Wadi Halfa

I waited three days in Wadi Halfa, the last stop on the route north to Egypt. It was just long enough to pick up a routine. I stopped off each morning to visit my favorite shay lady, shared jugs of juice with fellow travelers and ate fuul three times a day at the town's top restaurant, where fuul was only one of the menu's three choices. My lokanda's wide courtyard was stacked with cots and bodies the night before the weekly ferry to Aswan. Deathly afraid of missing the boat and having to spend another week in Wadi Halfa, I arrived a few hours early as the port. By the early evening I'd claimed a sleeping spot along with Pierre, a French Canadian, on deck beneath the suspended life boats, and had made plenty of Sudanese and Egyptian friends onboard. Egyptian police boarded the ferry soon after, taking care of customs in the grimy cafeteria. That night we chugged past Abu Simbel, and by early the next afternoon we'd docked beside the High Dam in Aswan.



I arrived just before sunset in Karima, another bland desert town along the Nile. Although nothing much to look at these days, it's built on the spot of ancient Napata, once capital of the Kingdom of Kush. In the 8th century BCE, Napata had managed to spread its control over both Upper and Lower Egypt, even extending the Kushite reach as far as Jerusalem and Tyre. The mesa of Jebel Barkal, long considered the southernmost boundary of ancient Egyptian dynasties, rises as the dominant landmark just south of town. It loomed between the the highway and the Nile as my bus sped past, complete a cluster of steep-angled pyramids in its sand-swept foreground, all glowing reddish-gold in the last light of day.

I wandered the new town's broad, dusty streets in search of the police station. My low-key lokanda wouldn't allow any khawaja to check-in without registration papers. On the way I met all the eager friendliness I'd come to expect in Sudan, both bearded old sheikhs in white gallabiyas and fresh teens in pink collared shirts pointing the way to the station, even when neither seemed to have a clue where it might actually be. Papers stamped, I picked one of the lively main square's handful of restaurants to get all my fuul and fresh juice for next few days in town. It was well-past dark when I settled into my lokanda, Al-Nassr, equipped with the standard set of earthen jars filled with cool Nile water, metal-spring cots spread out in a neat courtyard and surprisingly bearable bathrooms, just wide enough to crouch without scraping the grimy walls. Scrambling around within the little toilet hole were just under a dozen cockroaches.

I circled Jebel Barkal the next morning. Once holy ground, its eastern side is now graced with the ruins of an old Temple of Amun. Winding south out of town, I only recognized the ruins when I came close. A few toppled columns and a row of carved lions marked the entrance. Just beyond them flapped a large tent for the temple guard. No one was there. A pack of barking dogs on my heels sped up my walk to the mountain's eastern base. From there rose the pyramids I'd glimpsed from the road. Again I was alone in a cluster of pyramids. Another tent shook in the wind between the base of two pyramids, but it was also empty.

The following day I crossed the Nile on a minibus to reach Nuri, where most of Napata's pyramids were spread. A guard was laying in front of the post when I arrived, curled within its scant shade. He sat up as I approached, asking 25 pounds for entry. I explained my plight as a poor student with just enough cash for the ferry to Egypt and without a pause they dropped the price to 10. He went back to sleep when I passed.

Dilapidated pyramids spread out for nearly a kilometer before me, most easily-climbable. Again, no one was around. Buried beneath the sand before each crumbling pile stretched long stairways leading to ancient tombs, dating back as far as the 7th century BCE, once filled with elaborate sarcophagi, organs in animal-headed jars and thousands of little shawabtis, statues of servants the kings and queens hoped would do their cooking and laundry in the afterlife. From the weathered summit of one of the highest pyramids, I rested a while to take in the view. Across the Nile to the west, jagged mesas were scattered endlessly into the desert, their summits just high enough to retain an air of mystery. Even 10km from Karima, Jebel Barkal remained the obvious point of worship.


Alone at the Pyramids

Three hours north of Khartoum, my bus pulled off onto the side of the road just long enough to let me jump off. There to the east, jutting out of the horizon, was a jagged row of ruins, pyramids half buried in a giant ridge of sand. The Nile ran a few kilometers behind to the west, hidden by a faint strip of green, while everything ahead was barren. 

