The devoutly religious town of Lalibela, Ethiopia, where I encountered a group of young monks chanting, is indelibly etched into my psyche. It is a place that echoes biblical times, with shawl-shrouded people kneeling to pray, and life precariously sustained through rudimentary farming. Despite being a UNESCO World Heritage Centre and receiving a significant flow of tourism, Lalibela has retained its spiritual essence.
On Sundays, a multitude of devotees begin chanting at dawn; throngs of people (some having traveled for hours) overflowing from famous rock-hewn churches. Market day is similarly impressive. Country people spread out their agricultural products to sell and shepherd in herds of livestock. With only the sparsely populated mountain ranges visible in all directions, it’s easy to imagine that little has changed in the course of the last few hundred years.
My natural inclination being to explore the countryside, I jumped at an invitation to accompany a vacationing UN employee on a day trip to a religious site a couple hours drive away by private 4x4. The trip went well, with affable conversation throughout and an opportunity to visit a remote and beautiful church. What struck me most, however, was passing villager after villager, some struggling to carry heavy loads across the empty landscape, in a Range Rover with perhaps five vacant seats. Without a notion on the part of the dignitary to offer even the young or elderly a ride, we whizzed by all, leaving them nothing but a gust of dusty wind in the face.