The Mad Scotswoman of Lalibella

January 15, 2014
5:15 p.m. local time
Bole Airport
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

The last couple of days have been so jam-packed with new experiences, I feel intimidated about starting. I haven’t had time to blog — I’ve collapsed into bed for the last two nights, exhausted and perhaps suffering from a little sunstroke. The landscape of northern Ethiopia does remind me of Northern Arizona, but when I’m visiting Mom in Prescott, I don’t typically stay outdoors all day long.

On Monday morning, two days ago, we were up very early at the Bethel Guest House, after which a taxi driver whisked us through the empty streets to get us to the Addis Ababa airport by 6 a.m. Not surprisingly, there were tremendously long lines at the airport, and if you think that the TSA is slow, well, Addis Ababa security is even slower. You have to go through the metal detector just to get into the terminal, and then you have to check your bags and go through security again to get to your gate.

The first leg of our flight from Addis Ababa was a 50-minute jaunt to Gondar — a previous capital of Ethiopia, it’s a major town in the north. But rather than disembarking, we stayed on the plane and flew 30 more minutes to Lalibella airport, which lies at 6,400 feet in the middle of a high-desert plain. There’s no town there at the airport — it’s a barren landscape with red dirt and few trees. At the airport, a person from our hotel met us and put us into a minivan. Foolishly, I had expected that this would be a “private” trip, with just Kitty and me in the van, or perhaps others going to our hotel.

But no. That’s not how it generally works. Our bags were put on the rooftop luggage rack and tied down with coarse rope, and then other people started piling in — all of them Ethiopians. The 11-passenger van was soon crowded with bodies. And then the driver took off like a bat out of hell.

The road from the airport to the town of Lalibella climbs about a thousand feet over 14 miles and takes about half an hour. While the landscape is barren, the elevation gives the air a freshness, and it wasn’t especially hot. Along the road, we passed many tukels — round houses made of mud and grass, perhaps 15 or 20 feet in diameter, topped with conical grass roofs. They’re beautiful, really — quintessentially African.

And as we climbed and climbed, the road formed dozens of sharp switchbacks, which the driver took at full speed except when he had to slow for a goatherd tending his flocks, a cowboy driving a bull or two, a group of children playing in the road, or a pair of women walking with loads on their heads. In fact, we passed hundreds of walkers, both human and animal, while we ascended the road to Lalibela. None of them were bothered by a minivan speeding by. But my knuckles whitened as we nearly rammed into a full-size longhorn cow. Kitty, who lives in Africa and has taken dozens of shared vans, was serene. She likes to people-watch.

Lalibella is a mountain town that has an official population of about 15,000. It’s situated beautifully on top of a ridge, and right at cliff’s edge, several western-style hotels have been built, including ours, called Top Twelve because of its dozen rooms and its site on the highest point of the escarpment. Each room at Top Twelve has a balcony that overlooks a stunning desert landscape. A fresh breeze blows up the hillside and right into each room, and there are no mosquitoes — and none of the diseases that accompany those pests.

We arrived at 11 a.m., but after just a few hours’ sleep the night before, both Kitty and I needed a nap. So I opened the sliding glass door onto the balcony and crawled under the covers while the breezes blew straight into the room.

At 1 p.m., we were hungry and ready for lunch. But where to eat? As we had driven into town on the minibus, retail offerings had not looked promising. The main square of Lalibella was a dusty crossroads with tiny metal shacks surrounding it, some selling water, some religious paraphernalia, some coffee — coffee is ubiquitous in Ethiopia, which is truly one of the best things about the country. We hadn’t seen any place in which I would order a meal.

But my guidebook had mentioned one restaurant that was not to be missed. When I mentioned to our hotelkeeper that we planned to visit this place for dinner, he suggested we go for lunch. During the day, he said, you can see the view. And this restaurant, Ben Abeba, was only a few minutes walk up the hill. Not far!

We took off up the hill, passing the Obama Souvenirs Shop and several other shops selling curios. The shops were tiny — the size of a pickup truck bed, made of corrugated metal, with an open window toward the dusty road.

Many kids approached. “Hello!” they called in musical tones. “Come in for a look?”

“Hello! How are you? What country you from? I know all the capitals. You name your country, I name the capital.”

“England,” I said. “Lund!” came the answer.

“France,” I said, “Pareece!” was the response.

These kids were proud of their capitals — and we were invited to quiz countless boys over the next couple of days.

“South Sudan,” said Kitty. Hmm. That stumped them. “Khartoum,” said one boy, which I thought was a pretty good answer. “No, Juba,” said Kitty. He hadn’t heard of Juba.

After a few minutes, we saw a sign for Ben Abeba, pointing down a quarter-mile dirt driveway. And what awaited us at the end of the road? It’s actually hard to describe — it was a building like none other that I’ve seen. The roofline looked exactly like a witch’s hat, and and there were various peaks and flying sidewalks. If Peter Jackson had seen this, he would have seethed with jealousy. I felt like I was walking up to Oz in a desert landscape.