I walked the kilometer towards the pyramids, unsure about whether I'd encounter anyone at all. A small guard post emerged when I neared the base of the dune. Beside it, the encroaching sand had turned a chest-high barbed wire fence into a welcome mat which I stepped over to pay my 25SDG. The guard said I could camp that night anywhere beyond the black mountain to the east of the pyramids.

I spent the afternoon alone, wandering the old Nubian ruins, no one around to stop me from climbing on top and inside of them. Many had been crudely restored in the 80s, but it was still easy enough to imagine being the first one to discover the place.

Reeling from the heat, I finally headed further east towards another fenced guard post. The first guard said I'd find water there. And Nile water I did find, still cool in a large earthen jar.

I raised my tent beside a lone acacia set between the pyramids and the guard post, then made another round at the pyramids to soak up the solitude as the sun set.

Suddenly the whole scene was crashed: a bus-load of kids were streaming across the dunes. They quickly spotted me, and along with their teachers, ran towards me as though I were the most fascinating thing around. Next there were more than a dozen warm Sudanese greetings, after which we reviewed together their three English phrases and they kindly invited me to their village. After snapping a group photo with myself at the center, they all packed up as quickly as they'd come, leaving everything eerily silent once again.

I spent the early evening drinking tea with the guards before walking through the dark to find my tent. Hyena calls kept me up late. When the sun rose I was still exhausted, but decamped in a hurry: a camel man was outside the tent waiting to join me for the walk back to the highway. Hailing a shared taxi to Atbara, I stopped for a another fuul lunch then made the long bus journey west to Karima, arriving just before sunset.


Crossing to Sudan

From Addis, it took just two days to reach Khartoum. After crossing the Blue Nile I spent the first night in Gonder before busing to the border post at Metema, walking the bridge to Gallabat. The greenery lasted a few hundred more kilometers before vanishing a few hours outside Khartoum. I hopped out of the last bus late at night in Sahafa at the city's southern end. After one night in a grungy hotel I spent the next four camped by the banks of the Nile. I set up my tent in the yard of the Blue Nile Sailing Club, its office housed in the dilapidated wreck of Kitchener's old gunboat. Unlike other travelers, I was lucky to get my alien registration stamp in a single afternoon. The rest of my days were spent on fuul, falaafel and juice runs, relaxing with a handful of fellow travelers and drinking cool water from the Nile. We jumped in several times per afternoon, swimming against the current alongside rusted old boats. I was still caked in a film of Nile mud when I took off for the north. 


Escape from Afambo

After a candle-lit meal of injera and misri wat in the back of one of Afambo's filthy restaurants, we returned to camp in our fenced compound at the edge of town. It wasn't long before the police sent for us. Go'obo explained they were upset that we'd come without any official escorts and wanted to see our papers. We thought back to Semera, Afar's capital, where our travel permit had been issued. At the time we'd omitted mention of Afambo to avoid getting assigned official guides for the trek.

It was Go'obo's idea to forge "Afambo" into our papers. We found a blue pen that seemed to match and, as it was all in Amharic, Go'obo did the honors. Reviewing his work we all immediately regretted the decision.

The meeting with the chief of police took place just outside his house. Like Gura, Ali and Boha boatmen, the officer's tone was self-important and deeply serious, with long, drawn-out phrases that could have put us to sleep and short, emphatic bursts when he finally wrapped around to his point: it seemed we were both in trouble and in grave danger. We listened respectfully as he slouched on his cot in a blue shirt, scanning our forged papers with a weak flashlight and a lazy eye. He insisted we'd need two of his police officers to keep an eye on us through the night. We declined, thanking him for being so thoughtful. Just before standing to leave he mentioned we would not be allowed to leave Afambo the next morning until we'd met with the chief of tourism.

Heated discussion took place in the pitch black street outside. Several cops had now joined the party. Go'obo feared we'd all be arrested. Back at camp, Mohammed and Thoreau prepared for the worst, suspecting their own police force would send thieves to ransack our tents. With the aid of some fresh chat, they opted to stay up all night to keep a lookout.

