Lalibela to Bahir Dar

Zan Seyoum

After a few days trekking in the Simien Mountains we were re-energized and excited to move on to Lalibela, the next stop on our trip. On the drive we were stopped repeatedly by children lining up across the road and dancing. Our truck got dangerously close to them each time before they would move. We finally got a clear path and made it to Lalibela.

Ethiopia Dancing
We later learned that it was a dancing day throughout the country. Every couple hundred meters there’d be a new line of children dancing in the street.

Lalibela is a small town of 19,000 people and is well known due to the 11 ancient churches there. Each church was carved out of stone in the earth by order of King Lalibela in the 12th century. The roofs of the churches are at or just below ground level, and the rest has been carved out to create solid stone structures. We arrived in the evening to the Zan Seyoum Hotel, which is about three kilometers from the town center. We excitedly took advantage of their offer of laundry service as it had been about a month since we had our laundry washed anywhere but in a hotel sink. When we asked the price we were told, “later,” when we asked when to pick it up the answer was, “after.” We shrugged the lack of clarity off and headed to the hotel restaurant for a decent dinner which set us back about $4 a piece.

Originally we were supposed to be camping for our three nights there, however a good enough deal got worked out so we upgraded to rooms. Upon entering the room we found hardwood floors, a modern looking bathroom, and a nice bed. We hadn’t been in such a nice room, let alone a room you’d walk around without flip flops on, since we left Europe a month prior.

The next morning we passed our laundry laying on a bench on our way to breakfast. We left the hotel early in the morning to go start our tour of the rock-hewn churches. We walked for 20 minutes or so through town, picking up lots of curious locals on the way. They liked to talk about how they were students, and while some asked for spare clothing from us, most preferred to ask for our email addresses to keep in contact. When we arrived at the ticket office for the churches we saw large coverings that had been built over the churches, which UNESCO had installed years before. When I looked around I also noticed that we had a new member of our group, a young local named Beattie. She may have been four years old and had a strong attraction to the girls in our group.

Beattie was having a blast with the girls and didn’t seem to want to leave.

With Beattie in tow, we walked through the museum at the ticket office, which is more of a medium sized room filled with artifacts. We were told about the great King Lalibela, the 40,000 workers he used to create the site over 23 years, and why the site was built. The churches at Lalibela were made to allow Ethiopians to make a pilgrimage to the site instead of the long and dangerous pilgrimage to Jerusalem they were used to making. The layout of the churches represented different aspects of Jerusalem, and even Beattie, our new travel partner, was named after Bethlehem according to a local man who seemed to be familiar with her. As we walked to our first church, Beattie was beckoned away, likely by her family, and we went on our journey without her.

The $50 per person for tickets to the churches was a large sum, but they were valid for five days and allowed us access to some incredible works of ancient engineering. We descended down to the first church and after some explanation was given about the various markings and shapes of windows, we headed inside. The churches are incredibly impressive from the outside, but we found them to be a bit less so on the inside. The large stone archways and columns were cool, but the downside to each church was that only a part was available to the public, and the rest was reserved only for the priests. We were told that the Ark of the Covenant was inside one of the churches, but it was in the priests’ area, which they called the Holy of Holies.

Inside one of the rock-hewn churches at Lalibela.
One of the priests inside of a rock-hewn church standing in front of the holy of holies.

As we exited the church we noticed a large group of people massing outside, mostly wearing white cloths and some were crying. As they passed us, many kissed the steps outside the church, and then moved on. We walked up to the top of a wall surrounding the dug out church and saw that the hundreds of locals were crowding around a coffin. The locals not only still used the churches for prayer and services, but also for funerals.

A few of the hundreds of locals that were pouring past us at Lalibela.

We moved through multiple other churches, taking our shoes off before entering each time, until we came upon the lone church at Lalibela that isn’t covered by a UNESCO roof, the Church of St. George. The church was carved in the shape of a cross and stands around 12 meters tall. To enter the church you have to find a narrow, downhill path through the rock that leads you down to a small chamber, then to the church itself. Before entering the church we looked around the walls of the dug out area surrounding it and were shown the holes in the walls which were used as tombs in ancient times. To our surprise we saw behind a thin wire mesh a few mummified human feet! Our guide told us that three human bodies were left there from 900 years ago, mummified and undisturbed. Going inside of the church was unfortunately less exciting that venturing around it had been, so we headed off for a lunch break as it was a bit after noon.

The church of St. George was the most impressive of the 11 churches at Lalibela. It’s the only one that remains uncovered by Unesco.

A smaller group of us ventured to the Torpedo Bar, a local place that had a sign on the main road. It appeared to be closed, but we were quickly led in, lights were turned on, and the dark restaurant came to life. I had been enjoying the local dish of enjera, a thin sour gray bread, and shiro, a slightly spicy red sauce, each time I had the chance while in Gondar. This afternoon I decided to stick with that dish and ordered lamb tebs, which is lamb in shiro with enjera, eaten with your hands. Everyone ordered beer, and for a rare sight, Sissy ordered one as well. While she’s German, she doesn’t like cars much, meat a bit less, and enjoys beer even less. We all drank a few of the local beers and as we began feeling a slight buzz, a few of the women working turned on some local music and pulled us up one by one to learn to dance.

