Ethiopian Boundaries

8 days in Ethiopia and it seemed so much longer. That's less about the country than it is about me--I'm frankly tired. I'm now 14 months into the one-way ticket, and even for the happy writer traveler it's starting to wear. It's tough to motivate sometimes--I mean, eventually a mountain looks like a mountain, a hotel is a hotel, and no matter how you spice it, chicken and rice is chicken and rice.

Which, on that last one at least, is a selling point for Ethiopia--cause this ain't chicken and rice:  

I'm so excited I don't even know where to look! Photo credit Bekele Atakilte

I'm so excited I don't even know where to look! Photo credit Bekele Atakilte

On my second day in Gondar, my excellent guide Bekele Atakilte connected me with a tour of Lake Tana and Gorgora. Riding the green lake waters on a perfect-weather day was lovely and peaceful--except when my lake guide (who will remain unnamed) was talking. He was a chatty fellow. And maybe it's just my cranky nature, but I feel like when you're on a boat you should talk sparingly if at all and just enjoy the view. Like a movie.


Ethiopia is a deeply religious country, and the majority practice Orthodox ChristianityLake Tana is home to numerous tiny Orthodox monasteries, some dating back to the 14th century. As we came to shore at one of them--the Manendeaba Abune Yassay Medhanealem Communal Monastery--my unnamed chatty lake guide bent over, cupped his hands in the water, and took several deep drinks. "It's holy water," he said. "It's like medicine."

Throughout my journey I've been conscious and intentional, avoiding judgment of other cultures and faiths. I was raised Roman Catholic, and honestly I find some of their tenets, umm... flawed. But at the end of the day, none of us know who or what God is, and my beliefs could be wrong.

With that said, I do believe strongly in the existence of waterborne pathogens. So when unnamed chatty lake guide offers me a drink of "medicine", I politely decline.

Next he brings me onto the monastery grounds to see the buildings and artifacts and meet the residents. I get the typical stares but I don't mind--it's a fascinating place. It's like stepping back in time. I see the relics accumulated over centuries. I admire the rough-hewn church, set among only trees and sky. It's simple and calming. I can see how one finds God here.


Then it's time for lunch, and more simplicity: rough and rustic bread, thin broth, and local beer.

thankfully I had a big breakfast

thankfully I had a big breakfast

Unnamed chatty lake guide is solicitous and pushy. "Good, right?" "Local beer is good, right?"

And no, it wasn't particularly good, but I was down with a few bites and sips to have the experience. A very cool thing to do once.

"Eat more," he says.  

I tell him I'm not that hungry but it doesn't seem to matter. "No worries. Eat more." I'm getting annoyed but whatever--I get annoyed all the time. But then, as we're eating, he takes a handful of liquid-dipped bread and sticks it in my mouth.

In. My. Mouth.

I feel the tips of his fingers pushing against my lips. Fingers I had not seen him wash once.

Oh the revulsion.

I could have said something. I should have said something. But I was so shocked, even though I knew that was part of the old Ethiopian culture.

And maybe because I knew some Ethiopians still did this as a show of community and appreciation and welcoming that I didn't say anything. I knew he didn't mean any ill in doing it. And I certainly didn't want to offend him or the elders.

At the same time, eww eww eww.

enjoying new experiences. Can you tell I'm enjoying?

enjoying new experiences. Can you tell I'm enjoying?

So the anxiety was high as I took another drink of the sour local beer and saw his hand form again around a chunk of rough injera and perch nearby. I held that drink a long time, and still his hand hovered. I knew what was coming next.

Again, I could have said something. Again, I should have said something.

Instead, as I pulled my cup away, his hand found my mouth.

Ugh. I felt miserable--and not just from the spirochetes gleefully charging into my GI tract. Because I believe it's important to get out of one's comfort zone. New experiences expand the mind and enhance life. I've tried to say "yes" whenever possible on the one-way ticket and it's made a difference.

But sometimes you gotta listen to Nancy:

So when? And I guess I'm still learning, but probably when your own discomfort outweighs any offense you might cause others, that's a good time. Or when saying yes means a course of broad-spectrum antibiotics.

Lesson learned.