Acuna Matata – Bahr Dar, Ethiopia

Acuna Matata

Bahr Dar, Ethiopia

Last weekend in Addis met some fascinating people: Norm and Daniel, heading down to Omo Valley in a 4-wheel drive with two Wexford nurses; Helmut, Indiana Jones-style relic-hunter and Axumite coin-smuggler; Nicola Barthez, TV journalist who covered the Romanian Revolution, the Ethiopia-Eritrea and Afghanistan wars (has General Masoud’s brother in his contacts book) and Luis, from Cadiz (“Europe’s oldest city”) who had already visited many African countries.

Decided to check out the museums on the Entoto Road: the Ethnological Museum in the former imperial palace (Haile Selassie’s bedroom and bathroom!), the National Museum, where the skeleton of Lucy, the earliest known hominid is housed, and Lion House, a modest zoo displaying the descendants of the imperial pride of Abyssinian lions.

Meanwhile, the Amharic is coming along nicely: Alfaligm! (I don’t want it!) Tamaless! (Back off!) and Hid! (Go away!) are all useful. Definite similarities to Arabic and Hebrew: what was the language used in the Passion of Christ movie? Was it ancient Amharic?

Getting into my Amharic pop too: just as well really, as the latest, Swedish-produced Teddy Afro album is inescapable. It does grow on you, after you’ve heard it in (literally) every bus, restaurant and bar you go into, but I prefer the diva Aster Aweke, a kind of Amharic Nina Simone with a jazz/funk backing. As I am constantly told: “Ethiopians like it funky”.

The food grows on you too: ttibs (fried pieces of meat with injera) is always available, as are doro wat (chicken with injera) and kitfo (raw mince with injera). On Wednesday and Friday, “fasting food” (ie. delicious selection of Indian-style dahl veg, and shiro, a kind of chickpea pure with, you guessed it, injera) are everywhere. Fish (asa) is also sometimes available.

Ethiopian Time
Whirlwind tour of the Addis museums completed, it’s off to Debre Libanos, the monastery that was the site of a notorious fascist massacre during the occupation. Luis and I caught the eight o’clock (2 p.m. in non-Ethiopian time, it eventually left at 4) bus from the Mercato bus station and gripped our seats as the bus climbed the steep Entoto mountains. It’s hard to believe that this land, as lush and verdant as anywhere in Ireland, could ever have been stalked by famine. In truth, the notorious 1985 famine had as much to do with politics and civil war as drought. Western countries were reluctant to aid a nominally socialist state as Ethiopia was at the time, the dictator Mengistu attempted to divert what aid did arrive away from the rebellious province of Tigray. Anyway…

Ethiopians don’t allow windows to be opened on buses, so before long it starts to smell pretty funky aboard (Ethiopians like it funky…?). Fortunately, this is only a four-hour journey, so before we know it we’ve left the main road (along with the last vestiges of civilization) and begun the sharp descent into the valley where the monastery is situated. It’s dark now, so we won’t see until the morning the stunning scenery all around: tiny hamlets clinging to almost sheer mountainsides, trees sprouting at impossible angles, birds perched on rocky outcrops. We’re the last on the bus, eventually descending by a Pepsi sign denoting a hotel, or in this case, read “hotel”, little more than a farmyard outhouse. We sit in somebody’s fly-covered front room, and brush off the flies as we devour our fly-covered ttibs. Did I mention the flies? As Luis said: “If my mamma could see me now!”

I was never happier to get out of bed in the morning, down to the Haile Selassie-built church (extraordinary scenes of devotion, reminder that, at heart, Christianity is as Middle-Eastern as Islam or Judaism) and on up the cliffs to take the curative waters.

Bade farewell to Luis (he was heading back to Addis) and was lucky to hop on a passing Addis-Bahr Dar bus.

You, You, You! Faranji!/Anter, Anter, Anter! Habasha!
Bahr Dar, by the shore of Lake Tana, couldn’t be more different from Debre Libanos. Steamy, sleepy and languid, it’s hard to believe that this is one of Ethiopia’s largest and fastest-growing cities. Between the neatly-paved footpaths, palm-lined avenues, sidewalk cafes (the Grand, the Scenic and the Nice Café stand out as particular favourites) there’s more than a touch of tropical southern India (Christian Kerala comes to mind). Bicycles are the greatest traffic hazard here, and there’s fresh fish in every restaurant.

One other hassle I must mention is the crowds of kids who follow you around for sometimes hours on end shouting You, You, You! Faranji! (foreigner) It does become wearisome, particularly before your coffee/cigarette in the morning. I find the best reaction is to reply with Anter, Anter, Anter! Habasha! (Ethiopian). This works sometimes.

Instead of visiting the island monasteries, I decide to take the ferry across Lake Tana to the town of Gorgora, which only runs on Sunday. In the meantime, there’s the Blue Nile Falls waterfall to visit (the beginning of the River Nile, caught a glimpse of a croc, but no hippos). Unfortunately, when Sunday arrives, the port police decide that the ferry is closed to faranjis (they do, in fairness, refund my ticket), so it’s the bus to Gonder.

The journey from Bahr Dar to Gonder takes us from steamy tropical to fresh alpine climate. The Italian-built road clings precariously to the sides of the Blue Nile Gorge (said to be bigger than the Grand Canyon). The sighting of an occasional wrecked car or bus tumbled over the cliff-edges provokes an outburst of hurried crossing and blessing among my fellow passengers. In the absence of seatbelts, Ethiopian bus drivers are forced to wield the horn like an invisible wand to ward off misfortune, evil spirits, pedestrians, livestock, other vehicles and any other obstacles to an accident-free journey. At one point, a huge eagle-like bird perches imperiously atop a rock. Judging by the pictures in the Brandt Guide, it’s a native Ethiopian lammergeyer.

Tchat, Tej and the Azmari Bet
Gonder, or Gondrrr to give it its true name, is spectacularly situated in the foothills of the Simien Mountains. The city was Ethiopia’s capital for two hundred years from the 1640s, and consists of a walled compound containing the impossibly-romantic-looking castle of King Fasilidas, and a newer, equally striking Italian-built piazza, walled on three sides by the Ethiopia Hotel, the Quara Hotel and the magnificent Telecommunications Building (just wait until you see the photos). Ethiopians are intensely proud of their independence, but to quote a student on the Bahr Dar bus: “the Italians were only here five years and look what the built! If they were here 50, maybe we would be developed.”

There’s a real metzogiorno feel to the town, neatly whitewashed buildings, the occasional dapper elderly gent, nattily turned-out in a vintage Italian suit, complete with umbrella.

To pass the time, the locals participate in coffee ceremony (roasting, grinding and serving of coffee, three cups for good luck), tchat ceremony (chewing of tchat, a sort of East African coco leaves) and drinking tej (honey-based alcoholic brew) while listening to an azmari (wandering minstrel, who improvises songs praising his patrons).

The tchat bet is something else. (A bet, by the way, is a house, therefore: tchat bet, bunna bet (coffee house) azmari bet, etc.) A hovel on the exterior, inside there are inviting cushions, ornate little tables, the smell of incense and roasting coffee, and the sound of the most rhythmic Amharic music you can imagine. Conspiratorial conversations are conducted around a sheesha-pipe. Every so often, someone will jump up to dance the extraordinary Ethiopian shoulder-dance that has to be seen to be believed.

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