Through the desert to Omorate
Feb 03, 2005
I lie down to go to sleep in the base of the watchtower, and something bites me. And then I'm bitten again. The bites swell up terribly. I shine my flashlight around the room, and find some little ants - I look harder and see that a few of them are mean looking, big things, with nasty pinchers.
I show the ants to one of the guys, and he actually seems a bit scared of them - perhaps they are dangerous. There is a bit of a discussion and then they allow me to move to the top of the watchtower. It's pretty cool. Sleeping on top of a watchtower, on top of a hill, in the middle of a desert is like something out of a fairy tale.
Unfortunately, It was fated to be a terrible night. Every hour, a policeman with an AK47 would climb up to where I was sleeping and shine his light around the desert looking for Kenyan nomads raiding into Ethiopia or vice versa. But, that noise and commotion was the least of my problems. The ants had followed me. As I would get to sleep, I would wake up with another bite. I was bit on the legs, so I put long underwear on to keep the ants away. Then they bit my feet. Slowly, through the night, I added more and more clothing and was eventually covered head to toe. My long sleeve shirt was tucked into my long underwear, which itself was tucked into my socks.
The additional clothes were going to be necessary anyways though. The cool afternoon breeze tuned very cold, and the watchtower was fully exposed to the wind. Late in the evening, I was shivering beneath the thin little sarong that I was using as a blanket. And the ants never left me alone. Even covered head to toe they found places to bite. Eventually, I drenched my hands, neck, and face in toxic mosquito repellent, but by that time it was almost morning.
At some point during the night, I turned off my alarm. The original plan was to wake up at 4am. I didn't awake until after the sun had risen. I packed as quickly as possible and then went in search of water. Water was an absolute necessity if I was going to try to walk through the desert today, and I had none left. I drank half of my 5 liters during the walk through no-man's land, and then finished the rest of it during the night.
I managed to only borrow two liters of water. It seemed like not nearly enough, but they didn't have any more. No one had yet been down to the river to collect water this morning. I considered going for water myself - The river at the closest point is only 3-miles away. But, it is in completely the wrong direction. The road to Omorate meets the river after 10 miles. It looks like I'm forced to try to make the first 10 miles through the desert with only 2 liters of water.
I gave the women a gift of the goatskin and some beads -- I would have liked to give them more, but I didn't have any extra food, or anything else.
I got a late start, was low on water, and the sun was rising higher in the sky every minute, so I rushed as fast as possible to make it to the river. I passed through the hell of the dry lifeless lakebed. Then the scenery slowly changed to some dry dead grass, and then on to some green grass. After an hour and a half of fast walking, I found my first bit of shade in two days of walking. There was a shrub beside the path, only about 4 feet high, but it was tall enough that I could squat down and rest in its shade.
A cheerful Merile nomad appears. These are the same guys that raid the Turkana region in Kenya and kill people - but I guess that I can't fault them, as the Turkana do the same to them.
There are introductions, consisting mostly of pantomime, and then, again through pantomime, he asks me to give him a t-shirt. I'm hesitant to give him one, for a number of reasons. First, I don't have many spare clothes. Also, It sets a bad precedent - if I give him something, he might keep asking for more. But mostly, I don't want to open my bag so that he can see something else that he wants more (there is a $1000 camera in there).
I offer him beads, and I offer him some Kenyan change. But he's insisting on a shirt. I try to walk away, but he grabs on to my bag and won't let go.
This morning, I rushed away from the police post with my thoughts focused on avoiding the heat. Yesterday, I walked without a guide and had no problems, and this morning the police let me go without a guide. Somehow, I assumed that it would all be safe. Suddenly, I really wished that I had a guide with me.
The Merile was unarmed, but he was stronger than I am. Plus it's his home turf. I certainly don't want to get into a fight with a nomad in the middle of his desert. I concede, and decide to give him a shirt.
I open the zipper of my backpack just enough to reach my hand in, and poke around to find the shirt I'm looking for. The t-shirt is old and dirty, with a hole in it, and stains under the armpits. I would have thrown it away months ago, but it had sentimental value. I bought it in Palau Weh, which was destroyed by the tsunami, and thus the shirt is irreplaceable. I suppose that it's somehow fitting though - the shirt made it all the way from a small island off the coast of Sumatra in Indonesia, to the middle of the desert here in Ethiopia.
He puts on the shirt and seems very proud of his acquisition. Then he craftily grabs the beads, which I had previously offered him, out of my pocket.
With my backpack released from his grasp, I continue on my way. The nomad follows me. He's a pain in the ass, constantly asking for money as we walk. The conversation isn't solely about money though, we share some stories through pantomime. He tells me one story where is fighting a Turkana. He motions that he was running zigzags as he was firing, and then shows me the scar where a bullet hit him. I guess that he killed other guy though, as he was the one telling the story.
