Nathan and my escape from Addis began at 0400 last Saturday, September 7th. We dressed quickly because of the cold—who would have thought your breath could fog in September in East Africa?—and headed out to catch our 0730 flight to the northern lake city, Bahir Dar. Since the airport was only 3 km from our hostel and we didn’t want to hire a car, I figured we could walk to the airport safely if we kept a fast pace and our eyes up. Addis’ streets are remarkably busy at this late hour. Prostitutes were out in force as were gaggles of young guys bantering amongst themselves. (We avoided both groups.) We also shared the streets with several families. They appeared to be families from the countryside walking into the city for some errand. (Why so early?—I have no idea.) We got to the airport in good time and safely.
Our flight to Bahir Dar was short and smooth. Bahir Dar’s airport can’t, in good conscience, really be called an airport. The terminal building itself is small and virtually entirely under construction. It had walls and a ceiling to be sure, but little else. After our plane landed, we hustled through to grab one of the many hawking hotel shuttles into the city proper. The drive in showed a remarkable contrast between Ethiopian country and city life.
Leaving the airport, we went through a few miles of farmland. Livestock—cows, goats, and sheep—meandered in the road and grazing fields. And, the crop fields next to the grazing land was so vibrantly colored. Green permeated everywhere, broken only by shocks of yellow, purple, or pink flowers hugging the roadside. The sky was clear blue—a refreshing discovery following Cairo’s perpetual gray haze and Addis’ cloudy climate—and looking over the fields, we could see the massive Lake Tana stretching to the horizon. (Lake Tana is Africa’s third largest lake.)
As we passed by the fields, we also passed numerous farmers walking along the road or running through the fields. They wore traditional (and also extremely practical) garments, generally including a pair of sandals (either rubber or hemp-like), short shorts, a large, thickly-woven cotton shawl, and a tall walking stick or curved shepherd’s crook. This scene of agrarian peace was disturbed only by the sound of our bus and honking from other vehicles, especially as we neared the city.
Bahir Dar is a small city of ~180,000 inhabitants. Unlike Addis, its main avenues are well-paved with medians dominated by beautiful palm trees and flowers. We drove to our hotel, and booked a lovely room for 450 birr. (Divided by two, that seemed about the running price for a decent room in the city.) After getting settled, we headed to the other side of town (a ten minute walk away) to meet our friend, Yanush. We met Yanush in our hostel in Addis, and decided by the previous Wednesday to join forces and conquer Ethiopia’s north together. (Pun intended since Ethiopia is the only African country besides Liberia never to be conquered by Europeans.) A quick sidebar on this great guy from down under:
Yanush is of Polish descent living in the bush in Australia, a self-proclaimed Polish-Australian. (There can’t be many of those, can there?) He’s got a tremendous travel pedigree, having been to every post-USSR bloc state except two, throughout the Balkans, to the US three times, and a number of other spots. Yanush is remarkable for a number of reasons, two especially being his unflappability and his kindness.
Since we’ve traveled together, Yanush, Nathan, and I have met our fair share of difficulties, from basic extortion by scammers to poor living accommodations to other day-to-day challenges. Throughout every episode, though Yanush can get annoyed like the rest of us, he is quick to find humor in any situation. And, he is absolutely hilarious. Today, a guy tried to bug us while we were chilling in a microbus. Yanush responded by railroading the guy’s attempts with a nonsensical story beginning with a nightmare he had about bananas and ending with an anecdote about “Everyone Loves Raymond.” Yanush is also infamous in the countryside by this point for regaling local beggar children with tales of George Clooney’s exploits in Ethiopia. To be sure, they understand little of what he’s saying—which is probably good since it’s basically all lies—but they love his energy and laugh along all the same.
Yanush also stands out to me as one of the kindest individuals I have ever met on the road. At every turn where there is someone in need Yanush has gone out of his way to help that person. One day, we highway-trekked about 16 km to a town. We were so thirsty, but he gave a bunch of his water to some kids anyway. Similarly: we were on a bus a couple days ago when the girl next to me was getting sick. Yanush quickly handed over his water and tissues. Also, Yanush doesn’t like getting ripped off as often happens out here, and is defensive about it for sure. But his philosophy about tipping is that the buck or three he is giving away now is very little to him, but means a lot to the person he’s giving it you. (Or it should at least.) Consistently—and consistency is what I look for most in people—Yanush kindness stands out.
For these reasons and others, Nathan and I have been very lucky to meet up with Yanush. It’s been a real pleasure traveling together.
