Ethiopia’s Northern Historical Circuit – Part One

July 4th – Bahir Dar

No fireworks, just a five star day. The town of Bahir Dar, a nine hour bus ride north of Ethiopia’s capital, didn’t offer much besides a muddy market on its outskirts. I skipped and CeCe trudged through a few rows of stalls and neither of us saw anything worth the effort. Realizing that spending more than a day in Bahir Dar wasn’t in the cards, we made to the nearest hotel to hire a boat to visit neighboring Lake Tana and its monasteries. We negotiated a good bargain, but ended up with a boat sporting a feeble nine horsepower engine. Apparently, this was the “very special boat” we were promised. I wonder what the not-so-special boat looked like.  We probably could have made use of it in our hotel’s bathtub.

On a peninsula an hour distant we visited two monasteries, en route passing a few paddle-powered, handmade reed boats, a common sight in this area. Both monasteries’ churches were located a short distance from shore, past a phalanx of wearisome would-be tour guides and souvenir merchants. Our patience for such irritants is razor thin these days, especially when their sales pitch include blatant lies like how their guide fee would go towards a non-existent conservation fund. However, the hassle was worth it as the compounds were memorable and spiritual places. Each church consisted of a circular mud and straw outer structure with 15’ tall wooden doors enclosing a boxy shrine perhaps 25’ on each side. The naïve paintings on each of the box’s surfaces are what draw visitors. Cartoonish (but certainly not in a bad way) scenes of Mary’s life or depictions of the apostles’ deaths along with other familiar images from the Bible bring the stories to life and have been doing so for devout Ethiopians, especially the young or illiterate, for hundreds of years. The colors were vibrant, the drawings captivating, and the setting magical.

The transcendent moment came at stop #3 at a 70-monk monastery on an island in the middle to the lake restricted only to male visitors. CeCe waited near the dock while I ascended a wooded staircase to the church passing an occasional meditating clergyman along the way. The church was closed to visitors but its location was so picturesque I didn’t mind. After a few minutes’ contemplation I was set to return to my stranded bride when another of the island’s visitors beckoned. (It was graduation weekend at Bahir Dar’s university so there were a good number of Ethiopian tourists sharing the lake with us that day. It was a most welcome change.) I joined a small group for a viewing of the monastery’s treasures led by an exceptionally engaging and proud young monk who effortlessly switched between Amharic and English as he showed us one by one the small but precious collection of books, crowns, crosses and other religious paraphernalia assembled during the monastery’s lengthy history. I felt privileged to be able to witness the brotherhood’s living heritage, especially given the fact that so many of Ethiopia‘s religious artifacts have been pilfered out of the country in recent and not-so-recent times. The ancient mildewed goatskin books were particularly memorable, as the monk thumbed through the illustrated Gi’iz language texts on our behalf with a reverence despite the likelihood that he showed off these treasures several times a week. We were all in awe.

En route back to the boat, I made friends with the day’s graduate and his family. Our paths crossed festively a few more times that afternoon as we visited one more freshly restored church and the headwaters of one of the Nile’s tributaries.

July 5th – Gonder

Remarkably, its day 365 of our trip. We did it! But boy, are we tired!

We took a bus (3 hours) to Gonder. Unremarkable, expect for the almost complete lack of trees. People in this part of Ethiopia are clearly living on the edge of the land’s productivity. It’s tempting to conclude that another famine appears inevitable at some point, especially if the population grows at anything approaching Uganda’s 6% clip. Much of the land seemed dry and barren, but the rainy season has begun so perhaps I’d sing a different turn with green shoots emerging in a few weeks.

At our hotel, we met a partly interesting and partly annoying group of Western travelers, three of whom had just crossed the Sudan, including two Germans doing it on BMW motorcycles, Ewan McGregor style. We swapped stories and shared dinner. We also briefly toyed with the idea of renting a minivan together but we couldn’t get our schedules to sync.

Prior to dinner, we visited atmospheric Debre Berhan Selassie Church, known for its angel-painted ceiling but the scenes on the walls were a pleasure as well. Best yet, though, was the architecture and its setting. It’s apparently the only traditional historic church surviving in the area and is surrounded by a graceful stone wall which incorporates twelve towers representing the twelve apostles.

But then again all numbers seem to have some significance to Ethiopian Christians. If there were nine, it would represent the nine monks from Syria who visited Ethiopia at some point. Three of something either is the Trinity, or crucified Jesus and the two condemned thieves. Four, the cross. Seven windows or columns, say, you get seven other saints in the vast Abyssinian church‘s pantheon. Our Ethiopian Biblical history is still a bit shaky. But it’s better than yours, no?

Before departing, we listened in on a peaceful evening service and some children practicing their singing.

July 6th – Gonder

Let’s talk about lunch. Our day’s guide, Alexander, took us to his favorite butchery for tere saga (Ethiopian raw meat!), tibs (Ethiopian cooked meat), and Cokes (American soft drink). The tere saga was hacked from a cow’s carcass hanging in the window – Alexander had selected portions of leg and neck which was served with berbere seasoning and a horseradish sauce named qwazi. It wasn’t bad, predictably steakish, although it really needed the provided seasoning. Lonely Planet tells me I need to get tested for tapeworms upon my return home as a result of this most carnivorous of adventures.

[CeCe’s side note: Um, hello? Tapeworms? As if the threat of an intestinal worm isn’t disincentive enough, the resident flies at the butchery only reinforced my gratitude that I’m a vegetarian. The place was a public health worker’s nightmare, but apparently these places are quite popular throughout the country. Makes me grateful for the good old FDA back home. Luckily, abstaining from eating four-legged friends isn’t too hard in Ethiopia. Wednesday and Friday are fasting days here, meaning no meat for the most devout, so I can usually order fasting food every day. Fasting food hardly implies self-denial; it consists of an injera, the slightly sour pancake-like bread that has the spongy consistency of a wetsuit and is the color of dirty bathwater, but wonderfully delicious. When paired with fasting food, it’s covered with piles of various vegetables and lentils. While I wasn’t a fan of Ethiopian back home, it’s growing on me here. I’ll be taking my eight year old godson Sam and his little brother Ian out to try it when we get home. I think they’ll like eating with their hands. As for the injera, we’ll see how they like the feel of a wet yet tasty bathmat in their mouths.

[Mark’s rebuttal: Mmmmmmm, meat! But yes, he will join his wife on the usually vegetarian side of the aisle when we get home. Too many cows on Planet Earth these days.]

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