Echidna Media Organization project S.N.A.L. (emo_snal) wrote,
Echidna Media Organization project S.N.A.L.

Bahir Dar Part I - Adventures in Local Transit

Thursday, December 4th 2014 - Early in the morning the Dessie Hotel's driver drove me to the Addis Ababa airport, and after an hour or so in the air I was watching the familiar gently undulating landscape around Bahir Dar coming up to meet the plane -- a patchwork of fields radiating out from the round churches surrounded by trees on the top of the low hills. Then the plane banks and the vast blue expanse of Lake Tana interrupts the otherwise dry looking environment. As we come down to the runway I look for and spot the hulk of an Mi-24 helicopter I remember from two years ago, lying in the dry grass in a far corner of the airfield like a discarded shoe.
   We land and exit the small plane onto the tarmac, it's a nice clear day with a fresh breeze. As usual in these days of ebola terror, men in lab coats with breathing masks are taking temperatures with laser thermometers at the entrance to the small terminal building. The terminal is small and rudimentry, one enters from the tarmac a large dim room in which the baggage comes through on a conveyor, and then exits into the lobby area in which there is a metal detector, three or four bored looking guards in army uniforms with AKs, and just two check in kiosks. During the brief wait for my luggage here I noted that one of the passengers was a young lady who appeared to be half Ethiopian half Filipino, and I think that might be the most attractive combination of human yet conceived (sorry, got no photo of her, I'm not a creeper ;) )
   As I exited the airport it should be noted that at this point I really had no further plan -- because of internet problems I'd been unable to adequately look up a hotel in Bahir Dar, nor arrange a pick up from the airport. I had a meeting at Bahir Dar University at noon but other than that I was dropping into this small town in north-western Ethiopia completely on the fly. I know the prospect of this would have filled me with terror just a few years ago, but I guess I've gotten pretty comfortable with Africa by now.
   As it happens, this lack of plans didn't even cause a break in my stride, literally or figuratively -- as usual there was a crowd of people holding signs outside the terminal, emblazoned with either people's names or the names of hotels. I hadn't been able to remember the name of the hotel I'd stayed in before until this moment, when I saw a sign towards the back of the crowd for "Homland Hotel" (very occasionally the hotel gets it right and writes "homeland," just enough so you know that's what they intended. I find their lack of certain knowledge of their own name somewhat endearing). I brushed past other hotels and the random taxi drivers who tried to wrangle me, as if I had had this plan all along.
   The Homeland driver looks at his clipboard, "are you with us?" he asks
   "I don't have a reservation but I intend to, can I come along?" I ask, and he readily agrees, and so the Homland courtesy shuttle took me into town.
   Homeland Hotel had built another tower, I remember it being under construction when I was there last, but they put me up in the old tower (both five stories). The staff was nice, though none of my old friends were there -- Woinshet the former front desk manager had moved to Addis and Rahel the accountant had moved to South Africa to try to start a business there.

Part I - In Search of Zenzellma
   After checking in and eating a quick breakfast I set off on foot towards downtown. Homland was right on the main road into town so I just followed it. As usual it was broad and carried sparse traffic, mainly three wheeled bujujes and donkeys. Since I'd never actually walked into town from there before I didn't realize quite how far from downtown homeland was, it felt like a mile, but it was pleasant, yhe sidewalk was pleasantly shaded by palm trees. I wandered around town looking for the little "restaurant" owned by my friend Beide, since I really wanted to see him but had no contact information, but alas I was unable to find it despite crisscrossing all the blocks in the area I thought it was in. I also noted that there were many decent looking hotels right downtown which I might stay in "next time," because it's nice to be in easy walking access to the center of town.
   After this I headed to the university campus on the edge of town, which was right where I expected to find it. I have a notoriously bad short term memory but for some reason I have a really really good memory for directions I've already executed once. I arrived at the university gate at 11:00, plenty of time for my 12:00 appointment.

