Dark Angels and Local Hospitality

Trip Start Jul 21, 2009
Trip End Jul 21, 2010

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Flag of Ethiopia  , Gonder,
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

This morning we took local transportation: a mini van to travel to the city of Gondar. It was great to ride with the locals – as we traveled along we picked up more and more people until one guy was sitting on the floor of the car! The local minivan is also like UPS – we picked up packages from people on the road who paid to have their package delivered. The scenery was gorgeous and when we stopped sellers would come up to the van with their goods: drinks, snacks, and produce. One thing we noticed is that a lot of the boys and young men were outside playing foosball – in each village we stopped at there was a foosball table sometimes enclosed in a tarp curtain that was full of players and watchers. Before we reached the city we showed the driver on our map where we wanted to be dropped off. He nodded – every local was dropped off at their destination. We were the only ones left and the driver pulls into the bus station – that's when the splendid drive ended. The driver then told us to get out – we said no we had paid to get dropped off at our hotel and we were now on the other side of town. He then lied and said there was some other transportation we could get to the hotel. Yea right. No – we weren't leaving the van – at this point a crowd starts to form around the van. We tell him to call on his cell the man at the hotel where he had picked us up and we had arranged and paid for the ride. He called him and then much to his anger the guy tells him to drive us to the hotel. He gets off the phone and then says that he will only take us for 45 more birr. Great – extortion. Another guy who is watching this – and speaks better English than the driver – tells us ok the driver will take you but you will have to pay him. Fine – we say you drive us to the hotel first and then you'll get your money. So of course you know what happens – we get to the hotel which only takes 3 minutes to drive to– we make sure we get our bags – and we say goodbye. The hotel manager at this point comes out and smooths things with the driver who is irate. But come on! We already paid about 30 birr more than the locals so don't try to cry that you were robbed! Whew! Wherever you go in the world – shady cabbies!

After dropping our bags and getting a snack we head into town. Gondar is the 4th largest city in Ethiopia but it has a small town feel. As we pass people we wave hello – and we see a store that makes us feel like we're home: International Style with a picture of President Obama and the First Family! Nice! The town center is dominated by the walled Fasil Ghebbi (Royal Enclosure) that contains a number of 17th century castles. We decide after walking in that we should get a guide because there are no information signs in the area and we are SO glad we did because our guide Abiyot not only was very knowledgeable but he ended up being a great guy to hang with.

The castles are impressive – and while uniquely Ethiopian also show Indian and Portuguese influences. Some of the buildings within the compound were destroyed when the British bombed the area in World War II (Italian military was using Gondor as a headquarters). The architecture was ingenious; one of the Emperors built a sauna in his castle - chambers were used to create steam. Another emperor designed a special lion cage as the black-maned lion was a royal symbol up to Haile Selassie's rule in the 20th century. One of the best castles was built in the era of Queen Mentewab – and it also happens to be the castle in the best condition today (but of course!). We originally were just going to have a guide for the castles but because Abiyot was so good we continued our tour with him.

The next stop: Debre Bihran Selassie church. There are about 44 churches in Gondar many of them were destroyed in a 19th century attack by the Sudanese but Debre Bihran was left completely untouched. The cool thing about this church is the ceiling of "Dark Angels". The ceiling is painted with 80 brown cherub faces – each angel is looking at a different angle to signify that God is all around. Everything in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church means something – the Gondor cross for example has seven prongs with an ostrich egg on each prong. 7 signifies the 7 days of creation and the eggs represent the power of the spirit. We got another treat when we walked outside, around the church - which was crazy to see - were vultures in the juniper trees. They were HUGE!

The Final Stop: Emperor Fasilidas's pool. The pool is the site for a large festival where people are dipped in the holy water to receive a blessing. After all this touring around we were hungry so Abiyot suggested a local place and we happily followed. We ate Kitfo and the vegetarian fasting food on injera. It was delish! The Ethiopians have this tradition called gorsha in which one person prepares an injera bite of food and literally puts the bite into the other person's mouth. It is a sign of respect and Abiyot wanted to prepare a gorsha for us. Mike was first – I was hoping he wouldn't prepare one for me, but he did and I went along. It's a bit weird – it's my Western sensibilities coming out but unless I'm incapacitated in some way I like to put my own food in my own mouth! Just a little too close for comfort for my taste!

After filling up Abiyot invited us to go to a bar where some of his friends were going to hang out and celebrate one of their friends who got word today that he was granted a visa to Canada. Apparently getting a visa to go to Europe/Canada/USA is very difficult. People participate in a lottery and only 5000 people are granted visas each year – so this was a big deal. Golden Gate Bar had a great atmosphere: locals and we noticed a couple of westerners as well. Abiyot's friends, his co-workers in the guiding company were a riot and super friendly. We immediately hit it off with Yohannis: loud, very funny – a complete character; Chief: the oldest guide in the group; Hailie the “quiet responsible” guide; and the smoother. After a few round of beers we were like old friends. We had a great conversation – although they were happy for their friend – they want Ethiopians who are living overseas to come back to Ethiopia to help build it up. The brain drain is a huge problem they said. Abiyot who is studying law wants to stay and build up a practice. But the quote of the night came from Yohannis – when discussing the last 100 years of Ethiopian rule this was his saying: “Who trained Mandela: Halie Selassie” Who supported Mandela: Mengitsu - but internally he was a butcher!”

Next up in the Gondor nightlife tour: singing and dancing. The guys took us to a place we would have never found on our own – no signs or anything. You walk through the entrance and there are about 7 to 10 guys sitting on benches and chairs on the edge of the room and in the center is a man playing a masinko (similar to a guitar) and a woman in traditional Ethiopian dress singing. To the side is another young woman in traditional dress (the full white gown) conducting a coffee ceremony. Cool. This is how it works: the guys give the woman money (sticking the cash inside her dress collar) and ask her to sing different songs. Sometimes if the spirit moves them they will get up and dance as well. We take our seats and notice that I am the only female who is a part of the audience – it kind of makes me feel that I am in the Ethiopian version of a strip bar but a LOT more decent. The singing is really soulful and it quickly turns into a party as Abiyot, Chief, and Yohannis encourage the singers. One of the guys would suggest/call out a line and then the singer would have to incorporate it into her song. For example: "Hello Mike and Carla welcome to Gondar we've really enjoyed hanging out with you”!

Clapping and dancing with the performers and other patrons was definitely the highlight of the day and we really felt a part of the local culture. We both think that our Ethiopian-jerk shoulder move has improved after tonight!
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Tom on

Ethiopia is one of the biggest historical country in the world.

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