ETHIOPIA 8: Gondar, Baboons, Dogs

September 8, 2004

I am in love with Bahar Dar. But I have to go; I have to see the historical sites up north. Before I split, I head to the Ethiopian Airlines office and change my ticket so I come back to Bahar Dar after I visit Axum.
I fly to Gondar, just 20 minutes, over Lake Tana to its northern shore. At the airport, a nice 24 year old kid named Nege approaches me, says he’s a guide. “I’m in the book,” he says. The book? He motions to my Lonely Planet. “Page 151,” he says.
And there he is. I hire him.

He takes me to the Royal Enclosure, where there are castles built by King Fasildas and his descendants. They look more Moorish than Ethiopian. Fascinating. And Nege is great, smart and informative.
We go to the baths that one of the kings built to re-baptize his subjects, who had been converted to Catholicism by his predecesor. Every year, for the festival of Timkat, hundreds of Gondarians leap joyfully into the waters to cleanse themselves.
Nege and I sit on the edge of the big, now-empty pools, and talk about his schooling, his ambitions, New York, what it is to be a musician, Azmaris. This is just as interesting to me as any of the historic sites. Truly, the sightseeing is just something to do in between meeting Ethiopians and having conversations.
I go back to the hotel, the Goha, which is the most expensive hotel in town, at $37.50 a night. It looks out commandingly from a hilltop over the town of Gondar. A spectacular view, well worth the big-bucks room rate. There are two high school girls shivering in the cold mountain air. Whores? Nope. Whew. Just high school girls in Adidas shirts who climbed up the hill to admire the view and gossip.
They pester me with questions about my girlfriend–“Can we see her picture?”–and Dallas. Dallas? Yeah, one of them has a relative there. She dreams of winning the visa lottery, so she can go live in Dallas. I tell them that Dallas is the plastic-surgery capital of America. They don’t quite understand.
Night falls, and I’m looking out over the lights of Gondar. There’s the sound of Amharic pop music in the distance, and dogs. Seems like dozens of dogs, barking in the darkness.
The next day Nege takes me to the foothills of the Simien mountains to see baboons and monkeys. We are accompanied by a bunch of shepherd boys–none older than maybe nine–as we walk to the edge of a magnificent precipice.
Sirage made me buy a box of 100 pens when I was in Bahar Dar. I was completely confused. “You need them to give to children,” he said. Huh?
Nege asks me: “Do you have some pens?” Yes. I hand him a bunch. He hands them out to the frantic, grasping shepherd boys.
On the way back to town, we stop at the Falasha village. The Falashas are the Ethiopian Jews, who were airlifted to Israel in 1991. “There is nothing to see here,” says Nege. “We only come here because it’s in the book.”