   I found the campus to be really beautiful, so thick with foliage it felt like being in a forest. Also, there were gosh darn monkeys!!! In the middle of campus! I was gradually getting concerned, however, that I hadn't seen a single sign for the College of Agriculture and it was getting on toward 11:30. Finally I stopped some young men and asked them (college courses are taught in English so their speaking English was pretty much a sure thing). They informed me that the College of Agriculture was located at the Zenzellma Campus about 11 kilometers away (!!!). Panic! They told I might be able to catch a bus by the front entrance.
   I hurried back to the entrance gate but didn't find any busses on my way. I asked the guards (as usual they looked like they might be soldiers, you don't have rent-a-cop style guards in Africa), and they said "wait right here we'll flag you down a bus!" and bid me take a seat. They thenceforth enthusiastically waved down every passing bus and asked it its destination and if it had room until they found one that was at least headed to another campus in that direction and I hopped aboard. This crowded little bus, about the size of a VW van (like taxi-busses I've seen throughout the rest of the world) took me to another campus two or three miles away, still in town. As the bus disgorged its passengers I asked the people in general "How do I get from here to the Zenzellma Campus?" and a man in a tweed jacket who looked like a teacher said "here follow me," and took me down through a small block of campus to another bus stop on a main road. He was kindly despite seeming like he was himself in a hurry to get somewhere -- the kindness of people in Africa always surprises me. A few taxi-busses came by but he said they were bound for the wrong place. I asked if I couldn't just hire a normal taxi but he said "no no no you don't want to do that too expensive." In a country where teachers/professors make $50 a month I'm sure a several-dollars taxi fare would indeed seem wildly exorbitant, but I'm not sure he appreciated that having flown around the world for this appointment I was about to miss (well, the appointment was a side note on the trip but still), it was well worth a few dollars to me. Presently the right bus came along and he even recognized a student he knew on it. "You'll have to change busses again but i know this student he will look after you" and with that and my thank-you and a handshake I was off again. This bus bus took us another few kilometers to the roadside just across the Nile (which starts right here in town at Lake Tana, and is only a moderate sized river you could probably wade across). After we disembarked and the student went to led me to another bus I asked "wait, don't I need to pay this one?" (since it wasn't a campus shuttle), to which he responded "don't worry I paid for you" -- Ethiopians! He led me to another bus that was waiting there and said goodbye. This bus was empty when I got in so I had to wait for it to fill up with weathered old women carrying baskets of of goods and rugged men headed back out to the country.

   The Zenzellma Campus, when we got there, was a lonely place out in the country, several big buildings standing alone. I was on the only one to get off here, after paying my fare (communicated by finger gestures).
   Found the man I was supposed to meet easily enough, I felt awful that I was forty minutes late, but he took it in strike, it's pretty much par for the course in Africa anyway. On the plus side apparently both Mulufird (subject of that mortified accidental text), and my friend Kerealem (a colleague of his, who had been my interpreter two years earlier) had put in a good word for me. My purpose here was to meet with the head of the Apiculture Department to discuss the possibility of me attending their master's degree programme. The college vice dean came down to join our discussion and they both sounded extremely encouraging, though they couldn't tell me how much it would cost me. Fast forward a moment to the present moment, six months later (wow it's been that long?!), I sent in a formal application in January but haven't heard anything back other than wishy-washy "we'll see"s.
   He showed me around the campus a little. The agriculture college campus is brand new so that's why it doesn't have grown trees yet like the main campus. He showed me a site where they're planning to put an apiary, and I even saw students constructing topbar hives.

   To get back to my hotel when the meeting was over I went back out to the main road, flagged down a passing taxi-van that was headed back towards the city, and hopped in. I happened to sit next to a law student who I had a really good conversation with. When I asked him what his email address was he told me he didn't have any access to the internet so didn't have an email address. You start to forget you're in Ethiopia for a moment...
   When I had to change taxi-vans by the Nile he helped me find the correct one to get on from there and got on with me (I forget if he was going that way anyway or not). We took it to one of the main squares and then I had to transfer to a three wheeled bujuj. This kind of shady character latched on to me during my brief transfer, jumping in the bujuj with me, trying to sell me on some tours, and my new friend tried to pry him off, but since I didn't have any plans for the rest of the day and had really good luck so far with helpful people falling in my lap, I decided to let the guy ride along and make his pitch. I'd already done a lot of the basic things on a previous trip anyway so if that's all he had to offer.

