Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Exploring Bahir Dar. A Lake and a Monastery.


Painting of Mary at Ura Kidane Mihret Monastery.

We left our hotel in Gondar at 6:30a. I had gotten up a few minutes early to head to the lobby so I could send out emails and post up photos on Facebook, something that is quickly becoming a morning ritual for me, before leaving town.

It was about two hour ride to Bahir Dar and there would not be any stops along the way. Jean, Pat and I passed the time by chatting. Every now and again, I would break out of the conversation to take a look at the world whizzing by outside my window.

First time on the trip that I had seen any sizeable body of water.

Somewhere along the way, Haile had the driver pull over so we could
look at this phallic shaped rock.  I don't know what the significance
 of it was but I took a photo anyways.

The most memorable moment of our ride to Bahir Dar took place where I took the photo of the phallic shaped rock. When we were hiking through Simien National Park, Jean had asked me to help her find a tree limb that she could use as a walking stick.  At one point, one of the guards tore off a limb for her to use - it was a bit short but perfectly usable.  On the ride back to Gondar, she stripped off the bark so it was more comfortable for her to hold on to.  Today, Haile managed to buy a walking stick from one of the shepherds who approached our van when it was parked.  He paid the  man 30 birr ($1.50 USD) and gave him Jean's newly *shorn* stick. In exchange, he got a walking stick that was probably somewhere near 4 feet in length and it was a well used walking stick - it was smooth and the section where a person's hand would rest was slightly darker in color than the rest of the stick.  Jean was thrilled to get it.  Later, we would learn from Haile that the Amharic word for the humble cane or walking stick is "doola" so that's what we called it from that point forward.

Update February 17, 2014:  Back home in DC, I was curious about the Amharic word for stick/cane and so I did some Googling.  I came across this interesting page which describes the staff and stick culture of Ethiopia.  Fascinating.  And the word is properly spelled *dula*.

Even though it was early morning, people were already walking along the roadside.
 Public transportation is definitely lacking in places outside the larger towns/cities.  

After a while, even the dilapidated buildings aren't so shocking.
Sad, how quickly you become immune to sights like this.

Tuk-tuks are a popular form of transportation in Bahir Dar.

As we entered into the outskirts of Bahir Dar, palm trees came into view.
We've left  the cool of the highlands behind us!

View of Lake Tana from the hotel driveway.

We arrived into Bahir Dar in the late morning. We pulled into the long driveway that led up to an extremely nice hotel, Blue Nile Hotel, the nicest we've stayed in so far. By US standards, this would be a 3 star hotel but by Ethiopian standards, it's luxurious. I am not complaining. In fact, I'm looking forward to taking a nice shower as I've not really had one since leaving Addis. This is the spoiled part of me coming out.

Haile gave us a few minutes to freshen up before meeting back up at the hotel's front entrance. From there, we took a short walk down to the pier and boarded a small motorized boat. Lake Tana is a sizable lake - you can't see the entire shoreline no matter where you stand.  It's also the lake that is the source of the Blue Nile which is the largest tributary feeding into the Nile River that runs through Egypt.




There are 37 islands scattered about some twenty of these shelter churches and monasteries.  Monks seem to build their monasteries in hard to reach places but in this case, at least the monasteries are located in scenic places.  And as with many a monastery in other countries, only a few of the Lake Tana ones are open to women.  We set out with hopes that we could visit one or more monasteries today but that will all depend on time. It would take us about an hour to reach our first monastery - Ura Kidane Mihret.


I decided I wanted to sit right up front so I could get a good view.  Everyone else opted for shade.

Not much of a view of anything as we pulled away from shore.


Unfortunately, it was an awfully hazy day - photos didn't come out nice at all. Nonetheless, it was a pleasant boat ride. I was able to catch distant glimpses of men harvesting papyrus and two women paddling papyrus boats which are a common form of transportation here.

Looks like someone's home.  What a great view they must have!

Not much happening on the lake.  The occasional boat or bird.....

Way, way, way off in the distance, men harvesting papyrus.

And just as way, way, off in the distance.....two people paddling about on papyrus boats - the main form of transportation on the water.

One of the 37 islands that dot the waters of the lake.

Before we reached our destination, we passed by two small islands. We could see the domed roofs of two monasteries peeking about the tree tops.  Those reclusive monks really don't want you to find their monasteries!



Our boat puttered along. It had only been about an hour since we left the dock at the hotel but it seemed like an eternity before we reached the other side of the shore.

Nearing shore.

 As we got off the boat, our local guide was already there to greet us. Of course, he told us his name and of course, I promptly forgot it. Days ago, I gave up on trying to remember the names of our local guides.

The boat dock.

From the dock, we headed up a small embankment that led to a narrow path flanked on both sides by souvenir vendors pretty much selling all the same things that we've seen everywhere we've been - religious paintings and icons, injera carriers, scarves, small statues, etc. Getting tired of them all.


