Once we were down the bigger mountains, we could see Lake Abaya and Lake Chamo ahead, separated by a hilly piece of land called ‘The Bridge of God.” Off the mountain it stopped raining, the lower altitude was warmer, and even the road was a little smoother. We passed a lot of lush farms, real banana trees, mango trees, forests. Coming closer to Arba Minch we saw the university, which started as an Institute of Water Technology, and then turned into a college and then university. In Arba Minch we also saw several men holding a stretcher above their heads, and Yosef said it was probably someone who was very sick, coming on from the countryside for medical care (no ambulances). Here are some scenes of the drive, the first right picture is an Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the middle of the countryside. The last picture is of a market by the shores of a river:
After Arba Minch, we carried on into the territory of the Garashe people. If you’ve never read the children’s book: “The Best Beekeeper in Lalibela” it’s a great little story about a little girl who wants to be a beekeeper, despite the claims that it is only for boys. In the book, they show the hives that Ethiopians use: baskets hung in trees, to avoid insects eating the honey from the ground. We saw these beehives hung in trees! I can’t wait to show the kids.
We drove past lots of my favorite trees, the famous Acacias. There weren’t that many houses, but still a lot of cattle herders, with long, curved machetes. In this area, more people were carrying the heavy water bottles, instead of donkeys. It was a bit drier the farther we got form Arba Minch, and I saw a lot of corn fields. I asked Yosef “Do they use the corn to feed the animals, or just for the people?” and he looked at me like I was crazy. “Corn for animals?!?” Doh! How quickly I forgot from “Omnivore’s Dilema-” cows don’t really eat corn (except those force-fed in the US)- they eat grass! “Cows and goats eat grass” Yosef tells me, confused. I made up something about forgetting there were no pigs here.
We continued into the Konso territory, and saw many elevated huts. Yosef explained that the cereals/grains are kept above ground to protect them from the insects, animals, and water. The houses where they sleep are not elevated. We witnessed many more women, barefoot, and carrying huge loads of sticks, corn stalks, straw. We passed several white UN jeeps in this area, and wondered what they were doing. In Konso, we ate some meat, veggies, and injera.
After lunch it was a very, very bumpy road, and we were crossing many dry riverbeds. Yosef told us that during the rainy season (which is just starting) it can be impossible to cross the rivers. He said that many times cars and trucks are washed away with the heavy currents. Now they are almost all dry, and strewn with boulders and rocks. The terrain began to change as well, becoming more and more hilly. The Konso people have taken advantage of the hills for farming, by building terraces everywhere- these steps up the mountain are hard to see when covered in corn or sorghum, but where the crops have been harvested the mini red platforms are like an escalator up to the clouds. The Konso are still very pastoral, and herds of animals were all along the road. The first 2 pictures below show the Konso farmland with some terraces, and the second 2 pictures show 1) a well (which looks more like a pond) and 2) the Konso "totems" used to mark the graves of warriors. The middle person was the male in this grave, while his children and wives flank him. Some have large animals that the Konso man had killed during his life.
When we stop to take a picture, kids appear from nowhere and start shouting “you,” “dollar,” “OK,” or “highland.” The first three are pretty obvious, and their begging for money is due to the tourists that came before us. But I was confused by “Highland…” Yosef explained that this was the first brand of bottled water that came to Ethiopia, and the kids were asking for empty plastic bottles to be reused by them. It made sense- shepherds outside all day in the sun, needing to carry around their drink. But in the back of my head I was wondering if, by giving them the plastic bottle, knowing they would use it for years, would I be poisoning them with plastic chemicals? I know, who thinks about that…? we gave them the bottle and they were thrilled.
Related to this recycling- Tonio and I noticed that this southern Ethiopia countryside is perfectly clean. We have driven for hundreds of miles, and literally there is NO litter on the side of the road. Literally nothing. We finally figured out that we were quite naïve. Of course there is no litter- where would the wrappers come from? I guess the tourists who kick up dust might throw something out the window, but as far as the people who live here- there are no wrappers. There are no napkins, no pop cans, no plastic bags, no cigarettes, no straws, no disposable plates or silverware, no Styrofoam cups, no McD’s fries containers==== no litter. I’m not talking about the bigger towns and cities, but here in the rural southeast. There is no garbage pick-up in the Omo Valley because there really isn’t garbage. Really. I couldn’t wrap my mind around this. Later in the market place I forgot this a-ha moment when I asked the guide if I could buy some local honey. He brought me this huge gourd that had been hollowed out on the top and was dripping with honey. I said no thank you, and didn’t tell him I was expecting a little jar of honey that would pack nicely in my suitcase. The tribes in this area use the calabashes (gourds) to carry everything from coffee beans, grains, to their money, liquids, honey, etc. When they break or are old, they simply toss them in the plants and they compost quickly.
