June 14, 2011

The world is salt

There were six crew and twenty divers on yesterday's expedition: two Frenchmen who owned the boat; two South African women who were the divemasters; two Djiboutian crew; nineteen members of the US military, ranging from career desk jockeys to some Special Forces dudes, all using their Sunday off to go diving - and one random Canadian tourist. Although at first everyone just assumed I was a new contractor or something, and I wasn't actually outed until just before the second dive.

It wasn't until then that the Special Forces dudes started talking to me. It seems the military has implicit but clear social hierarchies. They seemed to approve that I had randomly come to Djibouti, and they seemed pretty plugged-in, too; when I mentioned I had originally planned to visit a friend in South Sudan, they started joking that it was Joseph Kony, a name none of the regular military recognized. Alas, I think they started watching what they talked about, then, too; the best semi-overheard stuff came before that -

"...suddenly every Polish joke I had ever heard made sense to me. Yeah. But the Gorm (sic?), their special forces, those guys were squared away, and they didn't like their regulars any more than we did..."

"dude I was back in Puerto Rico, man, he was stupid. I learned so much here. It's been a great deployment."
"So you're going career?"
"Yeah, man, totally. I love it. I love being a soldier."
"That's awesome."

"...dude ITMed (sic?) for like an hour, we were watching the whole thing. There were three guys who came in to set an IED, I was watching them from the blimp the whole time, they lit up one guy, shot his arm off, he died, second guy got away on a motorcycle with them shooting all around them, but this guy in a ditch, he'd elbow-crawl, and they'd shoot, and he'd stop moving for five minutes, and we'd start thinking, well, we got him, but then he'd start moving again, and they'd start shooting again... this went on for like an hour 'til he got to the end of the ditch and just booked it into these ruins, and he made it, and they didn't chase him. Low-crawling works."

"...we got three broken treadmills in the gym. Get them from Seychelles, they'll cost like, three thousand -"
"- like five thousand -"
"- yeah, maybe, but we gotta get 'em from there, we can't requisition straight from Bahrain, it all has to go through Seychelles."

"...yeah, we got great video, you can Google it. 'Course all the media reports say it was Afghan special forces, they don't say nothin' about us..."

About twenty minutes out of harbour we passed a dead cow floating in the water. Twenty minutes later we passed a pod of dozens of frolicking dolphins, leaping out of the water all around us, flashing silver. "Any day you see dolphins is a good day," said Kristen, the lead divemaster, happily. We saw a few on the way back, too -


It was indeed a good day. We parked first at Shark Island -

- named because it looks like a dorsal fin, not because there were sharks. It was still a good dive, though, and the second one was downright awesome. Bright coral, huge schools of dozens of kinds of fish, lionfish, groupers, and at the very end, I and my dive buddy Gareth (a Navy Reservist with an MBA who went through, like, half the air I did) found a big ol' sea turtle resting between two shelves of rust-coloured fan coral.

Back we rode, more of a big happy family now than we had been at the beginning, in the way all dive boats get - though the military lines of social demarcation were still quite apparent - along the unforgiving shore

and then back at port their bus picked them up, and I shouldered my bag and walked past them to the gate of the port to look for a taxi. Some of them looked envious. The hotel in which I type this is off limits to them, and there are other strict restrictions on what they can do in town. "I've been here five months and I've lost 25 pounds," Gareth said, "nothing to do but work out and dive. Thank God there's diving. Got to spend my money on something."

I got back just in time to make arrangements for today's trip, to Lac Assal, an inland salt sea that marks the lowest point in Africa and third lowest in the world, after the Dead Sea and Sea of Galilee - 150m/500ft below sea level. And am I glad.


On the way in there's an amazing thermocline:

...the blue water to the left is 30C/85F, saltier than the Dead Sea, and very dead; the green water to the right is naturally geothermally warmed to 90C/200F, and full of algae.

Those are pearls that were his eyes of 100% pure table salt.

So is that. And the 60m/200ft of ground beneath it.

We (that being "me and the driver I hired"; I'd say it's low season here, too, except I'm not so sure there's really such a thing as high season) also passed a vast canyon

and endless fields of lava, and a desolate campement

and stubborn trees

and monkeys and camels, nibbling on acacia trees, or simply wandering by.

A long, hot, tiring day, but a great one.


