Friday, February 13, 2015


30 Birr comes to $1.50, by the way.  And when I was trying the hitching a ride gambit, I was prepared to pay 200 birr if someone had stopped.

The 64 km to Lalibela was the type of road where they should be paying you.  Mostly bad gravel, and being plied upon by a beaten up fourth class bus, it was three hours of dusty torture.  It was after dark when we got to the end of the line, still 2 km from the town center and at the mercy of merciless taxi fares.  But for once a hotel tout came in handy; he got me a free ride into town, and although his hotel was pretty basic, what the hell, it was only for one night.

Lalibela is a town of about 20,000 at about 9,000 foot elevation at the end of nowhere.  It is also Ethiopia's biggest tourist attraction AND one of its major religious centers.  One wouldn't guess that from first appearances.  The next morning I walked past some dusty little businesses in the town's 'center', then continued on for about a km to where the Cliff Edge hotel was.  Actually, it turned out that there are now several hotels where the cliff edge is, with more a'building.  A hip young Ethiopian guy named Johannes who had shared the same bad hotel with me last night was now checking into the Top Twelve, so I went in and checked out one of their rooms.

The room itself was actually quite nice, with new furniture and fixtures.  But what was really mind blowing was the view from its balcony.  Indeed right on a cliff edge, the ground dropped 2,000 feet down, and below me and in every direction outwards streched fields and villages and wilderness.  At $35 a night, it could well be my best hotel deal ever.  Which was great, since I had decided to end my trip with a relaxing four day retreat here at the top of the end of the world.

After transferring my stuff from the bad hotel to this one, and then settling in for a while, it was time for lunch.  So I headed out the door and along the cliff for a few hundred meters to where there was another astounding work of man.  Except that this one was by a woman, an old Scots woman who came here seven years ago and decided to build a restaurant.  On the cliff.  In the form of a wacky Dali-esque spaceship with at least five different levels of tables, catwalks, stairs, ladders, you name it.  It's one of the most imaginative little commercial enterprises that I've seen in all my travels.

So I had no problem going back there a few hours later when Chris, the German guy from the lake at Bahir Dar, showed up at the Top Twelve.  And who should be eating there now but Omar, another guy from that boat trip.  Backpackers always tend to bump into each other again, but on the Ethiopian circuit it's really intense.  (Another couple from that boat trip were also staying at the Top Twelve.)

It turned out that Johannes, who operated a tour company in the big city, was originally from Lalibela, and he was back here showing his Canadian girlfriend Ana around.  So Friday morning Chris and I joined the two of them and a tour guide friend of his to do the grand tour of the famous rock hewn churches of Lalibela.

Literally carved out of solid masses of (relatively easily carved) tufa rock in the Twelfth Century, these churches, which are pretty complex and large, would be amazing if found in Turkey or Bulgaria or even France or Italy.  That they were made in Africa is usually seen as astonishing.  However, just as with Aksum a millennium earlier, Ethiopia at this time was just as connected to the Holy Lands, etc., as were, well, France and Italy.  And King Lalibela, who started the construction project, had spent twenty years traveling around the Mediterranean. 

Anyway, I usually like to just buy my entrance ticket, read a little from the guide book, and then sit around and absorb it all.  But now, with a guide, we were all being led from this point to that point, made to look up at that arch, led to the next church, all the while being told endless stories about monks and Jerusalem and King Lalibela's queen, and on and on and on.  Instead of my usually sharp memories, my mind was being filled with a giant jumble.

By noon we had finished with the first interconnected set of about seven churches, they closed the site, and we had to sit at a fancy restaurant doing nothing for two hours.  Then at two we went to the second set of about five churches, and walked up and down ladders, through tunnels, and from rock face to rock face.  It must have been the heat and lack of water, because by now I was starting to lose it, becoming dizzy and not being able to concentrate on all the arches and walls that the guide kept pointing out.  Some water was obtained, which helped.  But by the time we got to the last church, which is the biggest and best, I was kind of numb and dumb.

Back at the hotel Ana let on that she was feeling pretty wiped out, too.  So I figured that it wasn't just because I was an old man.  Anyway, since everyone else was leaving town tomorrow, I would have the weekend to myself and relaxation.  Which I would need, since Monday I was starting out on a 48 hour non-stop marathon making my way home.

But Saturday morning I was still feeling wiped out.  Okay, hang out in bed and look out at the vast vista until I get it together.  But at 4 I still felt crappy.  Though I still had enough energy to head off to another cliffside hotel, which was supposed to have one of the best restaurants in Ethiopia.  Then back to my room.

At around 8 all that delicious food came vomiting back up.  And now I was feeling really, really crappy.  Which continued throughout the night and throughout the next day, the last day before I had to start that 48 hour marathon.  Now I was getting worried.  Can you get malaria in Ethiopia?  When I pulled it together enough to go downstairs to talk to the hotel guy, he wanted me to go to the hospital.  That certainly wouldn't do the day before...   

That night Sara, the German girl from Bahir Dar, showed up.  She had been super sick in Aksum, and she had some extra hydration salts left over.  It must have helped, because Monday morning I was at least able to eat some breakfast and pack my bags.  Now started the marathon.

First, a minibus for 26 dirt km to the Lalibela airport.  On the way, though, I had them stop at a pharmacy to pick up some Cipro.  Yes, the stomach bug wasn't the worst ever; but there was no way I was going to make it anywhere without knocking it out first.  Then the prop flight to Addis by way of Gonder.

There was actually a construction zone between the domestic and international terminal, so I had to walk the long way around.  Then, with flights only going out late at night, the international terminal was pretty much shut down here at 3 PM.  Fortunately there was a little cafe, so I sat there for the next four hours, staring into space and trying to put some spaghetti nourishment in my body.  Finally check in at 7:30, through security and up the stairs, and then stare into space until 10, when it was time to board the plane.

Now sit in my seat in the plane for the next 18 hours.  That's right, 18.  Fortunately there were two empty seats next to me, so I was able to lie down and get 5 or 6 hours of sleep.  But it was the same bad selection of movies, so the entire rest of the time I was either reading a magazine or staring into space.

Dulles, minus about 8 time zones, the next morning at 8.  Then a five and a half hour flight to LA at noon.  Then a three hour wait until a flight back to ABQ.  Home at 10 Mountain Time.  So it was actually 50 hours.  While I was feeling pretty, pretty sick.  But who's counting?

Point is, I might be getting too old to be out there overpushing a body which was never all that sturdy to begin with.  I'm certainly still feeling it days later.  In fact, a bad cough I've had since Somaliland has now gotten worse.  So maybe it is finally time to stop with the Third World expeditions.  After all, I've pretty much run out of places to go to. 

On the other hand, though...


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