Chapter 4: The Way to the New Jerusalem
Jerusalem Hotel, Lalibela, Ethiopia…
The Ethiopian word for toilet paper is soft, which is an oxymoron of a much higher plane than jumbo shrimp or Microsoft Works. The paper I used this morning took the polish right off the old bronze eye like it was fiberglass insulation. Not exactly how to jumpstart a day that has a ten-hour drive over rumbling rugged roads for an appetizer.
Jim and I had a quick breakfast of vegetable omelets. The menu also included such culinary mysteries as ‘Skrample Egg’, ‘Corn Felaxes’ and the enigmatic ‘Have Break Fast’. Even though Dessie was the Administrative Headquarters of the Italian occupation during WW II, it wasn’t quite enough to make us linger much longer. Besides, there were far more interesting wartime relics just a few miles out of town: the hulking wrecks of tanks. They had been simply pushed aside and left to rust where they died, like metallic dinosaurs, after the last Ethiopian-Eritrean war.
It was another long day of hard roads and mountain passes that were occasionally punctuated by rolling valleys where the thatched roofs of stick huts were the only things breaking a lush ocean of ripe tef. I had never expected to see so much fertile land in Ethiopia. My impression was minted by the images of the famines of the early ‘80s. But countless times I was amazed at the stunning beauty of the countryside that surrounded us. Around one turn, we were immediately in front of a huge curved mountain whose outcropped arms embraced a valley of lush greens and shining golden fields. A few clouds dotted an impossibly blue sky above its summit. Jim actually braked the vehicle so we could stare at it. “I will see this again in heaven.” I whispered.
There was no lack of unobstructed views, namely because the narrow roads hugged the sides of mountains without any guardrails. If Jim had opened his door and looked down, his jaw would drop a good 3,000 feet. I would have also slugged Jim for not keeping his eyes on the road. “Don’t worry,” I nervously joked as we stared at the sheer embankment, “the river down there would break our fall.”
As we went deeper and deeper into the middle of nowhere, we seemed to be going further and further back in time. Hunched over women plodded ancient trails, with massive bundles of firewood on their backs. Barefoot kids in paper-towel thin ragged shirts swatted the backsides of disinterested donkeys. Rows of men squatted in fields, using small hand-scythes to gather up their hard earned sustenance. Others tossed flat woven baskets of grain into the air, letting the chaff float away in the wind.
I wondered what they talked about as they worked. Them and the people we saw walking along the side of the road. At best they might have had a radio in their huts or village to keep in touch with the wider world, but there was no YouTube, PlayStations or even an old-fangled newspaper around to provide fodder for small talk. I doubt Netflix delivers this far out either. We passed the miles by providing made-up dialogue, dubbing reviews about Paris Hilton’s latest album and Grey’s Anatomy plotlines over their moving lips.
By early afternoon we had climbed to the top of a high plateau that, according to our GPS, put us about 11,600 feet. Here, where wood was even harder to come by, the huts were built up of rocks. Of which, there was no shortage. In fact, they could have pulled more of them out of the road. We did encounter a number of delivery trucks and buses that kicked up so much dust, they’d cause a brown out, requiring us to turn on our lights and pull over for safety’s sake. I can still smell the dirt in my nostrils.
Around this point the GPS was giving us some bad information. Or perhaps we’d been given some bad coordinates for the village of Dilb. Our endpoint of Lalibela was one way, but our track to Dilb kept saying we were getting farther and farther away. We traced back and forth over some bad stretches of road two or three times wondering if a random donkey trail or dried riverbed was our missing turn-off. We pulled over near a village bus stop and were immediately surrounded by a couple dozen curious locals.
“Dilb?” I asked, pointing ahead.
“Awo. Awo.” They said, meaning ‘yes’ in Amharic.
“Or Dilb?” I asked again, this time pointing to where we now stood.
“Awo. Awo.” They said again.
We weeded one teenager from the crowd who seemed to understand a bit of English. He swaggered forward gnawing on a stalk of sugar cane, clearly relishing his role as ferengi translator. It became clear we had not gone far enough up the road to reach the turn off. When we asked how far it was we received a volley of answers ranging from twelve kilometers to one hundred. This caused great disagreement and a lot more pointing and arguing among them in Amharic.
