A Travellerspoint blog

February 2011

Toot Toot Splash Splash

Rachel - Gondar

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.

Posted by rachndave 06:26 Tagged religion festivals Comments (0)

Eight days on top of Ethiopia

Rachel - Simien Mountains

I love to hike, but I don’t think my body does. I can’t predict the future but I think by body can. Every time we have been about to embark on a long trek I have been struck by some bug or other. In Iran I had diarrhoea, in Lebanon it was stomach cramps, in Malawi it was vomiting and this time, the day before we were going to head up to over 4000 metres in the Simien mountains I got hit with a nasty cough and cold.

So we started a day later than planned while I felt sorry for myself and tried to recover from the cold and bumpy 4 hour, 5am start bus journey under the covers in our hotel room and dave went to rustle up donkeys and food etc. I think I had it lucky though, our original guide had to cancel on us because his wife had just gone into labour, although super helpful he was so we had to forcibly send him away to his wife’s bedside in the end.

Day 1: Our new guide Shaggy, The scout Den and two nameless mule handlers, Dave and I made our way through the small dusty flat town and its equally small dusty market and down to the smooth rocked and meadow edged river which marked the start of the hills. We crossed the river by rocks and up through the gentle grassy hills, through forest and later wide open plains to our first campsite “Sankaber”. Dave and I had chosen to cook our own meals instead of hiring a cook and in the cooking area we one-by-one met the cast of this week’s stint in the mountains. Although each group would be walking with their guide in their own group and set out at different times we would invariably find ourselves meeting at the lookout points and rest stops and of course in the campsites over the next few days.

Day 2: Our first view from a height of the volcanic created and then river eroded valley floor. Wow. We shared our lunch with a troop of non-plussed baboons. At first we we thought they hadn’t seen us and kept quiet but then we realised they weren’t bothered in the slightest. We later caught up with some French walkers and while we approached we were hushed as if a rare shy creature had been spotted close by. As we approached we saw that we were looking down on what can only be described as a hilly baboon hobbit-village at some distance. We humoured the French for a little while and then strode noisily into the middle of the pack and watched as baboons of all ages gambled and grazed around us while others pelted themselves down the far woody hillside and chased each other round rocks. The guides had to drag us all away assuring us that there were hundreds more baboons ahead and, to paraphrase, could we, like, get over it already because we had some miles to cover :-p To which we replied “5 more minutes” :) Eventually we followed on, waving goodbye to baboon city and continued a gentle up over open gentle rolling plains, through fields of alien looking giant lobelia and small villages of round thatched houses to the stunningly situated campsite “Gitch”. Although it feels like the campsite is in the middle of nowhere there is actually a village somewhere hidden nearby and we were told we could buy a chicken there for dinner. Which we could…a live one. So while Dave went off to witness the butchery (in the halal sense) I started the sous-cheffing as the sun set and watched the cattle and horses being driven to lower ground for the night (check out the photos of the sunset and location of camp when Dave puts them up – it was breathtaking). After chopping a mountain of ginger, garlic, onions and carrot we made a tasty (if extremely rubbery) marinated chicken. Pah, who needs a chef. The campsite is at 3200 so as soon as the sun sets it gets mighty chilly so we all huddled round the campfire and turned in early only to wake at dawn to find the ground and tent covered in frost! This is not what I imaged Africa to be like! But it only added to the site’s beauty and didn’t last long at all once the sun was up again.