June 10, 2011

At the edges of the world

I'm always amazed by how quickly the alien becomes familiar. On my first day in Mombasa it seemed strange and surreal to be the only guest in a 100-room Indian Ocean beach resort at the very end of a long, winding road; two days later it seemed perfectly normal. Two weeks ago I flew into Addis Ababa and made my way through and from the airport dazed and confused, uncertain and nervous lest something go wrong; two days ago I did the same thing and cruised through impatiently without even really bothering to think about the process.

I do not think that will happen if I ever return to Djibouti, though, as the airport process is so comically chaotic. After dancing back and forth and back and forth between three different locations in the arrival hall to get my visa, I emerged into the suffocating heat only to find that the only bureau de change had closed for the next few hours. Fortunately my enterprising taxi driver took US dollars. Fortunate and unsurprising; we passed a vast US Air Force cargo plane on the tarmac -

- because Djibouti is home to 2000 US soldiers and 800 members of the French Foreign Legion. The latter is the reason I know anything about the place; it's the setting of Claire Denis's brilliant film Beau Travail. Otherwise this really is an obscure little nation. To the best of my knowledge, nobody I know has ever been here, which is practically nonpareil. (The only other such countries I can think of are Gabon and various tiny island nations.)

It's easy to see why. To be honest it's a profoundly unattractive city, low-rise and industrial, leached of all colour by the hammering sun, strewn with trash, jumbled with crumbling or half-completed buildings, full of aggressive touts and taxi drivers. On paper it's wealthier than any of its neighbours, thanks to its busy port (and military bases) - which also makes it more expensive than any of its neighbours - but you remember that "poisonous stagnation" I was talking about? Djibouti has it in spades.

It's not the hottest place on Earth. Quite. That's in the Danakil Depression, on the Ethiopian side of the border. But it's a contender. My hotel room has only a curtained slit for a window, because the sun is the enemy. There is only one faucet in the bathroom - but it provides hot water, not cold. The city essentially shuts down from 12 to 3 every day. Refrigerator-sized air conditioners dominate all the more expensive establishments, and water is sold at roadside stands by the keg. It's actually pretty mild right now, highs circa 40C/105F, but it cranks up to 55C/130F in July and August.

But at least it has the ocean -

- and goats -

- and chat, aka khat, a mildly narcotic leaf imported from Yemen (which is so close you can practically see it) and chewed all day by pretty much every male inhabitant of the city. Pickup trucks overflowing with the stuff cruise by regularly. Yesterday I wandered past a huge police 4x4; the two officers inside were busily stuffing their faces with chat.

I'm mostly here because South Sudan fell through. Originally I was going to spend two weeks there and one in Ethiopia, but the Abyei crisis torpedoed that plan; then MSF informed me I wouldn't be able to visit any of their projects after all; then I was going to get my visa-like South Sudan permit in Kampala, but crazy airline prices torpedoed that plan; then I realized I was looking at US$1500 to spend four days in-country, which just seemed dumb. So here I am in this strange place. Last night I had a beer at a five-star hotel largely populated by Foreign Legionnaires and US military. It was an odd mix. Tomorrow, with luck, I'll visit Lac Assal, and I've booked some diving for Sunday. But I suspect that when Monday rolls around I will have had my fill of Djibouti.

June 02, 2011

Transport, landscapes, books

Let us consider, then, the various modes of transport here in Ethiopa.

First, of course, there is one's feet; very popular, if largely due to necessity. A few people go barefoot, though most wear sandals. Earlier today I followed an elderly man with one foot sandalled and one bare for some time; we moved at the same pace, across gravel-dusted tarmac, though I was booted. Well-dressed women wear heels. And in Addis (though not here, so far as I can tell) running shoes are also very popular. Running is the national sport. At 6AM joggers rove all about Addis Ababa. Some are portly office-warrior types. Some are good. Some are really, really good. The best of the best - Haile Gerbreselassie (sic? Internet too slow to Google), the world marathon champion and record-holder - is Ethiopian.

Here in Axum, the bicycle is also very popular. This surprised me. The Chinese influence again, perhaps? It's not exactly Shanghai 1997 and its river of bicycles, but I don't think I've been anywhere else in Africa where people regularly bomb down the roads on a knobbled hybrid. I bet the mountain biking would be awesome, once you adjusted to the altitude...