We made it over to Yanush’s hotel (Ghion Hotel, located on Lake Tana’s shore) in good order, happy to see Yanush and grab teas and Cokes. (IMPORTANT NOTE: Coca-Cola in Africa is so much better than Coke anywhere else. I don’t know what it is. Perhaps it’s because Cokes here are served super cold in the classic glass bottles. Or, perhaps it’s just because of scarcity—Coke isn’t special in the States where it’s always available, and here it’s a delicacy. I just don’t know why, but drinking Coke is something of a religious experience here.) We spoke with a tour guide at the hotel, who hooked us up with a boat to visit Lake Tana’s island monasteries and a hippo sighting point at the outlet of the Blue Nile from the lake.*
The boat ride to the monasteries was uneventful except to imprint on us how huge the lake actually is. There are points on the water when we you can motorboat for hours without sighting land. Once we arrived at the island housing the famed, 14th-century Debra Maryem monastery, we set off on a network of narrow trails through a thick forest to find the holy place. Again, green permeated everywhere, and the weather was beautiful. We shared the forest with the islands’ inhabitants—there is a surprisingly large community of coffee farmers there—some livestock, huge ant colonies, a dog-sized rodent-rabbit-looking thing, and monkeys!
The monastery itself was super. Divided into three concentric circles, visitors can only enter the outermost ring where are housed paintings dating to the monastery’s erection. The vividly painted works depicted many of the great Bible stories—some in all their gruesomeness—and they were quite beautiful to behold. I was struck by the fact that these remarkable works of art had survived in exceptional condition on this island, protected only by the monks’ diligence and the wood and mud structure that is the monastery. I was also struck by the difference between this artwork and that I saw in Vatican City and other European cities. These paintings certainly lacked the regality and awe-inspiring characteristics of their European counterparts. But, there was something special in their simplicity, something distinctly Ethiopian and powerful in its own right.
On our way back from the island, we got caught in a huge storm moving westward over the lake. Before it hit us, we were remarking how large and imposing it was. Then, as if on cue, we noticed it begin to move our way, churning the water beneath it with its rain and wind. Just as it hit us, our boatmen dropped tarps on the storm-side of the boat to keep us dry, and we kept on through it to the hippo-sighting spot. A notice for anyone looking for hippos on Lake Tana—if they come out at all, they only come out in the morning. So, if you’re sold a deal in the afternoon (as we were), kindly decline that part of it… Even though we missed out on the hippos, the trip to the Blue Nile outlet was well worth it. Motoring through the calm after the storm, the water and wetlands were so tranquil and very enjoyable to behold.
We got back to Bahir Dar in time to grab dinner at a good restaurant near Nathan and my hotel, and catch the Ethiopia-Central African Republic football (soccer, if you must :P) match. This match was historic for Ethiopia as winning would send Ethiopia to the next round of World Cup qualifiers—closer than the country has ever been before to representing its people and Africa on the world footballing stage. Just as we got our first round of food—pizza—CAR scored first. But just before I got my second round of food—a burger—Ethiopia scored off a lucky touch following a free kick. And then, as I was finishing my burger, Ethiopia scored again, this time off a brilliant slot to the bottom-right corner by a forward whose name I cannot recall. I was quite impressed by that goal—good quality, though it’s possible that the crappy CAR keeper should have stopped it.
We left before the match ended to get internet at a local café run by an extraordinary entrepreneur named Ababa. Ababa is a wonderful young Ethiopian lady with a degree in business and two internet cafes operating in Bahir Dar—no small accomplishment for anyone, no less a woman, in Ethiopia. And, she is so funny! When she first met Yanush, according to his account, she immediately took him to task for his labret (lip) piercing. Not knowing him yet at all, she brazenly told him that he should definitely take it out. I just love her forwardness. After I said “insh’Allah” in her presence, she interrogated Nathan as to whether I was a Muslim. (I don’t know if she was convinced by his response to the negative.) Bantering with Ababa was a real pleasure.
Getting back to the match: while we were at her café, the game ended with Ethiopia on top, and the streets went wild! Trucks rolled by with their beds full of singing fans and flags draped along their sides. The chanting and cheering continued for hours in Bahir Dar—and throughout the rest of the country, according to other travelers I’ve met. Into the night, even as club music blared beckoning street goers inside to party, a casual look out our bedroom window showed fans in the street celebrating amongst themselves late into the morning. This is a big reason why I love football. No other sport, in my estimation, galvanizes entire populations with the same fire as does this one. Moreover, no other sport galvanizes such diverse populations as this one. The jubilation that follows an important win knows no geographic, political, cultural, or socioeconomic bounds, whether that win be in developing Ethiopia, England, or anywhere in between (except maybe the USA still…). And I LOVE it.
I went to sleep with club music and cheering for lullabies. The next morning (Sunday the 8th), we made for Woreta, and the utopia beyond, Awra Amba. Awra Amba (pronounced: aw-ramba) was extraordinary in every respect, and is deserving of its own post which I will endeavor to send your way tomorrow.
Have a great day!
* If anyone reading this would like more information about our guide, the exact tour, or prices, please feel free to reach out with questions! I’ll get back pronto.
Note: Photos in this post are not mine. I will replace them with mine as soon as we hit good enough internet to do so. Stay tuned 🙂