It was a brisk early morning in Arba Minch. We woke up, tangled in our mosquito net (still haven't figured out how to properly tuck those in) to a beautiful view of Chamo Lake. We had our final stretch back to Addis, around seven or eight hours, depending on "traffic." While the tribes and raw beauty of Omo Valley will continue to trace our time in Ethiopia, Brian and I were pretty excited to leave the dust behind us and explore a completely different part of the country. Unfortunately, the violent protests we briefly mentioned before had worsened, so we decided to skip Gondar altogether and head straight to Bahir Dar.
We spoke to Milli the previous night to confirm he was joining us, and he told us our flight out of Addis left at 6:30pm and even though it was a domestic flight, given our track record, Brian and I wanted to be at the airport two hours earlier. Factoring in another two hours safety buffer, we left with four extra hours to ensure there were no road bumps. It was right before we had planned to stop for lunch, while filling up the car with diesel, when Robel received a phone call from Milli. I didn’t even hear the phone ring over my stomach growling. Ethiopia Airlines pulled a Southwest and cancelled our 6:30pm flight conveniently rebooking us on the 4:30pm flight instead. I'm used to flight cancellations but typically they rebook you on the later flight, never earlier. Great, here we go again.
It was a little after noon, and we needed to be at the airport by 2:30pm. With over four hours between us and the airport, we knew the chances were slim to none, but Robel kept reassuring us we would make it. We decided to skip lunch 😖 and power through.
After five days of traveling in Ethiopia, I had become quite skilled at peeing in the bush, and honestly, it was often cleaner than some of the "bathrooms" we had been using. With every dip in the road and swerve around napping sheep, my bladder felt like a water balloon ready to burst. We were parched but didn't dare take a sip of water. Somehow we had to travel through the time space continuum, high five Matthew McConaughey in the never-ending bookcase, and navigate through the maze of animals nestled in the craters on the road. I don't know what happened over the next two hours. I think my eyes were clinched so tight Brian might finally get on board with my plea for Botox. We actually made it to the airport, our flight scheduled to leave in twenty minutes. We spotted Milli, who somehow convinced the agents to print our boarding passes without us or our passports. As we approached the second security line, I felt like we were traveling with Brad Pitt. The sea of people parted, we walked through without even removing electronics (a little scary but we weren't asking any questions), and made it to our gate. Our plane didn't leave until 7:00pm, over two hours delayed.
One of these days....we'll get it. One of these days...
As we reached our climbing altitude, the flight attendant's announcement created an uproar from the passengers. Since neither of us are fluent in Amharic, we turned to Milli who explained that the plane would be stopping in Gondar before our final destination. My stomach no longer had the energy to growl. I looked at Brian with hungry eyes (sorry, the song is stuck in my head too!), and just sighed, TIA, This is Africa.
Milli dropped us off at the beautiful Delano Hotel with the added bonus of a room upgrade! Too tired and hungry to think, we dragged ourselves to the hotel restaurant and sat outside as the mosquitos probably enjoyed more of a feast than we did. Milli told us to just call him when we woke up, and we happily obliged. Neither of us remember falling asleep, but I do know it was glorious, that is, until the next morning, when woke up to the pounding sounds of a jackhammer pummeling through our wall. What?! I looked at the phone and it was 6:30am. Please no. Let this be a dream. I called the front desk, and in a raspy and rather annoyed voice, I asked if they knew what the deafening sound was. Their response was so matter of fact it kind of startled me, "Oh yes ma'am, it's the construction in the lobby, we are expanding our kitchen." What a delight! "At 6:30am?" I asked, probably a little too sharp. "Yes ma'am. Our kitchen is very small." I love HGTV just as much as the next person, but this was an episode of Kitchen Renovations I could have done without.
Despite the unannounced wake up call, we still had a relaxed morning. We considered doing some push ups and sit ups, but instead worked through some necessary laundry and sat outside for breakfast. Milli picked us up for our first Tuk-Tuk experience, (I know there will be many, many more, but I still loved it!) and we rode out to Lake Tana while the sounds of morning routines rattled by us. Palm trees and pavement replaced the dust and dirt roads of the south creating an island vibe rather than desert life. When Milli first introduced the idea of a boat ride in our email exchanges, I vetoed it for budget reasons. Since we were no longer visiting Gondar, we decided to enjoy it, and I'm so glad we did. The lake is beautiful. Water so still, it was like looking in a mirror, albeit, a brown one. The only disturbance was from the lonely fishermen spread far along the vastness of the lake, forming ripples behind them.
