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Lalibela reading Coetzee & breaking the experience hoarding & self-editing cycle

lalibela st george

9 Oct 2012. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

It seems most of my life i've been in data collecting mode, hoarding experience, thinking at some point i will make a transition into a data processing phase, to bunker down & make art of it. But it seems there are always new experiences to be had & i still ever suffer the addiction of seeking new adventure. Like now, in Addis, I feel compelled to be out in the streets. But instead i watch the chaos below from our 8th floor window. I've always been one to think that if you are not down in the trenches, you are not living life. But perhaps there's something to be gleaned from this remote birds-eye view. Of seeing the overall flow of traffic & humanity, of street commerce, observing the drama without being a part of it (where you inevitably affect the system). And it's not like we haven't been to Ethiopia before, i've been 3 or 4 times now (here's i think the last post from hereabouts) & j at least twice that number (& she's coming again next month). Of course she always has reason to come so such places, but i'm usually just «along for the ride». Even when i was gainfully employed though, i've always felt like i was along for the ride, doing work just for the sake of the experience of it & what you see along the way.

amharic text

Amharic text

As Camus says in The Outsider, which i talked about in the last dispatch from Cambodia, «you get used to everything.» I mean just that, crazy to think we've been to Angkor Wat & Lalibela (read on) in the same fortnight.

I've also been wondering lately if i spend too much time editing myself (the book i've been working on the past 3-6 months has gone through more drafts that i can count, until the current state (that i have with me to) hardly resembles the original). Sometimes i wonder if self-editing is productive & if some good stuff is lost because you changed it later. Or is better because it was never revealed outright, something only you know that gets buried into the «processing». Sometimes even here on this blog i edit myself. Sometimes i think what if so & so person reads it, so maybe i change something to not offend, or just to not come off as sloppy or to make sense to those used to more straightforward prose. But i think as far here goes anyway, the self-editing stops. And not just in reference to writing, but to living. I'm going to try to experience things more for what they are, without a compulsion to document or «take data», to make something of it, for myself. The same compulsion that drove me off facebook & twitter, where it seems everyone is doing things now always with the background thought cluttering their heads that they'll tweet it, or post it to facebook it, etc.

Sometimes i wonder why bother at all. Is this some vain exercise just to prove i exist? To have this record at the end of it all that likely no one will ever refer to except me? I am not sure who reads this besides random web surfers, which suits me fine. It beats being in bound journals on my shelves, in handwriting that i can't even read, which is how it used to be before the internet. At least this is out there now for someone to find, and for me to refer back to, one day, to process in a meaningful way.

In Rome the day before coming here i was out shopping like a good casalingo (chipotle-barbecued chicken feast for 5) & came across some religious procession. Part of me wanted to run home & get my camera or wanted to know what it was for (not like you don't see this shit once a week in Italy). But then i made myself forget about trying to «document it» & just looked at all the details of the ritual & tried to surmise what it meant, intended or not. The smell from the myrrh, the veiled women walking backwards swinging the buckets of incense, i'm sure had something to do with purifying the way for the christ effigy the men carried (with great effort of course) on their shoulders (similar to the Easter processions we saw in Sicily). Or better yet, to stop thinking about the meaning & just enjoy the smell.


Ethiopian landscape (near Lalibela)

The flight here sucked. Normally the Rome to Addis overnight flight is half empty & we usually score rows to ourselves to lay out & sleep. But no such luck this time. I was stuck to some asshole ocd mama's boy Italian that couldn't sit still & kept elbowing me (waking me up) to get the armrest & more, arms & legs splayed in my space if i gave him the chance. The rest of the plane was mostly one big South African tour group. And the Ethiopia Airlines flight attendants seemed grumpy & worn out. And they didn't even play the cool Ethiopian music they normally play. The plane itself even seen frayed & haggard & dirty. But perhaps this is just my perception? You have to wonder.

On the plane & waiting for the plane i read Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh, or most of it before i forgot it (somewhat intentionally) on the plane. It was entertaining enough, in that British campy colonial style. Evidently it's based on Waugh's experience living in Addis, and the capital (Debra Dowa) in the book of his fabricated colonial empire (Anzania), was supposedly based on Addis. But Anzania (an island) seems more like Zanzibar (near to Dar, tomorrow's destination) in its confluence of Arabic, Indian & British colonial culture. And while it was funny, it was not as darkly witty or satirically twisted as, say, The Loved One, (which i loved).

