Entry 9 - Ethiopia: Part 3 (Bahir Dar)

January 24, 2011 - Johannesburg, South Africa

The following morning we woke up early to take a tour of the monasteries on the islands and peninsulas of Lake Tana. The monasteries were built by Jesuit monks durinng the 17th century, and are renowned for the paintings on their walls.  To get from island to island the hotel had organized us a speedboat to take us around. The boat looked like it had seen better days and to call it a speedboat was a bit of a lie – it merely had a single twenty-five horsepower engine to ferry around the group of sixteen people on board. We would be taking a very, very slow tour…

There are about ten different monasteries on the lake, but because our boat would’ve have taken days to see merely half of them, we only got round to seeing two.

Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian countries in the world. Whereas most other African countries adopted the religion from their European colonisers, Ethiopia has an ancient Christian history – the religion was introduced as early as the 4th century AD, and Orthodox Ethiopian Christianity is the biggest religion in the country. Looking at the religion from a European Christian church’s point of view – such as Anglicanism or Roman Catholicism – Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity is filled with wonderfully absurd eccentricities, even though the fundamentals of Christianity are still very much in place.

The monasteries are filled with paintings of biblical stories, supposedly as old as the 17th century churches that contain them. Either our tour guide was lying to us about their age, or he was unaware of the fact that they were recently renovated or he forgot to tell us this, or they were painted masterfully with such brilliantly resilient, anti-aging materials that their colours shine as bright as if they were painted a mere year or two ago.

Regardless of the paintings’ ages, it was a lot of fun looking at them. The style of painting is vastly different from the paintings you usually see in the old churches of Europe, and are more reminiscent of the first biblical pictures you encountered in books like “My first fully illustrated Bible” or “Otto gaan Kerk toe” when you went to Sunday school when you were five years old.

The paintings are bright, colourful and charming, and looking at them was like doing a quiz show of your biblical knowledge – “there’s the story of Noah’s Ark”, “there’s Adam and Eve”, “there’s the last supper”, “there’s the massacre of King Herod”. The paintings also have a unique characteristic about them – all the believers’ faces are painted from the front, with the entire face and both eyes fully visible; whilst a non-believers’ face is always shown as a mere profile – one half of a non-believer’s face is always hidden and  only one eye is ever visible. It is also an easy way of telling the goodies from the baddies in the moments when you find your biblical knowledge left wanting…

Having been at a staunch Anglican high-school where a Bible was thrown at you if you fell asleep during the marathon masses and chapel services, we were pretty good at the Bible quiz show, yet there was one picture that we could not figure out or remember at all – a picture of a man with a machete busy decapitating people, whilst chewing away at a leg of a corpse from a mountain of previously-decapitated people alongside him. We eventually gave up and asked our tour guide to help us.

It seems we were caught out by one of the eccentricities of the Ethiopian Orthodox church’s beliefs. They believe in all the usual Christian tales that you find in the Western Bible – such as the stories of Jesus, or of Cane and Abel and so on – yet they also have scores of extra biblical stories of saints, either additional stories of already-known Biblical figures like Mary or stories of saints never mentioned in the bible. It is almost as if they have a supplementary bible or, as I like to see it, a “Bible with Spice”.

The tour guide explained the seemingly absurd mural to us – it was one of these saucy stories from the “Bible with Spice”. The scene depicted was the tale of Saint Belai the Cannibal. Belai was asked by God to sacrifice his son. After he made the sacrifice, the devil came to Belai and convinced him to taste the flesh of his sacrificed son. Belai so enjoyed the taste of his son’s flesh that he became a murderous cannibal, eventually murdering and eating more than seventy people. The person who eventually brought an end to his killing spree was the Virgin Mother Mary herself, who cured him of his bloodlust, saved his soul and secured him a spot in the sainthood.

Another funny mural we found amongst all the different tales was a painting that had two men standing with AK-47’s alongside other biblical figures. Our tour guide informed us that monks honour people who have donated money to the church by drawing their picture onto the walls. He also told us that Ethiopians firmly believe that one of the three wise men – Balthazar – was Ethiopian, as the gift of frankincense he brought to Jesus when he was born was only found in Ethiopia at the time, and that archaeologists also believe that an ancient grave they found in Lalibela belonged to him.

