Sunday, January 30, 2011

Ethiopia: Last Day in Gonder: The Market, Gold, and God is Calling

Call to church services awakened me. About 6:00 a.m. At first the sound - the prayer chant - seemed to come from across the street in the Royal Enclosure, but then it seemed as if someone set up a sound system and broadcast the message right into my room. I eventually surrendered and arose around 7:00 a.m.

Walked up to the lodge's terrace for breakfast: a good baguette; warmed, thick, 24-carat honey; a Spanish omelet; fresh, thick mango juice; and coffee.


Selected some clothes to be laundered and handed those off, then hand-washed a blouse and pants in the bathroom sink.

Met Belay at 10:00 at the bakery next to the Golden Internet Cafe. He took me down to the open market.

He pointed out interesting things throughout. For example, if a plate is hung by the door of a house, this means you can buy a meal there. A can propped over a post means you can buy the local alcoholic beverage there. We saw a cow being butchered; the entrails soaked in a large plastic bowl. A man buying a rooster bargained the price from 67 birr to 56 birr; he carried the colorful, drooling bird away by its feet. Belay took me into a teff seller's store and showed me the "white bread" version versus the whole-grain version. As we walked by many stalls, we smelled rye, anise, lemongrass, cumin, coriander, and other herbs and spices.

On another front, I asked Enoch yesterday about the possibility of other tourists interested in sharing a minibus to Lalibela. Flying from Gonder to Lalibela is prohibitively expensive for me, and the alternative is an arduous trip via the very inexpensive public bus, requiring arriving at the bus station at 4:30 a.m., pushing one's way through a mad crush, and squeezing into a crowded bus and hoping luggage and pockets didn't get plucked. Last night, Enoch found a German couple interested in sharing a minibus. Yay! Not cheap, but way less expensive than flying.

We arranged that I'd pay my share to Enoch today. So after the fun morning visiting the market, I walked up to Landmark Hotel, where Enoch was visiting his friend, whose name I forget. We took care of financial matters, then I had lunch at the hotel's restaurant.

Landmark Hotel's cafe - in a hilltop, woodland area, overlooks a roundabout. While awaiting my meal, I listened to a quite good country music album being broadcast by the restaurant; Enoch's friend later told me it was Don Williams.

Enoch (left) and friend
OK, so later, Enoch, his friend, and I went up to Goha Hotel for the view and to watch another wedding reception. Loved it! Men on horseback, cultural dancers, live music. I even signed the bride and groom's wedding photo!

The three of us walked down the long mountain road, in the dark, back into town, then Enoch and I had dinner at the Golden Gate Restaurant. Again, loud music; dark interior.

Ah, and the Lodge du Chateau owner had told me another couple wanted to share in the minibus to Lalibela, which was great because it would reduce my and the German couple's cost.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Ethiopia: Back to Gonder: The African Massage, The Wave, and a Wedding

Tim and Liz, the British couple, arranged for a ride back to Gonder via minibus. Although very (very) pricey, I was willing to kick in on the ride as an antidote to: a) getting up super early for the return public bus; and b) the sardine-pack conditions of the public bus.

The ride back to Gonder seemed bumpier than I remembered on the public bus, so maybe there is a cushioning effect to the pack-em-in method of same. The minibus driver called the washboard road the "African massage".

The ride back to Gonder in the minibus, carrying only the Ethiopian driver, me and the two Brits, emphasized the disconcerting "faranji effect". Children invariably waved as we approached and passed ('course, they may do this for any vehicle that goes by). One sweet girl, carrying a large load atop her head, risked everything tumbling down in order to free an arm from her balanced pack in order to wave. Sure, sometimes they're yelling "money" or "birr" or whatever, but regardless, it's a wave that I think deserves a respectful wave back -- a recognition of each kiddo.

The disconcerting part is the odd sense of celebrity, completely unwarranted except that we look different than the majority here. On the other hand, our differentness just makes it easier for the adult entrepreneurs to identify us as easy prey for the cheerful, even charming, fleecing we undergo as an Ethiopian rite of passage.

