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Trip 11 -- Ethiopia and Dubai

Message 3: The slow boat to Bahir Dar

From: "seth@sethweinstein.com" <seth@sethweinstein.com>
Date: Sun, 9 Mar 2008 10:49:10 -0400
Subject: Ethiopia update #3: The slow boat to Bahir Dar

A much newer ex-capital than Axum and Lalibela, Gonder - a fun city with good food and drink - has existed only from the early 1600s. It was founded by Emperor Fasilidas, who started a tradition of building large stone castles in the center of the city. Several of his successors did the same, sometimes adding on to what was already there; much of the area has since suffered damage by war and earthquake, so the result is an intriguing hodgepodge of multi-story buildings in various conditions ranging from almost pristine to crumbling carcass.

Connected with Fasilidas's castle is a giant stone pool somewhat out of town. The pool currently contains no water, but it does contain a two-story building not unlike his castle. As interesting as the pool is the way that the roots of the banyan trees have grown up over the stone walls, consuming them.

The Laka Tana ferry makes one round trip weekly from the wonderfully scenic, bustling city of Bahir Dar, at the south end of the lake, to the nothing town of Gorgora, in the north. It takes two days to complete its journey in each direction, and it seemed a beautiful way to get to Bahir Dar. To reach the ferry, I had to take a bus from Gonder to Gorgora.

This was probably the worst bus ride of them all. It's supposed to take two hours, which is how long I waited before the bus even started moving. The ignition didn't work, so a few people rolled the bus back and forth until it started of its own accord in first gear. We had gone no more than five minutes and were still in central Gonder when our roof cargo, which included a bed, snapped someone's electric or phone cable. Thus ensued a 40-minute discussion on how the affected house was going to be compensated, if at all.

Once on the road again, we stopped for gas - but not for the bus. One of the passengers had a canister he needed filled, so we hung out while he did so - can you imagine asking your Greyhound driver, or the driver of the M5, to pull over for a few minutes while you run an errand?

Then the bus kept stopping in every little village - sometimes three or four times in the same village, wherever anyone wanted to get on or off. If someone was getting off, it was invariably the person in the last row of the bus, who had to slither past all the standees and climb over all the sacks of goodness-knows-what in the aisle. If a stop was taking an especially long time, which was always, the driver and his assistant would poke around in the bus's mechanism for a while.

In the last few towns, so many people got on the bus that they were hanging onto each other in the aisle, wrapped around each other. Yet even the elderly with canes, and the mothers with babies on their backs, were able to manage. It took us four hours to reach Gorgora.

Gorgora is nothing more than a few houses, behind which lie the scenic grounds of the Gorgora Port Hotel. There are well-maintained gardens, and the walkways are full of flowers and fruit and are incredibly fragrant. I checked in and was given a bar of soap, a towel, and a candle and matches.

There were a few other people staying at the hotel: a French couple, Loic and Vanessa, and a group of British ophthalmologists. I'll spare you the eye humor, but we did have a wonderful night out under the stars. The British, who had been there a few days, said hippos could sometimes be heard at night - I wasn't fortunate enough to have the experience - and a couple of them claimed to run across a hyena on the way back into the hotel.

The Lake Tana ferry left the next morning at 7:00; Loic and Vanessa were riding with me. As foreigners, we were sold first-class tickets inside the cabin, which had padded seats. All but one of the other passengers were outside, on the deck. A few times people would try to sneak into the cabin with us for some peace and quiet, but someone in charge did a good job of shooing them away.

After three hours we came to the town of Delghi. The boat's engine operator walked us into town for some tea at what seems to be the only hotel in Delghi. On the wall was a picture of two doves with the ambigious caption, "There is no way to peace. Peace is the way." We spent two hours in Delghi - there was lots of cargo to be loaded onto the boat.

In the early afternoon we came to Eseydbir. The shore looked to be very lush. I got off the boat in search of bananas - there was no food on the boat, and as there was no food really in Gorgora either (except at the hotel restaurant) I hadn't stocked up on anything. On the buses, whenever we pulled into a town, there were always irrepressible kids hawking bananas and snacks - where were they when I needed them?

I found no bananas, and indeed I went only as far as the port gate, beyond which was a swarm of a few dozen kids yelling the usual phrases reserved for foreigners ("You! You! Give me money!"). They were climbing up onto the gate to get a better view of me until the grumpy old gatekeeper beat them off with a stick.

Many of the Ethiopians on the boat were playing cards, and I joined them. It was a variation on gin rummy, except that you could have sets only, not sequences, and you played with two decks. The way they shuffled the cards was remarkably cursory - little more than a few cuts - and I realized that since the cards never really got mixed, as long as I started collecting whatever came my way I was bound to get three or four of them quickly. Then I shuffled the cards properly and the game went on a lot longer.

The Lake Tana ferry is a wonderful way to go: it's a very pretty lake, the source of the Nile, and fishermen in papyrus boats - not unlike those used by the ancient Egyptians - were often in view. It's a great escape from the dust of the land, and the people on it are friendly. In fact, it has only one glaring problem: the overnight stop in Konzula.

There are only a few very rudimentary hotels in Konzula. Loic, Vanessa, and I looked at three of them: One was full, one had no shower, and we settled on the third. This was a collection of rooms at the back of a bar. I opened the door to my room and can honestly say I have never seen a less inviting room of any sort - hotel room or not. The stinkhole at the Fasika in Hayk was ten times better. I've seen janitorial closets that were more inviting. Cell blocks at Alcatraz would have been a step up.

