January 3-7, 2009

We heard that travel in Ethiopia is slow and there were a lot of sites we were hoping to visit up north, so we left Addis after just one day.  Our first destination after Addis was Lalibela, a small town famous for some churches carved out of stone.

Wrestling for Bus Seats

When we picked up our bus tickets they told us that the bus takes off at 6 AM, but it’s best to be there a half hour early.  We decided to play it extra safe because we heard that in some cases the bus actually leaves early and if you’re left behind, well, you’re screwed.  So we woke up at 3-something in the morning.  It turned out that we played it a little too safe.  The bus station didn’t open until 5 AM so we waited outside.  When the gates opened, everyone scrambled to find their bus and claim a seat.

Trouble was we couldn’t find our bus: bus # 001.  After a lot of searching, we met a local guy, Abil, who explained the situation.  Our bus was one of the “second shift”, meaning that it didn’t show up until around7 AM, and we didn’t leave until much later.


When the bus did show up, it was chaos.  Even before the bus parked, locals rushed to it to claim spots outside one of the doors, so that they could then rush inside the bus to claim seats.  Pnina and I joined the game.  When the doors flung open, I managed to be 3rd up from the back door.  I had to tackle a couple of people pretty hard but it helped that Ethiopians are fairly small skinny people and I was wearing two backpacks.  I managed to claim a bench mid-way up the bus.  Then I noticed that our new friend, Abil, claimed much better seats for us at the front.  Sweet!

The interesting thing is that while it was a full-contact game to claim seats in the beginning, from that point on it was all manners and respect.  Nobody took our seats when we got off the bus at any of the stops along the way – the seats were ours.  Pnina and I can’t understand why they don’t simply assign seats to people when they issue the tickets in the first place.

Bus Ride to Lalibela

The road to Lalibela is about 350 miles.  But, since the road is so busted and/or under construction, the trip takes 1.5 days.

We stopped for the night in a small town just past Dessie.  Abil helped us find a hotel for $5/night.  The trick was that this hotel was run by a Muslim man, and accordingly the policy of the hotel was to only let a man and woman share a room if they’re married.  No problem: Pnina and I are married.  Wait.  Problem: how do we prove it??  Pnina didn’t change her last name since our marriage in August, mostly because we had this trip coming up and she didn’t want to deal with getting new passports.  As for wedding rings, we left our actual rings at home because we figured we stand a good chance of losing them on the road.  Instead we took cheapo stand-in rings, but they are so small that we wear them on our pinkies.  Luckily, after some discussion the hotel owner agreed to turn a blind eye.

The next day, as we got closer to Lalibela, we started seeing colorfully-dressed people on the side of the road, each with a cross and a fancy umbrella.  As the bus approached, these people flipped over the umbrella to ask for hand-outs.  Nobody from our bus gave anything, but at one point we saw people from the bus in front of us tossing orange bees-wax candles out the window at these people.

We also stopped at a place where holy water flows from a mountain.  Most people got off the bus to bathe in this water and fill up their bottles (some of which looked like they were previously used to carry oil; gross).

These were just a couple of hints at the different customs that Ethiopian Christians practice, in particular around Christmas time…

Ethiopian Christmas

In the last post I mentioned that Ethiopia has a completely different calendar system – e.g. they have 12 months of 30 days and one extra short month.  Another difference is that they celebrate holidays on different days than people in the rest of the world.  For example, their Christmas is celebrated on our January 6-7.

So, by sheer coincidence, Pnina and I happened to show up in Ethiopia just before the biggest holiday on the Ethiopian calendar.  Also, Lalibela is the biggest pilgrimage site for Ethiopians during Christmas, so again, sheer luck.

Since Lalibela is such a magnet during Christmas, all the hotel prices are jacked up.  By recommendation from Abil, we decided to stay at Helen Hotel (Helen is his sister).  We got a room for $10/night, but Helen said that the price would go up to $30 on the second and subsequent nights because of Christmas.  When we told her that we would only stay two nights she said “no way” — she had other people ready to pay $30 for several nights in a row.  So after one night she essentially kicked us out of our room.  When we looked around town we found that indeed all the other hotels had equally jacked up prices, and in nearly all cases they were full.  We started to wonder if we would go homeless over Christmas.  But then Helen found a shabbier room for us for $15 (with a bed big enough for 1 person; good thing we’re relatively small people).

