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The Danakil Depression – My Last Hurrah

24 Dec

The last thing I did before I left Ethiopia after Peace Corps was flout the rules and go to the red zone. Methane pools, sulfuric acid, live volcanoes, ancient traditional salt mining and all along the Eritrean border – yeah, I can see why Peace Corps said it was a no-go.

But, six of us had officially finished our service and just had to knock this region off our bucket lists. So off we went to Afar, Ethiopia to see some of the most inhospitable land on earth.

Sunrise in Afar

Sunrise in Afar

We started from Mekele, Tigray’s regional capital and traveled into Afar – known for it’s nomadic salt miners and for being the hottest average place on earth. Travelling in December, the temperature had just started to drop for the winter (to 39 degrees Celsius). Our first few days we ate lunch in an Afari village and visited the salt flats where large camel caravans took the salt into Tigray for sale. The journey on foot takes eight days.

Thank goodness for air conditioning

Thank goodness for air conditioning

Camel Caravan at sunset

Camel Caravan at sunset

On their way to Tigray. Each camel is carring upwards of 200 lbs of salt.

On their way to Tigray. Each camel is carring upwards of 200 lbs of salt.

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In the salt flats, they pump in water to clean and loosen the salt.

In the salt flats, they pump in water to clean and loosen the salt.

this poor donkey was so tired!

this poor donkey was so tired!

wet salt

wet salt

We also went to where the blocks of rock salt are actually mined. We drove through salt flats for miles, seeing no other life. Afari men have been mining salt for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The salt flats are estimated to be almost 8 miles deep in some parts. Modern companies have tried and failed to mine the salt with machines, but they just rust up. Each salt block weighs around 4-5 kilos (about 10 lbs) and the flats sit at around 121 meters below sea level. The area used to be a part of the Red Sea. Around the area are liquid methane pools, salt mountains and sulfur pools. The chemicals in the earth react with water to create different colours (iron is red, sulfur is yellow, copper is orange and green etc.). Walking around the pools, you can hear the earth rumbling below – this is unstable earth.

Driving across the salt lake

Driving across the salt lake

Dried salt flats

Dried salt flats

Our driver

Our driver

An Afari man in the salt flats

An Afari man in the salt flats

salt mountains

salt mountains

small geyser

small geyser

Sulfer pools

Sulfer pools

The Peace Corps group

The Peace Corps group

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That night we stayed with a family in Tigray, then the next morning drove a long way across the desert to get to the base of the Erta Ale volcano. We zoomed across the sand, but driving 12 km across lava rock took 2 hours. That was a bumpy ride to say the least (2 flat tires later). Throughout the trip we had to hire military for protection, considering some of the previous tourist deaths in the region. The volcano itself is actually a military base, where we slept that night at the top near the crater. We had no problems, though I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve inhaled enough sulfur to shave a few years off my life.

Across the desert to the volcano

Across the desert to the volcano

Our military escort

Our military escort

They let me play with the gun...

They let me play with the gun…

The lava lake!

The lava lake!

Obsidian rock from the volcano

Obsidian rock from the volcano

Wind went the wrong way!

Wind went the wrong way!

Silhouette at Erta Ale

Silhouette at Erta Ale

Erta Ale at sunrise

Erta Ale at sunrise

All in all this was one of the most unique places I have ever been. There are only four active lava lakes in the world, but this is probably the closest you can get to one (we walked right up to the edge of the crater). If this blog has at all put Ethiopia on your travel radar, definitely put a trip to the Danakil Depression on your list.

More Day Trips from Gondar, and My 100th Post!

16 Jun

Recently some friends visited me and I finally crossed those elusive random touristy things off my Gondar list. Here are some awesome trips you can do within 1 day from my site.

1. Simien Mountain Trek.

Last time I did the Simiens was for the Big Kahuna – Ras Dashen. This time, it was a short jaunt to Sankober (the first camp) with lots of selfies with the baboons along the way. This trip was much cheaper, shorter, and had a lot more monkeys. And per usual, the Simien views were amazing.

well, it was a little foggy at first

well, it was a little foggy at first

but the views got better

but the views got better

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so many selfies

so many selfies

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2. Boat Trip on Lake Tana

Just 3 hours south of me is Bahir Dar, the regional capital and city on the south of Lake Tana. A boat ride is cheap and fun, and if you time it right you may be able to see some hippos! People usually do the boat tour to see churches and monasteries around the lake, but having lived here long enough to know they all look the same we crossed our fingers for the wildlife. There was also some great bird watching. The best time to go to see hippos is around 4pm or so, when they come up to eat and it’s not so hot.

