Wednesday, January 30, 2019

New Year’s Resolutions

January is New Year’s resolutions month. Here are a few things I have decided to work on:

  • Blog more – I am going to try to blog at least once a month but the more the better.
  • Go back to working out - I worked out sporadically during most of last year, which didn’t feel good. So, I have decided to do something about it. I read an article about getting back in shape which resonated with me. It talked about committing to working out at least 16 times a month. It sounded doable but I needed an accountability partner. Unfortunately, my workout buddy from Addis, Tara, is on the other side of the world in Papua New Guinea. I reached out to her anyway to see if she’d do it with me despite the distance. She had a serious ankle injury last year and can’t do anything that puts too much pressure on her foot but she, like me, wanted to shed some weight and get back in shape, so she was in. 16 workouts a month came down to roughly 4 workouts a week. She started swimming and walking. I started doing yoga twice a week with the Down Dog App. I love that app, by the way, because you can tailor the length and difficulty to whatever you need. It had been so long since I had done yoga, that I needed to start from Beginner 1 to slowly build up my strength. I vary my other two weekly workouts. I found some hula hoop/barre workouts that seemed fun and have been doing them and some ab/Pilates type workouts through FabFitFun. I have a FabFitFun box subscription and they have a fitness website with a bunch of videos, so I can always find something there. These workouts are usually about 15 min, so I do a couple. It’s not much but it’s better than nothing. I started keeping a fitness log and have already done 19 workouts so far this month. Yey! I haven’t lost any weight whatsoever but I am trying to not let that get to me. I also started a push up challenge. I have never been good at push ups but have always wanted to be, so when I stumbled on this push up challenge from Health Magazine recently, I knew I wanted to try it.  It’s supposed to get me from 5 to 50 push ups in 30 days. I am on day five and so far, so good. I have a hard time believing I would be able to get to 50 but I’ll give it all I’ve got and we’ll see. Last but not least, I took a picture of myself on January 1 and plan to take one on the first of every month to track progress. Not loving the January picture but I have to start somewhere and I have to be honest with myself.
  • Eat less sugar – I discovered a really cool website called Darebee, which has all kinds of workout inspiration. If you guys haven’t seen it, you need to check it out. You’re welcome. Anywhoo, there was a 15-day no sugar challenge there, which I really need. I plan on starting it on February 1. I want to make it a recurring thing – eat sweets once every two weeks. I think I can do it. I also want to cut down on carbs but can’t do it all at once, so I will try to add that in March.
  • Declutter the house –clutter around the house has been driving me crazy and I have wanted to do something about it for a while. Like everybody and their cousin, I watched Tidying Up with Marie Kondo on Netflix and decided I liked some of the ideas in it. I have been reorganizing some dressers. I tried to involve Paul and the kids but so far no one is biting. With Paul and Nia leaving for Saudi Arabia this summer, we will have to go through their stuff anyway, so I am not doing everything all at once but making baby steps as I have time. That’s not what Marie Kondo teaches but I am not going to worry too much about that.
  • Learn a little Arabic – I have decided that I want to pick up some Arabic in preparation for moving to Saudi. The U.S. Government was shutdown for 4 weeks, which wasn’t fun but Rosetta Stone had an offer for government employees for 3 months of free online language instruction in any of the languages they offer, so I decided to take advantage of it. I have only done it a few times and it’s not easy. I had forgotten how humbling learning a new language is. Rosetta Stone has changed a little since I last used it but the underlying principles are more or less the same. I wrote a review about learning Hindi with Rosetta Stone back in 2010 and am having a very similar experience with Arabic. It’s lovely to be going at your own pace and learning as you have time but there is no explanation whatsoever and while that’s OK when you are learning obvious things like the words for cat and dog, it’s frustrating when you get into more abstract stuff. The other day, for example, I was going through a lesson and getting every other exercise wrong and just not understanding the concept until a few screens later when I had an aha moment – it finally dawned on me that they were teaching negation, the idea of NOT doing something and comparing it to doing something. Or when I had already gone through the lessons teaching the words for girl, boy, man, woman and then all of a sudden there were different words with similar pictures – perhaps they were trying to teach me the words for child(ren) and adult (s)? Who knows? Also, Arabic apparently has singular, plural and another form for two of something, which was different and took me a while to comprehend. Maybe I am still misunderstanding it. In Arabic you read/write right to left, which I thought would be confusing but it’s really not that bad, it’s learning the letters that’s problematic for me right now. Some of the lessons are trying to teach you how to read but without teaching you the letters or the alphabet. I find that very confusing but they test your reading and you have to figure out what letter/s to use in words and expressions just by looking at them, which is crazy because I don’t know the letters and there’s no explanation or cheat sheet or anything. I think I need to look around online for some help with learning to read Arabic. Anyway, I am mildly frustrated by the things I don’t understand but I really like learning languages, so am excited. I know I am not going to truly learn Arabic after three months of Rosetta Stone but it will be better than nothing and every little bit helps.