After the seemingly eternal boat ride back to our hotel, we organized ourselves some bicycles to go exploring around Bahir Dar. The bikes were very old, with uncomfortable seats and brakes that didn’t really work, but they merely cost 10 Birr (R5) an hour to hire so we weren’t expecting much. We drove around the main town area checking out the shops and local market, an adventure eased by the fact that the town is nice and flat. The real fun came when we drove off the main roads and headed off onto the more obscure roads and found ourselves driving through the townships.

We found a local shebeen and pulled over to sit with a local family and share a cheap beer with them. After a friendly chat, we waved goodbye, and as soon as we found ourselves on the main road again a bunch of young local kids starting driving alongside us, trying to get to us to race against them. They were soundly beaten, and after the race we asked them to lead us to the bus station as one of our group members wanted to make a day trip to a nearby historical city. They happily obliged, yet after we drove off from the station they followed us home, begging for a tip for the “tour” they gave us. They didn’t get one.

It was our truck driver’s birthday on Wednesday, 28 October 2010, so we planned to have a braai for his birthday. Our entire truck took an overnight trip to the ancient city of Lalibela, so the only people left behind to celebrate with our driver, Mark, was my brother and I, the other two South Africans on the truck and a Japanese guy. The Japanese guy, Yotchi, had grossly underbudgeted for his African adventure and was now stuck unable to do any activities whatsoever and was left eating tomato sauce and mayonnaise sandwiches with nothing on them except said sauces.

My brother and I made it our mission to be the ones to organize the meat for the braai, so we climbed onto a tuk-tuk to go and find some meat. A tuk-tuk is a three-wheeled motorbike taxi that you see everywhere in Ethiopia, and we used it in on our mission to find some beef fillet.

We visited four or five different butcheries and couldn’t find good meat anywhere. We found out that it was due to the fact the Orthodox Ethiopians have fasting days on Wednesdays and Fridays. They are not allowed to eat certain types of foodstuffs on these days, red meat being one of them, so instead we descended on the local market, hoping to get a few things to prepare a different sort of feast.

Local markets throughout Africa are an awesome experience. The variety of things that you can find there boggles the mind - the markets have fantastic fruits and vegetables; live chickens and goats walk around, waiting to be sold; clothing stalls display a wonderful array of fake, cheap or second-hand clothes; stalls sell pots and pans and other cooking utensils; there are rows upon rows of spice, rice, bread, flour, eggs and pasta stalls; and stalls filled with a remarkable assortment of all sorts of miscellaneous goods, where if you look hard enough you can come across rare gems and unique treasures.

We decided we would make a massive brunch, so we started scouring the place to find ourselves some breakfast foods. After spending time debating prices, hunting bargains and looking to find the best quality foods, we left as satisfied buyers. The African market had not let us down – we found all the food stuffs we were looking for, plus I bought a new pair of cheap sandals and we found a sparkler and a party hat for our driver.

We made ourselves a massive brunch and ordered ourselves a round of beers – our driver was flattered by the cheap party hat we bought him, and before we had even finished our brunch he had already put his party hat on, a cheap crown declaring him king for the day. Our plan was to finish our beers then to take to the lake and go for a spot of afternoon fishing as the truck we were on had fishing rods on it. Once we discovered we had no fish hooks we left the idea, and instead ordered ourselves a second round of beers so we could debate on what we would get up to next.

The debate of what we would get up to next turned into a mindless debate of life in general. It was a perfect afternoon and we were starting to get very comfortable in our camping chairs, cosily set up in a circle right next to the truck. We took turns ordering rounds, and as the day progressed things started getting sillier. Our truck was parked right next to the lake, and scores of locals stopped and stared at the foranji’s sitting lazily in the sun. Later, the locals were the ones weren’t merely stopping and staring but laughing at us as well, when we started doing our own interpretations of Ethiopian dances. Robert was the only one of us who seemed to be getting the shoulder movements right, whilst our Japanese friend was doing his own unique Japanese dance.

The next thing we realised it was getting dark – we had opened up our first beer at eleven o’clock in the morning, and we hadn’t moved a metre from the spot we had eaten brunch right next to the truck yet. Some of the hotel staff came over to congratulate our driver on his birthday, and to see what all the commotion was about. Once they were fed up hearing our inebriated ramblings on about what a “great, interesting, awesome” country Ethiopia is, they left us to our own devices once more.

