1/21/2010

Timkat in Gonder



By Monday morning, Sven and I had crossed the Blue Nile and were speeding north. Past parched fields of tef, eroded peaks and ancient canyons we made it to Debre Markos for an early lunch. Before sunset we rolled into Ethiopia's one-time capital and Africa's own Camelot: Gonder. The streets were packed with white robes waving cross-shaped canes and gyrating in a snake-like procession that only disappeared with the road into the forested hills. The white mass of cotton was speckled with woven umbrellas, bright brown faces and painted crosses raised high. Timkat, a celebration of Christ's baptism, was just getting started... 

We wandered north of the bus station in our hotel search, hoping to somehow find a bed without a reservation during Gonder's peak holiday season. After several rejections and extortion attempts we managed a bed in a brothel whose sign read simply, "hotel." As the pimp showed me to the room, a middle aged patron was just stepping out behind a young girl buttoning up her shirt. I tried to decipher the AIDS bulletin posted to the door while Sven spotted contraceptive wrappers on the black floor. The bed was still nice and warm. For 50 birr, Sven and I decided to split the grimy little cell (two dollars each) after confirming the rate was per night and not per hour. 

We enjoyed a night out on the lively little town, ending up on the rooftop of Circle Hotel. We reminisced about the good old days back in the previous version of 2002, when I'd spent a night on the same exact spot, looking down on puny Gonder with old friends, most of us brimming with energy and big plans that never quite happened. The city finally asleep and our sensory perception sufficiently lowered, we stumbled back into our hole. 

We woke up well before sunrise for about the tenth time that night. The brothel's walls might as well have been made of paper. Just down the street we packed into a minibus then followed the mass of white robes to reach Fasiladas' bath, the site of Timkat's prime event. Somewhere at the center of the giant old complex, choked in banyan roots nearly swallowing the walls, was the pool. Filled just once a year on Timkat to represent the Jordan River, it had certainly drawn a crowd. Thousands of worshippers had staked their positions in the grass, along and on top of the walls, crammed in the crudely erected bleachers and even perched high in the trees, waiting hours just to glimpse the Orthodox priest blessing the pool and the ensuing mad rush to the water. Unable to glimpse the ceremony itself, Sven and I waited for the flimsy scaffolding/bleachers to collapse. We sifted through the crowd until the sun came up, drawing hundreds of long stares and completely disrupting the reverence everywhere we went. Outside the pool complex, naked boys were splashing devotees with water, beggars were having a field day and I was considering whether a Timkat 2002 t-shirt was in my budget. 

We escaped the throng by mid-morning, returning to town to check out the old Debre Berhan Selassie Church and it's famous, centuries-old paintings. The entire wooden roof is dotted with baby-faced cherubs staring into the floor without expression, paintings that are yet considered the pinnacle of Orthodox art in Ethiopia. In this case it seems quantity trumps quality: there are over a hundred dull-faced cherubs floating on the ceiling, a bit eerie when you stare straight up for a while. Good old Muhammad features on another dim-lit wall, riding a camel, a camel that's being led into a vast desert, by Satan. That same morning we waved a sad goodbye to our lovely room, grabbed our bags and headed to the northern outskirts of town. We hoped to catch a ride to Debark. We were both ready to escape the Timkat crowds by setting out on a trek through Ethiopia's highest mountains, the Simiens.

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