It stinks. The longer I let these pictures sit, the less I remember about the times we had taking them. I do know this: In Ethiopia, the current year is 2004 (they never made the switch to Gregorian!), if a house has a red cup on a stick outside, it means they have home-brewed beer for sale, and I got fleas in Lalibela.
I suppose I'm unlikely to forget that last one. And technically, *I* didn't get fleas - my clothing did. (Of course, I was the one who got all the bites.) This issue seemed more minor, though, after I read that the town didn't have much by way of running water or electricity up until last year. Though Lalibela may be remote even for Ethiopia, which is saying something, it has a true wealth of history and culture that are difficult to come by anywhere in the world.
We arrived at our (fleabag) hotel, selves and bags covered in dust and accompanied by three very nice kids and two very persistent tour guides, after eleven hours of travel.
Lalibela is a village stretched along hillsides, overlooked by mountains and with valleys below. It's at 2630 meters, or 8600 feet. No joke, when you're hauling your backpack across rocky screes and through boulder-strewn valleys because there's no public transit that goes down to where you're staying and you don't want to let the tour guides (who keep offering) carry anything because you KNOW they'll want money or somehow guilt you into taking an information-free tour with them. Sigh.
So with the fleas and the dust and the difficulty of getting there from Bahir Dar, why come to Lalibela?
Lalibela is one of the holiest cities of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the home of several groupings of extraordinary, marvelous rock-hewn churches surrounding the River Jordan. As you can see from this picture of Bet Giyorgis, or St. George (he of the dragon-slaying; the patron saint of Ethiopia) these churches are formed using the materials locals had available in the 12th and 13th centuries; earth and rock. They carved them in one piece right out of the ground. Or some are made by widening already existing caves.
Travel between them occasionally requires a leap of faith, or fumbling through tunnels darker than the backs of your eyelids.
It's hard not to gape at the more impressive structures, like Bet Amanuel and its massive striping. The folklore surrounding these churches is that Gd told King Lalibela how and where to build the churches, and then angels assisted him with the project.
There are UNESCO-sponsored coverings built over the churches now. I admire and support the intent, but the metal and canvas structures can't help but detract a little bit from the weighty feeling of putting your feet in the path trod by years and years of worshippers and pilgrims.
When we were there, a large group of white-sheathed Ethiopians was also visiting the site. These churches, unlike some we've visited, are still very much holy places of worship, and women dropped to their knees in the dank interiors while men prostrated themselves in front of altars.
There were lots of surreptitious cameraphone photos snapped of me and Logan, too. I wonder where those will end up.
After dinner one night, we passed a large group of devotees bedded down in the open in a dusty park. Faith, it turns out, does not require hotel rooms.
No shoes are allowed inside the churches.
Sometimes people will follow you around asking if they can keep an eye on your shoes for you while you're inside, in exchange for a couple of birr notes. (The one birr bill might be the smallest we've dealt with yet - it's worth about six cents.)
Of all the churches, the most impressive, and most photographed, is Bet Giyorgis - the first one in this post. It's off on its own, away from the other churches, and is somewhat aloof. When you first come upon it, you can clearly see the cross shape of the building and guess at the way the surrounding rock must have been cut away.
You can't see it from this view, but there's a winding path that works its way down behind the church and brings you blinking out of a dark cave, with the huge bulk of St. George looming over you.
There are also several other churches and monasteries in the hills outside Lalibela. Early one morning, we hopped on muleback and went up the side of a mountain to Asheton Maryam, likely built by Lalibela's nephew.
It was chilly up there, and when we stopped to give the mules a breather and walk up the steepest part, a vacant-eyed girl with dirt and muck smeared all over her face wanted to shake our hands. We shook.
The view from up top was breathtaking (and not just because of the altitude - 4000 meters, or about 13,000 feet). Small, patchy fields of beans and barley and teff and wheat stretched out all around us.
Logan and his pokin' stick.
Asheton Maryam's caretaker offered to show us some of the church's holy relics, including an ancient-looking illuminated book and some lovely silver crosses.
When we weren't touring the churches we were mingling with the very friendly locals. Logan tried to track down a cooking class but since one didn't appear to exist, he friended a local lady instead. I'll let him tell you about it though.
Yep. Talked my way into trying to learn something. That's how I do.
Zufan and her daughter Salamwit own one of the shops in town. They don't speak much English (and I speak zero Amharic) but we bonded over coffee and I soon found myself with a 7am appointment to help cook Injera. Zufan makes 50 sheets every 3 days to feed her family of four.
The morning started with tea and tchinata, a minty, slightly licoricey herb. We soon had the fire under her mitat blazing and Zufan was turning out perfect injera after perfect injera. After I watched for a while, she passed me the ladle. It was my time to shine.
Or more accurately, it was my time to make a lopsided, uneven, embarrassing mess. I called a mulligan and managed to improve a tad on a future attempt. I don't think I'll be starting my injera business soon though.
A couple of days later they invited us over for duro wat. During my injera lesson Zufan had actually introduced me to the chicken that we would be eating, so I felt pretty obligated.
Rachel and I showed up with fresh oranges and cake and the ladies proceeded to lay out a truly delicious spread of fried potatoes, fresh baked bread, and the headlining spicy chicken stew. It is without a doubt the best doro wat that I've ever had. It was buttery and smokey and spiced just this side of making me sweat. We ended up eating everything in Zufan's friend's house since he was out of town and his place was much bigger than their modest one room home.
After dinner, Zufan toasted green coffee beans over a braizer and Salamwit pounded them with a metal mortar and pestle. We chatted (with large hand gestures) as coffee percolated in a clay pot on the coals. After a few cups it was time to go but I can't thank the two of them enough for a truly unforgettable Lalibela experience.
Our flight back to Addis Ababa on Ethiopian Airlines was a much faster experience than all the different vehicles we'd taken to get there. It should be said, though, that Ethiopian Airlines has a monopoly on flights within the country, and it absolutely shows- from the total cattle-call boarding where people shove each other out of the way on the runway to be the first to board the airplane, to the way Logan had to confirm our flight by hitching a ride to the local supervisor's house just outside town (he was totally home!) We arrived back in Addis safely, though, and I suppose that's the important thing.
And that's it for Africa folks! Next we're on to Istanbul to do the European/Asian shuffle.