Met Belay for a coffee, then I spent about an hour in the internet cafe entering a couple of daily logs, catching up on email and Facebook.

Took a tuktuk (bajaj) up to Goha Hotel to take in the pretty view again. What!? A wedding reception going on - live music and dancing! Bridal party colors in white, tangerine, and blood-red orange. My impression was that attendees included friends and family from Canada and the U.S. Great fun to watch and clap and toe-tap along to the music.

My intent had been to return to the internet cafe, but instead I ran into Enoch and we went to dinner at the restaurant called L-Shape. Loud music; dark interior. But good music - a mix of old American R&B + Ethiopian music. We had tibs + quanta. Very good. Discussed the usual intercultural stuff such as economics and social mores.

Arrived back at my very comfortable room at Lodge du Chateau. Took a hot shower, laundered my underwear in the sink, and popped into bed with a book.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Ethiopia: Gorgora, Day 2: Gardens and God

Just returned from a lovely walk guided by the hotel gardener. He has worked here for 25 years. He designs and oversees all of the grounds, over which he takes pride of ownership. Teklu is his name. Teklu took me and the British couple to another branch of the hotel, which is crowded with robust red, magenta, yellow, and orange flowers. Plus mangoes, papayas, and oranges. And a vegetable garden with swiss chard, tomatoes, cabbages, and I don't know what else. Tim, the British man, loves to garden in his place in Cornwall. He and Teklu, and to a lesser extent, Liz, shared the names of the various plants. Then Teklu took us to his house where he has a large nursery with cuttings he sells in Gonder and sometimes Addis Ababa. In his nursery, he has chat (aka qat or khat), tobacco, nasturtiums, sage, mint, rosemary, geraniums, selvia, ferns, palms - too many to name. A huge compost pile, as well.

Tim and Liz proposed sending Teklu flower and vegetable seeds, which delighted Teklu, as some seeds are hard for him to come by. Tim and Liz will send, among others, eggplant, lupine, and swiss chard.

Teklu invited us into his house, where he served us each a delicious yogurt (sweet and thick, and a beautiful white, with a texture like pudding) made at home from the milk of the cow just outside the door. He also served us a wonderful, crumbly cheese similar to a feta, sweet and piquant.

On the living room wall was a skull. I asked him about it and he told us it was a hyena skull. This hyena had killed a young child in Gorgora. Teklu asked permission from the government to hunt the hyena. When he received approval, Teklu used a trap to kill the hyena by hanging. Teklu showed us the hyena's pelt, which he keeps in the barn adjacent to the house.

In the afternoon, I walked to the Church of Debre Sina Maryam (c. 1607), housed in a traditional tukul (a roundhouse).

 As with the monastery in Gonder, beautiful paintings. You walk in a circle to the right to view the story of Christ as depicted in the vibrantly colored paintings.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Ethiopia: Gorgora, Day 1: The Ethiopian Tourist Trap

Taxi picked me up at 5:15 a.m. Took me to bus station; driver off-loaded my bag; sought and found bus to Gorgora.

Bus trip -- whoa. We stopped several times along way - just when I thought it was impossible to fit one more person on the bus, five people got on.

Once we got out of Gonder, the road turned to gravel. In some places, just dirt.

The village of Gorgora is decidedly unromantic. It's just plain down and out. The driver stopped in the rutted dirt/rock road alongside a row of low buildings, looked at me, and said "complete." I looked down the street and up the street, seeing no indication of a hotel, no taxis or tuktuks, no hint of a nearby lake. I said, "Port Hotel?" The bus driver pointed down the street. I looked again. Dismal. Nevertheless, I disembarked (what else was I to do) and immediately a young man appeared at the ready to shoulder my heavy bag and escort me to the hotel. I acquiesced to this as we walked the pitted dirt road to a Y, encountering a paved road. We turned to the right, which lead us to the hotel. It was probably a quarter-mile from bus stop to hotel lobby.

We were greeting by a movie-actor-handsome man with stained clothing. I asked to see some rooms. I am sorry to say the two choices were depressing: Dark, tired, grimy (though the toilet and sink looked very clean). I went with the en suite @ 150 birr (about $10) over the shared bath at 80 birr.

