In and Out of Ethiopia
- How do you find Lalibela?
And that was quite a hard question to answer … as I almost did not find Lalibela at all
On the day I was due to leave Thailand to go to Ethiopia I stupidly left my passport on a desk somewhere at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport, and merrily hopped on an express train to go into the city. Seconds before the train was due to leave, I noticed a long-haired woman outside my carriage holding up something and urgently waving at me. I thought she was a madwoman or trying to sell me something … until I noticed my photo on the page of the little booklet she was waving.
Somehow she had found my passport. Even more remarkably, she had also found me on the train. In almost half a century of travels I had never lost a passport … until then. Strange events continued, and several days later my Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis Ababa to Lalibela left a rather surprising four hours early – at 08.30 that morning, without me on board – so I missed celebrating my birthday in Lalibela, but there is always another flight another day … and I managed to reach Lalibela one year older and not a lot wiser, but I did – eventually – find Lalibela.
Lalibela is a small town in central Ethiopia perched 2600 metres high on the edge of a mountainous ridge, with a fertile plain hundreds of metres below. Many years ago I collapsed in Mexico City during my first visit to that city because of its altitude of 2200 metres. I was high up in the Pan-American Tower, I think – nope – Latin-American Tower (thank you Mr Google), when I started wobbling about like an asymmetric skittle and my nose started bleeding. Clutching a bloodied handkerchief to my face I staggered back to my hotel where I wallowed in my bed for three days. Fortunately a Mexican woman I had met on the plane telephoned me every now and then to make sure I was still alive. It was perhaps no wonder on this African journey that I felt somewhat drained and lacking any energy or get-up-n-go in Ethiopia’s highlands, almost half a kilometre higher than Mexico City … and so much closer to god – but see later comments about deities …
To market to market
On Lalibela market days (Saturdays) people and their heavily laden mules trudge for hours up switchback roads to reach the village to sell their dusty goods – tomatoes, garlic, string (string???), instant antiques, onions, battered-looking bananas and some mangoes and chillies. The buyers seem to be other villagers or shoppers from the local town. Fresh meat arrives – and departs – on the hoof. I spoke with the Scottish co-owner of the amazing Ben Abeba restaurant (superb views, great food and bewildering architecture) who told me that typically one buys a cow or a goat at the market, walks it back to the restaurant or hotel, slaughters it on the premises and then prepares that week’s meatballs and chops with guaranteed fresh meat. By the following Friday the fresh meat may be quite another story … and the Ethiopian “fasting” menu may be a safer option.
I had timed my visit to Ethiopia to avoid big religious festivals, when prices and crowds soar. I had carefully checked my calendar and found that Easter was early that year and all over by the end of March. What I did not figure on was the fact that Ethiopia actually follows quite a different calendar … and that Easter was yet to come!
However, I was lucky in my ignorance, managing to avoid those huge crowds, yet finding myself in Ethiopia at the time of the “small rains”, with the “big rains” due later in the year. Most of the time the countryside was parched and dry with scorched arid fields, but occasional downpours had a transforming effect: blades of grass and leaves of green appeared almost magically and almost immediately. Like most of the population and just about all of the visitors, the tired bougainvilleas, jacarandas and poinsettias, the drooping eucalypts and pine trees were all sitting about with their tongues hanging out waiting for the rains.
- You should be here in September! Everything is so green!
It was hard to believe that anything could ever be green in that arid landscape. I trudged up and down endless steep dusty unpaved streets, and watched farmers using tired cattle to drag ancient wooden ploughs through barren paddocks, barely scratching the surface.
Like other parts of the country I saw in my two short weeks, Lalibela was a terribly poor town. It seemed like an African Havana, caught in a similar time warp. But unlike Fidel’s Cuba where Christianity was viewed with antipathy, deeply religious Lalibela and Ethiopia rejoice in their beliefs, and revered priests and monks are to be found everywhere, wrapped in white shawls and turbans, carrying long wooden or iron walking sticks. The other side of poor Ethiopia can be seen in the beggars and in the rough-dressed farmers wrapped in dusty shawls, herding their bone-thin mules with long sticks, and quite kindly bashing them over the backs only when the animals really needed reminding who the boss was.