Our Afar crew did end up staying awake throughout the night, but the second half was spent in jail. David woke me up around midnight to let me know they'd been taken, along with Go'obo, and that our camp was under police watch. It didn't register until morning when I woke up to see one of the cops laying in a cot outside the tents, watching blankly as we decamped. Mohammed, Thoreau and Go'obo's whereabouts were unknown.

While the cop whistled after him, David walked off to find this tourism chief. He returned with no luck and I soon took off to find our friends. The cop from our camp was in the guard post outside the prison, catching up on sleep. Without a word, he got up and led me through the drab complex, with cracked walls and barred little cells like Pol Pot's Tuol Sleng. At the very back, behind bars and spread out on a concrete floor was our Afar trio. Mohammed was most excited to see me: "Yufus! Sigara?" It was clear they hadn't slept, not did they have any idea what was going on. I promised we'd get them out.

Having confirmed that our three friends were being held in a jail cell, we began with the phone calls. David got on the sat phone in the back, hunched behind the camels, while I used my last battery to call Herman, a friend in Addis. Within the hour our situation had been raised as consular matter. About that time, blue-shirt man from the night before showed up wanting to see our papers in daylight. I refused, insisting he'd have to bring the so-called chief of tourism if he wanted to see them again. I put the officer on the line with Hermann. He translated lazy eye as saying that we weren't actually being held in Afambo. Just the other three.

He again demanded to see our papers. Again I refused. Desperate, he brought Go'obo out of jail to translate his demand. Go'obo did so softly, slowly and firmly, his face almost pale with fear, "Don't show him the papers." He finally left, but I assumed he'd be back in a less friendly mood.

Stopping back at the jail to pass our trio some cigarettes, I slipped our phone numbers inside the pack and told Go'obo we'd try and run to Asaita to get help.

Forged Papers: "Afambo" added at the end of line 2.2
David and I packed our bags for Asaita and made for the main road. As usual, an Afar crowd gathered around us. The police were soon among them. They'd brought Go'obo to translate the conversation, explaining that we were not allowed to leave Afambo. A public debate ensued between us and an irate young officer, who tried repeatedly to take the discussion away from the crowd. Go'obo translated several times the question: "Why are you holding our friends in jail?" He had no answer to give and was fast losing public face. Lazy eye arrived on the sceneas backup, shouting and spitting for us to get back to the compound, still demanding the papers. He was fuming now.

Back at the compound, David headed out back to make more calls on the sat phone. It seemed we'd be needing some outside help.

The next official to make an entrance was Ali Mirah, head of the Eduction Office, (as the sign read). I wasn't at all sure how his field played into the whole matter of travel permits, but he drove a big SUV and wore a suit. He also spoke basic English and seemed friendly. He asked for the papers.

Trying my best to keep calm and collected, I pulled them out of my pocket. A suspicious huddle quickly formed around Mirah and the forged papers. Qalem (pen) was shouted several times as they hovered over the word "Afambo," written slightly smaller and in a slightly different shade of blue. The old white-haired man behind Mirah shook his head with a knowing smile. Mirah looked me over, then put his eyes back on the paper. Finally, he broke out, "Enough! They are tourists." Before driving off in his SUV he promised to call within ten minutes and have our friends freed. As the words came out a couple voices were still shouting wereqat! (papers). Ali ignored them.

Mirah's ten minutes multiplied into four hours. The town fell into siesta mode all afternoon. Ali's phone was switched off. Nothing to do, I checked on the jailed trio. No guards were in sight so I walked in alone, then returned with water and a plate of injera and misri. Up the street, Sudanese Ali charged my phone while David and I chatted the afternoon away with Yeyu, the boy we'd met weeks ago on the trek in -- he still wanted to be an engineer. Finally a clan meeting was announced and the appointed time came.

I kept an eye on our camp while David attended the fateful meeting with Go'obo. Yeyu kept me company. A half an hour later David walked back into the compound at a brisk pace.

