On the Tourist Trail

The most popular tourist destination in Ethiopia are the famous churches of Lalibela.  I never made it here in 1973 since it was several days trek by mule but now there is a modern airport with several flights from and to Addis everyday. I chose the 950 km drive from the north in Mekele since I was more interested in the country than the churches.

Within five seconds on the streets of Lalibela, I was accosted  by young teenage boys with an amazing command of English, offering me their services for a fee as a guide  and translator . Only later would they broach the subject of financial support for school and family.  With so many choices and so many teenagers mastering the art of seduction, I usually declined all offers. I succumbed to a young fifteen year old who was shadowing my official church guide to learn the ropes. He seemed so innocent so I gave him my email address. Within a few days of arriving back in the States, he was already asking for money to put him through college. As I tell many people asking for my help, I cant save the whole world.

Back in Lalibela, the talk of the town was the tripling of the entrance fee for the eleven UNESCO World Heritage Site churches. The ticket had been 300 bir or $16 until January 2013. The priests got really greedy and raised it to 900 bir which is a $50 bill for one person. None of the entrance fees go to the village, just in the pockets of the priests. Besides being a exorbitant charge for tourists, the businesses in the town are protesting that foreigners will cut spending on everything else. Hotels, restaurants, and shops are already feeling the loss. Religion all over Africa is a business that serves the clergy more than the people. Whenever people in Cameroon tell me that the Lord will help them, I ask them where has he been the last several hundred years.

The first day I spent wandering around the bottom of the town where I was staying, I passed a building with a tourism sign. Assuming it was tourist information, I walked into a room with several men sitting at desks and others in conversation.
I asked what they were involved with and was told they were a government non-profit supporting tourist development and teaching villagers how how to improve their crops and market them. The farmers were paid a stipend to come from distant towns and spend several days in seminars. I was surprised that the Ethiopian government was actually building infrastructure and education. The government of Cameroon does not even have the word help in their vocabulary.

It is possible that I am one of the very few humans that was not blown away by the
churches in Lalibela. Yes they are cut out of rock so they are below ground level and they are very old, dating back to the 12th century. The interiors are simple cave like rooms and most of the paintings and carpets are new since the old ones, as I was told by my guard, are hidden and in great need of repair. The exterior of the churches are smooth stone facades with minimal carvings. The most blatant intrusion on this historic site, besides all the tour groups being herded around, are the modern metal roof structures installed over the churches by the World Heritage Site committee to protect them from rain and deterioration.

Imagine the Acropolis with a shiny metal roof suspended above the ornate columns and friezes. Being a visual person, the modern roofs above the churches kept me in the present and took away a lot of the magic of the site. When I mentioned this to a Swedish tourist, she looked at me aghast as if I had spoken against the holy Father. It was almost like the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. People see what they are told to see. Or maybe I just don’t like going to organized tourist destinations.

There was a group of five Swiss travelers who decided they would not pay $50 a person and would survive not visiting the churches. I tried to sell my ticket for half price since it was valid for four days; I had visited the churches in three hours. When I did not succeed, I offered it to my driver who works with tourists but he refused explaining he could get arrested . Typical in Africa, petty crimes are severely punished while millions of dollars can disappear without anyone held responsible. When I was in Malawi in 2012 at a small resort up on the lake, the night guards had machetes. I asked them what they would do if they saw a stranger on the premises at night. He answered, ”We would kill them with the machete.”

On the other side of this story while I was in Douala this year , I met an American woman, a pediatrician, who had been working at Bingo hospital, one of the best in the country. She said one of the most serious problems is the rising rate of HIV AIDS in Cameroon and there was no antiretroviral drugs at the hospital. Both the U.S. and France had sent 1.5 million dollars to the Cameroonian government (never give money to any African government) and the money went missing. The End.

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