The floor was uneven, the paint job had begun as splotchy and thousands of splotches had been added to it over the decades. The bed springs were hanging on by a thread (better than Loic's, which gave way when he retired that night). As I examined the room, a three-inch black spider worked its way in; I blew it out. The light switch wasn't really a switch - it was just two pieces of wire that one joined together to complete the circuit. The ancient window was caked in dirt and cobwebs. Nevertheless, this room was better than the other two options, one of which had a floor covered in tarp (who only knows what lay underneath), and the other of which was too close to the communal toilet. You did not want to get close to the toilet - on the occasions when I had to, I took a deep breath and tread carefully, as the floor was covered in a sort of slime. I sucked it up and paid my 20 birr (they initially asked 50 for this dump!). Let it be known that this wasn't my trying to travel on the cheap - I'd have paid much more than that for anything fractionally better!

The people who worked at the place were very friendly. They were mostly women, almost all prostitutes, whose numbers in Konzula have been growing ever since the commencement of the construction of a hydroelectric power plant nearby. The Italian project reportedly has 5000 people on it, and they need something to do at night. Prostitution doesn't have the stigma associated with it that it does in the West - it's considered an acceptable way for students or workers to earn some extra money, though the AIDS rate is horrific.

I took a walk back down to the boat, fending off the "You give money!" shouts. A few people had loaded some cargo onto the boat and were headed back into town. I stopped to watch a friendly-looking orange and white stray cat. It walked around the woodsy area for a while, then meowed at me and vomited. I wondered if anyone would notice if I spent the night on the boat - a much more appealing option.

Back at the bar-hotel, they put on music for people to start dancing, and the ladies prepared for solicitations. They were not dressed skimpily or trashily, but they highlighted their curves and put on makeup. They were young and looked dignified and attractive, I thought. We talked with them for a while before heading to dinner.

Ten to 15 people came by the bar that night. Loic and I talked with one animated man named Mr. Ababa - "Mr. Gadecho is a very dangerous man. He has seventy girlfriends." Mr. Gadecho was the owner of the bar. He said I could have one of the bar girls for 100 birr.

The best thing about their turning off the electricity that night was that I could no longer see my room.

The ferry resumed its route at 7:00 in the morning. The cabin was quite fuller. As I dozed off, they brought in one woman who looked sick and sat her down at the front of the cabin. It wasn't until I woke up that I was told she hadn't been sick; she had been pregnant, and she had just given birth to a baby girl right there on the boat! A nurse had wrapped her in white cloth and performed the birth under a shawl, to give her some privacy. All the men had been exiled from the cabin, except for Loic and me and the mother's brother, the new uncle - the baby's father was a soldier and wasn't present. I didn't see the baby, but Vanessa had caught a glimpse of it and said it looked small.

Remarkably, all this happened without any fanfare. The closest thing to a celebration was when the brother bought sodas for everyone, but people basically kept carrying on their conversations or playing cards or whatever. I doubt that anyone outside the cabin, except for the boat crew, knew that a baby had just been born.

The only stop that second day was in Gurer, which had a market. I finally got my bananas, and a lot of people also bought mangos and sugarcane - there were crates of mangos loaded onto the boat as cargo as well. More numerously, our cargo now consisted of hundreds of injera pans, which were wrapped in a kind of grass and stored in the front of the boat, making wandering the aisles impossible. The boat floor became littered with mango pits and sugarcane husk, and the children became noisier.

As we arrived in Bahir Dar, the new uncle reported: "The baby is dead." He said it so offhandedly I didn't understand him at first. But it was true. The mother was sitting on a seat with a sad, defeated look in her eyes, but - as with the birth - everyone else carried on as if nothing had happened, with even the uncle resuming lighthearted conversation.

Bahir Dar is an immediately appealing town, right on the shore of Lake Tana. Because of the water, the city isn't as dusty as the rest of the country. Loic, Vanessa, and I checked into the excellent Ghion Hotel, whose outdoor restaurant overlooks banyan trees and about a hundred giant white pelicans. There isn't much to do in Bahir Dar itself (other than sit outside and drink fruit juice, which is fine with me), but it's the base from which to explore the Blue Nile Falls and some of the Lake Tana monasteries, which are on islands within the lake, or on the Zege Peninsula.

A decade or two ago, I'm sure the Blue Nile Falls were an amazing sight, possibly comparable to Niagara or even to Victoria Falls. Thanks to a new hydroelectric power plant, most of the water is now diverted, and the falls now seem a bit piddly. Still, it was a worthwhile journey, and the experience at the base of the falls - with the mist splashing on me and the smell of the water in the are - was better than the panoramic viewpoint from above. The 14th-century monasteries provided a few interesting treasures - one had a beautiful wooden cross with a painted life of Jesus on one side and the crucifixion on the other, and another had a python skin and was the site of a cave where priests prayed for 24 hours a day - but I think at this point in the trip I can safely say I've had my fill of monasteries.

Bahir Dar has a wonderful bar called the Balageru. At night there's traditional Amharic singing and dancing, accompanied by a masenko (one-string bowed instrument) and drums. The singer makes up whatever words she wants, often praising or poking fun at the audience (in the case of Loic, Vanessa, and me, it was mostly about how we should tip more, but it was all in good fun), and encouraging people to get up and dance. I'd sampled similar bars in Gonder, but this one in Bahir Dar was packed and everyone was in high spirits, with many of the audience members singing along on the choruses.

This completes my tour of the northern historical circuit in Ethiopia. I have about a week left in the country; tomorrow I'll visit a village called Motta, home to some close friends of a cousin of mine, as luck would have it.


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