I feared the worst, thinking they'd reached Semera and the original copy of our permit papers. All he said was to "get rid of the rocks!"

He then described the meeting as a chat-chewing bunch with the town's elders taking the lead. They'd asked why we were trying to hide from the police and why we'd snuck through the bush on the way in. The US Embassy had called at the height of the meeting. A couple voices has tried persistently to bring up the blue pen but David managed to change the subject each time. In the end, their only concern was that we might be thieves stealing minerals from Lake Abhebad. It was decided that if our bags were clean, we'd all be good to go. Before the cops came for the search, we quickly disposed of our handful of colored rocks. They weren't worth us staying in Afambo any longer.

The search was far from thorough. David immediately regretted getting his hands dirty to toss his beautiful stones down the toilet. Minutes later, Mohammed and Thoreau showed up, all smiles. Mohammed's family was all there, his frail little mother smiling with the same high, pointy cheekbones and wild eyes. We gave her our excess pasta, berbery, lentils, sugar and tea. Like every other Afar woman we'd passed on the trip, she loved the UNHCR cans. We arranged to meet

Mohammed and Thoreau a few days later in Asaita to re-sell the camels and celebrate the end of the expedition.

Backs at the road, we were horrified to learn there were no more buses to Asaita. The prospect of another night in Afambo City was dreadful but seemed likely. Unlike the day before, the town was completely dead, struck by an epidemic of boredom. Many occupied themselves with empty staring, most in our direction but some targeting the trash-heaped mud puddle at the town's entrance. A few seemed to mix things up by alternating targets from minute to minute. Unable to cope, one poor boy resorted to sucking on a balloon. We drank copious amounts of tea to pass the time, our eyes on the road.

Our hopes of escaping Afambo that night about dashed, we were on the verge of resorting to balloon-sucking ourselves when an Isuzu truck rolled along, a beautiful dust cloud billowing up in its wake. In a state of pure euphoria we hopped in back and watched the Afar countryside breeze by, mosquitos splatting in our faces all the way to Asaita. Lavly Kaafe and its ice-cold Mirindas awaited.

That night in our cot-filled courtyard, I sent a text to Denmark to say I'd made it back. Joanna woke me with a 23:30 phone call, after which I couldn't get back to sleep. Wheezing donkeys, vicious cat wars, whooping hyenas and what sounded like a man being torn to pieces by a pack of dogs kept me wide awake. Even Asaita, our longed-for beacon of civilization during the trek, felt like the edge of the earth, a world away from home. As for our days of berbery pasta and Harissa dates, they were already fast becoming a fond but distant memory. Within the next few long days in Asaita we sold Tony and Bolbirri, said goodbye to our Afar friends and began the trip back to Addis.

The Oxford Danakil Expedition Team (right to left): Mohammed, Go'obo, Thoreau, David and myself. 


Abhebad to Afambo

We made the return trek to Afambo in just three days. On the first we skirted the east flank of Dema Ali heading north to Hadola. Rising from the cracked earth just to the northeast of Harissa were clusters of strange limestone chimneys, the kind that surround much of Lake Abhebad. Keeping in nearly constant view to our right was the lake, its water blue and beckoning. From several vantage points under the crushing heat, its shimmering outline looked too good to be real. According to Thesiger, while the water looks nice from afar, up close it's a putrid cauldron of red and green, smelling of sulfur. All curiosity regarding Abhebad was outweighed by the thought of cold Mirindas in Asaita.

Gura and Ali made their last round the morning we left Harissa. In true Afar fashion, they requested some parting "gifts," reminding us of the milk and gambo they'd shared, as well as all the other hospitality and kindness they'd shown. We thought back to our last discussion in the stone hut, one in which the villagers had been adamant that there were no exchanges in Afar culture, only gifts (that must be repaid).

One of our greatest benefactors in Harissa, and certainly the fattest, had been another Ali, a man who'd traveled far from home in search of a lost camel. He conveniently happened to be in the neighborhood every day around lunch and dinner time, downing our pasta and lentils without a single gadagaye. Halfway to Hadola and camped for lunch beneath some scrawny acacias, Ali the Fatman showed up out of the heat mirage. And what luck! He'd found his long-lost camel and was just in time for lunch. Starting to run out of patience, we decided to act like Gura and request some return "gifts." As it happened, the Fatman's faraway home was our day's destination, Hadola. Stuffing his round face with our berbery pasta, he promised a showering of gambo and milk that night.

