4. Northern Ventures, Part 1

Around three weeks ago, I set out on a voyage of sorts. The planned portion was for 6 days, the unplanned, unknown. That ambiguous space in the near future in which you know good things will happen but don’t know what, exactly; this is where my life seems to take a nice shape. Under sponsorship by Yom, Jessie and I travelled to Debre Markos, a small city with a large surrounding agricultural sphere, and to Bahir Dar, one of the largest cities in the country, located on Lake Tana. Yom partners with universities in both cities, and they were attending graduation and various meetings throughout the week. We got to tag along for the beautiful northern ethiopian ride, share in nice meals and good conversation, and see some of some sites of the region, some lesser and some more well known spots.

The beauty of being with locals is that you don’t get as much attention as when you are alone, and you get to go places that you wouldn’t find in a tour book or travel site. For example, halfway into the 6-7 hour drive to Debre Markos, while winding down into the Nile Gorge (where the river splits the earth, requiring a slow 45 minute ride down a canyon, and then up, reminiscent of the grand canyon, but GREEN), we pulled off onto a dusty side road where a 14th century church has attracted around 2,000 monks to live and pray. Informal housing lines the mile or two road leading to the church compound. A few-hundred year old fig tree calls us to climb, and we accept. Some small grey monkeys scurry up the cliff that walls one side of the road as we drive past. We stop to quietly observe the church’s presence and the presence of other observers, draped in colorful scarves and gabi’s (larger blanket-scarves), shielding from the sun with open umbrellas.

Another example, the day after arriving in Debre Markos we took a day trip to Choke Mountain, which, according to an article Jessie read, will never be a tourist destination. Which I am HAPPY for, because wow, wouldn’t want to disturb the purity of the land or of the people in the little cloud covered village where we stopped for lunch and local spirits. I’ve tried to express this experience but am having trouble, so instead I will share this ‘poem’ that I jotted down at some point during the trip…

Choke Mountain

climbing climbing

up and around

these views are once in a lifetime

ill hold them in my memory

and in a snapshot, candid

shephards invite us for a walk

with their herd

through the mountaintop pastures

dont eat the leaves of the lobelia tree

the white nectar will make you pass out

something like wonderland

crossing streams that will end in the nile

and through a patch of old growth forest

keeping in the moisture, all of a sudden, a jungle

until we reach the field on the other side

a time warp of sorts

climbing climbing

arriving at a mountaintop village

of a few hundred

all adorned with handmade quilts

large scarves, small blankets

all models, faces of nat geo

bodies strong and in motion

lunch; a basket of local potatoes

and a mound of steaming tagabino

next door: fresh brewed shai and local areki

heightening our natural high

from being in this beautiful world

sharing in the lives of strangers

i cant explain this through words

only feelings

a strange sense of closeness

a short love affair

with a life ill never live

A day later, Jessie and I travelled 5km from Debre Markos via rickshaw (/‘bijaj’), which notably fit 8 people (only fits 3 comfortably, lol) to Antoneh’s house (Yom faculty and recent master’s graduate) for his family graduation party. A horn was blown as invitation to the village, and a field of maize, chat (stimulant; green leafy plant), and coffee plants stood in the way of us and the village house. We were the only foreigners, potentially the first his mother and other community members have ever met. At least, from certain stares, this is how it felt. Communication was primarily nonverbal, and I took my natural role as an observer. Another one of many inexplicable events from the past weeks, another stream of conscious..

Antoneh’s Graduation

understanding what its like

to be the only one of a kind

people say that want to be this way

but really people want to fit in, to feel accepted

to feel comfortable, ‘yimechal’.

in a rural complex, the main house plus the cooking hut and an abandoned one

the tin roof is effective at keeping out the rain

thats coming down in sheets

food comes around,

nearly forceful feeding is seemingly customary

are you comfortable

more of the home-brew comes around

helping to magnify the feeling

that im very far from home

what is satisfaction?

what is technology?

can westerners be satisfied?

is this tin roof, keeping us try, not technology?

the ability to serve 50+ heads hot fresh food?

are you not comfortable?

will you always need more, too?

