Friday, January 22, 2010

The Craze Must Be Godly

I got to spend one of the biggest festivals in Africa, Timkat, in the
town most famous for celebrating it well, Gonder, Ethiopia. Timkat is
actually the Ethiopian orthodox celebration of Epiphany, the baptism
of Christ. For the purpose, the arc of the covenant is brought to a
place called the Fasil Baths, a pool constructed in the seventeenth
century by the king of Gonder. Vigil is kept all night by worshipers
in white shrouds. Come morning, a hour or two before sunrise, more
people start to come by candlelight. Those who have spent the night
sleeping next to the baths start to wake up and rise. Then comes the
singing. And that's just the beginning.

It was a wonderful sight, and for me it justified my having stayed so
long in town for the festival. For a few minutes at least, until one
of my few superstitions was unapologetically smashed to bits.

I'm not a superstitious person. I tend to walk around ladders because
I don't like things falling on top of me, I think breaking mirrors is
stupid and dangerous, and I avoid saying the name "Macbeth" when among
fellow theater people in a theater because it freaks them out. But
I'll open an umbrella indoors, I like black cats, and spilling salt
doesn't bother me except that it's a waste of salt.

But I did hold a superstition that a religious population would
refrain from committing crime on religious ground, during religious
ceremonies, or under the eye of religious leaders. So when I came to
one of the biggest Christian festivals in one of the most fervently
Christian countries I've come across, filled to the brim with priests,
on the most traditional spiritual grounds around in sight of what most
of the people there believed to be the true arc of the covenant, I let
my usual guard down.

I paid for that mistake with my camera.

Looking back, I'd walked right into a pickpocket's dream. Big jostling
crowd to distract people and explain the feeling of hands on your
pants, lots of rich farenji (foreigners) for targets. I had both my
hands full, moving up to a viewing platform, one with my water bottle,
another with a lit candle, both raised above my head to navigate. So
when I felt the hand go into my left pocket, I couldn't believe it. It
wasn't even a skilled pickpocket attempt, I've foiled half a dozen
much smoother ones, but this one got me by virtue sheer surprise. I
couldn't believe anyone could be so clumsily blatant, so I for the
crucial split second decided they weren't actually trying anything.Whoops.

And there went my camera, and with it all but one of my pictures of Ethiopia.
I suddenly felt a lot less respect or interest for what seemed like a bunch of
people in white sheets with candles jostling around a half empty pool
of water in the dark. Especially after I caught not one, not two, but
five more people trying to pick my pockets again within the next 45
minutes. One of them actually succeeded, but, when they found all
they'd come up with was a spiral notebook, they tossed it on the
ground in disgust, where a friend of mine found it moments later.
So much for that superstition.

I did manage to get some photos from friends I've made in town. I'm
very grateful, but it's not quite the same... especially since I'd
just lost all the pictures of the friends I'd made in Addis Ababa,
Bahir Dar, Lake Tana, and Gonder itself. If I wanted to spend another
week there, I could probably find them on the black market somewhere.
I'm learning this now back in Addis Ababa.I went camera shopping
today, and found out that the government puts crazy import duties on
all electronics. I was offered a point and shoot camera that would
cost maybe US$300 at the very most for US$787. And it was the only
camera the store had. The stores here know digital cameras are too
expensive for people who live here, and that anyone else would by them
at home. So they don't even bother stocking them.

By the way, I had yet another pickpocket attempt while I was at it. A
guy walking a couple inches ahead of me stopped suddenly, and I
crashed right into his back. I stepped around him, patting his
shoulder with my left hand while apologizing. He grinned, grabbed my
left wrist and started kicking my left leg. Not hard, just enough to
get my attention while I felt another guy reach for my right pocket. I
hadn't expected it, so I smacked the offending hand away instead of
grabbing, which meant both of them were able to escape. But at least I
still had all my belongings.

I didn't get so lucky as to find a cheap digital, but I scored some
inside info that Kenya doesn't have the same problem with taxes on
electronics imports. So I've got some shopping to do in Nairobi. In
the meantime, I was given an old pocket film camera with "Focus Free"
in big letters on the front. I'm not sure that's a good thing. But it
works. So, instead of buying a $787 camera, I went and bought $4 worth
of film, roughly 72 exposures. That's right boys and girls, we're
going old-school.

