Day 11: Lalibela

I skipped the carbo-loading breakfast at my hotel and opted for just some coffee instead. I had read about a nearby spot in the city center that had a fantastic breakfast and figured I’d try it out. Camera bag slung over my shoulder, smelling like sunscreen at 7:30 in the morning, I made the 5 minute walk over to John Café, where I was the first customer of the day. The terrifically sweet proprietor greeting me warmly and pulled up a chair for me on the patio, under an ivy-covered lattice, with a view of the street. One of the girls working their swept, while another splashed water out front to keep the dust down, familiar morning rituals of the developing world.

I opted for the “Full Breakfast” which included a pile of French toast with delicious local honey, a small omelette, a cup of dark, hot coffee and a striking layered glass of fresh juices: mango, avocado and guava. It was heavenly and the whole shebang cost about $3.50.IMG_1096

Feeling charged up off breakfast, I headed back down to St. George church to catch it in the early morning light. I was the first one there and the guard was rather excited to instruct me on the ideal places to stand using his few words of English. He also had me pose for a picture, snapping a few frames with my camera that came out ok. He started to pose my arm for a forced-perspective cheeseball leaning tower of Pisa type picture, but I bailed out of that. When I headed down off the overlook to approach the church up close, a couple women in very ornate traditional garments approached me asking for a picture. I snapped a couple of them with the church in the background on their point and shoot, before the more assertive of the two asked if I could take a couple with my camera. I obliged and took down her email to send the pictures along (just realized I haven’t done that yet, so I’m breaking here to do so…).

I descended down into the rock to snap some pictures of the church from ground level. Unfortunately, the church being so large and the area around it so tight, I wasn’t able to get terrific pictures—a 35mm lens combined with the D90’s crop ratio makes for an effective focal length of around 50mm (I think), so buildings are tough to frame. I casually looked at prices for Nikkor lenses in the 18 or 22mm range the other day and I’m gonna need a serious paper route before I can afford one of those bad boys. But I digress. As I circled the church, snapping occasionally, a priest appeared in the window and gestured for me to come inside. As access to the interior is usually based on when they’re around, I went for it, not wanting to miss out if he went for lunch or tea or whatever. I took of my shoes and hat and stepped inside, where the priest pointed out some of the features of the church: different style crosses, symmetrical construction, myriad allusions and numerical signifiers. I didn’t mention I had a guide explain it all to me yesterday, but instead made the requisite sounds of appreciation and agreement. When he had finished, he said “Picture!” and ducked behind the curtain as I tried to explain that I didn’t need a picture, remerging while fastening his robe and the more ornate vestments, picking up a small Ethiopian cross and posing. I snapped a couple to be agreeable and showed him the result. Which is when he demanded 50 birr. Holy bullshit, Batman! I didn’t even want the damn picture in the first place… I rooted in my wallet for loose bills, folded up 40 birr of the dirtiest bills I had to look convincing and tossed them in the basket. I was pissed. Of course, that’s when I remembered: while he may be a cute little old Ethiopian man in some robes, he’s also a priest, a charlatan, a huckster selling solace and always needing a little more scratch for an all-powerful deity that always just so happens to be broke. Have my 40 birr, bro—you earned it.

Shaking off the lame experience, I headed to the second group of structures. I made my way through the passages and when I came to the next church, I showed my ticket to the guard, who immediately called over a priest to unlock the door and show me around. Still feeling burned, I tried to demur, but to no avail. Luckily, this priest was super low-key, gesturing vaguely around the room then plopping down on a bench. I observed in respectful silence, stepping silently around the columns, focused on the relief carvings and paintings. Perhaps wanting me to get on with it, the priest said “You can take picture,” pointing to one of the carvings, so I went for it, getting the feeling he wasn’t in it for the money. After I snapped a couple pics, some worshippers came in and I took my cue to exit, making a rough gesture of thanks to the priest with a half bow before scampering out the door.

As I moved through the rock cuts to the next church, I could hear drum beats and chanting. They had been steadily booming for a while now and were growing louder as I approached. I was interested, but didn’t want to pop out into some kind of religious procession, that out-of-place tourist with a camera. Wow, were those fears unfounded. I emerged into what can only be described as a cultural tourism feeding frenzy, as scores of tourists waving cameras hovered around a group of about 25 men playing drums and chanting outside the church. Now, I know I’m also a white Westerner with a camera, but this was egregious. I immediately bailed, swinging around behind the church and climbing some steps up to the rocks above, where I got a nice view of the proceedings while not participating so fully.

I don’t have all the answers to how photography works, especially in the developing world, but this helped solidify some of my beliefs. Yesterday, there was a man wending his way through the masses of the faithful outside St. Georges, snapping pictures. Later, I walked by him taking pictures of an elderly woman with the church in the background, a very posed affair. He slipped her 10 birr when he got the shot, so perhaps there’s that. Another guy was snapping away pictures of local kids, showing them the results on the LCD screen of his camera when he was done—they were thrilled, as one would expect. Is it money that makes it not exploitive? Is it sharing the result that makes it okay? I didn’t come to Lalibela to shoot pictures of African people so I could remember my exotic vacation, but at the same time, it was often impossible to take pictures of the churches without having people in them, often praying. Is it pure intentions that make it better?

But is there a bigger question about otherness? There’s the idea of taking pictures of the “other” people of Ethiopia, which makes the shots exciting. That’s not good. But is there another problem? Does avoiding taking pictures of people serve to increase their otherness? I wouldn’t have much of a problem framing up Americans as I took pictures, who am I to serve different standards based on where in the world people are from or the level of their country’s development? I think a lot of it has to do with how you enter the situation, no matter where in the world you are. If it’s brash and intrusive, if it’s objectifying (beyond the way photography inherently renders a subject into an object of art or data or whatever), that’s a problem. There’s definitely a way to approach people, situations, communities with respect. With good intentions. It also helps to know the language. And to have a purpose beyond marking your personal experience. Like supporting your subject in some way. But that’s a difficult needle to thread. I don’t have an answer yet, but I’m working on it.

The other thing that struck me as I retraced my steps through the churches of Lalibela was the holyshitdangerous-ness of it. So many potentially deadly falls. So many steep eroding stone staircases without railings. So many things that are a lawsuit waiting to happen. I walked slow and careful and felt like an old man about it, but managed to get through without scrapes.

At the end of the day, I found the hill we had stopped at the day before and took some great shots in the last of the light. A really successful day. I hiked back to the hotel and showered up before returning to Ben Abeba for dinner—the view was too good to branch out again. It was colder tonight, with strong wind on the upper levels, but I had probably the most delicious traditional food I’ve had all vacation, so there’s that.


I have one more day ahead of me in Lalibela and I’m not exactly sure how I’m gonna spend it, but so far it’s been amazing out here. Can’t wait to see what’s next.

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