I know that you were all waiting with bated breath (baited? where does this phrase come from, anyway?) for posting all about Ethiopia, but it turns out to be nigh unto impossible to post from here. I'm writing this in email and sending it to someone to post from the US.
Ethiopia is not what I expected. I knew it wasn't all brown dirt like the stereotypical starving child photo from the 1980s. I expected Uganda, I think. Green hills and lots of English. I should have read the guidebook before I got here, because Ethiopia 1. does not speak English (it's Amharig, mostly), 2. has many many different kinds of landscape, and 3. has serious history. I've been going to castles and churches like you would in Europe, only better, because this is Africa and in between castles and churches, there are adventures.
A guidebook is your best friend in a place like this, but it limits you to well-trodden trails and keeps you solidly with the other tourists. The best moments, I think, are when you leave the crowds behind and get stuck somewhere obscure. I don't even mean a town. I mean a hillside far from even the smallest semblance of a town, like the hillside I sat on yesterday, with little kids swarming and offering me "injera? milk? water? fish?" One of them screamed and hid behind her sister every time I so much as glanced in her direction. After a while, when we got bored with taking photos on the digital camera and looking at them, I took the guidebook out and showed them the pictures. One older one, who spoke some English ("Are you in school? Do you learn English in school?" I asked. "No," he said, "no school. The teachers do not come."), tried to read the book, and we looked together at pictures of all the famous sites in Ethiopia. "Debre Birihan Selassie!" they shouted excitedly when the page turned to the painted ceiling of the church in Gonder. "Lake Tana!" at the photo of a man fishing in the lake. They were remarkably well-informed kids. Would American eight-year old recognize a church by its paintings, even one in the nearest large town?
The men were loading wood on the truck that brought me, the first of four rides that, patched together, would finally bring me back to Gonder after three and a half hours (the guidebook claimed it was one hour in a bus and two hours in a slow, constantly stopping minibus. Ha.) They had tattoos of a square cross on their foreheads. The little kids wore necklaces with crosses and keys and circles of metal. "What is this?" I asked the boy who spoke English. "For the church," he said. When we set off, we left behind the man who had shown us the way, who sat sideways to stare at the white girl the entire ride (awkward, very awkward). Instead, an old woman sat next to me, smiling and speaking to me in Amharig. I smiled and answered in English and I don't think either of us cared that the details weren't clear.
Today I had planned to see another castle, south on the road to Bahir Dar. But then the prospect of sleeping in won out against the prospect of at least as much driving as yesterday (6 hours - the intended castle was further but on better roads than yesterday) and instead I woke up late and hiked up the hill to Empress Mentewab's palace and church right near town. In a shady compound on the hill, surrounded by tall pine trees and stone walls, I decided that is where I want to live. Right there, on the hill, in the walls. I'm going to set up a little living room in the shade and never go inside again, unless it rains. I can see why an Empress would choose that location. I climbed up the steep stairs to her bedroom (no floor now) and tried to imagine living there.
Empress Mentewab's bones are in a glass-topped casket in the basement of the church, with the bones of her son and grandson. At first it seemed disrespectful to display them like that, but I began to think, after looking at her castle, that maybe she's happy to stay right there in her beautiful mountaintop compound. I wouldn't want to leave, either.
Now I am extremely dehydrated from hiking in the sun. Not remembering water before beginning a hike up a mountain was not my brightest moment, and the shop on the way up the hill was out. It only had Pepsi. I came back to town and drank two pineapple juices with lemon in a row (brilliant drink, just brilliant), but I don't think they have yet rehydrated me, if my body's screaming for water is any indication.
(P.S. If I did manage to post something yesterday - I tried - then this overlaps a bit. Ignore that!)