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These kids lived on an island in the lake. Coming home from school, this traditional papyrus boat takes them across twice a day.

These kids lived on an island in the lake. Coming home from school, this traditional papyrus boat takes them across twice a day.

 

3. Blue Nile Falls.

This was a big tourist check. I had planned to go with my family back in December, but flight schedules and the promise of a dry riverbed dissuaded us. I was skeptical if the falls would be impressive so close to the end of dry season, but we saw something even cooler. With the heavy rains over the past few weeks, in the 30 minutes or so that we were at the falls we actually saw them grow! The river visibly swelled minute by minute. I will definitely have to return in September when the falls are at their full force.

We arrived the local way, which was much cheaper. Most hotels or tour companies will sell you a driver for multiple hundreds of birr per person. We simply went to the bus station and caught a big bus for 14 birr per person to Tis Abay (the village that is a 20 minute hike from the falls). This was great, until on the way back, an axel broke. We caught a ride the rest of the way on a tuk-tuk type truck. Super uncomfortable, but I sorta feel like the boys enjoyed their Type 2 fun (at least there was a great story.)

Keith, John, and I at Blue Nile Falls

Keith, John, and I at Blue Nile Falls

The suspension bridge that you have to cross

The suspension bridge that you have to cross

Willy Wonka Chocolate River much?

Willy Wonka Chocolate River much?

 

More Portraits

27 Jan

It’s been a while since I posted some portraits, but since I just went all touristy all over Africa I had my trusty camera in hand. Here are some of my favorite photos of people over the past month, Ethiopian and Tanzanian.

a long way from home

a long way from home

siblings on Zanzibar

siblings on Zanzibar

Stonetown slave monument

Stonetown slave monument

Masai schoolchildren

Masai schoolchildren

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in the Masai village

in the Masai village

an inviting smile

an inviting smile

Masai women

Masai women

a safari photo

a safari photo

The perfect Timket view

The perfect Timket view

Yemrehanos Kristos monastery by candlelight

Yemrehanos Kristos monastery by candlelight

roadblock

roadblock

through the trenches of Lalibela

through the trenches of Lalibela

on the steps of Bet Giorgis Church

on the steps of Bet Giorgis Church

it's been a long day

it’s been a long day

a friendly priest

a friendly priest

hermit on pilgrimage

hermit on pilgrimage

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A priest in Lalibela

A priest in Lalibela

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In her Sunday best

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Threshing wheat outside Gondar

Threshing wheat outside Gondar

following the Arc of the Covenant

following the Arc of the Covenant

waiting for the parade

waiting for the parade

a PCV at Timket

a PCV at Timket

dawn prayer

dawn prayer

Timket boys

Timket boys

Playing Tourist – The Rock Churches of Lalibela

21 Jan

Christmas Day I walked through the bowels of hell to come out into the light on the other side. Dramatic, non? Well, that’s just how you get around in Lalibela, Ethiopia – tunnels, trenches, on your knees in caves and alcoves. Heading East after the first few days in Ethiopia, my family and I set out to see some of the most impressive monolithic architecture in the world. This is national Geographic stuff people.

At Bet Giorgis, the most famous rock hewn church

At Bet Giorgis, the most famous rock hewn church

through the trenches of Lalibella

through the trenches of Lalibella

my dad at one of the entrances

my dad at one of the entrances

The columns were carved so straight in lines

The columns were carved so straight in lines

Over two days we toured the three compounds of the rock churches in Lalibela, monolithic ones (freestanding), ones that had three sides exposed and one wall attached to the “mother rock,” and cave churches (similar the buildings in Petra, Jordan). Though the monolithic churches were impressive, the passageways, trenches and sheer number of buildings (11 built in just 24 years) made the whole experience unbelievable. King, or Saint, depending on who you talk to, Lalibela built his 11 churches as a 2nd Jerusalem, a place of pilgrimage for African Christians in the 6th or 7th century. Most certainly religious in nature, these churches are still active (with the pilgrims to prove it). The architectural and engineering feet brought the center of Ethiopian political power to Lalibela during that time nonetheless. Today, Lalibela is still a small town, boasting only about 35,000 people, but during holidays like Genna (Ethiopian Christmas on January 7th) the town grows to accommodate 3, 4, even 5 times that size.

