Well, I stand corrected. My friend David told me that the Italians didn’t colonize Ethiopia in the 19th century but were defeated in 1896 while trying to, although they were more successful in Eritrea which used to be part of Ethiopia. And yes, coffee was discovered in Ethiopia. There’s a story about a goatherd who noticed that his goats got frisky after eating beans from a particular bush! And OK, the grain that they make injera from is ‘tef’ not ‘aaf’—I misunderstood Sosena.
But back to my adventures—I got a bus at 5:30 AM on Monday to go to Bahar Dar, an 8 ½ hour ride. Yet this is one of my favorite things to do—look out at the countryside, which was absolutely beautiful. The fields were large and very neatly tended; there were many cattle, sheep and goats; there were oodles of people working at harvesting hay and tef. I saw a few cornfields and a few potato fields, but mostly it was tef. The farmers were cutting the hay and grain with little hand-held sickles—nothing was wasted; oxen walked around and around on threshing platforms. I did not see one machine—no tractors or threshers in 8 ½ hours. The landscape was rolling hills with trees and greenery in contrast to the ripe beige fields. The bus was fine, too.
Bahar Dar is a nice little town on the edge of the large Lake Tana. My first order of business was to arrange a tour of some of the 16th and 17th century monasteries around the lake. In doing this I met two other couples who planned to go on the same tour.
We boated about a half hour to the Zege Peninsula where we debarked at the Beta Maryam Monastery. The site was quite rough although in a beautiful wooded setting. The main church was a circular mud/wood structure with a conical roof. Inside the circular structure was a square locked sanctuary with the outside walls beautifully decorated with colorful murals depicting Bible stories. The paintings were wonderfully naïf, almost like cartoons. A trip around the outside of the sanctuary pretty much covered the whole Bible and more. Back on the boat to go to another monastery, I saw a beautiful fish eagle.
The second monastery was the lovely and most famous Ura Kidane Meret, which we toured. It was bigger with more buildings and a more elaborate museum, but was similar in style to Beta Maryam. It had a cupola on the conical roof with six ostrich eggshells on it.
Again, the paintings were exquisite. The guide insisted that they were original from the 16th century and had not been restored, but that would have taken a miracle, as they were very brightly colored and were somewhat exposed to the elements.
In the meantime, on the boat, I became acquainted with Kate, a member of the Peace Corps. She lives about 60 km away from Bahar Dar in a smaller town. She invited me to visit her, which I immediately agreed to do. After we got this arranged for the next day, the two other couples, an American couple and a Dutch couple, that were also on the tour wanted to join in and were invited to come, also. So after the tour we all went to lunch together, bonding for our excursion the next day.
The next morning we five had breakfast together and got a bus about 9:30, arriving an hour later. Kate and her friend-visitor, Katie, met us. An agricultural agency colleague joined us to lead a walk out in the country where we could see the harvesting in progress.
The scenery was lovely and after an hour we came to first one and then another threshing platform with a farmer marching four oxen around and around to thresh dugusa, a very small grain similar to tef, and also used to make injera. A helper used a wooden pitchfork to move the grainstalks around.
Walking back to the village, we met many schoolchildren on their way to afternoon school (the children go either morning or afternoon) and adults walking home from the Wednesday market.
After a beer or soft drink we had minestrone soup (good!) and then bayonet. This is a vegetarian specialty (The Orthodox Christians abstain from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays) with lentils as the centerpiece served on injera with about 10 mounds of different vegetables and spices placed around it. It was SO good!
After lunch we adjourned to another place where a very attractive Ethiopian friend of Kate’s presided over the coffee ceremony. Three times coffee was made and served from the fresh-roasted beans over the charcoal burner. A kernel of frankincense was burned in the charcoal burner adding to the exotic character. The coffee, as usual, was superb.
Before going back to Bahar Dar we visited Kate’s house where she is spending 27 months as a Peace Corps volunteer. I really admire her willingness to undertake this mission; clearly she had become a favorite among the townspeople. And she’s second generation—her parents were in the Peace Corps!
The next day while breakfasting with the Dutch couple who were leaving, two Berlin women joined us. They and I had been in touch on the Lonely Planet website about making some plans to go to the Omo Valley together, but that didn’t work out. Anyway it was so nice to meet them. I had dinner with them that evening after I had kind of an R and R day. And earlier, while having a juice overlooking Lake Tana, I again encountered the American couple, who were leaving the next day, as was I.
