We awoke at 4:30 am to drive from Mekele to the Danakil. Along the way, our head lights periodically illuminated short lines of camels being prodded along by their drivers the opposite way in the darkness. How long does it take to travel from the salt fields to Mekele on foot–without even moonlight to guide the way?
As we descended into the subterranean basin, the sun rose like a warm whisper through a dense low-lying fog. Before us, a flat plain spread out like the surface of a moon, almost entirely barren. Within a few miles, the brown earth turned chalk white – an expansive bed of salt. In front of us a camel caravan stretched to the horizon. Our cruiser altered its course to align itself with the train’s trajectory, and we headed toward the edge of a shallow sea. Here the camels paused briefly before heading across to the appointed harvesting site.
We took this opportunity to stop, stretch our legs and witness the migration first hand. As they proceeded past, I suppressed my instinctive desire to pull out my cellphone or camera and just start snapping pictures. To do so would be the epitome of rudeness and would be a poor way to start a conversation. Instead, I grabbed my Polaroid, and through our interpreter, I asked a couple of young men passing by if they would like to have their picture taken. I didn’t initially realize that the natural development time of a Polaroid creates the perfect awkward pause where you can work toward making a human connection.
When I first approached these two men, they seemed rather intense and brooding, which for me was a bit intimidating. When they stood for their portraits, they each gave a purposeful grimace. It struck me almost immediately that it was partly swagger as I watched my subject being cajoled by his traveling mate. And at that moment I had a brief glimpse of the full breadth of their psyches. Warmth, humor, camaraderie and even vulnerability all expressed in an instant.
Soon we had to depart the caravan for the unearthly sites and complex geology that the Danakil is known for: the hydro-thermal fields, boiling, chemical-filled lakes and volcanic landscapes. Late in the afternoon after seeing places and things I could only imagine on some distant planet.
We had made our way to back onto the salt pan and arrived at the area where the salt was being collect during that time of the year. Camels and their herdsman dotted the scenery. Many of the camels were asleep or quietly resting while the men labored with elemental tools to carve out their blocks of salt from the hardened landscape.
I wandered the scene with my cohorts somewhat dazed, trying to process all the wonders I had seen in such a brief period of time. My stupor was soon interrupted when I heard my friend calling my name to excitedly relay that a couple of the miners were looking for the “Ferengi” (Foreigner) with the Polaroid in hopes of having their picture taken! News travels mysteriously and fast in this strange land. Off I went, camera in hand, nervous and excited to meet new friends.