I had planned to spend a relaxing Christmas at Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee sanctuary in Northwestern Tanzania, but these plans came undone at the last minute by bad weather, washed out roads, and cancelled flights. Instead, on Christmas day I fought with a guide over the source of the Blue Nile, traveled for five hours in a bus crammed with sheep and goat herders, came face to face with a Kalishnikov rifle, sat in the shadows of a castle built four hundred years ago, and looked up to see a hundred angels floating above me.
I spent the week before Christmas on the phone with Precision Airlines and cursing a slow internet connection as I tried to plot out bus routes to Kigoma on flooded roads only to realize that the journey would be prohibitively expensive, time consuming, and frustrating. When a friend cancelled her plans to meet me in Kigoma for Christmas, I booked a last minute flight to Ethiopia.
On December 23, I set out for Addis Ababa with my backpack and my guidebook. It has been a few years since I last traveled by myself, and I had forgotten the joy of open horizons on my own schedule.
Early on Christmas Eve, I traveled to Bahir Dar in Northern Ethiopia, which is a wonderful city set on the shores of Lake Tana, with wide palm-tree lined roads, colourful back alleys, and fresh coffee beans roasting on nearly every corner. Shortly after I arrived, I made arrangements with a guide to ride by boat to the source of the Blue Nile the next day.
On Christmas morning, I waited for the guide in my hotel lobby. He walked in about an hour late, talking to five other tourists and trying desperately to sell them a more lucrative tour of the nearby monasteries for that morning. When he denied all knowledge of the planned boat ride to the Blue Nile, I decided to catch the next bus to Gondar and exact my revenge on Trip Advisor.
I was packed into a small bus that was already crammed full of sheep and goat herders dressed in long white robes. Chickens squawked under my feet and I held my backpack on my lap. All conversation ceased as soon as I climbed onto the bus, as the herders stared at me with thinly veiled curiosity and I stared back at them with the same. The countryside blurred through the open window, winding hills of vivid green and gold. The man next to me turned and said, “excuse me, but do you speak Amharric?” Although I don’t speak the language, we mimed a conversation. When he turned to leave, I glimpsed a kalishnikov rifle buried under his robes and noticed that a few of the men on the bus were armed, presumably to protect their cattle.
I arrived in Gonder in mid-afternoon, a town that has been made famous because it is home to the only castle in Africa. The castle is the focal point of the town, crumbling pink and brown stones surrounded by guides, storytellers, incense, and coffee shops.
As the afternoon stretched into evening, I walked away from the town, up the hills and into the sunset to stare at a spectacular church with a ceiling of a hundred angels. I stayed until the sun faded and I could see the lights of Gondar flicker below me.
It certainly wasn’t the Christmas day that I had planned. But the magic of traveling in Africa is that when plans come undone you can have a Christmas with twelve goat herders, a four hundred year old castle, a hundred angels, and a perfect sunset over the Ethiopian Highlands.
The town of Bahir Dar lies on the shores of Lake Tana in Northern Ethiopia. The region is home to hundreds of monasteries, many of which are located on small islands sprinkled across the lake.
I spent Christmas Eve rowing from one small island to the next, chatting with friendly monks, sipping on Ethiopian coffee, admiring the brightly coloured art that adorns the monasteries, and thumbing through 800 year-old texts written on goatskin.