Day 4: Bahir Dar and the Monasteries of Lake Tana

I woke early today, excited for the “real start” of my vacation. I had managed to link up with a group sharing a boat to see some of the monasteries on Lake Tana—the whole point of my stop in Bahir Dar—so needless to say, I was excited. Plus, I wanted to have a leisurely breakfast before my 8:30 pickup outside the hotel. I had laid out clothes and restlessly triple-checked my camera and equipment the night before, so the morning was a breeze. I had some new Ethiopian breakfast foods, which were delicious, plus a million refills on my tiny cup of coffee watching BBC World News.

On my ride over in the guide’s tuk tuk, we stopped and picked up an older French man name Jean, and despite his very basic English and my very basic French, we managed to catch up on what we did and where we were from. At the boat, we were joined by some Ethiopian folks, a young Polish couple, a somewhat standoffish duo of vague European extraction and a Belgian traveler named Frank. Frank had been at the guest house my first night in Addis, so it was fun to see him again.

I sat on the boat and walked around at our island stops with Frank, probably in his early 40s, and Jean, mid 70s, for the rest of the day. They were both super cool. Frank was splendidly multilingual and managed to be the go-between for our conversation. Interestingly enough, I was about to follow the conversation in French quite easily, I was just at a loss when it came to responding in a timely manner. (I exhausted my vocabulary and conjugation explaining that I had studied French in secondary school, but forgotten most of it. However, that phrase was well crafted enough for Jean to be suitably impressed.) It made me realize that I should really dive into studying French again and that it would probably come back fairly quickly. It also showed what a boon speaking multiple major languages was. Swahili is wonderful for East Africa, but that’s about it…

We set off onto Lake Tana, which was unfortunately rather brown—either due to agitation from recent rain or the hydroelectric dam—but it was still quite beautiful. There were a number of people packing serious DSLR setups on the boat, and as we approached one of the first islands, I was struck by the most ridiculous image: as bags were unzipped, batteries checked, SD cards inserted and enormous, compensatory telephoto lenses snapped on, I couldn’t help but think of military movies—the special forces team about to hit the beach, checking weapons, inserting clips, racking rounds into chambers. Ridiculous, sure, but good for a bit of a private laugh.

It was interesting to see how people interacted with each other when it came to cameras and photography. There were the measured side-eye evaluations of others’ kits, the feeling of comparison, as if equipment were a direct correlation to results. I also found peoples’ shooting behavior quite instructive. Many went snap happy at every vaguely interesting landmark we passed, intent, I suppose, on capturing the entirety of the experience. The fear of missing something was so strong, that on multiple occasions, when everyone had their cameras down and resting, I found my self absentmindedly lensing up something that struck me, wondering if it would be a good picture, and caused three other cameras to snap up and point in the same direction—god forbid there’s something to photograph out there and we miss it, now what what’s he looking at?! It was difficult to remind myself to be cool while everyone else was clicking away, but I was happy to remain in my zone: just observing and enjoying the trip, bringing my camera up only when I saw something I thought would make a compelling image, versus the spray and pray approach that some people seem to take on vacations.

Artistic jockeying aside, the trip was amazing! We took the boat over to the Zege Peninsula, where we disembarked and took at short hike through the woods to the Betre Mariam monastery. There we paid a small entrance fee and removed our shoes and caps before heading into the round wooden church, the interior of which was decorated with elaborate murals depicting scenes from the Bible, all with an Eastern Orthodox/Coptic flavor. They were stunning, covering the walls and doors floor to ceiling, with nary a beam or rafter unadorned. The priests went about their work, generally silent, though one would occasionally come up to me and point out a particular story or image in a soft voice, pointing insistently and saying, “St. George. Dragon. St. George.” (They are crazy-go-nuts about St. George and the Dragon all over Ethiopia, though I’ve yet to investigate exactly why.)  Doors

The interior of the churches were rather dark, and as taking pictures with flash was wisely forbidden in order to preserve the murals, it was a bit tricky to get solid exposures. One of the men in the group berated himself (“Damndamndamnverdamment!”) for leaving his tripod at the hotel, frustrated by the slow shutter speeds necessitated by the dim interior. I felt his pain, but I locked my elbows to my ribs, hunched up tight on the camera and did my level best to slow my breathing as I went—my shots turned out pretty well, I think. I could definitely learn a thing or two more about slowing one’s heart rate, though, especially after the short but steep uphill hike to the monastery. I’ve also been shooting mainly with my 35mm prime lens, so framing has been a matter of feet shuffling, en pointe tiptoe raises, and all number of backbends and contortions—I made a silent promise to myself that I’d stretch more each morning, and get into yoga once I was back from the trip.

Mural

After a bit of consultation with our boat driver, we swung around the peninsula to visit Ura Kidane monastery as well—it being the most lauded among the various Brandt and Lonely Planet guides present among the group. It was quite similar to Betre Mariam, which is to say absolutely stunning. The hike to it was a bit longer, a gauntlet of souvenir stalls in the forest: people selling all manner of scarves, Ethiopian crosses, necklaces, paintings and models of reed boats. The rocky terrain of the path made for a good excuse to keep one’s head down and avoid eye contact with the vendors, but it was quite the trek. Admittedly, there was some cool stuff—really great scarves—but word is the prices are 3x that of Addis, so I decided to hold off. Plus, who wants to travel with a full pack? I’m planning to do my souvenir supermarket sweep on my last couple days in the capital.

