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Sunday, July 6, 2014

Lessons Learned in Lalibela

We finally made it. After a failed attempt to see the rock-hewn churches at Lalibela in 2012 that sent us instead to the home of the Arc of the Covenant in Axum, we were finally able to make it to see what many call the African Petra. These eleven churches were carved out of mountains in the 12th Century under the direction of Saint Lalibela and are some of the most popular tourist attractions in all of Ethiopia.  People come from all over the world to see these massive stone buildings including pilgrims from various regions in Ethiopia, thereby perpetuating a town based almost entirely on tourism surrounding the churches.

The Around-the-World Semester taught me to be a traveler, not a tourist.  A traveler goes places to learn about the people and the culture of the area by connecting with locals while a tourist goes places to take pictures next to famous sites. A traveler goes abroad to forge his own new adventures while a tourist goes abroad to follow in the footsteps of guides who have given the same tour to thousands of other tourists. A traveler attempts to get in touch with the local transportation and shops while the tourist takes a tour bus from overpriced gift shop to overpriced gift shop at the end of each site that they have gone to tour. Travelers are independent explorers while tourists are sheep being herded to traps of profiteering extortionists who make their living preying on ignorant foreigners. At least that is the dichotomy I have come to know.

As Dr. Preuss and Teddy went to buy the tickets to Lalibela, Teddy made another friend. It is no wonder he knows everyone wherever we go. The airport clerk gave Teddy the contact information for a tour guide friend he has in Lalibela. While it is always nice to have contacts when traveling to new places, I was a bit skeptical when I hear ours will be a tour guide. I began to prepare myself for a weekend of dealing with tourist traps and rip-off schemes.  

When we arrived, just the opposite occurs. As our shuttle dropped us off at the Bete Abraham hotel, we were greeted by a smiley gentleman who introduces himself as Tefera. He was the guide that would be showing us around Lalibela.  After some discussion in Amharic between him, Teddy, and the hotel clerk, Teddy informed us that our rooms will cost 250 birr/night (~USD$12.50) as opposed to the regular rate of 900 birr/night (~USD$45) because Tefera is friends with the hotel manager.  While this is welcome news, I thought to myself that this is a clever tactic to gain our trust. The hotel probably never charges 900 birr and they are just telling us that we are getting a discount to make it seem like a great deal.

Our trip was short so we hit the gravel landing strip running. There are 11 churches at Lalibela, divided into three groups, so Tefera decided to take us to two of the three groups the first afternoon, totaling seven churches.  The next day we would see the four remaining churches of Lalibela as well as another historic site Tefera thought would be good for us to see. He said that he would lower his normal price of 500 birr/day to 400 since we would only be using him for half of the day. “Right…” I thought, “Normal price for ‘rich’ farangis who you can easily charge more than locals.” Despite the many discounts, we were still working with people in the business of tourism, a Nazareth of which no good can come in my book.  Despite this skepticism, the magnificence of the churches wowed and impressed.

Outside of the Biete Medhane Alem (House of the Savior of the World)
Biete Giyorgis (Church of Saint George)

This negative sentiment was furthered the next morning when we went to the Yimrhane Kristos Church, nearly two hours away by van. The remote and almost inaccessible church is visited mostly by pilgrims and tourists and since the locals some how recognize that we are not Ethiopian Orthodox, they decide we are tourists.  As we walk through the small, sleepy town to the church, everything begins to wake up. After touring the cave church we emerged to see the town bustling with gift shop owners all hawking their overpriced wares. The epitome of this was a vendor with a dish of coins, both Ethiopian and foreign, including an American nickel which he was trying to off-load on some na├»ve souvenir hunter for the low price of 40 birr (~US $2.00).  “Typical,” I thought, “Mark ups of literally 4000% the actual value…” 

Teddy with the priest
holding the church cross and umbrella


Yhimrhane Kristos Church
(Which I did enjoy! Just not the vendors!)




















When we arrived back in Lalibela, Tefera showed us some of the places where he grew up as a child. Under a gum tree that he frequented in his younger years was a rock with his name carved in it in both English and Amharic.  Despite his displays of credibility, I was still skeptical of his integrity, wondering how many different tour guides call themselves “Tefera” in order to gain the tourists trust.