The dances the Ethiopians seem to like barely use the lower body at all, and are almost entirely done with the shoulders and head. Initially we termed it the chicken dance, as the dancers pull their shoulders back and may have their hands on their hips, but the way they performed it was really amazing. As the locals popped their chests forward and back and gyrated their shoulders in ways we couldn’t comprehend, we kind of looked like we were performing a sad hula dance or maybe a very odd chicken dance of our own. After dancing we bid the Torpedo Bar goodbye, vowing to return that evening after dinner.

For dinner we went to a restaurant we had read about in the Lonely Planet, Ben Abeba, which is a Scottish-Ethiopian restaurant. We took a minibus for the 10 minute drive, paid our $1 each, and arrived at one of the craziest looking buildings we had ever seen. The building is half open air, half covered, and has multiple pod looking structures that you could walk onto and enjoy the view as the mountain dropped away below you. As we entered we looked around in awe, and headed up a ramp to one of the flat pods to see the view. We were greeted by a lady with a thick Scottish accent named Susie, who made sure we had tables and chairs set up for our group of 10 quickly. She talked to us about how she came to Ethiopia to teach, and ended up having some young local architects design and build her restaurant. She recommended the Ethiopian shepherd’s pie, which was a dish they had come up with in their restaurant.

Ben Abeba
Ben Abeba may have been the coolest looking restaurant we’ve seen.

As the sun set we finished a few bottles of local wine and moved downstairs for dinner. The waiters had wrapped each of us in a blanket to keep us warm, and even the lowest part of the restaurant was still perched high above the valley below. The Ethiopian shepherd’s pie was delicious, being similar to a normal shepherd’s pie but with enjera and shiro inside. For dessert we all decided to try the gin and lemonade, which seemed an odd dessert, but ended up being really good. Susie explained that the gin she was serving us was a local concoction and while it was very good, it cost less than the bottle it was sold in. We told Susie we’d have to come back for lunch the following day. Each of our meals was about $5 not including the alcohol, which made it slightly more expensive than eating out in Gondar, but still very reasonable for exceptional food.

Ben Abeba
The girls posing on one of the pods overlooking the valley below.

We stumbled down the road for 10 minutes or so back to the Torpedo Bar and were greeted by an entirely different scene than earlier in the day. As we walked in we heard a local stringed instrument being played (some cross between a guitar and violin with only one string), locals clapping, and a lady and man singing. There must have been at least 50 locals packed into the small bar, so we took a seat in the corner and ordered some honey wine. There were dancers that were performing their local shoulder dance as the music played, and they were grabbing patrons and pulling them up to dance with them. We learned that the singer’s job was to sing songs about the people in the bar, making fun of them as they sang.

We didn’t understand a word of it as they sang in Ahmeric, but a local was translating for a member of our group and apparently the locals and our group were being made fun of equally. Every one of us ended up getting pulled up to dance at some point, and Sissy said something that the alcohol or the atmosphere may have influenced, “Maybe I like Africa more than South America.” South America has been her favorite continent, however the culture in Africa is incredibly unique and we were lucky enough to see an amazing part of it firsthand that night. On our tuk tuk ride back to the hotel, which was $1.50 for the 10 minute ride, we heard thunder and shortly after saw lightning strike. As that first bolt of lightning struck, all the lights in town went out. The power outage would continue almost uninterrupted for the next day or so.

The next morning we slept in for a bit, which for us on this trip meant until 9am since we were used to getting up around 5. When I stumbled downstairs to get our laundry I was led to a room full of shopping bags with wet clothes in them. I asked where ours was, and was promptly led to the first bag, where someone else’s clothes were pulled out and held up for me. When I said they weren’t ours, I was led to the next bag, and this process continued for the next 10 bags or so. I finally found one bag with some of our stuff, which was about a quarter of what we had given them. When I pointed out the issue I was taken outside to the clotheslines that our clothing had been put up on the day before. There were the rest of our clothes, soaking wet from the storm the night before. As we were leaving the following morning and it was damp out, I finally convinced the hotel owner to get them dried in a local laundromat.

After another great meal at Ben Abeba Suzie gave us a local cooking lesson. A bit of the way in Sissy and I decided to take off as we were too full to eat the food she was teaching us to cook. When we arrived back at the hotel we were greeted with semi dry clothes, which was a welcome surprise as the power was still out throughout the town. Suzie was cooking on charcoal, so we figured our clothes must’ve been dried by a fire as we hadn’t seen a generator in town, however they were dry and they smelled fine. The hotel put on a coffee ceremony that evening which we attended, not really knowing what to expect. A local woman took some green coffee beans and put them on a pan and put it on a charcoal burner. After the beans were nice and black she dropped them into a mortar and mashed them by hand, grinding them into a fine powder. Finally she added them to a boiling pot of water and there was our coffee. Once we finished up a few of us headed to our guide from the churches house for another coffee ceremony.

