65 – Moyale, the Kenyan/Ethiopian border town (Addis to Nairobi – part 2)

Sat 30th Jan, Tawakal Hotel, Moyale, Kenya

This is me catching up on a backlog of entries, finally reaching Nairobi on 2nd Feb. With no power supply, or proper sleeping places over the past 4 days, there was no way to do proper updates.

The bus set off from Dila to Moyale, another 9 hour bus ride. This time, i planted myself at the back of the bus. Largely uneventful trip, tiring, but at least it was on good tarmac road. This is the last bit of good road. Everyone, from travelers to locals, tells me the road from Moyale down is shit.

Moyale-Kenyan half

Moyale town is split into two halves, the Ethiopian half and the Kenyan half. A main road connects the two. The Ethiopian half is more developed with banks, better roads and roadside shops and markets typical of most Ethiopian towns. The Kenyan side has a very dusty undeveloped feel to it, though all the amenities that a traveler might need can also be found on the streets.

It was 4pm when i made my way down to the Ethiopian customs to do my border formalities. Quick  and painless. The problem was i had around 950 Birr to change to Kenyan Shillings. A guy claiming to be from the official tourist office (he flashed his official card for the briefing second), and offered a 5.2 rate. The exchange rate is really bad here (5.9 should be normal, according to a deaf/mute Jap woman in dreadlocks i met on the street. Yeah, talk about out of place) and the bank, which offers better rates, was closed by then. The fellow claimed he offers the best rate and the other black market guys on the street may exchange counterfeit currency. It was obviously a load of BS and i tried to ask around the immediate area. But they were all colluding (this hotel doesn’t change, and that other money changer offers only 5.0 etc etc) and i got damn worked up by the guy following me, going on and on about his being the best rate. In the end, i told him to piss off, walked back up the main drag, stopping any guy with a wad of cash and asking his rate. I got up to 5.48 till i ran out of time. The borders close at 6pm, and it was better to get across to the Kenyan side. Going the next morning would mean i may miss the morning truck out of Moyale, and i wasn’t going to take that risk.

Crossed over to the Kenyan side. A German man of about 45 and his van was arguing at the border to let him through. He looked a bit volatile, possibly drunk and not worth asking for a hitch on the van. The Kenyan customs official and his buddy armed guard were very friendly, and let me through even though they were closing shop when i arrived.

I wasn’t sure how the tout culture here was in Kenya, but the first person who came up to me pointing to a hotel, i avoided. Instead i went down to the Tawakal, much further off the main road. Initial price was 400, i offered 250 KSH and got it. Basic lodging in a dorm, with bucket showers and all locals (i had a room with two Kenyans). Got out for some dinner, and chanced upon two Polish guys, Bartek and Marcin. When they introduced themselves as Polish, i immediately knew they were from the Egypt-Sudan ferry one week before mine, Chris mentioned these two before. The same groups traveling south all meet each other =). Nice people, they were in Moyale since yesterday, because someone had broke into their locked room and stolen their laptop and camera. The owner of their hotel was very upset, since his hotel’s reputation in town as a secure place was tarnished. He apparently paid money for scouts to find out information on the theft in both the Kenyan and Ethiopian sides of the town.

Had dinner with them, actually they watched me eat (70 KSH). The meal was rice soaked in some sort of soup, beans, bits of meat and some vege. It was very tasty and filling. Or i just miss eating rice. We arranged to meet tomorrow morning for the bus down south to Marsabit.

Interlude: A mini essay on Qat.

Qat is famous for 2 things. One is that it is powerful in Scrabble (yo SOWPOD people!) and the other is that it is infamous in the Horn of Africa. So here is a short essay on Qat, since i have too much time while seated on long distance buses.

Qat, or chat, or tchat (pronounced chart), also known by its scientific name of catha edulis is a plant cultivated in the highland regions of eastern Africa and the Arabian peninsula. Grown at altitudes of 1500m to 2800m, the 2m shrubs are grown mainly in Ethiopia, Yemen and Kenya (where it is known as Miraa). From Ethiopia, it is exported daily by truck to neighbouring Somaliland and Djibouti. It is banned in Eritrea.

