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Ethiopia, Journal III — I Need a Bath

Disclaimer: The following are personal accounts of my travels the last month and represent my own opinion based on experiences and observation. By no means do I suggest that hygiene is unimportant nor unnecessary. The references to the history of bathing were garnered from websites and though surely there is far more information out there, the anecdotes shared offer a glimpse into a fascinating realm of life we most often never think about. This is a non-scientific study.

Preface

Indian Summer day’s spent in the backyard of our home on Pratt Boulevard in Chicago or after the age of 9, climbing through genip trees with my friend, Andy Adams, in the Bahamas, I would easily return home coated in sweat, dirt and disgust, never pondering whether a bath was necessary nor desired.

My mother (in a heavy Viennese accent) would always utter in sheer disgust:

“SCHWEINHUND!”

No idea why there's a coconut on my head, but I sure remember playing hard in that Bustedfinger t-shirt and those mode Bay City Rollers shorts. Photographed by my mother in the backyard of our home in the Bahamas, 1973.

Direct translations — “PIG-DOG!”

I was often called a Schweinehund.

Playing was my job.

Bathing, only a notion in the inconsequential rhythms of childhood.

Which brings us to today.

The last month — more specific, the past 43 days in Ethiopia while on assignment for National Geographic — my mother’s voice resonate incessantly in the internal dialogue any time a rare reflection exposed me:

“Look at you, covered in dirt! Look at your clothes! Stink to high-heaven! John, go take a bath — you’re a SCHWEINHUND!!”

 

Photography and Bathing

On many photo assignments, we often don’t have daily access to bath. Having covered more hard news and wars than my heart cares to recall, such deeply emotional events end up being periods of time where survival is principal. Food and water, secondary. Shelter measured by floorspace. Bathing, occasional.

For my naturalist colleagues at National Geographic, brilliant photographers like Michael “Nick” Nichols, Tim Laman, Steve Winter, Paul Nicklen, Christian Ziegler and so many others, bathing must also be inconsequential — these photographers live for weeks in the bush or on floating icecaps to enlighten all of us to care and sustain the natural world around us. Accessibility to use a bar of soap is surely equivalent to that of hygiene opportunities while documenting conflict; It will happen when it happens.

In reality, animals will repel from photographers if cloaked in a bouquet of chemicals so why bother.

A sniper couldn’t sniff the stench of Irish Spring (a brand of American soap) from a few meters away, let along care. You’re only in their sites, hoping they have poor aim.

More distinct, conflict photography thrusts in motion waves of endorphins, allowing to overcome your dearth of cleanliness — days (and nights) are connected to getting home alive.

I’ve gone long periods without bathing while covering revolutions and war, rarely perceiving my filth, torn clothing nor repugnant stench.

Back in 2005 I did a story for National Geographic on Malaria. We went to five countries for this project — Peru, Zambia, India, Tanzania and Kenya. By far the most uniquely challenging was urban malaria in India. Here wandering through the streets of my favorite city, Kolkata. If I do remember correctly, there was access to a shower later that night, thankfully. Photograph Courtesy of Anil Chandra Roy

Keeping distracted via the power of opiate receptors hasn’t worked on this assignment for National Geographic in the Horn of Africa when it comes to bathing.

This story is not a fast breaking news event or a story occurring in a city or town. It’s a continuous journey where my task is to present a narrative based upon a span of time that is 59,850 years older than photography. Throughout this fascinating process, I’ve walked over 50 miles (80 kilometers) through deserts and ancient lava fields, driven over 7,000 miles (11,260 k) on nonexistent roads, doing both in an ever present cacophony of heat and dust.

Abundantly sweating is the norm.

Expanses of time to mull limitless potent — and nonsense — abound.

None of this is difficult. Rather, it simply goes with the job.

Exposed over the previous 43 days in this rather unique wandering (where the nearest hotel or even water is hundreds of miles away), an entirely experimental process occurred which inspired this story. A tale of truth wrapped around human existence, history, a forgotten reality and yes, a bit of photojournalism.

I hope you will be enthralled, as I have, to realize that at times, we all stand before the mirror of our ancestors, our great grandmothers and grandfathers of roughly 2,500 generations past, when they walked 60,000 years ago out of the Afar region of what is today, Ethiopia — not carrying a bar of soap.

 

Afar

Traveling overland since early January in the remotest, most inaccessible regions of Ethiopia — the spectacular Lower Rift Valley of Africa — has been an character altering experience.

More specific, this nonstop journey has taken place in a region of The Rift known as Afar. This area is populated mostly by pastoralist nomads.

My favorite time of day while living amongst the Afar's was when the livestock would return back to the village from grazing. An epic event rarely seen anymore in our modern world of cattle farming and processed foods. The dust these goats toss up is right out of a film, of course you become coated in it.

Afar could be viewed as a nation uniquely its own. Afari’s have a completely different language, incomprehensible to their Ethiopian sisters and brothers. Entirely different customs and history.

Due to invisible lines which most often segregate rather than unite — borders — a vast majority of the Afar people (well over 1.5 million) call home an extensive portion of an already extremely diverse nation called Ethiopia (formerly known as Abyssinia). Afar is roughly the size of the both the U.S. states of North and South Dakota. Maybe larger. And the Afar diaspora stretches well beyond only Ethiopia, spreading deep into both Eritrea and Djibouti.

A key element lacking in this part of the world is the one item which no human can live without.

 

Water

As astounding as this landscape has been, existence is mixed with a heaping toll of suffering for the inhabitance of Afar due to water scarcity.

An Afari elder recently told me something dreadful began 20-30 years ago (think climate change) — rain no longer falls.

In one village, Sudumta, I stumbled upon over 50 men, heads bowed to the ground towards a dried riverbed. Coincidence or sheer divine intervention, the exposed floor of the river and their prostration of reverence was in the direct trajectory of Mecca.

They were praying for rain.

Not a drop of water had fallen from cloudless skies in well over a year.

Desperation and God is all that was left.

It's so dry in the Afar region, sand tornadoes are a regular occurrence.

What little water does exist in this part of the Lower Rift comes from holes, 10 ft (3 meters) deep. Levels of liquid are so negligible, a thin pan is deftly scrapped across wet dirt, daubing mouthful-amounts of silt-brown liquid into a slightly larger container — a repurposed jerry can that once contained cooking oil.

This modest amount of liquid is their only drinking water.

Using such scant recourses for bathing would be inconceivable.

 

Supplies

Let me preface a earnest dose of reality — I DO like to bath!

Long gone are the days when Andy (my across the street neighbor on the island of Nassau) and I could play till soiled beyond recognition.

Knowing such water scarcity was the tragic norm in this part of Ethiopia, we did carry our own jerry can’s of water upon the roof of the LandCruiser, used (and only enough) for cooking.

Melesse, the driver, on the roof getting fuel. On the left are two jerry cans for water which were used for cooking and cleaning dishes. Remaining part of the roof rack held two spare tires. The interior of the LandCruiser was chockablock of sleeping gear and camera kit, with barely enough vision for going in reverse.

Transporting enough water for 3-4 people to bath — Yonas Abiye (Ethiopian translator), Melesse (driver), Habibi and Indris (Afar guides) and myself — would require a small tanker in tow. Completely impractical.

What additional water we did carry was bottle water and those too were often in short supply.