There was no clear entrance, just a ramp that rose toward the center of the witch’s hat. As we ascended, a young woman appeared and asked if we were there for lunch. There were no other people around. The day was sunny, so the hostess seated us on a terrace that looked out over a steep drop down a cliff. In fact, the whole restaurant was terraces — there didn’t seem to be any “indoors” here — even the kitchen was open to the elements. And the view was stunning — like our hotel room, but instead of one balcony facing one direction, here the views swept around for about 300 degrees. On all sides, the escarpment dropped steeply. Lovely flowers were planted everywhere.

The waiter brought menus, and we saw that shepherd’s pie was on offer. In fact, my guidebook had recommended the shepherd’s pie, saying it was the particular specialty of the restaurant’s Scottish owner. So we both ordered that. He asked if we wanted a salad on the side.

My travel nurse back at Penn had warned me particularly about salads in Africa. Never eat a salad! You have no idea how the greens were grown, how they were transported, or in what they were washed. No salads!

So I hesitated. Boy did I want a salad. And then the waiter said, “You may eat our salads. We wash them in boiled water.” What the heck. I ordered a salad.

Our lunch was the most leisurely meal I’ve had in years. In Africa, service is almost always slow — even in restaurants owned by Scots. And soon she herself appeared — in her 70s, with a deeply lined face and twinkly eyes. She thanked us for coming briefly before excusing herself.

I don’t even like shepherd’s pie, but it was wonderful to have some familiar food, and the salad was outstanding — fresh greens and tomatoes that were out of this world. They must have been grown on site.

If you know me, you know I love-love-love spunky old ladies, and I had some questions for which I wanted a good answer. I asked our waiter if the owner was still present, and could he send her over?

And soon she reappeared. She sat at our table and told us her life story — a retired teacher, she had come to Lalibella to help train teachers. But when that work had finished, she considered what faced her back home in Scotland. “I realized that I could be a pensioner back home. Or I could do something different.” She talked to an Ethiopian friend about opening a restaurant, and she made it happen.

As this woman sat and talked to Kitty and me and, with the sun shining through her steel-gray hair and her eyes squinting and twinkling, I said, “I wish I were a television editor. I’d like to make a movie about your life.”

She laughed. “A movie about the Mad Scotswoman of Lalibella!”

I actually choked up. Here was a true original — a person who, facing the end of life, had decided to do something completely unexpected. She was beautiful.

It was almost 4 p.m. by the time Kitty and I left the restaurant, and we decided to walk from the cliff’s edge, where both our hotel and the restaurant were located, into the center of the town proper. We had only one purpose for being in Lalibella at all — to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site that encompasses 11 churches carved straight out of the living rock. But we had hired a guide for the following day, so we weren’t going to start visiting the churches now.

We walked into the town. Boys accosted us, eager to share their knowledge of national capitals. One showed me a euro and asked if I could give him the local currency in exchange for it. Many offered to be our guide.

We were really looking for water. In Ethiopia, as in the rest of Africa, potable water is a valuable commodity. Back in Addis Ababa, my bathroom in the guest house had had only sporadic water. Here in Lalibella, the hotel bath had strong water pressure, and it looked clean, but I knew one thing: You must never ever drink the water, or even brush your teeth in it.

We had asked the Mad Scotswoman of Lalibella about getting water, and she had told us that any vendor on the street would be fine, but we should just make sure that the bottles were sealed. As we wandered, we looked at the outsides of various stores, but we were too intimidated to walk in.

We were spectacles. Children tagged along with us. Adults begged us to come into their shops to just to see. Teenagers offered to show us where we were going, and we knew that there would be a fee involved at the end of any help they might give. Both of us felt besieged.

Lalibella is both hilly and high — 7,500 feet — so after an hour or so we were winded. We found a tiny store, probably 10 feet by 5 feet, with sealed water bottles prominently displayed in front. I asked the price. Thanks to the Mad Scotswoman, we knew what the fair price was, and the shopkeeper seemed to be offering a fair price — about a dollar per bottle. We bought four and I started lugging them home, fending off helpful teens who wanted to help the white man with his load.

Back at the hotel, we sat on the balcony and watched the sun set behind the distant mountains. It was magical, and as were talking, we heard our neighbors sitting on the next balcony over. They had Australian accents, and soon we were shooting the breeze with a friendly young couple whom we couldn’t see — the balconies were separated by a seven-foot wall, but the sound carried clearly over the top.

Eventually, we invited them over, and the four of us chatted until 7:30 p.m. They were extremely pleasant. They’d been traveling in East Africa for several weeks — in Tanzania, Uganda, and Ethiopia. They gave us tips about what to do in Uganda. Kitty told them about her work as a nurse in South Sudan. Meeting this couple was one of the joys that you find unexpectedly when traveling — united by almost nothing except the English language and the experience of travel, Kitty and I made a connection with a couple from the other side of the world. And it was good.

We told our new friends about Ben Abeba and they decided to go there for dinner. On the other hand, we had ordered dinner from our hotel — the traditional meal of injera, lentils, and sauces. After dinner, I was just dead. After almost no sleep the previous night, I had to sleep. And fortunately, the beds at Top Twelve were heavenly.

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