Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Ethiopia: Meltdown in Lalibela, Part 1

Arose from my bed at Seven Olives, ready for a hot shower and breakfast. Oh, no water? I opened the door and queried a passing staff person, who assured me water would be available shortly.

So I walked over to the restaurant, with its pretty view of the city, its floral terrace, and happy birdsong. I ordered the oatmeal with banana and honey, and upon being informed there were no bananas, I shrugged and said that was fine.



No so for a fellow guest. He began a one-sided argument with the wait staff about how they should reduce the price of this menu item if the banana component was missing. His voice climbed a little as time went on and his frustration increased. I cooly thought maybe he was having a bad tourist day (we all have them), and did not let it ruffle my generally upbeat attitude toward the coming day in Lalibela.

I'd successfully shrugged off the aggressive touts from the evening before, too, and I had my plan in place to see the historic churches for which Lalibela is famous.

But first I'd go online - even though it cost 1 birr per minute! (in Addis it was only 20 cents per minute; in Gonder 30 cents per minute, except at the pirate Tilahun's private little lair, where he also charged one birr per minute.) So after a good oatmeal and coffee breakfast, I checked the water, found it on, and took a lukewarm shower.

Then I walked over to the reception cottage where there was the PC to use. A man sat in a chair in the lobby. As I embarked on a very slow boat through a sludgy internet hell, this idiot starts the "where are you from" dance. I responded politely, but shortly, and indicated I was busy trying to access my email, where every minute of nothing happening still cost me one birr.

Finally, I gave up on the internet connection, and this same guy said there was a fast internet cafe around the corner, and he would escort me. I demurred, saying I could find it myself, but he accompanied me regardless. The "fast" cafe was closed; we entered one next door. My new best friend got a chair and parked himself outside the cafe while I got started on another fruitless attempt at a decent (well, any) internet connection.

I left, frustrated, only to have my best friend (Mesfin was his name I now learned) encourage me to hire him as a church guide. I shook him loose.

Before starting my church tour, I revisited my room to freshen up. My, it was dark inside, even though the sun shone intensely outside. I turned on the overhead light, which added no discernible brightness. Depressing.

Now feeling quite disgruntled, I started walking down the hill to old Lalibela.

On my way, I was accosted relentlessly by boys and men wanting money from me. I kept peeling them off like so many sticky burrs gathered on a woodland walk, but I was getting more and more irate. It was just too much! My Bradt's Guide map for Lalibela showed two relevant offices - the ticket office and the tourism office. The tourism office allegedly had a list of registered guides (and I had received, erroneously, the impression that a guide was a virtual necessity in Lalibela). As I approached the ticket office, I saw a sign for the tour guide association, but that building was shut tight. I went into the ticket office, but could not find out how to get the list of registered guides. The important factor in my psyche was that I trusted no one in this cursed town anymore. Starting the night before, I had been lied to, heard so-called guides disparage other so-called guides, and heard the same song from each child:
  1. Where are you from?
  2. Obama!
  3. I need ........ ($$$$$)
It now became my mission to reach the tourism office, which lay at the bottom of a long, turning hill. Because by God, I was going to register my tourist feedback about this tourist hell. On my way, I stopped to get water (and escape the kids) and try a 3rd internet cafe (no go). Finally, I found the office.

[A sidebar: I hereby curse all tourists who give money, pens, or candy to the kids on the streets of Lalibela. Children here skip school to beg.]

The tourism office looked closed up, but I knocked anyway. When there was no response, I knocked again. And again. Miraculously, a man appeared, and he let me in. He informed me he was the accountant for the tourism bureau. I started explaining my grievance - that what went on in this town was nothing more than harassment. Then the tourism bureau manager arrived and I shared my story - about Abiy, who told me he was the hotel guide (a lie), about Mesfin, who followed me to the internet cafe and back; about another guy who said he was associated with Abiy and who told me how bad another guide was, and so on.
And then, embarrassingly, I started to cry. This cause great distress to the two men, who wanted to make things right for me. (Or just to get me to stop crying.)

The tourism manager sought to set me up with a guide and tour by calling the president of the guide association. He couldn't reach him and we started to walk up the long, curvy hill. Sun. Heat. A fly sent by the Devil himself to torment me. Altitude.

At one point as we trudged upward, I suggested we get a taxi at my expense. That's when I learned there are no taxis in Helltown due to the incline and the cobblestone pavement. But the kind tourism manager attempted to call the town mayor (!) to use his vehicle. Unsuccessful. We trudged on.

We passed a couple of policeman (who among other things, are supposed to look out for and stop the constant harassment), and they and the tourism folks exchanged some words.

We trudged onward. Finally we reached the ticket office where the tourism men talked with a guide and another person. They seemed to be arguing about taking me on a tour, and this was just too much. I had expended all my mental and physical energy on my pilgrimage to the tourism office. I started to say to the man, "Stop. You've done enough. you have been too kind. But I just want to go now." But I was about to cry again, and didn't want that, so I wrote three items on the back of my notebook:
  1. Thank you.
  2. You have done enough for me.
  3. Just change things for future tourists.
I held this out to the men and pointed to it. They protested, saying no, we want to arrange this tour for you! I said, "No, I am going to cry again. This is embarrassing to me. You've done enough." I pointed again to the notebook. And I started leaving, crying anyway, and this again caused great distress. So we were all distressed. The two tourism men accompanied me all the way up to the hotel, one even apologizing about the satanic fly. I tried to reassure him that, being from Missouri, I am no stranger to flies, even vicious, biting horse flies.

We finally arrived at the hotel, where more conversation occurred between me, the tourism men, and the on-duty assistant manager.

I went to my room, to my dark, depressing room, and discovered it hadn't been cleaned. Returned to the reception lobby, discovered that the custom is to turn in my key when I leave the hotel, so the staff know to clean it. Oh! Then I said, really, I need a different room. It is just too depressing. The assistant manager accompanied me back to my room. When we entered, he moved to turn on the light and I exclaimed, "The light is already on!" I said, "This is the room you give to someone who no longer has the will to live!"

Well, he "managed" me pretty well, uttering soothing words that well-trained staff give to customers on the brink of implosion.

I surrendered to Lalibela, acknowledging its victory over my whupped-ass self, and went out into the light of the restaurant terrace.

I couldn't get out of this town fast enough.

.....to be continued.

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