He's an annoyance, constantly asking for money, but I quickly decide that I'm very glad to have him with me. We pass by several herders who are armed with AK47s. Any of them could have asked for my entire backpack and I would have had little choice in the matter. My "guide" talks with them and we continue on our way.
At one point, a very strong and angry woman carrying a load of firewood blocks our way and demands money. My "guide" talks to her and through his hand signals I understand the problem. From a distance, the woman saw me lift my water bottle and drink from it. She thought that I was pointing a camera in her direction and was demanding money for the photos. My guide explained to her that I was just drinking from the bottle. Without him, the situation could have turned ugly.
My "guide" stayed with me all the way to the river, asking for money the entire way. At the river, I give him some Kenyan change - he had refused it before, but took it now. I would have loved to take a picture of this guy wearing my shirt, but taking my camera out just raised too many possibilities for him to demand more money or something else.
All in all, I think that I did pretty good. I had a run-in with a murderous bandit of the nomadic Merile tribe, and all he got was a dirty t-shirt, a string of beads and $0.30 in Kenyan change.
At the edge of the river, the scenery changed completely. Everything was very green. There were actual homes, and people were wearing western clothing. Metal windmills were glistening in the sun, though I didn't know what they're running. I found the boat and took it across the river. It was a strange sort of canoe. You might have to see the photo to believe it, but the canoe was almost S-shaped, built from a tree trunk that wasn't even close to straight.
I went for a nice swim in the cool river, and refilled my water bottle with the muddy water. Sitting in the shade on the other side of the river, I realized that I pushed myself too hard. I walked the entire way with the nomad non-stop, as I didn't want to stop to give him a chance to think of something else to ask for. I also got more of a sunburn. In the rush this morning, I hurried to put on sunscreen and once again missed some spots.
Now, waiting in the shade I was once again surrounded by kids asking me to "give, give, give." I needed to eat, but had to wait for the kids to leave before bringing out any food. I wasn't sure if I have enough food for myself for the remaining 7-mile walk, and I felt like I couldn't eat in front of these kids without sharing.
I was exhausted and hungry, struggling, waiting in the shade for these kids to leave when a truck suddenly showed up going to Omorate. I told them that I didn't have any money, which led to some commotion and arguing, but eventually they let me on. When we arrive in Omorate the driver demanded money, but it doesn't turn out to be much of a problem. They lead me to a moneychanger where I exchange Kenyan shillings for Ethiopian Birr. I pay the driver half of what he asked for, but at least twice the normal price.
Omorate is a big village made up of thatched huts, and a few, more solid, mud buildings. I ask for directions and am led to the hotels. All three hotels in Omorate are on the same street corner. I walk into the courtyard of the first hotel. A tour-guide who appeared suddenly translates for me and tells me that the rooms cost $3. I'm positive that this much higher than the local price, but I'm too tired and sunburned to argue.
I order a huge plate of Ethiopian food, some coffee and some tea and slowly start to feel much better. I talk to the tour guide who was bit of a Rasta and he tells me that I've missed the Reggae festival. That was very disappointing.
Late in the afternoon, after the sun has gone down a bit, I walk over to the immigration office. The immigration officer saw me coming into town, and insisted that I come visit him. Omorate is a village made up of thatched huts and traditionally dressed Galeb people, but it looks as if change is coming. The immigration office is a mud hut. But, behind it lies the new headquarters for the agriculture ministry, which is under construction. Along with that, there is also a nice little kiosk, yes kiosk, for immigration.
The immigration officer is a nice friendly guy who is a bit shocked when he hears that I walked here from Kenya. Without any problems, he stamps me into Ethiopia.
I've made it! I've finally made it to Ethiopia.
I will continue this daily log until I have a boring day. That should be tomorrow. My only plan for tomorrow is to rest up and let my sunburn heal.
The trip from Nairobi to Addis Ababa was interesting enough that I wrote it up as a daily log. If you'd like to read it from the beginning click here: [ Leaving Nairobi ]
Leave a comment! I'm much more inspired to write when I know people are reading.
You are way, way, WAY off the beaten track. Totally impressive. Those pictures of the desert are no joke. Water is super precious in Africa and seeing those pictures reminded me of that.
It's June now. I've been hearing reports about the rain in the South. What was a dry and dead desert when I passed through is probably an impassible swamp now.
GLADYS SIEFERT - Apr 25, 2005
Dear Adam, Just finish reading your letter
, my its amazing what you have done, so glad it went well and you are ok. keep writing. Gladys Siefert
Cheryl - Apr 28, 2005
How weird that a woman living in the desert in Ethiopia would think to ask for money in exchange for pictures she thought you took of her - most Americans living in our media maelstrom wouldn't think of such a thing. Where would the idea come from that you could ask for money in exchange for your image?
There people have almost no other way of making money. Foreigners have lots of money so it seems pretty natural for them to ask for something in exchange for anything they can think of.
barce - May 08, 2005
This is great stuff, Adam. I'm glad that nothing too much happened with you and your "guide."