That’s all on the resolutions front. In other news, my father is not well. We’ve been trying to figure out what exactly is going on with him for more than a year now and it’s very frustrating and discouraging. He and my mother are staying with us, while he undergoes more tests. We are trying to stay positive but we are all very worried and it’s hard. We are hoping for a miracle.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Throw Back Ethiopia: A Visit to Hell on Earth or How My Friend Tara and I Accidentally Married the Same Ethiopian Man

(Note: For some mysterious reason Blogger choked on the pictures for this post and I had to resort to some trickery to add them. Hence the different look. I don't love it, especially the weird frames but have not been able to come up with a better fix.)

Facebook just reminded me that it’s been two years since my trip to the Danakil Depression, the craziest, most amazing trip I went on in Ethiopia. It wasn't easy (night hiking), safe (walking on fresh lava, strong sulfur smell, eye and skin irritation) or comfortable (ungodly hot, no toilets, no showers, no power) but I guess that's what made it unusual. Plus, we had wonderful guides, drivers and a cook who made the trip truly awesome. I was just looking at the pictures and realized that I meant to blog about it but never did. So, I'm doing it now with lots of pictures because I want more people to know about it and perhaps go see it – it’s so worth it.

A little context: I went to the Danakil at a rough time for me. I had already been separated from my family for about 6 months. Ethiopia was in the middle of a state of emergency – there was unrest around the country, a lot of armed police and military in the streets, we were not allowed to leave Addis for a while, phones and the Internet were extremely unreliable. We were all itching to go out of town, so when the restriction on leaving Addis was lifted, we all rejoiced. About a week later, I heard that our Regional Security Office (RSO) was trying to get permissions for embassy staff to travel to the Danakil Depression. At first I didn’t believe it because I had heard about the Danakil Depression and seen pictures of the place before I went to Ethiopia but it is close to the border with Eritrea and at that time the relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea was not good. Not only that but several tourists had been murdered in the area a few years earlier, so we were not allowed to go there. But RSO moved forward and did a test trip. One of our colleagues went. As soon as he got back I was like, “So, was it awesome? Did you love it?” He did not love it – it was ungodly hot, he said, the trek up to the Erta Ale volcano was grueling, walking in the crater unsafe, you slept outside, there were no toilets, no showers. He said, it was kinda interesting but not exactly pleasant. I heard what he said but it sounded awesome to me. I wanted to go. Badly. I guess it takes all kinds.

The Danakil Depression is a place of extremes. Hell on Earth is how some people describe it. I don’t think that’s accurate but it is definitely one of the lowest and hottest places on Earth, so there is a limited window of time when tourists can visit – January and February. Our embassy works with two companies, which put similar trips together for us but they can only take about 15 people each. Because we had not been allowed to leave Addis for a while, a lot more people want to go than the two companies can accommodate, so they use a lottery to determine who gets to go. My friend Tara and I win the lottery for one of the two trips and can't wait to go!

We fly to Mekele, where Gurum, the tour guide from GETTS, our tour company, is waiting for us with several SUVs and drivers.

We are assigned into groups of three to a car and driver.

We drive north-east. Along the way we stop at a small village just to see what life is like in this part of the country.

Everyone is going about their daily business and we chat to some of the people for a little bit.

We see this lady making dung patties and drying them in the sun. The first time I saw people doing that in India I thought it was absurd (I worried about sanitation) but when you live in a place with limited fuel sources and/or your means are limited, you do what you need to do and making dung patties is an important job, if you want to feed your family. So I have grown to respect the job, unglamorous as it is, and the people who have to do it but never had a chance to take decent pictures because I had always seen them from a moving vehicle.

