24 hours in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia
I tend to think I love and have a deep connection with my continent, ‘Motherland’ as our brothers and sisters in the diaspora refer to it. But, every time I come to Ethiopia I am reminded that no one loves Africa and Africans as much as Ethiopians do.
Everywhere you go, Ethiopians first assume you are Ethiopian and speak to you in Amharic. Once they realise you are not, they ask, “Where are you from?”
“I’m from Kenya,” I answer, “your neighbor.”
“Is this your first time in Ethiopia?” they ask.
I answer, “No my second time. I loved it so much I had to come back.”
“Ah, welcome back home!”
‘Welcome back home’, I had always wondered about that response. Such a spirit of either warm ownership of all Africans or perhaps a hospitality that transcends ownership of their land. That they are not possessive of their borders, as an African you are welcome to call it home.
However, I like to think that the answer to this, stems from a story our amazing tour guide Abenezer or AB as he prefers to be called.
“In the Bible only two countries in Africa are mentioned. Egypt and Ethiopia. Therefore, all Africans, all black people from the East, West and South must have been Ethiopians before Arab and European colonization.” He then laughs and adds, “Oh, you thought you were going to make me Kenyan? No, you are all Ethiopians, we will make you all Ethiopians.”
That sense of deep connection, with culture, faith and people is ever present.
“Aba! Aba! My name is XYZ, come see my jewelry, come buy it. Let me take you for a tour! We have a big bridge it carries donkeys and people. Come see it!” Shout the children as you weave in villages in Bahir Dar. Aba-means ‘look me in the eye’- just because they are kids following you around yelling and you think they will ask you for money does not mean you should not look them in the eye when they are talking to you.
A bad habit I learnt when travelling, if I suspect someone will beg me for money or convince me to buy something I don’t want, I don’t look them in the eye and ignore them so that they go away. But in Ethiopia, ‘Aba aba!’, ‘... look me in the eye…’ is an affirmative demand and reminder that no matter what, they deserve your attention to at least say a courteous no.
In God’s country filled with God’s people you could not pick a more perfect place than Bahir Dar in the Amhara region to connect with what that means. Dotted with over thirty 16th and 17th century monasteries and home to Lake Tana that is the source of the Blue Nile. You get regular views of these round huts with Ethiopian Orthodox crosses on the roof that have impaled ostrich eggs on them.
Unassuming structures, until you walk in and are quietly led around by deacons into the rooms of the monastery. Filled with ancient, colorful illustrations of the saints and stories of biblical lore. The reactions of people once they remove their shoes and walk into the huts should be filmed. Sheer awe, gasps, eyes wide open trying to take in everything that they are seeing, that they did not expect to see when walking in.
While still trying to maintain reverence, the whispering and silence that is expected of you as you navigate this holy space. Bare feet, walking behind the deacon in linen white robes calmly holding his prayer staff. Trying to take your eyes off the walls to capture photos of him as he sometimes pauses to pose with colorful, tasseled, velvet umbrellas that are embroidered with gold and silver thread in the monastery.
Outside one such monastery, Azewa Mariam Monastery we meet a Monk seated under mango and avocado trees. “You look like my grandfather! So not only are you a monk that has blessed me, this experience feels infinitely richer as you remind me of someone I really value.” I like to think he understood me as he smiles-warmly, kindly.
On our way back to catch our boat taxi on Lake Tana, we weave through muddy paths filled with people selling art, traditional games and Orthodox crosses.
I buy a $9 Ethiopian Orthodox Cross that signifies Bahir Dar for me which is the in the Amhara region-each of the Ethiopian Orthodox Crosses signifies a region in Ethiopia. I also buy a $20 art piece from an artist who paints Ethiopian Orthodox Saints and Angels on goat skin with paint made from crushed local flowers and leaves.
The day ends with a sunset cruise on the Blue Nile before we head to the hotel. On arriving, we are informed that the national exams begin the next day and therefore, Internet in Ethiopia has been shut down by the government so that kids are not able to cheat and also to reduce anxiety caused by fake news about the exams spread on the Internet.
Therefore, the modern-day traveler routine of going back to the hotel and using wi-fi to update friends and family on your travels will have to be interrupted for the week. Which is great as it allows more focus on engaging on the experience as opposed to technological distractions.
What to do in 24 hours in Bahir Dar:
- Take a 7.15am Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis to Bahir Dar
- 8.15am land at Bahir Dar airport and drive to the Lake Tana boat taxi dock to proceed to Azewa Mariam Monastery at the Zege Peninsula. Enjoy watching horse drawn carts move swiftly on the busy Bahir Dar highways.
- 9.30am Arrive at Zege Peninsula and weave your way up muddy paths filled with artisanal artists and jewelry makers to get to the Azewa Mariam Monastery. Spend about two hours there and another 45 minutes on your way back to buy and see the arts and crafts being sold
- 1pm Lunch at one of the popular restaurants that sit on the lakeside. Enjoy fresh local tilapia from the lake cooked in various local Ethiopian ways. Enjoy a cold beer that has a pretty Ethiopian Angel as its symbol. End the meal with a coffee ceremony- a thick, dark coffee paired with sugar dusted popcorn and incense to cleanse the palate and refresh.
- 2pm Drive out to the Blue Nile for a boat trip, enjoy the calm waters bordered by palmed hills and reeds. Park the boat and walk around a little village with a waterfall and cross the large canopy bridge on a gorge for breathtaking views of the place
- 4.30pm take the boat back on the Blue Nile for a sunset cruise finale
- 6pm Arrive at Abay Minch Lodge for the night and for dinner, I recommend the ‘Foil Fish’ on their menu which is fish and vegetables that comes tightly wrapped in foil and on fire. Spend the night listening to the rain and monkey swinging away in the trees around the lodge.