If you’re the type of person who sometimes pities yourself for your difficult job, perhaps you should visit the Afar salt miners of the Danakil. They spend their days cutting salt out of the earth in the hottest place on Earth. After the salt is cut out and shaped, it’s loaded onto camels or mules and taken to Mekele, some 70 miles away.
The Afar are accustomed to tourists; dozens visit them each day to photograph their activities. The Afar react with anything from indifference to mild irritation or amusement. I didn’t feel right squatting on the salt, with other tourists, and shooting their photos as if they’re animals in a zoo. So I approached several of them and let them take some photos of their own with my camera. It was obvious they’d never held an actual camera before; they had no idea what to do with it. I had to guide their rough, work-worn, hands over the controls to get any results. Without exception, they were tickled by the experience. When I showed them the photos they’d shot, on the LCD, wide smiles broke out. Soon enough, other tourists were doing the same.
The name “Afar” means “dusty people” in their language. Having been through a dust storm on the way to Erta Ale, it was easy to see why. By the end of my 3-day stint there, all my cloths and possessions were permeated with dust. We were told there would be a shower in the next town we stayed in (before Erta Ale). Indeed there was: An “African shower” – which consists of a bucket of water and a vessel to scoop it up and pour it over one’s body.
Some of the Afar sold us handicrafts. As we rested, before our hike to the volcano, one Afar approached us to sell us a 2-piece fire-making device. For a few minutes he tried to make fire with it. Then a young man from Ireland helpfully handed him a lighter. It was very funny at the time, even for the tribesman. The Irishman did buy the gadget in the end, for about $2. I bought a traditional Afar scarf; it came in handy a few times later on. But my favorite souvenir is a small block of salt I had the Afar carve out just for me.
Cordial as things were between the various groups, we still had an armed escort – and who, in his right mind, would challenge a guy like this?: