I was doomed from the very first moment I saw him.
So, I know. I’ve heard it plenty of times, from plenty of worried aunties and concerned friends. “You’ll end up in a snuff video” they say. “We’re going to read about you in the news, and not in a good way,” they plead. But some things can’t be helped, especially when you have jet fuel coffee surging through your body. For me, a sip is far more than should ever cross my lips. It races through my body like electricity, making my heart convulse, my fingers tremble and my taste buds dance. And this was Ethiopia, where coffee happened first. You make exceptions in Ethiopia.
It was late, it was dark and I was in an unknown town. Lalibela. Oh so lovely Lalibela. I had ached to see Lalibela for years, a result of a couch bound weekend of pouting over lost love. The television, in an effort to console me, tempted me with pictures about not just Africa, not just Ethiopia, but LALIBELA. I’m not yelling, sometimes I feel like it deserves to be written in capital letters, and bowed down to. I would kiss Lalibela’s feet if it had any.
This is one cool town. Almost a thousand years ago, King Lalibela had a problem. A deeply Christian area, he noticed that his subjects weren’t able to easily make the pilgrimage to their holy land, Jerusalem. Wars, long distances, closed borders and such. So he prayed over this little dilemma, and then became inspired, he believed that God answered his prayers with a task. Feverishly determined, he would create a New Jerusalem for his people. Not just a church, but 11 of them. And not any old churches, these ones would be carved from stone. That’s right, with basic tools and tenacity, these churches were moulded, formed, revealed from rock. Inch by inch. Intricately, they each feature individual designs – one inspired by a wooden church not far away, another in the shape of a cross. Some have Arabic styled windows, one has the Star of David carved into the ceiling while another has Noah’s rainbow carved into the ground. And all of them will make your jaw drop.
This was no small feat. It took thousands of people a very long time to accomplish. How long? It’s a good question. Some suggest a couple hundred years, but legend says it took about 20 years – after the workers went home at night, the angels would come down and continue the work. I like that version of the story better.
My guide was wonderful. He was knowledgeable, passionate about history, and very patient as I took a bazillion photos. And the very best thing he did – he pointed out a bar. “If you want to listen to some music later, go to that one.” Best piece of advice I received during my whole three weeks in Africa.
The coffee had me restless. So that I found myself wandering out into the inky darkness, in an unknown village, well, some things can’t be helped. Good sense be damned. I wasn’t really sure where I was, how far away this bar had been, and what lurked down all of those alleyways, but I heard little snippets of music dancing across the night sky. Like a pig seeking the most elusive of truffles, I ventured off. I could hear the aunties screaming at me from 7 time zones away.
I use the term “bar” loosely. More like a bamboo, thatch-roof fort that you’d build if you had a fantastic backyard and a ton of time. I snuck upon it, not sure that I would be welcome, or brave enough to venture inside. But, a small, sunburned ginger in a little African town tends to stick out a wee bit. As I poked my head inside, the music came to a screeching halt. All eyes were on me. Instantly, a bright smile from the centre of the room caught me. “Come, come inside,” he said. He was the source of this brilliant music, this enchanting song. He shuffled me in, and sat me down on a bench along the wall and jumped right back into his melody.
They all stared at me – a smattering of men and women of all ages stealing glances, and offering smiles. And bursting into laughter… Apparently the singer was singing to me. No, about me. Roars of laughter, cheers and fits of giggles all aimed in my direction. Not unsettling at all. Actually, all I could do was laugh along with them – that contagious sort of laughter that you have no clue why, but you can’t help but join in. Eventually a kind soul sat with me, and translated the made up on the spot song. He sang about my hair. About Canada. About love. About something that made my ebony translator blush and the crowd roar a little bit louder.
Soon the singer took a little break, and joined my translator and I. Before I knew it, I had a large glass of ‘tej’ – locally brewed honey wine in front of me. Yes, I have read the warnings about local hooch and blindness, but it was so tasty! In an effort to claim me, the singer wrapped me in his ‘shemma’ a long white linen scarf that smelled like man heaven – the perfect combination of cinnamon, honey and firemen. I was instantly a giddy 12 year old girl. “Enjoy” he said, with a warm smile. “Enjoy, enjoy!”
As the night lingered on, the music continued and the dancing began. Traditional songs, drumming and dancing that simply blew my mind. Warm smiles, laughter, and with enough of the honey wine bravery, they even got me dancing too. So very pitiful, but I danced anyway. This is their evening – no couch lumping, facebooking, text messaging. Joy, community and tradition instead. And the public mocking of a ferenji. You can check out my poor video skills here, and here.
This is where the aunties should stop reading…
After shameless flirting, serenading and tumblers of hooch, the music grew quieter. As if the sandman stole through the room, sprinkling sleepiness on the revellers. I emptied my pockets into the collection dish, shook hands with my new friends, slipped my arm into the singer’s and we snuck out into the night. I believe he got a high five along the way. We wandered the streets, giggling, trying to make sense of our charades and broken English, puzzling over which hotel I belonged to.
There may have been a kiss. Or four. After some foolish teenager-style shenanigans, he kissed me goodnight at the gateway to my hotel. As I walked away, I told him I was keeping his scarf. He simply smiled and said “enjoy.”
Oh Lalibela, you fill up my heart.
A quick thank you to Ethiopian Airlines and Ethiopian Holidays who made these shenanigans possible. My misbehavior is neither a reflection of, nor encouraged by, these companies – they are wonderful and come highly recommended.