As we all continue to shelter at home in the time of coronavirus, I’ve been going back through my old journals that log the many travels I have been fortunate to go on through the years. From Log 71 (of 244 and counting), I came across the first trip I made to Ethiopia in 1998. Thought I’d share one leg of that trip with you on a rainy, gray Good Friday in San Diego, California in 2020.
Friday, 13 November 1998
Bahir Dar, Ethiopia – The soft crunch of footsteps along the gravel path outside my small hotel room lifted me to the new day. Peering through the thin white curtains I could see early rising cormorants skimming the glassy surface of Lake Tana, their long necks outstretched, white diamond-shaped patches highlighting the back of their coal-black wings.
After two days in Bahir Dar where we visited the Tis Abay Falls and explored the small islands of Lake Tana, we would fly north to Lalibela, UNESCO’s first World Heritage site, famous for its ancient churches sculpted from solid rock.
We had been in Ethiopia for several weeks by then and had continued to be taken by the beauty of the country and the friendliness of her people. Yet beneath the surface, there lingered a strong political undertone brought on by the border war with Eritrea, the one-time Ethiopian state, but now independent neighbor to the north. As a result, tourist travel to the northern tier of religious towns in Ethiopia had suffered considerably and our flight was only scattered with fellow passengers.
On the short 30-minute hop from Bahir Dar to Lalibela, we flew over what seemed an ocean of stone where the farmer was an interloper, the herder a masochist. The land below gave nothing away except its sulfurous clouds of dust, yet was worked by its people with the efficiency of maggots, nothing left to waste.
We landed high atop a plateau in the Lasta Mountains of the Semien Wollo Province in the Amhara Region. The secluded airstrip was ringed by flat-topped mesas and sharp, brush-covered hills.
At the time, the Lalibela airport was no more than a lonely strip of a runway with a corrugated blue metal shack at its end made up of three small offices and the holding pen for transiting passengers. A brand-new set of buildings including a tower was under construction a short distance away.
Out behind the hip-high cinder-block wall of the holding area, a young couple were engaged in a spirited game of checkers, bottle caps tapping swiftly over a hand-drawn grid of cardboard. As a reminder of our proximity to the Eritrean border, two soldiers, one with an automatic weapon slung over his shoulder, cajoled and encouraged each move. A series of jumps led to squeals of laughter and eventually a victory, even as a new game was quickly arranged.
As we watched, we also negotiated with several taxi drivers for the 23-kilometer ride into town.
Over the first ten days in the country, we had learned that an ‘I-don’t-care’ attitude was a most useful haggling tool. So with negotiations at an impasse – “120 bir for three is too much,” we concluded, after being told that the ride would cost 40 Ethiopian bir each, the equivalent of $5 US – we settled in to wait for the next flight out to Gondar, which would take off in about an hour.
As 11 o’clock neared, and the flight to Gondar was being prepped, a new round of negotiations began. As the prospect of losing any fare rose, the drivers suggested a fare of 30 bir each.
Eyes conferred mutely beneath guarded brows as Rich, Mike, and I came into accord, me laying stretched out on the bench planted against the wall on one side of the shack as the final defender.
So for a savings of 10 bir each, all of $1.70, we emerged, in our pathetic little minds, as victorious. At least I now knew my hourly rate.
The drive up to Lalibela was a crawling, potentially dangerous affair up a narrow, switchback road. The resemblance to Arizona’s rocky escarpments and sheer rock-faced walls was inescapable. The flat-topped buttes and layer upon layer of terraced slabs pressing upon each other seemed a perfect cover photo for Tectonics Illustrated.
Along the way, our driver began to sing in a high nasal whine that resembled the forcing of air through the broken toe of an old wooden leg. I volleyed back with a few choruses of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall”, till our producer, Rich Jayne, flicked my arm in bemused reprimand. But I felt one must protect one’s private space from such indigenous bleatings.
The town of Lalibela rested high atop a plateau as it had since before the 12th century, isolated and secure, unbounded of time. The town was famous for its 11 churches of antiquity that date back to 600 A.D., though there are other monasteries outside the town as well.
We took rooms in the privately-owned Lal Hotel priced at a rack rate of $20 per night but negotiated down to 110 bir each, $15.70. But even there it was a struggle. The common refrain to any information ever supplied by someone ostensibly familiar with the local economy was, “oh, that is a mistake. The price is really such and such.” However, one learns to stick to one’s guns while being prepared to move elsewhere until the offer is finally accepted.
