We fly to Lalibela in the late morning. The terrain is mountainous with planting fields built in small terraces along the sides of the sloping hills. The locals use rocks to built the terraces' short walls and it looks a little like I would imagine Europe in the middle ages.
This is really donkey capital - I see donkeys walking with heaps of wood talker than they are, with metal scraps and improvised harnesses, with ropes tied to their necks and then to their legs to prevent them from running, or simply with nothing at all, walking slowly but surely up and down the roads.
Everyone here plows their field with three coarse pieces of wood tied to two humped cows, with a dangling machete in between them, working the earth and creating sowing ditches. Again, the roads are impressive in this town, some are even built to last with stone-paving.
We go visit the famous rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. After initially balking at the 20 dollars entrance fee, I quickly come to eat my words. This site is protected by UNESCO, and for a good reason.
There are 11 ancient churches in the close vicinity, 10 of which are completely carved out of a single block of rock. They are all adorned with paintings dating back to the 1600, and painted, carved protusions on the walls. The floors are completely covered in hand-made Ethiopian rugs. The small windows provide fluorescent patches of light that seems to jump from the thick rock walls but don't even pierce the dark, cool insides.
We take our shoes off at the entrance of each church, and enter fumbling around until our sight starts to adjust, and catch a glimpse of a white scarf or a wooden bench. We try not to trip on the layers of rugs beneath our feet, covering the uneven ground. Our guide uses finger-thin, home-made candles to show us complex symbols on the ceilings. There is a priest guarding each church, adorned with a heavily embroidered garb (they look like the paintings of the old bishops of France, but with dark skin, and white, cotton hat-scarves).
In each cavern, people approach the priests and kiss their elaborate cross three times (mouth, forhead, mouth again). The churches are connected by a labyrintian set of hallways. As we weave in and out of hallways and grottos, we strain to stay upright in the heavy rain and quickly forming clay mud.
Legend has it that it that King Lalibela, who was a king and a priest, carved the churches in the daylight from 1166 to 1189 (a duration of 23 years), and two angels continued his work, at twice the rate, during the night. These are churches built from angels and a king. It is also said that, before King Lalibela could even suckle from his mother's breast for the first time, white bees delivered honey ("lal") to his mouth, thus causing the local population to rename him Lalibela.
The last church, set apart from the others and carved in a separate piece of rock, is called St. George's. It is built in the shape of an even-armed cross, so well proportioned that when one looks down on it from a small hill, it looks like a one dimensional carving, and doesn't betray its three stories.
Even in the rain, cold and dark, and even when straining to hear the guide, I am awed by the sheer maginificence of the churches, and the people who were inspired to build them. At this point, my camera completely craps out, and I later realize that have forgotten the charger in D.C., which nearly gives me a heart-attack for the rest of the trip.