ETHIOPIA 5: Bahar Dar: Awesome

September 8, 2004

The next morning I fly from Addis to Bahar Dar. En route to the airport I pass an Ethiopian cinema with hand painted signs for BRITNEY SPEARS CROSSROADS and ROB SCHNEIDER THE HOT CHICK. And guys in Eminem t-shirts herding donkeys laden with firewood.
Fifty minutes’ flight, and I land in a lush, green, chilled-out place. Whew. I am relieved to be in a small city. At the airport, there’s a desk for the Ghion Hotel. A guy named Billy offers to transport me there. He looks exactly like Nate Dogg.
I go the Ghion. It’s great. It’s right on the shores of Lake Tana; boats are putt-putting along, pelicans are strafing the water. My room costs 105 birr–that’s about $12.75.

I rent a bicycle and pedal around the town. So pretty. Wide boulevards, magnificent trees hanging over the roads. It’s just about dusk, the light is amazing. Donkey carts clip clop along, jostling with taxis and other bicyclists. The same astonishing mix of guys in ersatz hip hop gear walking next to guys in traditional shawls with staffs, herding goats.
Children keep yelling out to me. “Faranji! Faranji!” I shout back, Habesha! And they laugh. Some of them shout out, “You! You! You! You!” It’s the colloquial way of getting somebody’s attention. Charming and unnerving simultaneously. Abraham–that pleasant, informative guy who tried to con the hell out of me–told me in Addis, “Children have only seen white people in movies.”
My favorite thing in Ethiopia, and in the small towns outside Addis especially, is the smiling. Everybody with these huge toothy grins. I smile at old men, and goatherds, donkey cart drivers, taxi drivers, groups of teenage girls that convulse with giggling. It makes my heart feel so good to be here, smiling at everybody, and them smiling at me. Worth the trip on its own.
The next day I wake up and get on a boat, going out to see the monasteries on Lake Tana. My guide is a chilled out guy named Yohannes. He brings a big pot of injera and shiro to eat on the journey. It’s 3 hours to the middle of the lake to see the first place, Narga Selassie.
We creep up on an island isolated in the water. A crumbling stone gate stands on the edge of the very old dock. We climb up a hill. It’s like walking into the 17th century. Old priests in robes are standing around the circular church, staring at me, friendly and perplexed.
Inside there are spectacular paintings around the holy of holies–Moses drowning the Egyptian armies in the Red Sea, their helmets and rifles (?!) poking out of the drink. Afroed Saints Gabriel and Mikael at the doors shielding the replica Ark. African Mary and baby Jesus. Belai the cannibal, consuming his relatives.
OK, says Yohannes. Now we go to the museum.
The “museum” is a mud and straw hut behind the church. The priests go in, and come out with ceremonial crosses, which they hold out for display. “This was made in the 17th century…” !!!!
And hand-painted books with Biblical scenes and ancient Ge’ez script. And a crown from a 17th century bishop. This will be repeated over and over again in Ethiopia; priceless artifacts kept in the most casual manner. Priests hold them openly in direct sunlight, beckon me to touch the ancient pages. Again: astonishing.
We go back to the boat. We’re being approached by two men in papyrus canoes, paddling slowly towards us. They too look to have been transported from centuries ago. They’re saying something, over and over again, smiling. I can’t quite hear them.
They come closer. They’re repeating, “Money. Money. Money. Money. Money.”
We travel another couple of hours and come to another monastery. There are images of the damned, blue-skinned, in Hell. Yohannes points out that good people in the paintings are depicted in full face, evil people–Romans, Pagans, Egyptians–in profile. Though the devils tormenting them are in profile, the sinners themselves are full-face. A curious empathy for the damned.
There is a guard, an old guy in robes with a rifle that seems to be vintage 1940’s, watching the church’s grounds. He says: “I am the guard. Give me money.”
I give him a few notes. He says again: “I am the guard. Give me money. I am the guard. Give me money.”