ETHIOPIA 9: One Birr, 50 Cent

September 15, 2004

I fly to Lalibela. When I land, there’s an Ethiopian guy waiting with me at the luggage carousel with a t-shirt that says: “GEISHA Perfumed Family Jelly.”
Lalibela is astonishing. A tiny town clustered around the spectacular rock-hewn churches that King Lalibela built in the 13th Century. The town feels ancient; half the structures in the town are tukuls, cylindrical thatch-roofed huts, half the people walking around are in shawls and headwraps, with staffs.

I drop my bag and guitar off at the Lal Hotel and go to a market where robed farmers, many of whom walked miles from the countryside to get to this once-a-week-event, sell brick-like blocks of salt, red honey glopped in clay jars, and tef, the grain that injera’s made from, in numerous grades, brown, red, beige, the lighter color indicating higher quality.
I hire a guide, Abaye, who takes me to the churches. “The book says it took 40,000 people to build these, but it’s not so,” he says. “These churches were built by angels.” He says it in the same matter-of-fact, scholarly tone he uses to describe dates, heights, widths, and the symbolism of the number of points on the crosses.
In each church, a priest sits patiently waiting for each tourist to be shown the facets of the structure, and then, after you tip him maybe ten birr, he brings out a couple of ceremonial crosses. Abaye is blessed by the blessing-cross in each church–a necessary religious formality–the priest touches his head with each end of the cross, and then Abaye kisses each end. Then Abaye rises to describe the crosses, and it’s invariably, “This cross was made by King ________ in the 14th Century….” !!!!
The churches are set in trenches lined with cubbyholes that used to be the graves of aristocrats. Monks sit in the empty cubbyholes now, reading, praying, contemplating. One asks me to change $1 US into birr; he was tipped that by a tourist that took his picture.
On the way to Bet Gyorgis, the most famous, cross-shaped rock-hewn church, there are children waiting to beg. “One birr,” each of them says.
“Not two birr,” jokes Abaye. “Ten birr–no good. Only one birr.”
I give out a lot of one birr notes, and pens. By the time I get to Bet Gyorgis, I’m out. An eyeless, disheveled man staggers towards me. “Hello. I am blind,” he says. He says it over and over again. I’m out of money, so I ignore him. He keeps staggering towards me. “Hello. I am blind. Hello. I am blind.” Terrifying.
That night I go to a restaurant that serves Faranji food–look, I like injera, but three times a day, seven days a week–it’s a little much. I order french fries which are, weirdly, served not with ketchup but what seemed to be tomato paste.
I’m sitting with a kid named Andalam, a high school kid, who keeps trying to get me to give him money, and I keep cheerfully refusing. He’s a gentle, sweet guy, though–that common Ethiopian dichotomy. He says there’s a contest at his school to collect foreign currency. And, quite convincingly, he pulls out a sheaf of foreign notes–Eritrean, Kenyan, Italian, Uganda. “I need US $10 and $20 to win,” he says, quite sweetly. Nice try.
I give him $1 US. “Who is this?” he asks. George Washington. “Father of George Bush?” he asks.
He talks to me about Arsenal–the English soccer team that, incongrously, all Ethiopian boys seem obsessed with–and 50 Cent. “Black American English is difficult for us to understand,” Andalam says. “He sings; Gasharby, Eezabirfay.”
What? Oh, “Go Shorty, It’s Your Birthday.” I see.