Traveling Nancy

Traveling around the world as far as I can go.


Genna in Lalibela – Jan 7

Ayu and Zerdu picked me up at 6:00 am. I was the only one who wanted to go to the early morning celebration at the church. Zerdu explained about morning Mass to me. The Mass had started very early and was just about to end. Some of the pilgrims had gone into the church late last night so they were in the church for the Mass. For all the other pilgrims, it was broadcasted.

We started out together trying to get to a spot where we could see the celebrations but it was so jammed pack that we couldn’t move forward. It was still dark outside and I noticed these 2 women standing on the side doing private prayers.

Zerdu took my hand and let me around another way.  We lost track of Ayu. I wasn’t sure we were going to be able to get close enough to see anything. The sun was rising and it was getting lighter.  I noticed these 2 men also praying privately.

We were still too far away to see the celebration. I noticed that some people had climbed up a tree.

It was hard to get to a place with a good view.  there wasn’t much room to move.

Finally we inched close enough to see. I was standing right in the middle of the crowd next to these two beautiful girls. I asked if I could take photo of them and at first they were very shy. After a while, they agreed to the photo.


The procession on the ledge below us had begun.

Everybody in the procession was walking all along the ledge until they came to a spot that looked like the end.

One of the Deacons was carrying a large cross.

They kept proceeding from the church along the ledge in front of us.

As they were walking along the ledge, they were chanting and dancing.

The special hymn of the day is known as Beza Kullu (literally meaning The Redeemer of All). Dancers, playing metallic sistrum (Egyptian percussion instrument) in their hands, sing the hymns of the holiday, swaying all together from north to south to the rhythm of the big drums. The dance is said to symbolize the praise made by the angels and shepherds on the night of Christmas.

Periodically, all of the people would break into a cheer and make a sound with their tongues. The girls that I was standing near asked me to try to make the sound. I made many of the people around me laugh because I cannot do it. The pilgrims around me were so welcoming. Most of them were sitting and I was standing next to them. The girls put their bag down and encouraged me to sit. Zerdu took a photo of me.

I tried to sit with them but my knees just wouldn’t work in that tight position so I had to stand.

The priests and deacons were not only wearing beautiful robes and carrying umbrellas and crosses, but they also were displaying large paintings.


I took more photos of girls.

Zerdo explained to me that the people who were walking across  the ledge wearing crowns on their heads were couples who had been married in the church early this morning. A requirement of being married in the church is to be pure (virgins).

After a while these women each wanted me to take a photo of them.  I loved showing the photos to them.


We stayed for a long time. I took several videos of the celebration. Then Zerdo told me that we had to leave and led me out through the crowd.

It is very hard for me to put into words the feelings I was experiencing at this celebration. I am not a religious person. The faith of these people is very different from mine. Yet, I was overwhelmed.  There were up to 100,000 people who had traveled across the country to be in Lalibela for Christmas. I was so warmly welcomed by the people near me at the celebration. I saw how they were take care of each other and so appreciated how they share food in community.   Being a part of this filled me up and felt so spiritual. I am so enormously privileged to have had the opportunity to participate in Genna in Lalibela.

Soon the people will get together for their Christmas feast. The first Christmas meal is often an early breakfast, eaten by bleary-eyed congregants. Some of them do this after returning home but many are eating in groups right here in Lalibela. The light meal likely starts with juice made from flaxseed (to oil up the intestines after 40 days of fasting).  Then they move on to the famously spicy chicken stew, doro wot, and it most certainly includes appropriately strong Ethiopian coffee to help welcome the new day. Later on, friends and relatives gather to enjoy a full Genna feast, usually involving a freshly killed lamb for mutton tibs and traditional beverages such as tej (honey wine). I am not sure how many of these pilgrims had a feast in Ethiopia and how many had to wait until they reached their homes – some of the very far away.

