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Alone on the Edge of Time
By Alisha Laramee

Part 1 | Part 2

In these mountains there are bone chilling temperatures at night and scorching days—the effects of being relatively close to the equator. Somehow these physical challenges are more easily dealt with than the emotional challenges. It’s early enough that the morning mist and fog have not been heated enough to rise and disappear. The sole hiking trail follows the edge of a plateau overlooking rugged obstacles of pinnacles, mesas and water-eroded canyons. I am grateful for the remaining wide open spaces that seem so rare. Soon a hot haze will filter the vibrant colors of the burnt earthen tones in the valleys below. I choose to remain high, here in the mists, rain showers, and occasional snowfalls. It is cleansing here.

Back on the trail, a lammergeyer appears circling the dome shaped cliffs above me, and despite its seven- and-a-half-foot wingspan, it disappears momentarily in front of the sun and my eyes squint to see it reappear. This magnificent bird, also called the “bone crusher,” takes the bones from a kill and drops them onto rocks to break them open and eat the marrow. The lammergeyer screeches and the sound echoes and bounces in the natural amphitheater.

I make camp at almost 12,000 feet. Shadows from a waxing gibbus moon are visible and a cool breeze begins to blow from the higher mountains surrounding Ras Dashen. Jackals surround the tent minutes after I settle into my sleeping bag, and their screeching calls crescendo and vibrate off the cliffs that surround camp. Curious hungry noses sniff under the vestibule and I smile knowing how close they are to me.

In the middle of the night I awake to a silence I don’t recognize. How can silence seem unrecognizable? In the silence I begin to understand what has been causing my fear and uneasiness about this expedition: I feel alone. Though there are people around me each day, and the expedition is amazing, I still feel separate from my surroundings—both the people and the land. There is disconnectedness. Feelings of calm and pain make up my solitude. As I lay in my sleeping bag I seek shelter and comfort in my thoughts of friends and family and those far off places they live, and I remember back to a conversation I had during one of my first days in Ethiopia.

As I was buying incense in a market, an Ethiopian man asked me if I was lonely. At first I didn’t understand what he meant. Was this a proposition, or did I look lonely? When I asked what he meant, he repeated the same “you lonely” phrase and added, “no friend with you?” He wanted to know if I was traveling by myself. The answer was yes, I am both lonely and traveling by myself. I allow this realization to enter into my stomach. I decide to embrace the fear.

Early the next morning in the mist and fog I come quietly upon a troop of about 200 gelada baboons, also known as the bleeding heart baboons because of the females’ scarlet chest during estrus. They’ve moved from their overnight cliff beds to the daytime feeding grounds amongst the rough short grasses. Brono explains through a series of broken words mixed with hand gestures that despite the males’ regal long hair and big body, the females are in charge. The troop is not shy and allows me to sit within ten feet to watch them play, pick grass, and groom each other. These baboons are endemic to the Simiens, and though they are not endangered, there is a significant loss of habitat due to increased human impact.

Late in the afternoon I come across a small community of farmers. A man sits under a tree weaving Ethiopia’s traditional white cloth. He smiles and invites me into his home for a coffee ceremony, an Ethiopian daily ritual. The highlands of Ethiopia are said to be the birthplace of coffee, so I graciously accept the offer to share with them. The weaver’s wife hears of my arrival and is already heating some roasted barley for us to share while we wait for the coffee. Quietly the woman roasts the coffee beans over a pit fire that burns on the dirt floor. By using a mortar and pestle she grinds the coffee by hand and places the crushed beans in a pot of boiling water. After several minutes the coffee is removed and poured into our porcelain cups to begin the first of three rounds of drinks called Abol, Tona and Baraka, respectively.

The coffee ceremony reminds me of expeditions with NOLS in Mexico, Patagonia and Kenya, when for a little while the world became small again. What do I gain from being by myself in an unfamiliar country with unfamiliar faces? I make friends quickly. I engage in conversations that last all day. I combine cultural interactions with long hiking days to satisfy the happy duality that exists in my heart—people and places. And I validate my belief that there is solace in open spaces, and solace in people.

The night turns to silence; a silence I don’t always realize still exists in the world, particularly in a vast and beautiful continent ravaged by hundreds of wars at a time. Perhaps the noise from the wind is visiting the snows of Kilimanjaro. The Simien fox might be in the next valley searching for a dinner of small rodents. Even the birds have flown off, presumably to spend the night in a place that can never be reached on foot and that I will never see. So, I sleep here.

I awake in the morning while the sky is dark and the silhouettes of the mountains cast shadows on the tent; when the stars and planets still glow and frost covers the fly. I start my day while I can see my breath and the moisture from my breathing dampens my sleeping bag; and the temperature drops to its lowest degree just before the sun crawls out of the Red Sea, slides across Somalia and Djibouti, climbs into the highlands, and finds me here, near the edge of a cliff, near the edge of time suspended. Still asleep on the small ledges of the cliff wall beneath me are the gelada baboons, and at the base of the cliff is a solitary male walia ibex eating a patch of grass.

I am exactly where I ought to be, in a nylon tent next to a stream, in the Ethiopian Highlands on the continent of Africa.

After five years as a NOLS instructor in Kenya, Alaska, Patagonia and Mexico, Alisha Laramee is on a new expedition in life, this time in the front country of the east coast.

Part 1 | Part 2

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