Rachel - Gondar
18/01/2011 - 20/01/2011
We arrived worn out and smelly from our trek at our prebooked-and-twice-confirmed hotel ready to race each other to the shower only to find that the hotel had “lost” our booking on the busiest weekend of the Ethiopian Calendar: Epiphany (or Timkat as it’s otherwise known). Fortunately, heaven knows how, in fact I fully suspect that it was someone else’s room, there was one room left in the hotel. We overheard a backpacker arrive only two minutes after us having the same problem, but of course now there were no rooms at all and everywhere in town had been booked out for weeks. Poor guy. We offered him our floor if he couldn’t find anywhere but we never heard from him. There are some people you meet that you will always wonder after and he is one of them. (oh and there was no running water till the morning either...)
Epiphany is the celebration of the baptism of Jesus, I’m not sure why this is a big deal really and noone else I asked seemed to know either but it made for a good excuse to dance and sing in the streets for a full three days and nights so we weren’t going to start asking difficult questions and cause a rethink. The version of Christianity here seems to focus on the Ark of the Covenant (again, a bit puzzling since this is an Old Testament relic) which is taken out of the various churches around town, paraded through the streets, taken to a place with water, then taken back to the churches. The water in question is blessed by the priests after which it becomes holy water and then the people are splashed with the water to become blessed themselves. We had made sure we were in Gondar for the celebration because it is a particularly big event here and the pool is big enough for people to swim in and we were told it was a sight to see.
The parades are colourful and noisy with crowds of people watching and joining in with cheering and tooting on golden trumpets which gives it a kind of carnival feel. We were stood watching the groups of church singers and dancers passing by when we were tapped on the knee by Coralie who we’d met in the Simiens (she has one of those perfect jobs working as a mountain guide in Corsica with journalism as a backup for the off season) and her friend Susi and their couch surfing buddies in tow. So we all joined the parade down to the water pool where the replica arks would spend the night. With a bottle of Tej (honey wine) in one hand and a candle in the other we watched the chanting and soked up the atmosphere but after the arks disappeared behind the curtain everyone started to drift off to rest before coming back for 5am when the water blessing ceremony would start. Not everyone though because this is a time for celebration and so we ventured off to find the party. Which of course we did. After a few hours entertaining the children and young men of town with our attempts at shoulder dancing we continued on a small pub crawl lead by the couch surfing guy.
I nearly caused a fight at this point however because the couch surfing guy was talking about “farenjis” to the queue waiting outside one bar. I have an off-and-on problem with this word which means generically “foreigner” and sometimes can mean just non-ethiopian or can mean more like “outsider/them/white folk” in a disparaging sense. I thought he was supposed to be modern and groovy being a couch surfer and someone we’d spent the day with so I very politely asked him please not to talk about us while we were stood right there and using that word – just at that point some English girls came out and said they’d been living here for nearly a year and they hated it too and, although I didn’t hear this, said something like “f***ing ethiopians” which incensed the couch surfing guy and launched himself after them. Oops :-s It all calmed down after a while. The guy was a bit high strung though because the following night when Dave went out with him he nearly got in another fight, which Dave caused this time by accidentally knocking over someone’s beer. Oops again.
So we got up before dawn to go back to the pool and watch the water blessing. Everyone was gather around the pool dressed in white and chanting prayers along with the priest. As it started to get busier and busier we were directed to a special elevated seated area for “farenji”. That felt bit weird. On the one hand the crush and surge of the crowd was intense and frightening so I was glad to be out of it in this calm place which had a privileged view of the wtaer. But on the other hand if I were an Ethiopian, for whom this is an important event, I would be resentful of the white people being given special privileges. Even worse was that the Ethiopian guides such as our couch surfing friend, or visiting Ethiopians who no longer lived in the country who we knew of were first denied entry into the enclosure by the baton wielding security police and we had to plead on their behalf. It’s a very strange racism.
Around the pool stood holy types, white robed musicians and someone I was told was the president of the country who gave a speech. After 2 hours of speeches and prayers the final blessing was made at which point the crowds (who had until this point been literally beaten back in quite a startling way) surged forwards and young men who had stripped off to their pants jumped into the water. Immediately the atmosphere turned from one of reverence to one of delight and playfulness as the men in the water swam backstroke and did rolls, splashed each other like kids and filled bottles of the water to throw back to the crowds who would splash each other in the face. I now have a holy bag and shoes
What is the deal with holy water anyway? How long does the blessing last? I assume a long time since people take it home with them and hang it up outside their doors, but then what happens when the water is washed away, or it evaporates to make rain clouds – will that make for holy rain? What happens if you dilute it, is it still holy? Does the blessing apply to a coherent body of water in which case could a priest bless an ocean? Or is there a“zone of blessing” in which case if we had water in our bags would that be picked up? And how come a priest after his ordainment can suddenly make water “holy” but the day before he couldn’t? I don’t see much logic here.
We watched the people swimming and playing for a while and then decided to follow the arks back up through the streets, at least until a place where we could find breakfast Unfortunately in the crowds to get out of the gates the police were pushing everyone back and using their batons and in the crush Dave had both his pockets picked including taking his camera which was attached to his belt so we lost all the pictures and videos of the day. He’s been smart enough to change the memory cards the day before suspecting that there might be pick pockets working the crowds.
Not much we could do though so we made our way back to be adopted by a group of kids who seemed to be very concerned about oursafety. They were particularly worried about the groups of countryside people whose form of celebration was to shake sticks in the air and bounce around in a small mob of about 15 shouting songs. They weren’t dangerous but they didn’t have much special awareness and would often bounce into the watching crowd. So these kids took our hands and ushered us away with concerned frowns and wagging fingers. They led us right through the town and presented us at the smart tourist hotel as if it were sanctuary. We were really touched. All we could think to do as a thank you was to give them a few rounds of “heads shoulders knees and toes” which they seemed to enjoy and then we thought we should probably go inside the hotel for fear of disappointing them! While we were on the terrace bar light aeroplanes would drop grass or leaflets over the crowds in the main square nearby.
The next day of celebration would be much the same so we paid a visit to the famous castles of Gonder which were impressive even by European castle standards and all 10 or so of them were situated inside a high wall and all was grass except for the castles which gave an atmosphere of medieval serenity. Inside the walls there were some tables set up ready for a posh festival closing ceremony for the president and dignitaries but as the guests were arriving some of them, dressed in traditional white-with-embroidered-coloured-borders dresses, sidled up and asked for official photos with us – in our normal stained and wrinkled tourist clothes, heaven’s knows why but I wonder if we made the papers
When we left people were still hooting horns and partying, I do wonder what the town is like at other times of the year but for us Gondar will always be a festive town.