One Night in Bilbala

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This story is set in and around Bilbala (????), a small village which can be found in Semien Wollo (??? ??), Amhara Region (???? ???), Northern Ethiopia (??? ?????) [12°10’N and 38°59’E]

All names, characters, situations and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended or should be inferred.

Copyright blablabla…


Bilbala, 22.00h.

Thank God; it seems to get quiet at the other side of the wall. I hope they’ve finally had enough by now, and won’t start again later this night.

Once I get settled, I will probably laugh about it; well, most likely not about everything, but you know what I mean. At least some of today’s stuff is pretty hilarious, in a twisted kind of way.

Of course, I knew I should have canceled the whole thing right from the beginning; I knew what I was getting myself in to, when she showed up this morning, wearing her block heel sandals. What was I thinking!


Lalibela, 7.30h.

‘They are almost flat,’ she assured me. She could walk for miles on those sandals! And when I asked her if that also included gravel-miles, she—I swear to God!—looked at me as if I was making some childish joke of her.

The trip seemed like such a good idea last night. Despite the beauty of Lalibela and the amazing rock-hewn churches which truly are amazing, both of us felt totally fed-up by all of those guys that kept sticking around offering guidance, historical tours and a night we would never forget. Both of us wanted to spend at least one more day here, but both of us also longed for a short break, some fresh air; just to get away from those cockroaches for a moment!

Right from the beginning, I did have my reservations about her. She doesn’t look like an outdoor kind-of-girl, but somehow she convinced me she has more than meets the eye. And when I showed her pictures of the church named Yemrehanna Krestos—of the cave that it is built into, of the piled-up bones from pilgrims, or whatever, kept in the back of the cave—she had shown such an enthusiasm that it seemed foolish to think that anything could stop her from reaching that goal. And maybe, just maybe, I wanted it a bit too much myself. For some reason, Yemrehanna Krestos had suddenly appeared on top of my wish-list of locations to visit. I really wanted to see it; well, I can mark that off my list now.

We left the bar and went to our rooms right after finishing our drinks—it was packed full of weirdos anyway—and arranged to meet early again.

I won’t deny I was positively surprised this morning, to see her already waiting for me in the yard, but those shoes…

As soon as we had left the gate, she ran back into the hotel again; she’d forgotten her sunglasses, and laughed when I told her to take another pair of shoes as well. When I insisted, she assured me she would bring her sneakers.

At the travel agents, we got our first disappointment. Renting a car was far above her, above our, budget—Lalibela seems to be much more expensive than most other places—and although there is always the possibility of joining another group, they told us they didn’t expect that to happen for today. And I really wanted to leave Lalibela after tomorrow; I wanted to move on. So there was only one alternative, to go with public transport to the small town nearby and walk the last part from there. I gave Cécile a look and she shrugged; ‘what’s the problem?’

“Do you have water?” I asked her—yes, she had water. “Sun protection?”—she lifted her bag as an answer; it was all in there. She even had taken her chap-stick with her, she assured me.

When we asked around where to find the bus to Yemrehanna, there were plenty of guys volunteering to accompany and guide us all the way—sure…

Eventually, we found the location where the minibuses collect their passengers, but then it still took quite a while to find one that was going into the right direction and willing to take us with them.

It was a long drive, although it didn’t look that far away on the map. The road was narrow and bumpy, the minibus was cramped with people and their goods; it was smelly, sweaty, and hot. The driver needed all his driving skills and all the help from the saints put up in his car to get us safely to our destination. It was a beautiful ride, though; taking us through a rough, hostile, mountainous environment with breathtaking views.


Bilbala, 11.30h.

At some point, the minibus just stopped near a couple of sheds, apparently at the edge of a small town or village, and we were told to get out. In response to our questions on where to find Yemrehanna Krestos, the driver waved vaguely in a certain direction, away from the houses.

“Are you sure you still want to go on with this?” I asked, actually hoping Cécile would chicken out. I didn’t think she had it in her to do the walking from here, but she thought otherwise and jumped out of the van bursa eskort as her answer. So I followed and hoped for the best.

Despite our early rise, it was already getting close to noon; waiting for the travel agents to open, and then waiting for the minibus, had taken quite a bit of our precious time, and the drive to this… this whatever… had also taken much longer than I had expected. It seemed like a good idea to take some food before moving on.

With the help of my Lonely Planet dictionary, we managed to find a place to eat. One meal shared by the two of us would be enough, Cécile assured me; she doesn’t eat that much, and Ethiopian food is tough to digest. No wonder she managed to maintain that petite frame. I did encourage her to finish her bottle of mineral water; already it was quite warm, and I knew it is easy to get dehydrated when walking here in the sun at this time of the day.

She laughed when I took out my mobile phone. “I don’t think you’ll have any connection here,” she said. Actually, I’m pretty sure there is a reasonable connection—I’d seen quite a number of people using phones around here—but I wanted it for its GPS; I logged the location from where we were at that moment for my travel diary, and then I entered the approximate coordinates of the church, to get at least some directions where to go next. She hadn’t thought of that, and immediately followed my example of saving the coordinates. After taking a few pictures of the scenery, I pulled out my hat from the bag, ready to move on.

