Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Ethiopia Trip 3 – Gondar and Bahir Dar

Our first stop on the trip north would be Gondar, known as the “Camelot of Africa”. There is a tourist circuit which covers the some of the biggest cultural sites in Ethiopia – Gondar, Bahir Dar, Axum and Lalibella – and, as it was Christmas, I was worried that we had better have airline tickets and hotel rooms secured in advance. I had spent a few hours in the Ethiopian Air ticket office in Dar es Salaam to arrange our flights, and had been on the phone for hours trying to call hotels from Tanzania. Even though traveling in Ethiopia is supposed to be challenging, our flights and rooms were lined up, and all in all, I felt pretty proud of myself for my advance planning. My wife and child will not suffer hours in a squalid rip off travel agency or wander the streets of Ethiopia homeless. I am a good provider after all.

But alas, we learned that “reserved” is a very relative term. Trying to get on the flight to Gondar provided lesson one. The desk agent, who puzzled over our tickets while tapping at the computer for ten minutes, answered reassuringly, when we asked if there was anything wrong with our tickets. “Your tickets? No, they are fine. The problem is with the booking, which has been cancelled completely.” Well, as long as the tickets are good.

Even though the plane to Gondar was completely full, the agent somehow managed to find three seats for us. We arrived at the Quera Hotel to check in. Our name was the second noted on a handwritten reservation list that the receptionist showed us; however, no rooms were available. After first saying that it was our fault for coming so late (at 4 in the afternoon), a manager then came out to help us find other accommodation. Luckily, we were told, there was room at the beautiful Atse Bekaffa Hotel, which is newer and just 50 yards up the street.

Since the Quera lobby was dark, with a large TV playing to a room full of locals lazing in old brown lazyboy-type chairs with stuffing coming out, we didn’t mind the idea of moving to another hotel.

We trooped up the street and climbed narrow stairs leading to a small worn desk against the wall, which served as the reception. A few locals sat in a cramped waiting room on more run down, smaller, brown chairs watching a small TV suspended from the ceiling. Welcome to the Atse Bekaffa.

Our room had peeling. yellowed linoleum flooring, ragged red curtains and one dangling light bulb. Hillary’s immediate nuanced comment, “I hate it here”, erased a few of the Good Provider Points (GPPs) I’d awarded myself.

It wasn’t until the beating bass from the disco downstairs started later that night that it became clear how many GPPs were being lost. At 2 pm, Hillary glared at me, unable to sleep, and politely asked, “have I told you how much I hate it here?” The question was made an emphatic, if less polite, statement two hours later.

That morning, we moved to the Goha Hotel, a hotel perched on the cliff overlooking the city, and harmony, but no Good Provider Points, was restored.

Gondar, founded by Emperor Fasilidas around 1635, is famous for its many medieval castles. The battlements and towers feel European, evoking images of chivalrous knights on horseback and of ceremonies laden with pageantry. Our guide told us stories of Machiavellian plots and intrigues, tortures and poisonings, but overall caring and beneficence towards the people as successive emperors between the mid 17th and mid-18th centuries built castles. There were royal saunas, royal swimming pools and royal secret rooms. And to be true to the European model, there is recent damage as a result of the British bombing during WWII in order to hit the Italians, who had used the castles during their invasion.

The next day, a 1970’s-era Nissan taxi showed up to take us the 200 kilometers to our next stop on the shores of Lake Tana, Bahir Dar. The drive was through a beautiful landscape with mountains and vast fields dotted by small villages of round huts with thatched roofs. Everywhere people were walking. People walked with donkeys piled high with goods. People walked with goats. People walked with oxen pulling carts. Man walked holding hands as they talked. It was a Sunday, so we saw crowds of people, all wrapped with white shawls, streaming out of small Christian Orthodox churches.

Men had turban-type wrappings against the sun and shawls. Whether walking down paths, across fields, or on the road, every male over the age of five carried a long stick. Useful apparently as a walking stick, cattle prod or cudgel, sticks were leaned against in conversation, used to tap wayward burros, and shouldered as props to help carry large bundles on one’s head. It felt like an ancient and wild place. We saw a few men toting their Kalashnikovs while out for a Sunday stroll, and bombed out tank cadavers, remains from Mengistu’s rein thirty years ago.

While I imagined that if our little Nissan taxi broke down, I might not fare extremely well in these harsh lands, I also knew that if someone were to transport some of these people to the rough streets of Bethesda, they might not fare so well either. Perhaps they’d order an espresso in the morning, or not know how to properly line up at Barnes and Noble, or how to order a bagel with a schmear. We all have our own street smarts.

Lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia, is the source from where the famous Blue Nile starts its long journey to Khartoum and on to the Mediterranean. It has thirty-seven islands that house twenty monasteries - surviving remnants of an old, contemplative tradition. Because of their isolation, the monasteries were used to store art treasures and religious relics from all parts of Ethiopia. Tradition says the Ark of the Covenant was kept on one of these islands when Axum was endangered.

We spent most of our two days in Bahir Dar taking a small boat to visit monasteries. The ones we visited were built in the 11th and 13th centuries. Our guide, John, said he shouldn’t go in as he had had milk that morning, so had not kept his fast.

Monks, bearded and barefoot, still inhabit these monasteries as they have for 900 years. They showed us books with goatskin pages illustrated by the monks that dated to the founding of the monasteries. There were crosses – Axumite crosses, Gondorian crosses and others – incense holders and other religious relics that went back between 500 and 900 years.

Bodie, less interested in the history (even though we told him that these books were older than Pop pop and Grammy), liked steering the outboard and dragging a stick through the water.

On our last day in Bahir Dar, we wandered the market stalls. Kuta, or woven clothes, white with colored fringe, dresses, and scarves lined stall after stall in one area of the market. A row away, stalls had burlap sacks of pungent spices, from deep red to orange, toasted seeds of brown and beige, tef and other grains, and knee high pyramids of onions and garlic. There were houseware stalls with enormous ceramic plates to cook injira, ladles, spoons, bowls, pots, and giant pans to roast coffee beans. There was a tool section and a religious items section with candles, bibles, incense burners and rosary beads. Everything that one might throw away had been repurposed. Long bits of rebar had been bent into shapes useful for holding a pot over a fire; jewelry was fashioned from found objects; old tires were turned into shoes and inner tubes into large water bags to be mounted on donkeys.

Bodie’s approach to the market was not to try to blend, but to be a noticed fixture, a loud, attention-grabbing fixture. He had a brass horn and walked through the market, tooting loudly and waving at people. He attracted a crowd and started shaking hands like a seasoned politician. He introduced himself to people and, for some reason, started explaining who all his cousins were. He finally wearied, found a stall he liked, crawled onto a pile of woven throws, and lay down to rest.


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