The night stretched on into the darkest hours of the evening, and our driver decided that he had had enough of drinking local Ethiopian beer. He made his way around the evidence of the day’s festivities – a number of untidy little piles of St. George’s lager bottles strewn around our camping chairs – and went searching around the secret spaces inside his driver’s cabin. He returned with a smile on his face and something in his hands that he reserved for “special occasions” – a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label Whisky…

We sat around talking and philosophising about Africa in general while leisurely sipping on Johhny Black. We started seriously discussing the possible opportunities and threats of a possible business venture my brother and I had started working on during the afternoon – importing the fillets of culled hippos from Zambia’s Luangwa game reserve to South Africa to sell to all the meat-lovers we knew back home. We were busy pondering how many kilograms of fillet a fully-grown culled hippo would provide when we were rudely interrupted by one of nature’s most gut-wrenching sounds – the sound of birds cheerfully chirping as they merrily greet the dawn of a new day.

We hesitated for a few seconds before deciding to pour ourselves another round. We had seen the whole of Bahir Dar – we went to see the waterfall nearby, we experienced the lake monasteries, we cycled through all the sites the town had to offer and we had met enough locals – so we decided that we would not be wasting a day sleeping off the excesses of a wonderful birthday party.

After another drink or so, we were struck by another gut-wrenching sound, this time more intense and daunting than the cacophonous chirping of the birds. In Ethiopia, the Christian churches call their faithful to morning prayer in the same fashion the mosques call their faithful to come have their morning prayers – with a terrible droning sound that sounds like a high-pitched continuous vuvuzela hanging in the air at the start of a new day.

It was now officially time to go to bed. When the birds started chirping, we were being naughty when we poured ourselves another drink. We decided to call it a night - it was about seven in the morning, our driver was still wearing his cheap birthday hat, and good old decent Ethiopian folk were making their way to church - if we were going to pour ourselves another drink, it would have been blasphemous…

We all awoke in the afternoon on Thursday. Our group members who had left to Lalibela hadn’t returned from their excursion yet, so we took it upon ourselves to cook ourselves something. Our driver had to get the truck jump-started as the batteries had died from playing music from it the entire previous day.

The hotel owner organised us some fillet due to our misfortune with the butcheries the previous day, so I set up a braai to hopefully prepare some soul food to cure the consequences of the exorbitant fun we had had for our driver’s birthday. After the unexpectedly labour-intensive process of braaiing the meat (unexpected because I hadn’t realised how badly I just wanted to lie down and do nothing), I finally put forward the meat. It was so tough that none of us could eat a single piece – it was obviously low-quality meat, and it had a texture similar to rubber.

Moments after our failed soul food experiment, our other group members arrived back from their little trip to Lalibela. We were expecting them to come back, chirpy and cheerful, enriched and inspired from what they had seen – instead we were met with eighteen unimpressed frowns. We thought we were looking worse for wear lazily nursing our hangovers, they all looked that they had development serious depression during their day away. Their trip had been a disaster…

To get to Lalibela from Bahir Dar is a six-hour drive, yet apparently their lunatic Ethiopian driver pushed his rickety old bus to its limit as he tried to reach Lalibela in five hours instead of six. Lalibela receives rave reviews from the tourist guide books for the ancient Christian churches they built there from stone. The place they stayed for the night was terrible, and it turned out that the sights were less impressive than they had hoped.

To add insult to injury, they were continually harassed by locals begging and hustling any tourist and their guide of the place was uninformed and spoke very broken English. The trip was concluded by the terrifying drive back to Bahir Dar, which was apparently filled with numerous close calls and a row that broke out between all the passengers and the driver about his maniacal driving. To finish all off, they returned back, saw some of our leftover fillet and helped themselves to it as they were exhausted and starving, only to realize that it tasted like old rubber…

The six of us who had stayed behind had a quiet laugh to ourselves. We had quite literally not moved further than ten metres from the truck since they had left, and we had the time of our lives – the countless meaningless conversations and endless laughter we had during our little birthday party had made it a highlight of our trip…

We all had an early night’s sleep on the Thursday, and left first thing on the Friday morning to get the four-hour drive to Gonder - a town North of Bahir Dar and our final stop in Ethiopia on our way to Sudan…


Hendrik and Robert

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