The consumption of Qat brings about feelings of euphoria in the individual. It is a mild natural stimulant that creates a”high”. The qat itself is bitter tasting, and needs to be chewed on constantly for the effect to take place. Continuously eating the chat leaves will leave the individual oblivious to his surroundings.

It is a pastime that many indulge in, especially in the afternoons. In Ethiopia, qat is sold by the bundle for as cheap as 25 cents USD. Often carries by street vendors, shopkeepers and the like, it can be easily obtained. In Somaliland, colourful green qat booths litter the side of the road, hawking the various grades of chat. In Djibouti, whole shops and other small businesses shut for the afternoon, for the customary qat chewing activity. It is normal to find shopkeepers sprawled on their sides on the ground outside their shops, quietly “grazing” on the qat.

As can be predicted, qat chewing would have serious socio-economic consequences. In Yemen, qat consumption takes up 10% of personal income, and 25% of usable working hours in the afternoon is devoted to chewing. Even in affluent Djibouti, qat is said to be the reason for numerous divorces. Prices of chat here are higher, about 10 times what it is sold for in Ethiopia, where it imports its supply. The main impact of qat consumption is therefore productivity loss, with other side effects such as engaging in anti-social behaviour while under the effects of the plant.

Environmentally, qat cultivation is replacing other crops such as millet and sorghum because it is a more lucrative crop for farmers to grow. A recent study has suggested that qat is 10 to 20 times more profitable to cultivate that competing crops. It also consumes less water than other crops to grow, and so in some places, like water scarce Yemen, it makes more sense for farmers to grow qat. This however, is detrimental to the land, for, as qat cultivation increases, the water table drops and precious water to be used elsewhere is instead used to cultivate qat.

The simple solution to reduce qat consumption in the region is through education. But to wean societies that have grown up on qat consumption for hundreds of years will not be easy. It will take 10 or 20 years for education to have any effect. In the meantime, schools should raise awareness of the impact of qat consumption. Governments, short of banning the plant altogether, should draw up regulations to cut down on the percentage of arable land for qat farming over the next 20 years. Importing nations, such as Djibouti and Somaliland should raise the price of qat sold. This would have the effect of reducing demand, and subsequently the supply would also drop. On the exporting countries’ part, they could raise the export tax to make it less worthwhile a crop to produce, though this, if not managed well, would increase smuggling activities across the border.

Finally, in hushed tones, if one looks at this from another perspective, qat does have the potential for export to countries outside of the Horn. The detrimental fallout, should this happen however, is too huge to even think about.

Shadow of the Sun,  Ryszard Kapuscinski.
What has tchat got to do with Yemen?,Capital, January 24,2010, Alazar K.
Lonely Planet, Eritrea & Ethiopia, June 2006.

64 – A strange day at Dila (Addis to Nairobi – part 1)

Fri 29th Jan, Etalemahu Pension, Dila, Ethiopia

In the morning, took a cab (30 birr, split with a Japanese guy who was also going to the bus station).  The Addis-Moyale bus was 138 birr, over 2 days, with a stopover at Dila. The journey passed through the Rift Valley lakes, along the river Awasa. There were birds galore along the way. The weather got hotter and hotter as we went southwards.

At each town we stopped to drop people, a horde of sellers will crowd the bus windows. You could literally go window shopping, the amount of things that were on offer. The non-exhaustive list included bananas, sugarcane, kolo, qat, chewing gum, tissue packets, biscuits, lottery tickets, pineapples, potraits of Jesus. The list goes on. Lunch was in Ziway, a 14 birr delight of fried freshwater fish from the Awasa.

We reached Dila at around 330pm. I got my bag from the bus roof. The fellow as usual wanted his birr. Maybe i’m becoming less of a pushover. You want 5 birr? I’ll give you 2. You don’t want 2 birr, fine, i grab my money back and walk off. Faced with the prospect of not getting anything, they take the 2 birr. Works like a charm. It’s crazy how faranjis get quoted the stupidest prices. I still remember the Jijiga to Harar bus, when the fella demanded 10 birr. We protested, and the locals on the bus actually egged us on with approval.

