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18th January 2013

Lessons in Lalibela

When I touched down into Gondar airport on Monday morning, I was delighted if not a little surprised to find a young man waiting for me in arrivals, carrying a notice board bearing my name. I’m afraid to say that I didn’t recognise him, and certainly wasn’t expecting him, but being British I returned his large grin and enthusiastic waves across to me in baggage reclaim all the same. It transpired that this young man was the best friend of Abi, a local who had so helpfully arranged for a safe place to store Suzi while I was back in the UK. Abi was currently away in Addis but had asked his friend to come and collect me from the airport and deliver me to a hotel of my choice. The twenty minute drive from the airport into town reminded me exactly why I like Ethiopia so much - within seconds of arrival, a gritty layer of dust was covering my face, strange smells of wood smoke infused with dung and the occasional dead animal were penetrating my nose, the strangely high pitched voices of women, and sometimes also men, drifted into my ears and all the while my eyes feasted on a the lushest, most dramatic mountain landscape I’ve ever seen, interspersed with the odd man peeing freely against a tree and an unfortunate goat being slaughtered at the roadside. It’s an assault on the senses in the most colourful of ways and it’s impossible not to feel completely alive as you experience it.

Once arrived in Gondar and installed at my hotel, it was time to retrieve Suzi from her resting place in the back yard of the Crown Pension. I headed off there on foot, slightly unsure as to whether I’d remember the route or not, a bit of a problem given I was also suffering from total amnesia as to the name of this guesthouse, but fortunately the building turned out to be roughly where I remembered it. Once inside, I was immediately recognised and led through the back to where Suzi had been kept. She was exactly as I’d left her (the enormous chain I’d threaded through her rear rack and bolted to a railing had guaranteed that much), with the only new feature being two protective sheets of canvass and plastic that someone had lovingly covered her in. Despite these efforts, a bird the size of some kind of vulture (giving the size of the droppings) had relieved itself more than once all over the front tyre and screen. Very thoughtfully a young man wearing a white lab coat and jeans appeared from inside the building with a damp cloth and gave the screen a really good wipe. Afterwards he broke a stick off a dry old branch and set about chipping off the dried droppings from the tyre and rim. He clearly took pride in doing a job well and I was very grateful for his efforts. His enthusiasm for helping was undiminished however as he then offered to help lead Suzi through the guesthouse and out into the front courtyard, which looked to be a great idea given the chaotic obstacle course that had developed around the back of the property over the last month. Alas my lab coated friend turned out to be the least spatially aware human on earth, and as we coursed Suzi through the tight corridors of the guesthouse, he cheerfully insisted on turning the bars exactly the wrong way around each corner. This became problematic as it was me who generally bore the weight of the bike from my position standing beside the seat. More than once I was left straining with the bike’s full weight leaning away from me as I tried to explain to him to reverse what he had just done with the handlebars and swap position. Unfortunately he would generally just smile blankly at these moments and reply with a faint “yes” without actually doing anything. Clearly English was not his forte (and who am I to judge with my one word of Amharic?) but all the same it was hard to keep repeating the same instructions while trapped in a corridor, straining under the increasing weight of the bike and simultaneously endeavouring to maintain a patient and generous demeanour! In any case we made it in the end (thank goodness some other staff members soon came along to help with interpreting/weight bearing) and within moments Suzi was standing proudly in the front yard.

I shook everyone’s hand with gratitude and then went to start the bike. However, rather than hearing the usual, confident roar into life that I had come to expect as standard, Suzi’s engine ticked over but failed to spark into life. Donkey by this point had been reinstalled on his usual perch and was starting to look a bit anxious. I took a deep breath, checked that the fuel was on (it was!), the choke was out, the lights were all switched off (a forward thinking wise man had installed an on/off switch for the headlight for just this scenario) and gave the ignition button another go. Again, she ticked over but failed to spark into life. I gulped and looked and Donkey. He gulped and looked back at me. “is she…dead?” he whispered, his voice quavering a little with dread. “no Donkey”, I whispered back, “Suzi’s fine, just a little sleepy after her Christmas holiday. You remember we were told once that if something went wrong with Suzi, the worst thing we could do is panic? Well, now is that time. Let’s just be calm and have a think.” And so thats exactly what we did, despite the many sets of eyes of guesthouse staff upon us, all expectantly waiting to see the bike burst into action.