Ben Abeba
A platter at Ben Abeba with enjera covering the bottom, and different ingredients on top.
Zan Seyoum
The coffee ceremony started with green coffee beans and ended with amazing, strong coffee.

The next morning we left Lalibela and retraced the rough road we had taken in most of the way to Gondar before heading south. We drove to Bahir Dar, which has been called the Ethiopian Riviera. Driving in we saw wide streets lined with palm trees with Lake Tana only steps away to our right. The city had restaurants all over, and plenty of hotels to choose from. We all headed to a nearby wine bar that we had been told about, which was also supposed to have food. After a 15 minute walk down very dark streets we came to a tiny shack with some sitting space outside. Plastic chairs were pulled out and we had just sat down when we were told there wasn’t any food. A few of us were more hungry than excited to drink, so we took off for another restaurant, missing out on the $2 bottles of wine being filled from barrels at the wine bar.

A lone baboon was sitting on a post on the side of the road checking us out on our way to Bahir Dar.

The place we ate had a massive menu, however we shortly learned that hardly any of it was available. The waiter couldn’t tell us that, we just had to continue ordering until finally we landed on options that were available. That scenario became more and more common for the remaining time we would spend in Ethiopia.

The following morning we had outstanding coffee and good French toast made from biscuits at the Dib Anbessa hotel where we were staying for about $3 each. We wandered down the footpath near the Lake Shore restaurant later on after being told there were often hippos at the end of the path. About a half hour into the walk we picked up a local “guide” accidentally who didn’t want to leave us alone. When we made it to the end of the path we unfortunately weren’t greeted by hippos, so we turned back and finally shook our new friend, who was disappointed that we didn’t pay him for his “services”.

Lake Tana
A few locals try their hand at peddle boating on Lake Tana.

After averaging about 10 hours a day during drive days, we got to sleep in until about 8am, and left for Debre Markos at 9. When we arrived we had the pleasant surprise of a hotel lobby that looked like an Ethiopian Hilton, which is to say they had a TV on, nice floors, and even a little fountain going. After Sissy and I had wandered around town for a bit we happened upon two members of our group who told us about a nearby local café. When we showed up we tried to order a good looking part chocolate pastry, but were vigorously told, “No, no!” We were allowed to get the plain pastry next to it. Two coffees and our plain pastry cost a dollar, so we settled up and headed back to the hotel to watch my first rugby match, Ireland vs Wales.

Ethiopia Corn
The endless cornfields throughout central Ethiopia supplied tons of corn for the locals. You’d see it being cooked on charcoal stoves on street corners all over towns.

We had both Irish and Welsh travelers on the trip with us, so we all drank a bit and watched the game, while some of the others explained the rules. We decided to eat at the Gozamen hotel as well, where we had another issue with ordering items on the menu that weren’t actually available. The food we did get was good, with more lamb tebs for me.

Lamb Tebs
One of the many plates of lamb tebs I’d eat during our three weeks in Ethiopia.

The next day we left the hotel at 7am to head for Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa. We were making good time and thought we may get there with a bit of daylight left until we ran into a big traffic jam. It was an interesting place for a traffic jam since there were no intersections or crashes up ahead. We got out to investigate and learned that a large religious ceremony was being held at a nearby church and buses full of people had parked on the road, keeping anyone else from driving on it. There were a hundred or so vehicles lined up waiting to move, and after a few hours of waiting, some did start to drive on the dirt bank next to the road. We watched a few large trucks fully loaded up try to drive along the steep bank, and saw a few almost turn over in the process. We had seen countless wrecked trucks on the sides of roads in our time in the country, now it made sense why.

Ethiopia truck
The traffic jam went on for hours. When traffic finally started moving we saw a ton of trucks almost wreck.
Ethiopia Wreck
We would see tons of wrecked trucks on the sides of the road in our time in the country.

We saw a truck with a huge digger attached coming toward us, which immediately sent us all running for our cameras. Most of us had been hanging out on top of our truck watching the scene, but with the inevitable wreck coming toward us we got down and ran to be alongside the carnage when it happened. The truck dropped onto the steep bank and made it a few meters before the weight of the digger and angle of the bank pulled the front driver side wheel off the ground. The truck careened under the weight and just about rolled when the driver found a way to stop it from moving. Everyone got out and hundreds of people gathered around to see how the truck was going to escape its impending doom.

Ethiopia Digger
Freeing the digger from it’s precarious position took time and a lot of effort by the locals.

After a half hour of talking about what to do, the crew of the truck had a good idea. An operator jumped into the digger, swung the arm around, and propped the truck up on the low side of the bank. They then backed the digger off of the truck, using the arm to keep it from rolling over. The digger pushed the truck safely up the bank and out of our way, and after some time we moved on to the capital, Addis Ababa!