Ethiopian Excursion: Monastery in the Lake, Corpses in the Monastery

Travel Weekly editor-at-large Arnie Weissmann continues his journeys through Ethiopia. Following is the second in an eight-part series telling the tales of his travels and travails:

he boat ride had a dream-like quality about it. Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile River, was hazy that day, and gentle waves moved toward us endlessly from an indistinct horizon. Our destination, an island in the middle of the lake, came into view but never seemed to get closer -- the wind was steady in our faces and the engine seemed to be just above idle speed.

Mr. Kindu and I were headed for Dega Stephanos, an island monastery in the lake. Mr. Kindu, my guide, was teaching me a useful phrase: "Tay nah yuse t'nee," he said in Amharic.

It took me five times repeating it before Mr. Kindu was satisfied. This was the way I was to greet any monks we approached on the island. The literal translation was "health-wish giving."

On the ride to Dega Stephanos, I became familiar not only with the language, but with Mr. Kindu as well. Mr. K was a 29-year-old language student with a year-and-a-half to go to complete his studies. He sharpened his English skills -- and earned a living -- working as a guide.

He had no time for a girlfriend or to think about marriage because, he said, he had "too much responsibility." He lives with -- and supports -- three brothers, four sisters, his widowed mother and two of his widowed elder sister's children. His father had named him Kindu, which means "right arm," because "he wanted me to take care of my family as he grew old."

Mr. Kindu didn't get paid as a tour guide, he said, but worked for tips and the promise of a job as a guide when he graduates. I asked if his elder sister worked and he said, "Yes, but she is not an intellectual. She is illiterate." She works at a textile factory for about 78 cents per eight-hour shift. He said poor people in Ethiopia -- that is, most people in Ethiopia -- made about $1.30 per day, but an "intellectual" like himself could make three times that amount.

Papyrus boats that ply Lake Tana have an unusual feature: They're disposable.We passed a group of boats unlike any I had ever seen. They were papyrus boats, Mr. Kindu said. Stalks of papyrus had been bundled together and tied tightly at the ends to form what looks like the child of a canoe and a kayak. The boats could hold two people and sizable bundles of wood or charcoal, and moved at about 3 mph. To me, the most amazing aspect was that they're disposable -- they only last a few weeks before they must be replaced.

When we at last arrived at our destination, we landed on some concrete steps placed about 30 yards from shore, connected to land by the skeleton of a bridge -- there were no crossties where the floor of the bridge should have been. I made my way precariously along the side rails, touching land just as a large alligator lizard, its sunbathing disturbed, slithered into the water.

The island is volcanic in nature, and the monastery is atop the rise in its center. The path leading to the main church is only moderately steep, but felt twice as difficult as it appeared because of the altitude (we were more than a mile high).

We stopped to rest at two benches placed on either side of the path. At the end of one bench was a nearly whole large stone bowl; at the end of the other was a flat, smooth rock that would fit nicely across the center of the bowl. Mr. Kindu explained that the monk who founded the monastery, Abune Herat Amelak, "was filled with the Holy Ghost" and, in 1265, floated to the island in the rock bowl, sitting on the flat stone.

We met a few monks on the trail ("Health-wish giving," said I) and went with them to a church designed to resemble Noah's Ark -- one end was shaped like a boat's prow.

A fresco of St. George and the Dragon is painted on the wall of the monastery on Dega Stephanos in Lake Tana.As was the custom, I took off my shoes before going in. Mr. Kindu, who professed to be very religious, crossed himself repeatedly before removing his shoes and entering. Inside, the faded representation of a saint, painted on a cloth, hung on one wall. Another wall was covered with relatively new frescoes, and in the middle of these was the entrance to the "holy of holies," where a replica of the Ark of the Covenant lies. Only one priest on the island was allowed to enter this innermost sanctum.

The highest-ranking monk among us sat in what looked to be a simple chair covered in heavy cloth to give it a resemblance to a throne. In a pile on the floor were prayer sticks, similar to old-style wooden crutches (though too tall to be practical as such). Mr. Kindu demonstrated how a monk would put one on his shoulder, put one foot forward, then rock back and forth as he chanted.

From the church we went to the monastery's "museum." I was not prepared for the museum's primary attraction: the desiccated bodies of five Ethiopian emperors in glass-sided caskets. The room was windowless and dim; the museum caretaker illuminated the corpses by holding two candles together and running them along the lengths of the coffins.

An ancient text, handwritten in the language of Ge'ez.The only other room in the building was filled with relics: Old books, handwritten in ge'ez -- the ancient language of Ethiopian priests -- were stacked on shelves. Crowns of three of the five dead kings were atop a cabinet, and the sword of one was pulled from a crumbling leather scabbard for my inspection. Ancient crosses were held up in the shafts of sunlight that blazed through the entry door. Piled in a corner were the carved wooden bedposts of kings.

When we walked outside again, Mr. Kindu instructed me to give the priests a donation, and I asked him to suggest an amount -- I had been thinking that 100 birr (about $12) would be generous, but he recommended 200 birr. "You think so?" I said. He said, yes, and something to the effect that they had a lot of monk mouths to feed.

I thought this over for a moment. In all conversations with Mr. Kindu, I had tried to portray myself as an ordinary Joe, but somehow Mr. Kindu had concluded I was rich. Perhaps it was because I had rented a boat and crew for half-a-day at $30 an hour. Or maybe because I carried two electronic cameras. Or it could have been the fact that my shoes were fresh-out-of-the-box leather hiking boots, whereas the soles on Mr. Kindu's shoes were worn smooth and pocked with small holes.

A monk offers Mr. Kindu some fresh fruit after our visit to the monastery.Whatever the reasons, I handed 200 birr to Mr. Kindu, who gave it to the head priest. The donation was received with tremendous fanfare and many blessings, most of which were directed to Mr. Kindu. When we were about half way down the hill, a monk came hot-footing it towards us with a bowl of fruit, urging us to take what we wanted. Mr. Kindu, with a significant number of mouths to feed himself, filled his pockets.

As I watched Mr. K move nimbly down the rough path ahead of me, I thought about how, earlier, he had easily traversed the skeleton of a bridge. Mr. Kindu, I thought, was a man who knew how to move forward swiftly over uneven ground.

When we arrived back to the pier shortly before sunset, birds were flitting among the tall papyrus stalks lining the shore. Mr. Kindu walked me back to my hotel and at parting I wished him good health -- in Amharic, of course. I was already looking forward to our visit to the Blue Nile Falls the next morning, unaware of how very different the experience would be from what I anticipated.

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The Silver Collection.Arnie did the traveling, but you can win the souvenirs.

This week's prize, pictured here, is the Silver Collection and includes silver filigree earrings, a tribal bracelet and a silver ear pick.

Just send an e-mail to Arnie at [email protected] for your chance to win this first of four prize groups. (Editors' note: Contest is over.) 

Be sure to check back Monday, July 16, where in his next installment, Arnie will sing the Blue Nile Blues.

For the complete archive of Arnie's Adventures in Ethiopia, click here.

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