11 January 2010

14. - 11 JAN: Addis Ababa and departure, end of the trip

Last day in Ethiopia for this trip. We spend it around the city in the company of R. and S., two Ethiopian ladies we met at a restaurant last night. First stop is at a music shop, where I can buy some CDs of Ethiopian music. The area is by the "mercato", the Italian built covered market. All around an odd mix of old and new. Some donkey-pulled carts roll down the street next to modern cars and traditional spices are sold next to Coke. Out little music shop displays a rich variety of CDs.

When I ask about "traditional" Ethiopian music the lady at the counter looks bewildered. "We don't have so much, no one listens to that stuff any more." I suppose it would be like a foreigner going to a music shop in Rome and asking about CDs of "O Sole Mio"; he would probably get the same answer. Instead, she proposes a few disks of contemporary Ethiopian hits. Rather rock and rollish, with a touch of techno. Anyway, this is Ethiopian music today, so I buy a few CDs to take home!

More shopping at a bookstand. Again I can find some old colonial publications in Italian, I am struck by a meticulously detailed issue of a Rivista Economica in which the Fascist administration was proposing to reorganize the Ethiopian economy to face the League of Nations' sanctions!

Pit stop at a mango juice stand. Two ladies press the fresh drink, which we all enjoy, only to be a bit disappointed when the older one presents us with a bill for the drinks and... for the pictures we have taken! We don't pay and she is seriously disappointed. I mean, come on! I would have understood this kind of request in a tourist trap fake village by the entrance of a Kenyan national park, but not in a bustling city that prides itself (and if fact IS) a major continental capital.

Later we drive up the Mount Entoto, perhaps the best vantage point to view the city. In the huge park the highly significant Church of Mariam is worth a visit. Rose and Selam stop to pray by the little shrine at the bottom of the steps which lead into the Church itself. As we drive back into town on a newly paved road, an old lady walks briskly downhill with a huge pile of what looks like dried bamboo on her shoulder.

It's time to go to the airport, the trip is over. One last mishap, but not a major problem. It is impossible to change back our leftover Birr after security control, and therefore the only thing left is to spend them at the duty-fre shops. Nice picture books on Africa are fortunately available...

10 January 2010

Book Review: The Emperor, by Ryszard Kapuszinski, *****


After the deposition of Haile Selassie in 1974, which ended the ancient rule of the Abyssinian monarchy, Ryszard Kapuscinski travelled to Ethiopia and sought out surviving courtiers to tell their stories. Here, their eloquent and ironic voices depict the lavish, corrupt world they had known - from the rituals, hierarchies and intrigues at court to the vagaries of a ruler who maintained absolute power over his impoverished people. They describe his inexorable downfall as the Ethiopian military approach, strange omens appear in the sky and courtiers vanish, until only the Emperor and his valet remain in the deserted palace, awaiting their fate. Dramatic and mesmerising, The Emperor is one of the great works of reportage and a haunting epitaph on the last moments of a dying regime.

13. - 10 JAN: Bahir Dar to Addis Ababa

As we hit the road soutward toward the capital a large funeral procession of several hundred people in white robes cut across the highway. Most of the people are barefoot, and they all walk briskly in the cool morning sun, and their candid attire contrasts starkly with the black asphalt.

Many other people, as usual, walk along the side of the brand new highway. An "East African Bamboo Project" stand proudly displays, well, bamboo poles for sale, and a wide choice of mosquito brushes.

At 10:30 we stop at a gas station for some coffee. Good, strong, dense Italian coffee made with real Italian espresso machines. Coffee is a good connection between our two countries, they have the coffee and we brought in the machines, though the traditional coffee ceremony, as we have experienced it several times during this trip, is not to be missed.

Sharing injera and raw meat with our driver at a road side eatery
Lunch is at a roadside eatery/butcher shop/bar/gas station. The butcher, in a blood-stained white coat, is busy cutting up some beef into thin strips of meat. He and one of is assistants use special knives with a rounded blade that looks like a huge fishing hook. As usual, I eat with the driver and get a nice ingera with raw beef, all accompanied by a cool bottle of never to be missed Coca Cola.

A few kilometers down the road we cross the Nile again, this time on foot. We walk over a bridge built by the Italians, next to which in 2008 the Japanese built another one, more modern looking but definitely less charming, which is used by our bus. There is no traffic at all today on either bridge. A lone baboon plays on top of the ridge as we drive away.

Italian and Japanese bridges on the Nile
Shortly afterwards we meet some farmers having a tea break while they are gathering hay, and the are very kind to invite us over for a drink. About a dozen men labor away while a lady walks around with a full pot handing over cupfuls of tea.

One last stop before reaching the capital is at Debre Libanos, an ancient monastery where a wedding is taking place in one of the churches. Lots of friends and relatives in white and red dresses, rythmic music and a conservative, almost stiff posture on the part of the newlyweds.

This is not a happy site in the memory of Italy's presence in Ethiopia. Here Graziani exterminated over 200 monks when he suspected they had connived with those who had attempted on his life.

09 January 2010

12. - 9 JAN: Bahir Dar, Lake Tana

Early in the morning the sun paints a silver lining on the many canals and rivulets that draw thin lines across the fields. There is a lot of water in this region, something we are not accustomed to. The Nile is near, though it is now the dry season and there is not much water rushing forward to Sudan.

We drive a while and then take a boat across the river, then walk some more in the fields to reach the Tississat, "the smoking water", ie the Nile falling down a cliff and creating a waterfall, more like a tricklefall in this season, but perhaps prettier for that.

