Skype Banned In Ethiopia, Punishable By 15 Years In Prison

A new law passed in Ethiopia has banned Voice Over Internet Protocol services such as Skype, Al Jazeera reports. Use of such services is punishable by large fines and up to 15 years in prison. The law was passed with little fanfare on May 24 but has only just become noticed by international media.

The government-owned Ethio Telecom has a monopoly on telecommunications but the country is filled with cybercafes where people can make low-cost phone calls over the Internet. Ethiopians complain that Ethio Telecom’s international calling rates are unaffordable and Internet calls are their only option. This move blocks such competition.

Another probable reason for the move is to quash internal dissent. Several ethnic groups such as the Oromo and Somalis have armed independence groups inside Ethiopia. These groups get support from abroad and so the government may be trying to cut their lines of communication and funding.

Use of the Tor Project online anonymity provider has also been banned.

Having spent several months in Ethiopia in 2010 and 2011, and being in regular contact with people in the country since, I can attest to the difficulty in using the Internet there. Service is slow, and sometimes gets cut off entirely when there’s a skirmish with one of the rebel groups or a meeting at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa. These cutoffs are invariably called “equipment malfunctions.”

Emails from abroad often don’t make it to people in Ethiopia. Those with business licenses always seem to get their email, but private citizens often don’t. Ethiopians have told me this is because of government security fears. Many people use Facebook for email because the government can’t block direct messages on the site. I myself have resorted to using Facebook for most of my communication with Ethiopian friends and colleagues.

And in case you’re wondering, our emails have nothing that could possibly be construed as a security risk. Emails about archaeology, historic preservation and simple hellos have gone missing. This is a shame because Ethiopia has a growing educated class that has a lot to say and is thirsty for contact and information from the outside world. Opening up the lines of communications could very well bring on an Ethiopian renaissance from which we’d all benefit.

Ethiopia’s government bills itself as a bastion of democratic stability in an unstable region and as an ally in the War on Terror, but laws such as this show that the current regime is anything but democratic.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

How To Put On A Travel Photography Exhibition

You got back from an amazing adventure travel vacation a few weeks ago. Your friends and family have heard all your stories and seen all your photos. Now what? Instead of tucking your photos away in an album or hard drive, why not show off your travel photography to a wider audience?

I’ve run two photography exhibitions and been in several more. My first exhibition was on the painted caves of Laas Geel in Somaliland. Right now my wife and I have an exhibition up about Ethiopia. We are by no means experts but we have learned a few things from the experience. The main thing is that putting on a successful photography exhibition isn’t as hard as you might think, although it does take a fair amount of organization. Here are some things to keep in mind.

You don’t need to be a pro
Here’s the secret to getting good photos: take lots of pictures of interesting subjects and some will turn out well. Look through your collection with a critical eye and have someone who hasn’t been to these places look with you. They’ll be looking at the shots with fresh eyes like your audience will. Take your photos at the highest resolution possible, 300dpi minimum, so they will be publication quality. A good photo shop will be able to turn your hi-resolution photos into lovely prints. This won’t cost much and you can get decent frames cheaply too.

Decide on a theme and purpose
It helps to have a coherent theme: wildlife, a certain historic site, etc. We’ve focused on Ethiopia’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites and children, Ethiopia’s past and future. Our show benefits A Glimmer of Hope, an NGO working on rural education. Having a coherent theme helps people grasp your subject better and a charity benefit tends to attract more attention.

Pick an appropriate venue
Not being superstar photographers, we picked a local bar here in Santander, Spain, that’s a popular hangout for artists, musicians and generally liberal-minded people who would be interested in photography about Africa. Our themes fit in with the general vibe. Bar Rubicón is a Santander institution and word gets around when they host an event. Putting your prize photos up in a bar may not seem very glamorous, but over a month-long exhibition they’ll get seen by lots of people.Think out size and spacing
How many photos do you want to exhibit? What’s the lighting like in your venue? Which are the most visible walls? Think all these things through ahead of time. It helps to bring a print in the size you want to display and take a look at it within the space. In my first exhibition, I made the mistake of printing the photos too small and they looked a bit lonely hanging on a big wall.