After unpacking, we met for a light lunch, then hired a guide to begin our first tour to the eastern group of churches, five in total.
Walking up to the village at an altitude of 2630 meters we came upon a cross carved out of a single piece of rock standing witness alongside a rock-walled channel. Though bone dry today, the channel symbolized the River Jordan, we were told, and separated the Eastern group of churches from the Western.
These eleven churches of Lalibela were the creation of King Lalibela, the most famous King of the Zegwe Line. Lalibela had been exiled to Jerusalem as a boy before 1180 a.d. but upon his return was determined to create something extraordinary in his home village. This he achieved beyond his wildest imagining.
The first group of churches he had built symbolized the early Jerusalem, the second the heavenly Jerusalem. The third group represented Mount Ararat where Noah’s ark reportedly came to rest.
Carved out of solid rock, the churches were constructed by thousands of Ethiopian laborers in the 12th century after the decline of the Axumite Dynasty two centuries before. The excavations took 23 years to complete and were connected by a series of trenches and a labyrinth of tunnels. The magnificent Church of Saint George was carved in the shape of a cruciform and sits 40-feet deep as if placed there by the hand of God. The cross of St. George carved into the top sits even with the surrounding rock.
8:30 p.m. – Later that evening after dinner in the hotel dining hall, I walked back to my room under a full pitch of stars, some bright, others dim, more emerging, a few twinkling. The longer I looked the greater their number grew until the sky itself became a shimmering silver platter. The effect was hypnotic. The very concept of pollution was foreign to this mountaintop aerie, and the clarity of the air at 7500 feet altitude only magnified the starry spectacle.
SATURDAY – 14 November 1998
6:20 a.m. – The next morning I awoke to the chatter of female voices outside in the dusty Lal Hotel courtyard. There was no hot water, so I swiped a cold blade across my face, and splashed a dash of water over my forehead before heading to the round, thatch-roofed dining hall where Mike Long and I commiserated about our physical limitations over coffee, he lamenting his left knee, me my balky right leg.
Today’s trek would take several hours to the mountaintop Asheton Maryam Monastery. And though a mule would be available for an extra 25 bir, our faranji (white man) pride did not allow us to mount the plodding beasts.
As we departed the hotel grounds toward town, a spirited soccer match proceeded on the dirt field right outside the hotel compound. The sun-washed mountains in the background were filtered through the puffs of dirt kicked up by the teenage boys’ action. We passed the St. Gabriel and Rafael churches on the way through town, part of the Western group of churches we planned to visit later in the day.
At first, the going was easy as we headed up toward the isolated monastery. But the higher the mountain the more treacherous the path and soon enough the climb became a hand-over-hand trek along the narrow dirt and rock-strewn path.
Finally, after more than 60 minutes my weakened right leg simply would not tolerate the activity any longer. And so with 45 minutes of climbing left I bailed out high above Lalibela, but still not nearly all the way to the monastery. Mike and Rich along with our guide continued their journey without me.
The sun was still low in the enameled sky, creating deep pools of shadows as Rich and Mike continued upward before escaping my sight around a bend. I remained behind while a squat little bush of thorns clutched the same ground starved for the company. I would rest here for a spell to allow some strength to return to my leg before attempting my descent.
As we had climbed up, people from the area had been walking down, transporting their goods as Saturday was the big market day in Ethiopia. Firewood stacked high across narrow shoulders balanced by walking sticks hardly slowed the progress of its carriers. Bulging sacks of grain, the most valued of market commodities, rested upon heads held high with finishing school posture.
Even as I sat alone on the side of this mountain in a small indentation alongside the path away from the probing sun, the slope was such that I had to brace my feet against a rock in order not to slip down. As I sat braced along this windswept mountain path, a small group of children walked by on the heels of a Church of Emmanuel deacon who seemed intrigued by my solitary presence. Two men carrying a long tree trunk between them followed as the air remained refreshingly cool in my shadowy repose.
A group of children finally stopped and totally surrounded me as I wrote in my journal. One asked for the time.
“Just after 9 Ethiopian,” I said as their handsome faces, some scarred around their forehead and eyes, listened in wonder at my deep voice and strange accent.
The clothes they wore were torn and ragged, hanging over their wire-thin frames. Whispering to one another, as if I would understand a louder tone, they created a protective bubble around me.
