9/04/2011

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.





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