Check-lists and Churches – from Addis to Lalibela

As always when we reach a capital, we have a long list of to-dos. Sorting out everything that needs to be sorted out for the next country on the list, doing maintenance on the bikes, catching up with the blog, and buying or replacing stuff that we (think we) need. Funny, we had only left Nairobi 5 days ago, but the list had not really gotten shorter. Just to give you a glimpse of what we spend our lovely city days with (maybe that’s why we dislike cities so much on this trip): Buy a new laptop cable or converter plug to charge the laptop with European / Ethiopian plugs (because the laptop bought in Kenya has the three-pointed thingy. The square ones, not the round ones like in South Africa. Why do countries have to have different plugs? Who needs this shit of buying adapters and this sort, btw??) Get the SIM Card sorted out (because of course it did not work properly) Find free WiFi to upload pictures onto the blog (apparently impossible in Addis Ababa) Exchange Ethiopian Birr for US Dollars for Sudan, as there is apparently not a single ATM that takes international cards in Sudan Buy new lightbulbs for the brake lights and front lights of the bikes (they keep breaking) Stock up on food stuffs we might not find until Khartoum Getting a backup for our backup harddrive as the latter was giving us some troubles and we wouldn’t want to loose our photos, videos and the other stuff The most taxing task was the exchange of Birr for Dollars. As our friends Birgit and Rainer already had made the bank-odyssey to find a bank that changes Birr for Dollar, and thus could point us to the only one that does (Commercial Bank of Ethiopia, in case you want to know), we saved a lot of time. But it still took a friendly bank clerk (who let us behind the counter to talk to her boss), a lot of talking, repeating, talking and in the end some friendly pressure – Anne just sat down on the chair in front of the guy and continued to talk and plead and explain, as if she had not heard his many refusals. He probably feared we would not leave without him having to call the security guys (and rightly so, we would not have budged!). So in the end, we did not need an airplane ticket, and did not need draw double the amount of Birr we needed to exchange in dollar (which we could impossibly spend in Ethiopia in such a short time!).

We left the bank feeling happy but also slightly uneasy for carrying around so much cash. To compensate ourselves for the hassle, we visited two museums in Addis – the museum of the Red Terror and the National Museum – and went out for a fun dinner with a GIZ colleague (Ethiopian food and live music, and Jan had to dance with!). All in all, we had an ok time in Addis. Our tent also survived the frequent rains, though we were lucky it never rained really hard – the tent probably would not have survived that for long. Still, we were happy to get going again, and leave the hustle and bustle of another major city behind us. From Addis, we drove towards Lalibela in the North of Ethiopia. We soon realized that once again we had underestimated how long it can take to get from A to B in Ethiopia. This time it was the weather, the lack of petrol and a misleading GPS information that led to us taking three days instead of the two we initially planned. The weather got us on the last 4kms on day one. Anne wanted to push through instead of putting on our rain gear (“It’s not worth it!“), and the Ethiopian weather gods rightly showed us what they can do. After less than a minute, we were soaked to the bone. Entering the first town, Kemse, we pulled immediately over when we saw a hotel sign, and asked for a room. The Abenezer* Hotel was decent enough, with clean rooms, and though the water did not work like promised, they had given us a bucket of water and that was good enough for us. The rain had washed off most of the dirt anyway. We left the next morning, with our bike gear only slightly dried, but had to put on the full rain gear as it was coming down again. Luckily, the rain stopped at some stage, though the sky never really lightened up, and Anne got into a broody mood. This was not improved when we were not able to find a station with petrol. After passing through three towns and asking at nine (!) stations, we were getting a bit desperate. Lucky for us, we met the owner of one gas station, and he promised us he would find some petrol for us if the other stations in town did not have any. When we took him up on this offer he first offered us 14 liters, and then, when his employees had apparently told him they had enough “backup“**, he let us fill our tanks and also our desert fox petrol bags. We were very relieved – without him we would have had to spend the night in this (ugly) town, waiting and hoping that the petrol tank might come the next day. But we felt for the poor local motorbiker, whom we had seen driving around town earlier, looking for petrol like we did – he hung around the station for a while, but had to leave in the end, as they did not want to part with anymore petrol. I guess here it was very lucky that we were not locals – and also that we met the boss of the station, of course.