Bathing quickly became crossed off any known To Do list for days.

Even weeks.

 

Evolution

When bathing water was available, it primarily manifested at grimy hotels frequented by truck drivers which incessantly ply the main artery that links Ethiopia to the outside world: The Port of Djibouti. Such brilliance liquid access occurred three or four times in the last month.

As disgusting to those of us living in the developed world might take the next phase in this narrative, you will be astonished to know that our bodies were never designed to be bathed as often as we do today.

Here begins an experiment, one which wasn’t by choice, rather a natural evolution brought upon by environmental changes (lack of rain):

Most of the land near to lakes looks as this, cracked and dried due to a year without rain. Somehow I lost my Merril hiking shoes, having to use a pair of Croc's and a pair of dress shoes. Both shoes are now ruined.

Day 1: Fresh clothing. Hair and skin are clean. You feel nearly buoyant.

Day 2: Clothing has received a few stains — gravity is not my friend when eating — and though no longer as buoyant, a sweaty shirt, trousers, and yes, the same underwear, don’t seem all that dreadful to keep using, knowing even if you did change clothing, within minutes you’d be covered in Afar dust, so why bother.

Day 3: Only by day three do you begin to sense (from our developed nation mindset) that physical needs might be going awry. Disgust manifests, yet you keep a forward presents, knowing once again that donning anything clean would not solve the problem due to daily dust storms and relentless heat (I don’t travel with more than 3 changes of clothing and a few extra underwear).

Within a few days a shirt is soiled, forming shapes and patterns I never thought possible.

Day 4 and 5: One’s will becomes tested. Clothing by this time is completely covered in grim, dirt, food stains. Perspiration causes your outerwear (and inner) to conform to your torsos. Frustration turns to giddiness in this state of disrepair. I began considering the only remaining clean clothing as precious items to conserve — they were all I have left.

Day 6-10: Here began the unique part of this unorthodox, unplanned, process of human understanding — once I reached day 7, 8 and definitely day 10, the notion or more so, the need for a bath evaporates – both from my consciousness and torso. It’s not that you become unreceptive to your hygiene condition — thank goodness there were few mirrors where I’ve been the last month. Rather, a natural occurrence happened; My body began to self-clean. The sweating pores of my skin — and I will stress again, continual sweating pores — began to push out, then off, most of the grim build up. Yes, clothing at this point is reaching a state of ruin, however my skin no longer smelled. Only the clothing did. Airing shirts/trousers/underwear on a tree limb each night before donning a slightly less soiled t-shirt and shorts to sleep in, the following morning my skin smelled fine. The hanging clothing, fused stiff on the tree, is what repulsed.

A great evening's rest was had while sleeping in the tent on the grounds of a small restaurant in Dalifagi. Now by around day 10, my clothing (hanging in the tree) became sculpted works of art designed by gravity, fused by sweat.

Day 11 and 12: Just shy of two weeks, or 12 days to be exact, I became completely one with my new self. My shirt and trousers from REI were now defiled by the harsh conditions of the Afar region, appearing as shop rags in a garage rather than material to be worn by humans. Yet astonishingly enough, my skin was relatively clean and didn’t smell. By some natural process that clearly we’ve forgotten we possess, the rancid notion of filth wasn’t so much about me — sure, I didn’t smell like a Lancôme counter in a department store — but rather, the outerwear. We seemed, by my unscientific study of self, to have built-in self-cleaning systems, which clearly evolved from millennia’s of basic environmental conditioning. No question, there was surface layers of dirt on all parts of my body, yet large areas that were once coated in dust and grime, a day or two later could be no longer seen. This had to have been caused by my natural body sweat because I never had access to water nor ever pulled out a towel.

After 12 days with no access to water for bathing, I was surprised the fine folks at the Harmony Hotel allowed me in the door. Here on a brief trip back to Addis Ababa for a new (third) car, it felt mighty strange to bath and shave.

When I did finally bathe on or around day 12 (there have been two-cycles of 12 day non-bathing travel), it felt exhilarating yet at the same time, offsetting.

Which made me wonder; Were we humans actual bathers 60,000 years ago when walking out of Africa?

Did we bathe 10,000 years ago?

2,000 years past?

Did my great grandmother and great grandfather bathe in the late 1800′s?

Now ensconced in the first (somewhat) legitimate hotel in well over a month — the mildly renovated, Hotel Dar es Salam, located in the heart of Djibouti City, Djibouti — I had to do the research.

 

Reality

For those of you who have a clean-self fetish, brace yourself —

We humans rarely ever bathed until just 100 or so years ago.

Here with a brief overview on the history of human bathing:

"The baths at Louèche," by Hans Bock the Elder 1597 — Interesting how painting during this time only showed the lovely scenes of life (or religion, war, etc) but little on how the general population lived.

10,000 – 60,000 years ago — From the origins of our collective beginnings in Africa (yes, we are all African), very little information exist from this era regarding bathing. An article in the New Scientist has shown that Neanderthals may have learned how to sail or float across seas far sooner than humans, however the chances of Neanderthals caring about bathing would likely be nil. After walking and driving through much of our collective humanities original existence the last 40+ days, water, 60 millenniums ago, was nowhere near as scarce as it is today in Afar, Ethiopia, However observing the landscapes (from a relatively decent knowledge of geology), I could surmise fairly accurately that potable (drinkable) water was not abundant here at anytime in the last 1-2 millions years. There is evidence that fresh water existed but most are now dried lake beds. What was odd is how Afar people today do not actually live next to water sources. There are a few lakes (one very large and very close to where we began this walk in the small village of Herto Bouri), but no one seems to live next nor near to them. Such a practice of living so far from water might mirror our relatives of 60,000 year-old who also may have chosen to live away from large bodies of water (unable to swim or afraid of large animals such as hippos and crocodiles?), seeking potable water either by only walking great distances or finding water in shallow wells and streams. Today, most of the nomadic Afari’s choose to live 1-3 miles (1.6-4.8 kilometers) walk away from the nearest water source. Is this due to disputes with neighbors over water rights, making sure no one group of people have greater access to precious water over another? I could never get a meaningful answer from the countless Afari’s I asked on this topic. This lack of access to water is an misfortune and suffrage for millions around the world. My friend, Lynn Johnson, produced a powerful essay on water slavery for National Geographic a few years back titled, Burden of Thirst, illustrating just how difficult it is to gain access to water throughout much of Africa and elsewhere on earth — a labor that is borne on the women. Surely such access to water 60,000 years ago wasn’t much better. In fact, lack of water may have even led to our collective walk out of this region for greater liquid assets.

5,000-10,000 years ago — By this time, soap hadn’t even been invented nor considered. Once again, the historical record is scarce this far back. A meaningful hypothesis would indicate not much had changed in the realm of hygiene nor passion for cleanliness between say 5,000-60,000 years ago. Maybe for the extreme elite, bathing was taking place, but for the masses, likely nonexistent. Survival was of far greater importance.