Make a snappy poster
I’m lucky that my brother-in-law, Andrès Alonso-Herrero, is an artist. He whipped up this poster in no time. Even if you don’t have access to someone with talent, it’s not too hard to make a poster with Photoshop or PowerPoint that highlights one of your photos and gives all the necessary information.

Send out a press release
Having worked for two small newspapers, I can tell you that editors are starved for interesting local content. The regional paper El Diario Montañés gave us a nice write-up and we made it onto several “What’s On” style websites as well. Be sure to write a clear press release with all the information and attach a couple of high-resolution photos they can publish. Try to write the press release like a newspaper article. Journalists are overworked, underpaid, and many of them are quite lazy. You’ll find that much of their coverage will be simply cut and pasted from your press release. Sad to say, much of the news you read is written this way. If governments and corporations benefit from it, why shouldn’t you?

Tell everyone
Email your friends, hang up posters, do a social media blitz. Get your friends to spread the word too. Don’t be shy; you want people to see your work!

While you have their attention …
You might as well mention any other projects you have going. In the press release I mentioned I had just come out with a novel and that made it into the newspaper coverage.

Host an opening party
On opening night, be there to meet and greet. It helps to have some sort of presentation. Since people will be coming and going it’s best not to have a formal speech at a set time. I’ve found that a slideshow running on a TV hooked to your photo archive works well. It goes on a continuous loop and shows everyone the photos that didn’t make it into the exhibition.
On our opening night, many people gathered around the slideshow and I gave them a running commentary of the places shown in the pictures. It also helps to have some music. There’s no local Ethiopian band that I know of (although there’s a West African band in Santander) so the bartender compensated by putting Ethiopian music on the sound system.

Don’t expect to make much money
Unless you’re a pro showing your photos at a major gallery, you’re not going to make much. If you break even you’re doing well. The point of showing off your photos isn’t the cash but the exposure. You’ll meet plenty of cool people and have the satisfaction of knowing your photos are hanging in people’s homes. Being relative newcomers in northern Spain, our opening night made us lots of new, interesting acquaintances. We’ll take any photos left over at the end of the month and give them away as gifts or hang them in our own apartment.

Most important of all … have fun!!!

A Journey To The Hottest Place On Earth: Dallol Ethiopia

No one travels alone to the hottest place on earth. You need, for starters, a driver and a Jeep stocked with water bottles and four days of non-perishable food. And because that Jeep is bound to sink in the fine sand of the desert, you need another Jeep (and another driver) to tug it out. There are no places to lodge or dine in this desert, so you’ll need space for cots, a cook, plus a few armed guards, because the hottest place on earth is also somewhat lawless. And finally, because an entourage of this size costs many thousands of dollars, you’ll need some fellow travelers to split the bill – the sort of people who like to fry themselves on vacation.

My father is the easiest recruit. Dad, who naps best roasting in the afternoon sun, is a lover of extreme heat. He’s also an extreme traveler, drawn to the fringes of places, all the countries where no one honeymoons. Alone, he’s wandered Rwanda, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan and Sierra Leone. From my father, I’ve inherited both tendencies: I’m known for getting pig-pink sunburns, and also for stalking the edges of maps.

The Danakil desert lies on the fringes of three maps – the maps of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti. All three countries claim a sliver of this sweltering, low-lying desert, named the cruelest place on earth by National Geographic. It’s also a tectonic triple juncture – three plates converge here – as well as a major volcanic hub. I don’t have to mention any of this to my father – not the endless salt flats, lakes the color of Listerine, or camels by the thousands. When Dad starts calling this desert “the Frying Pan,” I know he’s in.

