January 7-10, 2009
Exodus from Lalibela
The morning after the big christmas celebrations there was a mass exodus from Lalibela. We heard the bus out of Lalibela leaves at 4 AM and that we should be there extra early to make sure we get a spot. But we were tired, having gone to sleep around 2 AM after watching the party in St Mariam, so we totally slept in. Luckily there were plenty of busses leaving town all morning long.
Bus to Bahir Dar
We had a pretty long bus ride to our next destination – Bahir Dar. Part of the issue is that the engine kept overheating and we had to stop repeatedly to add more water. Meanwhile I was in a constant battle with this lady over space on our “seat”, which was a small cushion thrown over the engine block. They had the same Ethiopian music on repeat all the way and people sang along, which, actually, was really fun.
As a final annoyance, when we got to Bahir Dar the bus people asked us for 40 Birr ($4) to get our bags off the top of the bus. We said “no way”. It’s possible that we’re wrong to expect western service from a totally different culture, but we find it so irritating when they don’t tell us the actual cost up front. In some places the luggage people asked for a 1-2 Birr tip, and that’s fine. But to suddenly ask for a luggage fee that is as high as the tickets themselves – that’s bullshit. Eventually I climbed to the top of the bus myself and handed the bags down to Pnina. The bus people weren’t too happy, but screw ’em.
We arrived at 8 PM and checked into the Ghion Hotel – a nice spot just outside city center, along the banks of Lake Tana.
Blue Nile Falls
The next day we took it easy – did some laundry, grabbed lunch, caught up on internet (yes! Bahir Dar has internet!). In the early afternoon we decided to maybe try and see some sights before the day is over, so we headed to the nearby Blue Nile Falls.
We caught a bus to the nearby town of Tis Abay. The bus had a flat tire right away, so we were further delayed. By the time we got to the trailhead we had to rush. The issue was that the final bus back to Bahir Dar leaves around 6 PM.
We were going to head out on our own, but a local guy offered to guide us for $2, so we accepted. As it turns out, it’s lucky we took him. There are no signs for the falls and plenty of forks in the road. Plus Pnina and I don’t have the best track record when it comes to staying on trails.
After a brisk 20 min walk we finally saw the falls…
These falls range from gushing to a trickle depending on the season and on whether one or both of the nearby dams are on. What we saw was medium strength — January is the dry season but at least only one of the dams was on.
Seeing the falls from far away was great, but we wanted to get a closer look. So, rather than backtracking we completed a loop that took us to the bottom of the falls and then around to the top. We then took a 30-second boat ride to get us back to Tis Abay.
We knew we were pressing our luck trying to squeeze the extra loop in with our little time, and sure enough, we missed the last bus. What to do? We started asking around town and we found only one truck heading to Bahir Dar. But the driver wouldn’t offer us a ride because there was some policy preventing him from taking us (perhaps the police doesn’t want tourists getting hurt riding in the back of trucks? not sure). We had one other choice, which was to just stay in Tis Abay for the night, but we had no interest in that – it was a dinky little town with nothing to do, and anyhow, we already paid for our hotel in Bahir Dar. So, with no choice, we started walking. The people in town thought we were nuts to start a 30 km walk after sunset, and yeah they were probably right. One other trucker offered us a ride, but after some discussion it became clear that he was going to try to charge double what he originally stated, so we kept walking. In retrospect it’s rediculous that we made a fuss over $5 given our situation, but that’s the kind of stubborn tourists we became in Ethiopia. After walking a couple of km the original truck came along, and this time he agreed to take us for a better price, so we accepted. The only thing was that we had to get off the truck before we entered the city because he didn’t want any police to see him with tourists. No problem. Moral of the story: when you go to Blue Nile Falls, make sure not to go to late!
Obama mania is everywhere in Africa. While traveling here we’ve noticed various businesses called “Obama”. For example, when we returned to Bahir Dar from the Blue Nile Falls, we stepped into the Obama Restaurant.
The restaurant was modern and had Obama “hope” posters everywhere. The food was pretty good (especially the pizza) and they had the best mango juice in Ethiopia. But the menu had some horrible typos. For example, how many incorrect spellings of the word “croutons” can you find in the soup section of the menu?
We decided to be good semeritans, so we offered to help them fix all the spelling mistakes in the menu. It was a bigger undertaking than we originally anticipated. Instead of letting us make the changes on an actual menu, they gave us clean pieces of paper where we could notate things like “# 62, lamp –> lamb”. It took us at least 90 minutes. In the end, the owner of the restaurant, Alelegn, came out to meet us and say thanks. He was a pretty cool guy. He gave us some of the fake $100 bills with Obama’s face that he used to advertise his new restaurant.
Island Monasteries on Lake Tana
The other big attraction in Bahir Dar is the lake: Lake Tana. In particular, the lake has a bunch of islands, each of which has its own old monastery. We signed up for a tour of some of these monasteries through Ghion Hotel.
In terms of sights, the lake was pretty good but not spectacular. Unlike the churches in Lalibela, which are carved from rock and really unbelievable, the monasteries here are built up like normal buildings. They all have the same round design, with a square holy room inside. The main difference from one to the next is the quality of the Christian paintings on the walls – some are nicer and better preserved than others. Also, some of the churches have some ancient artifacts – books, crowns, that sort of thing.
One frustrating thing about the trip is that we had to fork over money to visit each individual monastery – $3 here, $3 there, it starts to add up. Still, Pnina and I enjoyed this day trip, largely because we had a really lively group. There was a French couple, Martin & Feriel; Martin is Jewish and speaks some Hebrew, while Feriel is Algerian – what a combination! There was an English couple half way into their 2-year trip around the world (and we thought our trip was long). There was a Dutch couple, Jacob & Helda; Jacob worked in Tanzania as a doctor, and as such he got automatic citizenship there; this meant that he got super-cheap entrance to all those expensive attractions (Serengeti, Kilimanjaro, etc.) — nice!
Before heading back we made a stop at the north end of the lake, at the source of the Blue Nile. Various countries claim to have the mouth fo the nile, and in some way they are all correct because there are various parts of the nile. Anyhow, this is one of them. The main thing to see was some hippos in the water.
Around the World
Busses in London and other cities are displaying atheist/agnostic messages like “There’s probably no god, now stop worrying and enjoy your life“. It’s pretty amuzing to read this story now, having just witnessed the religious frenzy of the Christmas celebrations in Lalibela.
There’s a dispute between Russia and Ukraine over the price of gas. Russia decided to take a draconian approach – they shut off the gas flowing to Ukraine. The trouble is that other European countries get their gas through Ukraine, so as a result many of those countries are in trouble. It’s winter so it’s cold, and people are running out of gas to heat their homes. Some factories have shut down temporarily in an effort to conserve energy.