But there was a good spirit there, too. As I walked the streets – very chilly in the morning and scorching by late afternoon – small children came up to me, grabbed my finger or my thumb and just walked along with me for a few paces, before saying goodbye and peeling off to go home again. Some of the older kids asked for money or sweets, and one young ruffian I shooed away muttered dire curses at my retreating back:
- I know you. I’ll look out for you in the streets …
… but most of the time the greetings seemed to be genuine, friendly and open. Kids invited me to join their soccer or table tennis games, and shy women invited me into their homes for the traditional coffee ceremony complete with aromatic incense tossed into the charcoal keeping the coffee pot hot. Yes, of course they wanted my money – but the real warmth of the invitations made them seem more like invitations from old friends asking me to join them for a quick cuppa. A cheery greeting was common even from road construction workers – men and women paid about $20.00 per week for back-breaking work with sledge hammers cracking concrete, or using long-handled shovels to dig sewage trenches in the stony earth. School teachers, on the other hand, are quite wealthy: they are paid about $45.00 per week. For comparative purposes, the United Kingdom base rate for teachers is about $650.00 per week.
A city of stone churches
I had gone to Lalibela to see the 12th century stone-carved churches – now a UNESCO World Heritage site. In Lalibela there are a dozen or so such churches, with other churches and monasteries scattered nearby. Petra in Jordan is famous for its rock-carved Treasury building with its elaborate façade and its rooms that disappear back into the rock. Lalibela’s churches in contrast are for the most part freestanding. The most striking of these churches is dedicated to St George.
I understand that it is really quite easy to construct these splendid buildings.
Take a huge rock that looks like a rock and not at all like a church … and start at the top with your hammers and chisels … and chip away at anything that does not look like a church. When you have carved the rock down four or five storeys to bedrock, start on the inside – nibbling away anything that does not look like the inside of a church. Need a niche with a holy saint’s image? Tackle the wall where you want him to be, and carve him into the solid rock. Need a new window or door or cupboard? Break out the chisels and hammers again.
I had hired a guide for a couple of days to lead me through the labyrinths of tunnels and ladders around the churches and asked him – if I were phenomenally wealthy and so disposed – if I would be permitted to build a modern stone-carved church.
– Yes – we’d give you a rock! Some time ago a wealthy Moslem wanted to create a mosque and he was not allowed – but if you want to make a church we’ll find you a rock and you can take it from there.
To gain access to several of the churches, penitents and visitors must clamber down narrow chasms carved into the living rock, or crawl through stygian tunnels, or tip toe across perilous bridges perched on the lips of scarlet cliffs. Once inside, the frescoes and rock carvings come alive and look as if they were created last Tuesday. Thick multi-coloured rugs and carpets cover the rough stone floors, while ugly modern fluorescent tubes dangle here and there giving just enough light to penetrate the holy gloom. Priests can be seen leading worship or rubbing holy and ailment-curing processional crosses over bent backs or rheumatic chests. Casual worshippers lean against doors or on their long-handled walking sticks, reading from the Bible. Visitors prostrate themselves at the doorways, kissing the stone and making the sign of the cross. And visitors pay the priests ten Ethiopian Birr for the privilege of taking their photograph.
Despite the cynicism I may occasionally exhibit, Lalibela really did seem to be a very spiritual place.
I stayed at the excellent little Top 12 Hotel, whose rooms have balconies staring straight down the vertiginous hills to the plains about eight hundred metres below.
A room with a view
One afternoon a very heavy and very welcome thunderstorm came rattling out of the East, with lunder and thightning shaking the hotel foundations and chopping off electricity. The temperatures fell rapidly and I stood, wrapped in a blanket on my balcony, watching the lighting effects over the rows of mountain ranges, most of which were actually below my eye level. The fat rain drops were backlit by the afternoon sun and in my mind’s eye I could almost track the progress of individual drops of rain as they started somewhere not too far above my head, and fell, fell and fell down to the plain. I am not very well versed in the correct ways of deities … but if there is a god and if he had actually stood on the side of the earth looking down on his creation on that wet Saturday afternoon, I am pretty sure he – or she of course – would have felt as I did that day. It was a magical moment, almost as if I was sharing in the creation of a new world.