At one point, I made the mistake of picking up a small painting of angels that was painted on goat skin. Our sharp eyed local guide caught me doing this and made a point to tell me that there was a better vendor further up along the path. Hmmm.....perhaps someone he knows? I pretended to be interested but the truth is I was far from. I already have my painted bell and unless something else truly tugs at my traveler heart, I'm not buying another souvenir.

Jean, with her trusty dula in hand, leading the way through the woods.

The path cut through the woods. Coffee trees, laden with beans that would one day be harvested, roasted, ground and brewed into that perfect cup of Ethiopian coffee, were everywhere. This is the region in Ethiopia where coffee is commonly grown. The trees are planted under the forest canopy to give them the shade that they need to grow and thrive in.

Ripe beans nearly ready to be picked. Picking coffee beans takes place year round.

Of course, we passed by the painter that our local guide said produced the "best paintings". The paintings were nice - supposedly painted by hand with natural dyes which the man had displayed on his paint palette. Who knows if any of what he said was true or nor but this local guide was really beginning to grate on my nerves. I didn't want to be rude so I said I would think about it and just walked on buy. That was mistake number two.

It was a pleasant walk as long as I could ignore all the souvenir vendors reaching out to me to buy this, that or the other item they had for sale. I had a feeling it would be like this all the way to the monastery which was where we were headed.

Entrance to Ura Kidane Mihret Monastery complex.

I think it was about 15-20 minutes before we arrived at the modest entrance to the modest complex of the Ura Kidane Mihret Monastery which dates back to about the 16th century. On the other side of a set of simply carved arched doorways were a few adobe buildings. The path dead ended at the monastery itself.

Heading towards the monastery, the circular building with the cross topping the corrugated tin roof.

Colorful roof decoration with a chain of bells dangling beneath.

Not any monastery complex like I've ever visited before.  Felt more like we were in a small village.

Every monastery has to have its bell - a large rock with some unusual sound qualities when you bang against it with another rock.

We took our shoes off and I had to don a head scarf that I had borrowed from Carol. We entered the monastery and the guide began to tell us about it. His English was fine but I knew I would not a remember a word he said so I just focused on taking photos of the stunning paintings that line the walls of the circular building.  Every wall surface was painted and the colors were so vibrant!  Here are a few of the photos I shot just don't ask me what the images represented.....that was the part that I tuned out on :-)

















We were in the monastery for barely 20 minutes or so before we were back outside putting our shoes on.

Putting back on their shoes.   A routine that everyone was used to by now.

Robert, standing at the entrance, waving back to me.  I was looking for someone to pose for photos :-)

From the entrance, looking at the path flanked with souvenir stalls.

We backtracked down the path we had come on. Same souvenir vendors hassling us. I was walking alongside Pat and Robert, ahead of the rest of the group. Pat and I chatted - she was telling me about her coop apartment in NYC. Very interesting how coops work in NYC.

All the while that I was walking with Pat, our local guide was sticking close by me. When I stopped, he stopped. When I walked, he walked. I suspected he wanted to make sure I would stop at the painter that produces the "best paintings" to once again try and pressure me into buying something. As we neared the painter, I picked up my walking pace and deliberately focused on my conversation with Pat. Truly, I was more interested in what she was saying than anything going on around me. As I passed by the painter, I heard the guide shout after me, "Excuse me, here is the painter. You want the skin?" I replied back, "Yes, I know but I do not want the skin." and I continued walking and conversing with Pat. He was definitely annoyed, not that I cared, and left us to go on our own.

As we neared where the boat dock, our local guide pointed out the stall that supposedly was selling items that his family produced. At this point, I was really annoyed at the guide. We had come to see a beautiful cultural landmark and all he was interested in doing was making money off of us. It left a very bad taste in my mouth so I decided to not tip him much - 20 birr for both Pat and I, which comes to about $1 USD was all I was going to give him. Just as we were boarding the boat, Pat gave him the tip and apparently he rejected it saying it was not enough. I agreed with Pat, if you don't want the money, don't take it but don't expect more as I most certainly did not feel he deserved it.

It was a long boat ride back to the hotel. From there, we boarded the van for a short ride to the restaurant where we would have lunch. An L shaped table had been set up for us in the garden. We each had a lovely view of the lake.  Wjo;e All of us had pre-ordered our lunch before we had left for the monastery. 

Haile made all the arrangements. Except for Jean and Sam, we all had the same dish of grilled tilapia served with boiled veggies. There were rolls and berbere (very tasty, chili sauce) to accompany. After the main course, we all had coffee. Ordinarily, I don't drink coffee after lunch as I'm afraid it will keep me awake but I had a feeling that with the full day today, I would not have any problems sleeping so I indulged in a cup of the strong, bitter brew.....which is very delicious once you add a ton of sugar to it :-)

While we waited for our lunch to be served, I walked over to as close as I could get to the water's edge and watched a small flock of pelicans and another type of bird (egret? heron?) basking along the shores of Lake Tana.

Lunch was satisfying.  Just enough to keep me going for the rest of the day.  On to see the Blue Nile Falls next!