A small huddle of stone huts set beside the edge of a cliff, Hadola was even less distinguishable as a village than Harissa. Its huts and aris barely made a mark on the desolate landscape. We rested against a stone wall as Hadola's finest came to crouch around us, rifles slung across shoulders. A swarm of flies took to the bloody flap of flesh hanging off the tip of Bolbirri's hump. The poor camel moaned and snapped its neck as David doused disinfectant then together we taped a large dressing. Our reed mats weren't ideal for packing camels. The sun had just set when Ali the Fatman called for us.

A homeless beggar in Harissa, Ali was the king of Hadola. Sprawled in the center of our group and surrounded with men, women and children, he seemed to have the whole village at his command. I downed four cups of coffee and plenty of dried gambo chips with his people, waiting until dark to stumble back to camp, coming dangerously close to some very serious cows on the way. Later on the Fatman brought warm gambo and milk as promised. The hyenas called most of the night, coming closer than ever. Go'obo claimed to have seen one just outside my tent.

Another full-day trek followed the next day, crossing an endless hamada of odd-shaped, basketball-sized rocks. The terrain was ideal for twisting ankles as well as hiding giant hairy spiders, a couple of which scurried off the trail as we passed. We carried leftover breakfast dates for lunch, and stopped only for thirty minutes to purify some water. Thoreau said we could make it to the old Derg airfield by evening. Taking an alternate route, we followed a narrow canyon dotted with muddy rain pools, stopping for a swim late in the afternoon. Mohammad had hot berbery pasta ready when we arrived, to be shared with yet another unexpected guest. We then cooked up a plan to evade the Boha boatmen, laying out our bamboo poles and UNHCR jerry cans on the airfield. We'd built a boat.

We arrived at the Boha's banks by midmorning the next day and got to work. While Mohammad stripped down, tied the biggest jerry cans around Tony and prepared to swim him across, David and I started lashing together our flimsy raft. We spotted several crocodiles floating patiently between us and the opposite bank. Within minutes the boatmen were up in arms with shouting and threats, demanding that we dismantle the raft. We paused the building to meet a delegation of boatmen as a giant herd of bull cows swam across the river, fast filling our little beach with great moans and swinging horns.

It took another hour on the sweltering banks of the Boha to discuss the terms of our crossing -- just in time, as the shade had completely disappeared by noon. David proved a masterful negotiator. From the original demand of 600 birr, we finally shook hands on 100 birr and 10kg of pasta. Soon we'd loaded into the old iron boat and were halfway across the river. Not wanting to leave without a dip in the Boha, David took a leap off the back of the boat. Camped on the western shore, we treated several more guests with a helping of our last berbery pasta and took a dip along the muddy banks.

After a few more hours down the long, straight and dusty road beyond the river, we glimpsed our first power lines. Soon we'd reached Afambo City and its smattering of run-down shops, faded coca signs adorning mud walls and welcoming us back to civilization. On the evening of our arrival it was buzzing with life. Two kwasso matches were raging in a disused field. Hoping to join in as spectators, we soon became as much an attraction as the game. David made the most of it, challenging and beating the village's finest in arm wrestling, encircled by a cheering crowd. (I think they were cheering for the other guy.) Fueled by the prospect of injera that night and ice cold Mirindas the next in Asaita's Lavly Kaafe, morale ran high.

It would take a long dive shortly. Dodging puddles of filth on the walk down main street, we felt the stares of long-haired Afar tribesmen, dozens of ferengi-shouting kids and one naked infant leaning coolly against a barbed wire fence. The village was mostly made up of candle-lit wooden huts (electricity was a very occasional luxury in Afambo City), while a slew of silly-looking concrete buildings were scattered near our camp at the back end of town. One of them, I'd soon learn, was Afambo's jail.



