LAST MAY: The power is out. The small packed dining-hall-turned-conference-room is dimly illuminated by a few flashlights and battery powered lights that someone rustled up. The curtains flutter at the draft the windows are failing to keep out, and frequently flash with lightning. It's pouring outside. Sitting at the dais table at the front of the room I contemplate that the scene looks exactly like the kind of storm-outside-a-hotel-or-mansion that occurs in cliche horror movies of the 50s and 60s.
Some 40 berobed Ethiopian farmers are crowded around the tables in the room, and one of them is asking a question. After the man finishes asking it in Amharic, the Ethiopian language, my interpreter Girmay turns to me with the translation:
"He wants to know what we should do about the honey badger"
Outside there's a crash of thunder and a flashing at the windows.
It had been a long road to Korem...
I had to get from the town of Bahir Dar to Korem, which, though both in the north of Ethiopia, are about 300 miles apart. I would have liked to have gone by car and seen more of the countryside (and the famous rock-hewn church at Lalibela would have been on the way) but that turned out not to be plausible. Earlier, when I was in Nigeria, my friend Doug had just come from Ethiopia and had tales of driving out to remote salt mines and hiking to active volcanos, which all sounded terribly exciting, but apparently I'm not as good at fitting volcanoes and salt mines into my schedule as Doug is. Alas I apologize dear reader for leading such a dull life.
Instead I had to fly via Addis Ababa, which you'll note is not at all between the two points.
Bahir Dar is one of the primary tourist destinations in Ethiopia, because it is the origin of the Blue Nile (see picture above), and generally a nice place. Despite this, the airport terminal is a kind of glorified shack. My driver was about an hour late to take me the fifteen minutes to the airport, but that turned out to be okay because my flight was an hour and a half late. There followed about an hour and a half of peacefully jetting through the sky in an aluminum tube, followed by an hour or two of the hectic traffic and bustle of Addis Ababa, then another hour and a half shooting through the sky, and I was in Mek'elle!
Addis Ababa ("New Flower") is a crowded bustling city in the mountains, frequently chilly with a slight drizzle. Bahir Dar ("By the Lake" or some such) by comparison had broad tree-lined boulevards surrounded by undulating brown hills bespeckled with trees. My first impression of Mek'elle was that their airport looked nicer and more modern than the one in Orange County California! I guess it had just been built. Beyond that though, the Tigray highlands are a barren desolate place that look a lot more like the Ethiopia you picture when people inform you "there's starving people in Ethiopia" than the other places I'd been. The city itself is over a small rise from the airport, so you exit the airport into nothingness, but then you drive over the hill and voila there it is:
Mek'elle looks like its still in the stone age. The streets are cobblestone, most walls are made with roughly hewn stone blocks jigsawed together. At one point we had to wait for a large number of camels to finish crossing the road.
I checked into the relatively nice Axum Hotel in Mek'elle, we would be proceeding by car down to Korem the next day (about four hours winding down between the mountains it turns out). All the hotels I'd stayed at in Ethiopia thus far actually had been really nice. Even in the smaller town of Finote Selam I had had a room with the fanciest most complicated shower/bath/jacuzzi/time-machine I've ever seen. Nigeria, on the other hand, I can't terribly recommend their hotels (just be happy for a high wall and several kalishnikov (AKA "AKs," AKA "the guns the baddies use in movies") toting guards who seem to be at least half paying attention).
As Goru, the local representative of the NGO, dropped me off, he informed me we might not be able to get to Korem the next day because the car wasn't available or was having trouble or something (cars are very expensive in Ethiopia and thus they're always a bit in short supply, the organization never had spare cars sitting around, we usually had to hire a car and its driver for the day). I was a bit alarmed by this. I didn't come all this way to sit around gathering dust in a stone age town.
As it turns out though we did manage to rustle up a driver. but then Goru had to find an interpreter (waiting until things should have been ready to start working on it seems to have been a pattern), so six more hours passed before they rustled up Girmay, an apiculture (beekeeping) graduate student at Mek'elle University.
The road south proceeded for about an hour through relatively flat barren wastelands, with the occasional neolithic looking village somehow eking out an existence. And in the middle of this, suddenly there were the giant masts of modern wind turbines on the outskirts of Mek'elle (Ethiopia can be surprisingly steam punk. Did you know the country you've always known as a paradigm of poverty is a major exporter of electricity??). The road then began to meander among steep green mountains. Blueish woodsmoke curled above little clusters of huts. As we slowed down to pass through villages, children would chase the car happily exclaiming "ferengi ferengi!" or "china! china!"
Ferengi, like the aliens from Star Trek, yes. Apparently the word was taken from the Ethiopian (Amharic) word for foreigner. Also the Star Trek Ferengi leader is the "Grand Negus," "Negus" being Amharic for "king."
"China," because apparently all of us non-African people look the same to them! And they're more accustomed to Chinese engineers coming through I guess.
Finally we arrived in Korem, which I found to be a positively delightful little town nestled in the mountains. The hotel here felt more like a large bunker than anything else -- it was a shell of concrete walls, with the rooms inside opening out to a dim cavernous "atrium" in the middle that, with a concrete roof overhead and no windows, looked more like a cellblock than a hotel. It was also, rather than square or rectangular like the overwhelming majority of buildings in the world, was this sort of star shape. Perhaps it had in fact once been a bunker or perhaps police outpost of the former sinister "Derg" regime. But the staff were friendly, it was only $5 a night, and they made relatively decent food.
When it came time to leave again a week later, we had more people than car space. So the driver drove half of us to a little town halfway between, then went back for the others, and in this way we leapfrogged back to Mek'elle!
As to what to do about the honey badger, I didn't have an answer. Another of the farmer's did though. He answered the question and then Girmay translated for me: "He says 'get a dog'"
As it happened: my lj entries "from the field," while I was there
195,012 years earlier in the area of Korem...