I stayed at the Etalemahu Pension, a 30 birr place very near to the bus station. The other locals from the bus were on the adjacent rooms. My room is pleasant, except for the mosquitoes. I lighted up one coil to disturb the mosquitoes, then proceeded to kill about 20 of them, in a 2 by 2m room. Not exaggerating. I’m sure there are more in the room. I will buy a can of spray later, as it will get worse when i head into Kenya im sure.

Dila is a little bit dangerous in my opinion. Somehow it seems to be a well developed town, with one nice restaurant that might cater for the Addis crowd. But the local populace who comes up to you asking for money can be very persistent. Two blocked my path and had to be reprimanded by another local before i could slip away.

Also, I got a souvenir on my penultimate day in Ethiopia: a bloody nose. I was returning from dinner, walking along the main road, when a young woman with unkempt hair crossed the road and headed towards me. I thought nothing of it and walked on. Then she facepalmed me on my face, hard. And walked off. Leaving me with a bloody nose. I was too shocked to chase after her. There were a lot of witnesses too, and they told me she was crazy. It woke me up though. Reminded me that i am traveling alone again and need to get my guard up.

Another amazing thing that happened was that the wrapping paper for my insecticide aerosol spray (35 birr) is half a page of the 25th July 2009 edition of The Straits Times Recruit section. I am completely flabbergasted. Why would a piece of Singapore newspaper end up here in a remote non-tourist town in Ethiopia? Let alone one dated on my birthday??? It could be a sign, mind you. Which in this case, as printed in the newspaper, it’s a sign that i should be an SCDF officer, a Commercial Affairs officer in the Police force, an ICA officer, an ITE lecturer or a MICA officer.

This has been a very unusual night. And on an ordinary pitstop en route from Addis Ababa to Moyale. Tomorrow i carry on on the same bus southwards.

63 –Reuniting with the New Flower

Thu 28th Jan, Taitu Hotel, Addis Ababa
The flower mentioned here is Addis Ababa, or “new flower” in Amharic. Just like back in Khartoum, returning to Addis is like meeting an old friend. A comforting familiar location, the same hotel, somewhere you know you can clean up. And best of all, a killer location in the lounge to watch Egypt-Algeria in the semis later.
Arrived in Addis at 5am, somewhere in the middle of the Merkato market apparently (it is dark). The other passengers leave, but driver tells me to sleep a couple of hours in the van, because i will probably get mugged if i travel through the market in the night.
I woke up and made my way to the hotel. This time round, I am a pro at getting around, since i am familiar with the city. I take the minibus from the Merkato to the Piazza (1 birr) easily, since i now know the bus with the bus conductor shouting the destination “Arat Kilo” is the bus that bypasses the Piazza. Next i checked in at the hotel, paid 108 birr (14 birr more than last time) and got a nicer room upstairs with a better mattress. The plan today was to get my onward tickets south to Moyale, the border to Kenya, to stock up on everyday stuff, and to get some proper sleep later in the afternoon.
Ok, after a shower (i was full of grime and dirt), I went out to the railway station down south along Churchill Ave. It was still a cool morning, so the walk helped to warm up my muscles. The Selam bus station, which sells tickets for the more comfortable and pricier Selam bus, is located near to the train station (turn left and follow the road and there’s the Selam sign). Unfortunately the only destinations they cover are Gonder and Bahir Dar to the north, and Harar, Dire Dawa and Jimma to the east. I would have to take the normal bus to Moyale. Two days of travel on those buses again. Sigh. No matter. Now i need to make my way to the Merkato again. Took a minibus back from the train station to the Piazza (1 birr) then the Piazza to Merkato (1.70 birr). From the Merkato, had to walk to the end of the market where the main bus station was. Bad news, the guys there said the tickets are sold the next morning at 530am at the counter. Come back then. The
company with buses to Moyale is “3A Tsegaye Kassahun”, with its own booth (No.6) near the bus station entrance.
That’s that for bus hunting then.. Next is replenishment, both groceries and myself, for i didn’t have dinner yesterday. The best place i know for this is the Bole Road area with its upmarket supermarkets. So i pick up another minibus from Merkato to Bole Road (3.50 birr). I don’t know whether i’ve just gotten used to the city, or i’m becoming more confident. I seem to be able to get these minibuses way easier than back then.
I drop off at the New York Supermarket and bought instant noodles, toothpaste, teabags, more eggs and the dailies before having a decent tuna sandwich in the cafe next door, topped with black forest cake and mango juice. The price of lunch is a grand 50 birr. Took yet another minibus from Bole Rd back to the Piazza where the hotel is (2.50 birr).
That’s enough of walking around then. It’s 2pm, i will stay in the room, type this out and take a nap. Later this evening, i’ll go down to the net cafe (no this one doesn’t have wifi unlike Hargeisa’s posh Oriental Hotel in Somaliland).

