Bosman's Bush Telegraph - 26 October 2000 (part 2)
Well, now that you have read the long drawn out diatribe about our dreadful journey between Gonder and Gedaref, its time to hear about the remainder of our stay in Ethiopia and our tour around the northern historical circuit. Once again, you don't have to read it all at once - so put this one aside until you have time! I must admit that our travels around Lalibela and Gonder in northern Ethiopia were one of the highlights of our whole trip, probably coming close to our Kili hike and Zanzibar. Ethiopia is really the most fabulously beautiful country with a deep, rich and mysterious history and religious tradition. Definitely worth a visit although if you have limited time I would recommend flying from place to place on the historical circuit as the distances between spots are enormous. Once again, you would not believe that the distances were substantial if you had a look at the Michelin map! Lying bugger. From our calculations (based on the dubious Michelin) it seemed that we could travel from Addis Ababa to Lalibela in one day. Completely wrong once again - the road winds and meanders through mountain range after mountain range and the entire journey ended up taking us two and a half days! I can't really complain though because the scenery and views are absolutely earth shattering - gorgeous rolling hills, craggy mountains, fields of green crops, horsemen wrapped in their gabis (traditional blankets) - superb!! The roads are pretty good too - another legacy of the Italians.
Lalibela is a real gem, set high in the cool mountains and away from the usual madding Ethiopian crowd. The people are the friendliest we met and there was less farangi hysteria than usual. The only sad thing is that Lalibela has more than its fair share of cripples and beggars some of whom are remnants of the famines experienced in the Wolo area a couple of years ago and others have reputedly travelled to Lalibela because of the increased tourist travel. We had been advised to use a guide in Lalibela, not only to make sure that we saw all the sights but to prevent additional hassling from all the other official and unofficial guides in town. We stumbled on our guide, Asigna, just as we arrived in town - and we could not have been more lucky. Asigna was tiny but commanded great respect in town and certainly kept Nev and I in line for the two days we spent with her. She was fantastic and I would definitely recommend her if any of you will be making the trip to Lalibela.
Lalibela is famous for its rock hewn churches that were constructed by King Lalibela in the 12th century. King Lalibela apparently had a vision that he was to build a second Jerusalem (some legends say he actually travelled to Jerusalem and when he returned set about building a replica). The churches are divided into two clusters (the eastern and the western) and there is one church, Bet Giorgis, which stands apart from either cluster. What makes the churches so incredible is that they are carved out of solid rock and were literally excavated out of the mountain face. Some of the churches are monolithic (carved from rock and free standing) whereas some are semi-monolithic (one side still attached to the mountain). Some of the churches are 11 or 12 metres high (or low) which is pretty impressive considering they were cut out of rock and many of them have their ceilings at ground level. All 11 churches are supposed to have been constructed over a period of 23 years which is no mean feat considering that they were carved by Ethiopian workmen wielding hammers and chisels (some say Lalibela had help from angels). The churches are all still operational and there are some 600 priests and deacons living in Lalibela who attend to them. The Lalibela churches are often classified as Coptic churches but according to Asigna this is incorrect - rather, the religion practised in Lalibela and in much of Ethiopia, is Ethiopian Orthodox.
We spent two days wandering around the mysterious churches and exploring all the underground tunnels. Each church is kept locked and you need to summon the ancient priests to open them (an elaborate ceremony involving ancient locks and huge keys) - you also have to take your shoes off before you enter the churches. Padding around in our socks, Asigna lead us around the dark, incense smelling interiors of the ancient churches explaining all the legends and stories attached to each. We learned about the famous Ethiopian saint who stood on one leg for seven years while praying (fed one seed by a bird each year) and about the heavy gold cross of King Lalibela which was stolen from the churches in 1997 and which resurfaced in Belgium. Inside the churches there are all sorts of paintings, symbols and artefacts many of which can only be seen with the help of a torch (Nev supplied our million candle power spot light which had Asigna most impressed). The Ethiopians believe that the Ark of Covenant was ferreted out of Jerusalem and brought to Ethiopia and that it rests in a church in Axum. Each of the Lalibela churches has a portion which is curtained off right at the rear which is regarded as the holy of holies and contains a replica of the Ark. This portion of the churches is off limits to everyone except the church custodian. Some of the paintings in the churches are original and are over 800 years old. Each church has its own distinctive cross and after touring the interior of each church Asigna would get the priest to bring out the particular cross of that church. The priests who are obviously well trained in the whims of tourists would then disappear into the bowels of the church and return clothed in their ceremonial robes holding the most ornate gold, brass and silver crosses ready to pose for a photograph. Some of them had all sorts of quirks - one guy came out sporting a cool pair of sunglasses to protect his eyes from the camera flash. Of course, it is practice to place a couple of birr in the collection plate after such a photo session. There are all sorts of other things to see in the Lalibela area other than the rock hewn churches.