 The grounds display what once must have been a spectacular Garden of Eden but which is now a shadow of its former splendor.

Lake Tana looks sort of gray. The bird song, however, is a delight. Multitudinous avian voices. (That sentence sound a little purple-prose-ish i guess).

I hadn't had coffee or breakfast before I left Gonder, so once I selected my depressing room, I went out onto the lodge's Spartan patio, ordering coffee and an omelet. There I encountered a British couple who were enjoying bread and marmalade with coffee. Both sported ugly contusions and wounds from last night, when they (I swear to God) fell into a hole on their way back to their lakeside cottage. I mean, really, these injuries looked nasty. [Note: Such giant holes in pavement later became known in my mind as Ethiopian Tourist Traps.]

We chatted a bit, then they returned to their room while I checked into mine.

I had a long, long nap, skipping lunch.

Later: I've been able to move past my initial let-down re how rundown the place is and, instead, enjoy what is here - a pretty good natural environment, a completely relaxed air, and a terrifically efficient ceiling fan in my room. Of course, I haven't used the shower yet...

About 4:30, I pulled myself together and walked to the restaurant. All of the shady patio seating was taken, so I went inside and chatted with the reception guy (the movie-actor-handsome guy) and his expat Ethiopian friend visiting from Denver. I ordered some Axumite wine -- you can only get the bottle, not just the glass -- and took the bottle out to the patio when a shady table opened up. Presently, an American appeared, who as it turned out, had flown into Gonder from Addis that day, hired a guide to drive him to Gorgora for a couple of hours, then to return to Gonder and fly back to Addis the next day. We shared some wine, we tsk-tsked over the "faranji tax," and generally passed a pleasant hour together.

Later had dinner with the British couple, Liz and Tim. They had hiked in the Simien Mts and were relaxing in Gorgora before heading to Kigali, Rwanda, where they will do the gorilla-watching trek. Later, they'll move to Uganda for a hike, a safari and white-water rafting. They are 64 and 65 respectively.

On my way back to my room, as I cut through the lodge reception, the ladies who staff the restaurant and reception were eating their dinner of tibs and injera. They invited me to join them, and we had a fun chat about the number of children we have (or don't have), our names, etc. These ladies work long hours. They were at work when I arrived in the a.m. and were just now signing off at about 9:00 p.m. or later.

Definitely now I am appreciating the charms of this place, notwithstanding the dreariness of the interior facilities. It is so compelling to just listen to the birds and feel the warm breeze on my face.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Ethiopia: Gonder, Day 2: God, Gorgora, and Goha

Slept til about 8:00, completed the usual morning ablutions, which included some laundry.

Onion and green pepper omelet and delicious roll for breakfast. Headed out to town around 10:00. Made line to Golden Internet cafe, where I spend (!!!) three hours. Took quite awhile to upload my photos onto Facebook and key in one day's trip report. The thought of staying longer to key in other days' trip reports was too daunting. At 30 cents (in birr) per minute, this cost me 52 birr, or about $3.25.

Was rainy when I emerged blinking from the internet cafe. Stopped under a store canopy, at which point I became the metal to two child magnets. "Hello! Where are you from? Can you change this for me? (holding up an American penny) How long are you staying here?" A few pleasantries are nice, but when it becomes hard to shake them off, even when you walk away, even when you say no, ... it becomes a little tiresome. As it was, I ducked into a cafe, where I had water and macaroni and vegetables. Loved this picture outside the cafe.

I still need to arrange for a bus to Gorgora (on Lake Tana) tomorrow, plus change some money.

Later - I found my way to the tourism office. I asked the young man there how to arrange for the bus to Gorgora and where to find an ATM.

The pirate Tilahun, the hotel manager, will arrange for a taxi to pick me up in the morning, off-load my stuff, and get me on the right bus.

Before sunset, I took a tuktuk (bajaj) up a mountain overlooking Gonder, where presides the Goha Hotel.