Word of our arrival in Harissa spread fast. A small group of men met us at the oasis within an hour of stumbling in from the desert. Among them was Gura, right-hand man of Azim Ali, Harissa's chief. Intent on staying in Harissa, we decided to invite the group to share newly purified water and berbery pasta under shade of acacias and date palms. Go'obo helped explain the purpose of our trip, using Thesiger's Danakil Diary as a prop. Mohammed and Thoreau joined them in leafing awkwardly through the book. All were fascinated by the old photos of their ancestors. Thoreau even claimed to recognize one, a silhouetted figure from the 1930s.

With our old red-eyed man acting as arbitrator, we arranged to meet with Azim Ali the next morning. He was supposedly upset that no one had given him any warning of our arrival, thrusting on him the responsibility of hosting two ferengis. We camped that night between a pair of stone huts on the outskirts of the village. Go'obo seemed uneasy about the prospect of staying in Harissa.

Early the next morning I wandered into the village to buy dates from Gura. He led me into a giant stone hut stacked with burlap sacks of dates from the oasis. I took an entire bag for 150 birr. He indicated that I could return the sack when finished, a good sign that he and Ali had already talked, and would likely allow us to stay.

The clansmen's gathering that morning lasted an hour. All sat on their haunches in a wide circle, drawing figures in the sand. Azim Ali sat forward, almost in the center, balanced on a small rock and his long staff. Tall and with chiseled arms, piercing eyes and a taut, angular face, Ali had the look of a strong leader. Old red eyes began the talking, speaking slowly but with dramatic intonation, slumped in a corner of the circle, still recovering from the long trek around Dema Ali. Next went Muhammed and Thoreau, both by coincidence members of Gura's clan, and finally Gura and Ali took the stage. They weren't satisfied with our offerings of berbery and lentils, saying that they'd be responsible for our protection, no small task, as long as we stayed in Harissa. They wanted money. By the time we reached an agreement everyone had long ago finished their drawings in the sand, some had moved onto pebble tossing and others were dozing off, heads hung over knees. 300 birr ($18) was agreed upon for an indefinite stay in Harissa. Ali and Gura would invite us to take photos and video each morning. We celebrated in Gura's ari with four cups of coffee and warm, freshly-squirted milk.

It quickly dawned on us that life in Harissa would be slow. Our pastimes became fishing at the oasis, morning visits with Ali, Gura and their women, and chat. Our first afternoon as official guests in town was spent crammed into the chat house, all stuffing heaps of the bitter leaves into our mouths and chewing patiently. When it comes to chat, patience is certainly required. Back at the oasis, our fishing adventures always ended in failure, despite that giant catfish were everywhere. David and Go'obo sat on the banks for hours, spitting dates for bait and holding their knives ready, while I worked on my knife-throwing skills, perching on a branch over the water. Desperate, Go'obo tried building a fish-trap, what looked like a little tent out of some sticks and clothes, hoping in vain to lure a catfish inside. Every few minutes of sitting in the heat the idea of splashing in the water sounded new and amazing once again. Every hour or so an Afar crew would pass through quietly, seemingly aware of our deal with Azim Ali. Most gave hard, long stares as they waded through the water with their camels. Once it was a lone little boy with an odd tuft of hair sticking up just over his forehead. He sat watching us for a long while, perched on a rock with his small black kettle hung over a little staff. When a sudden sandstorm gathered in the desert to the west, our little friend led us back to Harissa and disappeared again.

Daily visits to the village core were highlights of our stay. Crouching in the darkness of portable aris, Ali explained the purpose of all the handmade utensils hung from the roofs above, from four-legged gourds to small leather cases of camel fat cream, great for rubbing on the skin. We checked out the scarred faces and sharpened teeth of the village kids as they shared giant bowls of milk, and joined Ali's women scraping gambo out of earthen ovens or braiding their hair for Eid. Thoreau did mine. One morning I joined the cattle on a walk towards lake Abhebad in exchange for giving medical advice for the cowherd's swollen red eyes. As usual, it was the kids that took to us the most. Towards the end of our stay they began visiting our camp, performing songs and dances and begging to see themselves on our camera screens. And no wonder: there was nothing to do in Harissa.