Me and Mural

There was a cool little museum accompanying Ura Kidane, which featured ornate robes, parasols and crowns of the Ethiopian emperors, which was pretty cool, along with a number of Amharic bibles. There wasn’t much in the way of background material or context, but they were nice to look at. We hopped back in the boat one last time to stop at an island church on the way back, but it was closed—you could pay the priests the full entrance feel to hike up and observe the exterior, but most of us opted to hang out in the shade at the base of the hill. One of the priests ladled out some boiled maize from a bin where it was on it’s way to acquiring the sour tang of injera—most folks balked, but I gladly took a double handful and sat munching away. Tanzania has taught me to never turn down food, as well as the cultural significance of just sitting quietly and eating with folks. Plus, it was a free lunchtime snack.

I spoke with Frank, early 40s, who works for HP in Ghent and travels abroad every year, who was really interesting. He was jealous of my international experience at a young age, and encouraged me to keep traveling, advising me on where to go in India and Japan, and touting Central America as the friendliest region he’d been to. Jean, age 75, from Lille, was also fun to talk to—he spoke with the highest disdain for the French senior-citizen group tour that was in Ethiopia, preferring to go it alone. He’d also traveled extensively, and spoke of a cross-country bus trip of America aboard le Greyhounde he took in the ‘70s with a mischievous sparkle in his eyes. Both of them were the coolest of dudes—I totally regret not hitting them up for a group selfie.

After the island, we swung by the alleged source of the Blue Nile, hoping to see some hippopotami—no luck, but I enjoyed the scenery. Honestly, while Ethiopia has churches and castles and whatnot, Tanzania is pretty much the best place in Africa for wildlife, so I was less than enthused. Been there, seen that ish. I did enjoy the river, though, which was quite scenic.

We headed back to shore in the afternoon, all of us a bit tired from the sun off the water. I went back to the hotel to shower and listen to some music while I uploaded and backed up the roughly 400 shots I had taken during the day. Frank had recommended a restaurant nearby, so in the early evening I set out into town.

Bahir Dar at 5 o’clock was amazing: still a little warm in the long light, with the kids getting out of school and folks on the street after work coming and going. My favorite time of day just about anywhere, to be honest. I stopped and pulled up a streetside table at Wude Coffee, because I was far behind my intake for the day. Their Wude Macchiato—I’m a sucker for house drinks—turned out to be a macchiato with hot cocoa powder sprinkled (read: dumped) generously on top, but it was damn good. I sipped it and watched people come and go on the main thoroughfare.

Machiatto

My walk continued through the bustling city center, where I carefully crossed the roundabout and managed to avoid disaster with cars now driving on the right side of the street. After about 10 minutes, I took a path towards the water that cut through some fields on the way to the Lakeshore Restaurant. The walk turned out to be gorgeous enough that I continued past the fork I was supposed to take, wandering through the park in the soft evening and coming up on the lake. It was absolutely gorgeous and serene, and pretty much deserted save for a few strolling couples.

Park

Lakeshore restaurant was situated on a prime spit of land extending into Lake Tana and I was given a seat right at the water’s edge, which afforded a spectacular view of the lake, it’s small port, and the sunset. I enjoyed a St. George beer (or two) and the delicious “fish foil,” a packet of lake fish over rice covered in hot peppers and tomatoes, cooked to perfection. They also served some bread with a spicy, smoky dipping hot sauce, a concept I admittedly first met with a bit of consternation, but I was immediately converted to a staunch supporter with the second bite. Mostly, I just watched the evening wind down, content with the disconnect from all my cares. A young British couple took turns taking pictures on a small overlook point: hers, yoga poses, and his, self-conscious mugs for the camera.

Lakeside Beer

I settled up the delightfully small bill and headed out, not wanting to be out too long after dark. Life in Dar es Salaam has imbued me with a horror of being out too late or walking in areas of the city that aren’t Kisutu or Upanga. Bahir Dar felt markedly different as I made my way home in the dark blue glow of the late evening. The streets were crowded full of people, restlessly moving, and sure, I kept track of my pockets and avoided the crush, but I wasn’t nearly as on edge as I am back home in Tanzania. Maybe it’s because I know good and well what to be afraid of there, while ignorance in a new country is a bit of bliss. Downtown here, though, I felt safer, that I could move through the scene more easily, and while my whiteness was surely conspicuous, there didn’t seem to be as much gawking as there is even on the street where I live in Dar. Who knows, maybe it was easier to ignore because I don’t understand Amharic. Regardless, it was a nice feeling as I made my way back to the hotel.

I’ve been turning in surprisingly early so far this trip, usually in my room by 8 PM with little regard to going out again. It’s been nice though, as the hours most often spent haunting around bars while traveling is suddenly found time, and I’ve been getting a lot of reading and writing done, this rough travelogue being just one small aspect. It’s been a great departure, and something I hope to continue even when I’m back on the work grind in Tanzania. But now isn’t the time for thinking too much about work—tomorrow I’m off, heading via minibus up to Gondar and the next leg of the journey.

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