By the way, Ethiopians do not celebrate new year’s along with the rest of the world, so it was also lucky that Pnina and I happened to stay in Nairobi for the new year and only flew to Ethiopia on Jan 2nd.

Rock-Carved Churches

Lalibela is famous for the churches it contains, churches that were carved out of the mountain hundreds of years ago.  We set out to see them as soon as we arrived.

The ticket to see the churches costs about $20.  It’s a lot by Ethiopian standards but the ticket is good for a full week.  You can wander through the churches on your own, but we decided to hire Abil as our guide.  He asked for $30.  This was roughly twice the price we expected, but he was really helpful during the entire ride to Lalibela, so we accepted.

The 11 churches in Lalibela were built by Mr Lalibela (today considered a saint) about 900 years ago.  Lalibela had this grandiose idea of creating a new Jerusalem in Ethiopia, so parts of the town are intended to resemble things in Jerusalem.  For example, there’s a “Mount Olive” where it’s considered an honor to be buried.  There’s also a “Bethlehem” and a “Jordan River”.  These analogies struck us as kind of hokey, but regardless, the churches are truly awesome.  It’s amazing to think that people literally carved an entire church out of solid rock using primitive tools, and that all 11 churches were finished in less than 30 years.

The best church in our opinion is St. George, also called the “cross church” because of the way it’s shaped…




This is the one we knew about before arriving in Lalibela.  Actually, we kind of assumed that it’s the only one and we were surprised to learn that there are other churches.  It was also surprising to learn that the cross church is not the biggest or most important of the churches.  It just became famous because it looks freakin sweet.

While St. George was the best looking church on the outside, another church, St. Mariam’s, was the best one on the inside.  It’s the only one that had any intricate decorations covering the inside walls and ceiling.  And actually it turns out that if you pressed a local person to pick a single most important church, they generally choose this one.  It’s also the site of the biggest Christmas celebrations (more on that later).

St Mariam is one of a few churches now covered by an ugly modern shade structure, kudos to Italy, sigh.

St Mariam is one of a few churches now covered by an ugly modern shade structure, kudos to Italy, sigh.

Paintings cover the interior of St Mariam

Paintings cover the interior of St Mariam

Another church that we really liked had an entrance at the end of a bridge (the bridge is also carved out of stone, naturally), about 2-3 stories up.  They had extra guards here to make sure that people don’t push too much in their excitement to enter the church; it would have been easy to fall down otherwise.


Interior of church with high bridge

Interior of church with high bridge

And there were all kinds of other churches that were nice in their own way.


Small celebrations broke out all over the place

Small celebrations broke out all over the place

Monks wear yellow sheets.  Everyone else - white.

Monks wear yellow sheets. Everyone else - white.

A man leads a group in a prayer-march

A man leads a group in a prayer-march




Pilgrims taking a break from prayer under shade

Pilgrims taking a break from prayer under shade

A vendor at the market selling canes and horse-hair "whips" for flies - standard gear for worshippers.

A vendor at the market selling canes and horse-hair "whips" for flies - standard gear for worshippers.

Having Abil take us around the churches was good because it’s pretty easy to get lost.  There are various pathways and tunnels among the churches and it takes a while to get your bearing.  Before entering each church you need to take off your shoes.  Inside the ground is kind of rough; painful for a sensitive guy like me.  Abil had another guy watch our shoes – another benefit.  He also explained some stuff about the history and architecture of the place, but frankly it was kind of dull and redundant.  It’s best to just wander around and take in the buildings and the locals flocking to pray.

Asheton Monastery

Around Lalibela there are at least a dozen other churches and monasteries scattered in various hills.  Of those, we only visited one: the Asheton Monastery.  Asheton is the easiest one to visit because it’s a walking distance from Lalibela.

Abil suggested setting us up with one of his friends as a guide to the monastery, but this time we decided to head out on our own.  We figured it should be easy to find out way because there was a steady flow of Ethiopian pilgrims walking up and down the hill.  Of course, we immediately got lost :-), but eventually we found the trail and kept to it the rest of the way.


Along the way we bumped into a Belgian woman, Helga.  She was getting harassed by some little kids.  They kept swarming around her asking for money.  One of them claimed that the last photo she took included his house so she must pay him.  We joined Helga, figuring that we have strength in numbers.  I told the kid that if he kept following us he’ll need to pay us guide fees.  That’s the kind of asshole I became in Ethiopia, and it troubled me.  Constant pestering does that to me.

