It’s been five years to the day since I snapped this photo hanging out of the window of a white Land Rover. Yes, I know I’ve written about this photo before, but wow, it’s one of those stunning images that stays with you no matter what. Of course I had no idea how terrible 2007 would end up being—nor did I realize how lonely and difficult the trip in Ethiopia would be—but this day offered both promise and excitement (some in the form of Qat).
My mental map of Ethiopia, up to this point, was largely formed by Band-Aid and the famine in the eighties. I expected rocks and semi-arid plains. Thomas, my driver, and I drove up over the mountains ringing Addis Ababa watching little old ladies carry impossible burdens of sticks on their backs, many of whom end up permanently hunched over late in life from such labors. We came down the backside of the hills into a wonderland of round thatch-roofed huts, thick trees and boys playing soccer with tightly wrapped balls of leather strips, straight from the cows that they herded the year before. The dirt was intensely red and warm, the bark of trees almost gray and the leaves a bright rippling green in the soughing wind, but the main south-north highway was, and would remain, dirt and dust.
The road and the landscape continued straight and flat until a great abyss opened up.
“Aha,” I thought incorrectly, “this is why Ethiopia was once called Abyssinia.”
This was the Nile gorge, a mighty chasm. If Africa is the land of horizons, none is so great as that halfway down the gorge where clouds streamed overhead and the rays of light are visible between them like a surrealist masterpiece. A lone green bus drove upwards far away across the gorge. Further and further down into it we drove, switchback after switchback after switchback along the river-carved cliffs composed of a geometrically shaped volcanic rock—like long parallelograms stretching out a hundred feet. And then, abruptly the shapes melted into waves, rolling in from the ocean and finally flat nothingness only occasionally pockmarked betrayed 70 million years of geology from the rimrock of the gorge to the alluvial bed at the bottom. By the time we reached the valley floor the elevated coolness of highland plains gave way to an almost equatorial African heat, blasts of warm air coming in from the windows, sweat beading on my temples.
The road rose quickly out of the canyon and the cool air returned as we sped across the golden plains of Amaharaland—the core, the home of Ethiopian Christianity and its dominant ethnic group. Beehive shaped piles of tef, Ethiopia’s staple cereal crowded out the view of blue skies and parched white clouds. We stopped and bought some Qat, had lunch and then ate the Qat as the road chewed up the miles. My euphoria rose and Aster Aweke played on the radio. Songs from a strange continent, syncopated and eerily enjoyable.
There they were: two boys, shepherds of old with crooks, smiling and singing to their sheep. An almost biblical scene washed in outrageous color, green, gold, tan, ruddy, white clouds and blue skies. Was I dreaming? Was it the qat?
No, I wasn’t dreaming and it wasn’t the silky thoughts emanating from the alkaloid.
A moment in time—a snapshot—but one that has stuck with me, enduring so many more adventures and trials and joys. Few have overshadowed that moment and I doubt few ever will.