2,000-5,000 years ago — It wasn’t until almost 5,000 years go (or around 2,800 BC) that soap was invented in ancient Babylon. However, by 2,800 BC, our ancestors would have already reproduced nearly 2,000 time. Whether one believes in evolution, creationism, etc (this is not a story on such a topic so let’s not debate this here!), the reality is this; Producing that many offspring would allow our skin to develop/evolve to a point of never needing such an item as soap, let alone regular bathing. Another significant aspect of migration to keep in mind is this — humans didn’t all walk out of Africa and straight to Babylon. We wandered in all directions, creating specific cultural communities in other parts of Africa, onward to Europe, Asia then into the America’s, reaching the tip of present day Chile about 7,000 years ago. In China, the first signs of bathing began only 3,000 years ago. Ancient Greeks — the most prolific bathers during this time — where one of the first to create bathing centers, the oldest discovered in a palace complex at Knossos, Crete. The Romans also seemed to have switched on to bathing around this period of time. Why and what caused this sudden interest — only within very specific locations across the planet — still seems a mystery. One thing of for certain, until this era, humans (us), didn’t give a darn about personal cleanliness.

800-2,000 years ago — Here is when things get interesting. By the fall of the Roman Empire (which began around 470 AD), bathing went out of fashion. There were ritualistic/spiritual bathing within nearly all religions during this time: Mikveh’s in Judaism, Baptism or the act of becoming cleansed/purified, blessed in Christianity, ablutions in Islam (the act of washing feet, hands, face/head) before prayers, etc, all these and more were indeed taking place around this period (the earliest in Judaism). However regular bathing was far from the norm. During the Medieval era (476-1460 AD), it’s a common myth that we didn’t bath. We DID, if you had money. The rest of us only bathed 1-4 times per year, max.

100-800 years ago — Before the great plagues in Europe (especially the Black Plague between 1348 and 1350), few in Europe, except the wealthy, bathed. But when the Black Death hit, there was some consensus that maybe this plague — which killed roughly 75 million Europeans — might be caused by the lack personal hygiene practiced at that time. Suddenly people (those who could afford it) began to bath. Ironically, cleanliness was not the reasons for the onset of the bubonic plague — it was flea-ridden rats that spread death. After this tragic period, pretty much the entire European region returned to non-bathing. On a positive note, the most cleanliest culture at the time (around the 1,400′s) was in Mesoamerica. People in this region, both the elite and the commoners, bathed each afternoon. Why they caught on to such levels of hygiene while few other societies did not, I do not know.

 

Trivia

Here’s a few bits of interesting trivia from this era I didn’t know till doing my post non-bathing research:

How often did Queen Elizabeth I bathe in the 1600′s? About once every few weeks.

How often did European peasants (the vast majority of our relatives at that time were peasants) change their clothes between say 1200 till 1800? Rarely, maybe a handful of times per year.

How often the people bathe in the United States between say 1700-1850′s? Rarely, especially in colder regions such as where I now leave, New England.

Poverty was likely a key factor as to why our ancestors never bathed. The costs for such luxuries as soap were simply far out of reach.

Depressingly, the weight of poverty even today (2 billion humans live on just over $2 USD per day) continues to hinder access to soap or regular bathing.

If you’ve ever traveled to developing world, you will have tragically come across children, even adults, wearing your long discarded sport jerseys or a t-shit with the words “Al’s Auto Parts” meandering around a market. Chances are it’s in tattered condition, never changed nor washed for years.

In the developed world — where we have everything times infinity and we’re still not happy — we’ve become rabid bathers, driven especially by the marketing campaigns from the billion-dollar industry of cleansing products, all telling us we’re less human, less gorgeous, less a person until we look like someone in 30 second commercials and fashion magazines.

As wonderful as it feels after a bath, in many way’s it’s not healthy for our skin.

Our ragging desire — and the hundreds of dollars each year we spend on self-cleaning products — only really manifested with the arrival of indoor plumbing, or in the last 100 or so years.

The forgotten astonishment of being able to turn a knob and the near miracle of water pours — hot or cold — is, in the sense of time, a strand of hair in realm of calendar years.

Astonishing indeed, yet taken so extremely for granted.

At this moment, we’re wasting water at an alarming rate. Not by drinking it all up.

Rather, we’re wasting extreme levels of precious water via the need for more swimming pools (take out the chlorine, it’s your personal Roman bath), our desire for green grass in places where vegetation was never meant to grow and yes, by incredible water usage for bathing — on average we use 7 gallons (26.5 liters) of water per minute when taking a shower using a regular fixture.

28-36 gallons (98-136 liters) for a bath.

40-55 gallons (151-208 liters) to run a conventional cloth washing machine.

Not saying we need to revert back to Medieval bathing practices!

The point that I discovered via self analysis, our environment and culture observation (most Afar people today still only bath once a year) is this — maybe those 15 min showers some of us take could be cut back to 2 minutes.

And if you skip a day without bathing, we’ll be fine.

All that anti-bacterial soap and whatnot, use if you wish, however our bodies need bacteria in order to learn how to fend off common diseases. We’ve gone berserk in the last two-decades turning our homes into mini-sterile hospitals — thanks in part to the multi-billion dollar cleaning industry for convincing us we all must be living in sterile bubbles. And to think we fell for it.

Some serious laundry had to be done after a few weeks in Afar. Yes, I changed my clothing a few times (I have multiple sets of the exact same shirts and trousers, though only three sets with me) but without regular access to bathing water, the clothing pile grew until reaching the Galafi border in Ethiopia. I paid extra for this load to be washed (by hand, no washing machines here) — they were so filthy the women cleaning them needed 2 boxes of detergent.

Astounding as it may seem, by natural development, it appears our bodies (not our clothing) were design in many way to be self-cleansing.

Strange, I know, but I just experienced such an understanding.

 

Conclusion

It was indeed mighty hot in Afar for the month I photographed in this extremely unique and remote part of our world.

From 9am till 4pm, the air and land was a searing skillet of heat. No shade except for the thorny wayone (Procopis) bush or a shadow cast by a large rock, natures sundial. There was no relenting till evening and even then the wind blew desert dust everywhere.

The National Geographic/VII Photo agency office, attached to a traditional Afar home. Perfect editing area, sheltered under a Noah Tent from the relentless hot sun of the Afar region.

During this time, I felt I’d become in a small way, Afari. My new Afar friends skin didn’t smell any different than my own, seeking comfort in the conformity. Yes, their clothing was a bit dirty but oddly enough, nowhere near as dirty as mine.

Most important, they were extremely proud with what few things they had. These are pastoralist, whose wealth and success is not measured by what type of car they drive, designer clothing they wear or latest gizmo that’s all the rage (most could care less about my MacBook Pro or even cameras. Only the iPhone struck their fancy because the screen was so bright, it could be used as a flashlight at night).

Value and self worth is based upon their livestock, which provide food and drink (milk), the two main sustainments of life.

Does this mean the Afar’s do not want a better life?

OF COURSE THEY DO!

Every human being seems naturally wired to seek improvements and a brighter future. The different has always been in having opportunity, a clean environment, education and freedom to choose.

For the Afar, such opportunities — most especially the environment — seems stacked against them.

 

Epilogue

Don’t let my kids read this story!

Like all children, the notion of being told to go take a bath is simply not in their lexicon till reaching the age where that hot guy or cute girl in the third row in science class begins to catch their fancy.

This was the view of my ceiling while sleeping three nights on the ground next to a wayone (Procopis) bush outside of families home in Haramfaf Bouri in Afar. Without electricity for hundreds of miles in any direction, the lanterns of the sky are spectacular, remind of just how small and insignificant I am.