There are over thirty Islands on the lake, housing Orthodox Christian monasteries dating as far back as the 12th century. We visited two of them, the Entos Eyesu and Azwa Mariam monasteries. As we approached the first island, a sudden calmness engulfed us. No sounds except for birds chirping. No smells except for the wafts of familiar incense. No one except for the priests and nuns that habituated the island, silent as they ascended and descended the stone stairs, as if floating in air.
The monasteries on Lake Tana are all circular in shape with three rings separated by walls, each room dedicated for a unique purpose. The outer most ring for prayer, the middle for chanting, and the inner reserved for the "holy of holy." The walls were draped in vibrant paintings dictating the familiar stories of Jesus: his birth, his death, and his resurrection. Other walls illustrating a less familiar history (at least for me) about the Mother Mary, a very prominent figure in Orthodox Christianity. Some of the paintings have been restored while others held on to their past, both having noticeable differences but still telling the same stories. The serenity felt from the monasteries and the islands were beautiful. We left feeling peaceful.
The rest of the boat ride was like flipping a coin. If the islands were heads, the next part was tails. We road out to see the meeting point of Lake Tana and the Blue Nile, where a drift is created in the water, sending the currents out in opposite directions. I looked over, noticing what I thought were large stones in the distance, when out of nowhere, one of the stones started moving. At first, it felt like I was watching The Neverending Story and Rock Biter was about to emerge from the water. But instead, a giant hippo surfaced, sending the birds safely resting on it's back high in the air. It opened it's mouth so wide it felt like an invitation to crawl inside. WHAT?! We were riding around in hippo infested waters in this tiny boat? We saw a total of four hippos that afternoon. One of them disappeared under the murky water convincing me that it was going to materialize underneath to send us flying up in the air with the birds, minus the wings. Obviously that didn't happen, and we returned safely on land, ready for lunch.
Milli attended university in Bahir Dar, so he was really familiar with everywhere (and everyone it seemed). We went to one of his favorite local spots, Lemat Restaurant, where we enjoyed a delicious display of bayenetu and tibs with some friends. Milli wasn't sure if the tibs were beef, lamb, or goat, but since I had just seen a man skinning a freshly killed goat in broad daylight when I went to the "bathroom" (that word is used very loosely in Ethiopia), my bet was on goat. Either way, it was delicious. Milli had some work to take care of, and we felt the post lunch nap creeping up so we hopped in a Tuk Tuk back to the hotel to rest for a bit, sans jackhammer, before the main event, Brian's second introduction to khat.
I don’t believe we have anything equivalent to khat in the US, but it is everywhere in Ethiopia. It’s a completely natural plant that has different varietals, and you buy it by the bunch. They are leaves that you chew for hours on end and you know what? They taste exactly how yo would imagine leaves to taste, if they were dipped in gasoline. Locals typically chew khat in the afternoons as its a type of stimulant, washing it down in the evening with plenty of Wallia.
As I was saying, khat taste a little like sour charcoal, (if charcoal were ever to taste sour) so the common way to chew chat is to with peanuts, soda, and lots of water. We arrived via tuk-tuk at the address provided, assuming it was Milli’s friends house. In reality, we had just arrived at a Khat House. We walked inside right as the torrential downpour started and the power went out. Now a Khat House is exactly what you think it is, minus the crack, and with nicer furniture. Milli guided us to our room overflowing with bags of khat, peanuts, and hookahs. We sat on the cushions on the floor, slowly recognizing everyone in the room, including the gentlemen who sat next to us on our flight over. Another thing I love about Ethiopia, everyone becomes friends, fast!
So there we were. Brian and me, our new friends, a hookah at every corner, and a bag of khat. I stuck with the hookah (although I did try it just so I could describe the taste) while everyone else enjoyed the green stuff. Hours went by. Hours. I had no idea people could smoke that much hookah. They even had a proper coffee ceremony for us while we were there. And, our friend from the plane, paid for everyone! That's just how it's done in Ethiopia. The night continued until the streets were flooded and the sky turned black. We made our way over to a friends bar where we drank, sang, and danced the night away with new friends. It was a special night indeed, and one that we will remember always. Milli treated us like family that evening and as we said goodbye to everyone, we picked up the bill, as a local would, and said our good nights.
An update on the protest in Ethiopia
Sadly, just minutes after Brian and I left Bahir Dar, another string of violent protests had made its way from Gondar resulting in the death of over thirty people. Milli wasn't able to leave for two days, missing our trip to Lalibela all together, as they shut down the city. His wonderful friend, the bar owner, was attacked by a security guard, resulting in several broken ribs and a broken jaw. The protests, stemming from the Oromo people and the government, left a bruise on our hearts for this beautiful city. We are happy everyone we know, while recovering, is safe. We're grateful that the memories we made in Bahir Dar will continue with us on our journey, and we will always remember it that way.