By Joe McCarthy
This morning I wake up to the chattering of birds outside my window. They provide a melodious, Ethiopian wake up call to start the day. Situated on Lake Tana, I look out my window and I am struck by the beauty of this azure, blue expanse of water. Flowers, trees and bushes create a Bronx Botanical lushness. This lake is Ethiopia’s largest, covering over 3500 sq.km. These waters are the source of the legendary Blue Nile and flow north, approximately 6000 miles to the Mediterranean sea.
We are in the city of Bahir Dar this morning, the capital of the Amhara Region. A city struggling to become more modern, it still has the feel of a 18th century town with flourishes of more modern times. However, the juxtaposition of cattle strolling the streets, goats darting between the occasional car, and tiny blue and white taxis competing with sheep, hens and donkeys gives the lie to this struggle to break free of the past. Some streets are paved, but most are dirt roads spitting up dust, pebbles and rocks as we shake, rattle and roll in our overland vehicle.
Today is Saturday. Our schedule today is more tourist-like and does not have the intense, packed full agenda of the past week. However, our first visit is with Bishop Barnabas, the Orthodox Patriarch of Bahir Dar and the West Gojam Diocese. He is dressed in black robes with a dash of purple. A silver cross hangs around his neck. His face, chiseled in ebony, is dark and gaunt. He has been fasting in the approach to Easter.
We quickly get into the reason for our visit. The Bishop has been working with CVM since 1994, as an integral partner to prevent the spread of Aids and to stop the discrimination of those with Aids and the HIV virus. Training of priests and deacons have been part of this effort. A major break through occurred a few years ago when they discovered a number of people dying from Aids who had stopped taking their medication. Literally, people were dying in the streets surrounding the churches thinking that the holy water they drank at church would save them. On the heels of this disaster, the Bishop was instrumental in getting the Holy Synod to publish guidelines integrating medicine with the holy water. Our meeting took about 1 1/2 hours and ended with our request for the church and priests to work with us to help the housemaids. He was quiet and listened and without much hesitation, he said he would help. The kindness and humility of the bishop was evident throughout the meeting. I left with a strong feeling that we were in the presence of a very holy man!
Then we head to the market. The bee hive of humanity is overwhelming. Vendors selling everything under the sun create a movie-like set, mirroring the ancient markets of biblical times. Haggling over prices is the currency of the day. I join the action and delight in the frenzy of the moment. Bloomingdales, it is not!
From the market, we journey to the Blue Nile Falls. We drive to the Blue Nile River and take a “boat” across the river. As I get on board, my auxiliary Coast Guard training kicks in. No life jackets, no safely lines, no anchor, just an open boat with poor propulsion, a disaster waiting to happen. However, being the intrepid travelers we are, we launch into the legendary Blue Nile River. Off the starboard side of the boat I spot a hippo lying in wait for the proverbial accident to happen. Submerged in the water like a deadly U-boat it waits for its prey. I say nothing to the others on board for fear they may panic and tip the boat. We finally reach the safety of the shore. I am greatly relieved!
Then we start our trek across the land heading for the Blue Nile Falls. We hear the falls before we see them. I feel like a goat without sure footedness trying to keep my balance. Then as we clear a rise we see the powerful, white blanket of water exploding downward crashing into the rocks below. One cannot be impressed with nature’s drumbeat of power! In Amharic, the name of the falls means “the water that smokes!”
I quickly lay down my bag and start to take pictures. I scamper closer and closer to the falls to capture its majesty and power. All of us are caught up in this dramatic landscape. Finishing video and picture taking, we return to our bags and find an invasion of fire ants crawling everywhere. I bend down and the ants start crawling up my hands, over my sneakers, and up my legs. I grab my bag and beat a hasty retreat, slapping the ants off as I run.
We return to our boat to repeat our passage across the Blue Nile. I don’t see the hippo, but crocodiles, lurking below the water are also known to prowl these waters! When we finally reach shore, I breathe a sigh of relief.
On our way back to Bahir Dar, one of our guides suggest we stop at a local house that sells their version of potteen, called aracke. After our rather adventurous afternoon, a spot of the local brew sounds good to me. We stop, receive a warm welcome from the family and extended family, and enjoy the warmth and conviviality of the local people. It is a day that will be etched in my mind forever!!
Photos courtesy of Marc Veraat via Flickr