Faith with Ethiopian flavor

Warning: many of the commentaries and opinions that you will be about to read might sound very harsh, but I promise they are the most accurate account of the frequently miserable experience that is crossing Ethiopia by bicycle. Given the radical difference that exists between those of us who travel by bicycle across this country (and those who walk the world too) and those who travel by any kind of motorised transport, I don't feel particularly well predisposed to accept any objections coming from those who haven't crossed it in the same way.

The Tigray region was the main reason, if not the only one, why our route across Ethiopia was almost double the distance that takes to cross the country along the shortest route. The one that pretty much everyone else takes. From the very beginning, my thoughts were that if we were going to have to suffer Ethiopia anyway, then we'd better doing it trying to find a way to compensate the bad with the best the country has to offer. In my specific case, I had been dreaming for years to visit this enigmatic region of the world of ancient religious practices and exquisite vernacular architecture. We arrived there with a very irritated spirit and filled with susceptibility after having accomplished the exhausting long odyssey of the “route of the Italians”, but believing once again that in this remote province everything would be much more relaxed. Once again, we believed wrong....

Truncated spirituality

Once again with my energies back at 100%, we left Axum after two full days of resting locked inside our guest house, that's pretty much the only way to find peace in this country. We were decided to reach the remote church of Aba Yohani but It was not an easy decision to make because, by this time, we had already learned that every day that we spend in this magnificent country, its people make their best to transform it into a miserable battle, and the harder the route we take, the more we extend the misery. At this point, every decision we made was based on how much harassment we were willing to take in exchange of enjoying for a while a determined place. It was the spirit of the adventurer but also that of a masochist I suppose, the one that took us to Aba Yohani and from there to the Geralta cluster across some of the most remote tracks of the Tigray.

The changes after leaving Axum became quite evident. From the lush landscapes of fertile lands nourished by abundant rains, we passed abruptly to arid lands burnt out by several consecutive years of drought. It is hard to believe that it is roughly a hundred kilometers only what separates one from the other and making for such massive visual transformation. We went from green to yellow but the mountains still dominated the horizon, therefore we kept going up and down dirt tracks incessantly between 1800 and 2200 m of altitude. A dark sky filled with stormy clouds threated with rains that would never come, it's been already three long years of practically no rain around here.

The first obvious cultural change that arose was the language. Tigrinya is spoken here, which is also the national language of Eritrea, but it makes no difference to us since it is almost as incomprehensible as Amharic. The way of dressing and the hairstyles of the women also change significantly, however, the most noticeable thing that strikes me are the traces in the faces that reflect a life punished by an inhospitable environment. Deep wrinkle lines that carve the skin of faces and hands that denounce a life dedicated to plough from dawn till dusk. Simple men and women of stern looks and muted smiles stop to look at me with curiosity but they seem to be too tired to show any excitement.

On the way to Aba Yohani we experienced something completely unexpected, 80 km of rural roads where people and even children were unusually friendly and quiet. Instead of starting with the usual routine of harassment, they merrily greeted us without running behind our bicycles. I was suddenly overtaken by an air of optimism and I slowly began to recover my faith in the humanity of the Ethiopians, but it wouldn't last long. By the end of the day, when we found ourselves struggling along the infernal muddy donkey truck that leads to the church they ambushed us again. However, we were in a very isolated region, we were pretty much trapped in the mud now, it was getting dark and the rains that hadn't been coming for 3 years decided to show up now, so we had no other choice other than trying to reverse their wild nature. After a couple of miles we did not only end up befriending them but they also helped us pushing our bicycles through the mud until reaching the base of the climb to Aba Yohani. The church was closed but they told me to go visit the priest to ask him for permission to camp.

I approached slowly by jumping through some bushes until I reached a simple wooden house where I saw people coming in and out. A man invited me to come inside and as soon as I passed a wall made of tree trunks I found myself in a private gathering of local people and the local priests. They were eating injera and drinking tela.

I suspected they were celebrating something, when a very warm welcome caught me absolutely by surprise. I found it impossible to communicate in Tigrinya so I resorted to sign language in order to find my way to the leading priest. He was sitting in a dark corner wrapped around a white robe and a big turban, he stared at me before inviting to a big mug of tela, a local ferment that looks like muddy water and stinks to alcohol and dirt. I took a sip to reciprocate such kind offer, but I found it hard to dissimulate the nausea; still I managed a grimace when handing him back the mug. They told me that I would be able to visit the church tomorrow but They didn't seem to understand what I was trying to say with my pitching-a-tent-to-sleep signs, so I gave up and went back to look for Julia who was waiting outside in the rain together with the demons. We headed for the base of the church in the darkness and while we were trying to find a place without much mud, a priest that looks like someone who just came out of a Tolkien book illuminated us with his big torch and gave us the official permission to camp there.

