by Brett Kincaid
Perched in the mountainous northern region of Ethiopia lies a little known wonder of the world. With eleven monolithic churches carved into the rocky hills by King Lalibela in the 12th and 13th centuries, Lalibela remains one of the holiest sites in predominantly Christian Orthodox Ethiopia. The churches are masterpieces comprised of massive edifices carved into the red stone, giving the appearance of a Jackson Pollack veneer in red, yellow, and green. Since the churches are still an active place of worship, the environment is decorated with worshipers in traditional attire creating a very spiritual atmosphere. As the only gringo in sight I felt like I just stumbled upon an undiscovered masterpiece.
Ethiopia, to many, is the pearl of Africa. The country has had trying bouts with Mussolini but has never been colonized like many of its neighbors, and this resilience has created a very passionate level of national pride. Additionally, it’s said that Ethiopia has never been plagued by the discovery of an exploitable natural resource, which has created a society of resourceful people. In other words, Ethiopia is safe, the landscape is jaw dropping, the people are kind, and the culture is rich.
Surprisingly, tourism only amounts to 3% of the country’s GDP, which in plain English means you don’t see a ton of fanny packs and people hawking Sprites. On the contrary, visiting Ethiopia feels like going back in time – there are hints of technological advances, but the bulk of society still lives in the same fashion as their ancestors. Of course, this differs in the city of Addis Ababa, the “Gateway to Africa,” which is a bustling business center with 9 million people and home to the African Union.
For me, Lalibela was an 8 hour drive from the University Town of Bahir Dar, 3 of which were on a rocky road jokingly called an “African Massage.” On this drive I was able to see how the majority of Ethiopian people live. Historically, and to this day, farming is the primary occupation, so rather than congregating in city centers people spread out as far out as possible to lay claim to a plot of land. Roads have been built to serve as long distance trucking routes (mostly as a collaboration between the Ethiopian and Chinese governments), yet they appear to be used as footpaths for the people. The idea of having a car doesn’t seem to be a commonplace thought, and they are also very expensive because of import taxes.
This is the structure of the society. People gather and watch as coffee beans are roasted on a open fire, ground by mortar and pestle, melded with hot water, and poured in little cappucino-esque cups called “Cienne”. The act of drinking coffee here, I suppose, is comparable to the British or Indian way of doing teatime. Where coffee is a pick-me-up in the USA, in Ethiopia, the process of making it is a relaxation period (followed by a treat).
a 100-year-old stone underpass bout 5ft in diameter and completely void of light. For the claustrophobic, it is a romantic way to face your fears.