From Guess to Gondar


This blog entry about the events of Thursday, May 27, 2004 was originally posted on June 02, 2004.

DAY 222:  Before I came to Ethiopia, my American conception of the country from from images of starving children showed on Sally Struthers commercials asking for money.  However this stereotypical image continued to deteriorate the more I “discovered” the “real” Ethiopia.  Present day Ethiopia may be developing from a state of famine, but past Ethiopia had already developed into former kingdoms, like the kingdom of Gondar in the Middle Ages.

FOR ME, THE ROAD TO GONDAR was a long one, starting in Bahir Dar.  Mulualem who “volunteered” to escort me to a Gondar-bound bus picked me up at my hotel at 5:30 in hopes of getting a 6:00 a.m. bus.  I thought he would have come via taxi, but there was non, plus all shared taxis going by were full.  (In Ethiopia they are more civil about overcrowded, unlike the other African nations I’d seen.) 

“No problem, no problem,” Mulualem said.  He, like many others, kept on saying that, like it was Ethiopia’s national motto.  We walked to the bus terminal — it only took 15 minutes anyway - but in those 15 minutes, all the tickets for the 6:00 a.m. bus were taken. 

“No problem, no problem,” Mulualem said again.  He told me there would be another at 8:00 passing through from a small village and that I should wait in the nearby coffee shop to avoid the thieves lurking in the bus terminal area.  In the meantime, he went off on bicycle to try and find if there was a shared Land Cruiser going up to Gondar that perhaps I could hitch onto.

TWO HOURS, TWO COFFEES and a Fanta Orange later, a bus pulled in and people rushed over to it.  I thought it would be “no problem, no problem” to get a ticket, but a long line formed.  Mulualem led me to the conductor so that I could wave 20 birr to get a ticket.  Soon I realized Mulualem’s idea of “no problem” was to cut the twenty or so people on line in order to secure a seat — he said they’d give it to me because I’m a foreigner.  I felt bad about cutting the line — it’d only make me the most hated guy on the bus — but at the same time I desperately wanted to get to Gondar ASAP since I only had that day to explore it.

The bus left at 9:00 and soon I was on my way with the fifty or so people staring at me for cutting.

THE ROAD TO GONDAR was a long and bumpy one.  Above all it was dusty as hell, like hyperventilating into a used vacuum bag.  The vacuum bag torture only lasted five hours, passed little villages and a drier landscape that looked more like the dry images on TV.  There was hope though; irrigation and farming productions were being made and in fact, the dirt road was in the process of being paved, almost as if the Ethiopian government was gearing up for the time mainstream tourists discovered that Ethiopia has a rich historical past that rivals more touristy Peru. 

GONDAR SOUNDS LIKE SOMETHING out of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and in fact it is.  Known by some as “Africa’s Camelot,” the kingdom of Gondar was capital of Ethiopia when a family lineage of emperors ruled from 1632 to 1886.  While people in the old days may have ridden in on a horse, I rode in on a bus — and got off too early with the wrong advice of a fellow passenger.  I should have gotten off in the town center, but instead I was on the outskirts, having to walk through a crowd of villagers calling “Japan!” or “China!” to me.  Eventually I got sick of it and just hopped into a minivan taxi which took me to the Circle Hotel, a mid-range place at $10/night for a room with a view and a TV.  MTV’s Wade Robson Project was on when I arrived and when I tried to change it, I discovered that my TV would only receive whatever channel they were watching in the bar upstairs.

With my limited time and painfully inadequate Lonely Planet African on a Shoestring guidebook, I aimlessly walked the streets on my one afternoon in the former kingdom.  A little kid who was fairly eloquent in English started following me.  It was he who told me I was going in the wrong direction to the castle, so I let him tag along. 

“Where do you come from?” he asked


“Japan?  China?” he guessed, but the answer I was looking for was “Philippines.”  (I’d given up telling people “America” because whenever someone asks me where I’m from and I say “America” or “The States,” they either don’t believe me or keep on asking questions until they find out I have Filipino heritage.)

The boy’s name was Amanuel and, so his story went, was a thirteen-year-old boy living by himself in a house to support his way through school (currently in grade 8).  He told me he met tourists in town — some taught him basic French, some basic Spanish — and liked to show them around.  He told me how one American tourist was so impressed with him, he took him along to visit the other sites of Ethiopia.

Amanuel led me not too far down the road to the Ethiopian Airlines office to confirm my ticket and then to the entrance gate of the Royal Compound, a World Heritage Site declared by UNESCO in 1999. 

“I will wait for you out here,” Amanuel said to me.


I paid the 50 birr entrance fee and got a ticket which I showed to the guard.

“Where you from?” he asked.

“Guess,” I requested.






“Where are you from?” I asked him.


“And what country do I come from?”

“You come from Guess.”

I left it alone after that.

