Rachel - Lalibela
21/01/2011 - 23/01/2011
Today a bus driver probably saved us from a lynching. On the early bus between Gondar and Lalibela we were woken by the bus going up slightly on two wheels and veering off toward the edge of the road but the driver recovered in seconds. While we were still trying to find out what had happened everyone started to duck down in the aisle but slowly they got back into their seats and we turned to the man behind to explain, although his English wasn’t great and wouldn’t really give a straight answer. It seems that the driver had hit someone and was probably killed. Dave and I couldn’t understand if that were the case why we hadn’t stopped. Ten minutes later the drivers assistant was in the aisle phoning the Gondar office for advice and at the next town we stopped at the police station. There we found out that a girl had stepped in front of a parked minibus and the driver couldn’t do anything. The reason people had ducked was because villagers had been throwing stones at the windows and the driver hadn’t stopped because mob justice in the countryside means that they would probably have beaten the driver to death and the passengers would have been attacked as well. Everyone on the bus who saw what happened said there was nothing he could do and by driving on to the police station he did exactly the right thing to protect us. Poor girl, we didn’t hear whether she survived or not but people on the bus seemed to think it wasn’t possible she had.
I’ve been told since that this happens frequently because people in the countryside aren’t very road aware and in some places it is believed that an evil spirit can be riding on your back and that a fast car passing will knock it off and so people will jump out backwards into the road to get as close to the car as possible.
Everyone waited patiently for a replacement (which we had to pay again for, after much debate in the bus!) and we arrived in Lalibela quite late.
This area used to be completely inaccessible by road and would have taken 4 days to reach by Mule form the nearest large town. The journey in made us appreciate how spectacular that would have been for the town is hidden away in some Tolkein-esque mountains. But nowadays even has it’s own small airport probably only because it’s a must-see on the tourist trail. The area is famous for the result of a wild dream in which the ruler of the time was instructed by Angels to carve churches out of the rock. The result are a variety of some cavernous and some cosy churches carved out of one piece of rock – that includes pillars and decoration inside and out. Some are free standing from the surrounding rock trench and some are cut into the side of the mountain.
To look at, I have to be honest, we were a little underwhelmed by the decoration having been told time and time again how awesome they were. But with a little imagination you could appreciate the scale of human endeavor since each metre square of rock would have taken one man days of chipping with hand tools to excavate. As an engineering task they were pretty awesome. Although the legend goes that it was Angels who did most of the work by night - how's that for credit? The most decorative inside, which apparently has life sized figures of the disciples carved into the walls, barred entry for women with the tenuous reason that Jesus turned away Mary Magdelen upon his resurrection and asked for the disciples instead. Or so our guide says. *sigh*.
During the lunch break, when the priests of the church eat their sandwiches I suppose, we explored the medieval feeling village with unique round, thatched, two story huts. The paths between them were winding and narrow and we had to dodge livestock and streams of dirty water. At every turn greeted by calls of “farenji!” as usual. We were invited into one home for some coffee which we accepted and inside the walls have shelves moulded into the mud walls and pots hang from animal horns embedded into the fabric of the wall. Nice idea. After we politely left we headed down to the market which was also trading livestock and enquired after the cost of the goats, donkeys and oxen there. (5000 birr for a ox which is 200 pounds and a good couple of years wages here)
After lunch we resumed the tour of churches, weed filled baptism pools, dozing priests and mummified remains of pilgrims.
That morning we had been approached by some youths raising money for their circus group. It sounded interesting so we said we’d stop by after the churches closed to see their performance. When we got there we were the only people to come so we had a tour of their office and shown their personal progress reports and little stock cupboard of props. They take their show to the villages and use it to spread awareness about social issues and HIV. Their original teacher had unfortunately died and the group was taken over by an ex circus member now security guard at the bank, but now their training was taken from videos. I wasn’t therefore really expecting too much when they rolled out an old school gym mat on the flat dusty area outside their office and we sat down on a knackered wooden bench just in front of it. But wow, these kids have skills. They were performing routines of tumbles, three person high pyramids and somersaulting off the top, contortionism and juggling (although they’re not so good at juggling yet they say). We weren’t faking the oohs and ahs and gasps. I do hope they find a teacher because they’re all earnest and practice every day, they’re proud of what they’ve achieved and so were we.
Next day we took a break from churches to…climb up to a monastery…cut into the rock. For a change we thought we’d ride some donkeys up in the heat of the day. I decided to walk back cos mine was a bit rickety and the drops to the side were pretty steep. The drivers thought it was hilarious “giggle giggle farenji giggle”.
Our lack of camera confused the priest in charge of the church/monastery and it took us a few minutes to realize that he wasn’t proudly presenting the crosses for extended inspection but posing for a photo. I guess there aren’t many tourists who come without a camera.
The monestary wasn’t a big wow but it was a nice view up there and we had a chance to share some bread and tea with some men from the countryside who had just walked three hours to get to the market and were intrigued by us and laughing at our attempts to fend off the very persistent hat seller. None of us could speak each others language but it was a nice bonding moment in the shade.
Now we had to take a break from our road trip and head back to Addis by plane to extend our visas which irritatingly can only be done in the capital and caused a lot of scratching of our heads to figure out the logistics I can tell you. But we’d had enough of history for a while, it might be nice to be back in the big city.