No longer traveling or sleeping in the desert regions of Afar out in the open under a staggering ceiling of stars, using a tent or in a truckers hotel with an alleged bathing stall that resembles an abandoned outhouse, it’s still incredibly hot here in Djibouti City.

My days now are spent wandering the streets with my wonderful new friend, Abdul, who is my driver/translator.

I very much miss my friend, Yonas Abiye, back in Ethiopia, however my friend and brilliant driver, Abdul, and I have hit it off as if known each other a lifetime. Here Abdul is navigating with me over an ancient lava field somewhere in central Djibouti.

Like in Afar, we’re avoiding the heat (translated into Photolingo: Bad Light), working a few mornings but heavily in the afternoons and well into the late evening when the vibrancy of the city is on display.

There’s even air-conditioning in my simple windowless room at the Hotel Dar es Salam — although I can stay in basically any hotel in the city, I despise wasting even NG’s funds on characterless hotels costing hundreds of dollars a night just to rest my head for 6-8 hrs.

There’s even a communal shower down the hall, and can you believe it…it rains hot water.

Even a sit-down toilet.

Life is good.

Only thing missing is my family, whom I miss dearly.

By the way, yesterday was my wife, Anastasia, and our 20th wedding anniversary.

Being on the road as much as I am, it sure helps having a partner who understand what we do — and she's put up with me for 20 years! Sending love from the desert yesterday on our wedding anniversary from the outskirts of Djibouti back to the Berkshires of western Massachusetts.

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY — and I promise you that in a few weeks time I’ll returned to the Berkshires all showered, in a clean pair of clothing!

All my best,

 

February 21, 2013   13 Comments

Out of Eden, Journal II — Expect the Unexpected

(Photographs on this blog, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are vignettes from the making of Out of Eden, photographed with an iPhone using the Hipstamatic lens/film combination of Jane and Sugar. The main photography will be published in the December 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine).

Introduction

Goats are herd in to a village in the Afar region of Ethiopia after a day of grazing.

All-embracing, this story is flowing far less problematic than predicted.

Months ago when first receiving a call regarding the Out of Eden project from National Geographic senior photo editor, Kim Hubbard, initial discussions were not so much on what the photography for this story would be. Rather, the focus of numerous conversations we had were on the near spectacular potential for logistical problem solving and the layers of unpredictability in order to accomplish the story.

The photography was relatively simple; Photograph whatever I wanted. A reportage wrapped around a loose theme of present day Ethiopian/Djiboutian culture and daily life.

Camel market in Afar region, Ethiopia.

Seems like a dream assignment, right?

In many ways, it is.

In equal measure, it’s not.

With such wide visual potential, the photography (its narrative) can become unruly with its endless possibilities.

Remember, a photo essay is about storytelling.

Imagine walking into La Scala holding an empty sheet of music. You’re presented with an entire orchestral quantity of instruments, each needing to be played not only in tuned, but collectively brilliant and coherent, in the end, filling in notes for a meaningful — dare I utter, potent — symphony which 20 million or more will listen to come December.

There is the heightened awareness that I’m not out-and-about walking the streets of Turkey’s capital to produce a feature of present day Istanbul, carnival season in New Orleans nor the stupefying development occurring in Shanghai.

Out of Eden takes place in one of the most inaccessible regions on earth, where one can drive (if the car can hold together) for hours, not seeing anyone nor even much variability in landscape.

This is arena which this symphony must be written in. Equally grand is the concert hall in which the finished concerto will be presented — a magazine that began publishing 125 years ago this month, founded by such exceptional minds as Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone.

I feel as if every National Geographic story is no different than writing symphony. And once ink hits paper, performing it.

Equally interesting, the challenge is relished.

 

The Unexpected

As marveling as this story is, the words my friend in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea once told me (mentioned in Journal I), are resonating in the noggin;

Expect the unexpected.

In planning for eight to ten weeks of nonstop overland travel throughout most of Ethiopia and literally all of the tiny African nation of Djibouti, I’ve had to muster the wisdom of Job — and nearly 30 years of working on complicated stories in over 80 countries — tapping as much extreme foresight as possible; When one thing goes wrong — as they often do — it can cause a chain reaction of problems.

Nearing week three, so far so good.

Downloading photographs into Aperture in a small village in Afar. Ali Mille (left) traveled with along for this part of the journey, helping guide us through roads which didn't exist. Here he is choosing music from my iPhone while others enjoyed seeing photographs I'd taken earlier in their village.

The photography is flowing very well. Some days are nothing but travel. Other days are overwhelmingly visual. Another day might be untangling unanticipated logistics. All typical events in photojournalism, especially when connected to rigorous travel across multiple countries.

To avoid one my archetypal narratives, here, in list form, is a rundown of what normally — and I do mean, normally — happens while on complex logistical assignments for National Geographic magazine, all which indeed occurred in the last fifteen or more days:

First Landcruiser ruined — doing makeshift repair somewhere in Afar on a broken brake cylinder and snapped shock absorber.

1- First Landcruiser — Ruined front-left break cylinder. In addition, a front shock absorber literally ripped off it’s mount. Both were destroyed due to extreme road/terrain conditions. While the driver limping the vehicle back to Addis Ababa, I rode in Paul Salopek’s car — and at times, Paleoathropologist Tim White’s Landcruiser — while a replacement Landcruiser was driven up from Addis on or about day seven with a new driver.

This second Landcrusier was strong enough to drive throughout the Afar region, but it's overall condition was poor which lead to a third replacement by week two.

This second Landcrusier was strong enough to drive throughout the Afar region, but it's overall condition was poor which lead to a third replacement by week two.

2- Second Landcruiser — this replacement could have been Fred Flintstones automobile for all I cared. Just so long as it was strong, able to handle this astonishing Afar terrain, keeping me on course for this story. Fortunately, it was an extremely strong car, however overall this replacement looked and drove like a beaten Russian Lada. In addition, the new driver, though a nice fellow, was an incessant whinier, driving me berserk.

3- Thorns — This second Landcruiser could at least drive almost anywhere due to it’s strength. However, by day eight or nine, we had a series of blown tires caused by the all-pervasive, 2 inch (5cm) long thorns of the woyane bush (the Procopis plant). These thorns are so strong, they can piece most tires. The woyane bush had been brought into Ethiopia from South America decades back in a misguided attempt to stop erosion in the Afar region. Now, this invasive species has spread in such prolific ways that just in the last two to three years the woyane bush is so thick, it creates an impenetrable barrier, causes us to drive sometimes 5-10 miles (8-16 kilometers) just to get around the densely packed growth — and there are no road where we’re traveling, making the drive to circumvent a journey and significant time loss.

Was very fortunate to run into Melesse while back in Addis last week. His Landcruiser might not be the newest, but it's strong, has 6 good tires (surely we'll blow one or two in the coming weeks) and other than needing to fix the cigarette lighter to charge things like mobile phones, everything works. More important, Melesse is a patient, dedicated man, and does not whine. Here he is, proudly standing with the car he saved for many years to buy, providing the financial support to put his children through school.

4- Third Landcruiser — Avoiding the potential for more car trouble, I went back to Addis, personally choosing a third and this time decent Landcruiser. The driver, Melesse, is patient, professional, willing to push his car to extremes…and he doesn’t whine.