My guidebook claims that horse-drawn carts or garis are everywhere, but that was then and this is now; they have been all but replaced by the tuk-tuk aka autorickshaw, painted brightly blue. The few garis I've seen were all scrawny horses dragging overloaded cargo.

Donkeys and mules (er, to my shame, I always have trouble telling them apart. One is smaller and has bigger ears, right?) are popular beasts of burden as well, cushioned with blankets and loaded with bags or bales of firewood. Sheep and goats wander everywhere, but carry nothing.

And there are camels. Camels! Don't get me wrong, I hate the filthy, stinking, malevolent beasts, but they do add a certain wild-frontier air to the place. One hump, in case you're curious, and generally loaded with firewood.

To carry more people, one requires a minibus, or a bus, or perhaps - I've heard talk of these, but haven't seen them myself - a luxury bus, one with a bathroom on board, and free water and snacks. I haven't ridden in a bus yet, to my shame; this trip is bounded by time more than money, which means I've been flying. I have been frequenting Addis's minibuses, though, which are basically exactly the same as matatus or tro-tros anywhere, albeit maybe in slightly better shape than most.

And what of the landscape through which one is transported?

Right now it is dry and stony. Watercourses are barren. The trees and grass are thorny, with one notable exception; Australia's backhanded gift to the developing world, the eucalyptus. (It grows fast, makes for excellent firewood and construction, and provides shade and food for animals - but it consumes a lot of water.) The rains are coming soon, everyone hopes, and indeed the skies spat a few drops on us today, and their thunderous deluge has already arrived in Addis.

And the stones - well. Granite, I think, rather than Lalibela's limestone? But I'm no geologist. Regardless, the landscape is hills covered by stones surrounded by rocks resting on pebbles. The new roads they are building everywhere are patterned cobblestone rather than tarmac, not least because the former are available everywhere. Walls and buildings are generally made of stones piled on stones. Doorways and windows are frequently stopped up with stones.

That last seems inexplicable. I would guess it's some sort of cooling thing, but in fact it's not that hot here; we are still two kilometres above sea level. The sun is bright and heavy, though, and at midday verges on deadly. I am sunscreened up but have twice worn my hat against the noonday sun nonetheless.

The style of this post is, I think, somewhat affected by the great Ryszard Kapuscinski, whose great Travels with Herodotus I finished today, alas. He is accused by some of having exaggerated or even invented some of his many exploits. I suspect they're right. I suspect I even know which ones, at that; there's an arch tone to them which is not present in most of his work. But he's such a good writer that I don't care, second only to Peter Fleming in my pantheon of travel writers.

I read it on my Kobo, which is technology's latest gift to travellers. Three books down (Travels with Herodotus, Surviving the Extremes, and The Outlaw Sea) and three to go (Where Men Win Glory, A Game of Thrones, and - er - Gibbon's Decline and Fall.)) I also started The Republic (it comes with 100 classics preloaded) but quickly grew tired of Socrates's stupid semantic games and gave up. It's easy to see why they poisoned him.

Tomorrow, back to Addis; and then, perhaps, Kampala? We shall see.


June 01, 2011

Notes from the Ancient North

* It is official: Sub-Saharan Africa is freaking booming. I mean, I know the numbers have been saying that for some time; Addis Ababa certainly feels like a boomtown, cranes and construction sites everywhere, and even so the people I talked to there lamented about how Kenya is leaving them behind; but here I am in faraway Axum, an ancient city of some 40,000 near the Eritrean border - and when all construction projects underway here have finished, they will have, at a conservative estimate, quintupled the number of multi-story buildings in town. Not to mention all the roadwork underway. Of course, who knows how long some of these projects may have languished half-complete? And yet even so their very existence says something, and I heard hammering coming from the couple that I passed...

* The boom definitely has something to do with massive Chinese investment. The blanket in my current hotel is a "Jin Quo Han" (sic?) blanket. My internet connection in Lalibela was established via a China Telecom client. There are Chinese officials, engineers - and tourists - everywhere; and instead of complaints about special treatment for whites in the local papers, there are complaints about special treatment for "whites and Chinese." Which is progress, I guess, of a sort.