Friday, I got a mini-bus to Gonder at about 8:30 AM. They go when full, and this took a while. We drove through more beautiful farm scenery; this time it was cattle country and there must have been a market day as we met scores of people herding cattle along the highway. On the (chicken) bus, there really was a chicken, brought on squawking like mad, by an older lady. She also got off in Gonder and I guessed that she cooked the chicken for dinner.
I don’t get it—remember those TV pictures in the early ‘80s of Audrey Hepburn and the starving Ethiopian children? Well, now Ethiopia has some of the best food that I’ve had in any developing country. My breakfast today was a combo of scrambled egg, yoghurt, mashed beans with chilli, a little sausage and some onions and green hot peppers arranged around a tray, served with a wonderful bread roll. I broke off pieces of the bread roll and scooped up portions of the food—then a wonderful machiatto to top it off. Ummmm, good. I had ordered the “full breakfast special” and it wasn’t until much later that I realized that ‘full’ had been misspelled, as this was ‘fu’ul,’ a bean breakfast dish that I had first encountered in Jordan. Later I also saw it spelled ‘phool.’
Gonder has quite a history. In the 17th century for over 100 years, it lay at the crossroads of three major caravan routes and was legendary for its riches—who knew? In Gonder today, in the Royal Enclosure one can see the remains of this mighty rich empire. The founder of this city was King Fasiladas who made it his capital in 1636. In the castle can be seen the Star of David, denoting King Fasiladas’ link to Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. There are several splendid castles, a library, a couple of churches and a Turkish bath. There are also two Lion Houses where lions were actually kept until 1992 celebrating “The Lion of Judah.”
I’m huffing and puffing here as the elevation is about 7,000 feet above sea level. That’s why it’s nice and cool in the mornings and evenings, too.
I had a nice talk with the hotel desk clerk. It started when I asked him where he learned English so well. He is from a rural area, 180 km from Gonder. When he was a child, they started an elementary school near his farm. His parents thought it well that he attend to learn to read and write, which they could not do. He loved school and when, in four years, he outgrew the school, he lived with his teacher for four years, having no contact with his family. Then he took the national exam for ninth grade and scored in the 99th percentile in the nation! He did 9th and 10th grade in Gonder, completely supporting himself by tutoring children, which he could do because he only went to school half days. His parents did not want him to continue his studies because they didn’t think they could afford it. So he continued to have no contact with his parents during high school. But later when they realized what a success he was, they were pleased and proud. 11th and 12th grades were more difficult because they required school during the full day so he could not teach. But he persevered and entered the University in southern Ethiopia, studying civil engineering. He was not used to the weather and got sick. He was sick for several years, living and working in Gonder and getting treated for his illness. He recovered and now works as a hotel clerk while attending university here in Gonder, in computer sciences since they don’t have an engineering program here. Wow!
I got a tuk-tuk to take me to a couple of places outside of town. Fasiladas’ Bath had a very large pool, which is now being filled with water in anticipation of the religious ceremony of Timkat, which will happen on the 19th. At that time the priest blesses the pool and then everybody jumps in. I won’t be here—I couldn’t get a hotel room if I wanted to.
Then I paid a visit to Empress Mentewab’s Kusskuam. It was said that she wanted to move to the outskirts of town after the death of her husband to be out of gossip’s way because of her penchant for boys. And the European women thought they had started something new in The Gambia! Anyway, she didn’t look so good—well, all I met of her was her skeleton, along with her son’s and grandson’s.
And lastly I visited the Debre Berhan Selassie Church, a 17th century church that was spared destruction by the Sudan Dervishes in the 19th century when a swarm of bees attacked the attackers and so saved the church. It has a wonderful ceiling with over a hundred cherubs, and other paintings in the Ethiopian manner. Since it was Sunday morning, there were many worshippers there. It was a nice walk out from town and back in the morning sunshine.
I tried to buy a bus ticket to Shire for tomorrow morning at 5:30 but they were all sold out. I was told to come to the bus station tomorrow (in the dark at 5:00) and MAYBE there would be another bus. I can’t stay here in Gonder because the rooms are all reserved for the Timkat festival so if I can’t get a bus to Shire, maybe I can get one to somewhere else. Since the road is not asphalt north of here, there are no minibuses covering the route. So if one doesn’t get the big government bus, there are no others!
Time will tell, but if you don’t hear from me for a few days, that may be the reason—I’m in Timbuctu or someplace like it.