The oldest was a girl of 14 years, though she looked no more than 10. The youngest was 10 and I thought maybe seven. Most wore some form of foot protection, but a few walked barefoot, their feet thick with calloused pads built from years of walking unshod.
“My name is Etalem,” said the 14-year-old, her hair braided in a neat set of rows and outlined by one framing her forehead in the Tigrean fashion. “My father’s name is Taga. He is 52 years old.”
“I am 50,” I said.
“My father is older than you.”
“Mister,” asked another. “Where are you from?”
“I am from America, USA.”
“USA is a very good country. I have a friend in the USA. This is my sister, her name is Haftem. She is 13 years old.”
Flies buzzed around our faces as we chatted landing annoyingly on our lips, eyelids, and noses, a branded image of Ethiopia fostered by famine relief agency ads.
The kids pressed in tighter. Behind them, the glorious old mountains framed their unlined and bright-eyed faces. They each held a school book and pens. It was their English exercise book, I was told, graded in red by their teacher.
9:20 a.m. – The warming sun gradually invaded my once shaded perch, blushing my brow with its warmth. It was time to go. And so I continued my descent as the children’s whispers spun a web of delight around me.
Along the way down, I hooked up with a 12-year-old boy whose right knee was broken, he said, in a football match some time ago.
“I will show you the market, OK?” he offered.
“Maybe later when my friends arrive.”
Though I wish I could’ve continued to the monastery, it was necessary that I turned back as there was no hope for a completed journey on my compromised leg. But also, for the first time, I had been truly alone in this country to walk among the people. In Lalibela, I found them to be unfailingly polite and inquisitive, though the wealth I represented did attract the younger boys searching for handouts.
And so this was Africa. I’d been here for 11 days now, visiting both the capital and the countryside. It was not the Africa of film or fantasy, the Africa of wild herds migrating by the thousands across the vast open grasslands stalked by lions and tigers and hyenas. Nor was it the Africa of the lushly vined triple-canopy jungle, shrill with the call of swinging apes and nervous monkeys. Nor was it the land of trumpeting elephants and gawky giraffes feeding high into the thorny treetops. It was instead a land vast in scope, populated with simple but elegant human beings scratching a bare existence from the bone-dry earth, supported by small clumps of cows and goats and donkeys.
It was a land where man and animal were both beasts of burden, a land whose harshness had limited lifespans to less than 50 years. And yet it remained an ancient, proud land whose age could be seen deep within the eyes of its monastic priests, some of whom could live to a century in years, men whose lives remained touched by the very biblical references which animated their existence.
It was a land, as are all lands, of striving children anxious for adulthood, but also a land of resigned adults who had come to know and except the poverty here. The literacy rate was high, though the use factor low, waiting for tomorrow if tomorrow ever comes.
Would Ethiopia become a fruitful nation of the future, as Mike and Rich believed? Or would it continue to market its antiquity while devising yet another manner of restricting itself to a retarding past as was the case with the constricting reign of The Dergue, the communist regime that ruled from 1974 to 1991?
There was much here to see and to value. It was a visit in time as much as in space. The alterations of nature we take for granted in modern America, that we take for progress in things as mundane as a pair of shoes or a tap running hot water obscured in its abundance the fundamental, the elemental nature of man born upon and consigned once again to the land in death.
“He is my brother. She is my sister.” When spoken here, it resonated with meaning much more than the genetic sharing of DNA. On my walk down the mountain, I asked the young boy how old his father was.
“He is 72 years,” he replied. “But he is dead now.”
But he didn’t mean that his father had died at 72. Rather he, the living, though not breathing father of mine, is 72 on this day even though he is buried in a tomb but a short distance from here.
Life, as it is lived and considered in Ethiopia, was not necessarily bound by the actuality of blooded life, but by its imprint upon others. And that life lives far beyond the 50-year span in toil and blood.
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness may well be unalienable rights in America, but here in Ethiopia in the late 20th century they were more a sign of God’s graces and benedictions, and, as such, were held in much greater reverence and awe.
Modern, you say? If modern is angst and drugs and bristled armaments fronting our embassies; if modern is broken homes and fetid dreams, careless longings, and wasted minds, then modern we are.
And the morning gave way to the afternoon in the full flower of the sun as large formations of cumulus clouds moved gracefully over the mountains. Rich and Mike returned from the monastery singing its praises as we continued to be taken by the spell cast by this ancient land.