* The most interesting thing about Axum, though, is not the recent boom, but the antiquity. 80-foot pre-Christian steles loom over a 17th century church... next to which is the small, inaccessible chapel that is claimed by Ethiopians to hold none other than the Ark of the Covenant. (Only one monk is allowed to enter; he lives there all his life. I saw him today, readying a ladder to repair the roof, and he sure had a hell of a beard for an Ethiopian. The deacon claimed he'd been there for 15 years. The beard made that sound plausible.)

* There are also tombs here. Many tombs. The accessible ones were raided by thieves over the years - but it's estimated that 98% of Axum's antiquities still lie buried. The museum here, full of ancient illuminated books and dozens of solid gold crowns and sceptres and the like, hints at the treasures that may lie within. It's all very Lara Croft / Indian Jones. This is some of the oldest gold country in the world, and there are dozen goldsmiths on the streets. Don't know if there's a mine nearby.

* Ethiopian Airlines rocks. I flew Addis-Lalibela, then Lalibela-Axum, and in a couple days will fly Axum - Addis, for the combined grand total of US $165, on shiny new-ish Bombardier Q400s.

* It's off season, meaning every tout in Axum and Lalibela has targeted me. They're pretty laid-back as touts go, though, and willing to (eventually) take no for an answer.

* Lalibela. Well. It's a major tourist attraction because of its vast and ancient churches carved from single slabs of rock, which are indeed kind of mindboggling. My favourite part, though, was my trip up to the (also hewn-from-stone) monastery perched on a mountain above the city. Locals and Lonely Planet agree that it's only a 90-minute walk, so when after 90 minutes I seemed nowhere near a monastery, I began to fear that in my haste and confusion I had climbed the wrong mountain. It's true, I had had to stop briefly every 100 or so (vertical) metres to catch my breath, which worried me considering the Himalaya await, but hopefully it was just altitude adjustment. (Lalibela is a more-than-respectable 2600m/8000ft above sea level.) After two hours, though, I had pretty much given up. And then: blue doors set into a solid stone wall. The monastery. Inside was a bit of a dog-and-pony show with relics and an ancient illuminated manuscript, but nice enough, and the views were breathtaking. I glanced at my phone as I left, and again as I arrived at Lalibela's central intersection; and it turns out that it took me exactly 90 minutes - moving nonstop at a good clip - to descend from the monastery. I retract all my claims that Lonely Planet has grown less hardcore.

* Lalibela society seemed to this outsider to be like the limestone on which it is built, rigid and many-layered. When I went to change money, I waited behind a woman with long, carefully braided hair, in brightly patterned skirt and blouse that looked brand new, tapping her manicured nails on her Nokia - as she waited for an old man in rags and a poncho-like shawl, in sandals so worn they looked bonded to his feet, carrying a shepherd's crook, who was opening a new bank account with five US dollars and two passport photos. (Foreign Exchange and Account Opening were the same window.)

* There were many, many very poor pasturalists in Lalibela, dressed like that old man, walking with both hands on the walking sticks held behind their necks; some had crooks, some were metal-tipped, some supported jute sacks full of unknown goods, some were just bare sticks. Many were there because Lalibela is also a US AID distribution center; every afternoon, hundreds of bags of rice and dozens of shining canisters of edible oil, all embossed with the American flag, were given away.

* Next up in the hierarchy, I think, were the poor locals. Did you think shoeshine boys had disappeared with Dickens? They abound in both Axum and Lalibela, and are popular among the members of the upper classes. Who would count as "middle class" elsewhere, I suppose. It's nice to see an emerging middle class anywhere south of the Sahara and north of the Limpopo.

* Table football is very popular; there were half-a-dozen public-access tables by the road in various places in Lalibela. Ping-pong and a variant of pool are easy to find as well.

* Lalibela is very steep. It's probably 50 or maybe even 100 vertical metres just from the top to the bottom of the town itself. And as a result, the views, oh wow, oh wow, oh wow - expanding out over plains and rippling hills as far as the eye can see. (They're mostly to the not-so-touristy northwest of town, though; I'm very, very glad I wandered out there.)

* Ethiopia is cheap. I'm following my usual "sleep cheap, eat expensive," protocol, and travelling on easily less than US$50 a day. I guess when you have a population of 85 million people and not that much in the way of exports, hard currency is highly valued.