On a message board, I find two more people to enlist – a concert pianist and a computer engineer. Both are keen on reaching the Danakil in early December – the mildest time of year in the cruelest place on earth.

%Gallery-156306%We don’t find Omer until the four of us converge in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. He’s leaning against the stone ledge outside our hotel, smoking, when my dad strikes up conversation. This pony-tailed Israeli man, with a dusty backpack and a unicorn tattoo, looks nothing like my grey-blonde, khaki-clad dad. And yet, when they get to talking travel, I feel like I’m watching long-lost brothers reunite. Sumatra, Annapurna, the Andes: the same extreme places have lured both men.

Their travel records are remarkably even (Omer, just like dad, almost drowned white water rafting on the Blue Nile), until Antarctica comes up. My dad only gazed in its direction from the tip of Argentina. Omer, however, touched the South Pole.

There’s a smile on my face when I ask Omer about the Danakil – why doesn’t he come with us? “I hate heat,” Omer shakes his head with conviction. We tease him that my dad will easily even their score by going to the hottest place on earth. Omer looks conflicted. Omer smokes a cigarette. Omer buys a ticket to Mekele at the airport the next morning.

If the Danakil desert is the basement floor of Ethiopia, Mekele is the top rung of the basement stairs. It’s where you pause to gear up – and group up – for this desert voyage. In Mekele, the five of us merge with a carpenter from Dublin, an ironworker from New Jersey and two Israeli girls, fresh out of the army. We fill five jeeps and have nothing in common but a love of travel, and a willingness to sweat for it.

The jeeps plunge down tan mountains for hours, mountains that feel primordial, perhaps because I know Lucy, the 3.2-million-year-old hominid, was unearthed near here, perhaps because civilization completely drops off. Every couple miles, we break for a flock of donkeys and camels strapped with thick tablets of salt, and the lone shepherd trailing behind his herd, wearing a Kalashnikov.

The Danakil, unlike highland Ethiopia, whose ancient churches and popular cuisine are drawing more tourists than ever, still wears a KEEP OUT sign. The heat, of course, is brutal. So, guidebook writers warn, are the Afar tribesmen. Legendary for their ferocity, the Afar no longer castrate outside visitors as they were rumored to in the early 20th century, but the Ethiopian government requires all travelers to hire armed guards. I’ll understand this measure better when news of a massacre in the Danakil makes headline news: five people are killed and four more kidnapped in the Danakil, just one month after we leave. And despite the Ethiopian government’s swift move to send more security forces into the Danakil, the region remains dangerous.

For now, I’m too focused on heat to weigh other dangers. The numbers on our Jeep’s temperature monitor continue to rise, even as the sun goes down. I remind myself, as we dip below sea level, that this is just a warm-up. The real heat won’t strike until we reach the sizzling edge of the frying pan, an uninhabited region, roughly 130 meters (426 feet) below sea level, called Dallol.

Dallol holds the record for average annual temperature: 94 degrees. It’s only advisable to visit Dallol in the early morning, before the sun has reached a critical height. So we camp in the nearby village of Hamed Ela, where camel caravans also spend the night. In the morning, the moon is hanging low on the pinky horizon when our guides get us in motion, into Jeeps, and off towards the Eritrean border.

Sand gives way to salt, and soon we’re in a landscape of white crystals glinting in the fresh morning light. The ground is miraculously flat. Our driver, who has been battling fine sand, cannot resist the urge to gun it. We surge ahead of the other cars in what looks like a Jeep race across some frozen Minnesota lake.

The wintry illusion is broken with a glance at my sweating dad. No one in our Jeep is shivering. I see sunburned calves, emptied water bottles, bites dotting our ankles. The overnight in Hamed Ela gave half of us fleas.