The surrounding hills are filled with monasteries and cave churches. We did not have too much time so settled on visiting only the cave church of Naku' tala. The church is set is a huge cave under a rock overhang and there is a stream of holy water which drips through the rock ceiling into a bowl - legend has it that this stream of water remains constant and that the flow never increases even in the rainy season. Also, the bowl never overflows and the stream dries up when the bowl is full. Nev and I were a bit sceptical about all of this but had to admit that it made a good story. In any event, there is such a constant stream of people after holy water that the vessel never fills up anyway. Of course, no visit to Lalibela would be complete without having to fend off scores of curio sellers selling beautifully hand crafted silver crosses and icons. We fell into the inevitable trap and came away with some beautiful silver crosses. All in all, our two days in Lalibela were most special and we were sad to leave this mysterious and very spiritual place.
Before we left, Asigna invited us to a coffee ceremony at her house. The coffee ceremony is an important part of Ethiopian life and Nev and I regarded it as a great honour to be invited to join Asigna for coffee. The coffee ceremony starts with the roasting of the coffee beans over a charcoal brazier. After the beans have been roasted to perfection they are crushed and a pot of coffee is prepared. It is traditional for the coffee beans to be brewed three times and it is impolite to leave before the third cup of coffee is drunk. We sipped our thick, strong coffee (which is served with a good helping of sugar) out of the traditional little coffee cups and munched on popcorn (which for some reason is always served with a coffee ceremony). It was a great experience and we were sad to say goodbye to Asigna - it seemed that we had become great friends just in a couple of days.
From Lalibela we headed to Gonder via Lake Tana. Gonder was the erstwhile capital of Ethiopia and is filled with historical sites, most notably the Royal Enclosure which contains the castle of King Fasil and five other castles built by his successors. One of the guys we had met in Lalibela had recommended a guide, fittingly called Fasil, who would be able to show us around Gonder. Fasil (the guide) was a slick teenager who had a very inflated view of himself and strutted around sporting a baseball cap and a set of violet sunglasses. He was pretty harmless but was no Asigna. He met us in the centre of town and recommended a hotel owned by one of his cronies. The promise of hot water sold us on the idea and we pulled into the Belgelez Pension for two days. Hot water (or any water for that matter) turned out to be non-existent and it took two days of cajoling, arguing and threatening for us to have a shower (and that was just a trickle!). Very unsatisfactory. Fasil, in his defence, did show us all the sights around Gonder. Our tour started with a visit to a viewpoint about 30 kilometres outside Gonder where we had the most fantastic view of the Simien Mountains. We also visited what is known as the Felasha village, a village which was inhabited by the last Jewish families in Ethiopia. These families were airlifted to Israel in 1991. There is however an abandoned synagogue in the village and one remaining family who are also apparently trying to immigrate to Israel. Fasil seemed oddly uninterested in showing us the Royal Enclosure which we regarded as the main attraction in Gonder. He was very vague about the whole thing and kept telling us that the main castle was being renovated and was not worth a visit. Eventually, we insisted on seeing the castle and decided to go on our own (Fasil had some other tourists, who were obviously more important than us, to attend to). When we arrived at the castle we realized why Fasil had been so evasive - it turns out that local guides, such as Fasil, are not allowed into the Royal Enclosure (except as paying customers) and that the enclosure has its own guides! Fasil lost major credibility with us following his deception about the whole Royal Enclosure issue - especially as our agreed price was based on our understanding that we would visit the castle. Oh well - I guess you win sume and you loose some. After we had seen the castles we took in the Gonder market (more shopping - this time a coffee pot and traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony cups) and Fasil's Pool before treating ourselves to a last macciato coffee and hitting the long road to the Sudan - and boy was it along road.........
Well, I guess that's it for now. Today we hit the Jordan and Saudi embassies in search of visas and Nev has started contacting spare parts dealers and Land Rover here in Khartoum to try and have the Landi fixed. Its a whopping 37 degrees centigrade here but luckily the raging sand storms of yesterday seem to have died down.
Hope you are all well
lots of love
Penny and Neville