After a cold rainy night I came out of the tent at 6 am to find that the rain was gone and the day was radiant. I looked up dozens of meters above me at the vertical rock cliff by which we camped and I could spot a white patch on it high up above, it was the facade of the church of Aba Yohani. The location itself has such an impact that it is hard to believe that what lies up there is actually a church, but even harder to imagine is the road that leads to it. 

Aba Yohani is one of the hundreds of churches in the area that have been excavated in the rock, many of them still remaining undiscovered. Back around the 3rd and 4th centuries, the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian community was persecuted by both the Arabs and the Ottomans, however their faith and devotion were too intense to let their practice die. Thus, it lead them to build these magnificent religious excavations in the intricate rock formations of the Tigray, where they were able to keep congregating themselves secretly to continue with the dangerous task of practising their faith. As a result of this, we are left with one of the most magnificent legacies of religious vernacular architecture where even until these days Christianity is practised as it was 1700 years ago.

Unfortunately, the mesmerising experience of visiting these millenarian churches is ruined by the insane obsession of the Ethiopians for getting as much money as possible from the faranjis (white men). From the very first priest that I met on the way up, they started asking me for money. I tried to climb up alone but they told me that I needed guidance and that they needed to lead me to the priest that had the key to the church, for he is the only one who can open it for me. One of them guided me along the steep trail of loose rocks through hidden passages and tunnels that lead to the door of the church. 30 minutes later, after going through a dark and narrow tunnel where we needed to crouch to go through, we magically came out on the other side of the mountain at a corridor that has been carved right on the main cliff. I looked in front of me trying to hold the vertigo and I was left speechless by the mind-blowing view. Another four priests wrapped up in their robes were sitting on the rocks overlooking the abyss contemplating the horizon, the image was sublime.

I sat around them expecting to have an interesting exchange but to my disappointment I ended up finding myself having to haggle hard to get a reasonable price to come inside the church. One asks me for money for having lead me there, another one demands the “official” ticket price and yet another one tells me that I have to pay him because he has the key to the door and if I don't pay him, he will not open it for me. The remaining one tells me that it is true that women are not allowed in the church but for a sum of money I can call Julia up to come in. Fucking Ethiopians! - I think to myself trying while trying to refrain from pushing all of them into the abyss. After at least half an hour of discussing through gestures and signs, I payed them a fraction of what they were originally demanding and while I was handing them the money I carefully struggled to make myself understood and told them: -" when I die I will go to heaven, but when you die, you will all go to hell". But It was not that what pissed them off as much as when I told them later that they had no clue of what or who God is. Finally, we all ended up relaxing a little bit and they took me inside the church. Once again, I was left speechless.

A secret spiritual corner

These magnificent churches are scattered all across the region but only the locals know how to get to them. They are all perfectly concealed, the paths leading to them are brutal and require long and sometimes dangerous ascents on the rocks, there are no indications of any kind, people only speak Tigrinya and population is scarce. Just before starting a very tough 80 km-long stretch, Julia accidentally destroys her rear derailleur, leaving her bicycle without gears in one of the most mountainous countries in the world. In a region so remote and miles away from any possible spare part, I have to figure out a way to fix such a disaster or at least to find a solution to keep her on the saddle. I decided to shorten the chain, remove the derailleur and work out a flexible enough combination that would allow her to climb the coming mountains while being able to push the bicycle forward when going flat. The solution is limited and it works relatively well but when we found ourselves in the brutal donkey track that leads from Aba Yohani to Geralta cluster, she had to push along steep climbs, slipping on the loose rocks thus losing control of the bicycle. Frustrated by her broken bicycle and the difficulty of the track, she needed to make an enormous effort to be able to continue while she curses me for choosing the routes I choose. 

For several hours we continued up and down, pushing up ridiculous slopes, dodging the passing donkeys and trying not to fall on the loose rocks. Even though it was a day filled with tension, especially for Julia for having to deal with her dysfunctional bicycle, at least there were no Ethiopians around. It felt almost like a blessing not having to find any for several consecutive miles. At the end of the day, in the middle of nowhere we arrived at a nameless village that isn't included in any tourist guide, not even the track is visible in Google Maps. There were people, but even the kids were quiet and looked at us with great curiosity without annoying while we pitched our tent on a hill right next to a church.

