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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Christmas in Ethiopia

Ethiopia and Abyssinia (now a part of Ethiopia) are referenced in the first chapter of the Old Testament; often referred to as the Cradle of Humanity, Ethiopia is arguably the Cradle of Christianity. Isolated high in the mountains of northern Ethiopia, Lalibela is one of the most deeply Christian regions in the country, adhering to the same religious traditions, virtually unaltered, for the past 2,000 years. The shroud and staff are just as fashionable today as they were in Christ’s day and stepping outside of the hotel is like being transported back in time. It is a trip.

So naturally when we crossed the southern border into Ethiopia, and learned of the Ethiopian’s unique calendar, I was determined to be in the north for the celebration of Christ’s Birthday on January 7th, 2003 (yes, it is 2003 here). Unfortunately at that time, we were quite far from Lalibela. So we concentrated our efforts in the Southwest quadrant of the country visiting the Omo Valley before busting out four long, long days of driving. Our goal was to arrive in Lalibela on the eve of Christmas day.

We made it. We rolled into town at 6:30pm Christmas Eve after 10 ½ hours of driving. Whew.
Driving in Ethiopia is unlike any other (urban India might be a tad crazier); Glenn spent the past four days dodging children, camels, donkey carts, cows, horses, goats, sheep, an errant dog or two, oncoming vehicles drifting into our lanes (or passing on blind corners and hills) and throngs of the craziest pedestrians we’ve encountered thus far. Try imagining what it would be like driving the first modern day auto over the first road in a country where people have no idea about cars and how dangerous it is to cross in front of one traveling at high speed (or chase after one) wouldn’t be an exaggeration when imagining Ethiopian pedestrians. Except roads have existed for years, as has the presence of cars, so I am loss for any explanation other than this lame thought experiment. We can’t quite figure it out and every day are in awe of the sheer stupidity (yes, I am using this word in its most harsh meaning) of the pedestrians. An example: on the way here we saw an enormous puddle of coagulated blood in the middle of the road next to a small pair of black plastic slippers that might have belonged to a 12 year old girl, a full passenger bus high centered on the opposite side of the road and a crowd of 40 or 50 people gathered around. Your guess is as good as mine, but it didn’t look good.

The last 10 winding kilometers of road into Lalibela were choked with travel weary pilgrims carrying all of their goods tied to their backs or slung over their shoulders, Santa style. The simple sight of so many devoted pilgrims somehow made our own ‘pilgrimage’ seem way less epic. We weren’t coming as devout believers, but as gawkers and seeing all of the faithful made our motives feel very cheap. For starters we didn’t have to walk for days under the relentless African sun, or carry our belongings - up steep mountainous terrain - on our backs, or sleep in the dirt for who knows how many nights there and back home again. We didn’t have children in tow. We weren’t there to sing praises to the Savior; we were just there to check it all out and snap a few photos. But the immensity of the spectacle somehow changed things. It felt sacred. This is how we ought to celebrate Christmas.

We woke at midnight and headed into town. Once inside the church compound – forget trying to get into one of the many stone monolith churches, it was standing room only throughout the entire complex, the sea of people creeped up over the hillsides and spilled out onto the surrounding roads – I was overcome by the beauty and devotion of thousands upon thousands of people chanting, singing, praying and reciting passages from their Bibles. Some things really bring perspective into your lives and this was one of them. As I stood among these people I sent up a meager prayer for my Nana. I don’t know if prayer is more powerful en mass, but last night standing amidst the people it seemed like it might have a better chance of being heard. I probably should have said one for the pedestrians of Ethiopia, but I didn’t think of it. All I can say is God help them.

My love from the old world,
Our pilgrimage photos are here.
Photos around Lalibela are here

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