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62 – The walled city of Harar

Wed 27th Jan, In a van en route to Addis
Woke up before the sunrise so that i can catch a sunrise photo at Harar Gate. The walled city of Harar was created to keep out the Oromo invaders. And till now it has stood. I walked around the main gate area, all the shops were still close so you could say it was more of a recce. I then found myself at the Shoa gate where i ate fuul dunked in chilli powder and a shai (5 birr!)
Went back to the hotel, left for a look at the old town. There are apparently 82 mosques just inside 1 square km of old town. It is a small area, but the density of little alleyways make it a quaint little town to spend a day. Then of course you have the people. The women are dressed in red, purple, yellow and orange, whereas the older men had their orange beards. We weaved in and out of the alleys and roads, ocassionally finding ourselves on the outside of the wall.
Besides the wall itself, there were also the markets outside the walls, in what is termed the new town. Even these markets had their alleys and little nooks and crannies. There was the main markets, the smuggler’s market and the recycling market. We didn’t buy anything of course, but it was just the experience of walking around these lively markets that is so exhilarating.
I got my minibus ticket (130 birr) to Addis in the afternoon.. The bus is a night bus, and by leaving at 7pm today, i would reach Addis with plenty of time to recharge, but i would miss the famed hyena men feeding session just outside the town walls. =/
The minivan ride was nuts.. Drunk Addis guy on Harari wine and stuffed with qat made so much noise throughout. There were three police checkpoints too. They were more interested in the locals and anything they might have smuggled into Addis though. I was generall left alone, other than a few frisks.
Pardon the quality of this entry, which really doesn’t do Harar justice. I might reupdate this entry later on. I’m rushing through and posting so that i can go back and watch Egypt vs Algeria which comes up later tonight! Hope the photos will suffice for now.

61 – How much dust does a duststorm dust if a duststorm does storm dust?

Tue 26th Jan, Some local dump, Harar
Today we make the long journey from Hargeisa, Somaliland to Harar, Ethiopia. After the complimentary breakfast, we take the minibus from just behind the hotel to the Wajaale Station (1500 shillings) where transport to Wajaale could be found. What i thought would be buses turned out to the Toyota Mark II cars instead, and these charged 5.5 USD per pax to the border town of Wajaale. As usual, we waited for the vehicle to get full before going. The road was sealed, until we turned off onto the dirt track towards Wajaale halfway.
Here the terrain got interesting. We must have gone through this terrain at night when coming into Somaliland by 4WD. In the horizon, duststorm after duststorm loomed. We passed by a few up close. Around 2.5 hours later, we arrived at Wajaale. The main road here is still a sandy track. After doing the border necessities at both sides (the immigrations building is unmarked), we took a public bus to the next town Jijiga (20 birr, 2.5 hrs). The standard annoying Ethiopian asking for 10 birr for lifting your bag on top of the bus is back. =)
The road got better as we went west. And the scenery got greener as well.. I suspect it was rolling qat fields we passed through. I counted, along the way, there were 7 police or military checkpoints. The more thorough ones strip searched the passengers, one made me go on the bus roof to open my padlocked bag. The locals had to show their IDs. All these because of the proximity to the border.
From Jijiga, we took yet another bus, this time to Harar (23 birr, 2 hours), which meant we arrived in Harar only at around 8pm. Along the way we passed through the Valley of Marvels, so named because of the boulders standing on top of each other at impossible angles. I’m sure there is a story to this valley, but at that moment in the bus no one could tell us.
We reached Harar and found all the hotels to be full, due to some big meeting going on in the Oromia region. We were forced to stay in one of the local places, with no power point, water for shower etc (30 birr). But the beds were comfortable, so I had a good night’s sleep.
p/s im back in Ethiopia, so i’m posting from emails again since we cannot access the blog web page.

