Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Lake Tana

I was awoken at 6am by the undulating tone-deaf chants of local priest at the nearby church St. Michel's. It was awful. I was transported back to Bukkittingi in Sumatra (Indonesia), where the local mosque would let child get on the microphone at the crack of dawn to sing their prayers in the shrillest of fashions.

Thankfully, the hotel switched my room to the other side of the hotel, and I have never been so pleased to face a parking lot.

I had negotiated for a tour of the Lake Tana monasteries—some dating back to the 13th century. I met the group of faranji at the boat dock. I was joined by a cute French couple, Julie and Clement, who I later found out were on their honeymoon. Also, two Germans who were also staying at my hotel, and a third German fellow named Phil—who I recognized from my stay at the Taitu Hotel in Addis.

We sped along the placid lake until we reached the first island Debre Maryam. We walked through papyrus marshes, as colorful thrushes darted through the papyrus. The monetary had a lackluster review in the guide book, and none of us wanted to pay the faranji price of 100 birr ($5) to enter, so we all chatted near the boat dock.

We boarded the boat to head to the next stop on the Zege Peninsula. I was chatting with Phil, and quickly made a friend: he had been to more countries than me! He had been traveling for the last two years, and was at 84 countries—besting my own tally by 6. It is very rare that I meet anyone who has been to more places than me, especially someone younger than me (he is 31). We got to talking about the world we both knew--the Road and all its trials and travails.

We arrived to the Zege Penninsula, and walked past coffee and lemon trees to the  Bete Maryam monastery. This round, thatched monastery had bright, colorful scenes from the Bible. Usually, visiting a church is the “seen one church...” mantra, but this was quite different. The passage of scriptures were illustrated in vibrant hues—in the affective Ethiopian Orthodox style.

Julie, Clement and I got the young guide to give us a tour around the monastery. It was quite fascinating learning about the different areas, and how to read the pictures (two eyes meant they were a “believer”; one eye shown meant they were not). The pictures had scenes from the Torah and New Testament, as well as from books holy to the Ethiopian Orthodox church like the Book of Mary. Julie was a relatively-devout Catholic so we had an interesting interchange going on through the scenes between the perspectives of Jewish, Catholic and Ethiopian Orthodox. It was a very engaging tour.

After touring around the monastery, we visited a small museum of religious artifacts including the lattice crosses and holy umbrellas.

We met the group back down at the port and set off again down the lake. Phil and I chatted more about The Road, and those we had met who truly impressed us in their journey. I mentioned Charlie Walker; he spoke of a fellow named Isaac, who was holed up at the Taitu Hotel who I will go track down on the return to Addis.

We arrived at the next island, but it was underwhelming. There was a museum but it was closed, and the young monk wouldn't let us walk around the island without a little baksheesh that seemed unwarranted. We all sat around eating pumpernickel bread and waited to head on.

The next island was also a bit lackluster. There was a monastery, but it was a new one, and we couldn't walk anywhere on the island without paying 100 birr. But I had a great time sitting on a log, helping a young Ethiopian read. He asked to see my guidebook, and picked out a page and started reading aloud in English. He could sound out most of the words, and we went through the passage on the nomadic nature of medieval Ethiopian royalty. The other monks gathered around, smiling as we went through the text. I had so much fun, I gave him the book I was reading: Herodotus on “The Madness of Cambysses.” It was a brief little pocket book I had picked up at the Jo-Burg airport. While the content was difficult to understand, the words were not complex so he could continue to practice sounding out the text. I can only imagine what Herodotus will mean to this little island monastery.

We returned back to land, and Phil, Julie, Clement and I went for lunch at a place called Desset Resort. Perched on the banks of Lake Tana, I had been looking for the spot the day prior but was unable to locate it. We ran into an Ethiopian couple who had been on the tour. They were eating kitfo—raw spiced meat, the Ethiopian steak tartar. They let us try some, so we decided to get our own. We sat around the lake, eating kitfo and shiro wat—a chickpea stew, with the fluffy injera. Julie and Clement headed back for a nap, and Phil and I sat chatting and sipping beers by the lake until the rains came.

We all re-grouped later near Phil's hotel to hang out with some young Ethiopians that he had met. They got us some araki, which is Ethiopia's version of rakije. It was pretty good, and already I was having dreams of Serbian rakije diplomacy to Ethiopia. We got into an interesting discussion on religion, the ability to discuss religion and politics in various places and of views on homosexuality in Ethiopia and the west. Ethiopia is a very Christian country, and can be a bit conservative in such regards but it was an enlightening conversation nonetheless.

More importantly, it was quite nice to have a group of friends to hang out with. I love the exchange of ideas with the French, Germans and Ethiopians. One thing that Phil and I discussed was that in the more remote places, you find a better class of traveler. Unlike the touristy gringo spots where the young backpackers come to party, you can often find very interesting fellow nomads in places like Central Asia or the Horn of Africa.

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