When there wasn't any chat, Gura and Ali were nearly as bored as us, wandering into our camp several times a day just to sit, eat dates and catch up on village events, which were mostly to do with eating dates. Dates soon became our number one pastime. We quickly invented a flurry of exciting new games, from the spit-the-dates-into-the-cup to make-the-world's-biggest-seedless-date-ball. Old classics like hit-the-stone-off-the-fence also came in handy. Sometimes the heat reached 60°C in the middle of the day, zapping all energy and forcing us inside the stone hut, where we'd eat hundreds more dates without the pretense of any game. Like an afternoon chewing chat, the minutes, hours and days in Harissa started to blend into one uncountable heap. I began to look forward to the task of purifying water. When Muhammed had smoked all the Business Royals, he resorted to reading David's Portable Thoreau, holding it upside down and staring in wonder at the strange barcode. Go'obo once even suggested calling the helicopter to come save us. Only on the afternoon before Eid, a day I feared would never come, was the boredom interrupted.

Issas (Somalis) had been spotted just across the Awash to the south. Suddenly all the village men took off in a sprint with their guns, headed towards the oasis. Some ran with only their staffs and curved knives. We were told to stay behind with the children and women, the latter ululating wildly, cheering on their men with piercing war cries. They seemed excited. David and I purified some more water.

Keeping our eyes on the oasis, we spotted Muhammed first, returning along with two black-clad boys, one with a big rifle slung over his shoulder and a finger-length gille. Muhammed's gait was as light-hearted as ever, a carefree spring in his little legs and his long, curled hair bouncing with each step. He was laughing. We soon learned that the skirmish had ended with three Issas and one Afar killed. Everyone seemed pretty content about the outcome.

Unlike every other night, there was no rain the night before Eid, and no wind. We sweated to sleep in our tents to the familiar sound of hyena calls, anxious for the big day.

One the morning of Eid, Harissa put on it's Sunday best: button up shirts, colorful sawrandas or skirts, bright green and purple plastic sandals and guns over shoulders. All walked in a solemn procession to Big Harissa, a few kilometers to the south by the outlet of the Awash, not far from yesterday's skirmish with the Issa. Instead of an actual mosque, our destination was a knee-high circle of black stones, divided into two halves for men and women. As in any church service, a small eager crew crowded to the front while most showed up late and stayed towards the back. The Quran was read purely phonetically as all tried to ignore the crying naked baby under a nearby acacia. Most looked bored, maybe hungry, and even though most hadn't actually fasted a single meal the last month, all seemed excited about the end of Ramadan. Following the service everyone filed out of the stone circle, then woke up to socialize and exchange daggu before heading back to their villages.

We bought our Eid goat from Gura. Thoreau cut its throat with my knife while David held its legs, then Muhammad strung its corpse from a beam in our stone hut. He and Thoreau then started the task of separating the meat from bone, holding their gilles between their teeth while sawing strips of flesh into manageable chunks. They made use of each organ and all of our zip-lock bags to store them. Blood was splattered across the dirt floor of the hut. I stepped outside to call Denmark on the satellite phone as it was Joanna's birthday. She asked about buying us Fleet Foxes tickets for November, reminding me for a moment just how far removed Harissa was from our world, one that I now appreciated on a new level. Stepping back into Camp Harissa, I scared off a dog trying to escape with the goat's head.

Late that afternoon we made a final trip to our beloved oasis, taking a last bath and soaking up the wild remoteness of the place. David and I agreed that while having been well worth the trip, Harissa could never be our home. We could sport our own sawrandas but neither of us would ever approach the life of the Afar. I was already starting to lose my taste for dates. Back at the camp, a troop of boys from the village showed up after dark for some spectacular singing, jumping and clapping. We later joined the half the village in singing and dancing outside the thorn-fence compound, all nearly invisible under the new moon. While the celebration had a bit more to do with Eid, we considered it our farewell party. The next morning would begin the trek to Hadola and onwards to Afambo.