After a few days, we reloaded the van and traveled onward, northeast for another 5-6 hours to Bahir Dar. It felt beachy. Lots of hotels and juice spots. But with the hustle and bustle of a city, rapidly expanding its boundaries and swallowing up peripheral rural towns, transforming the livelihoods of those once separated. They say people in Bahir Dar are still rural, as recognizable by their dialect. My tenish (small/bit of) amarenya wasn’t as relatable here.

Due to its location on Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, and the lake’s lush surrounding flora, one of Bahir Dar’s major sources of growth is tourism. Thankful, again, to be traveling with locals, we didn’t have to negotiate or wonder if we were getting fair prices on our site seeing ventures. After ensuring that the rainy season wouldn’t plague our day trip, we set out one morning on a mid-sized motor boat to visit three of the dozen-or-so monasteries located on the lake. There are biblical connections between Ethiopia and Israel, between ancient characters like King Solomon and Queen of Sheba. The Arch of the Covenant, according to some theologists and historians, lived around here for some time. Who really knows? We stir over these stories as we motor an hour out to an island, and then hop to two more. A few of the monasteries welcome men only, I think one is female-only. Why, if one is so devout, must they so strictly censor their environment?, I wonder.

The islands serve many functions. Small shops offer interpretive religious paintings, cups made of cow horns, and other local crafts. I buy a copper thumb ring for 13 birr (~0.70 USD) plus a spare pen I had in my bag. I think pens cost around 10-15 birr here, so they are a pretty popular commodity on the streets. The sentimental value of the pen, which had come from a recent trip to New Hampshire, made the transaction feel artificially costly, but knowing it’s new home is a ‘holy’ island in the middle of Africa’s 3rd largest lake offered some solace. So, the islands provide income to a few, tickets sold offer funding for preservation efforts, and spiritual enlightenment is sought by many hundreds living as monks near to the monasteries, which were built thousands of years ago. Visitors immerse themselves in history; history which also lives in the present, in the presence of the architecture, stones standing the test of time, in the paintings of biblical stories that adorn all monetary walls, and in the people, who still live like those in the stories portrayed here. Old growth flora and rocky shores and ample photo opportunities of abandoned motor boats, broken clay vessels, and the other nearby islands, make for a perfect day trip.


Another perfect day trip was to the Blue Nile Falls (in Amharic, Tis Abay, meaning Great Smoke). I went with Laina, a new friend we picked up in a cafe one morning, who was traveling alone, and happy to explore together. The next or maybe the next next day, we traveled together an hour from town to the Falls. Among other things, we talked about the benefits of leaving your comfort zone, what it means for a place to be untouched, integrative health, and the inexplicable nature of certain experiences. We agreed that sometimes it feels right to convey through poetry. (‘poetry’:)

Blue Nile Falls

all things work out here today

someone always appears to answer our questions

to lead us to the right bus, out of hundreds

it leaves soon after,

we knew how much it should cost, and got charged the right amount without a discussion;

all are appreciable events.

those around understand us enough to indicate where to get out

tour guides try to tour us

they say it’ll be confusing, how will we know where to go?

playing on our insecurity as foreigners, our lack of local knowledge

our fear that we might get lost

but those along the way show us willingly

offer us walking sticks

so we can traverse the slippery rocks and gushy mud

smells of eucalyptus burning, of coffee roasting

and of animals that recently passed through

we cross an old stone bridge

unmoving as everything around it is

locals, barefoot, lead us, offering a hand in rougher spots

laughing with us not at us

we slip and slide up and around, a 40 minute route to our destination

kids run by to offer smaller hands

some asking for ‘one birr’, or demanding ‘give me money’, some not

we rest on a rock at the nearest viewing point

feeling the spray of the falls, as falling water plunges against the pool

before proceeding on to farther depths

and down on its way

similar in size to niagara, but water chocolate brown

and surroundings are certain shades of green, without manufacture.

there are cows, maybe the most pristine, meditative cows

on a jagged spawn of mountain

feeling the breeze together with us

as the trickle of a smaller fall behind them

feeds their personal pool

a utopian cow society

resources are for all

no one herding or telling them where to go

to designate consumption and leisure time

a pace i feel i am also able to enjoy

here in Bahir Dar.

The next or next next day, Dani arrived in Bahir Dar from Addis, and the day after that, we’d travel together to Gondar, and on to our Simien Mountain trek… (to be continued!)