Pnina & Helga

Pnina & Helga

Helga was a great walking companion.  She’s been traveling all around the world and she has some great stories.  Example: she traveled in Peru once and she had her backpack stolen.  Twice.  In the same trip!  The first time it was on a bus.  Some other guy claimed to be her husband and asked for the bag because she needed something from it; then he took off.  The other time she was robbed at knife-point.  What horrible luck!  I had my hat and sunglasses stolen when I traveled in Peru, but I guess I’m pretty lucky by comparison.

When we reached the top of the mountain only I went in.  It was a $5 fee, but women are only allowed to enter the church, not the monastery, so Pnina and Helga chose to skip it.  It was probably a good choice.  The church and monastery were nice enough, but the views along the way were even better.  The one cool thing is that the priest in the church took out some old artifacts to show me – a metal cross and an old Bible.

One the way down we stopped in a little hut to sample some local snacks.  I got a barley beer called “Tala”.  It was completely unfiltered and kind of gross, but not particularly alcoholic.  I didn’t get close to finishing it.  Pnina got some toasted barley seeds.  Those were pretty good.


Tala (beer) and barley nuts

Tala (beer) and barley

Tej & Dinner with Sammy

Back in Lalibela, we went into a local bar where they serve a kind of honey wine called Tej.  There are a few of these bars around town, some of which are obviously tailored to tourists.  The one we found (called simply Tej House) appeared to be for locals — we were the only ferenjies in there.  Also, Pnina and Helga were the only women there.  All the men sat on a bench around the room, sipping their Tej and chatting.  It was a very cool atmosphere and one of the few places we found where we didn’t get hassled all the time.  Tej comes in three strengths: light (no alcohol), medium, and strong.  Pnina took the virgin drink which actually cost a little more.  I took the medium drink.  Both were really sweet.

Tej - honey wine, served in laboratory flasks

Tej - honey wine, served in laboratory flasks

After the bar we grabbed dinner at a local place called Blue Nile.  We got there while electricity was still out around the city so it was all candle light and romantic.  The food was really great.  After a while we were joined by Sammy, a student from Johns Hopkins.  He said that he’s on a 2-week trip in Ethiopia to do research on the effect of China on Ethiopia, namely road construction.  He said that his bus from Addis broke down in a random spot along the way, not far from a Chinese road crew.  To fix the bus the driver needed some help welding something, and Sammy (who studied Chinese) was able to communicate with the Chinese crew and get the necessary tools.  The other passengers were besides themselves with surprise and delight.  While the bus was being fixed Sammy met the manager of the road crew who also happened to be the top manager for all Chinese road construction in Ethiopia.  What luck!  He’s going to have an awesome report to hand in back in DC!  🙂

Christmas Celebrations

Over the few days Pnina and I spent in Lalibela we saw the town get more and more full.  Some of the visitors were “ferenjie” (foreigners) like us, but the great majority were Ethiopians.  Those who could afford it flew or took a bus.  The rest — the poor people — literally walked for days or even weeks to get here.  Because they couldn’t afford a hotel room, they simply squatted in various spots around the city and spent all day praying or just hanging out.  With each day the city got more and more stinky.  There was shit everywhere.  The crowds in the churches became so thick that there was no point in trying to enter.

Every day we saw small groups of people praying or singing, sometimes with drums.  During the day on January 6, things picked up.  The crowds started to collect around the bigger churches, especially St Mariam’s.  In the morning we saw priests singing and dancing in the church’s courtyard.

Crowds gather at St George

Crowds gather at St George

Head priest of St Mariam

Head priest of St Mariam


People watching the ceremony from above

People watching the ceremony from above

When this service ended, people lounged around and passed the time reading from their bibles, sleeping, or otherwise entertaining themselves…

To each his own

To each his own



The climax of all these festivities took place all night long from Jan 6th around 7 PM to the next morning.  Pnina and I took seats on top of one of the walls next to St Mariam’s and waited.  With time, the crowd became thicker and thicker.  People came with blankets or tarps to claim their little section of ground.  It was kind of like a summer concert in the park.  And this time everyone came dressed in their best white cloths.  It felt like we were back in Biblical times.


