Getting to Lalibela…By Bus!

“Batman has to break the mob…while the Flash travels to the past to solve the secret of…‘The Disco of Death!’”

Yes, that’s right, I read my first comic. Where, you ask? In Kombolcha, Ethiopia, after a 12-hour travel day on public buses, while eating an odd (yet tasty) concoction of rice, beets, and honey. Yes, this is my life.

I left Addis Ababa on Saturday, September 7th after a week and a half for our Mid-Service Conference and medical checks. The day’s destination – Kombolcha. Usually seven hours by bus, we had the unfortunate luck of the private buses choosing not to run and we hopped on a public bus by late morning. Two to three hours later we arrived Debre Birhan hoping to make a quick switch to a bus going to Camise/Kombolcha/Dessie – we weren’t being picky. Two to three hours later, we were on the road again. If you ever find yourself in Ethiopia, don’t, I repeat DON’T travel the weekend before the Ethiopian New Year.

While sitting in the bus station, another volunteer who had left Addis much later than we had caught up to us. He joined our bus and we arrived in his site at 7:30. I remember him shaking his head as the three of us said we were going to try and push on to Kombolcha. An hour and a half later, we were in Camise.

My boyfriend went to Camise a year ago for his “demystification trip” and I’ve never heard a kind word about the city. With that said, we had to hire a private minibus to get us to Kombolcha. We got to our friend’s house shortly after 10. One hell of a day. Which is how I came to find myself reading comics and eating rice/beets/honey. Also…while on the bus, I slept through my first camel viewing. Damn.

Day two almost involved sleeping in….almost. Instead, we made our way to Dessie, twenty minutes away to procure direct bus tickets to Lalibela for Tuesday. But to no avail. Thanks to the holiday, all tickets were sold out. There was talk of trying to hop from minibus to minibus and make our way on our own, busing back to Addis and flying to Lalibela (not actually considered given our Addis/Kombolcha trip the day before), and busing to Mekele and trying to fly in from there. In the end we decided to risk the minibuses and leave a day early. With that decision made, we returned to Kombolcha and spent the evening at the beer garden. We also ate the best shiro and salad I’ve ever had. EVER. And…I saw my first camels.

Chandler and I were up BRIGHT and EARLY the next morning to catch a bus back to Dessie, then get on one to Woldiya, and hope that once in Woldiya we could get to Lalibela – either directly or through other small towns nearby. Our bus driver to Woldiya assured us that we could catch a direct bus to Lalibela from there and proceeded to spray air freshener (that smelled like man) all over our bus.

We were in Woldiya by 11:30 and on the way to Lalibela by 12:30. Good timing considering we almost got kicked off our bus before it even left the station. The man wanted 150 birr for a ride whose distance should have warranted a 60 birr fee. So Chandler started haggling and the man very grudgingly dropped the price to 120. We still felt ripped off until we watched every Ethiopian on the bus pay the 150 price. No wonder he almost kicked us off. Lalibela’s expensive…even before you arrive.

But arrive we did, at 5 pm. The last leg of the journey had been beautiful, traveling up in the mountains and through valleys filled with yellow flowers. The final two hours were on an unpaved road, but the scenery was so captivating I honestly didn’t mind. Also, in 1955, Thomas Pakenham visited Lalibela and since there was no road, his trip took four days (from Dessie) by mule. Seriously, no complaints here. We checked into our guest house, found eggs for dinner, took much appreciated hot showers, and passed out.

Day four – Lalibela. Woke up early only to find that it was pouring. Suddenly found myself thankful we had an extra day in Lalibela. We had already purchased a flight to Gondar for Thursday. Went back to sleep and this time, woke up to sunshine. So we made our way to the churches. After a rocky start (it’s hard to swallow the almost 1,000 birr price tag even when you know it in advance) and a bit of confusion concerning the map, we found ourselves in the Southeast Cluster of churches. We started with Bet Gebriel-Rafael.


This is a photo of the entrance. The guidebook told us we would get to cross a rickety wooden walkway…guess they’ve made a few improvements. We had to pass through some underground tunnels to make our way to the next few churches – Bet Emmanuel, Bet Mercurios, and Bet Abba Libanos.


This was the exit of one such tunnel. Don’t know what would have happened had the doors been closed or locked. Another tunnel was completely pitch black. We had to use the red flash on my camera in an attempt to see where we were going.


I’m fairly certain this is Bet Abba Libanos. Legend has it the church was built overnight by King Lalibela’s wife, Meskel Kebre, who was assisted by a host of angels. Not bad for a night’s work. I mean, it’s made it all these hundreds of years.


Then we made our way to Bet Giyorgis. The only church that stands alone from the clusters. Also the only church not covered by a modern shelter. It stands 15 meters high and is the most internationally famous of Lalibela’s churches.


A view of Bet Giyorgis from below. I love the yellow. I know all of my photos are of the outsides of these churches, and I’m sorry for that, but the insides where a bit underwhelming when compared with how majestic they looked from the outside. All the floors had been roughly covered with red carpeting, and while you’re required to be barefoot when entering, I’d have rather walked around on stone

And thus concluded our first day’s tour – and by tour I mean we wandered around because we were too cheap to pay an addition 300-400 birr for a guide. But we preferred it this way. We were never in any hurry and could wander wherever we chose. Dinner was once again eggs and bread (we were on a budget!) and then it was off to bed.

The following day was another early start, and this time we were successful! Because you know it can’t rain on the Ethiopian New Year. Everyone was out and about in their traditional garb of white. We started the day at the Northwest cluster.


This is Bet Madhane Alem, home of the original Lalibela cross. It’s the largest monolithic rock-hewn church in the world, with 36 pillars inside and another 36 on the outside.


Because it was the New Year, all of the monks were out to celebrate. They sang and swayed and played instruments. The view from above was spectacular. To the right of the monks, by the double archway, is the entrance to the rumored location of King Lalibela’s grave (in the Selassie Chapel). It is the holiest place in all of Lalibela and the soil around it is said to have healing properties.

The very right of the photo is the corner of Bet Maryam. It was the first church built and the most popular among Ethiopians. Men and women have separate entrances and inside is a veiled pillar reputedly inscribed with the 10 commandments in Greek and Ge’ez, as well as the story of how the churches were excavated and the story of the beginning and end of the world. Legend has it that the pillar glowed until the 16th century and it is now too dangerous to be viewed – hence the veil.


Afterward we made our way to Bet Danaghel and Bet Meskal, also in the same courtyard. Then we walked around to the outside and entered Bet Debre Sina. This church is connected to Bet Golgotha, which is another entrance to the Selassie Chapel, so only men are allowed inside. The priest was gone for the day however, and his teenage son was left in charge. He left the door between the churches open when he let Chandler in so I could take a peak as well. The previous photo was taken inside Bet Golgotha and is a carving of one of the apostles.


And with a quick peak inside Adam’s Tomb (don’t know who Adam is…but the photo is of me standing in the doorway), we were finished. We spent a little more time back at Bet Giyorgis and then had a final supper of eggs and bread! Our flight left early the next morning…and then it was on to Gondar.

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