Day 3: Wow…again. This was by far the most spectacular day of the hike. We were climbing higher and higher along the edge of an incomprehensibly high, vertical dropping escarpment and so each turn revealed a new view of the still-high-in-their-own-right plateaus below as we climbed to 4070m to have lunch (where a sheep stole Dave’s lunch hahaha). One particularly good look out was the fabulously names GoGoMater which in Ethiopian means “go go old woman” and is named for the place where a local old woman chased after a foreigner who was walking past. Really it should have been called “Bugger me we’re high up and you can see for hundreds of miles in every direction” because we were stood on the jutting out point of the escarpment which meant you could see the craggy rocky mountains and plateaus on one side and a sheer drop and other face of the escarpment on the other. The guide pointed out where the path would take us on the other side of the vertical cliff, right along the very edge, and I think that should have been named merely “gulp”. It turned out no to be too bad because the path was a few metres back and the slope of the path was towards safety but even Dave had to lie down to peer over the edge and admitted to feeling a bit queasy when looking down. The sheer scale addled my little mind they did. The escarpment took us direct to the third and cutest of the campsites “Chenneck” where we all regrouped, lounged in the sun, drank tea, washed our steaming socks, watched the campsite baboons and eagles, and shared our “wow, wasn’t that amazing”s of the day.

Day 4. This is where all the groups parted company because there are several routes through the Simiens and we were going for the highest peak Ras Dashen. So the two of us made the slog alone down down down through the valley and along the river to the Ras Dashen base camp, stopping for lunch and some provisions shopping in a busy village having its market day. Ambiko camp is right next to a village and unfortunately it has many beggars, particularly children, who come to the camp – partly for entertainment I think - so it isn’t the most relaxing place unfortunately. I mean tot write a little separate piece about the relationship between tourists and locals later on but this place is a particularly interesting example. In the past you could stay in the village in a local person’s house if you wanted. This would give a bit of income to someone from the village and you were able to (in an admittedly small and surface way) get an idea of how people live up in the mountains. But the National Park authorities have put a stop to that – claiming reasons of “hygiene”. Which means that the village is denied an income from tourists except to beg, and tourists are forcedly separated/elevated(?) against their will from the people area they’ve come to visit. And why not in that case *teach* the villagers about hygiene which can only be a benefit to everyone? We thought it was madness and made for an uncomfortable situation all round.

Day 5. The previous day I had decided not to climb Ras Dashen with Dave because I was still coughing very badly from my cold every time we stopped for a rest so Dave went to the summit while I pottered around in camp and made friends with, and did small tasks (what they’d let me!) for the chefs who were preparing meals for the walkers. Dave was first back off the mountain and said it was a lovely walk on top of the world and despite being over 4500m wasn’t too strenuous. Everyone who came down was greeted by the chefs and mule drivers with a “Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back from Ras Dashen” song and a small posy of flowers which was a really sweet touch. Mood in the camp that night was understandably high, with campfire singing and dancing, but everyone was pooped so it was an early satisfied night for all.

Day 6. Was merely day 4 in reverse and a tough slog up up up. But at Chenneck we met a few new faces and shared our various experiences so far. Oh and a baboon stole Dave’s tea but put it down without spilling a drop just to teach him a lesson I think…cheeky baboon :) One of the newly arrived guides had a history degree and gave us all an interesting history of the country which filled in a few gaps and answered some questions not in the guidebooks. He knew much more about European and british history and politics than any of us did and made me quite ashamed how little I know. Must get one of those ‘orrible history for kids books when I get back

Day 7. We spent the day on the gravel/dust road to cut out Gitch and Sankaber camps and go straight to the site clostest to the final town. Although normally we shun the roads we were quite glad in this case as it was easier walking when we were both quite weary and footsore by now. We spent the journey piecing together what parts of history we could work out (“normans…they were important for something weren’t they…we they before or after the magna carta?”). We arrived at camp super tired after the longest days walk yet but we had promised the guides a chicken so we bought another two live chickens and together we prepared a local spiced meal and shared it with everyone. It was a real sense of achievement for us and even without much language we had a few moments around the small fire.

Day 8. We hobbled the final 4 hours back into town with various blisters and aches but finished at last to share a beer and take winners photos. Tell you what, I was looking forward to sitting on that bus back to Gonder.

I think the Simiens have been some of the most spectacular walking I’ve ever done….and I’ve been to Scotland! You should go.

Posted by rachndave 06:45 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged mountains hiking Comments (0)

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