We continue on our way driving through dramatic mountains but eventually they open up into a desert. We enter Afar region.

The houses look different here, more like tents.
The Afar people are nomadic. They move around in search of pasture for their animals. Afar is autonomous, so we have to pay to enter Afari territory. We also have to hire a local guide. We stop at a hamlet to do that. There are a few children playing outside.

The boys want us to take pictures of them and love looking at them in the camera.

This little girl is curious but very shy. I think she's beautiful.

We go inside one of the houses.

The entrance is so low you have to double over to enter. 

 At first we can’t see anything after the bright light outside but as our eyes adjust, we see a very basic cooking area.

This is what the Afar people use to make butter. It's made out of a baby goat. They shake, shake, shake it and voila - butter.

The vessel Gurum is holding is for milk. Apparently, if the Afari give you milk, that means you have their protection while you are in their lands. They did not give us milk. At the time, I wasn’t sure if that’s a bad thing because the Afari have a reputation for being fearless warriors.

An Afari guide named Mohammed joins us for the hike up the Erta Ale volcano. We drive through the desert and see fields of lava all around and the occasional camel.

It’s windy and our cars kick up so much sand as we drive that it’s difficult to see and we have to stop occasionally to let the sand settle, so we can continue without hitting the other cars in our group.

Soda apple - one of the few plants that grow in the Danakil desert, which unfortunately is very poisonous to both humans and animals. The Afari dry its stems and use them to make enclosures for their animals and fences for their houses.

We get to a small village and stop for lunch. There are no restaurants in the whole area, so the tour company has brought a cook.

The cook's name is Mandela and he makes sure we are well taken care of.

There are no proper stores where we can buy fruits and veggies either, so the tour company has to bring in everything - water, eggs, fruit, veggies, meat, gas, dishes, utensils, pots, pans, etc.

We eat and continue to the base camp for Erta Ale. Once there, we relax while the guides and local camel drivers prepare for our trek up to the volcano.

Loading the mattresses and the provisions we will need for the trek up, the night at the volcano and breakfast.

We start our four-hour trek to the volcano at 6:30 pm because it is ungodly during the day (45 C/113 F in the cool season), which means we have to trek in the dark. We are far from any town, so by 7 pm it’s pitch black out there and let me tell ya, hiking in the dark is hard and disorienting. We hike  over  lava rocks which are lumpy, uneven and often loose. It's hard to see where exactly you are stepping to ensure you have a firm footing. Mohamed, the guide, sets the pace and he's like a billy goat up the trail, while we huff and puff behind him. We are lucky we don't break our necks. We don't realize how steep/far we have hiked until we get down the next day.

We have to use head lights and flash lights to see where we are going. 

We get to Erta Ale at around 10:30 pm and are dead tired. There’s a large caldera, at the edge of which are some huts, where we will spend the night. Inside the large caldera there is a smaller one and that’s where the lava is. Our guides suggest we go down into the large caldera and right up to the lava. It’s insane but it's what we came for, so we follow them and get to about 10 -15 m from the lava.

The volcano had erupted big time the week before and had filled the large caldera, so we are walking on lava that’s about a week old and it’s very brittle. Walking on it feels like walking on ice, not knowing if it will hold your weight. The trick is to walk behind someone heavier than you. If they don’t fall in, then you’re probably OK. On a few occasions the lava cracks under my weight and I can feel the hot air rising from the cracks, which seems downright surreal but I am too tired to worry about how dangerous that is.

I wonder if my shoe soles are going to melt and while I do that, the volcano starts spurting bigger and bigger, so we have to run to avoid the lava reaching us. A tad unnerving…

We spend the night in huts made of loosely piled lava rock (picture taken the next morning). No door, no toilet, no shower, no power. There are cots, mattresses and sleeping bags, which came on the camels with us. I didn’t think we’d need sleeping bags but around 3 am a wind picks up out of nowhere and I have to get inside the sleeping bag. Someone says there were rats. I pass out almost instantly, so I don't see any but hang my hiking boots from the sticks on the roof of the hut, just in case.

We get up early, grab a cup of coffee and watch the sunrise over the volcano from the edge of the large caldera.

