While Red Rock Lalibela Hotel was nice enough to include breakfast along with my 4-night booking, it turns out that means 5 slices of toast and enough butter and jam for just two of them. Lame. The room is nice and clean, though, and the coffee was really hot. My guide, Getanew, showed up just before 8, as promised, and we talked briefly about schedule and price considerations—two groups of churches in the morning, then the final group in the afternoon after a lunch break. The churches close during lunch anyway, so it made sense. Everything sounded good, so I went to grab a hat and throw on some sunscreen before we headed out.
The first stop was the tourism office, where a pass to check out the churches was $50, but includes access for 5 days—I knew I’d be back. First, we went to Bet Giyorgis, the Church of St. George, Lalibela’s youngest and most iconic monolithic church. It was Sunday, so the area around the church was crowded with worshippers and pilgrims, all wrapped in white cloth. We stopped at an overlook that provided a good view of the cross-shaped church roof, which is at ground level. The church was hewn from solid rock, straight down. It’s a marvel. I didn’t have my camera with me, hoping to focus on the tour the first day, but I snagged a couple phone pics as I went. We walked down to the area above the church—walking close to the edge was a sweaty-palm experience, as the unprotected drop was at least 30 ft. The church was even more impressive up close.
We carefully picked our way through the faithful sitting out on the rock slab in the sun as we made our way to the stairs that led down to the church. Everything was painstakingly carved from stone. After descending through narrow passage that led down into the rock, we came out at the base of the church. It was awesome to see it towering above. We removed our shoes and hats and entered the church itself, a small dark area crossed above with arches and intricately detailed on every surface. Getanew was a great guide, very knowledgeable, and kept up with a steady history of the church’s construction, the kings and rulers of Ethiopia, the history of preservation and the times of Italian occupation, as well as present day faith and continued development and preservation efforts. It was fantastic.
When we returned to the surface, the hundreds of worshippers had disappeared—it was surprising, almost unsettling in its silent abruptness. Maybe 50 had migrated to underneath a nearby tree, where a priest was giving a sermon in Amharic. Very Biblical. My guide, like most Ethiopians in Lalibela, was very devout, crossing himself at the approach of every church, bowing and prostrating inside, asking for blessings from each priest and kissing the walls of the church before entering. It was amazing to see the sections worn smooth from generations of faithful pressing their palms and lips to the red rock walls.
While St. George’s church sat by itself, the other two church groups consisted of multiple interconnected structures, necessitating trips through narrow passageways, in and out of churches and past small caves in the stone that serve as smaller places of worship, as well as small hermitages, hardly more than holes in the wall. On the occasions we would walk above the churches, it was mind-boggling to think of how much was hidden in the hills. Some of the massive churches could hardly be seen until you were right on top of them. I can’t imagine the surprise of the first Western explorer-types to reach these far off hills, having heard about impressive churches, and seeing this well-kept local secret that is a point of pride among locals, sure, but also just part of their daily lives. People live all over Lalibela, often quite close to the churches, going about their daily lives amid the throngs of tourists snapping pictures.
At the second group of churches, Bet Medhane Alem, the buildings were covered by a number of giant permanent canopies erected by UNESCO, their ugly metal legs marring the sight of such beautiful architectural work. My guide was rather opposed to the development, hoping for a more elegant permanent solution. That wasn’t the worst of it, though, as the Italians during their occupation had scored the surface of many of the churches in an attempt to paint them red—often resulting in greater erosion and destruction. Plus, nobody liked the red. Regardless, they were absolutely beautiful. In one of the largest churches, Getanew and I were lucky enough to see the church’s processional cross brought out from behind the curtains that block off access to the holiest of holies and the church relics. This only happens on Sundays, when worshippers can receive a blessing, being rubbed down with this giant Lalibelan cross, wrought in gold, with the aim of drawing out evil and sickness. My guide went for it as well and the priest posed for a picture I didn’t even ask for—that’s what all tourists are after, no? Naturally, this happened on the day I didn’t bring my nice camera, but whatever. I snapped a pic anyway—it was a pretty cool moment.
