Whereas Malawi is red, Uganda is green, Ethiopia is yellow.
We are back in the land of the 5.30am bus journey. Yeuch. But the advantage of such an early start at least is being able to watch the sunrise over the countryside. We’d not seen any of the country yet and it is stunning.
The earth is a dusty light brown with short pale yellow grass. Every now and again are smart stick-fenced, or sometimes dry stone walled compounds containing a few rectangle houses and circular huts made of stick and mud with conical thatched roofs on the circular huts and usually a cluster of frosty looking eucalyptus trees being grown for firewood. Lots of these compounds, particularly those with stick-fenced pens for animals, put me in mind of Australian farms. The land we passed through was fairly flat and open but interestingly uneven, slashed by metre deep wriggly gashes revealing the brown earth at the bottom of which would be a stream or a dry bed and small clusters of trees. As the sun rose and people appeared we saw older children, wrapped in blankets, taking out and shaking rugs. Women in blankets standing in doorways watching the day start. Young boys lead donkeys away from the roads across the fields and men driving small herds of cattle with sticks. Young girls walking by the road wrapped in scarves carrying water cans. Horses grazing in fields of recently harvested cultivated lands scattered with small angular rocks. As the houses woke up wood smoke would be rising from the conical roofs. Sometimes in small towns we’d pass rows of corrugated iron shops in bright colours which would remind me of brighton beach huts. And as the sun was rising it was piercing the clouds and the rays would give everything a warm pale yellow glow.
Later we drove along one edge of the Nile river gorge – on one side of the bus I had a view of the huge “crystalline” looking rocks and scrubby slopes, and on the other was a wide open bowl of yellow and green peppered with the silver roves of the town in the far bottom. On the far side of the bowl was the Nile, wide and grey, snaking through the land and mirroring the road on this side of the basin.
That journey was some of the most beautiful landscape and light I’ve ever experienced.
We arrived in Bahir Dar, city of the lake, in the late afternoon and after a frustrating muddle with a hotel who bent the truth about their having space for us we ended up in a super budget place but super friendly too. They loved Dave’s passport photo and liked to touch my hair, giggling all the time. But nevertheless we had wanted to stay in a hotel on the lake so we went that night to negotiate a price and ended up being invited in for drinks by the eccentric manager Bisrat. He had his large double bed in his office which he’d occasionally jump onto to lounge amongst the newspapers, was always on his mobile phone or checking emails and his subject of conversation would jump around every 2 minutes. It took over an hour, and between side discussions about politics and personal desires *and* it turns out he organizes affordable trips to the danakil which we also signed up to, we finally agreed a deal and would come back the next day.
Next day we checked in and signed up to the boat trip running to the monasteries that are found on the islands in the middle of the big lake although we were a little late to visit one of them and one of them didn’t let in women so actually I only saw one. I think they’re all pretty similar though. The focus of the site is the classic Ethiopian style round church with a conical stick roof – inside and at the centre of the church is a room containing a replica of the arc of the covenant which noone but priests can enter, on the outside of which though are almost cartoon like paintings of the life of jesus, mary and the saints and the ring of space that is left is for praying and chanting in with a few drums dotted around. The monks themselves live in the round huts as found everywhere else. So really it doesn’t feel like a monastery so much as a village.
On the boat trip we made friends with an Ethiopian couple who now live in London. They were over here for Christmas to visit family and were more tourists than we were with flashy clothes and sunnies, cameras and video cameras. In the evening we met them in a traditional music bar like the one we went to in Addis and they were snapping and filming away the whole time In these bars the customers sit around the edge of the room and the performers dance and sing in the middle and every now and again the singers will pick people out in the room and sing nice but cheeky songs about them while dancing in front of them, after which you’re supposed to stick money (notes) to their foreheads. The dancing is the Ethiopian style which instead of being all about the hips is all about the shoulders. While stamping your feet, with your hands on your hips, you rotate or shimmy your shoulders around energetically. This isn’t just a traditional style either, it’s the same moves in pubs and clubs too. It’s really tricky to get the hang of and tiring to keep going but it feels quite slinky for the 30 seconds when it all comes together.
Bahir Dar is a lazy feeling town with wide streets and lots of cafes and hotels. The fascinating market in the centre of town sells all sorts: frankincense (used in the coffee ceremony) and spices, chickens, coffee pots, all sorts of grains, chat (for chewing), injera stoves (for the sour pancakes) and second hand clothes. We were adopted by a young man and his friend to show us round the market, meet his mother selling coffee pots, and bargain on our behalf for a couple of warm jumpers we’d need for the Simien Mountains. After that we all shared some dinner and drinks to say thank you and then parted because today was Ethiopian Christmas eve and there was a nighttime mass in the church we were curious to see.
For any church or holy event, even regular Sundays, everyone wears white with a large white scarf covering the head – for both men and women. On this day the church was packed. The priest would chant/sing sermons and excerpts from the bible and this was piped outside the church over speakers to where we were stood amongst the sparse crowd of white clad worshipers surrounding the church. Every now and again, in unison, with no signal, the people inside and outside the church would mutter or sing something back or bow to the floor in a way you would expect to see in a mosque, or read quietly from their own pocketsized copies of the bible. At some point the replica of the arc of the covenant is brought out under the shade of a glitzy umbrella and paraded around, and at various points the priests would disappear behind a curtain although the singing/chanting would go on. We were able to move freely around the outside of the church, move amongst the corwds and peer in the windows. It was extremely atmospheric and somber mood and a little spooky moving amongst all the white robes. We left about 3am and they we could still hear them chanting at 5am when we got up to go to the loo, the hotel not being far from the church.
The previous day we had been invited by Bisrat the manager to his family’s house for Christmas dinner which was very nice of him. There were several other hotel guests invited as well and we all went by minibus to be greeted by his mother in a very modern 2 up 2 down house in the town. Bisrat The Distracted disappeared and left us to drink beers brought by the maid and get to know each other and then he came back later for dinner. Christmas dinner was just like normal dinner – with various tasty, spicy stews and injira pancakes. Bisrat disappeared again and while he was out some itinerant praise singers paid a visit and sang us all songs (which unfortunately we couldn’t understand) and stopped for some coffee. Just like carol singers really We left in the mid afternoon and ended up hooking up with a group of Ethiopian, Swedish and German people we’d crossed paths with the night before round the fire. They’d all been up all night and we still drinking so we went for a birthday dinner for it was one of the Ethiopian lady’s birthday, and ended up back at the fire for a night of deep and strange conversations – for she was quite philosophical and had many opinions which made for a thought provoking evening. A typical Christmas I suppose – boozy conversations round an open fire.
A lovely, interesting day, but Christmas wasn’t the festivity we thought it might have been. Religiously significant and family oriented certainly but without the celebration you might have expected. But wait, Epiphany celebration is just around the corner and that one’s supposed to be a big’un.