We wound up the mountain, passing walkers and shacks that line the road. The driver stopped once and picked up - guess who - the tourism agent! His name is Enoch. He walks up the mountain every evening to watch the sunset.

We chatted while looking out at splendid scenery - all of Gonder, the surrounding mountains and valleys. 

Watched the sun go down. Enoch noted he'd only recently been exposed to jazz, for which he was very happy. He loves Gorgora (where I'll go tomorrow), as it is so peaceful. He says he can just listen to himself, the birds, look at the water (Lake Tana), and sit by a campfire at night.

Enoch is a devout Ethiopian Orthodox Catholic. (It is notable how many times I have been asked if I am Christian.) He said that in the Gonder area, 66% of the residents are Ethiopian Orthodox. He believes people in the country are more devout than those in the largest cities (such as Addis). In the country, he says, one can see from nature how there is a God. If you live in the city, and you have all of the technological gadgetry and machinery, it's easy to believe one is in control of things, thus become disconnected from God.

Enoch gave me the tuktuk driver's number so I could call him after I finish my dinner at the Goha Hotel. Enoch told that the driver is actually a journalist who owns and drives the tuktuk on the side.

When it got dark, I went inside for dinner. Striking architecture - ceiling and roof palapa style with huge Japanese-derivative lanterns handing from ceiling beams. Ceiling is bamboo. Piano music, somewhat loud, in background. Dinner, unfortunately, pretty ordinary. About 50 people in the restaurant; all but one table are American or European tourist.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Ethiopia: A Day in Gonder: Kings, God, and the Law

Breakfast at hotel - onion/pepper omelet + roll + coffee. Picked up by tour guide Belay and taxi driver.

We went first to the Royal Enclosure (Fasil Ghebbi) - six palaces - 1st one build in 1630s ...

 ... and the royal swimming pool.

Belay is a very knowledgeable and personable guide. He has many scholarly interests and is something of a celebrity in the country, given his regular TV appearances regarding cultural and historical facts about Ethiopia. Belay also consults with Gonder hotels and restaurants about pleasing tourists.

We took a mid-day break. I used that time to relax at the hotel, have lunch (a superb penne and vegetables dish) and a brief time on the internet.

Then Belay and I walked up to the monastery (Debre Birhan Selassie), built in the 1680s. Wow, the interior, while small, is covered with beautiful paintings of angels, Mary, Jesus, the Last Supper, several saints, and so on.


Various impressions of Gonder - more compact and sensorily accessible than Addis Abada. Public transport via blue minivan, blue taxi, blue tuktuk (bajaj), and even horse-drawn buggies. Hills. Historically, a mix of 17th century Ethiopian architectures, WWII Italianate (buildings painted "fascist yellow"), a smattering of tukuls, and boxy new construction. Children say "hello! hello! hello!"

After the church tour, Belay took me also for a walking tour of the city. We say a completely naked man, sadly psychotic, who sometimes kicks people.

Had a bottle of Dashen beer in the beer garden.

While we stood outside the courthouse, Belay explained to me about the row of stalls outside the courthouse in which operate the "adjudicators," who sell legal advice the John Q. Public.

As I tried to ascertain the qualifications of the adjudicators and if there was a conflict-of-interest ethic, lo and behold, a judge walked by. He knew Belay, and because of this, I enjoyed the benefit of an interesting conversation about Ethiopia's legal system specifically the roles between attorneys and clients. The "adjudicators" are actually clerks who have a little bit of legal knowledge that they sell. In sum, the attorneys and the clerks are strictly for profit; such niceties as conflict of interest aren't part of the equation, All judges appointed. Their role is to execute the rules and regs as designed by the legislature. There is no such thing as establishing case law.

As we headed back to my hotel, we saw that the electricity was out in the hotel neighborhood. This gave me the opportunity to look up at the millions of stars.

The hotel lobby was lit by candles and I wrote this account via flashlight and candlelight, listening to Johnny Cash on my wonderful mp3 player and mini speaker!

Note: Incredibly, I have used my flashlight every single day of my trip - including the flight leg between Chicago and Frankfurt!