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At St George’s Church – the most famous Lalibela site

Our rest day in Mekele was pretty epic for me.  I luxuriated in our semi-suite, taking the longest of hot showers, sleeping in, writing from our couch, getting a massage and a haircut!  It was a glorious day of what I like to refer to as re-humanization, and I didn’t even feel bad about not having left the hotel once during the day.  Mike went out for a wander around the city and did manage to convince me to head out that evening promising me he’d found a really good pizza joint.  He was not wrong.

Lalibela and its plethora of UNESCO world heritage sites were our next destination of choice and we initially thought we were going to be able to fly there until we realized that any flight from Mekele to Lalibela stopped over in Addis for the night first.  So, we reluctantly booked a shared car with ETT Travel for $30 each for the 9-hour drive over very hilly and sometime rough roads and terrain.  In the am when we left, we discovered that our co-passengers had re-booked for the following day and we ended up getting a car to ourselves.  I happily laid out in the back seat and spent much of the drive nose deep in my kindle.  Knowing how to spend long hours in vehicles without getting antsy was getting to be a vital talent on this trip.

We made a stop for lunch at a very non-descript hotel along the way and I tried, unsuccessfully to connect to Wi-Fi and get some messages from friends.  I swore I would never complain about the speed of Wi-Fi in the States ever again!  This lunch also afforded me yet another example of pure, willful arrogance on the part of an Ethiopian.  Our waitress, when giving us the Wi-Fi password told us that it was all lower case hotal”whateverthenameofthehotelwas”.  When I inquired, due to the strange spelling, whether she meant “hotel” rather than “hotal?” – she confidently asserted it was the latter.  Upon unsuccessfully connecting using “hotal”, but successfully connecting with “hotel” – I let her know, for the benefit of future guests who asked, that it was, indeed, “hotel” and not “hotal” that worked as the correct password.  I was trying to be helpful.  Instead, she got super argumentative and insisted that it was “hotal” – essentially calling my poor, unbiased, unthinking iPhone a liar.

I give up.  Ethiopians cannot, under any circumstances, stand corrected about anything – chicken bone or Wi-Fi password – it matters not.

Men chanting and singing during a church ceremony in Lalibela

By the time the car had started climbing up and up to the altitude of Lalibela (8,202 feet), the heavens had opened and a downpour turned the roads to a muddy torrent.  It gave the winding roads an ever more otherworldly feel since we had so rarely encountered rain on this voyage of discovery.  Once arrived, we had the car drop us at the generically named hotel Lalibela where we were happy to find a very reasonably priced ($20) room available and not so happy to feel the brisk chill in the air.

Deciding to walk into town to find dinner, we soon discovered that Lalibela itself is extremely steep and we certainly walked off our tired car-bound butts as we found ourselves making our way through the southern church complex to our chosen restaurant.

Against my better judgment, I decided I was going to try and order steak one more time, convincing myself, momentarily, that if I just explained in enough detail how not to overcook the meat, that maybe, just maybe I wouldn’t be forced to chew on shoe leather for dinner.

I was mistaken.  And paid for it.

Witnessing an infant baptism ceremony

Mike and I got into a sibling-like quarrel over dinner and he left early taking a tuk tuk back to the room without me.  I found myself in quite the foulest of moods after my disappointing meal, and the realization that I was already over-churched by this country and I wasn’t all that excited about what awaited me the next day.  I kept reminding myself that the guidebooks all claimed that Lalibela was the one place in the country that was “unmissable”.

We would see.

I took the 3rd tuk tuk I found back to the hotel, having just turned and walked away from the first two who tried to quote me a rate that was 3 times the going rate for a 10 minute journey – despite their post-quote protestations that since I’d found them out, they’d be more than happy to take me for the fair price I wanted.  How would they ever learn not to cheat the Faranji if they didn’t lose business as a consequence?

Mike and I didn’t settle our squabble till the morning, but doing so over fried eggs and decent coffee certainly helped.  We set off to the Northern complex of churches and spent the first frustrating 20 minutes trying to find a good English speaking guide.

Walkways between the churches of the northern cluster with our guide

Several claimed to speak English but couldn’t coherently answer any questions.  Some just wanted way too much money.  Finally, we settled on a guy called Mike, ignoring the fact that we only had an hour left before they closed for lunch and he wandered off for fifteen minutes saying he needed five minutes to bid goodbye to his previous group.

I took a deep breath.  It was becoming clear to me that my impatience and tolerance for the hassles of independent travel were growing.  I had one week to go before I’d be on a plane to London.  I tried to keep that in mind and stay present.

When Mike got back he immediately launched into a verbal description of the churches here in Lalibela which were built between the 7th and 13th centuries, and how each complex had been carved out of essentially one large rock.  King Lalibela’s intention with building these churches was to recreate Jerusalem.   Thinking that was, indeed, quite an impressive engineering feat, I wasn’t prepared for his straight faced explanation that the churches, therefore, had been built by the angels and not people.

Amazing architecture – must have been built by Angels

I guffawed into automatic laughter – only to see Mike reprimanding me with his ever-uber-polite face as he nodded in agreement with our guides’ utterly preposterous nonsense.  His look silenced me as I uneasily squished the slew of mockery that wanted to burst out of me and be unleashed on the head of this guide whom I was paying to teach me historically sound facts – not fill my brain with hair-brained ridiculous notions steeped in myth and blind faith.

Sigh.