doorway pilgrim

pilgrim at the door of a rock hewn church in Lalibela

Now we are in Addis eating great food & enjoying the company of cool Ethiopians. There's been lots of changes since i've been here last & lots of construction in progress. J is in meetings & i'm planning our next leg & writing this. Lately, i feel a bit in limbo, living by our bootstraps (and when we get back to Rome we ship our stuff, so then i will feel even moreso). While we are traveling, we are trying to arrange the next leg. Calling our credit card companies weekly to have the blocks talking off our credit cards. I'm sure they are wondering why we are in Rome buying tickets from Thailand to Cambodia & then a week later in Bangkok booking hotels in Ethiopia or Tanzania & now booking tickets to Indonesia from Spain, etc. I got so confused that i booked our flight from Singapore to East Timor for October 30 instead of November 30. Just take a gander at the Air Timor website to visualize how daunting it is to contact skypewise their customer service (with that music playing in the background)(they actually resolved it easily by email). Or i got confused booking our hotel in Lalibela, got bait & switched from Tripadvisor & booked the wrong hotel, and when i went to look up the hotel i booked, there were all these bed bug warnings, so then going through all sorts of crap to get it refunded. I keep hitting or want to hit points to reset, milestones, to delete e-tickets or reservations or information from my inbox once we've done it. And i'm only a casual tourist, i can't imagine all the moving parts j is dealing with, having to schedule all sorts of meetings in all these places, running around in the chaos of Addis.

In the end, these details don't matter. But then again they are everything.

Lalibela from the air

landscape near Lalibela (a propeller that acted almost as a Gysin dream machine)


10 Oct 2012. Lalibela, Ethiopia

Decided to go to Lalibela. Sort of a last second thing. J didn't have any meetings so figured we'd just go for the day on the down-low ... until we got on the plane & one of her colleagues was on the plane!

Lalibella monk

For anyone interested in going to Lalibela, it's much cheaper (like a quarter the price) to book your ticket in Ethiopia rather than over the internet. And if you're looking for a hotel, the Bete Abraham is great & cheap [...that said, it's a day or two later & j has bed bug bites all over her body which can probably be traced back to there, but it seems bed bugs must be a problem all over Lalibela. Good thing we didn't bring any bags for them to stowaway in]. We also got this guide named Tamru who was great—contact me & i can pass this information onto you.

holy bread

monks & some women sifting wheat to make holy bread at Lalibela

Took the hotel shuttle from the airport, like 30 minutes but really scenic. Northern highlands. Dropped our stuff off at the hotel (actually we didn't bring anything except our passports, toothbrushes & our cameras, left everything else back in Addis). If you don't have a guide at Lalibela, it's a pain in the ass—you'll have to negotiate with each priest at each church about entry. Not to mention that you'll have to fend off all sorts of touts that will want to be your guide.

We did our tour with 2 others, a mother & daughter from Ethiopia, but living in Israel & «half-Jewish» as they described themselves (but still kissed the altars of the churches we went into). So the perspective doing the tour with them was interesting, seeing how they were were received by local Ethiopians & what they thought being (privileged) visitors to the country they were born in. I don't remember all the individual names of the churches (except St. George) & won't bore you with the details, suffice to say there are some 11 major ones in the cluster. All are «rock hewn», which means they were carved out of the rock. Not like carved rocks put together, but like a whole mountain carved away until only the church remains, all in one piece of stone. The outside carved top down & the inside of the church carved from the bottom up.

Tamru 4 kings

Tamru, our trusty guide, and the four kings

We saw 4 churches in the  late morning, then had to take a long lunch break since all the priests or whatever take a siesta in the afternoon. Had fasting food for lunch that was tasty—lentils, leafy greens & a few other curried sort of vegetarian dishes or wots, all served on injera to eat communally with your hands.

Then we went back out & saw a few more churches, including the most famous one—St. George. One thing i have to say that was disappointing is that almost all the churches (except St. George) have these ugly roof structures over them, that have been added in the last 10 or 20 years. The ugly roof is to preserve the structure from weather damage, but it makes the overall appearance (on the outside) rather hideous. It's hard to get any decent photos with out the unsightly metal roof in the way & they are all shaded so the lighting sucks. Not to mention all the Chinese tourists that find their way into every shot, so mostly i'm just taking photos of where there are no tourists or roofs.

corner stairs

In my opinion, i was much more impressed by the churches i saw on several occasions in the Tigray region (on our 2007 trip & our 2009 trip). It's a little more of an effort to get to these ones (often requires some pretty serious hiking & rock climbing), but it's well worth it. Since they added the airport some 10 or 15 years ago, evidently Lalibela has become quite touristy, the welcome a bit worn. That said, the churches in Lalibela are unique (the ones in Tigray are mostly more like carved out caves or façades at best, rather than proper rock-hewn churches revealing the entire stand-alone external structure).

sleeping monk

sleeping monk (in a room where only men were allowed)

