I was doomed from the very first moment I saw him.
It was late, the sky was inky black, and I was wandering alone through a sleepy village, lost. In Africa. Lalibela, Ethiopia to be precise. Oh so lovely Lalibela. I had ached to see Lalibela for years, a result of a couch bound weekend of pouting over lost love. The television, in an effort to console me, tempted me with pictures about not just Africa, not just Ethiopia, but LALIBELA. I’m not yelling, sometimes I feel like it deserves to be written in capital letters, and bowed down to.
I would kiss Lalibela’s feet if it had any. I can’t explain it – I had worshiped it from afar, hanging my heartstrings from it, hoping someday it would mend me, fill me up, answering questions to all of life’s mysteries. A pilgrimage of sorts. I’m a sucker for a good travel show it seems.
This is one cool town. Almost a thousand years ago, King Lalibela had a problem. A deeply Christian area, he noticed that his subjects weren’t able to make the pilgrimage to their holy land, Jerusalem. Wars, long distances, closed borders and such. So he prayed over this little dilemma, and was struck with inspiration. He believed that God answered his prayers with a task. Feverishly determined, he would create a New Jerusalem for his people. Not just a church, but 11 of them. And not any old churches, these ones would be carved from stone, down into the ground, hidden from sight, keeping them and their congregation safe.
That’s right, with basic tools and tenacity, these churches were moulded, formed, revealed from rock. Inch by inch. Each featuring individual, intricate designs – one inspired by a wooden church not far away, another in the shape of a cross. Some have Arabic styled windows, one has the Star of David carved into the ceiling while another has Noah’s rainbow carved into the ground. And all of them will make your jaw drop. This was no small feat. It took thousands of people a very long time to accomplish. How long? It’s a good question. Some suggest a couple hundred years, but legend says it took about 20 years – after the workers went home at night, the angels would come down and continue the work. I like that version of the story better.
My guide was wonderful. He was knowledgeable, passionate about history, and very patient as I took a bazillion photos. He waited patiently as I knelt at altars, received blessings from priests, traced my fingers along the walls and admired centuries-old paintings. And the very best thing he did – he pointed out a bar. “If you want to listen to some music tonight, go to that one.” Best piece of advice I got during my whole three weeks in Africa.
Later that night I found myself wandering out into the darkness, fueled by fierce and delicious Ethiopian coffee, still surging through my body from hours earlier. I wasn’t really sure where I was, how far away this bar had been, and what lurked down all of those alleyways, but I heard little snippets of music dancing across the night sky. Like a pig seeking the most elusive of truffles, I ventured off determined to find this bar. I could hear my over-protective aunties screaming at me from 7 time zones away.
I use the term “bar” loosely. More like a bamboo, thatch-roof tiki-style fort that you’d build if you had a fantastic backyard and a ton of time. I snuck upon it, not sure that I would be welcome, or brave enough to venture inside. But a small, sunburned ginger in a little African town tends to stick out a wee bit. As I poked my head inside, the music came to a screeching halt. All eyes were on me. A cricket chirped in a back corner somewhere. I froze, any bravery I had mustered up abandoned me. Suddenly, a bright smile from the centre of the room caught me. “Come, come inside,” he said. He was the source of this brilliant music, this enchanting song. He shuffled me in, and sat me down on a bench along the wall and jumped right back into his melody.
They all stared at me – a smattering of men and women of all ages stealing glances, and offering smiles. And bursting into laughter… Apparently the singer was singing to me. No, about me. Roars of laughter, cheers and fits of giggles all aimed in my direction. Not unsettling at all. Actually, all I could do was laugh along with them – that contagious sort of laughter that you have no clue why, but you can’t help but join in. Eventually a kind soul sat with me, and translated the made up on the spot song. He sang about my hair. About Canada. About love. About something that made my ebony translator blush and the crowd roar a little bit louder.
Soon the singer took a little break, and joined my translator and I. Before I knew it, I had a large glass of ‘tej’ – locally brewed honey wine in front of me. Yes, I have read the warnings about local hooch and blindness, but it was so tasty! In an effort to claim me, the singer wrapped me in his ‘shemma’ a long white linen scarf that smelled like man heaven – the perfect combination of cinnamon, honey and firemen. I was instantly a giddy 12 year old girl. “Enjoy” he said, with a warm smile. “Enjoy, enjoy!”
As the night lingered on, the music continued and the dancing began. Traditional songs, drumming and dancing that simply blew my mind. Warm smiles, laughter, and with enough honey wine infused bravery, they even got me dancing. So very pitiful, but I danced anyway. This is their evening – no couch lumping, facebooking, text messaging. Joy, community and tradition instead. And the public mocking of a ferenji. You can check out my horrid video skills here, and here.
After shameless flirting, serenading and tumblers of hooch, the music grew quieter. As if the sandman stole through the room, sprinkling sleepiness on the revellers. I emptied my pockets into the collection dish, shook hands with my new friends, slipped my arm into the singer’s and we snuck out into the night. I believe he got a high five along the way. We wandered the streets, giggling, trying to make sense of our charades and broken English, puzzling over which hotel I belonged to.
We eventually figured it out. He kissed me goodnight at the iron gates of my hotel and I declared that I was keeping his scarf. He simply smiled and said “enjoy, enjoy!” and strolled off into the night.
Oh Lalibela, you fill up my heart.
A quick thank you to Ethiopian Airlines and Ethiopian Holidays who made these shenanigans possible. My misbehavior is neither a reflection of, nor encouraged by, these companies – they are wonderful and come highly recommended. If you’re thinking about a jaunt over to Africa, Europe or even the far east, give award-winning Ethiopian Airlines a shot – their new 787 Dreamliners are cushy!