Blogs from the Ethiopia Research Project

Chris Strganac

Chris Strganac is an SMU graduate student specializing in vertebrate paleontology. His research focuses on mammals from the northwestern U.S. and is part of his work toward a Master of Science degree at SMU.

Dec. 16, 2006

We flew back to Addis Ababa last night. Addis seems like a completely different world from the Ethiopian countryside. The familiar smell of diesel fumes come back, stuck in the hustle of a Friday night in the city, and endless roads, alleyways, shops, and people.

After a week in Chilga Woreda, my mind is boggled and my thoughts are racing. It could be the full coffee service I had. The people of Chilga I saw didn’t have much and are the hardest working folks I have ever known. In many ways this is the picture I have after hearing my mother’s parents’ stories of growing up in the Appalachians of North Carolina. A life of labour intensive work, little to no luxury, children walking miles for school…..Cultures- religion, outlooks on life- probably very different, but the life seems similar – very hard work to live not for luxury. If I had been left here to fend for myself and live this life- I would be surprised if I would last long. I don’t think I would know what to do- but I think my mother would have a chance.

Scientifically, the “Chilga nut beds” are very interesting to me because these rocks and fossils preserve a similar time (early Oligocene, about 27 million years ago) as my thesis field site in central Washington State- representing however very different environments. First off, both sites were at completely different latitudes. The deciduous fossil plants of Oregon at this time indicate a seasonal environment, whereas the fossil plants in Ethiopia are found in tropical and humid environments today. The preserved mammals are quite different – early dogs, horses, and rhinoceroses are found in the North American Oligocene, but in Africa early elephants, hyraxes, and relatives to hyenas are found.

This experience, seeing a similar time on Earth through a new “window” in Ethiopia, both in the Early Oligocene geology and in the culture, I feel, has given/gives/will give many personal and professional reflections.

Dec. 11, 2006

Today is the third full day at Chilga Woreda. I had a few friends that led river rafting trips for “city folk” in the States. My friends said it took three days for people to get in tune with the new surroundings – sounds of the river rushing instead of city traffic and the evening news, bird calls replacing cell phone rings and morning alarms, and food by campfire instead of microwave or drive-thru.

Maybe the same can be said of here in Ethiopia – I awake daily to the call of a dove or pigeon that I still have running through my brain, my body seems more in tune with the water and food (Achamu, our camp cook, is the finest cook I have known.) For instance every night we are treated to a new soup that seems to be the best soup ever each time, making it hard to save room for the main course or dessert.

The first day or so, I was worried that the local water would not agree with me. The past two days in the field, a local farmer who takes care of his orphaned grandkids (one his grandkids, Assefa, works as my assistant and is an extremely bright kid), has brought his own homebrew, a drink called “tella,” to share with us. Tella - a beer made of sorghum with a hint of honey- is not too bad of a drink, it tastes okay, after a few drinks gives one a good buzz, and importantly doesn’t appear to cause any short term or long term detriments. I think one could even work all day in the field while drinking this stuff.

Dec. 8, 2006

After a two day road trip we have reached Chilga Woreda. The Ethiopian countryside seems like a completely different world from Addis Ababa. Addis is a bustling capital city, while some scenes along the road to Chilga – the drive through the Blue Nile Gorge, the rolling hills of farmland, coming over a mountain pass, and the numerous igneous and sedimentary outcrops along the road – could almost be scenes from the “American West.”

Almost “American”, as the two big realities bringing me back to Africa were the monkeys in the Blue Nile Gorge, and the fact that there are people everywhere. It seems from my very limited experience that there isn’t more than 100 square feet of solitude in this place.

December 5, 2006

5:00 a.m. I am semi-woken up by the Doppler effect of repeated car horns and a man shouting words I don’t understand…. approaching and waning…approaching and waning. No, it’s not my alarm and it’s not the Lariam. My half conscious thoughts expect to hear shouts and my door being banged upon, ushering me to grab what I have on and leave – yeah…. it’s probably residual Lariam. Now I’m awake.

6:30 a.m. After an hour and a half of trying to get back to sleep-thinking of the past few days, what the trip to Chilga will entail…..I decide to shower. Half-way through the shower (there is warm water), there is a knock at the door. I open the window to find Karen-and my advisor, Louis Jacobs, ready to go get coffee. I am glad to find that my advisor arrived safely last night, but have that feeling that I am already keeping him waiting.

6:45 a.m. Louis knocks again, I have to be ready (can’t break Rule #1). For coffee lovers, having coffee in Ethiopia is much better and satisfying than Ethiopian coffee in the U.S. Ethiopians know how to make a mean espresso…

12:00 p.m. After a morning of coffee, re-reading a few papers on the geology and paleontology of the Chilga Woreda beds, and meeting government officials - I feel ready for science.

Fortunately to fill this need, Bonnie, Louis, Karen, Katheryn, and I (the SMU contingent of “SMU-in-Ethiopia” 2006) will begin our two-day road trip to Chilga tomorrow.

It’s been a few days now in a new (to me) country, and continent. My body, but my mind, seems to have settled into this new regime of time zone and food (thus far). I can’t help but think of how much of a lucky s.o.b. I am to be able to see, visit, and do geological fieldwork in Ethiopia - Africa for that matter.

December 3, 2006

Karen and I arrived this morning at 7:30 after a few change in flights and the normal fun travel adventures that happen when flights get delayed. This is my first time outside of North America. My previous "international" trips involved either Canada or border towns along the Rio Grande.

When we approached Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, all I could see were low clouds hugging the countryside. 

Part of Ethiopia is as I had heard - stories from past travelers speaking of friendly Ethiopians - the few Ethiopians I have met in Dallas confirmed this. They seem very open and friendly to foreigners, I have met numerous smiles and greetings, and the people never seem to busy to say hello.

I think many Dallas-ites could use a visit here- not only for the friendliness but the drivers seem to drive around, in, and amongst people. They also avoid the numerous other buses, taxis etc. I think they have two secrets- they look, and don't (that I know of yet) talk on cell phones while they drive.

I'm about to get kicked off the web. I'll continue this later-after I get more sleep.