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55 – Vous voulez aller a Djibouti? Pas de problem!

Wed 20th Jan, Horseed Hotel, Djibouti City
We got up early in the morning and went out to the main drag. We will need to approach the many truck drivers by the road and try to flag one down. One who would be willing to take us down to Djibouti not at cutthroat prices. It would be difficult, since we didn’t arrange something the night before.

Fortunately, at our 5th or 6th try, a friendly Ethiopian trucker who spoke decent English stopped for us. He was willing to take us to the border and no more. Better than nothing, we thought and took up his offer.

The terrain on either side of the road into Djibouti was described on the maps as plains. I stared out my window. A plain of rocks. Flanked by more rocks. More Afar houses and yet more rocks.  After the border crossing though, i begin to see sparse patches of green here and there. It was pretty boring watching these go on for hours and hours. I wonder how truckers break the monotony of driving down the road for 8 hours straight. And our driver will drive for 4 days in total, to and fro. It was easy to fall asleep at the wheel, even in the day. And this was evident from the many carcasses of trucks we see littering the roadside. Little remained of these trucks, anything that was useful from them would have be removed.

The border crossing at both sides was pretty painless. Our driver worried that Ethiopian vehicles were not supposed to carry passengers through to Djibouti. But the customs officer waved off a tout who was trying to get us to go aboard their 4WD. So, we stayed aboard our truck and carried on. At another checkpoint along the way, a Djibouti officer made us open up our baggage and rummaged through everything, going on and on about Al-Qaeda suspects, just because he can. According to our driver, all the guy wanted was a bribe “some Qat money” to let us go through, but no. I was not going to give him the satisfaction. It was a hassle, and yes, he had that smug look on his face, but in the end he let us go. On hindsight, he was probably just doing his job.

We reached the outskirts of Djibouti City which is as far as the truck went and paid our driver (200   birr each). This was an Ethiopian shanty village located outside the city. A minivan took us into the city proper and charged us 50 birr each (the locals we saw paid less than 10 birr). The driver came out and created such a scene until we backed down and just paid him his 100 birr. For a 10 minute ride into the city.

In Djibouti City. Finally, after three solid weeks in Ethiopia, i was exploring a new place. Everything here is in French. The signs, the french foreign legion, the french speaking locals. It was a place to explore, albeit an expensive one where we would not stay more than a few days. But first, we would have to look for our budget hotel. The Horseed Hotel is a budget hotel located at the edge of the city area. It has shared bathrooms and is pretty much what a similar hotel in Ethiopia would look like. The cost of the Ethiopian hotel – 7 SGD, benchmarking the Dessie twin-bed one. The cost of the Horseed Hotel (one of the cheapest, if not THE cheapest, in Djibouti) – 48 SGD.

I went out by myself in the evening to look for the ATM (we had no Djibouti francs with us). The Islamic Saaba bank was the only one that accepted VISA and Mastercard. Walked around a bit more, a foreigner here is a common sight, though in the European quarter, there was the same extraordinary amount of hassle from people wanting to help you with something you don’t need, and then demanding payment. I bought some water and baguettes, getting the change in coins. I noticed that i have to be careful with my coins here. Back in Ethiopia, i give out my spare change once in a while to those beggars who are unable to make a living themselves, due to some disability for example. That would set me back 2 cents SGD. Here a coin could have a value of up to almost 4 SGD!

54 – Of crocodiles and giant pythons

Tue 19th Jan, National Hotel, Logiya

We woke up at 6 and found our security detail, two policemen, one armed with a rifle, looking over us. We set off, armed only with some biscuits and 4.5 litres of water between us, not knowing how far the lakes were, or even how many days we would have to stay out. This was because we had no way of communicating clearly what we required, which was a trip to the 5 lakes around the region. The two policemen were dressed in uniform on this day, but they were carrying little else, so we figured whatever supplies we had with us would be sufficient.

