Category Archives: Ethiopia

Ghion Hotel, Lake Tana and Bahir Dar

Ethiopian market scene, Bahir DarThis was sold to me as a lake side retreat with lovely gardens and great food. That is not inaccurate but does not tell the whole story. Bahir Da is on the shores of Lake Tana – which is the size of a small sea really. The hotel is on the outskirts of the town with a main road roaring by and the usual collection of shoe shine boys, souvenir sellers etc outside the gate. If you gave this hotel one star you would be extremely generous. It is on the shores of the lake but is surrounded by a seven foot high corrugated iron fence so you can’t see the lake. The gardens are lovely apart from the serious lack of weeding and the addition of empty beer cans, plastic bottles etc. The bird life is spectacular, exotic and tame. Which makes me feel a little less annoyed about forgetting my binoculars as they are so close I don’t really need them. As we approach the outside restaurant area which is a huge thatched roof built round an enormous tree I can hear the conversation from a table of English people. The man is saying something along the lines of ‘I think it is absolutely bloody outrageous. Imagine if back in England we raised the price whenever a black man tried to buy something’. This was referring to the fact that everything in Ethiopia has a local price and a foreigner price – which incidentally is to do with nationality not skin colour. Rebecca who is 100% Ethiopian sometimes failed to get the local price because if she didn’t have papers to prove she was Ethiopian they suspected here of being a tourist – which I suppose she is! They did not suspect her of being white for obvious reasons. I wanted to go and tell the man what a twat he was and ask him if her had ever compared what international students pay in the UK compared with residents. Besides which this price difference usually amounts to foreigners paying £1:50 for something whilst locals pay 50p which I agree is a large percentage but we are talking about £1 here! If the locals were charged £1:50 they could not afford it. OK I will shut up.

Live hens on pole in market, Bahir Dar Anyway we decide to stay at the hotel which charges £12:50 for a double room. Some rooms are better than others. Our first one is extremely damp and dirty and the bathroom is covered in mould and although there is hot water we cannot get it to come out of the shower head. The bathroom is thick with mosquitoes – big hungry ones and a huge spider in the sink which I re-home in the garden. There is a TV though and electricity – sockets hanging off walls, bare wires in the bathroom. So we get another room which is marginally better and at least the sheets don’t feel damp. We replace the mosquito net which is full of holes with our own and get a reasonable nights sleep. The gaffer here is a bit of a character who run sthe operation from his mobile with a permanently attached bluetooth headset. He deals with any complaints swiftly and fiercely – I think the staff are terrified of him. So am I.

Horse drawn timber cart, Bahir Dar, EthiopiaWe stayed two nights at this hotel – which despite everything I would still recommend for the location and ambience. On the first morning we walked to the market. A huge muddy space with open drains criss-crossing it and dozens of dirty, cheeky children. Sacks and sacks of tef, chickpeas and other pulses and grains. Many of the sacks are stamped UN Aid – Not for Re-Sale. Though it may be just the sacks that are being re-used. The local birds – a collection of many bright yellow weaver birds and other exotic beast – seem to have permission to sit on the sacks and eat as much as they want and in return only leave the occasional poo. Other stalls sell coffee pots, cooking pans made from old tins, clothes, shawls, vegetables, spices and injeera baskets. Bizarrely lots of stalls seem to be selling Sainsbury and Tesco  bags for life. As usual we attract lots of children who follow us round and a fair few adults too who want to sell us stuff or have their photos taken or just try out their English.

In the afternoon we hire a boat and pilot to take us over to a monastery on an island – with a brief diversion to see the hippos. There are three of them and they pop their heads up at regular intervals to eyeball us. We don’t go too close. Surprisingly hippos are very aggressive towards humans and boats and will often attack without warning. They are also very fast on land and in the water. I have heard it said that hippos cause more deaths in Africa than any other wild animal (though I presume this does not include mosquitos). Anyway I manage to grab a few shots which blow up reasonably well.