5- Permits — To travel and work in remote Afari villages of Ethiopia (off of well-known travel paths like the road to the Erta Ale volcano, a popular tourist vista to ogle), you need special documentation. Not just from the Ethiopian government but additional paperwork from a regional administration office in Afar which oversees local affairs. Due to misspelling a towns name in Amharic script (the misspelling turned the villages name into town which is not even in the Afar area), we needed to update this special Afar travel permit, taking two-days in drive time to sort.

Ahmed Elema watching photographs download in my office — a ThinkTank camera roller as a desk for the MBPr — as we charge all electronic items off the Landcruiser's battery. Night two of Out of Eden was spent on this lovely village in the Afar region of Ethiopia.

6- Electricity — Traveling in areas with zero access to electricity (forget even having access to water for bathing) means the need for electricity is supreme to charge the cacophony of power-thirsty items in tow:

Camera batteries
MacbookPro
Thuraya satellite phone
Bgan satellite internet
4-mobile phones (drivers, translators, mine and at times even a forth phone belonging to a local Afar guide)

Electrical necessity was especially true one fine morning a few days back — the car battery labored like an overburden donkey to start the Landcruiser. What I had been harboring in the recesses of the cranium was about to take place — using the power inverters (turning 12v into 120v) would soon destroy the car’s battery, stranding us for what could be days, even weeks, in area which truly could be called The Middle of Nowhere. After tracking down an overpriced generator manufactured in China, we were good to go. Or so I thought — that brand-less small generator has already ruined two power adapters. Yesterday, we found a voltage stabilizer. From years of experience living in Asia with terribly unstable electricity, we now (should) indeed be sorted with a third layer of stable power potential, backed up with cigarette lighter charger and the power inverter (to be used sparingly).

By the way, if you ever want to make loads of new friends, carry this mini-nuclear power station in the back of your car, arrive to a village that has no electricity…and where everyone seems to have your discarded (vintage?) 2002 Nokia phone at a battery level of 5 percent!

Paul Salopek logging a GPS reading before beginning his 7 year walk out of Herto, Ethiopia.

7- Unexpected — I received a call from National Geographic on around day 5 of Out of Eden, requesting an additional photograph of Paul, walking with his camels, for another story National Geographic is publishing in either June or July (not for Out of Eden, rather, something else). Out of Eden will appear in the December 2013 issue and has and editing/layout deadline for sometime in July, four months after returning Stateside. This added photograph had to be accomplished far sooner — lightning fast by National Geographic standards; By end of this month. More so, it must be both different and brilliant — you know it has to be when the Editor in Chief, Chris John, speaks to you for 10 minutes via the satellite phone on the importance of this very specific photograph.

Even in semi-normal circumstances this would be simple photograph to achieve. In the Afar region, it’s not. Here is why:

a: Original Plan – This story (the photography), Out of Eden, was never going to be about Paul. Rather, I was to meander, muse, go adrift (my favorite part about these types of stories) anywhere in Afar, moseying along a non-ascertained trajectory beginning in Herto, Ethiopia, arriving 8-10 weeks thereafter (overland) to Djibouti City, Djibouti. I was only going to follow Paul on the beginning of his walk while my support vehicle positioned itself ahead in a village 5-10 miles (8-12k) away, reconnecting with all my supplies in 1-2 days. In this Landcruiser is a near Dave Matthews Band concert level of cables and whatnot to keep everything charged and working.

A cozy REI tent is home for around half of the time while in Afar. Other nights are spent in small hotels in towns along the road which links Ethiopia to Djibouti. We have two other tents for Yonas, the driver, Melesse, and local Afar guides.

The support vehicle also contains complete camping gear for 3-4 people (Yonas, my translator/friend, driver, myself and at times a local Afar guide), food, water, and most important —7 lbs (3kg) of the finest Ethiopian coffee. We were to reconnect in Djibouti City, the end of the first leg in his seven year walk from Herto to Tierra del Fuego, the tip of South America. This was the plan, the logistical and infrastructure objective to make one meaningful — and yes, hopefully brilliant — image of Paul leaving the origins of our collective humanities migration out of a very small, extremely remote, village known as Herto. With this unexpected call requesting a second — completely different —image of Paul walking, the dynamics (plan) had to change. Rapidly.

Paul Salopek loading camels that will carry his supplies from the southern Afar region to the border with Ethiopia and Djubouti.

b: Logistics – It takes time to sort camels as a mode of transport. One doesn’t walk up to a camel owner saying: “Hi, would you like to walk with me as your camel carries 300 lbs (136kg) of kit over truly fascinating yet inhospitable terrain, leaving your family, farm and livelihood for the next month?” With Paul Salopek’s camels already laded with the supplies for him and his guide, I could only trouble them to carry my camera bag and a tent. This plan worked, albeit for two days of walking.

All I could carry on one of Paul's camels were a tent and my ThinkTank camera bag as we walked together for the first two days along 10 or so mile (12k) of camel trails, beginning his walk Out of Eden.

c: Weather — Paul’s emergence out of Herto didn’t take him through truly epic landscapes. Also, it was overcast, which helps in reducing the Afar heat, however it also reduces the potential for stunning visuals unless a flock of pterodactyl were to fly through the grey sky — and that ain’t gonna to happen. Even so, I was able to make a beginning step with a meaningful photograph of Paul starting his walk for either the main Out of Eden story that will appear in the December issue or for this special request for the June or July issue. Still, I needed one more photograph of Paul journeying.

Paul Salopek walking out of the Afar region with camels as he begins day-two of his Out of Eden walk, a 7 year journey on foot from the Herto village in Ethiopia to Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, at the tip of South America.

d: Sprinting — Can’t say I often photograph camel caravans. Yes, I have photographed camel markets. Even ridden a few members of the humped-back family, however I’ve never had to follow on foot a camel walking for any great distance. Camels walk in long strides — three steps for every four human steps. This means walking at a decent clip, requiring constant running in order to be ahead of Paul or else repeatedly photograph him from behind or from the side. After hours of walking, even in overcast Afar, the physical effort of chasing forward to photograph grew impossible after a few kilometers. There had to be a better solution.

Even before Paul began his walk, it took 10 men nearly an hour to create a drivable road up steeps cliffs of a dry river bank as we followed Tim White and his team into Herto Bourii, Ethiopia. The wayone bush makes such travel nearly impossible unless traveling via camel.

Even before Paul began his walk, it took 10 men nearly an hour to create a drivable road up steeps cliffs of a dry river bank as we followed Tim White and his team to Herto Bouri, Ethiopia. The wayone bush makes such travel nearly impossible unless journeying via camel.

e: Inaccessible — With camels, Paul can travel over any and all terrain. More so, Paul is indeed walking on ancient camel trails. Most, if not all, completely impenetrable even via Landcruiser. Now, after a week or so apart, I will reconnect today with Paul in Afar (for security reasons I am not mentioning town names) where we’ll work out the potential path of his next few days journey, in turn drive (and walk) far enough ahead of him to photograph his arrival, and then passing, as Paul walks through — with flowing levels of serendipitous optimism — epic landscapes. This should be the potent means of making this second photograph of Paul.

Insha’Allah.

 

Reality

The importance of sharing the above is not for my friends and colleagues, most of whom have dealt with similar circumstances. Rather, this is to share with those of you who intend one day to do such genre of photography and the fascinating realism of what to expect, which is always that of the unexpected.

