Bahir Dar is Ethiopia’s third largest city. It has the feel of a nascent frontier town, a snake in the midst of shedding the skin of its past. The edgy, on-the-make bustle is punctuated by the ancient Coptic liturgy booming from church loudspeakers. At almost every street corner I am approached with offers of money changing, tours, deals on shopping. I wander through the market, which is spread over several acres with stall after stall selling exactly the same kinds of items; sacks of staple grains or piles of used clothing. Vendors hover around us eager to make a sale. My “no’s” make no impression; my refusals are simply a deficiency on my part, a lack of understanding which must be made right through a patient and insistent pressing till I come to enlightenment and partake of the bargaining, a form of ceremonial call and response, which when concluded successfully, sets the world right. Of course, in the end I succumb and acquire goods for which I have no use as such; the utility lay in the engagement with the process.
Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest and the source of the Blue Nile, defines and sets the northern limit to the town. In 2015 the lake was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The announcement noted that the lake is “considered to be a gene centre for indigenous agricultural crops such as Noug, Teff and wild coffee. Many migrant water birds depend on the lake as feeding and resting grounds, including the Common Crane, the Black-tailed Godwit and the Ruff. Almost 30 different species of fish have been recorded of which almost 70 percent are endemic. Extensive wetlands dominated by Papyrus and Typha stands are located all around Lake Tana, some of them being the largest and ecologically most important units in Ethiopia and the entire Horn of Africa.” On crossing the lake we are captivated by a small family of hippos. Tallis tells us they are the most dangerous of all African wildlife. But all is calm; the hippos appear like inflated rubber toys.
The lake is also home to many islands that house the distinctive round churches and monasteries of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church which date back to the 13th century. I join a group visiting one such monastery within whose round mud structure is a rectangular wall, every inch of which is covered with iconic paintings of stories from the Bible.
We’re camped at a hotel, the Dib Anbessa, but there aren’t grounds on which to set up; the hotel has given up its third floor dining hall for the tents.
Once again I decide to take a room; the lungs are better but I’ve come down with a mild gastro ailment. Everyone gets sick in Ethiopia. Two days of rest help. On the third day we are off again to the Blue Nile gorge and Addis Ababa.