Speaking of not seeing any garbage, we also did not see any signs telling us where we were, what the name of the streets were, what town was coming up, which way to go at an intersection, or any directions at all. I asked Yosef how he knew where he was going, and he laughed and said “because I’ve been here before.”
In a couple of years, the whole Omo Valley is going to experience a colossal change. See the cell phone tower in the middle of this tiny village? (above left) There is a new highway that is being built (by hand, see above pictures) that will connect Addis Ababa to all of these little towns (Arba Minch, Jinka, Turmi, Key Afar), and then continue south to Kenya. With the new highway, there will be hordes of tourists finally able to reach the tribes in a more “comfortable” and fast way. I think that the completion of this highway will bring an overload of tourists, new fancy hotels, and unfortunately, an overload of garbage and pollution. It’s sad to think that this might be the end of so many cultures that have withstood time and change.
We passed through the Savai tribe, and stopped for tea in the Buska mountains. After the short break we were on the road again, passing by cotton fields and mounds of already picked cotton (see above). Driving through the flat Omo Valley (on the way to Turmi) we saw a lot of dik-diks, scampering in pairs through the brush- small animals that look like miniature deer and sometimes hop like bunnies. We passed this beautiful Arbore woman in the middle of the valley, and she quietly asked us for soap (which we didn’t have but I would have been happy to give to her). Further on, we passed lots of little Arbore kids wearing colorful necklaces who begged us for “Highland!” the infamous plastic water bottles. They also asked for caramelos, which we didn’t have. I began to feel very unprepared for this trip as they walked away a little disgusted with us.
We crossed several dry riverbeds, and Yosef told us that in the rainier days these can be gushing, uncrossable rivers. Yosef said that the rainy season and dry season used to be incredibly predictable in the Omo Valley, but now “global warming is messing things up.” This high school educated driver doesn’t need a scientist to tell him that climate change is omnipresent and dangerous. We then heard a loud barking, and just as I was about to ask if there were actually dogs in the valley, Yosef pointed out some huge baboons. They ran to the trees and rocks and began watching us take our bathroom break, barking away.
After crossing the huge valley, we arrived at Turmi, home of the Hamer people. We stayed at the “Tourist Hotel” (they are using the term hotel quite loosely- the toilet is a hole in the ground outdoors, no screens on open windows, and the bed was a mat on wood- but it did have mosquito nets, which the camping grounds did not) along with some UN workers, a New Zealand couple who’ve spent a month in Ethiopia, a nice Japanese student traveling with an arrogant American guy throughout Africa, and another older American guy. They were telling us about this Harvard anthropologist who is living with a tribe a couple of hours away (walking). Apparently he is doing research, and so he came into the village last year with a tape recorder in their native language explaining that he wanted to live and work with them. They rejected him for 3 weeks and he just followed them around doing whatever work they were doing, drinking their water, eating their food (sorghum 3 times a day), digging wells with them, building houses, owning only one pair of clothing, learning their language, etc. After a month of so they started to accept him and now he stays there for 3-6 months at a time living with them. Then he’ll go back home to Harvard to publish some papers, and return to a big celebration in the tribe. He realized that he was finally accepted when some babies were named after him. He told the other tourists that what he misses most is speaking English and eating vegetables. I guess he is serious about his research! I bet he’ll be publishing a book sometime.
We walked around the town a bit, until we saw men with big guns and decided it was getting dark! Turmi consists of mainly 2 drivable dirt roads with some little shops or buildings along the main intersection. Dirt paths lead off the main drag. Beyond the mud and straw construction were the traditional straw homes on small farm plots. Animals were everywhere and we heard a chorus of cows, goats, roosters, our metal window frame banging against itself, and insects all night long. Tonight’s funny quote by Tonio was about a certain goat that would not stop bleating “Somebody go tell that goat they eat the noisiest one first.” Tired and slap-happy, I could not stop laughing.
Here is a video of the sights from today: