Here's something particularly uncool for you to ponder about Ethiopian travel: Buses all leave at times of the morning that most people would, I think, consider rude. To get from Addis Ababa to Gonder, which was the capital of its own very large region from 1635 until the late 19th century, you have to present yourself in the huge parking lot that is Meskel Square at 5:30 in the morning. Lots of folks were there, milling around, and each time a bus pulled into the lot a group of people would bum-rush it yelling their destination in the hopes that this newest bus would be theirs. Such excitement, so early in the morning!
By 6:30, our bus had arrived, we'd gotten our bags labeled and stowed in the luggage hold (turns out "Rachel" translates well into Amharic; not so much "Logan"), and we were on our herky-jerky-swervy way out of town for our 10 hour trip at a very fast pace. I think this may have been the bus driver's first time in a vehicle. Somewhat miraculously, he managed to only mow down one goat (though a rather confused donkey did run smack into the side of the bus somewhere past Debre Markos).
We drove through dusty little towns all turned out for market day,
passed people walking down the road to the nearest source of hopefully fresh water,
and marveled at the many greens of Ethiopia. This time of year, all was verdant and lush and fertile-looking. It's hard to believe that not so far from where we careened along the paved highway, people are starving. Huge refugee camps are set up on the borders near Somalia and Kenya.
Gonder itself is a little schizophrenic. The town is dominated by the Royal Enclosure, a giant, walled area filled with castles built by King Fasilidas, who founded the city in 1635, and his descendants.
Power moved away from these kings in the late 1800s, but the city had a resurgence as a provincial capital in the 1930s during the Italian takeover. So there are lots of golden-tan Art Decoey buildings, too. And the Pepsi Traffic Police, of course.
We spent several hours one afternoon in the company of an earnest young guide named Charlie, checking out the Royal Enclosure, Fasilidas's Bath, and the Debre Birhan Selassie church.
The Royal Enclosure contains six castles in varying states of decay. Some were unfortunately bombed during World War Two, when the Italians were apparently using them to store ammunition and supplies. So, hey, oops.
And others were defaced by misguided attempts at restoration. The castle in the foreground here was, for some reason, terracottaed and concreted and now looks like some bizarre italian hodgepodge - but in the background, Fasilidas's castle looms over all.
Before our visit here, I would have never guessed that Ethiopia boasted sights like this. Amazing.
The three of us then hopped into one of Gonder's ubiquitous tuktuks and headed a little ways out of town to Fasilidas's Pool. Every January, during Epiphany, a nearby stream is diverted and the massive pool is filled with water. Thousands of pilgrims come to be baptized.
This time of year, though, we had the place to ourselves (except for one not particularly persistent postcard salesman). I closed my eyes and heard the splashing of the faithful and the shouts of their conviction, and saw the bright white of their robes against the darkness of my eyelids.
For now, though, we wandered amongst the trees.
This, I thought, is Ethiopia?
Our next stop was the richly painted and decorated church of Debre Birhan Selassie (Mountain of the Enlightened Trinity). As an important political and religious center, Gonder used to have many churches like this one, but most of them were destroyed by the Mahdists of Sudan in the 1880s. Debre Birhan Selassie is the only church to remain exactly as it was - Charlie says this was due to the timely intervention of a swarm of bees.
It's stunning, but of course it makes your mind track back to the other 43 churches of Gonder and what they must have looked like…
As sunset neared, we headed up a steep hill outside of town to the Goha Hotel, which Charlie proudly told us was designed by an American architect. Hey hey!
The view up there is great. You can see the place of prominence the Royal Enclosure holds over town. We hung out and enjoyed the sun, chatting with Charlie about tourism and history and politics.
After our Fantas and talk, we walked back down through town (through a chorus of hellos and where-are-you-froms and welcome-to-Ethiopias, of course) and Charlie dropped us at our hotel. Gonder isn't all history and seriousness, though, because that night we went out for dinner and saw us some shoulder-dancing!
I wish you'd all been there to see it and to maybe try it out with me, but since you weren't, here's a little sample. It is VERY HARD to dance with your shoulders when you've spent your whole life moving your hips, let me tell you!
Goodbye from Gonder, Ethiopia! (Well, technically, from Jerusalem, Israel, but let's not talk about that just yet.)