Suddenly, in the pure white expanse, a huge brown mound appears, rising like a cliff from the sea. It’s the only vertical mass in sight, and apparently, our destination. The jeeps brake and park. Nobody tells us this is a collapsed volcano; our guides are coaches in a race against heat, not docents. We’re ordered to find a full liter of bottled water, and to bring it with us up the lumpy brown mountain. Halfway up, I turn around and squint down at the Jeeps, now toy cars, their tire tracks a long S-curve in the vanishing horizon of salt and sand. At the summit, I find my travel mates standing in silent reverie.

Mind you, it takes a lot to hush these guys. Ultra-extreme travelers, they’ve never met people quite like themselves. Our trip feels at times like a Fringe Travel convention, with everyone spouting stories of remote places and “if you go” tips. Already, I’ve learned that the worst predator of the Amazon is the mosquito, that chimpanzees in bad moods will rip your face off, and that the very best way to do Sri Lanka is by elephant.

Dumbstruck now, my comrades crouch down beside pale green toadstools – mineral formations whose glossy tabletops are smooth as marble. It feels oddly like we’ve just walked in on something – a meeting? a moment? Whatever these green outgrowths are, they stop us cold, right at the doorway of Dallol. I see Omer creep ahead, still silent, towards a far more arresting vista.

The hottest place on earth is an assault of color: slime yellow and deep rust, pea green and Barney purple. Some of the formations look like coral reefs, others like egg shells, air-blown from the hot breath of the earth below. It’s a psychedelic plain of sulfur deposits, iron oxide crust, acid lakes, and tiny geysers that gurgle up steaming water. Everyone wanders off alone, crunching over the brittle earth, heads down, heads shaking.

I know the ground is hot – you can even hear the soft throbbing of water boiling underground – and yet I can’t help treating it like ice. A Buffalo native, I grew up skating on rinks and shimmying across slick parking lots. The ground here feels way too familiar to shake the fear that my feet will fall right through. Sure enough, just when I work up the nerve to step with force, the purple ground collapses beneath my foot. The sneaker I pull back out is rimmed in bright yellow goo.

Everywhere we step, things break and splinter. It sounds like a china shop, full of looters. This desert lends travelers so many chances to grasp its remoteness. You feel it in the sudden lime-green oasis of grazing camels, where no one else watches on; you feel it on the rim of the roiling volcano nearby, where nothing holds you back from the luminous caldera; and you feel it here, in this fragile masterpiece of sulfur and salt, where a day’s worth of tour buses would crush nature’s strange design. You start to think: we really shouldn’t be here. This desert wasn’t built to handle a human intrusion, and the human body certainly wasn’t built to handle this desert.

I feel hot, but not to a degree that alarms me. Only when I lift a hand to my chest and feel, beneath the soaked fabric of my t-shirt, collarbones like hot radiator pipes, do I understand what my body’s dealing with. Heat in Dallol doesn’t just beat down from the sun. It hisses up through conical vents, bubbles up in sulfur pools, and radiates from the thin ground with force. I get the feeling that this medley of heat is off the human register – mine at least. I’m not even thirsty. How is that possible? While I wonder, my dad hands me his liter of water and stands there until I finish it. We should go soon.

I see the armed guides – perched on the cliffs above us, their guns set into stark relief against the brightening sky – abandon their posts. The guides are corralling us. Time to go. As we clomp back down the mountain, there’s lots of talk of the moon.

“Patrick!” a guy who’s been to Kabul calls out to a guy who’s been everywhere else. “You don’t have to go to the moon now!”

When I think of the moon, I don’t see trippy colors, or bubbling geysers, or a trail of shattered crystals where past explorers walked. And I’ve never heard that the moon reeks of rotten eggs either. There’s nothing at all lunar about the hottest place on earth. What my travel mates are trying to say is that they’ve never been anywhere like this. For once, no one has comparisons. We’re all, regardless of our travel records, equally awed.

Back in the Jeeps, blazing towards the white horizon, I look down at my sneakers. The fluorescent goo has died and faded into a neutral grime, like that was all just some fever dream up there, a place we made right up.

