I like being on the road early. I suppose 6:45 isn’t early early, but it’s close enough. I watched the countryside roll by as the hotel shuttle ate up the dirt road miles and the elderly driver swerved to avoid potholes in a stoic silence. He kept up the tradition of honking the horn at every possible occasion to alert pedestrians to the presence of an oncoming car, but the horn was broken and sounded more like someone trying to start a blender full of gravel than anything else. This sound was also not terribly easy to distinguish from the general sounds of decrepit van pounding down a dirt road anyway and it nearly led to a disaster as we attempted to overtake a lorry. But I’m here writing about it, so clearly we were fine.
Check in and boarding were all a breeze—Ethiopian Airlines holds it down, I must say. The
flight was on its way from Addis to Axum, already full of really young kids on some kind of tour group/church thing/god knows. Their incessant chatter was a bit grating, but I got through it by reminding myself I’m much too young to be such a curmudgeonly old man yet. Also, it was like a 30 minute hop to Lalibela and I blasted Dr. Dre the whole time, so I was fine. Descending to Lalibela and getting a look at the vast tracts of highland plateaus, eroded valleys and general barrenness stretching away to the horizon, I realized why this place was a two-day bus ride from everywhere. Glad I sprung for the flight.
My hotel had arranged transport when I made my booking—finally learning my lesson on that one—so I boarded a nice minibus with a bunch of other Western tourists and a few Ethiopian guide-type guys and we hit the road. It was a little over half an hour and absolutely beautiful, especially as we began our final climb to the town. After living in Milo for a few years, I’ve fallen absolutely in love with the highlands. Sure, I’m trying to move to a major, sea-level city when I get back to the States in the next few months, but I don’t think I’ll ever shake it. The crispness of the air. The strength of the sun. The windswept feeling. The views. Lalibela has them all in spades—it’s gorgeous.
We dropped our various passengers at their various hotels until suddenly it was my turn. I dropped my bags in a well-appointed room with an unimpeachable view of the valley before heading downstairs to check in, where I was greeting with coffee and kettle corn. Not bad. Even though it was early afternoon, I didn’t get out and pound the pavement right away. Halfway through a two-week vacation and it was time to wash some socks and underwear. I put on some music—Torres’ Sprinter and Frankie Cosmos’ Zentropy—and did a little laundry in a bucket, taking me back to the village days once again. I got done just in time to Skype briefly with the folks, though the connection was crap and kinda aggravating toward the end. Great to hear updates from them, though.
In the evening, I set off for an early dinner at Ben Abeba, a restaurant that had been touted on Trip Advisor with all manner of superlatives. I walked to the edge of town, trailing a group of kids all asking my name and where I was from, soliciting money for school fees and the like. Tanzania definitely prepped me for this, but begging in Ethiopia is much worse, much more prevalent. I ignored them ‘til they lost interest, leaving me with some breathtaking views on my way to the restaurant.
Ben Abeba rises up on a bluff just outside of town, with a commanding view of the valley. The restaurant itself is some kind of mad sculpture, with twisting walkways, myriad levels and strange shapes. I was pretty early—5:30—to catch the sunset, so I was able to snag a table at the very top level. Words don’t do the view justice. Watching the blood-red sun set against the silhouette of the distant mountains was worth the price of airfare alone. Seriously. The service was nice and I had a very agreeable shepherd’s pie at the recommendation of the waitress. After dinner I asked for a talla, the local beer. A bit surprised, she brought me a shot of it to taste, thinking I’d balk. It was tart and reminded me of Raha, the banana beer made in Tanzania, which I love. I asked for a glass and she was super stoked, since she makes it at her house. Very cool.
It was fully dark and starting to get cold on the upper deck of the restaurant, but I stayed, sipping my drink and staring out into the valley. It was completely black, then broken once, twice in half an hour by headlights of distant cars on the winding road, intrepid points of light appearing now, then gone, lost in switchbacks and behind hills far in the distance. Lost, then found again, now steady, now blinking, bouncing on the dirt road and making their way inexorably towards town. I thought a lot about travel and then life in general in the developing world. I wondered if I would ever leave. As much as I want to get back to the States and see family and friends, maybe start something that looks like a career, I don’t doubt that I’ll be back at some point. I’ve always felt a restlessness, an unease at staying in one place. Not the self-styled wanderlust written in fancy script and plastered across the imageboards of aspirational millenials who went to Europe on a senior trip once, but a sense of not belonging. A distrust of the comfort of the world where I’m from. There’s something about the continuous otherness found in a life abroad that I’m somehow more comfortable with than settling down. Of being, but not necessarily belonging. I can’t call it, really, and I don’t know how it’ll factor into the future, but it’s there, in the back of my mind, always.
I finished my drink and just sat, the bill settled, the tip left, the dishes cleared. The manager was making the rounds handing out blankets to diners, but I declined, soaking up the cold I’ve come to miss. I walked home under the streetlights, content. I caught a bit of BBC back at the hotel but bailed on the 24/7 news recycle and turned in, eager to get a jump on the churches the next day.