Sunday, February 10, 2008

Glimpses of the Blue Nile, and Bahir Dar

We have a bumping ride over hilly, yellow brown earth, with occasional pockets of forest (deforestation is a big issue here) as we head to the north-western Ethiopian highlands. Shortly before landing, we see the Blue Nile river, and possibly the Tis Isat waterfalls, before circling the edge of Lake Tana, the largest in Ethiopia and the source of the Blue Nile. From Bahir Dar, 578km from Addis Ababa, the plane is going on to Gonder, but I disembark, and as I’m being hassled by someone from one of the hotels offering a “free” shuttle, Atsedeweyn invites me to join her and share a cab into town. Then in the cab she offers me a room in her house! The cab is 20 birr each, and in ten minutes we’re outside her building, which turns out to be a multipurpose modern block with restaurant, shops, offices and her house up at the top.

The two maid girls come dashing down, kissing Atsedewyn’s legs, hugging, and exchanging up to five kisses per greeting! I meet Alex, who is like a son to her, and runs the whole block, with his office up top on the roof. Atsedeweyn invites me in, and we’re served popcorn and nuts as her feet are washed and massaged by Salam, the elder of the two maids. She throws some incense on hot coals, and then we’re served lunch, of injera, which is a slightly sour greenish Ethiopian pancake and the staple base food, with several dishes to put on top, ground linseed, spinach, potatoes, lentils etc.

One eats with one’s hand, tearing some of the large pancake, and using that to scoop up one of the condiments. It’s delicious!

On the floor is all the gear for a traditional coffee ceremony, a tray with cups, surrounded by papyrus grass, and a clay pot sitting on the hot coals, from which Salam pours us coffee.

Then I have a tour of the building with Alex, taking in the marvellous view from the top over the town and lake, with the palace on hills in the distance. Downstairs, I visit the internet café, which turns out to have a 40k dialup connection shared amongst the whole café. Needless to say it’s not much fun using the internet, and Blogger doesn’t even load, so no blog updates here! I email Dad to say I’m not in Nairobi any more (!) – my last SMS to him said I was on my way there, and given the news today, with more violence erupting, I decided it would be unkind to leave my assumed whereabouts in that state.

The girls in the café make me a cd of Ethiopian music, then I head out to the local church, St. George’s, with Atsedeweyn and her niece.

It’s an Orthodox church, the most common variation of Christianity in Ethiopia, which is still a strongly Christian country. Outside the church at any time of day one sees a dozen or so people bowing and praying facing the church, touching the gate, and at this time, during the service, the grounds are busy, with men sitting on one side, on rocks, women on the other, all wrapped in white shawls, as the preacher’s words echo out through loudspeaker as he stands at a pulpit set up outside the church doors. He appears to be reading to the congregation, in Amharic, so I stay a short while then head down to Lake Tana just the other side of the church.

Pelicans on Lake Tana, and some Tej Beats

There’s a pleasant breeze coming off the lake. We’re also 1840m up. There are several large pelicans bobbing up and down just in front of us – they really are an amusing-looking bird – the caricatures in Finding Nemo are spot on.

I snap a couple of photos then a nasty-looking chap with a camera slung around his neck comes up to me and demands 4 birr for a “photo permit”. I refuse point blank. He then says I must stop taking photos. I demand 4 birr for a permit for him. Cheeky sod. Like everyone else, I grab one of the chairs lined up like deckchairs, with makeshift coverings made from colourful plastic string wound around the frame. My beer is 5.5 birr.

I notice others having injera with toppings, shared between friends, or fried lake fish. The sun goes down, and the breeze is cool. Very pleasant.

Next I walk along the main street, with a chap following me, asking questions and offering to sort me out with a boat, hotels, girls, you name it. I ignore him, and ask about a SIM card in a mobile phone shop. It turns out that they only have them in Addis Ababa, they don’t have them here, but give them a couple of days and they’ll get one in for me, for a mean 700 birr, or about 35 quid! I don’t think so! The problem in Ethiopia is that the telcos are all state run, so no competition, so nothing is especially cheap, whether SIMs, airtime, SkypeOut etc. What is cheap is café life, and there are dozens of cafes just on the street I am on now, which is a bit of a mess as the Chinese are rebuilding it, to be complete in a month according to one chap, six according to Atsedeweyn.

Back at home, dinner is being prepared, a traditional welcome feast for Atsedeweyn. For this, they purchased a whole sheep, brought it here, and the butcher came round for the slaughter here in the kitchen!!!! Crikey! I head out to get some Tej Beat with Alex and an Uncle. A short walk away, past the “General Grocery” (Alex says this is code for liquor store), we enter into a house, where an elderly lady lies on a bed in the corner, a television plays the local equivalent of MTV, and a younger girl serves us Tej (honey wine) in closed beaker glasses, of the kind you get mad scientists making concoctions with!

Tej tastes how you’d expect – fermented honey tastes like honey, with alcohol. It’s not bad. Apparently it has a greater hit than one expects, though this also depends on the strength of the mix you consume – we fill up two plastic water bottles with the stuff, with two different strengths. It keeps a long time, still fermenting, and as it gets too strong, one simply dilutes it with more honey. As we drink, we enjoy watching the traditional dance on TV.

Ethiopian dance involves lots of shoulder shaking, which I’m not sure I could pull off without a bit of practice. I do find that it’s certainly an ice-breaker in any social situation here though, any music playing, just jerk your shoulders a bit and enjoy the inevitable smiles and laughter.

It also must be said that Ethiopian girls are gorgeous. They’ve easily jumped to number 1 in Africa, and possibly up into my All Time Great 3 – Brazil, Korea and now Ethiopia!! Somehow they combine the best of African features, the beautiful faces, big smiles and amazing eyes, without succumbing to the big bottom issue. They’re also very friendly, although Johnny was saying that the girls in Addis Ababa play such hard-to-get that you never do get them! Female sources have also informed me that Ethiopian chaps are quite dishy too, though I hadn’t noticed.

We’re back for dinner, and after saying an extended grace, we enjoy the delicious meal, on injera pancakes of course. After the dinner, there’s more thanks said, with each person taking time to say their own words. The meal is the mutton, plus traditional Ethiopian tripe, a portion of which they kindly cooked a bit extra for me, though I would have tried the normal stuff. Still, no point in going against local advice, eh?

After finishing more than enough tej, I am served tea, then move my bags downstairs, where Alex has set up a bed in one of the empty offices for me. We pop out for a last beer downstairs in the restaurant, and I get to try Alex’s favourite, “Special” (always said with a knowing look, as it’s stronger than the other beers!)

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