And then I thought of the people not so many metres away from where I stood wrapped in my blanket on my comfortable hotel balcony. People whose only shelters were corrugated-iron boxes shaped like old British telephone boxes lying on their sides waiting for Dr Who to come bounding out, wrapping a multi-coloured scarf around his throat; and those whose homes were even less stable; and those still trying to sell the last wilted tomato and those whose every possession had been washed away by the downpour …
Lalibela is about ten hours by air from Bangkok … and about ten thousand years away.
Gondar is a slightly more modern city and a little closer to today, and enjoys a jolly midday chorus (if “midday” can be three hours long), as voices and chants and bells are broadcast from loudspeakers on the Christian churches … with an oh-so-jolly counterpoint for another hour or three in another language from the Muslim mosques. At night, an almost painfully slow church bell tolled the hours. As I lay trying to sleep, I’d count the strokes to work out what time it was … Ah! Three o’clock! … Nope … Four o’clock certainly … and some time later another stroke or two would arthritically grind out to tell me it was actually time to get up for breakfast: injera again? I really hoped that someone would find the energy to wind that clock. I stayed at the comfortable Taye Hotel, with huge terraces overlooking the city, and where the mob-capped housekeepers looked like extras from Upstairs Downstairs and the security guards in their baggy grey and blue uniforms looked like Spike Milligan cartoon characters, but where the injera was, after all, injera. One does not go to Ethiopia to find haute cuisine.
Earthquakes, British bombing and ill-judged Italian restoration works have all played their roles in the destruction of the impressive royal enclosure at Gondar – a huge walled compound of 16th and 17th century palaces, castles, libraries – and lion cages.
The castle complex is a place where a canny entrepreneur could create a sensational son et lumière show, with lights pointing out the various towers and battlements where history was made, while a soundtrack of invading mediaeval armies and flights of Italian warplanes overhead could be mixed with the haunting sounds of traditional and modern Ethiopian music of drums and flutes and lyres. Some people call the royal enclosure at Gondar an African version of the 12th century Camelot: perhaps Guinevere and Arthur and Lancelot and the rest of the gang would all have been quite happy here supping on injera, but local legends recall a bloodier version of paradise.
Ethiopia is a large country – about five times the size of Britain or the size of New South Wales and Victoria combined – and it is a land of as many contrasts as those two Australian states. I visited just three towns in two weeks and a lack of time meant that I had to ignore the rich plains and the still-primitive tribes living naked in the South West, the vast deserts of the South East, and the war-torn borders with Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia: the list of contrasting aspects of this fascinating country is inexhaustible.
My Ethiopian jaunt started and ended in the vast sprawling capital of Addis Ababa – a rather challenging place – but a couple of dusty yet fascinating museums and one or two modern churches and a few English-language bookshops made it easy enough and pleasant enough to spend a few days there. Massive road works were evident during my time in the capital, where workers used troglodytes to set pavement levels (it is an ancient civilisation after all!) and muscles and shovels to remove every cubic centimetre of unwanted rock, probably in the same way that the stone-carved churches of Lalibela had been created.
In the capital, at least, it was possible to see that modern Ethiopian women enjoyed a freedom not found in much of Africa or the Middle East: tight jeans, high heels and elaborate hairstyles were to be seen everywhere. I think that women revel in an apparent absolute parity with men. Some women had Christian crosses tattooed on their foreheads; some men had the pop tartlette Madonna tattooed on their biceps.
Scenes of modernity clashed with the terribly deformed beggars in the streets and with the scruffy guards and soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs outside many public buildings. The guards seemed a long way from the hordes of shoe-shine boys doing a roaring trade scrubbing gym shoes and leather sandals and – occasionally – a few pairs of shoes … The superbly groomed women in western clothes and make-up, and the dashing young business men of the city coexisted happily with fly-swishing bare-chested butchers in the city’s fresh meat shops.
The capital and the parts of the country I saw were multi-faceted. It was a country desperately clawing its way out of a bloody past and out of dreadful poverty, a place where centuries-old traditions were carefully preserved and where the twenty-first century was welcomed. It seemed to be a place where human spirit could not be quashed, and a place where treasures were to be found in unlikely places. Indeed, if you looked really closely at hundreds of ears, you may finally have found, like Romeo, that rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear.
- Words and photographs © Christopher Hall 2014
- Date of journey: April 2013
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