Bet Giyorgis, one of Lalibela, Ethiopia’s most impressive rock-churches, is built in the shape of a Greek cross.
Plane problems, mechanical breakdowns and unreliable transportation are part of travel in Africa. But sometimes, these accidental glitches can turn into magic.
I’m on my way from capital city Addis Ababa to historical Lalibela, when our plane breaks down. Officials are vague — it’s some sort of weather-meter problem. Sigh. The waiting game begins. Plane No. 2 comes to the rescue but it breaks down too. Killing hours in a barren airport terminal isn’t my idea of a good time but, after years of hard travel, I’ve grown used to waiting. Apparently backpacking not only builds back muscles, it also builds patience.
Sitting there, sipping a cup of Ethiopia’s famously good coffee, I’m approached by a friendly couple from British Columbia. “Are you Julia Dimon?” the woman asks. I look around the airport suspiciously, as if someone is pulling a prank on me. “Um, yes?” I say with a raised eyebrow. “I’m a big fan of your column and follow it regularly,” she explains. Turns out she’s an avid Metro reader who recognizes me from the grainy little pic at the top of my Travel Junkie column. No joke! There we are, Metro reader and writer, getting to know each other in the middle of nowhere Ethiopia. I start thinking maybe the plane broke down for a reason.
Our TV crew arrives in Lalibela after dark. We check into a hotel and prepare for tomorrow’s big day of sightseeing. Lalibela, a major tourist hub in northern Ethiopia, is home to 11 medieval churches built from red volcanic rock. This World Heritage site is regarded as one of the greatest religious sites in the Christian world.
We chit chat about back home, about the places we’ve been, about the places we’re going. Finally, we hear the good news that they’ve fixed the plane and we’re flying to Lalibela after all. Our two-hour flight had turned into an 11-hour waiting game.
When entering a church it’s customary to remove your shoes, so I slip off my sneakers and tread lightly in socks across the cold rock floor. The interior is cave-like, partially illuminated by unearthly beams of light. Priests in heavy gowns read from sacred, bound books. Thick drapes shroud a replica of the Ark Of The Covenant. Each church has a replica but, since the ark is believed to bring bad luck on anyone who looks upon it (think Indiana Jones!) it’s off limits to visitors.
I stumble upon a holy man, hunched over in prayer. Sitting in partial darkness, he reads from a dusty bible, running a gnarled finger over ancient ink script. Through an interpreter, I ask what he’s doing. “I’m praying for the world’s problems,” he answers, “for all people in the world dead or alive.” I feel a warm sense of reassurance — glad someone is doing it.
I wonder if he has any pull with Ethiopian air traffic control. After all, it’s a long flight back to Addis, and a little divine intervention sure couldn’t hurt.
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