Friday, August 20, 2010

Going North

Wednesday July 21, 2010

Ever since I heard there were medieval castles in northern Ethiopia, I have been pining to go on a quest to find them and therefore at the absolute last minute and completely spur of the moment I decided to throw caution to the wind and go. I found myself heading north at 4am Saturday night/Sunday morning on what can only be titled an epic adventure. To avoid exhaustive description and superfluous sentences I will limit the details of my trip to the four main attractions.

1)Spent Sunday afternoon cruising Lake Tana, on which the “city” of Bahir Dar is situated. The boat, although less than “complete” in the hippo and crocodile infested waters, made it around the lake with minimal bailing. While Lake Tana is simply a beautiful (and shockingly clean, by Ethiopian standards) vista, what is hidden on the islands and far shores is far more spectacular. Century old monasteries adorned with biblical murals and cross-wielding priests live in near isolation on self-sustainable convents. What interested me most, however, was that some of the monasteries may have been sites of pre-Christian shrines, although they were built in the 16th and 17th centuries, well after Jesus supposedly attempted to impose Christianity on the Ethiopian people. All the churches are built in the orthodox Christian style, which is quite yurt-like, with separate entrances for men and women, if women are allowed at all. I learned, after being spit on by a sister, that you must take off your shoes before entering. And because it is Ethiopia, it is customary to tip the priest, who offers a gentle reminder with his outstretched hand.

2)Monday I made my way up to Gonder (where the castles are!) by spending another 3 hours jammed into an overfilled mini-van type taxi. To be honest, aside from the biggest tree I have ever seen in the town square, the previous capital of Ethiopia looks exactly like every other place here. In the valley, tin-roof shacks line the streets and although significantly smaller, the merkato there is just as frustrating. But I was warned: “it’s not what Gonder is, but what it was” that’s truly spectacular. And it’s true. Presiding over the city are the walls of medieval style castles that predate that era in Europe. How they were built, where the architecture came from is all part of the mystery. What is clear is that each dynasty built their own castle, complete with lion cages. I think the best description is its nickname: The Camelot of Africa. Only it’s real, I promise.

3)Upon returning to Bahir Dar and after seriously catching up on sleep, I suffered serious bumps and bruises taking the rocky road out to the village of Tis Isat site of the Blue Nile Falls. Which were not blue. At all. It was a brown and mucky mess product of the rainy season, but powerful and amazing all the same, and actually more so because it was the rainy season. I have a personal affinity for waterfalls and this did not disappoint, although apparently they were even more magnificent before the hydroelectric project upstream stole most of falls energy. But really in the end, hydroelectric project and Ethiopia in the same sentence is probably the most magnificent combination in the world. The sun even came out long enough to witness a beautiful rainbow and I left damp from the mist, rising out of the gorge. At the convergence water pours over the cliffs into a chasm that cannot even be seen because the mist is so thick and overwhelming. Tis Isat, the name of the village, literally means “water that smokes” and I don’t think I could describe it any better.

4)A lot of ridiculous things happen to me. I am like a magnet for the absurd. If you don’t know me, just take this at face value. Think of the most ridiculous thing to happen to you, multiply by 10 and subtract 5, just for good measure and you get my life. But of all the ridiculous things to ever happen to me this tops the chart. This goes off the chart. The 9 hour journey back to Addis pretty much exceeded all my expectations of ridiculous, so much so that I don’t even know what the right word would be. What goes above and beyond, outlandish, preposterous, outrageous? Because that’s what this was. Ok so here goes.

Remember the furry taxis? Well I decided to take one home to Addis, only it wasn’t furry. Thinking they wouldn’t jam as many people into it for 9 hours, I thought I was scoring the deal of a lifetime. I was wrong. There are 11 legitimate seats in a mini-van taxi. Over the course of the journey we fit 16 adults, one child, one rooster and a goat (that was later removed and tied to the roof…it was pouring rain). So after the taxi gets underway, the four men squashed into the three seats behind me start passing a flask. As they get more and more inebriated one of the gentlemen takes a firm grip on my pig-tails and begins to “milk” them for lack of a better term. This goes on past hilarity and into annoyance at which point I put an end to the madness and try to sleep for a couple of hours. Oh yes, have I mentioned this taxi ride is from 7pm – 5am?

So we take our one bathroom/stretch break and the man with the goat climbs on top of the car, grabs the animal by its neck and checks to see if it is still alive, which it is, only I'm sure it's in sever shock. Then he proceeds to fight with the driver and I can just assume it’s about bringing the sopping wet animal back into the taxi. I am going to let my reaction to that one go unsaid.

Around 3am the taxi arrives at the Nile crossing, a beautiful bridge built for the Millennium, and monitored by the army. A soldier with a large gun opens the door and asks to see identification cards which he briefly considers before returning them to their owners. Finally he receives my passport and as he realizes where I am from his face lights up, I mean it really begins to glow in the yellow hue of the flashlight. With haste he passes his automatic weapon off to the child and begins to unbutton his uniform, pausing only to lift a finger in the “wait one second, don’t go anywhere gesture.” As if I could. So as the uniform looses, the soldier draws it back to reveal a tee-shirt bearing Barack Obama’s face with the slogan “Proud to be American.” Smile and nod, smile and nod.

At 5am the rooster in the taxi went off…

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