praying on the wall, including an ancient swastica style cross

praying on the wall, including an ancient swastika style cross

A priest with his cross

A priest with his cross

around sunset the lichen glows yellow on Bet Giorgis

around sunset the lichen glows yellow on Bet Giorgis

typical Ethiopian Orthodox painting of Mary and Jesus

typical Ethiopian Orthodox painting of Mary and Jesus

wax candles

wax candles

My family and I visited over Christmas, the ferenji kind, December 25th, so not that much was going on. Pilgrims were starting to come in to the town for the big event two weeks later, but really we got a front row seat to these churches. Though orthodoxy really doesn’t come close to my family’s version of Protestantism at all, it was still a powerful experience to walk through and see all the devotion.

an orthodox priest who told me that visiting Lalibela would mean 7 generations of my children would be blessed because it is the 2nd Jerusalem. When I told I had been to the 1st Jerusalem, he changed that number to 14 generations.

an orthodox priest who told me that visiting Lalibela would mean 7 generations of my children would be blessed because it is the 2nd Jerusalem. When I told I had been to the 1st Jerusalem, he changed that number to 14 generations.

A priest with his cross

A priest with his cross

wind erosion

wind erosion

me and the brothers

me and the brothers

priest's drums to accompany the chanting. The leather lashes represent the lashes of the whip on Jesus' back.

priest’s drums to accompany the chanting. The leather lashes represent the lashes of the whip on Jesus’ back.

some amazing carvings and an old Star of David. There is a lot of connection to Jewish history in Ethiopia

some amazing carvings and an old Star of David. There is a lot of connection to Jewish history in Ethiopia

a hermit on pillgrimage

a hermit on pillgrimage

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these trenches provide paths and drainage

these trenches provide paths and drainage

On our second day in Lalibela we took a drive up to Yemrihane Kristos monastery about 40 km north of the town. The monastery is still active as a religious school and houses a few different buildings in a large ivy covered cave.  The priest showed us the carvings by candlelight, bringing us back to when they were first built. Just living in Ethiopia tends to bring you back to Biblical times, with farmers threshing wheat by hand, livestock running over the open air markets and huts that make my theater sets look sturdy. But going through the same unchanged churches and monasteries that people have worshiped in for centuries really brought me back in time.

Ancient Tukul Bets raised and made from stone. Usually they are sticks and mud.

Ancient Tukul Bets raised and made from stone. Usually they are sticks and mud.

our van needed a little help on the sandy roads

our van needed a little help on the sandy roads

Yemrehana Kristos Monastery is in that ivy covered cave

Yemrehana Kristos Monastery is in that ivy covered cave

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Mummies in the monastery

Mummies in the monastery

Yemrehanna Kristos by candelight

Yemrehanna Kristos by candelight

Very different from the historical tours in the Gondar, this was the last stop on our Ethiopian tour. In total we spent just under a week in Ethiopia, which my mom called the “real Africa” part of the trip. Considering how different the culture here is from the rest of Africa, it’s an interesting moniker, but I get what she means. Tanzania was luxury and animals. In Ethiopia I threw my family into the thickest of Ethiopian culture, history, food and even a little language. Recently Ethiopia has been popping up all over the place on top travel lists and best bang for your buck tourism. My home is open!

Playing Tourist – The Castles of Gondar

11 Jan

So I finally did it. I took a tour of the Fasil Gibi Castles in Gondar. It has been 13 months of avoidance, excuses, bad timing, and stinginess, but I held off for my family. The irony is, the one time I was actually being a tourist in Gondar, no one treated me like one. The tour guide at the Fasil Castles lives in my neighborhood and recognized me. Walking around Gondar I had street children hanging off my arms. We were invited into friends’ homes for buna ceremonies and wot. It was really fantastic to introduce some idea of my life to my family – there is only so much blogs, emails and phone calls can relate. We even stuffed all five of us and a duffle bag into a bajaj (tuk tuk). Real life, sorta.

The Fam at the Fasil Castles

The Fam at the Fasil Castles

I finally put together the mish-mash of histories I had heard while living here over the year. Apparently, the ruins in the compound aren’t from age, but from British bombs in World War II. The Italians had used the compound as a military headquarters. There at six castles inside all built at different times over a couple hundred years, the oldest built in the 1600s by different rulers when Gondar was the seat of power in Ethiopia. They draw from architectural inspirations as varied as Portuguese to Moor/Islamic to Indians.