Steep winding staircases

It didn’t end there.  In roaming around the first set of churches I had to listen to our guide explain:

  1. How I wasn’t going to be allowed entry into the Church of Golgotha because Jesus had told Mary Magdalene not to touch him after he was resurrected, supposedly because she might have been menstruating. Cue my epic eye-roll.
  2. Why science is wrong. Yes- you read that right.  He wanted to have a discussion about how science had lead people astray and that faith in Jesus and the Orthodox church was the only path to enlightenment.
  3. Why a pool of putrid green bacteria-laden filthy water had miraculous properties that cured infertility if the woman agreed to being lowered into it, naked. Of course I wanted to know WHO and HOW she was lowered naked…but I was again, shushed by you-know-who.  (Mike – if you’re reading this, know that I love you.)
  4. How there must be something fundamentally wrong with me if I had chosen not to have babies and how I absolutely should still try to find a husband who could give me some as that was the purpose of a woman.

The green “fertility-cure” pool

I tried to focus on the architecture of these quite magnificent ancient buildings instead, also trying not to think about the all-too-familiar filthy carpet that hadn’t been changed in several decades that we were forced to walk upon shoe-less.

Toward the end of our morning tour, we were told that we would be “lucky enough” to witness a live church ceremony taking place as part of the festivities of Lent.  We entered a church that was jam-packed with old and young tiny turbaned men all draped in massive lengths of white cotton happily clanging away on their little crosses with bells on them as they took it in turns to sing (I use this term very loosely as it connotes with it the sense that there might be melody or musicality of some sort accompanying said “singing”.  In actuality, the sound this group made was reminiscent of a group of urology patients who were simultaneously and unceremoniously having their catheters removed against their will and without the assistance of anesthesia or pain meds.)

St. Georges from the side

The cacophony these discordant laments produced was extremely uncomfortable for me to listen to.  Now, I came across a variety of tourists over the course of our two-day stay in Lalibela who remarked that they enjoyed these dirge-like choruses (Dirge, not to be confused with Derg which was the name given to the ruling communist party in Ethiopia from 1975 for 13 years which resulted in the “Red Terror” and the genocide of over 750,000 citizens.  Mike kept warning me not to say “Dirge” out loud as I might offend people, until I pointed out that the words Derg and Dirge only sound alike and don’t mean the same.)  I can’t say I was one of them.  I had to get away as quickly as possible.

Additionally, I had to get away when I learned how women are not allowed to participate in the actual church ceremonies.

Ugh.

I include a video here so that you can judge for yourselves.  And, as a nice comparative, I also include a tiny excerpt from the choral singing of the York Minster that I visited a few weeks later in the UK – you can be the judge of which style of worship is more musical.

As a comparison, here is a short excerpt from a choir singing during mass at York’s Minster.

Mike and I made our way back to our hotel via St. George’s church – the most famous of the Lalibela landmarks.  I had this notion that perhaps, in the last few moments before closing for lunch, we might find it devoid of crowds and therefore more photo worthy.

I was right – and we happily spent a solid 20 minutes taking an array of pictures of the very thing that adorns countless travel magazines and brochures beckoning folks to experience Ethiopia.

After much needed fruit smoothies and a quick rest, we returned to the Southern circuit of churches, stopping momentarily to take in the museum at the site’s entrance.  There were no signs or explanations, unfortunately, in English – so we spent most of the time there trying to make sense of the numerous pictorial depictions of torture (we were later informed these paintings all signified the 7 deaths by torture and subsequent miraculous return to life of St. George) that involved all manner of horrific ways that humans can produce pain and death in another human.

The afternoon’s complex of churches was actually very interesting – and made further enjoyable by the fact that they are all connected via subterranean dark tunnels that the guide assured us were symbols of the “passages of hell.”  I wondered if, perhaps they just made it easier to get from one underground church to another without needing to climb up and around, but I had learned to keep my mouth shut by this point.

Entering one of the passageways between churches

It is quite difficult for me to comprehend the massive commitment of time, labor and resources that must have gone in to create this many churches and to have made so many, underground, so close to one another and carved out of solid pieces of rock.  It is quite a wonder and a marvel to see.

I hope that the tone of my post doesn’t fail to express how impressive the site itself is.  It certainly earns its reputation as the 8th wonder of the world.  It was beautiful and certainly a historian or archaeologist’s dream to visit.  I simply found I was unable to connect to the place on an emotional level.  I think you need to be a person of faith for that.  And I’m not.

That evening, Mike and I ventured out to the “best restaurant in Ethiopia” and found a restaurant that had an incredible view, and a pretty decent menu.  A storm was brewing and we enjoyed watching the thunderclouds gather and listened to the rumbles as we ate.

Views as the thunderclouds gathered at Mountain View Restaurant

As we walked back up a set of hills in order to find a tuk tuk back to our accommodation, we were passed by a group of kids around 5 or 6 years of age who asked us where we were from.  Upon hearing our response, they all chanted “We Hate Trump!”

We feel you, I thought.  Even here, in the remote holy city of Lalibela, tiny humans knew all about the International disgrace that our President has brought upon our nation.  For that I continue to lament.

On arrival, we got into a discussion with the guy at the front desk about our travel options for getting to our next stop – Bahir Dar.  It turned out that we would pay about $50 USD each for the 6-7 hour drive.  However, he pointed out that there were two flights per week that only cost $40 USD, and it just so happened that there was a flight that next morning.  After a brief chat about the pros and cons of leaving Lalibela sooner than originally planned (we were considering another 2-3 day trek amongst the surrounding villages) Mike and I decided to book 2 seats on the flight leaving the next morning.

Boarding our little plane for the short 40 minute flight from Lalibela to Bahir Dar

I was happy that we were going to essentially end our Northern Historical tour of Ethiopia in a city that we had reluctantly excluded from the start of our journey because of the driving distance from Bahir Dar to Gonder, our first stop.  Adding this city to the end of our clockwise journey solved that problem and eliminated the need to make that connection overland since we’d simply be flying back to Addis in a few days in any case.

My next post will be from this lakeside, palm-fringed tourist destination.

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