After a few tense minutes of staring at the bike and thinking, I faced facts that it looked like the battery was a little flat. It was time to get out the dreaded kick-start. Once it was unfolded, I mounted Suzi once again and gave it a good kick. Nothing. I tried again. Nothing. And again. Nothing. “Come on Suzi”, Donkey whispered gently, stroking the handlebars. I gave her one last kick, pressing the button for luck at the same time and suddenly, VROOM, she belted back to life! “Hurrah!” I yelled, high-fiving my lab coated friend and laughing out of pure relief. And then, with one last round of goodbyes to the staff, I knocked Suzi into first gear and we were free to roam once again - what a fantastic feeling.

Next morning we awoke to yet another of Gondar’s famous power cuts, so after a quick breakfast of tea and pancakes, I set off on a 220 mile adventure to Lalibela, home of some spectacular 12th century churches hewn out of rock. The route took us on a winding route south for 60 miles or so to a town called Addis Zemen, after which I was expecting a major turn left for the next 120 mile stretch. Strangely enough however, after I thought I’d gone far enough, the turning was no-where to be seen. This road mostly courses its way through agricultural plains and mountain passes, so with few clues to guide me, I pulled up next to two locals, switched off the bike and said salaam. “Salaam!” they both replied with big grins, each shaking my hand and drawing me in for the typical Ethiopian greeting of a shoulder bump. I was really touched to be acknowledged so warmly and momentarily reflected how we in the UK could learn a little from these people, however there was little time to ponder as I was still sitting astride the bike at the time of this energetic welcome and therefore was nearly pulled off mid-bump! Fortunately however my legs were long enough to tolerate the lean and no-one was crushed in the process. As the men heard my request for directions and pointed me to head further down the road, half a dozen kids came running out of nowhere and swarmed around the bike. “You you you!” cried one little chap, blinking up at me. I said hello to him (which was met with a stunned silence - I think those had been his only words of English) then thanked them all and headed off down the road for another 10km as instructed.

10km later however there was still no turning in sight so I decided to pick another stranger for directions. I spotted a reasonably wholesome looking young man walking along the road and pulled over. “Salaam!” I yelled, “Lalibela which way please?”. The man responded with a puzzled expression, so I repeated my request, suspecting that the man hadn’t understood me. On hearing my request a second time, the man simply screwed up his face a little further and with a tone of unmasked bafflement and a hint of a smile, simply asked “why?!”. Surprised by this man’s perfect comic timing and delivery, I laughed heartily and conceded “yes, ok, fair question! I want to visit Lalibela you see, which way please?” To see the look on this man’s face, you would have thought I’d asked him for a return plane ticket to Mars, but nevertheless he directed me another 5km down the road for the correct tuning. I guess tourism doesn’t really feature in the daily life of an Ethiopian shepherd, or perhaps he was just bewildered by my entire venture, motorcycle and all (understandable given the excellent plane link that runs daily from Gonder to Lalibela with a 30 minute flight time!)

In any case the man’s directions were good and once I’d taken my turning, the next 120 miles were plain sailing with a smooth ribbon of tarmac before me, leaving me free to concentrate on the next most pressing matter - where to take a pee. The problem here in Ethiopia is quite different to the one I experienced in Egypt, ie my concern is not one of deviants pulling over in their pick-up trucks, but rather where to find a spot to pull over where someone, usually a child, won’t spring out within 10 seconds or less. It never fails to amaze me how far Ethiopians seem to walk, as I’ve never ridden more than a kilometre since I’ve been here without seeing a child walking back from school or a shepherd ambling down the road, crook resting across his shoulders, wrists dangling over the top . In the end it took nearly 2 hours of increasingly anguished scouring of the road before I found a suitable spot, but what a great relief it was in every sense of the word when I did.

After this long stretch of road, the final left turn was upon me for the last 40 miles to Lalibela. I’m sorry to say it but after nearly 200 miles of tarmac, my senses were growing dull and I was itching to get to Lalibela, but this route had one surprise left in store for me. The tarmac was about to run out, leaving dusty, gravelly, rocky and slightly rutted, curving mountain tracks in its place. I wasn’t sure what to make of this development at first given how knackered I already was after nearly 5 hours in the saddle, but very soon I was grinning my biggest smile since I arrived back in Ethiopia. Within only a kilometre of leaving the main road, the villages disappeared, the track opened out and the landscape was an absolutely stunning scene of the most vast green plains bordered by such dramatic mountain scenery, I was blown away. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any better, Long John Baldry’s “Iko Iko” started to play on my IPod. If you’re not familiar with this song, which in its opening bars takes a light-hearted look at the lesser-known theme of geriatric arson, I’d truly recommend you listen to it immediately, because to me, it’s impossible to feel anything but heart-bursting happiness when you hear it. In that moment as I was standing up on the footpegs, listening to the joyful African beats of Mr Baldry with the late afternoon sun warming my face, winding my way along this stony pathway, empty save for the occasional child yelling and boogying their bums in greeting, I realised that I was in the dream I’d had all along of what riding in “real” Africa would be like. The complete happiness of just being in that moment was something incredibly special and one which for me, felt so perfect it almost couldn’t be real.