This would be one of the few times in the year that they would be eating any meat. There are 265 days each year when these people observe some kind of fasting by eating only one meal per day. During the fasting days they may not eat anything that is an animal product so. basically. it is a vegan diet. Ayu has been observing that diet the whole time he as been driving us from place to place. He could not even have a piece of chocolate candy because it has milk in it.

Ayu and Zerdu took me back to the hotel for a very quick breakfast before we all headed out for a donkey ride up the mountainside.  We were on our way to Ashton Mariam.  Ayu chose to have us do this in the morning before the weather became too hot.

These 2 boys walked along besides me telling me their story. They said that they are from a distant village where school is not as good as in Lalibela.   They are friends – not siblings. They live together in Lalibela so they can attend the school here. The 17 year-old works carrying luggage and the 12-year-old shines shoes.

I am not sure how true this story was but Ayu told me that it is not uncommon for boys that age to do that. Perhaps they were telling me a true story or perhaps they were wanting me to give them money.  But they never actually asked me for any money.

This is the man who was leading my donkey.

I asked Zerdu to take a photo of all of us..


We all rode the donkeys for a while and then the terrain got too steep so we had to walk. Leigh stayed behind with her donkey and the man who was leading her donkey. Zerdu told her that we would be back in 2 to 3 hours and to be sure to wait with her donkey and the man.

The hike was rocky and steep and at about 10,000 feet of elevation where the view was wonderful.

With my zoom lens, I took a photograph of the church below. You can see the long line of people still waiting (even though the Genna celebration was over) to get into the tunnel and go inside the church.

This is Zerdu pointing out things in the distance to us.

Zerdu took a photo of us holding our poles behind our backs the way the Ethiopian people do when they are walking along the road.

The hike up there was fairly difficult and we were tired. Jane, Sue and I decided that we did not have to go all the way to the 13th Century. rock-hewn monastery of Ashton Mariam. The walk would have been even steeper.

So we stood around for a bit, purchased drinks (Cokes)  for the men who were leading our donkeys from the local people, and got back onto our donkeys. Sue’s donkey decided that he didn’t want her and tried to buck her off. She is a good rider and held on with the help of all of the men. I couldn’t get my camera adjusted quickly enough to catch the event. Whew, she was safe.

Zerdu asked the men to take us back down a flatter terrain so we didn’t have to walk down the steep hillside. If we had continued walking we would have had to hike up to the flat part of this mountain.  I was glad that we decided not to do the rest of the hike up the hillside. Zerdu called the man who was with Leigh and asked him to bring her down to meet us just before we would reach Lalibela.

As we rode the donkeys on the road, we passed homes along the way.


I realized that although we were riding along the flat road, Zerdu was taking shortcuts by running down the hillsides.

Although the terrain where we were riding was very flat, it was a long, long ride back to Lalibela. I hadn’t ridden a donkey in about 14 years (Grand Canyon  ride to Phantom Ranch in 2004) and I had forgotten how uncomfortable it could be. My legs were tired. My bottom was getting sore. My neck was feeling the strain. I was wishing that I had just trekked  down the shortcuts that Zerdu was taking. Eventually we all decided to get off of the mules and walk the rest of the way down to where Ayu was going to meet us.

After the mule ride we stopped for lunch. Then Ayu chose to take  us to the Nakuto Le’abe Monastery today rather than in them morning because the drive in the morning will be long.  On the way we passed people getting water from a well.

I learned that King Nakuto Le’abe, abdicated his throne in 1270 AD and went to a cave to lead a hermit’s life. This cave has became a monastery and has dramatic settings. Nakuto Le’abe Monastery houses one of the most interesting collections of ancient crosses, illustrated manuscripts, and other icons some of which are attributed to its founder Nakuto Le’abe.

There was a celebration with drumming and chanting taking place and we really enjoyed participating.

Some of the people were praying.

We were shown several crosses and artifacts.

Holy water was dripping down into the cave from the walls and ceiling. Many people were being blessed by it and also collecting it in containers to take home. Ayu collected some of it in a bottle to bring home to his family. He splashed all of us with it.

