The Hamer tribesman and me, on the road to the Lower Omo Valley.

The Hamer tribesman and me, on the road to the Lower Omo Valley.

Living in joyful anticipation of the next juicy experience, is how I roll. My soul food is running in new places, having my heart and all six or more senses opened in the process.

The long car ride to Arba Minch on the second day of our Ethiopian journey left no time for moving at the speed of runner, so I had to delay my gratification until day three. Giant downloads of sensory information, worth stories in and of themsleves were obtained in the interim. We took an early morning boat ride on Lake Chamo to see the world’s largest crocodiles in the shadow of the bridge of the Gods, witnessing daring fishermen on small wooden rafts carry out their mission to get their catch for the day. I gave bread to playful and determined blue balled monkeys on the shore, one of whom gave me a small cut on my hand to remember him by. I enjoyed my first Ethiopian coffee from a woman on the side of the road. We sat on small stools at a low table, incense burning, as she roasted the beans, ground them and filtered them to make a most wonderful, hot drink. While we waited, we enjoyed the gentle sound of music floating from a small radio she had and felt a warm breeze pick up, as the rising sun reached the hills around Arba Minch, the city of Forty Springs.

As the third full day of driving ticked by, with thousands of human and animal faces going by in a 65mph blur, I was getting antsy to get out of the car to feel the earth beneath my feet and experience the dance of oxygen and carbon dioxide between my lungs and the environment.

On a long stretch of desolate, two lane paved road with a desert-like landscape stretching on both sides to rocky hills in the distance, I asked our guide Fitretu if we could stop for a pee break. “Why not” he said. Excited about my liberation from the back seat, I darted off into the bush, going further than I needed to for privacy, just to sneak in some extra movement. When I stopped by a tree and stood still, just to feel the intense dry heat and tune in to the surroundings, I heard soft voices and the sound of cow bells. I squatted down and got a shot of adrenaline as I caught  a glimpse of two heads, wrapped with white bands and ears carrying hoop earrings, bobbing just above the top of  a little mound between us.. I remained squatting longer than I needed, to avoid surprising them. I felt so happy and excited; this was my first ever sighting of “primitive” people.

I flew back to the road and found Glen, Fitretu and our driver Ndale standing next to the land cruiser talking. Glen asked: “wanna run?” “Really?” I looked at Fitretu to double check and again he agreed: “why not.” I don’t believe he’d ever had a guest ask to run once, let alone two days in a row, so this was new territory for him.

Even better, Glen was going to run with me; I was excited to share with him the technicolor memories which running made possible. We took off and the land cruiser was to follow behind. The heat was intense, but the dryness made it feel good. It was dead silent and there were no people on the road. After two days of driving in which we saw thousands of humans and animals on the roadsides at all times, we wondered what the chances were that we’d see neither in over five minutes of running.

Glen ran with me for about ten minutes, then said he was done, but encouraged me to go on. I double checked with Fitretu and he gave me his validating “why not; maybe ten more minutes.” I dashed off, to make the most of every second. I was running tempo pace or faster. I didn’t want to look at my watch; the sound of the car would signal the end of my bliss, so I ran as fast as I could and opened my pores, to be the best “sponge” I could be and soak it all in. Luckily, the road began to wind as it ascended and I lost sight and sound of the land cruiser, allowing me to indulge in the feeling of being alone. Still, there was not a soul in sight on this road which was beginning to feel more like a canyon, with a high rock wall on my left side and a dry creek bed on my right. As my consciousness shifted into the zone, I saw a tall thin man, dressed in dark shorts and a jacket, walking slowly along the road ahead of me. In one hand was his Hamer* headrest, a small wooden object curved perfectly to cradle the cranium and support the cervical vertebrae in lying, or to hold the ischial tuberosities (butt bones), when sitting. Adrenaline  shot through me again, at this novel sight. As I got closer, I slowed down and moved to the opposite side of the road so I didn’t surprise him. As I passed him,  I turned, smiled and waved. At first, he found me to be as out of place as I found him to be, and he didn’t know what to make of me. When I noticed his eyebrows slowly lift and felt his curious stare, I slowed even more, made solid eye contact, waved and smiled again. This time he reciprocated and, satisfied that as a flying female faranji* I had left a good impression, I flew on.

*”Faranji” is the name Ethiopians give to foreign looking people, especially white people.

I heard the land cruiser coming and accelerated, not wanting the magic to end. They caught me and told me to get in. When I stopped, I walked in circles to catch my breath and keep the hot air circulating, so the rivers of sweat pouring off of my forehead didn’t blind me. I asked for some toilet paper to “milk the clock” and go for another pee break. Our driver Ndale smiled as he handed me the roll behind his seat. I ran back on the road a bit, searching for a good place to be discreet and discovered a well-used footpath leading into the bush. What had seemed like a land with no inhabitants, when I slowed and observed my surroundings, was covered with signs of civilization. As I squatted under a giant tree I looked up and saw ten bee hives, shaped like djembe drums, resting on branches, way up. The thrill of feeling like an explorer, discovering things for the first time, electrified me; I was grinning ear to ear, so energized that I felt as if I was breaking the world 100m record as I sprinted back to the land cruiser.

When I got there, Ndale was standing next to his side of the land cruiser talking in a tribal language to the man I’d seen. I was so thrilled to get a chance to see this mysteriously strong, elegant man up close and to feel his energy, that I stared at him, my heart pounding, like a star struck groupie waiting in line to get the autograph. Fitretu motioned for us to get rolling – we had a long ways to drive – and I begged for time for a quick photo. As the man and I positioned ourselves for Glen to snap a shot with my Iphone, I stared at his strong feet in sandals made from strips of old tires, the treads themselves making the soles. My entire nervous system was humming with excitement, as I placed my arm around his narrow waist and my hand felt his lean, muscular back. It was as hard as bone, but pulsing with aliveness; his energy felt dense and peaceful, like the boulders I find to rest on when I’m hiking in the high country of Colorado. This man was vibrating at a frequency as enduring and gentle as the light from stars which take thousands of years to reach us.

He gently uttered a sound which Glen understood as a request for money for the picture. I dove into my money belt and was about to give him one hundred bir ($5.00) Glen said “don’t” and gave him five bir (25 cents) – much more in line with what they expect.

He reached out his hand to receive the money and took it without “taking;” his hand and his soul were like a deep well.

I wanted to hug him and decided to restrain myself. I held out my hand to embrace his in a gesture of thanks and when his palm met mine, I wrapped my other hand around his, feeling it’s strength and thick, sand papery skin. When we let go of our hands, he raised his left one and pressed it to his heart, gazing into my eyes as the skin of his bony face stretched across giant, high  cheek bones into a smile. I gazed back and pressed my left hand to my heart, relishing this moment in another dimension of reality; it was as if his eyes were stars and the light emanating from them, reaching us in that moment of time, had taken millions of years to arrive.

Using the Hamer headrest. Photo: Glen Delman Photography

Using the Hamer headrest.
Photo: Glen Delman Photography

The sound of the land cruiser starting jolted me out of this beautiful trance and I turned and hopped into the seat behind Ndale. I hung my upper body out the window and stared back for as long as I could, watching his body turn into a mirage from the heat rising off the pavement.