While we waited, we struck up a conversation the only other ferenjie in the area – Alex.  He works as a security consultant in Somalia and he just came to Lalibela on a short trip to see the Christmas celebrations.  He said that Somalia is a pretty cheap country and he gets a US salary, so it’s a pretty sweet deal.  On the other hand it’s not always so convenient.  Somalia has super-inflation, so, for example, when he bought his new digital camera recently he had to go to the shop with an actual wheel barrow full of cash.  And when he wants to withdraw money from his American acount he has to travel either to Djibuti or Ethiopia because Somalian ATM’s don’t take his card.

We also started chatting with a group of students from Bahir Dar who happened to sit next to us.  This was useful because they explained some of what was happening in the ceremony and what is still coming up.  Most important, they mentioned that around midnight they will pass out candles to everyone in the crowd, and everyone will light them simultaneously.  Wow!  I was psyched to see this.  So, we waited…

…and the ceremony turned out to be, well, kind of boring.  It proceeded in roughly 40-minute cycles.  For the first 30-35 minutes the priests just prayed and occasionally banged on drums – it was very slow.  People in the crowd took their seats and most of them fell asleep.  Then things started to pick up.  Instead of simple prayers it was song.  Then more drums and chimes kicked in, and eventually the priests started dancing in two lines, back and forth.  The crowd joined in the excitement by doing a high pitch “la-la-la-la-la” (called a “lilta”).  It was awesome.  And then…it was back to boring prayers and everyone went back to sleep.  Oh and by the way, the prayers are done in an ancient language called Geez, so 99% of people in the crowd had no idea what was being said.

Pnina and I stuck around for around 6 hours.  Midnight came and went, but we didn’t see a lighting of the candles.  Eventually they did pass around the candles, which got our hopes up, but still there was no lighting (except for a few people in the crowd who couldn’t help themselves).  Outside it was getting pretty cold and (unlike most of the people in the crowd) Pnina and I didn’t bring enough warm clothes.  And by 1 AM Pnina really had to go to the bathroom.  So, we took off.

Even taking off was not easy.  We were sitting at the top of a high wall (maybe 3-4 stories height), and by 1 AM it was chock full of people.  We had to walk along the edge of the wall with a flashlight, leaning on people and praying that we don’t misstep or trip.  It took us about a half hour to make our way out of the complex, and even by 1:30 AM there was no lighting of the candles.  Much later when we were asleep I heard big cheers from the direction of the churches.  I can only assume that was the lighting.  Oh well.  It was really nice to sleep!  🙂


Bonus Pictures – Not Gay

Traveling around Africa we noticed that while men and women often need to avoid contact in public, it’s perfectly OK for two guys to walk around hand-in-hand or with arms around each other.


Apparently it’s also OK for guys to dress like this:

Mind you, this is a very conservative religeous society; we doubt homosexuality is as accepted as it is back home.  This is simply the way straight guys dress and behave in public.  It cracks us up to think of the culture shock they must experience when they move to the states!  🙂

Around the World

Steve Jobs, head of Apple, is ill.  He has some kind of hormone imbalance.  At first he just declared that he would skip the upcoming Apple conference, rather than attending and doing the customary keynote speech.  Then he declared that he would take some time off from his role as CEO.  Apple’s stock took a small dive, but then rebounded.  Apple was one of the few companies that posted decent results for the holiday season – the economy sucks so bad.  From what I hear Jobs really micro-manages the company, so it’ll be interesting to see how the company does without his constant attention.

The war in Gaza has intensified.  Israel sent ground forces in for the first time.  Anti-Israel protests around the world are also intensifying.  Pnina and I are still hoping that a cease fire will come soon, before we leave Ethiopia for Egypt.

This actually happened about a month ago but we just read about it…Bernie Madoff, head of a Wall Street investment firm, has been arrested for fraud.  His company has been running a ponzi scheme, which is where investors are paid returns not from actual investment profit but rather from money given by other (newer) investors.  When the situation was investigated, it became clear that Madoff was responsible for the loss of over $50 billion in investor money, including money invested by various famous people such as Steven Spielberg.  We later discovered that some of the money used to fund the Birthright program (a program that helps American Jews take a trip to Israel to get better connected with their roots), was lost in the Madoff mess, and now people aren’t so sure about the future of this program.

2 responses to “Lalibela

  1. Pingback: Simien Mountains « Honeysun

  2. Pingback: Back to Addis « Honeysun

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