FROM THE KINGDOM OF GUESS, I explored the former kingdom of Gondar.  I wandered the compound in awe of the castles before me.  Middle Age castles?  This is Ethiopia?  Damn you, Sally Struthers!  I took photos of the old stone buildings — even sneaking in a short video clip on my camcorder by hiding in a little stone house.  (Video rights cost an extra 75 birr.)

As much as I was impressed with the architecture, the whole thing was just a bunch of stones without proper historical explanation.  Luckily the compound provided free guides (minus tip) which, to my surprise, where extremely knowledgeable, even when I questioned him on loopholes in his lecture.  The friendly guide (I forgot his name) led me from building to building, explaining the history of Gondar.

THE GLORY OF GONDAR came when Emperor king Fasilidas came to power after replacing his tyrant ruler father who, in 1622, converted from Ethiopian Orthodox to Catholicism and tried to convert the rest of his domain by violent force.  Fasilidas restored the Ethiopian Orthodox church — kicking out all Catholic missionaries — in what was called an era of “Closed Door Policy.”

During this time, Fasilidas had a huge castle built to honor him (picture above), an architectural blend of Portuguese, Indian and Moorish from the influences of foreign people that arrived via ship.  Inside the unique design the influences continued, from the reliefs on the wall to the shape of the windows to the ingenious two-sided fireplace in between two rooms.  During Fasilidas’ reign, he also had an archive building erected for books and documents.

Unlike European kings who built their own castles or lived in pre-existing ones, the tradition of the royal Gondar lineage was to simply add-on to the pre-existing structure within the compound.  Fasilidas’ successor, his son Yohanness I had a chancellory building built in his name, in a Moorish design annexed to the main castle.  After him was Iyasu the Great, who built a smaller castle nearby, complete with a cleverly-designed counter-clockwise spiral staircase up to the tower so he could take full advantage against his opponent, being left-handed.

Next down the lineage of architecture-loving kings was King Dawit, who added a concert hall and lion cages, and then Bekafa who built a banquet hall before passing the architectural torch to his wife, Regent Miniwab.  She built a library on campus, which is still used today.

The guide suggested that I listen to his entire tour first and then go back to take my photos.  After tipping him 10 birr, I followed the trail again with my little camera, keeping my video camera in my vest pocket hidden — or so I thought.

“You have a video recorder,” a security guard said.

“Yes, but I haven’t been using it.”

He wasn’t convinced.  He said he saw me used it before.  Busted.

“Since you have video, that is criminal.” 

Shit.  Was I about to be arrested?  Me?  A criminal?  I played dumb but didn’t deny taking video.  It was the one case where recorded evidence actually counted against me.  “Oh, I thought you pay afterwards if you decide you want to shoot video.”

“No, you were supposed to pay.  It’s too late.  It is criminal.”

There went that word again.  Criminal.  Guess I wasn’t so smooth when I shot that footage in the little house.

The guard escorted me to the main security gate.  All the while I’m playing dumb with my alibi that I thought you were to pay the extra 75 birr afterwards.

“No argument?” he asked me.

“No, I can pay it.”  And I did.  Needless to say, afterwards I pretty much had a field day shooting every angle of the compound.

MY ADMISSION INTO THE ROYAL COMPOUND gave me admission to the Fasilidas Baths across town.  Of course, Amanuel was waiting for me outside and wanted to be my escort.  I figured that the hell, I’ll give him 10 birr for his guidance like I gave to Mulualem that morning. 

Since I had canceled all my NTO tours when my American Express card was rejected and was now paying everything out of pocket, I was low on petty cash.  Amanuel walked me to the bank in town, but just my luck (again); I was stuck and low on cash on yet another bank holiday, Julian New Year.  I’d have to get by and wing it for the meantime.

Like during the days of the emperor kings, one thing remained since the days of the kingdom of Gondar:  horse carriages.  For a tiny fraction of the cost of a horse and carriage ride in New York’s Central Park, I paid the $2.50 USD for Amanuel and I to ride to the Fasilidas Bath house down the hill across town.  Amanuel, the driver and the horse waited around for me to explore the building, although there wasn’t too much to it.  Camelot it was not.

On the horse and carriage ride back up the hill into town, Amanuel told me more about his life; it was a sob story to emotionally blackmail me for some more money I figured.  He told me that his house’s monthly rent was 50 birr/month and that he preferred if tourists gave him books or school supplies because whenever he gets money, bigger guys steal it and the cops don’t believe him because he “looks like a kid.”  I figured buying him a world map for his help would be a thoughtful and significant gesture since all day he was trying to guess the country of my heritage, and he pretty much was tapped out on all the countries he knew in the world.  No store had a map however and so I took him out at a cafe for some fresh mango juice.  It was at the cafe that his plan of emotional blackmail became more and more obvious, as he kept on asking, “Please, if you can help me pay my rent, I don’t want to sleep on the streets.”  Hmm, I thought you said you didn’t want money.

“Okay, don’t worry.  I’ll help.” 

“Do you have any books?  I like to read.”

“Yeah, I have a book I can give you.”  I had finished Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and wanted to get rid of the extra weight in my bag.