Queen Mintwab's castle, she later moved to Quasquam near the Gondar University hospital

Queen Mintwab’s castle, she later moved to Quasquam near the Gondar University hospital

the Italians used this space for a combat hospital

the Italians used this space for a combat hospital

Mickey in the lion's cages

Mickey in the lion’s cages

three of the six

three of the six

a bombed out great hall

a bombed out great hall

Mom and the brothers checking out the ruins

Mom and the brothers checking out the ruins

through the peephole

through the peephole

some of the newer buildings, "Building of Love" (because the king was awesomely popular?) and the library

some of the newer buildings, “Building of Love” (because the king was awesomely popular?) and the library

After the castle tour we took a half day hike to a Simien Mountains look-out. I could even see my friend’s site from there- Tikel Dingay, noticeable by the unique split rock that looms over the town. We chased baboons through the forest, and of course had to take some jumping photos.

overlooking the Simiens

overlooking the Simiens

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the whole fam

the whole fam

David is a giant

David is a giant

We ended the Gondar part of the trip with a dinner at my favorite local cuisine restaurant Four Sisters, who of course brought us up to dance. My mom held her own, but David definitely showed me up for local integration – he can skiskista with the best of them.

a double gorsha for love

a double gorsha for love

Inspector T'ena was showing me up

Inspector T’ena was showing me up

Me and my brothers at the TImket baths

Me and my brothers at the TImket baths

The Roof of Africa

2 Nov

7 girls, 5 days, 1 goal. To summit the highest point in Ethiopia. Ras Dashen. Or as it’s known locally, Ras Dejen.

The only thing they don’t tell you is, you aren’t just summitting Ras Dashen, you are summitting the 6 peaks between here and there in addition to the valleys, rock scrambling, and gorges you have to scale along the way. Kilimanjaro? Piece of cake. This is the Roof of Africa.

the start....

the start….

beautiful peaks and wildflowers. October is the best time to go.

beautiful peaks and wildflowers. October is the best time to go.

I'm still energetic on day 3.

I’m still energetic on day 3.

We stayed at three separate camps. Starting at Sankober, we spent the night at Gitch, then Chenok, then the base camp for Ras Dashen. The food was amazing and the trip was well organized by Simien Trek (simientrek.com), owned by our good fried Shiff. Highly recommend them to any Simien hikers!

Sunset at Chenok. Pride Rock.

Sunset at Chenok. Pride Rock.

One of our camps. Rained heavy that night!

One of our camps. Rained heavy that night!

these donkeys carried our stuff... I guess we aren't that hardcore.

these donkeys carried our stuff… I guess we aren’t that hardcore.

lunch the first day

lunch the first day

Over the course of our trek we saw some amazing views, walked through a huge troupe of baboons, spied the Walia Ibex, and even saw the Ethiopian red wolf. To see all the endemic species of the SImiens was a real treat and quite rare.

Walia Ibex, endemic to the Simiens.

Walia Ibex, endemic to the Simiens.

Gelada Baboons... or the University of Michigan researchers have determined they are the last of their kind of monkey

Gelada Baboons… or the University of Michigan researchers have determined they are the last of their kind of monkey

hanging out on the cliffs. If they can run around these mountains in gellies, I can do it in chacos... right?

hanging out on the cliffs. If they can run around these mountains in gellies, I can do it in chacos… right?

We finally made it to Ras Dashen (about 14,900 ft) on Day 4. While some of the views were more epic the first few days, it was still a major accomplishment to summit. It was cold and windy at the top so we took a photos, had a quick lunch and then headed back down the 3,000 feet to base camp.

a short free climb to the top

a short free climb to the top

did it in Chacos! these are officially hiking sandals

did it in Chacos! these are officially hiking sandals

Gondar Girls on Ras Dashen

Gondar Girls on Ras Dashen

So we did it. Still alive. Only a few bloody blisters, broken toes, a small case of dehydration, a medium case of dysentery, and a lot of windburn.  This trek will go down as one of my more epic experiences. I mean trekking is cool, but when you trek three feet from monkeys… this is trekking in Africa.

Benches of Bahar Dar

18 Oct

Walking through the Amhara regional capital, you tend to notice a very interesting trend. Every 20 feet or so there is a clay bench, with a different theme. I don’t know if they were commissioned or if 1 person did all of them, but there has to be about 50 in the whole city. Here are a few on the way to the regional Peace Corps Office… with or without strangers

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It says - Wubit Bahar Dar

It says – Wubit Bahar Dar

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It says: Sport lehelum (stadium)

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we had to...

we had to…

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