Holy Land of Honey


This blog entry about the events of Friday, May 28, 2004 was originally posted on June 03, 2004.

DAY 223:  According to legend, in the the 11th century, an Ethiopian king named Lalibela had a divine vision in a dream, which instructed him to building a bunch of churches.  And so, eleven churches were built in his name in a mountain town of his same name, and it it amongst the holiest places in all of Ethiopia.

Getting to the town of Lalibela was a much easier affair than getting to Bahir Dar or Gondar; this time I took a plan over the mountains to spare my lungs from vacuum bag torture.  After the 30-min. flight over the Simien Mountains I found myself at Lalibela airport where a taxi service drove me through along the curvy mountain roads into town.  The salesman in the back seat with me tried to push a tour right away, but I declined with the fib that “I’m waiting for someone first.  I don’t know what our plans are.”

The Private Roha Hotel, as opposed to the luxurious government-run Roha Hotel, was a humble little place atop a hill with a view of the town.  The town was more like a big mountain village with only one paved road (to the airport).  The rest of the dirt roads went winded up and down hill for the villagers to walk from place to place.  According to Lonely Planet “the town is chronically poor and full of ailing beggars and pilgrims,” which (for a change) was right on the money.  My guidebook also said “You’re visit will be a misery unless you hire a guide.”  Before my Change of Plans, a guide was already taken care of and booked in advance, but now I was back to the drawing board. 

Luckily there was a friendly teenage boy named Adam at the Private Roha who offered to show me around at a flat rate of 150 birr, which included seeing the eleven rock-hewn churches, a trek up the mountain to the Asheton Maryam monastery, seeing a soccer game and a religious ceremony.  With not banks or money exchanges in town, I had limited cash and had to figure a way to get some more; all I had was a rejected AmEx card, a MasterCard with a small cash advance as far as I remembered (only $18 available) and a $50 travelers check.  The fancy government Roha Hotel let me exchange the travelers check provided that I eat there, and after my fancy lunch I asked the hotel manager about my 150 birr prospect with Adam.  He confirmed it was a good deal — an official guide would have been 250-300 birr — provided that Adam could would be permitted into the churches like an official guide.

“I checked with the hotel manager,” I told Adam back at the Private Roha.  “He says that you’re giving me a good deal if you can get into the churches.  But he says only official guides can get in.”

Adam argued that they’d let him in anyway, and with not much choice or time, I just went with Adam’s deal; at 100-150 birr less than the price of an official guide, I supposed I’d just get what I paid for.

ALL AFTERNOON ADAM LED ME around town, through the Saturday markets, to five of the eleven churches (saving six for the next day) and he was right; he was allowed into the churches as my guide — well, three out of five ain’t bad.  For the two he wasn’t allowed to enter, he simply explained to me outside the things I’d see inside. 

We started off with the most famous of the churches, the St. George Church, the definitive church as seen in a Lalibela postcard.  St. George’s distinct cross shape (picture above) was carved from the ground downwards with (as legend has it) the help of angels. 

Walking through the narrow, carved-out passageways, catwalks and tunnels carved in and through the bedrock on the base level of the churches, Adam led me to the holy places, the Aba Lebena, the Beata Emannuel, the Beata Gabriel and Aba Merkoreos.  Inside, priests showed me sacred crosses and centuries-old bibles, letting me touch and photograph them.  In Aba Lebana, the priest there even blessed me with the sacred cross like I was being knighted by a king.  While that made me a bit holier, I was no match for a holy man who made a pilgrimage to the Aba Merkoreos church and died there.  His 500-year-old bones still remain.

I was impressed with the craftmanship of all of the churches; it was like walking through ancient history, untouched by mainstream tourism.  Perhaps the mystique of the churches would not last forever; most of them were covered in scaffolding for restoration as funded by UNESCO.

KING LALIBELA, ACCORDING TO ADAM’S STORY, was born centuries ago and was temporarily abandoned by his mother.  When she returned, the baby was surrounded by honey bees, and thus his name “Lalibela” was given, for it means “honey eater.”

Honey eaters still exist today in Tej houses all over the country.  Tej is a fermented honey mead drink served in flasks that a mad scientist might use.  The concoction inside can get you pretty drunk fast — I had a pretty strong one in Addis Ababa that got me pretty trashed after my first sampling of it. 

The Askalech Tej House in Lalibela was where I spent the rest of the day, sitting in a corner booth with Adam, sipping on tej.  Adam turned out to be a good guide after all, although just not super enthusiastic — but then again, who was to say an official guide would have been?  I tried to buy Adam a tej hoping a little liquor would spice him up, but he declined.

No matter, more for me.  Needless to say I got tipsy and I wondered if it was the tej that provided the “divine vision” for Lalibela to build all those churches.

Next entry: Where Am I From?

Previous entry: From Guess to Gondar

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Comments for “Holy Land of Honey”

  • Timezone advantage propells me to the top once again! I LOVE Japan!

    ERIK: Amazing pics as usual. Yeah, it was probably the tej!

    MARKYT: Jetsgo is all up in La Guardia! I might jet down to NYC after both I, and my Visa recover from Asia.

    That’s weird about the ATMs. My Royal bank card is on the PLUS system and it’s never not worked in Toronto.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/03  at  11:31 AM

  • TD0T: Congrats… then again you cheated!  wink

    I believe Plus IS Visa if I’m not mistaken…

    I take it Japan is good?  Is it super-expensive like I’m hearing?  Have you stayed in a “capsule hotel” yet? 

    I may have to head up there myself if LIZ’s offer to crash on a futon still stands in September…

    “Sake it to me, baby!” - Austin Powers (The OTHER International Man of Mystery)

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/03  at  11:46 AM

  • Erik, of course the futon offer still stands.  And I know how to do Tokyo on the cheap smile Lots of cool things to do here for free, or just some train fare.
    This Ethiopia experience sounds amazing.  It seems somewhat more adventurous and less tourist trail if anyone knows what I mean.

    Posted by Liz  on  06/03  at  07:46 PM

  • LIZ:  Awesome…  Perhaps late August/Early September?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/03  at  09:52 PM

  • pics are nice..

    oh so jetsgo goes to la guardia huh?  well let me know when and if you make it down….

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/03  at  11:46 PM

  • Erik - any time you wander thru this way is fine smile

    Posted by Liz  on  06/04  at  03:12 AM

  • LIZ:  Awesome!  I’ve always wanted to go there and find out if the 80s pop song “Big in Japan” was ever big in Japan…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/04  at  10:53 AM

  • Go to Ireland, the mead is much “cleaner looking” there. And yes it too will get you fun-duh-mental. I love the stuff, I’ve got a stash to last me until I get back to the emerald isle.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/06  at  05:57 AM

  • Those churches are amazing! Thanks for the pics.

    If it was big in Japan, you have to tell me!!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/08  at  10:44 AM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by BootsnAll.com. It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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Next entry:
Where Am I From?

Previous entry:
From Guess to Gondar


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