We already had Chris and Kate’s entrance tickets to see the Churches, so we decided to splurge on a tour guide. We had read that prices ranged from 150 – 350 birr, but the licensed guides we talked to were all asking 600 birr. Clearly, the extortion runs deeper than just the price of admission. Eventually, we negotiated the price down to 400 birr for both Sara and I together (200 birr each) and set out to see the sites. Our guide was a deacon (a bishop’s assistant) and I imagine a percentage of our fee is fed up the food chain to the bishops and priests. Our guide was 30 years old and had married a 20 year old, saying that he had to be married to become a priest (where I expect the real money is).
Despite my suspicions as to how our guide’s fee was distributed, I thoroughly enjoyed our tour of the churches. The deacon was very knowledgeable about the churches and started our tour by taking us threw a museum, where he explained the symbolism and use of the instruments, utensils, crosses, bells, icons, and manuscripts used in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Many of the crosses were incredibly old and detailed and I was amazed by the craftsmanship and beauty.
Our guide took us through the church groups in reverse order to avoid the crowd and it was wonderful. They churches are absolutely beautiful and it was definitely worth having a guide as he explained what many of the nooks and crannies symbolized or were used for. In a couple areas, we had to walk through pitch black tunnels below ground which symbolized hell – certainly an interesting way to welcome the New Year!
The Church of St. George (Bete Giyorgis in Ahmaric) was the last church we visited and also my favourite. Bete Giyorgis was the last of the eleven churches to be built in the area and has been referred to as the Eight World Wonder. The Church of St. George is carved in the shape of a cross and it is just as spectacular from above as it is from its trench.
After our tour ended at 5pm, we thanked our deacon and made our way to the Seven Olives Hotel for dinner and to watch the sunset. Although the hotel is nicely perched on a hill, the angle made the sunset a little difficult to see. Despite this, we had a wonderful table outdoors and delicious meal. I had read that the chef trained in America and my delicious cheeseburger (with provolone cheese) supported this finding. Before it got too dark, Sara and I made the long walk back to our hotel past a number of pilgrims who were still trickling in to town.
On our final day, Sara and I went to John Café for a hearty breakfast and potent coffee to plan our day. We knew we wanted to get some exercise and go for a bit of a trek so we decided to climb up to the monastery of Ashketon Maryam and Yimrehane Kristos church. Before leaving the John Café, we also asked the friendly owner if it would be possible to buy some freshly roasted coffee from her. She agreed to sell us ½ kg of roasted coffee for 80 birr if we returned later that day to collect it.
One thing I have not yet mentioned about Lalibela is that there are beggars everywhere, especially children. Unfortunately, this is encouraged by tourists who give money or fall for the scams thinking they are helping the children. In my experience, giving children money for “school supplies” only encourages them to skip school to beg, and thus my advice is always to avoid giving gifts or donations. If you want to support the children’s education, it is far better, in my opinion, to bring your own supplies (notepads, pens, pencils, erasers, rulers, calculators, etc.) directly to the school teacher. Over a dozen times children told us stories about how they needed school supplies or books for their school. Often, the stores that sell such supplies and even the teachers of the schools will be in on these schemes and will created needs for items which have been excessively marked up. While you may feel like you are helping these children, in my opinion any sorts of donations for volunteering need to be well thought out and researched in advance or you may well instead do them harm.
The reason I mention this now is because when Sara and I were trying to find the trail to Ashketon Maryam, many children approached us offering to guide us or trying the school supply scam. After repeatedly saying no to each of them, a couple of older children were kind enough to point us in the right direction. Of course, they jokingly asked for money for their help, well aware what our response was going to be.
The climb up to Ahsketon Maryam was wonderful and I would highly recommend it. While on the trail, many people were hiking with us towards their villages. Children would often ask to guide us or ask us for money but if adults saw this behaviour they would usually scold them. Eventually, there were three kids walking with us who seemed more interested in practicing their English and getting home than trying to make money. We knew they were on their way back to their village as they were carrying bags full of grain. One of the boys must have only been four or five and he was carrying a bag that must have weighed 15-20kg!!! After seeing him shift the bag from shoulder to shoulder to on top of his head one time too many, I offered to carry the bag for him. Of course, all of the locals had a chuckle at the white foreigner carrying the grain bag while the kid danced his way up the trail, but it was my small contribution to show that white tourists are not just pampered rich people to beg from, but that they can also do honest labour.
When we made it to the children’s village we said our good-byes and a new girl approached us offering to guide us up to the monastery. She spoke good English and we knew she was not going to be skipping school to guide us so we agreed. Despite her young age she did her best to be a proper guide and showed us the uses of different plants and would bring us on to people’s land to see their animals. I must admit, it was sort of nice having a local with us to show what kind of trespassing was acceptable, even if she was only eleven years old.
When we finally reached the entrance to the monastery we were treated with wonderful views over the valley. Unfortunately, there were several men at the entrance area demanding a 350 birr admission. In adherence with my principles regarding the extortion of tourists, I denied this price telling them it was a rip-off and I hope that in the future others will do the same until they will realize they will get more visitors by charging a fair price. The walk was still definitely worthwhile though and I loved getting away from the touristic atmosphere of central Lalibela and seeing the self-sustainable village life.
On our hike back into town we met a group of young women who quickly unfolded a blanket filled with Ethiopian wares, including traditional coffee pots. I thought an Ethiopian coffee would be an amazing souvenir but passed it off as something that would be a hassle to carry and likely to break in my baggage. Only when Saran and I were offered the coffee pots for 60 birr (US $3) each did I realize that we had nothing to lose by buying one. In fact, it was such a good deal that we bought two!
When we got back to Lalibela we returned to John Café where the wonderful staff were roasting our coffee beans. Since the process was ongoing, both Sara and I ordered a fresh juice and sat enjoying the wonderful smell of our coffee beans roasting. A ½ kg of coffee for 80 birr (US $4) was a real bargain given the experience of it all.
Overall, I really enjoyed our time in Lalibela but fear that it is becoming too touristic. I quickly grew tired of the children approaching us with their various requests for school supplies and money and was disappointed in the way the priests, bishops, and deacons were trying to capitalize on their churches through extortionate prices that are not spread amongst the community. If I returned to Lalibela again, I would likely try to do more exploration and hiking outside of the town as it was on our hike that I felt I met the most genuine Ethiopians and was able to enjoy an authentic experience.