Amanuel took me to an internet cafe, where we waited in a room for a computer to free up.  “Hey look, a world map!” I pointed out.  There was one on the wall.  I pointed to the Philippines for show him my heritage.  All he had to do was read it to get the answer, but he said the type was too small.  I handwrote it on the back of my notepad, even phonetically so he could just pronounce it.  He still couldn’t get it.

“Philippines.” I said.  Like to read he says?

“Oh, Philippines.”


After my internet session, Amanuel brought me back to my hotel.  I went up to my room to get the book for him.  For his guidance, I put in a 10 birr note as a “surprise bookmark.”  However, he wasn’t impressed.

“I thought you would help me pay my rent.”

Help you, yes.  Not pay the whole goddam thing, you little illiterate bastard.

“I did help you.  There’s ten birr inside.”  He saw the note and flipped through the pages to find more.

“My rent is fifty birr.  Do you want me to sleep in the street?” he said all sappy.

50 birr, yeah right.  Mulualem was satisfied with ten, the Royal Compound guide was happy with ten and this little punk wanted fifty?  I reversed his tactic.  “I’m sorry.  The bank was closed.  I have no more cash.  Do you want me to sleep in the street?”


“Then fine.  I gave you ten and a juice and the book.  If you don’t want the book, I want it back.”  I was really getting pissed off at this kid.

“No, no no.  I want the book.  I like to read.  But maybe you can give me twenty?  I don’t want to sleep on the street.”  Again, his rehearsed line of emotional blackmail.  He wouldn’t leave me alone, so I gave him five more to get rid of him.

The rest of the day and night I just vegged in my room and in the rooftop bar with the comforts of CNN and M Net, a movie channel that played Undisputed and Cecil B. Demented.  Later on that night, I just started laughing that after all the effort Amanuel put towards me, he got less than two bucks.

I wondered if the kings of Gondar ever had to deal with this.

Next entry: Holy Land of Honey

Previous entry: Sacred Lake

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Comments for “From Guess to Gondar”

  • HEY GANG… There’s five in a row for you without commercial interruption.  I have more to catch up on, so stay tuned!

    Please excuse any spelling and/or grammar errors… I’ve rushed through this batch!

    Currently I’m in Cairo, taking a break from travel by just vegging in a big modern city—just what I need.  (For now, the attitude is “Pyramids, schmiramids.”)  What I DON’T need right now but may have is a possible tapeworm in my intestinal track, but I will be looking into that.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/02  at  12:41 PM

  • OOGY and/or LOVEPENNY:  Hey Gadget Men…  I need to get a new headlamp to replace the one I lost…  MARKYT will put it into the care package to be delivered by JACKALZ at the drop point in Barcelona, Spain on July 1st. 

    Currently I’m looking at the Petzl Tikka Plus (Item 37768 on the Campmor site)... Any advice?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/02  at  12:45 PM

  • MATTO / DTELLA:  Are you coming to Spain or what?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/02  at  12:49 PM

  • ill pick you up from the airport wit mark when you get back..gimme FIFTY bucks!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/02  at  06:20 PM

  • ok, now i see why sally struthers doesn’t have a job anymore. cause the kids of ethiopia do a better job getting money out of foreigners than she did. =P

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/02  at  06:20 PM

  • i used to joke with a friend in college that we would have tape worm… but i guess in real life, it’s not soo funny :( 

    N smile

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/02  at  07:47 PM

  • Tapeworm and other intestinal infections are a common unfortunate occurance down there…hopefully all you have is an upset tummy!

    Word Life, your trip is really impressive. Keep up the good work!!


    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/03  at  05:12 AM

  • Yo Erik!
    Sounds like the kids in Ethiopia are just as shifty as those in Peru. I hope your suspicions of tape worm aren’t true. Your travel sure sounds more exotic than my current job of investigating Australian cow poo resources.
    My travel buddy Marnie is finishing her MBA in Sydney & will be working in Melbourne soon. Would be great to see you down in Melbourne town one day.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/03  at  05:34 AM

  • GARB:  Hey there!  Glad you’re still following along!  Yeah, it’s funny, the similarities between Africa and South America… even the little villages look the same…

    As for Melbourne… not exactly on my itinerary since I was there last year, but anything can happen!

    Where’s your next trip to?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/03  at  10:50 AM

  • CRIMINAL!  such a harsh word to use….

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/03  at  11:12 PM

  • Great pics, and I always love the history lesson. You’re such a softy for a little bastard. I can’t believe he suckered you out of $2. hehe. Does anyone remember the paperboy from “Better Off Dead”?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/06  at  05:44 AM

  • When I was in St Petersburg 11 years ago (WOW that’s a long time ago) the kids didn’t even ask - they just took. From your bag on the bus, trolley, metro, or from your bag when you got off the bus in the plazas… so, at least these kids are asking.
    Not saying much, but…
    Good luck with the tummy - I’m sure you’re over it all now - I’m slow… feel better!!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/08  at  10:36 AM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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Holy Land of Honey

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