All this petrol-hunting had put us behind our plan, and when we reached Woldyia and called the hotel in Lalibela, we found out that it was not only 110km, but 180km, and that the last 60kms of road were “not good“ and that it would take us 4-5 hours to get to Lalibela from Woldyia. Which in this case would have meant arriving in the dark, a no-go for us in Ethiopia (because of the amount of badly-lit people and cattle on the road). So we checked into an overprized hotel and hoped that this time the hot shower would not just be wishful thinking. Unbelievably enough, the shower worked. That is until Anne had finished. Jan was standing there with shampoo in his hair and soap on his skin when the water stopped. Luckily, turning off the tap and turning it on again after a while produced a little bit of water, enough to get Jan rinsed. At least the place had decent WiFi in the lobby, so we could finally check some emails. The next morning was gloomy again, and while putting on the rain gear and the luggage on the bikes, a friendly woman approached Anne and after some chit-chat warned her that the road to Lalibela would be “very bad indeed“. When she realized the effect those words had on Anne she came back and said the road was actually ok, but the damage had been done. Two locals telling her the road is bad, rain weather, and general bad humour led Anne to being silent the whole morning, and Jan had to entertain himself via the Sena, singing and commenting on everything without getting much of a reply. As so often: Always ask the locals, but be careful what they tell you. The road was good, really good. The first stretch tarred, through beautiful scottish-irish-seeming highlands, the second part dirt road, but in excellent condition. So good conditions that even Anne cheered up and remembered why she likes riding dirt roads. Still, “der Teufel ist ein Eichhoernchen“***, and when Anne had to break lightly to get out of the way of a car, the bike slid on the rocky surface, swerved and BAM, Tikolosh crashed into a courtyard fence and Anne toppled off. Very lucky for all of us, nobody got really hurt – beside the fence and Anne’s pride. The shocked villagers quickly came to help us push the bike out and up, and to our great relief it was still running when we tried to start it. Our apologies were accepted, our money in compensation for the fence was not, and we were politely told to forget about it and get going, which we did.

We arrived in Lalibela already at noon, riding up the mountain with some rays of sunlight finally coming through the clouds. We set out to explore the famous Lalibela churches the same day, but found out that walking up and down cobbled streets on a 2800m mountain was a bit more strenuous then we thought. We left the mayor part of the churches for the next day and instead hung out at the hotel, chatting with a very mixed crowd of travellers from Australia, Czech Republic, China, Italy, USA, India and the Netherlands. The next morning we had to spend on bike maintenance – stitching up a ripped fork skin on Anne’s bike and a broken windshield on Jan’s – and left for the churches again in the afternoon. There is a lot of information available on these online, so we only share the highlights from our perspective: That they were built in the 11th century, probably with the intention of offering Christian pilgrims an alternative to Jerusalem (thus getting some money out of them and also reducing the hazards of travelling so far) That not all of them were churches in the beginning – one might have been a prison, the other a private residence / palace for one of the kings We could not help wondering at the odd mixture of neglect and over-protection the Lalibela churches offer: The UNESCO has built hideously ugly covers on top of most of them (though luckily not on top of the famous St. George church), to protect them against the weather. They have been standing there since 1200 AD, and the stone is obviously hard enough to make them look better than most of the sandstone buildings one meets in Europe, but they got a roof nonetheless. We were trying to imagine the UNESCO putting a roof above the dome in cologne, or Notre Dame in Paris. On the other side, the interior of most churches has obviously never seen a restaurateur, and the beautiful, unique murals in some churches are in a very bad state – most of them half-destroyed, the colors fading, and in some cases also plain dirty and therefore not very well visible. With all those hundreds of expert restaurateurs the Christian church has to take care of their old churches in Europe, it is hard to understand that the Oekumene cannot manage to send some of those over to preserve these unique and precious Christian monuments. Not that Jan and I feel so very Christian, but for everyone with an interest in history, it is sad to see this stupid neglect. We ended the day strolling through town and trying to be friendly while ignoring the frequent attempts to sell us something. Though Anne was very much tempted by some beautiful umbrellas and more beautiful scarves, all this nearly always stays behind as we don’t have space.

*If someone could please explain the fascination for the name Ebenezer/Abenezer to us. Since Uganda every town seems to have at least one shop or Hotel called like that.

**They apparently need to save some liters, for emergencies *** “The devil is a squirrel“ = Don’t get fooled by everything seeming nice and cute, the bad ones are working hard behind the scenes

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