Cécile laughed again when she saw my shapeless hat, and it irritated me more than it should have. To me, it was another indication that she had no idea what she was getting herself into. I asked her if she had brought anything to cover her head to protect her from the sun. I probably sounded a bit bitchy, I have to admit. Of course, she replied negatively. Only in winter, and then only on those very cold days, would she consider covering her head, but not if she could avoid it. Acknowledging we might have to walk for quite some distance from here, she did put on her sneakers.

A couple of kids pointed us in the right direction; mentioning the name Yemrehanna Krestos was enough to explain our goal to them, and they joined us on our way, walking a few steps behind us, chattering happily among themselves, clearly curious about those two ferengies that were foolish enough to go down that road by foot. They were okay though; they didn’t push for anything and kept their distance, and actually, I enjoyed listening to their cheerful chatter. Their voices reminded me of Disney’s Chip ‘n’ Dale. After about half an hour, they waved us goodbye—Ciao! —and ran back from where we had come from. After that, we were on our own.

The road was magnificent. No gravel, I have to admit; it was a sand-road, twisting itself between small plots with grass and crop, and large, thick pencil bushes on the side.

I regularly stopped to drink water but noticed Cécile hadn’t taken a single drop yet. When I asked her, she explained she had to be sparing with her water; she’d only brought a 250 ml bottle with her.

“I told you to take water with you!” I exploded; I was really losing my patience with her! Last night I had considered asking her to join me in climbing Ras Dashen after leaving Lalibela, but that idea was now quickly abandoned.

“I did take water!” she defended herself, “but I hadn’t expected we’d have to walk this far!”

“Maybe it’s better to go back then,” I proposed, realizing more and more that this possibly wouldn’t end well. “I don’t think it’s safe to go all this way without taking sufficient water, and you shouldn’t expect a vending machine at the church, supplying soft-drinks and candy bars for you.”

She vehemently objected; already we had made it all this way, and she didn’t understand why I wanted to turn back now, while we had already got this close to our destination.

My mind was battling between my anger because of her recklessness and my fear for things going wrong, and my desire to see something truly unique from this country. The latter won, again, I must admit in shame.

I still could not see anything that looked like a church and wondered how ‘near’ we truly were, so I gave her my second water bottle. I didn’t want her to dry out, and I should probably be able to survive on the 1.5 liters that were in the other bottle. With an appropriate reluctance but clearly grateful, she accepted the water and finally took a good gulp herself.

The road was long; after one hour I guessed we were half-way, but still couldn’t see any sign of Yemrehanna Krestos.

On our way we met several people herding donkeys, cows, sheep or goats, carrying baskets or bundles of undefined goods, or just resting their arms on the stick lying across their shoulders. In addition, at the most impossible locations, children would pop up from the fields, and call and wave to us in a most friendly way. It certainly wasn’t a boring trip; the view of this dry, rough bursa bayan escort area was magnificent. On top of that, I cannot deny that Cécile was nice company. She chatted happily about her family, her first experiences in Ethiopia, her previous experiences at Mallorca, Ibiza, and Crete, and about how she enjoyed the night-life with her friends. She wasn’t stupid, had a nice conversation, and the more I watched her, the better she looked; petite, fragile girls have always been my Achilles heel. The slightly flustered, sweaty face looked good on her, not to mention the t-shirt that stuck nicely against her sweaty body, giving away her attractive shape.

After at least another half an hour, we reached a mountain which, I assumed, we were supposed to climb; it couldn’t be that far away, now. It shouldn’t be, because otherwise we would get seriously short on time! I did notice that Cécile started limping, though. She didn’t say anything and I think she tried to hide it, maybe trying to ignore it herself. But after the first suspicions, it soon became quite obvious to me.

“Blisters?” I asked. “I have a medical hiking-kit with me if you need it?”

“I’m fine,” she rejected. “My feet are only a little sensitive, and I don’t want to take off my shoes here and now; after that, it will probably be worse to put them back on again. Let’s just continue.”

“Okay,” I agreed, reluctantly, “but once we arrive at the church, I want to have a look at your feet. And maybe, if we’re lucky, there will be more tourists up there and then we might get a ride back to our hotel.”

That last prospect seemed to give her new energy, and she bravely walked the last, most difficult part, up on the mountain.

It still took us half an hour to get all the way up, and once there, we didn’t see anything that looked like a church. A couple of people came walking our way, and when we mentioned the name Yemrehanna Krestos, they turned back and guided us to a wall.

A priest came our way to let us in. We paid, and it was only once we passed through the gate that we finally saw the cave and a glimpse of the church hidden inside. It was impressive; the look of this magnificent building of wood and white concrete was breath-taking, and already worth all the effort it had taken us to get up there. And getting closer, walking around and even inside it was, without a doubt, an unforgettable experience.