The most spectacular minaret I've ever seen, made entirely of sticks, located in a remote village in the Afar region. This mosque was created by hand 20 or more years ago.

Here with the truth about what it’s like working on a National Geographic assignment:

As involving as some of these events have been — cars, paperwork, a constant dance to solve logistical land travel, chasing ahead of Paul, power supply…not to mention incessant level of bugs, extreme heat, 8+ days in the same clothing with no access to bath, lunch and dinner being tibs, tibs and more tibs (tibs is goat meat) — all of this is completely normal. In fact, within the scope of what is involved in such a story, all these events have been minor.

As candid as possible — if events were not going as they have, I’d be concerned.

And other than missing my family back on the farm in the Berkshires, I couldn’t be more delighted or enthralled with the visual progress (and journey) so far.

Now the reality when producing any involving/layered story; It’s 99 percent problem solving and 1 percent photography, all wrapped around a heaping scoop of serendipity.

 

Epilogue

Goats past a village in the Afar region of Ethiopia. Not far from here the bones of Lucy (Australopithecus) were discovered in 1973.

Growing up in Nassau in the 1970′s, each morning, me and my classmates would sing the Bahamian National Anthem. A part of that anthem always resonates whenever a hurdle rears its head:

“Forward, Upward, Onward, Together”

As week three rounds the bend, I’ve often caught myself humming those words, relishing in what resides ahead, knowing that the resplendence of this story is always present, cloaked in a heavy layer of fascinating orchestration and spectacular moments of visual brilliance, knowing this assignment will continue the grandeur of expecting the unexpected.

All the best from the Afar region of Ethiopia,

 

 

 

 

 

Visit the official Out of Eden website here, and National Geographic’s Facebook page here.

January 25, 2013   1 Comment

Out of Eden, Journal I — The Bags

Rarely do I travel with more than one piece of check-in luggage.

Maximum, one medium-sized rolling bag containing a few changes of clothing, loads of underwear, socks and a tube of toothpaste — airport security does not like such items anymore in carryon luggage.

Thanks, Richard Reid…AKA, The Shoe Bomber.

All minimalism is out with the bathwater on this latest story for National Geographic.

Three bags — two mega, the other my normal checkin — went into the cargo hold of two planes, as I traveling from the farm in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts to Ethiopia where they now rest beside me in a 5th floor room of a three-star hotel in this sublime nations capital.

Possibly the most Liked bags ever liked on Facebook, photographed in the kitchen then posting just before leaving the house in the Berkshires very early on Friday morning.

It has taken months of planning for this assignment — illuminatingly titled, Out of Eden — to prepare for every sublet nuance this project may throw; Eight to ten weeks, traveling overland from discovered remains of our first human ancestors in the Afar region of northeastern Ethiopia — literally where each of our brothers and sisters walked out of Africa 60,000 years ago, populating this astonishing planet we can only call home — meandering across deserts, mountains, ravines, depressions and villages, till I reach Djibouti City, Djibouti, sometime in March.

Like New York City, the Djiboutans named it twice.

For those following this story on my Facebook pageTwitter or on Instagram, you might be wondering why I’m carrying so much kit compared to my colleague, superb human, Pulitzer Prize winning writer (twice), National Geographic Fellow and official walker for the Out of Eden, Paul Salopek?

I know my dearest of friends, Gary Knight, has been wondering.

Simple — Paul has seven years to walk from our ancestors remains till reaching Tierra del Fuego — and for this first part of Out of Eden, as long as he needs — totting I believe nothing more than a few changes of clothing, pens, notepads, a laptop, sat phone, solar charger, sleeping gear and other minimal bits and pieces, doing so at least from Afar to Djibouti City with a camel Paul purchased last week who will carry most of these items…including water and basic food stuffs (will be meeting up with Paul tomorrow evening to actually witness what he’s fully carrying).

Encumbered — I’m carry more bobbles and bits which require electricity than a small village might demand in a week, not to mention camping gear for a translator, driver and myself.

Yes, I’m traveling in a car.

Here is why:

The Kit, for National Geographic's Out of Eden story — Details below on what everything actually is.

 

Gone are the days when a photographer on a National Geographic story only needed a backpack to carry clothing, a few hundred rolls of film and a camera bag with cameras that only required little more than two watch-sized batteries to operate its metering for weeks on end.

The rest was manual — and we liked it.

With everything gone digital, we now tote a substantial collection of gizmos and contraptions, each requiring their own special cable, a virtual tangled bowl of spaghetti noodles and clamoring hunks of electrical plastic meatballs, the whole lot demanding power. All this nonsense is needed (along with portable 120/220 electricity) or else cease being able to take photographs within 1-2 days.

As much as traveling on camel back may seem romantic, Yonas Abiye (super talented journalist with The Reporter newspaper), a driver (gifted with memory retention of a pasta strainer, I’ve tragically forgotten his name post brief meeting today) and myself will make this journey starting near Mille (pronounced phonetically as Mill-ay), in the Afar region of Ethiopia, to the border with Djibouti, in a grayish-blue toned 2008 4×4 Toyota Land Cruiser.

Doing the paperwork (and paying) for the Toyota Land Cruiser that will take Yonas and I from Addis Ababa tomorrow to the Afar region of Ethiopia. With what appear to be new tires, this will vehicle will at times act as our home for the next month.

 

Even if I didn’t have this triple sherpa load of whatnot to carry, here is why I’m driving:

This story, Out of Eden, is not about Paul.

Rather, it’s a story about our collective humanities migration out of Africa to where we each live today.

Therefore, I will not be following in Paul’s footsteps.

In fact I plan to get completely lost, zigzagging in all direction, photographing a reportage piece on the society, culture, landscapes and truly anything and everything which comes my way,  illustrating what this part of the world, and its people, are doing today.

Come sometime likely in early March — communucating with Paul periodically via satellite phone — I will meet up with him as he arrives in Djibouti City.

My friend, fellow journalist (reporter for The Reporter) and guide for the Out of Eden story for National Geographic magazine, Yonas Abiye, shows me the route we'll be taking, beginning on Monday from northeastern Ethiopia. It will take Paul Salopek 8-10 weeks walking overland to get from this region of Ethiopia, then onward to Djibouti City, Djibouti. Yonas and I are not walking — too much kit to carry...power supplies, cameras, MacBook Pro, HDs, camping gear, etc. We'll be in a Landcruiser, zigzagging all around Paul's trek westward to the border with Djibouti. This story is not about Paul. Rather, it is about our collective humanity, 60,000 years ago, when our brothers and sisters literally walked out of this exact spot in Ethiopia, populating the planet as we are today.

 

Wonderfully expressed once by a Highlander friend in Papua New Guinea while on another National Geographic story a few years back —  sharing with her how unexpected and wildly magical everything kept occurring while in country — she uttered in a marvelously dry tone:

“Expect the unexpected, John”.

With only a few hours remaining in this somewhat unaired room — for a $150 a night hotel, it oddly lacks an air conditioner nor any understandable means to open a window — I thought it might be interesting to start the journals of this journey with some insight regarding what I’m carrying in this anomalous matching set of Eagle Creek bags and their trusty sidekick, the always toting ThinkTank Airport camera roller.