I can see people at the small caldera below and I want to go too but nobody else from our group is interested in going back down there after the close call the night before. I don’t want to go alone, so I have to settle for the rim view, which is pretty incredible.

Our camp at the edge of the crater. You can see the path going down to the small caldera inside the big one.

We eat a quick breakfast at the camp, which consists of cookies and instant coffee, while the guides pack our stuff for the trek down.

Because we are very close to the border with Eritrea (about 20 km), we have to have armed escorts - the boys in blue with the AK-47s, who look about 13 years old.

The way down from the volcano is easier than the way up. I am so glad I have my trusty hiking sticks though - without them, I would have definitely fallen more than once and sprained an ankle or two.

Back at base camp, we bid farewell to Mohammed, the Afari guide who ran us up the hill to Erta Ale. In the dark. And back down. He is not a big man, his legs are about as big around as my arms but his endurance is unbelievable. We are in decent shape but we all have a hard time keeping up with him. We have no common language, so communicating with him is interesting. It consists mainly of us begging him to slow down and/or give us breaks. He is a good sport though. 
Next stop, Dalol but to get there, we have to go over 12 km of lava fields, which takes more than 2 hours and is the worst road my butt has ever experienced.

We take a break at a part of the desert where there is water and lush green grass. I don’t know if it's technically an oasis but it's very beautiful and serene. I could have stayed there for a while but we have to get to our camp for the night.

Our second-night accommodations are more like what we are used to but a bunch of donkeys in the nearby village bray all night, making it hard to sleep.

We get up early the next morning to see the camel caravans of the village head to the Dalol salt flats.

We have breakfast and also leave for the salt flats.

Our armed guards ride on top of our cars today.
Driving through Lake Asal (salt lake) is fun but we have to drive slowly and carefully because salt on the bottom of your car is bad news.
We get to the salt flats, where the local men are already hard at work carving salt into rectangular blocks and loading them onto camels to take to market.

This is where Tara and I get into an unusual predicament.

Enter Ahmad, our Dalol guide. He used to work at the salt flats but has moved on to being a guide. He is showing us how the salt is carved into blocks. We are asking questions about the process. Then he hands me a block he has carved. But it’s big and heavy. I want a small piece as a souvenir, so I ask him to cut me a smaller piece. Tara wants one too. He obliges and gives us each a piece. Gurum, our guide from the tour company is like: "Are you sure?" "Do you know what this means?" We don't. To our amazement, he says: "You just married the guy!" Ooopsies!

I try my hand at carving salt into blocks. Turns out, I suck at it. I guess, I shouldn't quit my day job just yet.

We honeymoon at lake Asal. Tara is also there, of course – he is her husband too.

I try making a salt angel. It does not work as well as a snow angel but is substantially warmer.

At the salt flats with our guides and drivers. 
We head on to our next stop, the Dalol sulfur springs, which are only about a 20 min drive from the salt flats but in that short span of time the desert changes from snow white to rusty orange.

Up close the rusty red looks more like bright orange broccoli.
The springs themselves are on top of a hill and look like something from another planet. I had seen pictures of the place before and just assumed they were altered. That’s how crazy and psychedelic the colors are. I just can’t stop taking pictures.

Bright green, yellow and orange combine to create views that are hard to believe. Yellow = sulfur, red = iron, green = potassium. 
Looks so inviting, no? Don't be fooled - the liquid is an acid which will burn you, if you are foolish enough to go in. Apparently, a French woman disappeared in the area not too long ago. All they found of her were her bones. 

The sulfur is quite stinky, especially if you're downwind from a spring. After a while our eyes start watering and our faces sting. Danakil acid facial anyone?
Last but not least, we visit a salt canyon which might as well be a backdrop for a Star Wars movie.

If this was the only thing we saw that day we'd probably think it was really cool but we had already seen so much other amazing stuff that the canyon seems anticlimactic by comparison.
Exhausted and sweaty, we stop at a local dive for cold Cokes in the shade before heading back to Mekele and Addis. Did I mention it was 45 C/113 F outside?

And yes, it’s been a while since I went to the Danakil but the memories of it will stay with me forever. A trip like this is not easy to arrange and I can’t thank Gurum Worku and his crew with GETTS Travel for doing an outstanding job.

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