I am currently en route to Lalibela. This is a huge deal for me, being the first time I’ve travelled alone. Sure, I’ve been flying alone since I was 7, but I’ve never explored a city by myself; especially a city in a country where I don’t speak the language. I’m nervous, but I can’t tell if it’s the excitement of seeing Lalibela, or because I have a seat on the airplane with a view of the propellers.
It was 5:15 a.m. when Abraham, the only taxi driver with automatic windows picked me up in front of the gate to our house, amid the pitch black and pouring rain. The thought of walking down the street was terrifying because of the lethal combination of my fear of the dark and that Gina’s witch warned her to NEVER walk alone. For 150 birr, I got a ride to the airport, which is what other taxis charge us firenge for a short ride to good Wi-Fi and an overpriced macchiato.
Standing in line is a completely disregarded concept in Ethiopia, and I should have known upon arrival when I was nearly run over by a crowd trying to leave through a single exit. This time, entering the airport, people were coming from every angle. Those who had less baggage took it upon themselves to cut the line and go ahead in front of everyone. It’s difficult being overly polite in someone else’s country when you seriously won’t get anywhere without being a little pushy.
Going to the gates, there was no clear indication if I was at the right one. I was in fact, at gate 8, but don’t we all know that gate numbers aren’t permanent? There was a looping advertisement on the only TV screen by the gate about Hawassa, and their “good governance,” “hospitable people” and “beautiful place.” Was I waiting for Hawassa? I wouldn’t know… The announcements after all were only in Amharic. I went up to the man at the front of the gate to be sure. “Gate 8d?” “Yes” he cut me off before I could clarify by saying Lalibela. I trusted him… But that hasn’t always worked out in the past.
Through the deafening crackly speakers and the dense Amharic, I made out “Lalibela.” With a small crowd that rose, I stood and made my way up front. Handing over my ticket to an agent who barely looked at it, I was not filled with confidence I was in the right place, as there was no electronic checker to indicate if you were on the right flight.
Through the light drizzle, I walked out to the bus that was taking us to the airplane. A woman walked on with a cute, screaming baby and she sat down quickly and furiously whipped out her breast. I was taken aback. Ethiopian culture, as I have experienced, is very reserved and private, especially amongst the women.
First day in Lalibela:
I got picked up from the airport by my tour guide as arranged. “You also get free African massage when in town,” he said. I thought, wow, this splurge really was worth it. Not to be confused with a Swedish massage, I shortly found out he meant the bumps in the road, which was only comparable to a carnival ride that shakes you ferociously.
The pictures for The Sora Lodge (and reviews) were why I chose to stay there, but no images could do it justice. From my spacious balcony, I had a 180 view of mountains for as far as the eye could see, with a view of the sunrise and the faint sounds of children playing. It was the ultimate dream and break I needed from the chaos in Addis. We got coffee and obviously shiro (along with the vegetable platter because it was fasting Friday) and looked out at the unbelievable vast mountains. No sugar needed in my coffee with that sweet of a view.
My tour guide mentioned that if his client was okay with it, I could join them on their way to the church (making it much cheaper). She complied and I jumped in the van, driving a good hour and a half out of the way if not longer due to the road conditions and livestock obstacles. I was originally hesitant despite wanting to visit the church, because of the daunting $60 price tag on the ride out there. I was assured it would be cheaper, if shared. His client, Betty from Austria was happy to have me come with them. I joined them on their hour and a half mission out to see Yemrehana Kristos, an 11th century church that predates those in Lalibela.
The drive out there was anything but smooth and often nauseating. Betty was sound asleep in the front seat, precariously balancing her incredibly heavy camera with a lens the size of a small child on her lap. She missed a plethora of wild cows, donkeys and sheep slowly wandering into the middle of the road. I was thoroughly impressed she could sleep through the incessant honking and frequent slams on the accelerator from our driver.
Pulling into the town at the base of the hill upon which the church sits, we passed a gathering of what seemed to be the entire village. We paid 300 birr before climbing the hill to the church. The altitude didn’t make the trek a walk in the park and walking with a chatty couple from Pennsylvania didn’t make breathing any easier. We passed through a Juniper forest, and reached the underwhelming wall surrounding the compound, built in 1980 to preserve the site.
We took off our shoes at the entrance and walked into the cave. Legend has it, that the cave was carved into the side of the mountain, where the Axumite church was built in marble and wood, around the 11th century. The area was extremely quiet. The man at the door to collect shoes and a sleepy priest inside the church seemed to be the only people around. The quiet, (despite Haptamu’s inopportune explanations at volume ten when they should be at a two), added an element to the visit that is often lost when surrounded by other tourists. We walked around the edges of the church, admiring the architecture, which is unbelievably sturdy for being so ancient.
King Lalibela himself is supposedly in the tomb covered in a bright cloth, sitting in the back of the cave. Next to the two graves, sits a mass of skeletons contained behind a chained-link fence. Though the exact number isn’t known, it wavers between 5,000 and 11,000. The sheer magnitude of bodies is shocking nonetheless. Pilgrims came to the site while on a pilgrimage, and having reached the peak of their mission, they had no desire to return home, deciding instead to die and remain in the cave forever. It was a close call for me as well, a naturally clumsy and off-kilter human being, as I climbed atop a wobbly stump to see over the fence, where I almost fell to join the pilgrims.