While Monk’s Dream plays from this MacBook Pro speakers (richly expanded on these already brilliant Retina display speakers using the app, DPS…a must have plugin for iTunes — wowy!) here’s The Kit for part one of Out of Eden:

Labeled — The whole Kit and caboodle traveling with me on Out of Eden story for the next two or more months across Ethiopia and Djibouti.

 NOTE: IF CURIOUS, CLICK ON THIS ABOVE IMAGE WHICH HAS EACH ITEM LABELED, THEN REFER TO THE DETAILS BELOW

 

1- Eagle Creek Load Warrior 25 inch roller — This bag contains all clothing for two or more months:

(The first two clothing items have been The Uniform for the last 10 years while on assignments, all the same color — kaki tan pants, dark green shirts, and surprisingly holding up extremely well)

REI light weather pants — three
REI light weather long sleeve shirts — five
Shorts — one
T-shirts — two
Sleeping t-shirt — one
Sleeping shorts — one
Socks —four
Underwear — ten
Dress Shirt — one
Jeans — one

2- Eagle Creek duffle — Empty, stored in main luggage for when needed

3- Eagle Creek Gear Warrior Wheeled Duffel 36 in roller — two, used for carrying most of that crap you see on the floor

4- Cliff & Luna Bars — 73 white chocolate macadamia nut power powers…breakfast for the next two months

5- Medical Kit — Containing more meds, bandages and whatnot than

6- iPhone Camera Cable — Supported through a Kickstarter project, Trigger Happy (not my favorite name for this — remember, cameras don’t shoot anything. They take in light. Only guns shoot) is something I’ve yet to use. hopefully it works

7- Reading Glasses — Five sets, in case loosing one, two or more — a habit I’ve been able to master over the years until discovering they were already on top of my head or crushed in a pocket

8- Toiletries — Hand sanitizer, toothpastes, a hair tie…I’m a minimalist

9- Multi-Plug Adapter

10- 120-volt cigarette lighter power supply

11- Camera towel

12- Various headlamps

13- My tent

14- Driver/translators tent

15- Reusable Twists — Various sizes of heavy-duty twisties. Hang about anything, anywhere

16- Bathing Soaps — These are amazing anti-mosquito repellent soaps that contain citronella. Found them years ago while passing through the Johannesburg airport while working on the National Geographic story, Malaria. Picked up an entire box. Unfortunately, these are the last three bars. Sure hope I route through South Africa again soon

17- Bug Repellent Cream

18- Muti-purpose Tool

19- Lamps — Battery power, they put out gobs of light

20- Carabiners

21- Ground Tarp — Small tent

22- Sunscreen Mozzie Repellant

23- Ground Tarp — Large tent

24- Mosquito Spray — 100% DEET (malaria country where we’re going)

25- ThinkTank Airport Roller — Have had this amazing (and I mean AMAZING) roller carry-on camera case for over 7 years. It’s been through more airports, up/down more stairs, tossed, dropped and careened across floors, rocks and deserts more times than can be counted in memory. Besides a touch bit of the rubber on the wheels fraying, this bag from ThinkTank keeps on going strong. Here’s what’s inside:

Canon 5D Mark III — two
16-35mm lens
24-70mm lens
24 1.4 lens
35 1.4 lens
50 1.2 lens
Battery Charges — two
Batteries — four
Miscellaneous
ThinkTank — A small Retrospective model shoulder bag. This is where a few of the lenses go when out and about. The rest stays in the roller, taken out when needed

26- Inflatable Pillow — Brookstone blow up felt neck pillow (for plane travel)

27- Clothing — Paint/shirts

28- Collapsible Chair — REI has a super-nify foldable chair. This will be seriously used when waiting about in remote areas for the light to get brilliant

29- Stuff — Sharpies, international drivers license, medical vaccine card, passport sized photos, more hair ties and in the envelope, NGM’s amazing Dazzler letter of introduction

30- Map/Guidebook — Lonely Planets guide to Ethiopa and detailed maps of Ethiopia and Djibouti

31- Flash Cardholder — Deputy Director of Photography, Ken Geiger, was kind enough to give me one of the new NGM ThinkTank flashcard holders when I was in DC a few weeks ago for the Out of Eden story prep. They are being given away to National Geographic photographers at next weeks seminar, which unfortunately I’ll be missing this event — sorry for blowing the surprise

32- Clothing — A few more pants/shirts, haphazardly placed on the floor rather than in the other clothing pile

33- USB Cigarette Lighter Charger

34- World Map

35- NGM Luggage Tags

36- Water Bags — To protect kit in case it rains and as backup laundry bags

37- Sleeping Bag — Small

38- Sleeping Bag — Larger

39- Hammock

40- NG Hat — Gift for someone along the trip

41- Hammock Ties

42- Mosquito Net

43- Mosquito Net

44- Power Inverters — Two 300volt models that turns 12volt car battery power into 120volt power. To be used to charge a MacBook Pro, camera batteries, sat phone, iPhone, etc

45- Vitamines

46- Multi-Plug Adapter — Two more for a total of three

47- Belt — Special type…

48- Small Bag

49- Towel

50- Mesh Bag

51- French Press Coffeemaker — THE most important piece of the kit

52- Shelters — Three Kelty 3×3 meter shelters to protect driver, translator and myself from the harsh Afar desert sun while waiting for good light

53- Waterproof Zipper Bags — To hold all the various loose items seen here

54- Small Bag

55- Socks

56- Inflatable Pillow

57- Self-Inflating Mattress

58- Satellite Phone — Thuraya. Including a Thuraya Wifi Hotspot box, allowing to wirelessly connect all communication items to the internet from any location

59- Hiking Shoes

60- Canon Cigarette Lighter Battery Charger Kit

61- Hardrives — Two, 2TB Western Digital USB3, which will make transferring photographs off cards and into Aperture each day an extremely quick task
This is The Kit, which will (should) sustain most if not all needs for the next two or more months while driving throughout more than half of Ethiopia and all of Djibouti — yes, Gary, I’m driving, not walking nor with a camel because tomorrow I pick up the LaMarzocco expresso machine and generator…

Hope the peering into my bags — bags which received more Likes on Facebook than likely any photo of just bags have ever receive — was informative.

4 hours till Yonas Abiye and the driver arrive at the hotel for the 10+ hour drive to the Afar region to meet Paul.

And satellite phone is still not working. Sure hope Thuraya in Dubai sorts this soonest or this might be the one and only journal from the trip. . .

Testing this afternoon the Thuraya sat phone and the Thuraya Hotspot gizmo. After two hours trying for get the data part of the phone to work, I had to call the provider in Texas for support. Seems the GmPRS (whatever that means) wasn't turned on yet. Should be sorted within a few hours, or so my new best friend, Martin, with Galaxy 1 said in a just received email.

All my best,

 

 

 

 

Visit the official Out of Eden website here, and National Geographic’s Facebook page here.

 

January 6, 2013   Comments Off

Feeding the Beast, Feeding Ourselves

Spring arrived a bit late this year in the Berkshires. Haven’t lived here long enough to gauge whether such a delay is connection to global weather changes or if belated seasonal change is simply natural in western Massachusetts.

Either way, while dumping buckets of aged horse shit into the fields recently behind the barn, it caused to ponder about farmers I’ve had the honor to meet and photograph over the years.