Our day was not over yet. Ayu took us to the home of Mazda where she lives with her mother, sister, and aunt.  This is her mom and aunt.

It was a very, very small room where 4 people live.


When we arrived, the served home-brewed beer which Jane, Sue, and Leigh tasted.

They also served injera with freshly slaughtered goat meat to us.


It was delicious.

Then Mazda went through all the steps of the coffee ceremony. She roasted the coffee beans both on a burner outside.

and also in side the house.

Her sister took the beans outside and ground them with a mortar and pestle

She put the ground beans into the pot, added water to the pot, and cooked it over the fire.

She poured  water into each of the cups (perhaps rinsing them?).


Then the served coffee to all of us. I don’t usually drink coffee, but this cup of coffee was delicious.

Ayu told us that the coffee ceremony is done every day. The people who don’t work prepare the meals. They cook outside. Perhaps it is a community kitchen. When the people who work gets home, everybody sits down to a meal and  tell about their day. Members of other people in the small community often get together to share stories.

This is Mazda ‘s Mom at the entrance to their home.



We all had a wonderful time.

Ayu took us back to the hotel for a short time to rest and then picked us up to go out to eat at Ban Ababa which is a Scottish/Ethiopian Restaurant. The food was delicious.

It is hard to believe that we did so much on this day. We could not have had a better guide than Zerdu.  Everyday I think about how lucky we are to have Ayu as our driver.


Lalibela – Jan 6th

Over 100,000 pilgrims come to Lalibela to celebrate both the Orthodox Ethiopian Christmas and King Lalibela.  Wow – we we are here..

Ayu drove us up to the area of the rock churches where we met our guide, Zerdu.   We started walking towards the churches. This is the day before the Ethiopian Christmas. There were pilgrims everywhere.  Leigh chose to stay back.  Zerdu found 2 men to stay with her and told her to wait under a tree in the shade.

They were sitting all over the ground.

These two women were sitting under a tree in the shade.

They were mostly dressed in white. I love taking photos of their faces.


We had to wait for Zerdu to buy our tickets so that we could enter the churches.

Many pilgrims were standing on the walls.

We knew we would have to get into lines with the pilgrims waiting to get into one of the churches.

They were so jammed together and we had to follow them.. I knew that this was going to be quite a day.

It was hard for Jane, Sue, and I to stay together with Zerdu. There were many stairs to go down and there were shoes left all over the stairs. You can’t enter a church wearing shoes.

I asked Zerdu how all of these people ever found their own shoes and he told me that when they leave the church, they just take any pair that fits.

There are actually 11 rock-hewed churches in Lalibela. They date back to the 11th and 12th centuries. Their building is attributed to King Lalibela who set out to construct in the 12th century a ‘New Jerusalem’ after God apparently appeared to him in a dream sometime after Muslim conquests halted Christian pilgrimages to the holy Land. Many of the churches are named after churches in Jerusalem. The city is, of course, named after King Lalibela.

The churches that we visited in the past few days were carved into a mountain (semi-monolithic). The churches in Lalibela were hewn from the living rock of monolithic blocks. These blocks were further chiseled out, forming doors, windows, columns, various floors, roofs etc. This gigantic work was further completed with an extensive system of drainage ditches, trenches and ceremonial passages, some with openings to hermit caves and catacombs. Amazingly, they only had hand tools like hammers and chisels.

It would have been much easier to take photos of both the inside and outside of these incredible churches at another time of the year when all of the pilgrims were not there. But it is the pilgrims that made the experience so wonderful.

This of the top of the Church of Bete Giyorgis (Church of St. George). It is in the shape of a cross.

You can see one of the original drainpipes that was installed on the top of St. George. They are on three sides. Because they church is higher on the 4th side there was no need for one. It is amazing how brilliant they were at the time these churches were carved out of the rock.

This is a side-view of Bete Giyorgis

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