After climbing and crawling around multiple churches in the second group, our shoes and hats going off and on as we went in and out of prayer spaces, we decided to take a break for lunch while the churches closed for a couple hours, making plans to meet back at the tourist center at 2. Before I left, Getanew tracked down a museum steward and I was treated to a sprint through the items being preserved at the tourist center: some crowns, bibles and various religious doohickeys. It was nice, but lasted about 5 minutes and I barely kept up. Cool enough once my head stopped spinning. I made the hike back into town and stopped off at a little café for a macchiato, sitting and talking with some pretty cool bros who worked there. Everyone says “Hi, welcome to Lalibela, what country?” as you walk the streets, though most of them start into pitches for tours or asking for money—it was nice to chat with these dudes, who in their limited English mainly wanted to know about Barack Obama, Tanzanian football and action movies.
I made my way back to the hotel to chill out and read a little before grabbing lunch at the Seven Olives Hotel, known for it’s good food. Italian occupation left behind a ton of espresso machines, so I figured it must have left behind decent pasta, too, and I opted for the house vegetable pasta for lunch. It was a rich garlic and cream affair topped with 7 olives, which was kinda fun, if a bit on the nose. It was really good, but after the huge serving I left stuffed, once again convinced that I’m not really a pasta person.
I reconvened with Getanew and we moved to the final group of churches, though the main church, Bet Amanuel, was undergoing renovation to repair a huge crack. What we did see was amazing. This group required the most adventurous passage between churches, including a 25 meter, pitch-black tunnel ending in a vertical climb, signifying the terrors of hell and the ideal ascension into heaven. Halfway down that inky black, claustrophobic walk, even I was considering the benefits of confession and repentance.
At the final church of the group, I sat in the cave with Getanew as he spoke endlessly of history, rock-hewn construction and about a small group of monks attempting to carve similar churches in a section of Ethiopia to the north. He had visited and had many great stories about the trip, but due to the sun and the food and the hiking, I found myself spacing a little bit. It was nice to sit, though. Finally, we walked up a nearby hill to look out on an incredible view of all the church groups, the town, the valleys and the roads winding away into the distance, with the far high hills stretching on and on unbroken to the horizon. It was beautiful.
I made the hike back up the hotel and took one of the best showers of my trip, the hot water and terrific pressure washing away a days worth of dust and fatigue. I lounged around downloading pictures and listening to music before heading out for a short sunset walk. The weather was nice and cool, with a sprinkling of rain that eventually grew in strength until I was forced to turn back to the hotel. It was nice to be out in the evening, though.
Once back, I posted up on the patio to do some writing and watch a little news. I don’t know if it’s the fresh-cut grasses scattered across the floor of many Ethiopian establishments, the frankincense they’re always burning in small stoves near their coffee or just the dust, but damn if I’m not terribly allergic to something in this country. I sneezed my way through a few hundred words and watched CNN updates on the world in its various states of falling apart before dinner. I ordered beef goulash and vegetables, which they do an incredible job with here. I’ve become rather partial to it and I’ll probably end up having it again before I leave—it’s that delicious.
After dinner, I caught up on some music news online and some pop-culture writing over at Grantland. I’ve been thinking a lot about writing as I do more and more of it each day, so I figured I should keep up with places and writers I like—I’ll be looking for a job soon enough. I also got sidetracked planning my next vacation: India is on the list and I’m trying to get there as soon as possible. We’ll see how that factors in to my return to America, but I’m definitely looking to earmark a large chunk of my Peace Corps resettlement allowance for travel. Also I might save some or invest it or something, but we’ll see. I banished the visions of further adventures for now and headed upstairs to get a good night’s rest—I’m planning to tackle the churches solo tomorrow, camera in hand, ready to get some shots.