We continued on to the final churches. They consisted of more amazing architecture and lessons on Orthodoxy, which was strikingly similar to pre-Reformation Catholicism.  Tefera grew up Orthodox so he was able to explain some of the intricacies to us from an insiders perspective.  We learned that the Orthodox primarily use Ge’ez, a dead language that only the priestly order are allowed to learn, much like the Catholic Church used Latin, another dead language that the people did not understand. They worship Mary and the other saints as well.  The prices to get into the churches (USD$50, one of the only prices Teddy could not haggle for us) seemed to be extortion just like the sale of indulgences for the forgiveness of sins.  I wondered if the Orthodox Church profits off of any of the exorbitant merchandise sold at the gift shops surrounding the churches.

After a very informative two days of touring, I had finally come to trust Tefera, whom we call Tefe now that we have grown so close.  What he did at the end of our tour made me feel bad for ever doubting his sincerity.  As we finished the tour in the early afternoon, Tefe invited us to his home for some traditional Ethiopian food. He said that he does not invite all of his tours to his home but he liked our group so he wanted to show us portions of his daily life. When we arrived, his sister-in-law prepared us a coffee ceremony and engira (a traditional bread that tastes like a sourdough crepe) with fresh goat cheese, shero wat (a vegetable paste), and burberry (a spicy mixer for the other two dishes.  The meal was topped of with fresh honey that Tefe harvests from his personal bee hives.  With that meal, I felt terrible for thinking of Tefe as a con artist.  His enthusiasm was not a plot to gain tips or encourage spending, but rather it was closer to the excitement of a man sharing interesting facts and connections to history from his childhood.  Lalibela had been his home for his whole life and he knows it better than most, qualifying him to be one of the best tour guides in town.

Traditional Ethiopian food at Tefe's

Preparing the coffee ceremony and honey

Our group with Tefe and his sister-in-law

However, after dinner there was still the unresolved issue of souvenir hunting.  None of us had given in and bought anything from the vendors we had seen so far but there were still gifts to be purchased and trinkets to acquire.  Realizing that a US nickel would sell for ETB 40, I naturally extrapolated that I could trade a pressed penny that costs USD$0.51 to create for at least 400 birr(~USD$20).  With this knowledge in my coin pouch, we set off with Teddy as our translator to see what vendors were still open.

We walked into the first shop we came across.  Being a coin collector, I immediately noticed the tray of mixed change that included foreign coins and old Ethiopian coins on the counter.  “Perfect,” I thought, “Just the person to unload this smashed penny on.”  I begin rummaging around through the dish a come across a birr penny, the one coin I could not find on my last trip to Ethiopia.  Teddy says that they are just considered a hassle because they are next to worthless.  The only time you really see them is at the bank because they are the only ones that care about exact change.  This makes them rare despite their low face value and explains why I had not yet seen one.  

When the vendor discovers that I am a coin collector, he tells me via Teddy that I can have it as a gift, from one numismatist to another.  I am shocked and amazed that someone in the souvenir sales sector would literally give away his merchandise to a random foreigner.  I pull out my pressed penny to see if he will accept it in trade for one of his other coins.  However, there is a bit of communication breakdown and he adds it to his pile of coins, thanking me for my gift to him.  A bit confused, I just accept it, feeling bad for wanting to take advantage of him earlier.

Our whole group ends out buying many gifts and personal keepsakes at his shop and at the end, he gives everyone an Axumite cross necklace (in the style of the people of Axum in the north).  He stops me as I am about to leave and hands me two Haile Selassie coins saying that if I am a collector, I should have these in my collection.  These are old coins that are no longer in circulation and that every vendor tries to sell for upwards of 50 birr.  “Aren’t these hard to find?” I ask him. “Oh yes,” he says through Teddy, “It takes much sweat to get them.”  I am touched by his generosity and ask what his name is, realizing we never actually introduced ourselves.  He tells me it is Iyere which Teddy informs me means “I have seen.” The Ethiopians are all very proud of their name meanings.  


Reflecting on my meeting with Iyere shows me that I have truly seen.  While there can be annoying pieces to the tourism trade, this does not mean that all individuals involved in it are that way.  I was so caught up in the fact that many of them generalize all non-African people as rich folks that they can take advantage of that I began to generalize all of them as trying to take advantage of me.  Both Tefe and Iyere demonstrated to me that there are in fact genuinely good people in the tourist trade.  I now wear the Axumite cross to remind myself of the generosity of Iyere and to not judge people too quickly by their vocation or any other outward indicators.  

Lesson learned: those in tourism are people nonetheless. 

1 comment:

  1. As a note of clarification, everyone who ventures out into new areas is a mixture of both tourist and traveler. No one is completely one or another! The same goes for any of the other classic dichotomies (i.e. good vs evil, independence vs dependence, saint vs sinner, etc). Everyone experiences a little bit of both!

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