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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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 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
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.
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.
" " "
Arnie did the traveling, but you can win the
This week's prize, pictured here, is the Silver Collection and
includes silver filigree earrings, a tribal bracelet and a silver
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,