National Geographic : 2013 Dec
out of eden 43 pair can be had for the equivalent of a day’s field labor. (Perhaps two dollars.) They are cool— permitting the air to circulate about the feet on the desert’s scalding surface. The ubiquitous sandals of rural Ethiopia weigh nothing. They are recyclable. And home repair is universal: Owners melt and mend the molded-plastic straps over wood fires. Our binary camel caravan—our two beasts are named A’urta, or Traded for a Cow, and Suma’atuli, Branded on the Ear—has been joined at last by its two long-lost cameleers, Mohamed Aidahis and Kader Yarri. These men caught up with us from our departure point at Herto Bouri, crossing miles of gravel pans and rumpled bad- lands during days of quickstep walking. In the manner of life here, no explanation was asked or given regarding the nature of their weeklong delay. They were late. Now they were with us. Each wore a pair of the region’s signature plastic sandals. Color: lime green. The dust of the Rift Valley is a palimpsest stamped by such footwear. Yet if Ethiopia’s pop- ulist sandals are mass-produced, their wearers are not. One man might drag his left heel. A woman might mar her right shoe’s sole by step- ping on an ember. Elema knelt the other day on the trail, ex- amining this endless mutation of impressions. “La’ad Howeni will be waiting for us in Dali- fagi,” he said. He pointed to a single sandal track. La’ad was waiting in Dalifagi. Near Hadar, Ethiopia We are walking in the direction of Warenso. The world changes when you are thirsty. It shrinks. It loses depth. The horizon draws close. (In northern Ethiopia the Earth butts against the sky, hard and smooth as the surface of a skull.) The desert tightens around you like a noose. This is the thirsty brain compressing the distances of the Rift, sucking in the miles through the eyes, magnifying them, probing them for any hint of water. Little else matters. Elema and I have trudged more than 20 miles through the crushing heat. We have sepa- rated from the cargo camels to visit an archaeo- logical site folded into a wrinkled draw: Gona, the location of the oldest known stone tools in the world. (Age: 2.6 million years.) Our water bottles are empty. We are uncomfortable, anx- ious. We speak little. (What can be said? Why dry the tongue?) The sun’s rays corkscrew into our heads. An Afar proverb: It is best, when you are lost or thirsty, to keep walking under the sun, because eventually someone will see you. To be tempted into shade, to drop under one of 10,000 thornbushes, means death: No one will find you. So we stagger on into the blinding afternoon—until we hear the faint bleating of goats. Then we smile. We can begin to relax. Goats mean people. Our hosts: an Afar family camped on a hill. Two strong, smiling young women. Eight chil- dren in thin rags that once may have been ar- ticles of clothing. And a very old woman—she doesn’t know her age—who hunches like a gnome in the shade of a reed mat. Her name is Hasna. She has been sitting there, weaving with spidery fingers, since the beginning of time. She invites us to join her, to rest our bones, to remove our shoes. From a battered jerrican she pours us water—chalky and warm, so salty, so alkaline, it oozes down the throat like soap, but precious nonetheless. She offers us a fistful of yellow berries from a wild tree that grows in wadis. She is our mother. When our ancestors wandered out of Africa 60,000 or more years ago, they encountered other species of hominins. The world was crowded then with strange cousins: homo neanderthalensis, homo floresiensis, the Denisovans, and perhaps other varieties of people who weren’t quite us. When we met them, perhaps like this, on the world changes when you are thIrsty. It shrInks. It loses depth. the desert tIghtens around you lIke a noose.