures and I couldn’t believe how adventurous and attractive it was. We took it slow, but the strong attraction was always there. This year inevitable happened and we finally met. How did the reality check go? Was it really as colourful as it advertised itself? They say love is blind. Well, not in this case.

Danakil Depression — nature’s Lady Gaga

The Afar Triangle, usually called the Afar Depression, is the second lowest point in Africa full of colourful goodies: potash, sulphur, salt, bentonite, and gypsum. There is a constant volcanic activity going on underneath the surface turning the area into a glowing and bustling firework-style show. If nature was a desperate attention addict, ‘hey-look-at-me-NOW!’ personality, Danakil Depression would definitely be its alter ago or a business card, ready to show off with bright colours and extravagant outfits. The sulphur smell combined with unbearable heat was truly suffocating, attacking my nose with that kind of air simply impossible to digest. I covered my mouth and tried to adjust to that unwelcoming environment. The power of curiosity was stronger than the sense of disgust, so I kept exploring like nothing was bothering me at all. To comply with the safety regulations we were colour-briefed by the tour guide, the following rules of wandering around applied: Yellow – big danger! Stay away, don’t step on it, if you want to stay alive! Green – still risky as vicious yellow is hiding underneath, Red and Brown – relax, you’re safe, start taking selfies. Our lovely guide made sure that everyone listened to the terrifying story of one Chinese who couldn’t resist the temptation of experimenting with yellow  and she ended up being taken by the helicopter to Kenya in order to get some life saving treatment. Bloody hell, believe me, no one wanted to be transported by air from one African country to another just because of inattention to yellow. Except the smell, walking around was enjoyable. So many photo opportunities! My camera played a trick by changing automatically ISO on each and every photo, turning them all into little, horrible monsters. Very bad quality but I still love my little monsters. The truth is it doesn’t matter much, the memories are with me and no one can take them away.

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The cruelest place on Earth

While traveling around the Afar region we were passing through tough terrain, very brutal and harsh environment. There were few villagers here and there living decent, happy life  — against all odds. The one place that really stroke me and I can’t stop thinking about, even now, weeks after the trip, was a small area dotted with a number of houses located at the bottom of the volcano. The houses were made of mud and were located literally next to nothing. People living there were nomads, moving around the neighbourhood to support the family system. I had one burning question in my mind: why on earth would anybody choose to live the life like that? Constantly exposed to nearly 50 degrees celsius, surrounded by volcano lava rocks and very vulnerable when it comes to access to food and water. Did they not have a choice? Were they forced to choose such a harsh environment to live in? The answer is: no. They had choice, the options were there. To me it looked like a nightmare, that they liberally put themselves in. And they enjoyed it.

On the other hand if any of that nomads looked at us, how we live everyday (me and you): so worried, so stressed, so angry so often, rushing to work, from work, leaving little space for life in life, wouldn’t they also wonder: despite all that technology and advanced lifestyle in which way are they happier than us? The sad truth is that we rarely appreciate our comfortable lifestyle, we’re rarely happy with what we have, constantly chasing for more and more. I make it a practise to remind myself daily how blessed I am with the food I have, the places I can travel to, with my supportive friends and family. It’s easy to take it for granted. We are all blessed and places like Afar are there to remind us about it.

David Foster Wallace raised the same question:  When I say “we,” I mean people just like you and me… mostly white, upper middle class, obscenely well educated, doing really interesting jobs, sitting in really expensive chairs watching the best, most sophisticated electronic equipment money can buy. Why do we feel so empty and unhappy?* Good question, why?

* If you don’t know the author, or you know the author but you’d like to get to know him better: watch the movie The End of the Tour, worth it! Or read the book, the quote goes from there: Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky.

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Show must go on

On the road I wasn’t left alone suffering in tough condition, it was difficult for most members of the tour. I had running nose, was completely flu infected with no hope of recovery. I took so many pills curing cold and fever that I should be flu resistant for years to come. But no, the pills didn’t help, very hot and humid weather neither. Almost every night we were sleeping outdoors exposed to wind and heat. Just look at the photo down there of the local hotel, it’s hilarious. Still, I wouldn’t mind that, if I could breathe through my nose. It was a painful journey to go through. However admittedly I was still blessed as I got no symptoms of diarrhoea, stomach issues, food poison. I guess it’s better to have running nose than running …

On the bright side despite my pathetic health condition I still managed to have loads of fun. We passed through many hot springs, some friendly, some not. There was one particularly appealing to jump in and I did so as the rest of the group. I had no bikini with me so lingerie had to do justice. No big deal, who cares in the middle of nowhere? I waited for others to enjoy the natural pool and only when they finished I jumped inside myself and enjoyed the private swim. It was hot, salty and sexy. I liked it a lot.

Just around the corner we bumped into another hot spring, but unlike the first one, this was not inviting at all. It was red in colour, full of sulphur and boiling hot — literally you could see bubbles dancing on the surface thanks to thermal activities underneath. I was told that locals jump inside to enjoy some kind of a beauty treatment, but I was totally put off and no beauty benefits could persuade me to get inside. The trick is that the water, although beneficial for the skin, is absolutely poisonous if drunk. We observed few thirsty birds unaware of the consequences drinking the water and dying on the spot. So sad to see. No wonder no one swam. I put my toe inside and that was enough. We managed to rescue one sparrow, which was getting closer and closer to the water.  One of us jumped towards the bird, grabbed him and took to the car, where lucky bird was given mineral water and was taken away from a deadly source. One soul saved.

So how did it go overall? I must admit that, unlike in a real life, online dating vs reality check went pretty successful: some fabulous moments (it really is as colourful as advertised), some dramatic events (dead bird), bad luck (running nose), good luck (interesting people I met) all made my trip to Ethiopia very memorable and enjoyable, no matter what.

Marilyn Monroe said: Give a girl the right shoes, and she can conquer the world. Why were high heel shoes so important in Ethiopia? That’s a different story, for a face to face, honest conversation. There’s no room for every story in blogging. Get me a glass of wine and I’ll get you the story. Deal? Bon chic, bon voyage x

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