Ethiopia - Days 6 & 7 Bahir Dar & Addis
Staying at Kiriftu Lodge on the southern shore of Lake Tana, one of the two candidates for the source of the Blue Nile, the other is a small spring bubbling out of the ground about 16k away. Can't quite fathom how this can still be a mystery but since we're on Lake Tana then I'm voting for it.
We were scheduled to spend the day on the lake so at 8:30 we presented ourselves on the hotel's dock to be met by Eskadar and our boatman who helped us on to a very clean and neat little fibreglass craft about 6 metres long with a sunshade and with enough comfortable seating on cushioned side benches for about a dozen people. Today however the boat is chartered for us alone and we have a picnic lunch prepared by the hotel so should be a fun day. Our mission is to visit two monasteries, one on island about 35k away and the other on our return trip home, about 10k from our hotel. There was a hazy feel to the air and a bit of a breeze blowing suggesting weather at some point during the day but the sky was clearing and the sun was shining and all was right with the world.
The trip took about 2 1/2 hours and we chugged down the middle of the lake which is about 3,600 square kilometres in size and the largest lake in Ethiopia. Weather held and the day began to get warm but we were well protected by the sunshade and we were fascinated to periodically pass boats that seemed more appropriate for Lake Titicaca than Lake Tana in Ethiopia. They were single-person craft and made of bunches of papyrus tied together in long bundles which were in turn tied together to form the boat which had a shallow dugout interior with the ends of the bundles tied together to form an uplifted prow and stern. The boats were probably about 3 or 4 metres long and very low in the water so the fishermen who paddled them were right at water level and were casting nets, hauling them in and filling the bottoms of their boats with mounds of flapping fish, tilapia and catfish for the most part. Very impressive particularly since we were sufficiently far out in the lake that the shore was hazy in the distance.
Arrived at our destination which was an island sufficiently large that a couple of thousand people live on it and farm it. The monastery however was at a secluded end of the island surrounded by trees and very secluded and quiet. As far as we could gather only one priest/monk lived there and he was our conductor as he showed us around his church which was built in the 15'th century and many of the paintings it contained were apparently originally painted at the time of its construction while others are clearly more recent. To call them paintings suggests framed and stand-alone works which these are not. First it's important to know that the church, made of wood, is like a tukul writ large. A round building of one story and about 10 metres high and 20 metres in diameter with a conical roof and windowless walls. In the interior of the church there is a large central four-sided construction which goes from floor to ceiling and which houses the holy of holies. It is like a giant block which fills the centre of the building and leaves an open space around it and between it and the walls which is only about 3 metres wide. The church contains three doors situated around the building and these are the only sources of natural light. The paintings are on gessoed canvas that was stretched and mounted on each of the four sides of the central block and extend from floor to ceiling and each covers an entire side of the four square walls of the holy of holies. Each side is a series of painted panels and the whole surface of a side is a mass of panels telling biblical stories as well as moments from Ethiopia's past when the saints and angels who protect the country came to assist and performed miracles that are still remembered so that make it is hard to detect where historical fact stops and historical myths begin. They are very stylized but are stunning and the colours are bright and bold and while some portions have suffered the overall effect is staggering.
Our priest/monk, aided by a very long pole spent about 45 minutes going around the interior of the building and pointing to and explaining the stories on each of the panels. He was amazed that we knew the greatest percentage of the stories but most of them are from the old testament as well as the new. We fared less well when panels represented scenes involving Ethiopia's own religious myths and while the central characters were biblical, Raphael and Gabriel for example, they were involved in matters not covered in either the old or the new testament since the Ethiopian Orthodox has four additional books that do not form part of the European bible. Our monk was very surprised that we knew as much as we did and continued to express amazement when we were able to tell him what scenes represented. He shouldn't have been surprised as these stories form such a large part of western literary tradition that religious or not we are all aware of them and they are the stories that underpin much of our literary and cultural history.
We left the church building and wandered around the compound that surrounded it, all enclosed in a crumbling wall which surrounded it and included a number of falling-down towers and gates. Grass and trees grew untended except for a circular area around the church itself whose grass is kept in check by worshipers who gather there for services and whose many feet keep the grass trodden and in check. Nonetheless it had a lonely and deserted feel even in the bright sunshine.
Back in our boat and another 2 1/2 hour trip to a peninsula where a second monastery awaited. Vey pleasant trip; we ate our lunch and watched the boats and the fisherman but as we got close to our destination the air began to feel heavy and the wind began to pick up. I am sure that the second monastery was equally interesting but unlike our first stop where there was a quiet and melancholy feel, this one had a hike of about 20 minutes to reach it through an open forested area, both sides of which were covered by rough wooden stalls and tables set up by locals to sell various handicrafts and souvenirs. The church when arrived at was exactly the same design as the first since this is the pattern of Ethiopian churches but the paintings didn't seem as captivating, the weather was becoming threatening and we were so pleased with the first monastery that we just did not want to stay, so we quickly left. Returning to our boat we were again being sold stuff on every side, very politely and un-aggressively, but annoying nonetheless.
As we began the last leg home, the wind picked up, great black clouds with bright flashes of lightning built up in the direction in which we were headed and the waves began to rise and give us a good rocking horse ride. No rain fortunately but we had our rain jackets zipped up and cameras under cover. The boatman was working very hard to keep our nose to the waves as he worked crabwise to work his way to our landing point as the wind picked up. I was therefore amazed to see about 100 metres off our course a couple of the little papyrus fishing boats casting nets and carrying on their business. I was sure earlier in the day that if the weather became problematic they would be the first ones headed for shore, but here they were calmly carrying on their trade while bobbing like corks. Almost impossible to sink I guess.
Not a very interesting dinner and so to bed as we are being picked up at 7:30 for our flight to Addis and on to the south. Was awakened at about 3:30 by the pitiful sound of someone being sick and begging for a swift and early death. V had clearly eaten something that hadn't passed muster and was having a very sad time of it. The worst of these things is that after a bout you feel better and think/hope that the worst is over, only to begin to feel that clammy sense about 20 or 30 minutes later that the price has still not been paid. I called Eskadar at about 6:30 to see if there was a later flight and he worked to get us on a 13:30 flight as we all hoped that it was a short nasty bout that would clear by mid-morning and allow her to at least fly and collapse at the other end. At about 10:00 it was obvious that this was a fond hope so we managed to get tickets on the 19:30 flight that would give V until late in the afternoon to sleep it off. By noon the worst was over and she managed some weak tea and slept. So we are staying in the Sheraton Addis tonight which is very good news, a very clean bed in a 5 star hotel, crisp clean sheets and a shower with endless hot water will cure many things and it was the promise of this that allowed her to rally and make the flight. All once again good.