20 August 2012

Travel to Lake Tana, source of the Blue Nile

Last time I wrote I was not feeling well, but it passed quickly and luckily did not turn into anything. I just slept  many hours. Although only one week and some days have passed since I arrived in Ethiopia, the US feels like a lifetime away. So much has happened and there is so much to process here. I sometimes feel a bit overwhelmed and homesick, but that also passes.

The Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church passed away last week. I am still not sure what happened, though he was in his seventies and had diabetes.

On Saturday morning, very early, I met with some friends and we traveled to Bahir Dar, the main city on the south end of Lake Tana. Emily, the woman from the Embassy, arranged everything for the trip through the Embassy. She picked me up at about 5am and our flight was supposed to leave the airport at 7:30. Because of weather - it was raining hard in Addis and foggy in Bahir Dar, our flight was delayed by maybe two hours. But once we had the clearance, we were off in a small twin prop plane. The flight took about 1 hour through the clouds. We descended and could see the lake and town spread out below us. The sun reflected off of saturated ground. The rainy season inundates everything, and drainage out of this soil does not appear to be very good. It is an astounding place. The color of the lake is brown, because it is the rainy season and erosion causes the water to muddy. I am told that if I were to come back in January, the lake would be blue. The truck ride from the airport to the hotel passed by a riot of people driving their animals to market. The sun was shining, and the whole place alive!

We stayed at a brand new hotel, right on the lake - Avante Blue Nile Resort. This Sheik Ala Moud (or something like this) is the owner and developer. He also owns the Sheraton and is perhaps the richest man in Africa. He owns gold mines, cement factories, the main bank (Dashan). The place is not officially open to the public yet, but it was arranged that we could spend the night, comped. The hotel is extremely nice and each one of us had our own suite - a room with a living space, balcony, and loft bed. I was so happy, and felt totally spoiled, to have a big comfy bed with down comforter and view of the lake! Within the first few moments of arriving, we saw two kingfishers, a big eagle with a fish it caught settle in a nearby tree, and many other colorful birds flitting about. This felt more like what I hoped Africa would be: sunshine, clear air, and the atmosphere peaceful. The place looks like paradise, in contrast to the city where it has been cold and raining most of this week (and I have been wearing practically everything I brought to stay warm!).

We were met by a man, Belachew, who arranged our travel to various places for the weekend. We were then picked up by a boat and taken out onto the lake! There are monasteries on islands in the lake and on the lake shores dating from the 14th century. We visited Zegu Peninsula and two monasteries there with floor to ceiling paintings and artifacts, like crowns and books written on leather parchment. One of the churches had a iron cross on top with 7 ostrich eggs adorning it. The churches themselves are circular. You enter barefoot from the outside through enormous wooden doors. The church is sort of a hallway around an inner circle that is fully decorated. We were not permitted inside. There is a separate entrance for women and men. Some of the paintings are stories about specific Ethiopian saints, stories which I had never heard before. Some of these saints are similar to the Catholic ones, some, like a cannibal who ate his own son and was finally vindicated through Mary, are very unfamiliar indeed. The paintings are very rich in color and have been redone over time. The original rooves were made of grass - thatched - and rain spoiled the original paintings, though there are pieces of these up on the walls. The paintings are done on canvas which is attached directly to the wall which is made of grasses. The rooves are now made of metal.

The compounds are active. Monks live there and grow gardens. People from the village visit and of course tourists come. We are in their offseason for tourists, because it is the rainy season, and the local people's only source of income is selling handicraft. There is a system of stalls set up along the pathway to the monasteries and people are very eager for you to have a look at what they are selling. They barter down to ridiculously low prices and it pained me to think of the hours spent making these things broken down into the prices they were offering. I bought a painting off of one artist who made his pigments from local flowers. The painting is made on goatskin.

We took the boat to the start of the Nile river, and there were tons of birds there. There are many migratory birds that come through this area and we saw flocks and flocks of them. I don't even know all of their names: hornbill, pelican, weavers, hammerheads, cranes, hawks, eagle, comorants, starlings (they are blue here), and a variety of other birds I hope to find out more about later. One bird flew overhead at one point in a brilliant flash of red. Its bright red wingspan was about 1 and 1/2 feet across. The trees on the peninsula are healthy and older, and the guidebook says that it is one of the last remaining forests in the area. One of our group even saw a monkey in the woods. But there are plenty of people taking the wood from this peninsula by boat. The children sell miniature versions of these papyrus boats with bundles of wood inside. The men use these papyrus boats to transport things and for fishing. They are made of papyrus, wrapped together, long like a canoe. I will upload pictures at some point.

