Field Notes: Ethiopia

Before I fall too far down the rabbit hole that will be my attempts to make up for missing two weeks of the semester for field work, here are some thoughts on my trip to Ethiopia. Yes, it was awesome; no, I do not have ebola; yes, the food was great.

After an unexpected 16 hour layover in Washington DC, my labmate and I arrived in Addis Ababa on the evening of the 16th, ready for the nearest bed. The first morning I was in Addis, we overslept and had to roll out the door to make our meeting with our colleagues from the University of Addis Ababa, and were then thrown into a busy day of packing and shopping. The second day, though, I had the chance to take in a foggy morning panorama of the city from the hotel balcony; joggers passed below to the sound of the morning call to prayer from a nearby mosque. We left that second day for the countryside, skipping breakfast so that we could avoid the morning rush hour – a debatably successful tactic, seeing how the highway at that hour wasn’t full of cars but of boys playing soccer in the lanes. We stopped outside the city for breakfast and coffee at a restaurant with a decommissioned EthiopianAir plane parked next to it; the seating inside consisted of the airplane seats. A cute idea, but less welcome after two days of flying.

Early morning in Addis Ababa

For the first part of the trip, we were in the western part of the Oromia Region, which is part of the Ethiopian Highlands, so the terrain was hilly verging on mountainous, and very beautiful, with farm fields everywhere mixed in with areas of forest. The rainy season was just ending, so everything was bright green and newly growing; the Ethiopian New Year, when the seasons supposedly change, is on September 11, but we had a few days of rain while we were working. The hillsides are covered in small yellow flowers that only bloom at that time of year.


With the type of work I’m doing, you end up spending the vast majority of your time in the car driving to the next seismic station. If everything is okay at the station, you spend about an hour there collecting the data from the last six months and checking that everything is in order, then you get back on the road for the next site. Of course, if something is wrong, then it can be more like six hours or more trying to put things right – at a few stations this trip, the barrel holding the equipment had flooded completely, which takes a lot of work to clean up and restart it. For the rest of the time, it’s a good thing there’s plenty to look at out the window, because 10 hours a day in a Land Rover can be rough.

One of the things I noticed in a lot of places that we passed were ping pong and foosball tables along the road or outside stores; they were pretty popular, in constant use. Also probably a lot easier to play at than my family’s ping pong table in my grandparents’ basement, where I have a distinct advantage as the only person who doesn’t have to worry about braining themselves on the pipes overhead. I’m also used to seeing a lot of corrugated iron construction, but mosques with sheet metal minarets were new. Herds of cows and goats were common, followed by riders on small horses with colorful bridles and saddles, often with flowers or wool pompoms as decorations.


What was most in evidence was a feeling of growth, especially in the cities. New buildings were going up everywhere; modern office buildings were being constructed under scaffolds made out of rough cut sticks, and some that were half built would have shops already open on the first floor. When we were in the rural areas, kids on the side of the road would shout “China!” as they saw us pass – the foreigners they are most used to seeing are from Chinese construction and mining firms. Ethiopia has the fastest growing economy in Africa, with an average annual GDP growth over 10%; though it is still a poor country, Ethiopia has met or is on track to meet many of its Millennium Development Goals, including reducing child mortality by 2/3rds since 1990. You might notice that most of my pictures have power lines in them; they’re hard to avoid when you’re shooting pics from a moving car. Crossing the Rift Valley, we passed arrays of wind turbines; only about 5% of Ethiopia’ power comes from fossil fuels, and one of the goals of the country’s climate change action plan is to be carbon neutral by 2025. Most of Ethiopia’s power actually comes from hydropower, but wind and geothermal are also growing. Given how volcanically active the Rift Valley is, geothermal electric power has a lot of potential to fuel the country’s growth.



The clear winner for favorite part of the trip was when we drove across the Bale Mountains National Park, an alpine landscape more than 4,000 meters high. The top of the plateau was covered in bright blue rock pools amid fields of white, heather-like flowers, with the red dirt road cutting across it. There were clusters of giant lobelia plants, which look like bizarre bare palm trees transplanted on top of a mountain, and can grow up to 10 meters high, and all manner of water fowl and birds of prey; we even saw an Ethiopian wolf that ran across the road. It was a bright clear incredible day on top with a cold breeze; we were above the clouds, then dropped down the other side of the plateau, driving inside a cloud with a sheer drop to one side. Winding down from the top of the mountains, you descend through a tropical forest, with massive trees dripping moss and lichen.




The dropoff? They’re going to the dropoff??

Before flying out from Addis at 1 in the morning, I also had a little time for sightseeing, and headed to the National Museum to spend some time among the bones in preparation for Halloween. I was pretty psyched to say hi to Lucy, but sadly, only a replica of the hominid bones are on display, and the actual skeleton is in a vault. The film crew that was there apparently working on a documentary about human evolution made up for it, though. Among the questions asked to the rather beleaguered museum representative: “It used to be thought that humans began in Israel, in the Holy Land – is that not true?” and “Were her legs open like that when they found her?” They also made him sing “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” when explaining how the bones were named. A+ work, I look forward to seeing it on Netflix. Camera guy also creeped over my shoulder while I was sketching, so hey, maybe I’ll get a film credit.

crappy camera pictures ahhhhh


So those are the highlights; I left out a lot of sitting, a lot of digging in the dirt, and everything about the toilet situations, you’re welcome. It was an excellent trip; we did a lot of good work and saw a lot of an incredible country, but I’m glad to be back in the swing of things here. Cheers!


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