Lake Tana and the Drive to Gondar

Another early morning, this one after a pretty bad night. Our cute little bungalow’s bathroom smelled of sewer gas and we were plagued by mosquitos. No mosquito net.

Mas and Tardi picked us up at the hotel at 7:30 for a boat trip on Lake Tana. Early on the morning, the lake was like glass. We first went to the Nile outlet where we saw a family of 4 hippos, fishing eagles, pelicans and other birds.

Then we headed across the open water to visit an Orthodox monastery. The trip over took an hour. A mist hung over the trees on the shore, while we were in sunshine. It was cold enough for us to be wearing jackets.

The monastery itself was no big deal, but the ride there was fun and Mas, our guide, is very devout, and was very engaged, happy to show us this place that is important to him. There is a stone bell, which was cool, a 12″ x 30″ x 3″ thick stone suspended from a wooden frame that rings a beautiful clear note when struck with a smaller stone. The main building was a round, thatched roof building that looks like a huge version of houses that you see many places in Africa. Inside, a square structure holds a replica of the Arc of the Covenant (the real Arc is in Axum, which we’ll visit on a few days. No one gets to see the Arc. But they did bring it out for the big battle when they threw the occupying Italians out of Ethiopia. Take that, Indiana Jones!). The walls are painted with Bible stories in that cartoon, big-eyed style that you see in lots of Orthodox art, like icons. Everyone in the paintings is white. They were painted in the 16th century, and retouched since.

On the way down the hill back to the lake, we ran a gauntlet of souvenir stands. Lots of people here (and in every poor country that has tourists) try to chat up visitors to effect a little wealth transfer. We never engage unless we want to end up giving them money. It’s rude, but so are they. We have plenty of interactions with the people without dealing with touts.

Our boatman took us back to the dock, where we had lunch, tilapia wrapped in foil with rice, vegetables and delicious spices, then grilled. Our best meal so far.

At this point, Mas said goodbye and left us. Tardi, the driver, started the 3 hour drive to Gondar, our next stop. Tardi is funny, friendly and outgoing. We drove through the countryside, passing through the occasional town. The road is generally good, traffic was light and varied. Cars, tuktuks, donkey carts, pedestrians of all ages and trucks. At one point we passed a tipped-over truck that has dumped its load of dirt. “Red terrorist” said Tardi, explaining that the Chinese-built trucks were lousy, with bad brakes. We also saw a donkey cart that had been hit (donkey and drivers unhurt), and the car was impaled with a stick from the cart load.

On the way to Gondar, we turned off to visit a utopian village, started in 1972 by a guy who envisioned a society where women and men are equal, all wealth is shared, the old and sick are cared for, etc. A young man and later a young woman showed us around. They had both been born into the village. They started as farmers, then began weaving and producing textiles. It was very interesting.

Tardi is an excellent driver. When we first met, we had coffee, he had tea mixed with coffee because a driver has to stay awake. On the road, he floats his van smoothly through the chaotic traffic. He sounds his horn frequently letting everyone know he’s there. At one point, he pulled over to the side to let two oncoming trucks, one passing the other and taking too long to do it. Once they were by us, a car behind us passed, honked and yelled, apparently mad that we slowed him down and avoided getting us, and him, killed. In the next town, angry guy was dropping off a passenger, and as we passed Tardi stopped and calmly said something nice, with a laugh to the other driver, who smiled and nodded. Tardi then told us that the commercial drivers all chewed khat and got impatient. “If they have tourists, they drive better because they’re getting paid. But it’s low season, so the have to take passengers; they need to get more trips to make enough money, so they rush.

Tomorrow, sightseeing in Gondar.