Saturday, October 29, 2011

Billiards in the hottest inhabited village on the planet

Hamed Ela, Dallol region, Danakil depression, Ethiopia.

Flirty donkeys in the burning morning winds of Hamed Ela

From Wikipedia :
"Dallol currently holds the record high average temperature for an inhabited location on Earth, where an average annual temperature of 34°C (94°F) was recorded between the years 1960 and 1966. Dallol is also one of the most remote places on Earth. There are no roads; the only regular transport service is provided by camel caravans which travel to the area to collect salt."
National Geographic has an excellent article about the region :
"Already, following our week in Hamed Ela, a dust-and-fly-stricken hamlet, I'd formed some opinions. One was that people can and will live anywhere—even in the Danakil, a place of dry sands and even drier gravel beds, rocky lava flows, active volcanoes, burning salt flats, temperatures that often top 120°F, winds that choke you with dust, and suffocating days of no wind at all."
Getting to Hamed Ela was no picnic. Our expeditionary force consisted of :

  • 3 tourists who were not sure what they were really getting into
  • 2 expert drivers
  • 1 excellent guide
  • 1 wonderful cook
  • A rotating outfit of teenagers armed with AK-47s and hand grenades, anywhere between 2 and 5 of them depending on the day's destination and activities
  • Various passengers hopping on and off between random desert settlements
  • 2 Toyota Land Cruisers in excellent condition, with 6 days worth of fuel, food and water for the crew

The lead land cruiser, expertly piloted by Biniam
The Danakil depression is home to the Afar tribe of Ethiopia. These are some of the fiercest people on the planet. They consider themselves Afar first, and only really cooperate with Ethiopia when the territorial integrity of the country is at stake, when they will take up arms and fight alongside the ethnic Ethiopians. The Afar sharpen all of their teeth into points using metal files. Most of them are salt miners and salt-trade nomads, crossing the desert back and forth with huge camel caravans loaded with salt slabs from the Danakil flats. Until relatively recently, the Afar used to cut off the testicles of visitors and hang them up in their tents to dry, although if you asked them today about that they would say "No, we never did that. And we only did it if they really deserved it". Allegedly some visitors have seen the dried up packages hanging in Afar tents as recently as a couple of years ago...

Could I possibly find some pool or billiards in this place?

The Ert'Ale lava lake, from about 100 meters away
The reason we had come to Hamed Ela, was to explore the geologically incredible region of the Afar. The unquestionable star attractions of the area are Ert'Ale, the only permanently erupting lava lake in the world, and the absolutely alien volcanic landscapes of Dallol (for a future post). We setup camp at the base of Ert'Ale, where the Land Cruisers could not go any further. We were about 6km from the volcano by bird's flight. The climb had to be done at night, because it's just too damn hot during the day.

Two members of our Afar escort contingent of teenagers in skirts with AKs
 We started walking right after sunset, and I'll spare you the difficulties we encountered with our armed Afar "guide" which ultimately lead to the two other tourists having to head back to camp just 2km into the trek. I continued on with our real guide, and two armed locals who had not - as of yet - caused any problems. The 5-hour climb was incredibly difficult, due mostly to the terrain, which consists of all types of more or less solidified and jagged lava which occasionally gave way under your step. This is dangerous - a serious cut would be a show stopper here, as you could imagine. Other difficulties included the relentless ambient heat, the loss of my flashlight, and the remote but real possibility of running into Eritrean insurgents who occasionally cross into the area.

But man, was it worth it!

Selected pics of the lava lake :

I spent an unforgettable 45 minutes right on the edge of the crater, in the volcanic heat, complete with suffocating gusts of sulfuric acid fumes. You can also see a couple of videos I took on my youtube account.

We slept for about 3 hours at the top, then started back down about an hour before sunrise. We had commissioned a camel to meet us up top with more water (I drank 5 liters on the way up) and I was happy to load my backpack onto it for the way back.

Treacherous lava tubes are part of the hazards of this trek
This clown decided to start shooting his gun without warning, for "practice"
Back in Hamed Ela, we had some well-deserved rest, and in the afternoon I went to explore the local bar scene, which consisted of two shacks and no fridge. They had beer, although not much of it. As I sat there, watching Braveheart with the military and potash-mining clientele in the debilitating heat, I suddenly heard that sound so familiar to pool junkies, the clanking of billiard balls in the general vicinity. It turns out that they had a pool table right next door. As I stepped in, this is the scene I was greeted by :

Everyone loves billiards, even Afar salt miners in the hottest village on the planet
This game is called "carambola" in Ethiopia - its closest relative is the Italian game of Bocette, which I have had the pleasure to play in the Tuscany region of Italy.

Billiard Traveler doing his best not to get beat too thoroughly. Just like Bocette, Ethiopian Carambola is played  without cues - you roll the balls with your hands!

This is how you get the balls back out of the pockets - from what I can deduce, this is an Italian table from the 1940s, a relic of the short-lived Italian occupation of Ethiopia.

For more about the details of Ethiopian Carambola and the Italian game of Bocette, come back for a later post!

Soon, I will have some pictures up of the alien landscapes of Dallol, and a story of playing the Ethiopian rotation game called "straight" in Bahir Dar.

And I leave you with this.
Me, clueless as to what to do about the goat in my shower

Monday, October 24, 2011

The churches of Lalibela

As I have mentioned before, Ethiopia is the second ever country to declare itself christian - this has resulted in a very rich cultural and architectural heritage, the most famous of which are the church complexes at Lalibela.
Lalibela is an ancient town situated on an incredibly beautiful hill side between the lowlands and high plateaus of northern Ethiopia. It is named after the king of Ethiopia, Saint Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, who had been on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and according to the local historians, decided to build up the city as a "second Jerusalem", possibly following the fall of the real Jerusalem to the Muslims in 1187. Indeed, all the place names and church names reflect ancient Jerusalem locations - even the river that runs through the town is named "the river Jordan".

There are 13 churches in total, arranged in 4 separate complexes. The church complexes are mind-boggling - the churches were made by starting from one gigantic piece of rock, and built by carving the church out, meaning each church is just one continuous piece of rock. In some instances, they started from the side of the rock and carved the church by digging into the rock horizontally, kind of like in Petra, jordan. In other instances the church was built "in reverse" by starting from the flat top of the rock and digging down, and these are truly the most impressive feats of the ancient builders.

A few pictures :

UNESCO recently built the cover, and although visually disastrous, it is necessary to protect  this church, the oldest one in the complex

It's difficult to overstate the skill of the ancient rock carvers

Each church has a well thought-out drainage system to avoid erosion at the base

Here you can see the "mother rock" from which the church was carved

This inside is no less impressive

Only one of the churches has elaborate internal carvings and paintings

The Saint George church, the most well-recognized and also the most recent church in Lalibela - still dates from the early 12th century though!

Although I did spot a few "pool houses" in town as we walked through, I had no time to actually play any as our ays were packed with exploring the churches and the myriad passageways, tunnels and ridges linking them...