The monastery is a very typical Ethiopian attraction – very interesting and ancient but in a woeful state of repair and with precious artefacts given no protection from the elements. Here there are centuries old illustrated manuscripts and priest’s robes in open fronted cabinets in a tin shack. It is difficult to see anything in the monastery as there are no lights but at least that will help to stop the wall paintings from fading. We return to our boat, passing a huge number of locals on a papyrus boat which is practically underwater from the load. It starts to really lash it down on the way back and the water gets choppy. I am pleased Rebecca insisted on seeing the life jackets before we left – but they won’t save us from the hippos…..

One other thing about this place – the monks in another nearby monastery chant for many hours a day – which I suppose is common practice among monks. But these ones amplify their efforts so you can hear them for miles around. I quite enjoyed it but when we visited the posh hotel next door I noticed that someone had written in the guest book that it was an outrageous imposition on his holiday and if they expected him to stay there again it would have to be stopped. Those who know me will know that I am a confirmed atheist and generally pretty intolerant of any religious mumbo-jumbo. But one of the few redeeming factors for me is the wonderful music, buildings  and artworks produced in the name of religion. Ethiopia has these things in cups.

Hippos on Lake Tana, Ethiopia

Bizarre Police building Bahir Dar, Ethiopia

Bahir Dar, Ethiopia couple carry goods from market

Teenage Ethiopian boys in traditional shawls

Stormy sky on Lake Tana, Ethiopia

Plastic shoes on Ethiopian market stall

Stacked brooms on Ethiopian market stall

Young Ethiopian girl clutching papyrus leaves

Ethiopian woman carrying wooden bowl on head

Ethiopian man with stave standing in front of market stall, Bahir Dar

Sacks of grain and pulses on Ethiopian market stall

Ethiopian woman in green dress carrying herbs

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Back in Addis

Ethiopian tour guides pack luggage on roof of Toyota LandcruisersWe are back in Addis after a fairly punishing two day drive from Lalibela. This is the last time I can blog from Ethiopia but I will put the other stuff up when I get home anyway. Thousands of photos to sort out and lots of scribbling to transcribe. It is hard to put in perspective what we have seen in the last two weeks but I suppose the biggest impression is the contrast between the lives of the average rural Ethiopian and that of us in the west – or even those here in the Addis Hilton.

Some strange facts about Ethiopia:

  • They have thirteen months in a year
  • It is currently 2003 in Ethiopia
  • The Ethiopian clock starts at what we call six in the morning. Therefore they have lunch at 6 or 7 o’clock – which for us is noon or 1pm. Weird eh? Mind you most of the clocks we saw didn’t work anyway.
  • Only China has more donkeys than Ethiopia.

Would I come back? Definitely but I would try to do less and spend more time absorbing the culture of one place and trying to see more wildlife. The birds here are stunning and remarkably tame too. You don’t even have to leave the towns to see hornbills, blue starlings, sunbirds, eagles and vultures. Also travelling with an Ethiopian friend made life much easier and cheaper. It is hard to remember the little cultural differences and to leave behind European prejudices. Crimson wild birds, Ethiopia

The historical riches in this country are immense and in danger of being lost despite help from Unesco. I was shocked by the inappropriate and intrusive way they have tried to protect some things – such as the rock-hewn churches. And many things are not protected at all – ancient manuscripts in open cabinets in such a humid environment. My other abiding memory will be of the happiness and kindness of the people here. And not just because they think they can get a few birr from you. I was so pleased we  experienced traditional music too. So it was in a hotle bar and they wre probably doing the equivalent of churning out rock standards for the tourists but it was still fantastic and after three nights of it I think we bonded with musicians if only for the gusto with which we embraced the dancing. Other nationalities were way behind us band of Ethiopian-Irish- Brits. Mind you we had probably drunk more than them too.

