Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Bahir Dar

Traditional boats on Lake Tana
As part of our travels, we spent three days in Bahir Dar. It is a medium sized city on the southern shore of Lake Tana in north western Ethiopia. By bus, it is at least a 10 hour trip from Addis. While Steve braved the bus ride this summer when he was in Ethiopia with two students doing research, the rest of us were not game. I just didn't see the point of dealing with the kids all day on a long, hot, crowded bus with no bathrooms...especially being there only three weeks. So like many other tourists from abroad, we flew on Ethiopian Airlines to Bahir Dar. We then took a four hour bus ride to Gondar and flew back to Addis from there.

We enjoyed two days of seeing the sites with an awesome UK family currently living in Uganda. This family has lived abroad for the last 20 years, teaching at various international schools and raising their three teenage children all over the world. They were staying at the same guesthouse and we were able to team up and split some of the tour costs to make it less expensive for everyone. Lily and Semira loved hanging out with their kids and Steve and I very much enjoyed the company of the parents. As I said in a previous post, we tend to meet very interesting people on our travels - you just need to be open to the possibility!

Bahir Dar is definitely a great destination for tourism. There is a lot to see and do. The main attractions are the lake, including 20 some odd monasteries (some dating back to the 14th century) situated on various islands in the lake or around the lakeshore. Ethiopia is a country full of rich religious artifacts and churches. My advice to anyone traveling there is to pace yourself. You can go into church/ monastery overload if you decide to visit them all. In Bahir Dar, this was not a problem as only three of the monasteries are open to women. Even though I respect the monks and their rationale for not allowing women, it still burns me that I was relegated to the shoreline at one of our stops because of my gender.

The Blue Nile Falls are also close by (about 30 kilometers outside of town). The Blue Nile River, originating at Lake Tana, is one of the two tributaries to the Nile River. After the rainy season, the falls are full of water. Even a few months after the rain ended, the falls were pretty impressive. Hiking to the falls was fun! Of course, hiking around a tourist attraction in Ethiopia also means being met by many entrepreneurial children along the way trying to sell you their baskets and scarves. They are persistent kids! They know just enough English to address the potential sale:

Girl: "You buy scarf! 60 birr."
Me: "No thanks."
Girl: "You buy scarf! Only 60 birr."
Me: "No, I already bought scarves."
Girl: "You buy scarf. See Ethiopian colors. You promise."
Me: "I didn't promise."
Girl: "You buy scarf. 50 birr."
Me: "No thanks."
Girl: "You buy scarf. 50 birr. I have change."
Me: "No"
2nd Girl: "You buy two for 100 birr."
Me: "No"
Girl: "I go to school. You buy scarf."

Sue (the woman from Uganda) takes a few pictures of her teenage daughter with some of the local kids in the picture.

Girl: "Give me money or delete!"

This conversation went on with many kids pretty much our entire hike to and from the falls. To me, these are always uncomfortable situations. We did buy plenty of souvenirs from kids selling things along the way. But you can't buy from them all. And where one shows up, many show up. Often times the kids are super aggressive. They have learned from the tourists before us that (a) people give them stuff like candy, gum, and pens, (b) people will give them money for taking their pictures, and (3) you can wear people down with your persistence. We always talk to the kids, but we don't hand things out to them. We will buy tissues, gum, and souvenirs when we want them. And I am very careful about taking pictures of people in Ethiopia. In the end though, the tourist effect is not always positive. Kids quickly learn that there is more immediate payoff with the tourists than going to school. Otherwise why would they be chasing your car as it goes by yelling "Show me the money!" Again, it's complicated.

Overall, Bahir Dar is a lovely place. It's much less crowded than Addis Ababa. The air is clean and the scenery is nice. It is relatively cheap to visit by U.S. standards. It feels safe and the locals were really welcoming.

Our modest, but very nice little guest house in Bahir Dar.
Lake Tana is the largest lake in Ethiopia.
The Bahir Dar market
Peppers: the main ingredient of berbere, the spice mixture in most Ethiopian food
One of several huge fig trees in the area. We ate here at the lake several nights.
Hiking to one of the monasteries on the Zege Peninsula.
Some of the very old bibles you see in Ethiopia. I am amazed they are left in the open, unprotected.
One of the monasteries. This is very typical of those in the area - round with regional cross at the top.
You usually pay some guy sitting at the church/monastery then take your shoes off to go inside.
One of the paintings inside. Again, this is very typical of the old churches there.
Sugar cane
Our short boat ride across the river to see the Blue Nile Falls.
Hiking to the Blue Nile Falls
The Blue Nile Falls
Semira's boyfriend, Solomon (our local guide). You have to watch that girl!
Hippo spotting on Lake Tana
How many scarves can one buy? Evidently, a lot. I think we have over a dozen.

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