Eventually though, after 30 more miles of this pathway and a couple of near misses with various livestock (most notably two panicked goats tied together at the neck, tumbling and darting all over the road in the craziest three legged race I’ve ever seen), I arrived into Lalibela and found my intended hotel for the night, the Asheten. After a quick bite to eat at the suggested local restaurant, the so called “Unique Restaurant” (whose signage boasted that it was recommended by “Farngi”, ie foreigners!), I returned to my tiny white-washed bedroom and headed off to Nod.

Next morning I awoke and set off to explore the churches of Lalibela. I’d asked for directions from the man at the hotel reception who, after he felt the need to confess that he’s mistaken me for a man on arrival the previous night (“don’t worry, everyone thinks that”), directed me to walk to the “Seven Olives hotel” and then head down the road. After a short stroll past a group of kids avidly playing an ancient, rusting Fussball machine at the side of this rubbley road, I spotted the 7 Olives Hotel and proceeded down the hill, past a small group of boys sitting on the verge. “churches this way” they cried, all pointing simultaneously down the left hand fork of the paved street down a very rough but broad pathway, thronging with people. I wasn’t sure that this could be right and must have hesitated, as within seconds 3 or 4 of these boys, aged between 10 and 17 or so were all around me, “accompanying” me on my way. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with my new role as the Pied Piper, unsure as to how big this crowd would grow to and where exactly they were leading me, but looking at the oldest boy’s face I didn’t see any reason to be afraid, so proceeded with them down this very steep, uneven path of baked earth and rock. Something about this route didn’t seem right though - apart from anything, there was no sign of any other tourists anywhere, strange if this was the main route to the churches. I’m not famed for my precision agility and boast a distinguished track record in tripping over uneven surfaces, so looking around myself as we proceeded further down this rocky hill, deeper into what seemed to be an old village, I didn’t fancy my chances at successfully outrunning this pack of boys if necessary should a dodgy situation arise. Instead, I decided, I was going to have to just deal with whatever arose. We continued walking. It was the littlest boy who piped up. “I am in the 7th grade”, he volunteered. “right, so how old are you?” I asked. “I am twelve”, he replied. “I want to be a doctor when I grow up. I will study at the university in Addis Ababa and then help countryside people”. “Great plan”, I responded. “But you know in my class there are 64 children and only one teacher. And we use this one text book but we must share one between 10 children.” “That’s not
great”, I replied sympathetically. “so We go now before churches to bookstore and you buy me a textbook, yes?” he suggested. “ah, and there it is” I thought. In the interests of buying myself some thinking time, I ignored the request and hoped he wouldn’t ask again, but moments later he repeated his question undeterred. He was going to need an answer. And my verdict? “No, I am not coming to the bookstore, I don’t have any money”. The boy continued to campaign for his book, becoming more and more commanding, insisting on waiting for me after my visit to the churches, but I repeated my refusal kindly but firmly and with a few words from the older boy, he gave up just as we arrived outside the church gates. They said their farewells and with one last promise from the boy to “see you later”, they were gone.

Once inside, I paid the enormous $50 entrance fee (unlucky me, the price had only just been jacked up from $19 earlier this month) and was issued a guide named Tesfaw, a friendly young man in his early twenties with a bright face and honest eyes. I was relieved to see him - it’s always a little nerve wracking to be issued a guide like this at random, left to the lottery of a leering chancer or in this case a good guy trying to earn a living. As we set off for church 1 of 11, I asked Tesfaw why the price had been increased and how the money was spent. On local communities perhaps? He laughed cynically in reply. “oh no”, he said, “there is a lot of corruption here even amongst the priests, they say this money goes to the local people but really it doesn’t. They want to turn the churches into a commercial business, you know, like the Vatican, just to make money.” He was clearly unimpressed by this venture, not least because very few people who were prepared to fork out the $50 entrance fee also then had extra to pay for a guide and this was affecting his business.