We entered the church by way of the sleepy priest, admiring the intricate carvings and paintings on the ceiling. He brought out the ancient crosses and a stool carved by the king himself.
After exploring for about an hour, I waited outside of the church to admire the architecture, while Betty prayed inside. A woman, distressed and emotional, came in to pray and speak to the priest through tears. Haptamu translated that someone in the town had just passed away, (hence the group of people crowding together upon our arrival.) The man was feeling pain in his head, and abruptly passed away 30 minutes later. He was only 48 years old. I felt so terrible for this woman. I thought, ‘she must be close to him.’
We walked out of the cave, took a good look back at the hillside and hanging Juniper trees before making our way back down the hill. We turned the corner, and heard wailing and crying from what sounded like hundreds of people. That was no mistake.
Hundreds of people, young and old, wailed and chanted while climbing the steep and rocky hillside. A handful of the men in the community carried the covered body of the man who had passed, some with boulders for the grave, others with children. I was hit with a wave of emotion, trying to fight back tears while frantically searching for the appropriate Amharic phrase to express my condolences as people passed by me. I just tripped over my words, smiled sadly, nodding my head out of respect and fully absorbed the moment. The entire community came to mourn together and support one another, despite potentially not even knowing the man who had passed. I had never experienced anything so beautiful in my life. (Video could not be posted, but is worth seeing for yourself @snlazar)
We left the town to their mourning and carried on with our journey, unable to shake the chills.
Our next stop was off the beaten path and Haptamu said he had never taken a tourist before. We walked down a steep hill, across a river, through a wooded area, before arriving at a monastery. He talked a nun into taking us up another incredibly steep hill to see where they live, giving us an opportunity to interact with some of the nuns, who welcomed us warmly into their home.
The day over all was pretty magical and I was still shaken by what we had seen earlier. As we got back to our hotel, Betty told me that she wanted to take care of the ride and that one day when I am traveling I will meet a student and do the same for them. I was so touched and grateful for the gesture and she wouldn’t accept my money. Later that night I went to the restaurant to get dinner where I ran into Betty and her friends, a couple from the Netherlands. They insisted I join them and we shared a bottle of wine, laughing and talking about life for over three hours. At the end of the meal, Betty yet again insisted she pay. That day was so good for my soul, restoring a little faith in humanity, which had been dwindling due to the chaos in our world.
Day Two in Lalibela:
For followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Lalibela is the major pilgrimage site in the country. In the town of Lalibela, a UNESCO World Heritage site, are eleven total churches, split into two groups (northern and southern), but connected through underground pathways. It is incredibly difficult to pinpoint an exact date of creation, but the group has been dated from the 7th to 13th century. Ethiopian culture dates the entire groups construction to the time of Gebre Mesqel Lalibela during the 12th century. Many believe that the king carved the churches during a 24 hour period with the help of angels. What I saw was nothing short of a miracle.
The second morning I woke up ready to tackle all eleven churches in one day. Haptamu and I went through the first group of five, learning a bit of the background behind each individual church and observing the devout kissing the walls. After the first set of churches he took me through the open-air market. The gathering of locals and farmers from miles out of town, brings hundreds of people together to sell their goods. We bobbed and weaved through packs of donkeys for sale, meticulously stepping on any uncovered ground I could find while stepping over women selling teff- a local grain used to make injera, spices, onions, chickens, sandals, spices, furniture; a space for anything you could possibly need. I was the only foreigner walking through the chaos, and was followed often by little children and the echoes of voices herding me to their stand.
I was completely exhausted just from the market, and had time to rest and eat during the time the churches close between 12 p.m. and 2 p.m.
We went to the second group of churches, recharged and eager. I was not prepared for the rain, yet undeterred by its insistence. The rain made each church a dark and dank escape, and a place to ditch our muddy shoes.
The most famous of the churches is Bete Giyorgis, a large cross carved out of tufa, a type of limestone, dated to the late 12th century. Though not the first “Eighth Wonder of the World” I have seen, the sunken church still holds just as much shock value considering the time it was built. For most of the churches, the sheer size and beauty has to be seen in person to absorb fully.
I had met two girls from Spain earlier that day that I tried to help plan their time out in town. That night, Habtamu was glad to have them join us at the local watering hole where we enjoyed Tej, yet not enough to help me dance with my shoulders like Ethiopians were built to do.
Day Three in Lalibela:
I woke up at 4:30 a.m. to attend mass at Bete Amanuel while the sun was still down. Observing briefly, we relocated to my favorite of the churches, Bete Gabriel-Rufael, as it was the holiday celebrating the archangels of which the church was named after. Luckily I had a white scarf with me to cover my head, as I began noticing hundreds of people around me in only white clothing. I didn’t need another reason to stick out in the crowd. We stood outside, in a covered walkway separated by a bridge connected to the church, watching people praying along with the priest over the loud speaker. The holiness of the place itself was palpable, as followers knelt down kissing the ground, or perched up against a wall, hugging the stone. Thousands in white swarmed in as the sun rose, lining the edges of the surrounding hill. It was a great way to end my trip, surrounded by the people of Lalibela, who love their town as much as the tourists who stop through.