Ethiopia Days - 2 & 3 Addis and Lalibela
Have been more or less off the grid for the last couple of days so will try and compact a couple of days in this post while I have fleeting and intermittent internet access.
V arrived on Friday on an Emirates flight from Dubai where she overnighted.
I had arranged with the driver that he pick me up and take me to the airport when he was scheduled to pick up V, as I wanted another run at Customs and my cameras. At the least I wanted to make sure that there was no problem when I tried to pick them up when we flew out of Ethiopia. Spent the morning reading and at 13:00 not only did the driver arrive, but Eskadar who will be our guide for the next two weeks and whose English will be welcome when dealing with Customs.
Arrived at the airport, greeted by a level of security that I have not encountered since India. I should have expected this given the level of security at the Sheraton hotel where we're staying. The hotel and very extensive grounds and gardens are surrounded by a high wall and there is a security checkpoint at the gates to the hotel, at the end of a long drive about 100 metres away from the hotel building. Taxis are not allowed on the property and when I was dropped at the gates at about 12:30 am on the night of my arrival, I had to wait at the entrance gates while a golf cart was sent to pick me up and carry me to the hotel. On the hotel porch there is a full body scanner for guests and visitors and all luggage, hand bags and parcels are x-rayed.
In keeping with this climate of security, there was no access to the International terminal without a ticket or boarding pass and after some discussion with the military guarding the entrance doors, Eskadar was allowed in to meet V and I with him to see Customs after showing my passport and a copy of the camera papers. In order to enter the terminal building, once again empty all pockets, remove shoes, belts and jewelry and go through a body scanner. If you are flying this process would be repeated when entering the departure lobby and once again at the gate.
We had about an hour before V got through formalities and picked up her luggage. During this time Eskadar, with me as a bystander, carried on furious discussions, with a variety of officials each of whom referred us to someone else. If the definition of bureaucracy is the fear of making a decision, these guys had it down to an art. The only person who was prepared to release my cameras demanded that we pay "taxes" of 180,000 Birr, the local currency, or about $9,000 US. Was never going to happen so once again at an impasse but clearly picking up the cameras was not going to be a simple process on our departure. At this point V arrived with all her luggage safely in hand so we adjourned the battle until next week when the travel agency is going to have a run. Failing that, the Canadian Embassy.
Early bed and up at 5:00 to get organized; our pick-up is at 6:00 for our 7:30 flight. I was so stressed at the Customs problems that I literally did not sleep and V got no sleep either as she was plotting and planning solutions to the same problem.
Saturday we flew into Lalibela, in the north of the country, the region famous for its underground churches carved into and out of the landscape about, and depending on who is telling the story, either 900 years ago or 1,100 years ago or 500 years ago, but more about them later.
Straight from the airport to the Saturday market in Lalibela, a town of about 15,00 people at an altitude of 2,700 metres in the high mountainous region. Long before we arrived in town we could see streams of people walking towards us on the rough gravel road into town, in many cases accompanied by a heavily laded donkey, all clearly returning from the Saturday market. The drive into town was an instant window into the country, its economy and its culture. Ethiopia is still a rural, farming economy and between 80 and 90% of the population is engaged in subsitance farming. Very few vehicles, no power lines and local transport is by foot with the heavy lifting and carrying being done equally by man/woman and beast.
The rural population live in round buildings called tukuls whose windowless walls are made of wattle, mud and straw mixed plastered over a wooden framework, and topped by a conical roof of straw thatch. Lighting is by candle and cooking is over an open fire in the middle of the house. It's not hard to imagine that at the most basic level nothing has changed for millennia. And yet they are the heirs to a very rich and technically sophisticated culture that lasted for over a thousand years when the country was known as Abyssinia.The people that we have met and observed are finely featured, quiet and gentle. As a noisy westerner I have to keep reminding myself to slow it down and lower the temperature.
The market was very large and was a market in the true medieval sense; people trudged in from the country-side with their crops to sell, be it wild honey, grains, cereals or vegetables to name a very small sample, and having sold it, to then buy supplies and finished goods from the same market. Thus everyone, from donkeys to the smallest child walks kilometres from their farms, laden with goods to sell and then returns home, equally laden with their supplies.
We spent a fascinating couple of hours and filled with people as it was, were continually surprised by how friendly, quiet and amenable everyone was as we stopped at ask questions through our guide and sniff their wares or touch the fabrics. No pushing, shoving and very little raucous market clatter.
Lunch and the on to the churches. V says that calling them underground churches is misleading since this term suggests that they are in caves, which they are not. She suggests that they should be called in-ground churches which is a much more accurate description since their roofs are level with the surrounding landscape and they were created by chiseling down from ground level to create a central block of stone surrounded, usually on four sides by a gap about 15 metres deep and 15 metres wide. The central block of stone within the dugout was then hollowed out to create a building whose doors are at the bottom of the 15 metre gap and are reached by rather perilous scrambling down roughly chiseled steps and wildly erratic natural stone ledges.
The churches are organized into three groups and the whole layout is a fantastic medieval, religious Disneyland. The first group of churches is intended to represent heaven on earth, the second heaven above and the last is a single church, the most well known of all, which was built in honour of Saint George who is the patron saint of Ethiopia. Each church is dedicated to a saint or an angel and St George was angry that none of the churches was named in his honour so the last church was built to keep him happy and retain his patronage. There is a river Jordan connecting the first group of churches to the second and one of the churches is named for Noah and inside its dugout framework, a sloping section of the wall of the surrounding rock is known as Mount Ararat, with olive trees planted at the top of the dugout walls above the Mount Ararat section. Words fail but amazing nonetheless.
Long afternoon of scrambling in the heat, up and down treacherous, primitive steps and rough inclines and through pitch black tunnels that connect many of the churches to each other. Collapsed at about 17:30 and rushed for a very cold glass of my new favourite beer, fittingly enough, St George. Tomorrow promises to be even more harrowing as we will be visiting the second group of churches as well as the St George church, attending the service at one of the in-ground churches and driving to a monastery about 40k away over very bad roads out in the country.