In any case, he led me down some steps and, once down into the very deep trench network that surrounds each church, linked with tunnels, we started the tour. These churches are incredible and almost defy description. Dating back from the 12th century, they were built at the command of King Lalibela, a keen Christian who wanted to build his own African version of Jerusalem. His vision was to craft 11 different churches out of rock, but rather than build them in the usual style, brick by brick from the foundations up, instead he decided to start top down. Hiring 10,000 workers with simple tools to scrape rock, the churches were slowly brought into form roof first, digging slowly around the edges to “free” a huge block of rock from the surrounding ground, then boring out a hollow shell to form the inside of a building to an often very high level of decoration. This must have been painstaking work given the rock only gets harder the deeper they went as relatively porous volcanic rock gave way to much harder basalt. The buildings themselves are each very different and in various states of repair - time and earthquakes have both taken their toll on these structures, so anything that can cause vibration, such as communal chanting, has to take place outside the church walls in the trenches. Suffice to say I loved walking through this mind-boggling myriad of low tunnels, uneven pathways and rough trenches as we made our way from one church to the next. This place was incredibly peaceful and I was in awe of the whole place, which truly felt like I’d passed into another world.

At twelve o’clock the entire compound shuts for a two hour lunch break, so Tasfew and I agreed to meet up again at 2pm, ready for the gates to reopen so that we could visit the last 5 churches. Once out of the church complex, I decided to take the paved path up the hill in search of somewhere to eat, only to find that within 5 minutes of a steep hike, I was right back outside the 7 Olives hotel. This left me in no doubt that those boys had definitely led me to the churches via the “scenic” route with the precise intention of conducting their campaign in an area where I would more likely feel pressurised to do what they wanted. As I sat down to lunch, I thought about this some more. Had I been right to refuse the child a school book? After all, he hadn’t been demanding hard cash and assuming he genuinely wanted the book, he was just trying to further his own education and get himself a better future. But all the same I didn’t particularly liked his backstreet approach and was wary of where the demands for help might end.

Still puzzling this one over in my mind, once lunch time was over I headed back to the churches and met Tasfew for some more exploring. We arrived at the first church just before the doors had been reopened, so while we sat waiting I asked him how long he had been a tour guide. “only 3 years or so” he said, “after I’d finished my diploma in Tourism from Addis University”. “Great stuff”, I replied, “was it hard to get into University?”. Tasfew briefly looked down at his feet, then replied “Yes, I used to be a street child, you know, I lived on the streets”. “Really?” I asked, rather surprised. “Yes, I used to live and work on the streets. When I was 16, I was trying to learn tour guiding from another man and I met this Irish couple, only maybe 30 years old, and I asked them, would they sponsor me to go to University in Addis?”. I nodded, astonished that this smart young man before me had once lived on the streets. “And they just agreed?” I asked. “No, we talked a lot and exchanged a lot of messages and things and eventually they agreed to sponsor me through University, fees, accommodation, food etc. They were very kind to me, that’s a lot of money.” He went on. “I am planning to work maybe two or three years more, then I want to start my own tour guiding business” he added proudly. I was dumbfounded. This sparky young man had seen his entire life transformed by the extraordinary generosity of this young Irish couple who, by providing him with an education and a means of income, had given him the tools to stand on his own two feet and stand up in society. By sharp contrast I had just refused to buy a 12 year old one school book. I felt terrible.

Shortly afterwards however the gates to the church swung open and Tasfew signalled that it was time to continue with our tour. We pottered around some more churches before stopping outside the entrance to a dark tunnel. “Ok” declared Tasfew, “this is where it is thought that prisoners were led to a courthouse in this complex back in the 12th century. It’s very dark as its meant to represent hell.” he explained with a grin. “would you like to take my hand so that I can lead the way?”. Ever the independent female though, I politely declined, adding that I would use the wall to guide me. I take pride in considering myself to be something of a hardy perennial and prefer to manage things myself wherever possible (I do understand that this can be quite irritating to most men - I can only apologise), so I felt pretty confident that I could manage the challenge of a slightly dim tunnel on my own without too much trouble.