It was Saturday night and for some unknown reason to me, a group of priests started praying at midnight and continued throughout the night until the early morning. The sounds of their praying echoed inside the church and reached our tent. Far from bothering, they filled the night with a very especial atmosphere. The next day, Sunday at 6 am, I came out of the tent and I saw dozens of devout people congregating around the church; it was there that I experienced for the very first time the genuine devotion of the Tigrayans. Architecture-wise the church itself is nothing to write about, but it hides another building n its backyard, made of stone and more traditional. There, I find a group of men scattered across the garden, wrapped in white robes, many reading their bibles in an absolute state of contemplation. Spirituality fills the air and I move around softly to avoid disturbing them.

A priest of solemn look and a crucifix in his hand showed up and with signs he gestured an invitation to come inside the old church. My skepticism put me on guard and I waited for the time he would start demanding money in exchange, but that time never came and I happily dropped guard. He opened the lock that held closed the big rings of the massive old wooden portal and once opened I found myself in a unique space. I have no idea what its name was or how many centuries old is, but this church is an authentic unknown jewel. The priest drew the drapes open to uncover the amazing paintings for me to see, when a man came right in to read the bible right next to them.

The priest took me along the perimeter corridors flanked by high walls of stone. The golden light rays of the sunrise filtered through the openings high up, washing part of the walls and creating a magical chiaroscuro, that is worth it of any painting of the Renaissance.

The mere fact of being there seemed to lead him into a peaceful state of meditation. He held on to his crucifix and a stamp of the Virgin and remained quiet for several minutes while I observed him in silence. At that time, he was able to pass on the peace that I perceived he had inside.

When I came out, I realised that men and women stayed in different sides of the new church. Mass went on inside but they seemed not to be allowed, they had to remain outside while the priests undertook the ceremony, reciting verses and spreading the smoke of incense that they carried in a metallic container hanging from a long chain. Many women leaned against the walls as if trying to hear, or maybe even feel, through them while following the ceremony.

I kept moving slowly around the church until finding myself on the women side, who followed the Mass with the same devotion of the men. They were so fully into themselves at that time that they did not seem to notice me at all, it was as though I were completely invisible in a country where we are constantly being pointed at, and I found it hard to believe it myself. I stayed there contemplating until all the women prostrated, their foreheads against the ground and remaining there for several minutes. It is a very strong image and I stay with it before leaving this spiritual scene without disturbing.

After leaving the village, the landscape becomes even more barren, the sun even stronger and the huge rock massifs of the Geralta cluster come out of a mostly flat terrain. In them, who knows where, embedded high up in the rock pinnacles, dozens of churches are concealed, invisible to the eyes of those who pass by. A little before the village of Megab we entered territory listed in the tourist guides and even though the arrival of tourists to this place is still very limited, it all goes back rapidly to "normal" in Ethiopian terms. Places that seem to be completely empty aren't and swarms of Ethiopian demons come out like worms from underneath the rocks, yelling hysterically, loaded with stones to have themselves a ball shooting them at us. Escaping, grumbling, cursing and chasing, is once again a totally futile effort, we are left with nothing but the incredibly difficult effort of bearing with them (and dodging the stones!)

Finding this impressive church that dates back to the 4th century is only made possible by the hand of the locals and even with their help it isn't an easy task. Following their directions we reached a narrow footpath that lead us to a stone house where we left our bicycles with the family that lives there. From there, the eldest child guided us through bushes, dried out rivers and barren plowed land until the base of a rocky mountain. There, we found a priest that was on his way up. He would be in charge of selling us the official entrance ticket and making us go insane with his endless demands for an outrageously high tip to bring us up to the church and using his key to open it for us. Unlike the other rock churches of the Tigray, you pretty much can't make it to Abuna Yemata without help. The ascent takes 45 minutes and the last stretch involves a hair-raising vertical climb of a 20 m high rock wall, that has to be done barefoot due to religious reasons. 

Once at the top of the first pinnacle, a slippery corridor carved in the wall of the rock cliff begins. It runs right next to a 200 m high free fall abyss until reaching the concealed front door of the church. Every step needs to be premeditated and you try to stick to the side wall even when there is nothing to hold on to. The overall views bring the goose bumps, not only because of the vertigo they bring but the mesmerising scenery that surrounds us. 

