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.
1 | Part 2