I'm sorry I didn't get it before. Festival aside, I got an inside tour
of the farmers' market of Gonder. Now when I say "farmers' market," I'm
not talking about the free-samples of fruit-flavored honey and garlic
spread in the city summer street under colorful awnings. I mean the
dust, tarp and stick maze where the farmers come to buy live goats,
chickens, oxen, and spread out their produce on burlap to hawk to
families there. My trigger finger was itching to take pictures of
everything I saw, just to share it.

The 25-year old tenth grader (no joke) showing me around was confused
as to why I wasn't taking pictures, and didn't quite have the English
skills to understand my explanation. It wasn't the only point of
confusion-- he also couldn't wrap his head around the idea that I
didn't know the market price of an ox in my hometown.

Like a lot of beginners at the English language, he asked a lot of
weirdly formed, personal and sometimes profound questions, following
them up with his answers as examples. For example, what was most best
person in Ethiopia or out of Ethiopia (his was Barack Obama). Or what
was the most hated people and most liked people (for him, gangsters
and religious people, respectively), what did your parents do (his
were farmers) and what was the economic situation of your family (his
was "very well off").

He invited me to his place for lunch. It was another two or three room
cement and mud structure with very dirty dogs and cats wandering
around. I was served the same things every Ethiopian serves me and is
sure I'm trying for the first time, injeera bread and a coffee
ceremony. Looking at the dust, the number of kids and people that had
to fit into all these rooms, I felt like I should do something to help
them out. Maybe offer them a little money, at the very least to cover
the bottles of coke they sent the little kid out to get for us. But
then I remembered one of the answers he'd given me to his questions.
His family is "very well off." Giving them money, would probably
offend them. I did later take my main host out for a couple drinks,
but still, this put things in perspective.

To my Developed world eyes, the home would have been a poster for a
third world charity with the title "help us fight poverty." But they
were very well off. It made me think about all the other people I
wasn't seeing who were so much less fortunate. The little kids in the
middle of the countryside getting into fistfights over the plastic
bottles tossed out of buses, because of the money they get for
recycling them. The people sleeping wrapped up in tarps on the streets
of Addis Ababa, creating a more than passing resemblance to the
mummies in the Egyptian National Museum. The stories of the crowds
sleeping outside the lonely spots where the UN might do food drops for
the holidays the next morning. The ones who have no other way to

And all I have to worry about is that I won't bring home the pictures
I took of some of them.

Keeping things in perspective doesn't always make you feel good.
Photos pending the miraculous return of my stolen Canon SD1100. Don't
hold your breath.


  1. The last sentence is true, but it also doesn't make it any better that you had your camera stolen. Sorry to hear about that.

    That said, it does sound like Ethiopia is a very interesting place to visit.

  2. Oh man that bites. I am glad you got to see Timkat at least - when I passed through there, they were still about a month away and I distinctly remember wondering what it would be like and who the lucky travelers would be that would be in the area at the time.

    It may not make up for the lost camera, but you can't buy another Timkat in Kenya.

    Oh, and make sure you have a roll or two of film spare before you get on the cattle truck from Moyale to Isiolo. You will love the scenery.

  3. Interesting that the feast of Epiphany in the Eastern church celebrates the baptism and in the west is about the arrival of the Magi. Looking things up that you reference in your travels has expanded my knowledge on a number of points. Thank you.

    Sorry the theft spoiled some of the festival for you. Perhaps having "a lot less respect" for those in actual religious celebration is unwarranted? But understandable that being under seige from pickpockets would tend to be distracting and make the experience seem shabby rather than transcendent or as interesting. As you say, gatherings of any large number must be wonderful for pickpocket business. Most religions take a dim view of theft so I doubt the religiosity of the thieves. Makes me think of your descriptions of Rio during Mardi Gras. I'm glad you didn't lose your notebook which I presume had notes you needed. Is Timkat pronounced as it looks? I will look it up. Enjoy using the ancient technologies for awhile (film). Good luck with the ongoing travel. lv,Anonymom.