We carried on the gravel road, continuing where the bus dropped us off yesterday. According to them, it was an 8km walk to the first lake. Along the way, we passed by several Afar homes, many herds of goats, some camels, and locals headed in either direction. All throughout, the birdlife was spectacular. It would need a birdwatcher to truly appreciate the birdlife on show. My point and click Olympus fails miserably at capturing the sights.

We reached a large stream where the bridge was long gone. We had to ford the river further upstream. In the meantime, there was the show of a herd of cows trying to cross the stream. They simply refused to step into the knee deep water even after being cajoled by their minders. It was quite a hilarious sight watching the cows making a beeline for the same bank after they had been pushed halfway across the stream. In the end they did the same as us and forded elsewhere along the stream.

We reached Lake Afambo and Lake Gamarri after two hours walking. The lakes were set against the backdrop of the mountains bordering Djibouti. They were murky swampy lakes, filled with crocodiles, especially on the opposite bank of one of the many tributaries. A few had their mouths wide open on the banks. Another highlight was when we were walking along the lake’s shoreline. Nestled on a tree barely metres away from us was a huge python. We did not manage to go further down the shore though, the undergrowth was too thick.

Then came the surprise. The guides signalled we are done and should go back.

“Back? But what about the rest of the lakes?”

They waved their forefinger tellingly.

“But we specfically stated we want to go to all of the lakes, especially Abbe with its Mars terrain setting”

But there was no way we could convince them otherwise, and we ended up hanging around the lake for maybe 15 more minutes before they again told us we had to go back..

Well that was silly, we going through all the trouble, including a couple of days waiting in Logiya, just for the hour by the lakes. We were pretty annoyed that the excursion was so brief. And the bit that takes the cake was that the fee for each policeman guide was 150 birr. Of course we were adamant that we will not be paying 300 birr for half a days work. Our justification was that we did not ask for two guides (the three 4wds we passed by on the way back had 2 police guides for the 10 foreign tourists), we had spent only half a day and we did not get to see our intended lakes. Instead we will offered 200 birr, which resulted in a protracted negotiation before they finally gave in.

We had reached back by noon and decided to go back to Asaita then Logiya. We will spend the night there (yummy fuul and chilli powder yoghurt) before making our way to Djibouti. At night, we tried to arrange for transport on one of the many trucks that ply their way down to Djibouti City after overnighting in Logiya but the initial price quoted was 1000 birr (why do they even quote us such ridiculous prices!) This eventually went down to 300 but our LP published in Oct 2009 says 200 so we stood our ground. After all, this guy we are dealing with is a middleman. Tomorrow early morning, we will stand by the roadside and try to hitch with the truck drivers themselves, effectively bypassing the middleman.

53 – How I spent my night in a police station with no electricity and two crazies in a cell

Mon 18th Jan, Police Station, Afambo village
Early morning found us taking a minibus to Semera (2.5 birr) and finally getting the permit done up (100 birr each). With this valuable prize in hand, we returned back to Logiya (Semera was still awfully desolate despite it being a working day) to catch a minibus to Asaita, which is the base to start from when one wants to visit the lakes. The minibus ride was 25 birr (18 for passenger, 7 for my bag).

Reached Asaita at around lunch and asked our way to the police station. There was difficulty here in getting anyone to understand what we wanted, but we eventually managed to get the point across that we needed a guide, as per required by regulation. However, we decided to start from Afambo, a settlement marked on our map as being much nearer to the lakes than Asaita was. We asked around in town and there was a local small bus shuttling between Asaita and Afambo. This would cut down a lot of walking time. The plan was good, since we could also pick up our guide and camel to carry our stuff over there. The bus leaves at 3pm, so we had a couple of hours to spare.

Asaita is a surprisingly bustling little town, with a central square where the minibuses leave from. We had lunch at the Basha Hotel restaurant, (pasta, yum), and the rear of the hotel overlooked the lush greenery of the Awash river. Make no mistake, it was still terrifyingly hot out here, but here along the Awash, a sliver of green trees and shrubs, coupled together with a score of birdlife, stood out against the background of the Afar desert. A reminder that we were still on the lower borders of the Danakil region.