Farmer John, dropping buckets of manure in the fields next to the studio, located in barn on Dancing Fields Organic Farm. Photograph by Richard Stanmeyer

It also reminded to get this years crop in the ground soonest or else loose more time trying to feed this beast called a blog — albeit an enjoyable beast to wrestle on a near weekly basis.

I’ve spend much time with famers across this amazing spinning ball we all call home, however some farmers really stood out, leaving an impression residing deep each time I eat a meal.

Living literally in the middle of a ricefield for five years in Bali, nearly all my neighbors were farmers. Each morning, next door neighbor, Bapak Made, would head out to plant, inspect, harvest or just enjoy a romp through his fields.

My neighbor, Bapak Made, heading through the terraces to his ricefield located behind our old home in Bali.

On one occasion for the book, Island of the Spirits, I wandered through the terraces with Bapak Made to attend a ceremony at a small temple in his field called a Pura Ulun Siwi, erected and placed in its specific location for one equally specific reason — for giving thanks towards a bountiful harvest and giving respect to the god of earth.

Bapak Made preparing to pray as be decorates his Pura Ulun Siwi or water temple in his ricefield.

Such moments always gave cause to rethink how fragile we are regarding the ability to feed ourselves, especially in a time when many young children in cities haven’t a clue what a tomato is or that french fries are actually potatoes.

Take a moment and watch this except of chef Jamie Oliver as he asks a classroom of 1st grade students what the name is of red veggies he was holding:

Alarming, isn’t it.

I met Jason Hinson while working on the End of Plenty story for National Geographic. He’s one of those fellas you immediately connect with. A true salt of the earth type. Felt as if I’d known him my whole life yet at the time had simply wandered over to his John Deere combine and asked if I could ride with him while he harvested thousands of ears of corn. For the record, Jason’s Deere could eat my 3320 Deere like an olive.

He was working the fields in Kingston, Iowa.

Jason Hinson, a fourth generation farmer, drives his combine as he harvests over 100 acres of corn.

Working insanely long hours, Jason Hinson with his amazingly massive combine harvesting corn. That Deere can move.

Jason was kind enough to let this giddy wannabe farmer pilot his mammoth Deere. It was astonishingly simple to drive with control and speed like a Mercedes Benz. No wonder these machines cost more than an average house.

This wannabe farmer, harvesting corn with Hinson's combine which felt more like piloting a spaceship deftly through a Milkyway of ears. Photograph by Jason Hinson

Life as a farmer anywhere on earth is never unchallenging. It had been a difficult year in 2008 for Midwestern farmers. Many had lost their crop when the Mississippi River overflowed it’s banks due to unusually heavy rains further north.

All this area of Oakville, Iowa, tens of thousands of acres of corn and wheat grew until a levy broke, sending the Mighty Mississippi River across farmland and ruing lives. 1.3 million acres of grain was lost, sending feed and food prices across the globe through the roof. It also didn't help that a surge in biofuels was also taking place about the same time — when food is used as fuel, the effect on prices can be staggering.

This use to be the road leading to their house and farm, but in 2008, Brian, Cindy and Colt Wiegand had to use a boat while surveying the damage to their crops, barn and home.

Seems farmers in America are equally affected by climate change as they are in Bangladesh or the plains of northern Kenya where the exact opposite plays out but with deadly consequences.

Drought.

Low crop yields in developing nations are a primary cause of world hunger, and low crop yields are connected to severe weather pattern change taking effect across the planet, especially in the Horn of Africa.

Dust storm caused by severe drought in 2008 hits Mabaalea village, a remote Afari encampment located in Teru district in the Afar region of northern Ethiopia.

When camels die from thirst and lack of food, one can only imagine the effects on the human population.

I met Momina Mohammed, 34, while she was trying to nurse her 8 month old son, Ali Mohammed. He was suffering from severely acute malnourished in an Eritrean refugee camp in Suola near the Eritrean border in northeastern Ethiopia. Momina hadn't been able to eat properly for months, causing her breast milk to stop. It didn't help that she too was malnourished, unable to afford the global rising costs of food. Before heading back to Addis Ababa, I wandered all over a nearby market hoping to find baby formula. Amazingly, I found two tins. Momina was very pleased but unfortunately I have no idea about the fate of Ali once leaving.

Spending a few days with Jason and his friend, Chad Kuntz, was a reminder of how dependent our entire food supply is to so few who actually still work the land.

In the United States, less than 1% of the population are farmers.

Farmer Chad Kuntz with one of his three daughters while harvesting corn in Oakville, Iowa.

Not that long ago, we were all farmers. Few complained about the long hours and hard work. Such labor had it’s rewards — survival.

These days we naturally want more.

For the last few decades — along with the foreseeable future to come —  our entire existence relies on the hardworking hands of Jason, Made, Chad and a dwindling number of others who understand the brilliance of planting a seed, reaping the benefits of something we often can take for granted.

I recognize that not everyone can be a farmer. It’s physically impossible as well as impractical. Even for our family, less than one acre of organic vegitables and 30 hens for organic eggs is a labor, though fortunately a labor of love.

Francesca, 3, with a new baby chick bring the Stanmeyer brew to over 30 on the farm in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. By the way, the eggs are astonishing from these lovely ladies. Just ask my friend and VII colleague, Franco Pagetti, who cooks an amazing Pagetti-style omelet whenever he visits. May, 2011

One difficulty we’re facing is not the lack of open land in say, New York City, to grow food for the entire population of the greatest city on earth. The problem…where there is land to grow, so few in developed nations are willing to work it.

While driving around Mississippi two weeks ago,  I was listening to a story on NPR about foreign workers. A Georgia farmer could not find locals in his town who would be willing to work the harvest season. Even at $200 per day (or around $25 per hour, three times more than working at a fast food joint), the only ones willing to work were migrants who are desperate for a job in order to feed their own families back home. Astonishing yet understandable when Xbox’es and 300+ television channels are so conveniently gobbling up our time and minds.

An even greater obstacle to overcome in order to be able to feed the human population; Changing how we use of land which is already being farmed.

Too much is now being diverted to biofuels, taking good soil and land away from our bellies and into the tanks of our automobiles.

 

Steam belches out from a furnace while trucks carrying corn for processing into ethanol arrive and trains wait to leave with liquid ethanol from the POET Biorefining plant in Gowrie, Iowa.

The Amazon Rainforest is being clearcut to make way for even more farmland in order to grow soybeans for the global rising demand in meat.

Deforestation in the upper Mato Grosso state of the Amazon west of Juara city where farmers are burning ancient rainforests to make way for more farmland to raise cattle and soybeans.

None of this tractor-pondering is revolutionary. Nor is there just one single factor related to significant problems we’re facing.

However it is monumental when you consider that the present way we use our arable land is simply not going to yield enough food unless we radically change the way we work the land, getting more engaged in regards to how our food is grown and ease up on food waste — one-third or 1.3 billion tons of food goes wasted each year.

In a few weeks time our population will reach 7 billion.

By 2050, 9 billion.

How will we feed ourselves?

Having feed The Beast, next to feed the chickens and water the garden in hopes to feed the family with a simple but needed harvest in the months to come.

 

 

 

NOTE: To read some fascinating insight about our food supply, the environment and a host of other related illumination, read Dennis Dimick’s blog, Signs from Earth.

June 2, 2011   4 Comments