 

Rural Ethiopian woman standing with hand on hip

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Arrived

 

Fruit and vegetable shop in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Arrived in Addis late Thursday. Not too crazy at airport. Queued for visa (very pretty). Went to bag reclaim and found the zip on pack from my big pack missing and all straps undone. Resigned myself to buying new socks and pants and could not remember what else was in there. Then it turned up. Hard to believe it detached itself…

Rebecca & Johnny at airport. Weather warm but very humid. Took shuttle to hotel through endless streets lined with green and yellow striped corrugated iron and dozens of shack shops with shelves piled high with everything imaginable. Modern 4x4s alongside put-puts and old crates with no lights.

Hotel slightly quirky version of Hilton. Bar mainly white people. Big wall plaque with bas relief of Selassie who opened the hotel in the sixties. Staff very friendly and helpful and polite. Drank late whilst waiting for Greville. Eventually get message that his luggage is lost & he is going to be a while  – so we go to bed.

 

Wake late. Very humid and misty outside. Huge shanty town opposite us with plethora of satellite dishes. Mountain in the distance. Breakfast. Very good with full English, Ethiopian and continental on offer.Shanty town and modern tower block, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Greville is here. But his luggage is not. Not changed in fifteen years. Beautiful gardens and dozens of shops in corridors under hotel. Getting hotter.

Jonny & Menelek arrive and we all go for a walk. Now I know what they mean by culture shock. Immediately gather a gaggle of young boys offering advice, tours, historical info – all in very good English and very polite. We politely rebuff them but two persist and walk with us. Abraham and Abe. They teach us bits of Amharic and warn us about when we can and should not take photos – govt buildings absolutely not. There are signs affirming this. Also when we come to the big church – with chanting emanating – we all start to take pictures. Local older beggars start to shout at our ‘guides’ and they tell us no photos. They say these men are aggressive and if we persist they will take our cameras and beat up our guides. Whether this is true or not we don’t know but we stop taking photos. Photo opportunities are everywhere but reticence stops me from taking many shots. Grab a few  though. The people are beautiful and many very well dressed – though many are obviously destitute too with missing limbs. It is very humid and the lack of oxygen makes walking difficult. Amazed by the friendly smiles and greetings we get – even from the soldiers with their Kalshnikovs.
Blue and white bus in Addis Ababa Ethiopia

In the midst of this bustling city with its four lane highways there are people herding goats and sheep. Surprisingly most cars stop at zebras (crossings not the stripy equines) and even when they are not at zebras. At one point a beaten up old Lada holds up several lanes of traffic just so we can cross. A kind act but a bit scary for us. Buses are ancient and colourful and rammed. Shack shops abound and wherever there is a bit of space people are selling beautiful looking fruit and vegetables. A boy walks by pushing a barrow of prickly pear and two men with barrows full of tomatoes. We stop in a Greek Orthodox Church shop to look at the religious icons and 3d Jesus pictures. Then back to the hotel for a beer and a swim. The ‘guides’ are suitably rewarded – I think we are over generous but they don’t complain. Some people say that this is misplaced generosity and we ruin it for subsequent tourists. I say bollocks put your hand in your pocket – we are talking a couple of beers here.

 

Surrounded by colourful and bold birds in hotel garden. Then discover something really annoying. What sort of bird obsessive goes on the trip of a lifetime to a place over provisioned with birds and leaves his binoculars at home? Me.

Afternoon we go to Mercato = the largest market in Africa. We are warned not to take cameras. Advice I bitterly regret that I did not ignore. But true it is very edgy at times. I will talk more about this in the next blog  but being the only white people in a mass of thousands does make you  realise a few things about the multi-cultural society we live in. And I would stress that we are treated with kindness and fascination by nearly everyone we meet there. But if I thought our brief walk this morning was culture shock I did not realise it was the tip of the iceberg. If I can work out how to get the pics of my phone on to the laptop tomorrow  I will post some.

In the evening we ate traditional Ethiopian food and our first experience of Injeera. Which I liked enough. But first I will try to get on line and post this – not easy or cheap in Addis Ababa.

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