At the waterfall I buy some tea from a young girl who squats by a small wooden plank that is her table, a teapot on a small tin full of hot charcoal and a few glasses. Oh and some sugar. The tea is good. A we approach the waterfall we descend the slope of a hill toward the river and a young shepherd in a candid white blanket over dark shorts poses proudly against the "smoking" background of the falls.

At one point a line of perhaps twenty people walks past us in the distance. Most have huge bags of something, perhaps cotton, on their heads.

No one is around but us until a few lady farmers carrying huge sacs of dung walk by on their way to their farm. It's pretty impressive, the sack are way bigger than their own bodies and probably weigh at least twice as much!

Around lunch time I take a walk in the center of town and stop at a shop that sells hide puffs filled with straw. They are actually quite pretty and sturdy, but heavy. So after negotiating a good price for two puffs I ask the lady to cut them open and take out the grass. Which she has one of her assistants do, but it's hard, they have been sewn pretty well and it takes a good half an hour. Time to walk around, chat with some of the sellers, soak in the early afternoon heat.

After a quick lunch we hit the road again, this time to the shore of Lake Tana, where we board a fast outboard to reach the island in the middle of the lake with its interesting monastery.

08 January 2010

11. - 8 JAN: Gondar to Bahir Dar

Start of the day at the Fasil Gebbi, or Gondar enclusure. A large and majestic complex of palaces, a castle and once luscious gardens now in disrepair. A few birds hop around on top of the castle's merlons.The large empty halls of the castle are highly evocative of times past, especially the XVII century, when Emperor Fasilides projected his great powers from this site. We then go to the Debre Birhan Selassie Church, well known for its exquisite wall paintings.

A little stroll in town precedes a light lunch at a roadside cafe. The Italian 1930s architecture is still apparent downtow, for example in the post office building, among others. Lots of people walking around the busy main street, quite a few cars and swarms of motor rickshaws, "Ape" copied from the Piaggio models so successful throughout Asia.

At one point we walk by the local courthouse and notice some older men sitting outside in the shade with what look like poor people around them. Our guide explains that these are retired lawyers who provide free legal advice to poor people who could not otherwise afford it. Nice touch...

As we prepare to leave town we stop at the Fasilides baths, where the Ethiopians celebrate their Epyhany, or Timkat. There is no ceremony today, we are a few days too early, but quite a few people are busy at work preparing for next week.

We stop at a farm along the way, try to have a chat with the farmer and at one point the wife goes out of her way to show us her jewels, golden bracelets and ear rings of which she is clearly very proud.

We reach Bahir Dar just after a spectacularly red hot sunset has gifted us the last photo ops of a very colorful day.

07 January 2010

10. - 7 JAN: Axum to Gondar

Long transfer on the "Strada degli Italiani" toward Gondar. Early breakfast by the roadside, where a stunningly beautiful lady serves us eggs and fresh orange juice.

The road is not paved well here, and every truck raises huge clouds of dust that linger in mid air for longs minutes.

The landscape is king today, as the majestic ambas offer different shades of blues and greens and browns to my telephoto lens.

Many memories of past wars on the way, from an Italian fort on a hilltop to rusting tanks from the more recent wars with Eritrea. It's now a playground for some kids from a bearby farm.

In one village, an abandoned Agip gas station testifies to the long standing Italian presence in the country.

We reach Gondar in the evening, and hit the sack early, this has been a long day on the road and tomorrow will be busy for us and our cameras.

06 January 2010

9. - 6 JAN: Axum

Whole day in this town, a symbol of Ethiopia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From the terrace of our hotel we can enjoy a great view over the main field of steles. Among them, the famous Rome obelisk, returned in 2008 after seventy years spent in the eternal city. It is a magic site, very few people around, and this allows us to fully enjoy our visit. Unfortunately the sun is already too high to take good photos, so I'll have to come back at sunset. A small museum completes the educational aspect of the site. I especially appreciate a sign by the ticket office: "The fool wanders, a wise man travels".

I am struck by a Swedish couple walking around with their two kids, a boy and a girl aged perhaps 4 and 6, each with their little backpack, following diligently in their parents' footsteps. The answer to my many friends who have children of similar age and don't travel to Africa because it is "dangerous" for them.

From here we walk across the street to the Church of Our Lady of Zion, which is actually two Churches, one new and one very old, where legend has it that the ark of the Covenant if guarded by a single monk appointed to this only function for life. Well... Lots of people sitting around here, some musicians playing away with their trumpets and deums in the courtyard and a few faithful inside. One monk takes out a few old bibles for us to look and photograph.

Our next stop is the ruins of the palace allegedly built by the Queen of Sheba, supposedly an ancestor of the Ethiopian imperial family, just out of town. Not so interesting for the uninitiated to the arcana of archeology I must say. By 4 o'clock in the afternoon I decide to go back to the stelae for optimal sunset light photography. Indeed, the effort pays out: a warm amber light soon begins to envelop the monuments, and there is no one around at all.

In the evening I decide to attend the orthodox Christmas ceremonies at the small Church of Enda Iyesus by the stelae field. It is a highly suggestive setting. The warm evocative candle light mixed with cold cheap neon creates a surreal atmosphere. Many priests are celebrating mass, and quite a few faithful are attending, many stranded outside.

A few youngsters are visibly happy about our presence that perhaps for them is a welcome distraction from the boredom of the liturgy. The main priests at first refuses us entry, but then relents after we tend a monetary offer. I try not to disturb the proceedings and take quite a few pictures from the sidelines.