After our boat trip, we went into the town to the market place. Saturday is market day so everyone from the surrounding area comes in to buy food, spices, you name it. The place was a ball of excitement, people were talking and walking and playing and laughing. The spices smelled amazing. We got out and walked around, much to the amusement and attention of the locals. Children followed us asking for their photos to be taken. We past through an area of chickens and eggs, water and oil canisters, clothes. All the colors are so bright here, I don't know if it is the sunlight, the elevation, or some combination. Reds and teal blues just pop. Everywhere we were driving, people were calling out to us. Sometimes in a friendly manner, sometimes obnoxious. We had some lunch and then headed out of town for the sunset. The road we took is lined with jacarandi trees, not currently in bloom, but draped over the road like a canopy. So we moved through this tunnel of green with the river to our right. There are sometimes hippos in the river, called gumanche, but none were around when we were there. We passed all manner of people coming and going places. The men typically wrapped in a local style of blanket. They use this blanket against the rain, the sun, for sleeping at night. It is the all purpose poncho. The colors of these blankets again, are so bright against the greens and browns in the landscape. Much of this region is cultivated for agriculture. There are flat lands that rise up into mesas and hillsides, all green during this rainy season. We were lucky to have two days of warm sun.

We drove to the top of one of these mesas where Emporer Haile Selassie had a palace, now not really used except for the occassional visit from the Prime Minister - who by the way is still missing in action and no one knows why - though it is guarded. We left the paved road and traveled along the very top of the mesa to the edge, which was full of grand trees and grasses. Some kids followed us and offered us bouquets of flowers. A few of the older boys gave out their email addresses hoping for copies of photos they took with us. We watched the big orange ball descend in the sky and clouds behind lit up like something unreal. The lake was below us as well as the city and the Nile River. I still cannot believe I was standing there. That evening we ate at the hotel while a giant thunderstorm raged outside.


Sunday we were off again, this time to the waterfall. This waterfall is at Tis Abey - Abey is the Ethiopian name for the Blue Nile River. We drove through several small villages. The houses here are mainly made of wood and mud with straw packed into the sides. I imagine this is great insulation for cold months and keeps the abode cool in the warmer months. Though someone did mention that many of the dwellings for people in the countryside are very very dark - no windows. This area is mainly agricultural, as I mentioned, and so there were many young men out in the fields with a herd of cows, or driving donkeys along the road. Church services were also being held and as we passed we could see the women standing outside with white head coverings and umbrellas to sheild them from the sun. Many people, both men and women, walk around with umbrellas here. Many men also carry sticks or canes.


We arrived at the waterfall place and hiked down along a very rocky path. I was consistently bringing up the rear. I blame it on a combination of altitude and old age. :)


The first bridge we crossed was built by the Portuguese sometime in the 1800s. It is stone and still stands as a main pathway for locals. The river divides two states. There were herds of goats and sheep here and we passed an ancient woman spinning wool, though it may have been cotton. When we hiked up and around to the first view of the falls, I was blown away. The place is enormous and the spray and sound hits you before you actually see the water. The falls again were brown and we were soon covered in the spray and film of soil. Our guides brought us down close to the view and we were soaked. We had local boys holding our hands and arms to keep us steady through the thick mud. Then we crossed over a crazy suspension bridge (only for pedestrians) that allowed us access to the waterfall itself. You could feel the power of the water as you stood alongside and looked straight down. This is the beginning of a great river - the Blue Nile contributes most of the Nile's water. Though the local boys were telling me that the waterfall is not what it used to be. There is a diversion and dam that was constructed some 20 or 30 years ago that takes water out of this main stem and diverts it into the river past the falls. They showed me the extent of dry land that is now used for cultivating maize and chat where the river used to cover. I was struck by the distance and could only imagine what the waterfall had been before the diversion. No wonder I was reading that the falls were not as impressive as they had been some time ago. I, and my companions, still found the experience very moving and do not know the difference.


On the way back I felt a bit overwhelmed by the kids aggressively selling scarves and baskets. Our guide brought me down a sidepath to show me veins of copper and copper salts. I asked if anyone ever collects this and he said that it is washed to Egypt through the river. This concept again of Ethiopia's riches being taken downstream...


We had a lovely traditional lunch on the lakeshore and finished our time looking again for hippoes and ending up at the Amharic People's monument - a large well maintained park along the river. We watched as scores upon scores of birds moved up the river toward the lake for sunset. We also watched another sunset and a big storm rolling in off of the lake. I listened as Belachew told me about the conditions in Ethiopia of all the development we could see around us. There is endless amount of construction going on here - not only in Addis, but in Bahir Dar as well. It is not clear to me why this is happening now, but it seems that it is not all that clear to local people either. Though there are dams and a national grid, people are still so reliant on burning wood that there are very aggressive tree planting schemes all over the country. One of our guides told me that the government was engaged in a conservation effort in this region because of the Renaissance Dam - to reduce the silt load.


On the way back in the airport I met two women from USAID who were also traveling to this place for the weekend. One of them works in Addis, the other in Khartoum, Sudan and her post before that was in Cairo, and yes she lived there through the revolution. She told me how it was in those days. People got together at home for big dinners and gathered together to keep safe and informed. The local men took to guarding the neighborhoods in the absence of the police.