Ethiopia - Days 4 & 5 Lalibela & Bahir Dar
Sunday morning was bright, clear and cool. We were picked up at about 7:30 to go to the largest of the in-ground churches where a service was being conducted and where a very special cross made of solid gold, and weighing about 7.5 kilos is housed as part of the church's religious treasury. It is claimed to be concurrent with the time of the churches construction and is taken out of the church only at times of grave local or national emergency when it used to in services to pray for heavenly intercession However for most of the time it is housed in the church and is used in Sunday services or on holy days. Eskadar wanted us to attend the service and see the cross because it is a national treasure but more than this, V wanted to take part in the blessing service.
The courtyard area on the level ground surrounding the edges of the hollowed out pit where the church is located was filled with people, men, women and children all draped in white while a priest preached a sermon in a very loud carrying voice from a rise of higher ground. Everyone was quiet and very politely moved out of the way as we threaded our way towards the set of steps that led down to the church. Since the insides of the churches are spaces hollowed out of the central block of rock with few windows they are very dark and very little can be seen without some form of illumination. Therefore when we reached the door to the church at the bottom of the dugout, nothing could be seen inside the church but vague shapes and the crowd inside was sensed more than seen.
We all removed our shoes and V and Eskadar, our guide, went into the church and took their place in the large group waiting to be blessed by the cross. I was not enthusiastic about being in a crowded space in the dark and decided to stay outside the church steps and watch the people coming and going but V was very keen and the two of them disappeared into the dark. I took some shots that I hope will turn out and just enjoyed the air and the morning light filtering down to the bottom of the dugout trench where I was sitting. After about 1/2 hour V emerged, thrilled that she had been blessed and touched by the cross, and full of praise for the crowd that she had been a part of, as there was no pushing or shoving in that tightly packed, dark space, everyone just patiently and graciously allowing each other their turn to take part in the ceremony.
To our car and an hour's drive over very rough gravel roads to a small village in the hills where we left the car and climbed, zig-zagging our way up a path several hundred metres high up the side of the hill we were climbing. Neither V nor I had realized the length of the track or the height that we were going to climb and so she had left her asthma puffer in the car. She was struggling to breathe and I tried several times to cancel the trek but she insisted so we stopped every 50 metres or so for her to catch up her breathing and finally made it to our destination, a very large cave in whose interior a monastery had been built. Charming and graciousI priest/guardian who showed us around and we wandered around the interior of a massive cave inside of which were two buildings dating from the 11'th century, one the monastery and the other supposedly the house of the king who had built the monastery. The floor of the cavern was completely carpeted with split bamboo strips tied side by side to make an enormous wooden carpet and since we were the only people there, a quiet and very peaceful scene.
Back to our car for the jolting ride back into Lalibela and our trek to the second group of churches culminating with a visit to St George's church as the evening began to draw in. Long day.
Out for dinner at Ben Abeba a very quirky restaurant built on the edge of a cliff outside Lalibela with sweeping views towards the mountains away in the distance on the other side of a valley above whose floor, 1000 metres below, we perched. The restaurant is built in the vague shape of an orb but there are no walls to define the space but a series of 4 or 5 levels some enclosed in glass, some open air with interior steps and runways connecting the various levels. If anyone can remember that far back, it looked as if it was designed by the authors of the 1960's Whole Earth Catalog and constructed with the aid of inspirational amounts of ganja. There are interesting and odd spaces throughout the building, gardens, dining areas and a flat section on the edge of the cliff with circular benches surrounding a fire pit, perched on the edge of the abyss. It is rated as either the first or second best restaurant in the country, which if that is true does not speak well for our next two weeks in the country; we enjoyed our dinner but it will be quite a while before it's worth Michelin's time to send an inspector. The restaurant is run by a Scots woman in her late middle age who opened it 2 years ago and who has been in the country for about 6 years. There is clearly a rich story behind her presence but not enough time to talk with her and find out more. We ate by the pit in front of a roaring fire, watched the stars blazing in an inky black sky and drank quantities of very bad wine.
Monday morning off to a very early start and drove to Bahir Dar, a very large town with a university, built on the southern shore of Lake Tana. Not much top say about the drive; bad roads for about 25k and then hit the main highway, a well built asphalt two lane road built by the Chinese, which took us down from the high country around Lalibela through a series of mountainous passes down to lower country and eventually into Bahir Dar. One of the most interesting aspects of the drive was watching farmers all along the way preparing their fields for spring planting by ploughing (or pluffing as Eskadar calls it, the inconsistencies of the English language!) with a brace of oxen and a wooden plough as has been done for thousands of years. The other was the massive amounts of eucalyptus that are planted all along the way wherever there is space to grow them. One of the 19'th century Ethiopian kings had brought them in from Australia and they have taken over from native species. However they are put to good use as they grow quickly and if cut while young provide quantities of very long and straight stems about an inch or two in diameter which are used as the material of which all houses seem to be made. A framework of eucalyptus stems lashed together and then covered by mud mixed with straw and finally for the wealthier, an outside layer of brick.
As we drove along Eskadar watched for smoke coming from the isolated tukuls or houses that we passed because he wanted us to see injeera being made or beer being brewed, in both cases for household consumption as most family groups weave their own baskets, make their own beer and bread and grow their own food. After a couple of false starts, when he was sent packing by large dogs he found a charming family who welcomed us into their compound, composed of 3 mud covered, round tukuls, and who showed us their home and let us see how they carried out their family chores, grinding and fermenting grain for injeera and brewing beer. We met the grandmother and the mother as well as two very handsome boys and a daughter with her baby. The men were in the fields and as we left, they arrived with the cattle that they had taken to pasture. Everyone lives in shared domesticity, sheep and cattle sharing space in two of the tukuls with their owners while one building is kept animal-free and is used as the family's living room. A fascinating visit and the family seemed proud to show off their home and we all shook hands with best wishes all round at parting.
Arirved in Bahir Dar late in the day and checked into our hotel. Tomorrow we have a boat for our use and will be visiting monasteries on some of the lake's islands