Sunday, February 01, 2015

Ethiopia, Take Two

The plane took off approximately on time at eleven. I figured that it was about an hour's flight to Addis, which was important, inasmuch as I had a carefully choreographed sequence of events I had to execute once we landed. But ten minutes after takeoff the pilot announced that we were about to descend to Dire Dawa, a dusty berg about fifty miles from Harar. Oh oh. This was going to mess things up.

An hour later the previously nearly empty plane was now full of Ethiopians traveling on, for them, a local flight. So I might have expected that when we landed at Addis the plane would roll past the international terminal—the place where you got those visas on arrival—and taxied up to the domestic one.
After everyone else had been cleared, there was only me, a Chinese businessman who didn't speak a word of non-Chinese, and two ethnically indeterminate guys. And an immigration lady who kept saying, 'Just wait'. It took at least twenty minutes for someone to commandeer a bus to drives us the hundred yards or so to the international terminal. Fortunately, it being the middle of the day, there was no line for the visas, so that part was pretty painless.
Out of the terminal and at the taxi line, I now had the look of someone who knew what he was doing, so the driver only slightly overcharged me for the ride past all the insane construction and into downtown. I had previously scouted out the Ras Hotel. Built around 1970, during the time of the Derg, the insane sadistic pseudo-Marxists, it was a shabby mess reminiscent of Soviet times. But it was extremely centrally located, and thus vital to my plans. I lugged my stuff in and brightly asked for a single.
'No rooms' the matronly manager said. Okay, that wasn't good. Think fast. 'Well, can I leave my things here for an hour?' 'Sure, why not?' Around the side to the left luggage room. Now a brisk fifteen minute walk through construction to the small bus ticket office. Where I snagged the last ticked to Bahir Dar. Yes! Back fifteen minutes to the Ethiopian Airlines office across the street from the Ras. Where, with typical crisp, intelligent Ethiopian Airlines efficiency the nice girl fixed up all my onward travel plans. And as a bonus called the National Museum to see if my camera was there. Of course not. But at least it saved me a useless taxi ride there and back.
I now remembered something from my travels to former Soviet hotels. When they tell you that they don't have a room, if you are pleasant and persistent, sooner or later they usually come up with something. So back across the street, where I tried my charm with the manager matron. Sure enough, twenty minutes later a room materialized. A really crappy one, with no wifi, for $34. But, triumphant, I fell back on the mushy bed. Missions accomplished. I still had it.
Next morning I was up at 4:30, brushed my teeth, and took a taxi the 1 km to the Meskel Square bus lot. The flip side of getting the last ticket is that you get the last seat, so there I was in the back corner, with my long American legs with nowhere to go. Totally coincidentally, once again the only other foreigner on the bus was sitting next to me. This time it was a 27 year old German girl named Sara, whose long legs were also squooshed, and who didn't handle motion sickness all that well, either.
On top of that the windows were mostly blacked out, so it was hard to see outside. What I did see was mostly unattractive brown fields and small hillsides, kind of like California in the summertime. All in all, though the ten hour ride went smoothly enough, and at a little before four we were deposited in the center of Bahir Dar.
This small city is situated on Lake Tana, Ethiopia's largest, and is thus a vacation destination for middle class Ethiopians. At a lower altitude than Addis, it is distinctively hot and humid, and is replete with palm trees. Descending from the bus, we were surrounded by a group of semi-annoying touts, whose purpose was to route us to a hotel. But it turned out that they weren't particular about which one, since they would get a commission from whoever. So we let one take us on a tuk-tuk (autorickshaw to you India hands) to a few of them. We settled on the NGG, which for $10 had decent backpacker rooms with hot water and wifi.
That evening I was sitting on the 'patio' of a semi-Ethiopian-hip cafe, overlooking the town and contemplating the country. By now, being reasonably well and rested, not to mentioned properly seasoned, I decided that I really liked the place. And I especially liked the people. They are markedly intelligent, moderate, and pleasant, and I was most impressed by their sense of self respect, which is usually pretty absent in really poor countries. Even the beggars are mostly polite. I've seen touts which are much worse. And the rest of the Ethiopian public is incredibly embarrassed and apologetic about them.
Speaking of touts, it turns out that their main purpose is to try and sell you a lake tour. Although they all work for the same company. So the only question is whether you pay $15, $20, or $25 for the exact same thing.
Anyway, next morning there was me, Lisa, a young German go-getter named Chris, a black bodybuilder from Brooklyn named Omar, and several sets of middle class Ethiopians, all sitting in our smallish tour boat with canvas roof and 25 hp motor. Off we went across brown, mostly stable water to a first, small island, which contained a first, small monastery. We each paid our $5 entrance fee.
When you hear the word 'monastery' you probably think of some giant Medieval structure, with old monks' quarters, a beautiful chapel, and sacred relics. Here the monastery consisted of a small round church, with an even smaller building nearby where a tiny monk showed us an old book. And that was it. I have absolutely no idea where any monks would live.
Feeling ripped off, we all got back on the boat, which dutifully motored on to another small island which, you guessed it, had another small monastery. This time none of the Westerners paid, although the Ethiopians did (they probably had a much, much lower rate). So we all stood around, appreciating the trees which surrounded us, while they trooped off.
Next our boat chugged over to a peninsula, and from the landing there was a three minute walk to another monastery, which was a somewhat larger circular church. I was the only Westerner to pay the $5 to go in, and when I did I was confronted with a circular interior wall which was covered head to toe with tens and tens of religious paintings. All of which I am sure illustrated well known Ethiopian Christian stories. But for me it was just innumerable people in halos slaying dragons and looking heavenward.
The entrance fee also covered a small museum, where contained various crosses and books and crowns. But with my 'camera' now being that $20 cell phone, good luck getting any pictures of that in the dark.
One more stop further down the peninsula. This time a fifteen minute walk through the woods uphill past innumerable souvenir stalls to an even larger church. Okay, this was definitely going to be a repeat of the last one. But, hey, I had just invested all that energy to get here, so I gave $5 more to see even more chockablock floor to ceiling religious paintings.
Strolling back down to the boat, I stopped to chat with the locals, as I am wont to do. Being a small businessman myself, I am always sympathetic to the plight of these stall keepers. Still, there are so many of them, and so few things that I want to/can buy.
Puttering back across the lake, we ended up where the Blue Nile exits the lake and begins its journey up to Egypt. Having also been at the spot in Uganda where the White Nile exits Lake Victoria, this was kind of neat for me. The Ethiopians, however, were intent on walking up the 'pier' to a fish 'restaurant', actually a little lean to where they were each served plates of two charred tilapia with their blank eyes helpfully removed. Omar, Chris, and the Ethiopians all dug in.
It was past 4:30 when our 'half day' cruise was finally over. Chris, Sara & I walked for a half mile or so along the lakefront, ending up at an (Ethiopian) upper end restaurant, where we used up the early evening eating and talking. Then it was time to slowly walk back and have a mango juice at that semi-hip cafe. And then retire for the evening.
The next morning Chris, Sara & Omar all took off for Gonder. But by now I've learned my travel lessons, and I took my mandatory Old Man Day Off. The past three days, which would have been fine and normal even ten years ago, actually would have been pretty exhausting for most normal people. And my age has now made me one of them. So I deliberately did absolutely nothing: Have a long breakfast; walk along the lake; stop for some coffee; more walk around the lake; rest in the room and get frustrated by the bad internet connections; walk around the lake; order a dinner which was exactly the same as my breakfast.
And that was about it.


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