Buna & Bread: An Ethiopian Adventure

Chapter 6: Mules and Monasteries

Jerusalem Hotel, Lalibela, Ethiopia…

Today is Melissa’s birthday. It started with her finding a scorpion in the bathroom. This is not the first time this has happened to her, so she calmly dispatched it to scorpion everafter by anointing it with the heel of her shoe.

Fikru had arranged for the rental of two mules for sisters Mercedes and Reeve to ride up to the mountaintop monastery of Ashetan Maryam just outside of Lalibela. This inspired Jim and I to spend the first part of the hike changing the words of Foghat’s ‘Slow Ride’ to the ungulate-friendly ‘Mule Ride’. Soon “Mule ride! Take it easy! Mule ridin’ woman you’re so fine!” echoed throughout the Great Rift Valley.


While the two older girls rode, we took turns carrying Cian in a baby backpack. She was displeased with these arrangements and let us know by writhing and screaming with all the might her two-year old body could conjure. I felt like a two-legged police car with a shrieking red-faced siren on top.

Even without the Master Blaster get-up, it was sweaty work. But just when you were about to complain you’d see some young woman hauling what looked like a quarter-cord of wood on top of her head. In flip-flops. Fikru said all the kids living up here have to walk this trail every day to get to and from school. I wonder if their parents say it was uphill both ways when they were kids?

There were several steep points where the girls had to get off the mules and walk. I held Mercedes’ hand and we helped each over the tough parts until we crested a ridge and were suddenly on a wide plateau with a small village scattered along its length. Our path took us through their stone-fenced fields of wheat, soybeans and barley that silently waved us onward with a very welcome breeze.


Then it was up some more steep, rocky inclines and along a flat path that hugged the side of a sheer cliff for dear life. At the entry to the monastery, we ducked into a rounded tunnel that leading up to a courtyard and the monastery itself. While dating back to around 1200, its interior was nothing to blog home about. Mostly because our sense of ‘mind-blowing’ had been recalibrated after what we had seen yesterday. But the view from the top of the peak was almost beautiful enough to make you change your religion. Or take one up.

From a bald forehead of rock, where the mountain stared stoically into the ages, we were treated to a near 300-degree view of Ethiopia. We could make out our hotel and easily see the 30km back to the airport and many times that distance beyond, until the scenery faded into haze like distant memories. We had Fikru take a picture of us three adults while we recalled the last time we stood on a mountaintop together in Nepal.


The breeze was carrying loud noises from far below where a large group of people dressed in white shuffled along the main road. They were like grains of rice from up here. Fikru said it was a funeral. When we made it down the mountain and to our car, we were stuck behind the entire procession as it left the church and moved to the gravesite. We followed at a slow and respectable distance behind the group until we were waved through. A white shrouded body was placed on the ground next to an open grave that offered a clear view across a small river canyon to the top of Bet Giyorgis where we’d been yesterday. Not a bad place to rest your bones for eternity.

That evening, while Melissa kicked it old school with her daughters, Jim and I went with Fikru to see the churches on the Eastern side of town.

My brief fear of suffering RHCF (rock-hewn church fatigue) was put to rest as Fikru led us down into the earth until we were in pitch dark. He instructed us to put one hand above our heads and the other out to our sides. I felt the cool smooth volcanic stone near to me on all sides.


“The darkness of this tunnel represents Hell.” Fikru’s voice came from somewhere in the black ahead of me. “Except Hell is seven times darker.” Fikru used to be a deacon himself, so we took his word for it. Although the ancient dark of the tunnel was so thick it was almost a tangible force.

We shuffled along blindly in our one-seventh replica of Hades for 55 meters, which did indeed seem like an eternity. A blot of color grew brighter and became steep steps up to a set of doors built parallel with the ground. We emerged straight from the earth, blinking in the evening sun right in front of Bet Merkorios. It felt like coming out on a whole other planet. No, no RHCF here.

We visited three churches in all; each still garnering head-shaking wows over their construction and each having something distinctly memorable about them. Merkorios had a faded 15th century fresco of the three wise men. I stood a few inches away and stared face to face with their unblinking eyes. Hard to believe five centuries ago, someone plastered this here with straw, ox blood and mud.


Bet Amanuel was beautifully carved and believed to have been used by the royal family as their personal chapel. The outer walls had little holes carved in them to attract bees. Many Ethiopians believe honey from churches are imbued with special healing properties. At the very least, I bet they make a communion wafer tastier. Mmmmm, sacrelicious.

Speaking of wafers, we popped out of another tunnel to check out Arogi Bethlehem, which was used as the bakery for making holy bread. The main floor was where communion wine was stored and blessed.

Perhaps it was because we weren’t with kids or, given the later hour, we were the only ones in the churches, but there seemed to be a much more holy feel to them as we padded about in our stocking feet; a sense that we were the first to discover these places. The attendant priests, leaning in their stone doorways, nodded gently with serene understanding.


On the short drive back to the hotel, we shifted from the ethereal to the practical. We needed petrol. Gas stations were few and far out here, so we took the chance to fill up whenever possible. The guidebooks were suggesting we’d have a tough time making our next town without a full tank from Lalibela. Our inquiries at the hotel said there was a gas station in town, but the fuel wasn’t of the best quality; meaning it could easily gunk up your engine. Which wasn’t a pretty prospect either. After some discussion we agreed that we should just get the fuel—a half a tank of dirty diesel wouldn’t destroy the vehicle—and one of us would sacrifice a sock to filter it through.

Fikru said he’d take us to the gas station and help us out. But when he told us to stop next to a small red corrugated metal shed I glanced over at Jim. Even with sunglasses on, I could make out his eyes laughing “You are shitting me.”

Sure enough, the shed was the gas station. No sign. No pumps. No nothing. A skinny young guy suddenly appeared and unlocked the creaking door. Inside were about half a dozen barrels of petrol. He hand-pumped them into a big jug, which was then poured into our tank through a funnel lined with an old t-shirt. We got a full tank and the locals got to hang right outside our window watching the Ferengi Channel.


At the hotel, we said our good-byes to Fikru. We gave him many many thanks (and tipped him many many birr). He was an excellent guide and was amazing with the kids as well. Very well deserved. So the next time you’re in Lalibela and need a tour guide, ask for Fikru.

Lest we forget, it was still Melissa’s birthday. At dinner, she threw caution to the wind and ordered something on the menu called Epigram Beef. It turned out to be a veggie patty with some kind of shrimp/krill aftertaste, which we all agreed made perfect sense. Although I would have called it Metaphor Beef myself. With a Simile Side Salad, please.

Instead of cake, we had brownies flavored with ancho chili powder, sesame seeds and cinnamon that had survived the trip from Addis. There were candles and presents and the girls belted out a disjointed and spirited version of Happy Birthday while the waitstaff clapped along.

From a funeral to a birthday in a few short hours. I contemplated my brownie wondering how many times those stories were told around the world this day.

[Coming up next: Flats, flip-flops and fellatio…]

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