Part II - The "Palace Tour"
   This character trying to sell me tours it turns out was named Dugu, he was somewhat slight of stature, had shifty eyes and the pushy business tactics of a used car salesman. He offered me a tour of "Hailie Salassie's Palace, the revolutionary museum, and a place on the Nile where there are many birds and crocodiles" that afternoon for 600 birr ($30) and a boat trip out to the further monasteries in the morning for another 900 birr ($45). The boat tour he said was usually twice as much but there was already some other guy going so we could split the cost. The tour this afternoon had a bunch of people on it.
   It all sounded alright so I paid him for the tours, got my receipts. By then he informed me it was too late to catch up with the rest of the people that were out that afternoon so I'd be going by myself, and he left me with his tour guide Jime in a bujuj they owned. Jime was actually a very nice young man who I liked a lot. On our way to the palace we stopped by his parents house to say hello, which was cute and fun, I always like visiting the locals at home. The first big disappointment of the tour came, however, when I learned that our "tour of the palace" consisted of peering down a very long drive to where it could just be seen over some trees -- apparently it's still used by top government officials and NOT open to the public. The palace was on top of a hill near town, and we did at least walk to a point on the hill where we had a nice view of the Nile down below and the town.
   From there we went to the revolutionary museum, which was just beside where I'd changed buses earlier in the day by the bridge across the Nile. It was just fifteen minutes from closing so we had to do a lightning tour, but having been to the revolutionary museums in Addis and Mek'ele I was already mostly familiar with the contents. One thing I found interesting is that in the pictures of the revolutionary fighters, from the 70s, they had the exact same afro style hairstyles as was in vogue in the States at the time -- they looked very 70s, which was weird because I wouldn't have expected there to be enough cultural connection at the time for styles to be in sync.
   I did really like the statuary outside the museum though, such as the below and the woman further below:

   From there we proceeded to a little cafe in town near the college where we found Dugu drinking coffee and chewing qat. I guess the viewing of crocodiles and birds had been the hill overlook? I was pretty unimpressed with the tour thus far. By now the sun was setting. Dugu offered me some qat. Qat is consumed in the form of the leaves of the plant, which are chewed and washed down with water. According to wikipedia "Khat consumption induces mild euphoria and excitement, similar to that conferred by strong coffee," it's classified as a "drug of abuse" by the World Health Organization because it "can produce mild-to-moderate psychological dependence (less than tobacco or alcohol)," and its import is effectively banned in the US through the round-about contrivance of "the grounds that 'its labeling fails to bear adequate directions for use.'" Ethiopians inform me that most lawyers and doctors in the country become addicted to it during their studies.
   Anyway I thought I'd give this stuff a try. I found it immediately sucked all the moisture from my mouth and left me with an unpleasant acrid taste. Dugu kept offering more but after a few bits of it I'd had about as much as I had any interest in trying. I didn't feel particularly different after that but apparently it's only supposed to be like strong coffee.
   Dugu offered to take me out to a traditional dance hall that evening but I was thinking I didn't want to see any more of him. They returned me to my hotel with the bujuj.

Part III - Shenanigans!
   After returning to my hotel room I started getting restless after two or three hours (that damn qat??) so I decided I might as well do something and called Dugu and asked him about that dance hall.
   He showed up with a young lady, who wasn't particularly attractive, and didn't appear to speak more than a few words of English. The dance hall itself was very similar to the one I'd been to in Addis -- same kind of dances up on stage, dancers occasionally coming down to dance with audience members, audience mostly Ethiopian, it seems to be a genuine cultural thing. I drank a bunch of mead. When we left there I paid for Dugu and his friend (who it was already clear he was trying to set me up with), that was okay, I expected that.
   From there we walked downtown, I was alert for shenanigans and keeping my wits about me. The girl was trying to put moves on me but I wasn't having it at all, and the fact that she continued to try only strengthened my conviction that she was probably a prostitute he was trying to leave me with or something. Then the two of them announced that her sister had just been in an accident and the hospital would only treat her if they had $100 immediately, and then they looked expectantly at me.
   "I'm sorry to hear that" I said, narrowing my eyes at this flimsy fiction. They just repeated their story as if I hadn't heard right the first time.
   "I'm sorry to hear that but it's got nothing to do with me" I said and started walking back to the hotel.
   "She really needs the money" Dugu explained to me, indicating the girl, "she wants to know what she can do for you to get the money, she really needs it" aaand there it is.
   I was walking faster now. She tried to grab my hand but I wouldn't let her, and then she stopped walking. I don't know if it was to tie her shoe or to pout, I didn't pause or look back. It took Dugu a minute I think to try to decide how to save this situation. Finally he said
   "She stopped, we should wait for her" (well I'm sure he used her name, which I never retained)
   "Yes, YOU should wait for her." I said. After a minute or two I finally heard his footsteps stop keeping pace with me. I walked the rest of the way back to my hotel (a good half mile) alone in the peace and quiet of the middle of the night, already feeling apprehensive about my tour the next day.

To be continued!!

[Originally posted 2015/05/17]

Tags: bahir dar, east africa 2014, ethiopia, ethiopia 2014, travel, travelogues

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