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december 31, 2003 -> No Mursi: Southern Ethiopia

The men had covered their black faces with ash. Most carried automatic weapons, slung over bare shoulders. The women were topless and had large wooden discs inserted into slits made in their lower lips. On younger women, the smaller discs stuck straight out, like an extended jaw. One old woman had a huge lip disc that hung straight down, and a pair of breasts that looked like pizza slices. Everyone had heavy jewelry and painted faces. They pinched, they poked, and they crowded around and shouted "Photo! Photo!" Everyone tried to sneak into our photos; they had to be physically separated from the desired subjects.

The Mursi tribe intended to intimidate tourists - to badger the shocked visitors into taking unwanted photos, at 2 Ethiopian birr per shot (about US$0.20) - and it worked spectacularly well. Within 15 minutes, the harassment had elevated to pre-riot levels and we rushed to the van for our escape. We looked at each other in disbelief. We had driven two-and-a-half days to see the Mursi, over horrible roads in blazing heat, and we weren't sure at all if it had been worth it.

Even before our Mursi encounter, the trip had seemed destined for disaster. In Addis Ababa, Nori and I had done two days of research, visiting a number of tour companies, comparing itineraries and pricing. But we still chose poorly. The company manager designed a program for us that bore no resemblance to what we asked for: the tour inexplicably included several nights in places where our driver/guide, Mike, admitted there was "nothing to do." We were also unimpressed by our vehicle, an '86 Land Cruiser with a banged-up body and a deteriorating interior. On the first day's trip, the vehicle broke down numerous times. If not for Mike's roadside repair-work, we would not have even reached our first destination.

We were traveling with Keir and Robyn, an American and Aussie, respectively, who both worked in Cairo at an international school. Their last posting had been in the Ivory Coast; they had to be evacuated when the latest coup convulsed the capital, Abidjan. They had also lived and worked in Panama, China and Korea. We got on well, and spent much of that trying first day telling traveling stories.

Post-Mursi, sitting in a tsetse fly-ridden camp in Mago National Park, sweating and cursing, we decided to take matters into our own hands. We had been lucky enough to meet a very experienced guide at the campsite next to ours. His suggestions were invaluable, so we asked Mike to have a talk with him before we left the next morning. From that point forward, the trip got much better, the tribes much friendlier, and our morale much higher.

The next morning, we drove south out of Mago - passing several waterbucks, a graceful gazelle and a family of startled warthogs. Just beyond the park boundary was a Karo village, a cluster of gumdrop-shaped huts above the Omo river embankment. The Karo are the least numerous of the Omo valley tribes; just 1500 remain. The Karo practice scarification, and make fetching jewelry from metal watch bands, nails, razors and old machine parts. The Karo wanted photos too, but there was no hostility. They let us wander through their village for a nominal fee. Now this was more like it.

As we continued further south through dusty country, we began to see people of the Hamer tribe. At one point, six young topless Hamer women ran into the middle of the track, singing and dancing in a particularly jiggly way, if you get my point. Mike was unphased, he hardly slowed as he veered around them. "Many Mursi in Turmi," he said. He was right. As we drove into Turmi, our base for the next few days, we passed dozens of Hamer women, incredible looking in their animal skins and ocher-daubed tresses.

Most trips to the Omo valley are scheduled to coincide with village market days. The Dimeka market - on Tuesdays and Saturdays - is the largest and most colorful. On the 30-km drive north of Turmi, we passed dozens of Hamer men and women heading to market, balancing large loads on their heads, or carrying gourds filled with butter, milk or tej (the national honey wine). It was amazing to see this earliest version of a 'market' economy.

A dusty square served as the marketplace. A few people had set up rickety stalls; most spread out cloths on the ground and squatted beside their wares. While some items are of interest to tourists (incised gourds, wooden headrest, beaded or cowried jewelry) most visitors are their to see the market-goers themselves. We sat at the edge of the market in the shade, and soon became invisible. The marketplace was filled with Hamer greeting and haggling, laughing and shouting. The women looked spectacular, with fresh, glistening ocher in their hair, heavy metal torcs around their necks and ankles, and beautifully beaded animal hides fastened about the shoulder by strings of cowrie shells. A second V-shaped animal hide hung from their waists. The scars of ritual were clearly visible on their sides as they walked past.

On our second day, we drove two hours southwest of Turmi to Kelem, a tiny settlement on the Omo river, not far from the Kenyan and Sudanese borders. We crossed the river in a tiny launch, preceded by a dozen village kids who roughhoused as they swam across. The Geleb village on the other side was fly-blown and shambolic, many huts 'thatched' with rubbish. The Geleb men press clay into their hair, painting bright patterns on the 'cap' once it hardens. The villagers were mostly apathetic, but a trio of sour-faced young girls insisted on taunting us as we walked back to the river.

Most village kids are friendly. In fact, Ethiopian children generally go crazy when they see foreigners. This "faranj [foreigner] frenzy" is cute at first, but quickly becomes annoying. Even kids half a mile away will suddenly erupt into spasms of hectic arm waving and yelling. Their favorite shout, which sounds somewhat hostile, is "You! You! You! You! You!" Once they have your attention, they normally follow up with one of the following:

"Give me Caramello [candy]!" "Give me pen!" or the very direct "Give me money!"

After Turmi, we drove back to Arba Minch, after overnighting in Konso. Arba Minch sits on a hill above two lakes that are separated by a mountainous isthmus known as "The Bridge of God." Beyond the isthmus is Nechisar National Park, a hidden plateau filled with zebras, gazelles and hartebeests. One afternoon, we drove to the southern lake and took a two-hour boat trip that took us past massive crocodiles (the biggest Nori has ever seen, bigger than in northern Australia) and a playful family of hippos. On another day, we drove into the mountains above Arba Minch and saw the amazing 'beehive' huts of the Dorze people.

The trip had started poorly, but we finished in high spirits and with new friends. Keir and Robyn dropped us off in Shashemene, the unofficial capital of the Rastafarians - on New Year's Eve. They were heading back to Addis Ababa, and would start a tour of the "Historical Route" soon. We were heading south to Kenya. We each had a beer to celebrate 2004, and then we crashed. We had a bus to catch at 5:30.