While waiting at the main square after lunch, a local Afar guy offered to beat Chris up. He thanked him but refused. We boarded the bus (6 birr) at the square, before it made a detour to the residential Asaita area where the bus filled up (residential: don’t think big apartment buildings, rather think haphazard maze of straw and wooden shacks. As usual, out here, no one really bothers about overcrowding (what? Your minibus seats only 12? No problem, we can squeeze in 20 people). The Afar locals seated all around us in the bus, with the sharp daggers and sharper teeth. It was quite the spectacle. Then there was the cutest little girl of about 8, with really sharp teeth that she was self-conscious about and tried to hide.

We reached Afambo, around 20 km away from Asaita along a gravel road. I think the village was actually called Hawsa, located in the Afambo district, but i couldn’t confirm it, since out here, barely anyone speaks English. We just refered to the whole place as Afambo. We got off and asked for the police station. A man seated together with a group by the roadside came over. He, in his sarong, introduced himself as the police chief. Okayyyy. It was all wooden shacks in this village, and a couple of dilapidated important looking stone buildings at the back of the village, a full 100m away. We headed towards one of these, the police station. It looked more like an abandoned single storeyed mansion more than a police station, notwithstanding its faded pink exterior facade.

Surrounded by more sarong wearing policemen, we showed them our permit. “No problem, no problem” which seemed to be the only English they spoke. We would have to stay overnight in the village, before waking up the next morning, where our security detail would act as our guide as we make our way towards the lakes, namely, Lake Afambo, Lake Boha, Lake Gamarri and Lake Abbe. This would take some days, but as we discussed with each other, basing ourselves at Afambo meant we needed to only take day trips out, thus avoiding the need for camel porters to carry our bags.

There was a grand total of one village shop selling neccesities in Afambo. This particular shop does not sell bottled water (wuha? No sorry, we don’t sell wuha). Neither does it sell any supplies one might need while traveling to the lakes iunder the hot sun. The other problem (“no problem, no problem” says the policemen) was that there was nowhere to spend the night…we were told to sleep in the police station itself.

And so, in the evening, we set up our sleeping bags on the dirty floor, in the one room in the police station that was not locked. This room, devoid of any other furniture, was the sleeping quarters of the local sarong-clad police force. Still, they were kind enough to share with us their humble abode. None of them were there yet when we turned in. It was dark, there was no electricity in the entire village, and it was hot in the room. So, slathering myself with mosquito repellent, i went outside within the police station grounds for a walk. And there alone, for want of a better thing to do, underneath the African starry sky, i begin to dance. Oh, and i forgot to mention, there were a couple of prisoners locked behind bars together with us in the back rooms of the police station. They shouted at us to come over, and I fled.

52 – Fact: Tourist offices are closed on weekends

Sun 17th Jan, National Hotel, Logiya
Now the Afar region we were in is decidedly Muslim, and the locals were dressed in sarongs. They would be able to pass off as dark skinned arabs easily, especially the older folk, if not for a couple of things. First, the young guys had their funky hair. The locals here grow their hair long, in neat afros, and the epitome of fashion here is to have a twig or a leaf sticking out of their hair. The women, on the other hand, had theirs delicately plaited. The other standout feature was their teeth. I tried hard not to stare, but i could not take my eyes off their sharpened teeth (incisors included). Not all of them had them, but those that did, looked fearsome indeed. Photographs of people were a rarity here, for the locals did not want some faranji coming along and making them some sort of exhibit.

It is Sunday so the tourist office was still closed. I spent the rest of the day reading. Chris lent me one of his many books, Shadow of the Sun, and anecdotal account of the author’s (Ryszard Kapuscinski) travels in Africa over 40 years. It was a good read, and i’d recommend it.

Meals in Logiya were a heartening affair. Possibly here in the far corners of Ethiopia, injeera was not the de facto dish. Over the past couple days, i have had spaghetti with local sauce (10 birr), their version of fuul (my favourite, possibly 8 birr), and a peculiar yoghurt-like cold dish which you eat with bread and chilli powder mixed into the yoghurt (?? – sometimes sugar in place of the chilli powder also works). For drinks, i had, besides the usual bottled coke, a malt like cold drink in a mug and fresh milk in a recycled bottle (goat, sheep or maybe camel). After each meal, i would be happy (since its not injeera based) and Chris would be happy (cos he ate a lot).

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