I’m in Addis now, watching the last of my Peace Corps-Ethiopia intake group fly away to new adventures. I still can’t believe our two years have come to an end. Some days it felt so long, I thought I’d be here forever. Most months flew by, recognizable only in the rearview mirror.
One thing I’ve long had on my Ethiopia bucket list is a visit to the holy city of Lalibela. It’s the largest attraction in Ethiopia: A UNESCO World Heritage Site of 11 giant churches carved from the ground into bedrock. King Lalibela ordered their construction as a second Jerusalem, providing pilgrims a shorter distance of travel. The churches are nearly a thousand years old, and are said to have been carved in 25 days. Legend says it was through the help of angels that they were carved so quickly and beautifully.
Now that my time in Ethiopia is nearing the end, I decided it was time to go. Now or never. My Ethiopian friend, who has also never seen the churches, and I set out on a bus two Thursdays ago. Seven hours later we were in Addis, and the next morning we got on a bus to Dessie.
The first two to three hours of the trip felt exhaustively long. Four, five, six, seven, eight… we had had enough. It was the slowest bus I’ve probably ever been on. We exited early in a town called Kombulcha and collapsed at the nearest hotel. Once recovered, we visited the local Castle beer brewery, and the next morning we perused the local market. We saw giant mangos, textiles and camels, large tarp sacks covered with teff grains, and a bustling population weaving in and out through the narrow paths. Every town’s market has its own unique character.
After two straight days on a bus, we decided to take a day off and travel just an hour up to Dessie. We got our tickets for the next morning to Lalibela. Five-thirty A.M. rolled around and we were packed with our bags at the bus station in another small, crowded bus. We drove for seven hours up winding roads. Small plots of land were planted all over the mountainous countryside, with rock terraces built up to prevent watershed. Little round mud huts spotted the land. Occasionally we braked for small herds of long-horned cattle, skinny ribs poking through their hides. A few times we spotted a dead ox lying roadside covered in flies. A sign, we were told, of the recent drought.
We finally reached Lalibela in the early afternoon. We got a hotel and wandered around the quaint little town. It was definitely responsive to the influx of tourists it receives, having little souvenir shops on every corner and exploiting the costs on “Ethiopian coffee ceremony.” A small cup that costs 2 birr in Jimma was priced at 15 in one local cafe.
Regardless, I enjoyed the town. I came expecting a higher level of harassment, and instead was greeted with mostly “hello.” The pace of the town felt slowed down, with little of the hustle and bustle I see in other towns. Huge mountains loomed as a backdrop, and a light fog floated near the tops in the distance.
Me, in front of one of the 11 rock-hewn churches.
Day two in Lalibela, we found some breakfast and made our way over to find the churches. Ten minutes into walking and I was already feeling run down. We walked further and further, up hills and down, asking directions and getting pointed into different directions. By the time we reached the entrance, I was feeling nauseas. Clearly I was not used to the elevation.
At the ticket office, I paid a non-negotiable 937 birr. That’s the cost of about 75 meals. It’s more than 3 times the average cost of rent in a month. It’s a price reserved only for foreigners, and my resident ID card did not trump the color of my white skin. I winced as I counted out each 100 birr note. I tucked away the most expensive piece of paper I’ve ever bought. My Ethiopian friend entered for free.
Bete Giyorigis: My favorite of the rock churches.
It took quite a few minutes to get over my nausea, at both the elevation and the cost of my ticket. But once we started climbing down the rock walls into the churches, I felt the awe. The churches were much taller than I had imagined, carved from a single rock. Doors, windows and beautiful designs were etched into the surface. We removed our shoes to step inside, and felt the cavernous silence surround us.
My friend, walking through a rock tunnel.
Outside, we walked through narrow rock tunnels from one massive church to the next. My favorite, and the most well-known of the churches, was Bete Giyorgis (The church of St. George). It’s cross-like shape descends down into a deep crevasse, and looks flatly visible from the ground above. Inside, we saw both ancient and modern paintings of St. George, all slaying a dragon to save a fair maiden.
We finished touring the churches by late afternoon, and were both exhausted. We bought our bus tickets for the next morning, with a departure time of 4:30 A.M. The thought of that alarm gave me shivers, but I didn’t let it ruin our last night. We spent the evening at a local Asmari Bet, a popular tradition in the Amahara region. They served t’ej (home-brewed honey wine) and had a man and woman team playing a cultural guitar and singing impromptu lyrics to the patrons. The lyrics were either flattering or insulting, depending on tips, but almost always comical. Two men played giant drums in the background, and another man performed cultural shoulder dancing. (If you’ve never seen their dance style, check it out here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mrYLvcHF15U)
As the night was just kicking off, the dancing man came and stood directly in front of me, indicating for me to join him. He grabbed my hand and pulled me into the center of the room. It was a repeat-after-me sort of gesture, and I shook my shoulders in response, along to the music. It was a nervous rush, with so many eyes staring, and I having no idea how I was doing. My friend said it was amazing, he was shocked that I could do that. Whether or not this was flattery, I guess I’ll never know. But it felt exhilarating.
We stayed until early evening, then called it a night in anticipation for our early departure. The time came too soon, and we walked with our bags in the moonlight to the bus station, 20 minutes down the mountain. A small boy saved us a good seat for the price of 10 birr. The bus finally departed at 6 A.M. and we arrived in a small town before Dessie in early afternoon.
The town, called Haiyke, is home to a lake and a monastery. We decided to stay the night there and check it out. The rain ended up foiling our plans, and instead we spent the evening with no water, no power and searching for a decent meal. The town had practically nothing. I woke up early the next morning ready to leave. My friend wanted to sleep, so we met late morning in Dessie. We caught a mini bus to Kemisse, a low-land Muslim town about 2 hours away. We arrived around 10:30 A.M. with the sun already beating hot. Dust covered the streets, and cafes were boarded up due to Ramadan.
We arranged another mini bus to a town called Debre Birhan, 130 km from Addis. The mini bus experience was infinitely better than our normal slow bus experience on the way up. We were in Debre Birhan by early evening and found a decent hotel with a hot shower and good food. The town itself though was freezing. I would have liked to see a little more of the city, but the cold, foggy rain imprisoned me to the warm blankets of my bed.
We left late the next morning and were back in Addis by noon. My friend continued on to Jimma, and I stayed in Addis to treat a sinus infection I picked up along the way. I’m also doing my close-of-service medical tests and bidding farewell to my friends who are leaving.
I’ll be in Ethiopia for two more months, until early October, when I depart for India. It’s been my dream to do a yoga teacher training course, and I’m signed up to start October 7th. After the 6 weeks I plan to explore the rest of India, making it back home to snowy Minnesota by Christmas. I’m not going to lie, the thought of winter has me terrified. But I’ll see my family and friends for the first time in over two years. I hope they have their heaters turned up! I can’t wait to see them all.