Whoever built this church in the 4th century and all the faithful who, until today climb all the way up here to attend the Masses, baptisms, communions, circumcisions and weddings that take place here, I do not have the slightest doubt that it is only a profound faith what can drive them here. We have seen 70 years old people or maybe older doing this climb that requires nerves of steel. Once we were inside the church, our unbearable priest-turned guide, started reciting passages from a bible that was as old as the church itself. Its pages were made of goat's fat and it was fully written by hand with vegetable inks. The book is such a relic that could even compete in grandeur with the very church.

IF, for one minute I can forget about the previous demands for money and focus just on listening to the priest reciting the bible in Amharic, I fall in ecstasy while I contemplate the magnificent paintings of vibrant colors on the walls and vaults that were so exquisitely carved in the stone of this rock massif. Evidently, faith can not only move mountains but also excavate them and turn them into terrific works of architecture and this one is probably the most amazing example of vernacular architecture I have visited so far.

If the climb was hair-raising, the way down seemed like a suicidal proposal. Struggling to stick our feet in the holes carved in the stone of the vertical wall, while we were looking down a long free fall right below us, was not an easy task. Especially when the priest does it with the agility of a gecko and became more unbearable than ever, now that our visit was coming to an end and, we hadn't given him not even a cent of the exorbitant tip he was asking us for. At that point, I wasn't very sure about what would be better, if giving him the money or pushing him to the abyss so he would just shut the fuck up (yes, that's the love Ethiopians arise in me). I continued the way down slowly, wishing for the latter much more than the former, and once we got to firm ground we agreed on a reasonable tip, not the one he fantasized, which was more than 3 times the cost of the ticket to enter the church. Still, we gave him much more than what he gets from other visitors. Once we were able to get rid off that leech we went back to the house where we had left our bicycle where the family was waiting for us to treat us with a real coffee ceremony.

Way far apart are the Ethiopians from the Japanese, and with this comparison I do not mean to insult the latter, but both cultures have incredibly interesting ceremonies. The Japanese have the traditional tea ceremony and the Ethiopians have the coffee one, which is just as interesting or even more. These days, every single coffee shop of any Ethiopian town seems to offer the coffee ceremony service, but not one of them can even be compared to experiencing it in a remote rural village with a decent local family. The ceremony begins toasting the raw coffee beans in a pan that sits on top of hot coals. After a few minutes when they start releasing their delicious smell, they are taken away from the fire and put in a pestle. The woman puts water in a beautiful traditional vase and while she waits for the water to boil, she grinds the beans. Finally, the coffee is poured into the vase and is left to settle for several minutes. While we wait, she lights incense and spreads it all around the room where the coffee will be drunk.  Three rounds of coffee in little cups are served to complete the ceremony and let me tell you that Ethiopian coffee....is one of the best in the world. 

We left the Geralta cluster on the way to Wukro along yet another evil trail, where even more evil demons abounded. As soon as they saw us cycling slowly struggling on the bed of rocks the road was made of, you could see their eyes shine for such amazing opportunity to harass us. Right after we went past them the usual symphony would begin: 

faranji! Give money, give me money, give me money!.....” 

followed by hysterical laughter when the stones they threw to us would just pass our heads by a few inches and break into pieces right next to us. "Motherfucking pieces of shit, if only I could lay my hands on them and tie them together by their necks with my spare chain while I pull out their guts using my Allen keys" is just one out of endless poisonous feelings that these people made me feel every day. On the other hand, when I passed by an adult that has been working his ass off, working the land under a punishing sun all day, and greeted me with a big gentle smile, I could only stand in total perplexity at the abysmal disparity that exits between grown-ups and children in this country, considering that the former raise the latter. What am I missing here?

Around two weeks have passed since we had entered the Tigray and we arrived in Wukro, already on the main road to Addis Abeba, completely exhausted. There, we found a very necessary peaceful place to rest at the Mission run by Father Angel Olaran, whose work has made of Wukro a true oasis in this human zoo of a country in which animals are way more civilized than people. The experience of riding across Ethiopia still remains a frustrating challenge, equally split in sublime moments of grandeur and infuriating times of reckless anger. By the time we reached Wukro, we both felt that we have had enough torture so we decided to give up Lalibela and save those 350 km from the original route I had planned, to speed up the long way we still had ahead of us to leave this damn country. It is not worth it anymore to go through such misery in order to enjoy short periods of beauty.....and still we had so much more misery lying ahead of us.