In this rock I will build my church
Aksum’s airport is even smaller than Teesside’s but the security is tight. My hand baggage is searched both when I enter the terminal and just before I board the plane – it’s the same woman on each occasion, but second time around she starts asking me questions about items that previously she’d ignored. The plane is small and the passenger list smaller still, so only ten minutes elapse between the start of boarding and actual take-off.
The journey to Lalibela is short, and the windows are sufficiently scratched and dirty that it’s hard to make out much detail in the crumpled landscape. With this being the second of only two flights into Lalibela per day, the minibus from the airport into town is full of not just passengers but also the hotel touts who’d been manning booths in the arrivals hall.
I first visit the Tourist Information centre, which is staffed by a woman who only speaks Amharic. This seems bizarre, as a graph on the wall indicates that three times as many foreigners visit the town as domestic tourists. There also appear to be more than enough English-speakers around Lalibela to staff the centre, so I’m unclear why she got the job. With that visit a bust, I repair to the Unity Spot cafe over the street for another veg meal that’s heavy on cabbage. Like with the accommodation, food prices are noticeably higher than in Aksum.
Barack Obama’s influence on the country is as palpable as it was in Gonder. Not so much in terms of his foreign policy vis a vis Ethiopia, more the fact that his is the face that I see staring from a surprising number of T-shirts, and there is a souvenir shop named after him near my guesthouse. I’m not sure if this is purely due to his African roots or if his message has managed to transcend his race and simply embodies the possibility of a better world.
I spend the rest of the day investigating the town, realising early on that I’ve chosen a guesthouse right at the bottom of the main hill. The altitude here is only around 2,600m but the sun is strong and I’m gasping and sweating as I trudge upwards, so much so that I eventually can only offer waves to the many greetings I receive from local kids, as speech has had to be sacrificed in favour of breathing. I have only my day bag to carry, and it’s sobering to see small children and women bent over lugging firewood, sacks of produce, and the ubiquitous yellow plastic water containers up the incline. I also have both hands free with which to swipe the moisture-seeking flies away from my face, and the clusters of insects around these people’s eyes, noses and mouths bring back memories of TV footage from the ’80s.
My first sweep through Lalibela indicates that its population is 90% children. Their reactions to seeing me run the gamut, from straight-out demands for money or a pen or water to requests to practice their English. Some of the smallest run up to me with their exercise books open, proudly showing shakily-written English characters and numbers. I pass the secondary school near my guesthouse and a group of teenagers asks if I can help them. They show me a diagram which I recognise from O-Level biology as a pair of kidneys with various vessels going in and out. I then see the multiple choice questions below, questions regarding the interconnectedness of arteries, veins, urethras, vesicles, and other body parts that seem to do a satisfactory job without my brain knowing much about their function, and hide my ignorance by saying it would be wrong of me to help them cheat.
Kids seem to conduct much of their leisure time outside too, though I would guess Playstation sales in the country are minimal. Foosball (i.e. table football) is popular but I chicken out of accepting an offer to join a roadside game, fearful that my skills have declined from their peak in New York – when my thunderbolts from defence could occasionally cause a stir – to a level that’s just plain embarrassing. I also see a game I remember from my own childhood whose name escapes me, involving a ball on a string swinging around a tree or some other upright axis (pole tennis? Impending senility’s a bitch).
The day that I arrive coincides with Lalibela’s scheduled weekly power outage and as evening turns into night I head out for a wander. It’s sufficiently dark that most people make sparing use of torches, and I’m sufficiently white that I am still hailed even as I skulk in the shadows. With few other options, I take a seat outside of a cafe and work my way through a few beers. It’s pleasantly cool and insect-free in the open air, and there are plenty of stars winking above me. All my evenings here will border on cold, no doubt helped by the late afternoon downpours.
Lalibela’s fame rests on its rock-hewn churches dating from nearly a millenium ago. There are eleven within the town itself, in three groups, and others in the surrounding countryside that are reachable only on foot or by mule. The most impressive architecturally are entirely free of the rock from which they were carved, like the Kailesh temple at Ellora in India, though UNESCO’s protective roofs are a jarring complement. Legend has it that the churches were built by the townsfolk during the day and the angels by night. They are still active places of worship today, each church containing several paintings of religious figures that act as the focal point of people’s prayers. A couple have carved and coloured walls and ceilings, faded by the passing of the centuries. Drapes ripple in the occasional breeze that enters the cool chambers. I visit when there are few other people there, tourists, priests or congregation, but the sound of chanting echoing through the dimly-lit interiors and connecting tunnels is still atmospheric.
This image of religious purity is partly an illusion. The first priest I encounter immediately dons a colourful robe, brings out an ornate brass cross, and tells me I can take a photo of him for a price. A pilgrim tells me the name of one of the churches and then demands money for that information. The ticket checker at one of the groups does the same. I’m not surprised, as Western pocket change goes further in this country than most that I’ve visited.
Note that I have no idea of the names of any of the churches so those I’ve put on the pictures could easily be a tissue of lies.
In Ethiopia, I have been reminded of India by the fact that I can never be alone unless I’m in my room. Wherever I walk, countryside or town, there are always other people around, which is something of a frustration when trying to take photos. This seems to be a reflection of the booming population here, especially as urbanisation has barely begun.
Dull but possibly useful info
i. I got a lift from the Africa Hotel to Aksum airport for B20 – I think it would cost more in a taxi picked up on the street.
ii. The plane from Aksum to Lalibela left at 11AM. It cost B1421 (you can NOT pay by credit card) and took 40 minutes.
iii. There are booths for most Lalibela hotels in the arrivals hall.
iv. A shared minibus from the airport to the town was B40 (I think this price had been negotiated by the hotel).
v. I stayed at the Heaven Guesthouse, at the bottom of the main hill in town, paying $15 for a room with double bed and en suite bathroom. It seemed a little overpriced but I think that’s a function of Lalibela. I would probably have chosen somewhere a bit closer to the top of the town if I’d had any idea about the topography of the place.
vi. Entrance to the churches is via an all-encompassing ticket costing B200 and valid for 5 days.