Friday, March 3, 2017

Vicarious Tourism: The Danakil Depression

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit one of the most unique areas of the world, right here in Ethiopia. The Danakil Depression is a geologically active area in the Rift Valley, one of the lowest, hottest, and driest places on Earth. It's almost like being on an alien planet. Lake Assal has barren white salt flats stretching for miles, with salt so thick it looks like snow.

My favorite part of the trip was Dallol (pictured above), a geothermic area full of weird rock-and-salt structures and bursting with color from complex chemical reactions and the extremophile bacteria that call this place home. No big geysers like in Yellowstone, but there's plenty to see - and no railings. "Try not to step in anything wet," said our guide, "it might be sulfuric acid." Ah, the things they never let you do in America.

The other big attraction of the area is the Erta Ale volcano, one of a very few opportunities to get up close and personal with a pool of lava. Or it was - an eruption last month changed things a little so the old caldera is now too smoky to visit. There's another one an extra hike away that you can only see from a distance since it's full to the rim, though it obligingly overflowed for us, making a river of fire down the slope. Amazing. The hike out there was rough; as a "new path" we did a lot of trailblazing ourselves on unstable volcanic crust. One of our group fell through to his waist and had to get hauled out, and we all had cuts and scrapes from catching our own falls on the sharp rocks. And did I mention this was all happening in the dark? A good headlamp is a literal lifesaver.

I think it's safe to say that our group had a pretty atypical Danakil experience. In one of the driest places on the planet it rained for most of the first two days we were there, including a downpour at 2:30am that forced us to spend a sodden night in the Land Cruisers since roofing in that part of the world was not exactly designed with waterproofing in mind. On the bright side, thanks to the clouds and the rain, the hottest place on Earth was downright temperate. I had thrown a fleece into my backpack at the last minute, and I was grateful for it. Even with unusually reasonable temperatures this was a physically demanding trip with very little in the way of amenities, but so, so worth it!

Monday, February 13, 2017

My Addis Fives

Here we are again, halfway through tour #3, which means it's time to sum up how I feel about living in Addis Ababa. On the whole this has been a good tour for me so far, but nothing's ever perfect is it?

Top Five Things I Love About Addis:

1.   My Job: Man, my job is so great. Working at USAU I get to cover a huge range of really interesting economic and political issues with a continent-wide scope. Sure, it's a lot to keep track of sometimes, but I never get bored, and I feel like I'm doing things that matter. People in Washington read and value my reporting, which I know because I get a lot of positive feedback on it. That doesn't always happen. 
2.   The Country: Ethiopia is an amazing place. Astonishing natural beauty, rich history and culture. And, with one recent notable exception, it's been relatively easy to get out and experience all that Ethiopia has to offer. I still have barely scratched the surface of the country, and I hope to see much more in the time I have left. 
3.   The Food: I love Ethiopian food. But there's also really good Italian food in Addis, plus hipster burger joints, jazz brunch, Korean barbeque, French, Indian, all kinds of stuff. And the coffee, of course, is unparalleled. Food is a key morale issue for me, and Addis makes me happy in that department. 
4.   My Social Life: Addis is the diplomatic capital of Africa with over 100 missions, and there are lots of other expats here for other reasons. This means endless parties and cultural events, and lots of great people to hang out with. Addis has live music and festivals and new-release movies, (even in 3D!), so there's plenty to do. 
5.   The Weather: One of Ethiopia's tourism slogans is "13 Months of Sunshine." While this isn't totally accurate, 75 degrees and sunny is the usual state of affairs for most of the year. My house has no heat and no A/C, and doesn't really need it. It's lovely. 

Top Five Things I Hate About Addis:

1.   The Driving: Driving in Addis is terrible, even worse than Conakry. Pedestrians, taxis, minibuses, motorcycles, giant honking tour coaches, overstuffed trucks, handcarts, donkeys, flocks of sheep, stray dogs, all moving around on the streets in whatever way seems best to them at the time, sometimes seemingly oblivious to the presence of other vehicles. Despite the scattered existence of lane lines and traffic lights, the only real rule of the road is whoever gets in, wins. And watch out for potholes! In some places half the road washes away in the rainy season. I have been lucky enough to avoid any serious accidents so far (knock on wood), but my swearing has increased 10-fold since I first got behind the wheel. 
2.   The Air Pollution: Addis isn't Delhi, but it's not crystal mountain air either. The embassy installed Africa's first EPA-standard air quality monitors in Addis earlier this year, and the readings aren't looking great. Living in a city packed with fume-spewing 40-year-old Ladas is not ideal for one's long-term bronchial health. 
3.   The Internet: Ethiopia has Africa's most expensive internet, and you're not getting much bang for your buck. Sometimes you can do a little low-res streaming, and other times a simple Google search is too much to ask. As a state-owned monopoly, the local telecom has little incentive to improve, and sometimes shuts service down altogether for political reasons. On the bright side, I read a lot more books then. 
4.   The Altitude: A year and a half in and I'm still gasping for breath after two flights of stairs. Every time I think I'm getting acclimated I go on vacation and seemingly have to start all over again when I get back. Send me back to sea level! (Ideally in the vicinity of the actual sea. I'm not a fan of landlockedness either.)
5.   City Living: I got spoiled in Dublin with so many wonderful options to just go take a walk or a bike ride. Addis does not have those. There are hardly any parks or green spaces to speak of, and with broken sidewalks, pickpockets, and the aforementioned diesel fumes, the streets of Addis are hardly ideal for a stroll. Driving everywhere all the time makes me fat. And swear a lot.