Flying and Flies – Lalibela

We are on the Historical Route, through the ancient capitals of Ethiopia. This is a popular tourist path to visit the country.

We’re not surprised to see lots of tourists at the sites, hotels and restaurants we’re visiting. But what IS surprising is to see the same groups everywhere. There are the two Spaniards whose guide wears a Cuba cap. We’ve seen them multiple times at different restaurants in different cities. There is the group of Italians which we’ve been seeing a lot lately. There is the solo guy from Hong Kong who we saw on our second day, then again 5 days and hundreds of miles later. Four women from South Africa. A group of 20 Chinese. These people are in the same hotels and eating at the same restaurants as we are, town after town.

We’re now in Lalibela. The flight here was smoother than any other we’ve ever taken. We walked into the tiny Axum airport, got checked in and checked our luggage with no problems. We hung around in the waiting area, and when they called the flight, we were first in line to go through security and get to the gate. We sat by the door and were the first to board. Our seats were near the front of the small plane. When we landed, we were the first to get out and walk across the tarmac into the building. (Trivia question: why is it called “tarmac”?). We watched them unloading the luggage onto a cart which they then dragged over and parked right in front of the pedestrian door. We were the first to realize the passengers had to pick their own bags directly from the cart. Fortunately, ours were on top of the pile. I pulled them off and we were the first out of the terminal, where we met our driver. Much of our good fortune is because most of the other passengers were Europeans, and the second announcement after Amharic was in English.

Lalibela is known for its monolithic (carved directly out of a stone mountain) churches. King Lalibela built 11 such churches in 23 years. Each is carved into the living rock. Five of the churches are free-standing. They are very cool, they were chiseled out of solid rock, inside and out. The last one to be completed, and the most famous is the church of St. George, which in the shape of a cross.

Between yesterday and today, we visited them all. It was fun climbing through tunnels and up and down stairs that were carved out of the rock in the 12th century. One church had frescoes that were still visible, though not in great shape, but most decoration was carved into the stone.

There are MANY flies around the churches. Assafa, our guide, cut some branches off a pepper tree for us to use as fly whisks.

We had to remove our shoes at each church. Assafa got us a shoe watcher, a young woman who followed us around the complex for two days, keeping our shoes apart from the big pile, and getting them nicely lined up when we exited so we could put them back on.

Today, we were paralleling a Japanese tour group. It was pretty funny watching the germophobic Japanese dealing with Africa. Gloves, facemasks, at least four of them had some kind of special yellow socks with their pants tucked inside. We came out of one church and in their (unattended) batch of shoes, we saw that a guy had lined his shoes with plastic bags so the dusty socks wouldn’t foul the inside of his shoes.

This afternoon, we drove out to the countryside, climbed up a hill to a cave where some guy had built a church in the 900s. This church served as a model for several of the Lalibela churches. Also in the cave are 5000 mummified bodies of pilgrims who came over the years to worship and eventually die. It’s a big macabre pile of skeletons, some still with skin, some wrapped in woven straw mats.

On the way back down the hill, we came upon a group having what amounts to a pot luck lunch. When we walked over, they poured homemade beer into a plastic cup, around 16 ounces. I tried a sip, it tasted beery, not very alcoholic. Cutting the water, Maria demurred.

It was a long day. Hearing the same stuff over and over, especially when the stories and descriptions have a cult-like quality, gets very tedious.

Tomorrow we fly to Addis Ababa for our last day in Ethiopia and to prepare for Uganda.