After, we had dinner at our hotel, which was great. I had tibs with berbere (pepper) sauce. Washed down with Daschen beer (tried most of the Ethiopian beers & i like this one best, though St. George has the coolest label). Then this morning got up at crack of dawn & got the hotel taxi back to the airport. Of course the driver picked up all his friends & then some (typical all over Africa—the idea of a car with empty seats seems a waste & perhaps rightfully so, except when you have a plane to catch & you are paying for everyone's ride).

ethiopian priest

priests & deacons

On the plane back to Addis i finished reading In the Heart of the Country by J.M. Coetzee. It bears some resemblance to Disgrace (which i read last year in Kenya), although this is told from the daughterly point of view, again on a farm in South Africa with her father (white). It goes into the servant-master, black-white dynamics that have shaped colonial Africa (a theme not so applicable to Ethiopia since Ethiopia is the only African country to not really have been colonized). And In the Heart of the Country is much stranger & language-driven than Disgrace, from the jaded stream of consciousness p.o.v. of the daughter, who is not so reliable (hard to tell what actually happens versus what she fantasizes). I won't go into too much as i don't want to spoil it for anyone who hasn't read it, suffice to say i loved this book, perhaps enough to bump up on my top-52 list.

pink layers

Having just finished reading Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust in Cambodia, I'd say Coetzee is like South Africa's Faulkner, except Coetzee is perhaps even better. Or at least his language is stronger.


Here's a sample:

«And mother, soft scented loving mother who drugged me with milk and slumber in the featherbed and then, to the sound of bells in the night, vanished, leaving me alone among rough hands and hard bodies—where are you? My lost world is a world of me, of cold nights, woodfire, gleaming eyes, and a long tale of read heroes in a language I have not learned.»


priest blessing pilgrims

Coetzee is ever conscious of language & its power & limitations.

«I am spoken to not in words, which come to me quaint & veiled, but in signs, in conformation of face and hands, in postures of shoulders and feet, in nuances of tune and tone, in gaps and absences whose grammar has never been recorded. Reading the brown folk I grope, as they grope reading me: for they too hear my words dully, listening for those overtones of the voice, those subtleties of the eyebrows that tell them my true meaning... »

st george rim

St. George seen from the lichenous rim

«That is why my words are not words such as men use to men. Alone in my room with my duties behind me and the lamp steadily burning. I creak into rhythms that are my own, stumbled over the rocks of words that I have never heard on another tongue. I create myself in the words that create me, I, who living among the downcast have never beheld myself in the equal regard of mine.»

ethiopian huts

typical dwelling

Or how this language takes root, occupies us.

«I live inside a skin inside a house. There is no act I know of that will liberate me into the world. There is no act I know of that will bring the world into me. I am a torrent of sound streaming into the universe, thousands upon thousands of corpuscles, groaning, gnashing their teeth.»

drums & sticks

And all the pearls that comes with it:

«Of all adventures suicide is the most literary, more so even than murder. With the story coming to an end, all one's last bad poetry finds release.»


trail between churches

And the relation of language & self to the environment:

«Seated here I hold the goats and stones, the entire farm and even its environs, as far as I know them, suspended in this cool, alienating medium of mine, exchanging them item by item for my word-counters. A hot gust lifts and drops a flap of ochre dust. The landscape recomposes itself and settles.»

oz monk curtain

priest guarding the red curtain (beyond which us mortals cannot pass)

What else is there to say but let Coetzee say it:

«Words alienate. Language is no medium for desire. Desire is rapture, not exchange. It is only by alienating the desired that language masters it.»

red limestone

«I move through the world not as a knifeblade cutting the wind, or as a tower with eyes, like my father, but as a hole, a hole with a body draped around it, the two spindly legs hanging loose at the bottom and the two bony arms flapping at the sides and the big head lolling on top. I am a hole crying to be whole. I know this is in one sense just a way of speaking, a way of thinking about myself, but if one cannot think of oneself in words, in pictures, then what is there to think of oneself in? I think of myself as a straw woman, a scarecrow, not too tightly scuffed, with a scowl painted on my face to scare the crows and in my centre a hollow, a space which the fieldmice could use if they were very clever.»

self portrait with licheny limestone

self-portrait on the lichenous walls

«The farmhouse, the desert, the whole world as far as the horizons is an ecstasy of communion with itself, exalted by the vain urge of my consciousness to inhabit it.»

sticks & junk

sticks & stones


st geo

roof of St George


st george sunset


monk curtain

another priest, another red curtain

Towards the end, Coetzee of speaks of flying machines that the narrator sees in the sky above. She tries to signal to them in various ways, eventually using painted stones to write messages (strangely in Spanish). But it is as if Coetzee is using this as a metaphor for him writing to us, the readers. And here i was reading these passages, transporting me to such a farmstead in South Africa, in a plane flying over Ethiopia.

 >> next up: Out of body diving & sleeping in strange rooms in Tanzania reading Damon Galgut

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