Within less than 20 seconds however, the tunnel had turned from “slightly dim” to completely and utterly pitch black. It’s quite a rare
thing in life to be so entirely in the dark and I was amazed that absolutely nothing came into focus no matter how hard I blinked. I’m afraid to say, that’s when I started laughing. I’m a disaster in any situation that has even the faintest hint of daftness about it, I just can’t control my giggles at all. This situation only got worse when my hand, which had been groping along the wall for some sort of guide, landed in something squidgy. “Oh no!” I laughed, coming to a complete stop in the tunnel, hands clasped in front of my chest in horror. “what is it?” asked Tasfew from somewhere in front of me. “my hand touched something cold and wet!” I explained, laughing some more. “can I take your hand please?” I asked rather sheepishly. “yes sure, where are you?” he replied. “right here” I called back, sticking my arms out in front of me in search of his hand. “where?” he said, doing the same. All of a sudden a giant hand came blundering down my face from forehead to chin - clearly in the spirit of all good pantomimes we’d both been sweeping our hands so wide we’d totally missed each others. “oh I’m sorry!” said Tasfew as I descended into yet more giggling and found his grasp. Hands now securely linked, he set off confidently down this black tunnel, leaving me fearfully clip-clopping my tiny cautious sandalled steps behind him, deeply reluctant to trip over and land in another squidgy something. “You sound like a donkey” Tasfew declared, echoing my own thoughts entirely and setting me off laughing all over again. How I’d been reduced from all-action female to helpless
giggling girl with such speed was quite astonishing, but suffice to say I actually really quite enjoyed the light relief from my “I can manage anything!” mindset, if only for a few minutes.

Just before we came to our last and most spectacular church, the St George, which was a 10 minute walk from the rest of the complex, two small boys dressed in very tattered, dirty clothes came clambering down a steep bank each carrying a six pack of large water bottles on their shoulders. “Those parcels look too heavy for those boys”, I said to Tasfew, “I guess they are street children?”. “Yes they are, and those are heavy loads but that’s probably the only way they have to earn a living. It gets very cold up here at night, especially on the streets, so in winter they have to try to rent a small space in a group for sleeping. It’s difficult for them though and many of them get into selling drugs and cigarettes because it makes them the most money.” he explained. I felt so sad - no child should have to sleep rough or get so trapped in this cycle of poverty. These were young boys - what hope for the future could there possibly be for them? It was very unlikely that they would be as lucky as my guide and become sponsored out of their situations to an independent, sustainable future.

Before I could dwell on this too much further, I was led down to the final church, the St George, which from
an aerial view looks as though someone has just carved a cross in a piece of bare rock. Then slowly you notice the deep trench around it and realise that this cross is actually the roof of a cross-shaped church, 30 metres or so deep in the earth. We scrambled down some steps to access it and take a look around - this was definitely the most spectacular of all the churches in the complex, but by now my mind wasn’t totally on it. I was still thinking about those little boys carrying water.

“So Tasfew, does anyone help these boys? The community or an NGO?” I asked him as we were walking back to the main entrance to end our tour. “There isn’t an NGO here for them, anyway what do they do, usually bring in a foreigner earning 5x my salary and give them in a big house with a big car to “help”? Sometimes
the people in the community try to help but it’s hard.” he explained. I nodded, thinking it over. By this point we had arrived back at the gates and it was time to give Tasfew his money and say goodbye. “thank you very much, Tasfew, you’ve been a brilliant guide. I think your Irish friends must be very proud of you”, I said, ever so slightly welling up. “thank you” he said with a shy smile, and we parted ways.

Yesterday I took the long ride back to Gondar to be back here in time for the Timkat festival, which starts today. One of the great pleasures (and sometimes tortures) of riding is the amount of time you have alone, just you and your thoughts in your helmet. I thought a lot about the little boy who had asked me for a school book. I’m not certain that this is correct but I think I did the right thing in not allowing myself to be frog-marched to a bookshop by him. I’m fairly certain he wasn’t a street child but that’s not the point. One-off handouts like that aren’t the answer and I’d only be creating a bigger problem for the next wave of tourists coming through if I had bought him what he asked for (as I frequently see from the kids yelling “give me money!” as soon as they see my white face). I don’t know enough about NGOs to really judge all of them but having already seen so many shiny white 4x4s in Ethiopia, all emblazoned with a range of global charity names, I can perhaps see where Tasfew is coming from. From what I can see, and taking Tasfew as a brilliant example, it seems to me that sponsoring education to bring about sustainable improvement, one individual at a time, has to be the way forward. All this has made me realise again how important the work that microfinance charities do really is - lending small amounts of money to women who need this cash to help expand their existing businesses, often enabling them in turn to send all their kids to school. The repayment rates are often close to 100% on these loans, in part given the existing strong sense of initiative and drive inherent in each lady, and also in part due to the close ongoing relationship and business mentoring provided by each local case worker. I’m due to be spending a month with The Microloan Foudnation in Malawi as part of my trip, and given what I’ve seen over the last few days, I can truly say I can’t wait to see the work they do for myself - and hopefully I can do my bit to help them in return too.