As we pulled away I asked one more time. “Where is Dilb?” Thin brown arms jutted out toward every point on the compass.
“Thanks.” I said, rolling up the window against the dust contrails of another passing bus.
We found the turnoff and made it to the airport in time. By airport, I mean a small concrete building, a little two-story tower and a flat piece of land. A trio of National Police lounged in the shade of the entryway, wearing ill-fitting blue uniforms that looked awfully similar to what your high school janitor wore. Except an Uzi lay across the lap of one of them. When we approached we were asked for our passports in thickly-accented English. We were then asked for tickets. When we explained we were here to pick up Jim’s wife and kids, a discussion ensued among the guards that started with being told we couldn’t go in, but eventually resulted in us being waved inside.
I headed for the first bathroom I saw–which was the first bathroom I had seen at all that day–only to discover the paperwork required for the incoming shipment was nowhere to be found, if you catch my drift.
I got the car keys from Jim and ran out to the vehicle in search of some toilet paper. Given that the interior was crammed with all sorts of gear, I was having a hard time finding it. Jim came out to see what the delay was right about the time I completed my quest. We headed back to the airport and were stopped by the same three guards. Despite showing them our passports again, we were denied entry. Even though we had both been there under three minutes ago and were in their sight the entire time. Repeated attempts to get any kind of explanation from them resulted in the equivalent of a grunted “Because those are the rules.” Even our incredulous looks and exaggerated shrugs weren’t going to make them budge.
At this point all we could hope to do was annoy them into submission. I slipped off behind one of the guards and stared directly at the other without blinking for as long as I could. Jim’s tactic was to stand between the two guards on either side of the entryway and slowly shuffle forward until he was right between them.
He was asked to step away several times. “Am I doing anything wrong? Then, no, I am not moving. Not moving.” he repeated with a sweep of his arms that indicated he was magically rooted into place. So they let him stay. At one point Jim even showed them his diplomatic passport to prove his non-terrorist status. This didn’t work, but their mumbled excuses were said in a tone that was internationally understood as “Hey, I’m only following rules and I make like $20 a month.” The guy with the Uzi conveniently got up and walked away to check the security fence or something pressing like that.
This continued for about twenty minutes with me visually boring holes in the one guard’s forehead and Jim placing himself between the two remaining guards like an annoyed oak. I also pretended I understood their Amharic; laughing or shaking my head whenever they did. I’m not sure if it worked, but their conversation noticeably dropped off. While it didn’t result in us being let inside, their discomfort was at least moderately satisfying.
At last the buzz of an incoming plane was heard and we saw a small twin prop swoop into the valley in the distance. You have to remember this airport is so small that we could see all the way through the narrow building clear out to the tarmac and watch the plane pulling up a mere thirty yards away. Melissa got off the plane with two kids, an infant and a bunch of luggage. Still the guards would not let us in to help. Mercedes and Reeve saw Jim and began running at him yelling “Daddy! Daddy!!” Jim reached out to gather them up saying “Daddy can’t come any closer or he might cause an international incident.”
From there it was a blessedly short haul into Lalibela over mostly paved roads. As we turned into the village we were immediately in the middle of hundreds of students letting out from classes. Their sea of light blue school uniforms parted around us and we were surrounded by waving and welcoming kids. ’’Allo! Welcome to Lalibela!” they said with such sincere grins that I wondered if the embassy had told local authorities to prepare a reception for us. It was a redeeming pleasantness after our aggravating afternoon with the airport guards.
The Jerusalem Hotel was across a dirt soccer field at the end of sandy road. Staff members immediately appeared from shaded doors and overhangs to help us with our luggage and pat the kids on their heads. We seemed to gain a degree of respect as they saw the days of road grime coating the vehicle.
My room has a little patio that I’m sitting on right now, watching the last heat of the sun melt the clouds into gold. Below my perch, at the bottom of a small hill, I can catch a glimpse of a narrow road lined with a few mud huts. I see people who have so little and work so hard to make a living in the strictest sense of the word. Yet I still hear the sounds of pleasant chatter and unmistakable laughter floating up to me. I cannot understand the words, but the meaning doesn’t escape me.
[Coming up Next (And Soon): Fikaru and the Shoe Tender]