Queen of Sheba’s gold mine discovered in Ethiopia

The gold mine of the Queen of Sheba has been discovered in Ethiopia, the Guardian reports.

A local prospector led British archaeologist Dr. Louise Schofield to a mysterious mine in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region. Schofield believes that this was the source of the Queen of Sheba’s fabulous gold, a large pile of which she gave to King Solomon when she visited the Holy Land, as is reported in the Old Testament, the Koran, and the Kebra Nagast, one of the holy books of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Sheba was probably the Sabaean Kingdom, a wealthy kingdom that included what is now northern Ethiopia and Yemen. It rose to power 3,000 years ago and controlled trade along the Red Sea, especially the profitable spice trade.

Inside the extensive mine, Schofeld found an inscription in Sabaean and a stele bearing a carved sun and crescent moon, the symbol of the Sabaean Kingdom. The remains of a temple and battlefield were found nearby. Schofield is planning to start a major excavation at the site.

This can only be good news for Ethiopia’s growing tourist industry. During a road trip around Ethiopia two years ago, I was stunned by the desolate grandeur of Ethiopia’s Tigray region. The main attractions are Axum, the ancient capital of a kingdom dating from 100–940 AD and considered by many to be a successor state to the Sabaean Kingdom, and Debre Damo, an amazing clifftop monastery that I had to climb up a leather rope to visit.

When I returned to Ethiopia a year later to live in Harar, I found that tourism had increased. Most of the visitors I spoke with said that Ethiopia’s history was one of the main reasons they came to visit, and the Queen of Sheba was often mentioned. While Ethiopia can be dangerous just like any other adventure travel destination, most regions are safe and I’ve had no trouble in the more than four months I’ve spent in the country. Going back is my number one travel priority this year.

Hopefully this latest discovery will help inspire more people to discover Ethiopia’s long history, friendly people, great food, and of course the world’s best coffee.

Photo of an Ethiopian painting of the Queen of Sheba on her way to meet King Solomon courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Tourists killed in Afar Region, Ethiopia

Five tourists have been shot dead in Ethiopia’s northern Afar region, the BBC reports.

Ethiopian State TV announced that the tourists were killed late on Monday by gunmen who had crossed over the border from Eritrea. It said they were part of an Afar rebel group trained by Eritrea.

The names and nationalities of the tourists were not released. Two other tourists were injured and are now in hospital. Another tourist escaped unharmed. The attack occurred near the active volcano Erta Ale, shown below in a photo courtesy Jean Filippo.

Details of the incident are still unclear. Al-Jazeera reports the attack happened at 5am Tuesday and that in addition to those killed, four people, including two tourists, were taken captive. Eritrea rejects the claim that they sponsored the gunmen.

Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a war from 1998 to 2000 and have never formally declared peace. Ethiopia says Eritrea backs numerous Ethiopian rebel groups in an attempt to destabilize Ethiopia. In 2009, the UN imposed sanctions on Eritrea for supporting Islamist rebels in Somalia and Ethiopia’s Somali region. Ethiopia’s border with Eritrea is heavily guarded, as I myself saw when I was there. The border region is also home to numerous large camps filled with Eritrean refugees fleeing what they say is an oppressive regime back home.

The Afar region attracts a steady stream of adventure travelers because of its rugged landscape and the reputation of being one of the hottest places on the planet. It has always been considered a lawless region and some Ethiopian tour operators I know refuse to go there.

This sad incident may have an adverse effect on Ethiopia’s growing tourist industry. This industry is bringing much-needed hard currency and foreign investment into the country and employs an increasing number of people. I have spent four months in the country, doing a road trip through northern Ethiopia and living in Harar, and never experienced any problems. Adventure travelers need to remember, however, that the level of safety in some nations varies widely depending on the region.

Map courtesy Dr. Blofeld.