Having read quite a bit of information on the Ethiopian churches in general, and last night about this one in particular, I was able to point out some of the interesting details to Cécile and impress her. I could see how the priest too appreciated my enthusiasm and pretended knowledge. Soon, he pointed out some of the other details, pulling away curtains covering the wall paintings and icons of saints here and there, using his stick to direct our attention to various decorations on the ceiling and walls, but it wasn’t always clear what he wanted to us to see, as he didn’t speak English. Of course, we had to see another of those huge bibles, and he carelessly leafed through the old pages to show us some of the colorful drawings inside.

We couldn’t stay long, though. Already this whole expedition had taken far too long and there were no other tourists around here that could take us back with them. I was starting to get worried if we could still get transport back to our hotel in Lalibela, if we had to walk all the way back to our starting-point first.

But first, I had to have a look to Cécile’s feet. She declined any help, saying she was okay, but I insisted. And her contorted face, when she took off her sneakers, made it clear that it was NOT okay. Several blisters had already broken, and there were numerous blisters still intact. Her feet were definitely not used to walking long distances.

“Why didn’t you tell me!?” I asked; I was seriously in shock. This was far worse than I had expected, and she must have felt it already long before I had started to notice anything.

“I really wanted to see this,” she weakly replied, “and I didn’t want to spoil everything for you either.”

“I’m a bit worried, you know?” I told her the truth; I could see her shock following that revelation. “This looks much worse than I had expected, and I’m not sure if you will be able to make it, walking the same road, all the way back.”

“Don’t worry about me,” she assured me. “I’m a lot tougher than the surface of my skin.

“Imagine,” she continued with a grin, “I thought I could do this on sandals!”

I couldn’t believe this; already she was making fun of herself, and we still had the same distance to walk back! I didn’t want to discourage her, though. As long as her spirits were high, we had a chance.

I cleaned up and disinfected her feet, carefully emptied the remaining blisters, and covered everything up, as good as possible, with Moleskin patches.

I could see her face contort in pain when putting her shoes back on, and I couldn’t resist briefly bursa ucuz escort embracing her in support. It resulted in a look of surprise but no rejection; more like a look of appreciation from her.

With tears in her eyes, she pulled her shoelaces. Despite the pain it obviously must have given, I got the impression she used full strength to fasten her shoes; I had to give her that. Then, she carefully got up on her feet and reached out her hand. ‘Ready to move on!’

Automatically, I took her hand in mine. When the realization sank into me, and I looked in her direction, she smiled and nodded; ‘Let’s go!’

Obviously, the first steps were painful and slow, but she really pushed herself to move on; what other options did we have, in the middle of nowhere? Calling a taxi was out of the question! I suggested we could try to ask one of the people around here to take her back on a horse or donkey, but despite my insistence, she rejected the idea; she would manage, too proud to admit her defeat.

I had set up my hopes that there might be a car once we reached the foot of the mountain, but that was not to be. Nevertheless, Cécile stayed strong.

In order to distract her, I decided to open up a bit about myself. I told her that, after three more weeks of traveling, I will move to a small town in northern Ethiopia where I’m going to work for at least two years as a midwife.

She looked at me in awe and shock; “Two years!?” She seemed disturbed by just the very thought of it.

I nodded, and without giving too many details, I explained that I needed some time away; some time to get back to myself. The opportunity to work and to give training as a midwife presented itself at just the right time; an offer I couldn’t resist.

She still couldn’t believe it. “Two… Years!!?”

“I’m sure that, after a short time of adaptation, it will turn out to be just an average everyday job,” I replied. “I’m actually looking forward to it; not being seen as a tourist but as a colleague.”

People who’d done it before had told me just that; of course, they came up with all kinds of funny, embarrassing and even sad anecdotes, but they all agreed that they quickly adapted to the country and its inhabitants. And all except one found it a valuable experience on which they looked back with great satisfaction and pride; all agreed it was something they certainly would never forget.

Cécile’s reaction finally gave me the courage to ask her what had been on my mind for quite some time now. “How did you end up going to Ethiopia all by yourself?”

She gave me a slightly embarrassed look, and I immediately assured her she didn’t have to tell me anything, if she didn’t want to. Then she told me she had actually planned to come with a friend of hers, but that her friend had gotten ill at the very last moment. Having looked forward to this trip, she had decided to continue and come to Ethiopia alone, and see how everything would go from there.

“It’s hard to be alone here, isn’t it,” I said, and gently squeezed the hand I was still holding.

She nodded, and I could see there was more to this story. I didn’t want to push her; instead, I gave her another squeeze.

One time when we took a rest for drinking some water, we noticed a cloud of dust coming our way from behind. Full of hope, we awaited its arrival and signed it to stop; it didn’t slow down, but we could see the passengers happily waving back at us.

Also this setback didn’t pull Cécile down. Already we had made it half-way back, and she had no doubts she could walk that last part of the road as well.

But I was worried. It was true, she certainly was tougher than the surface of her skin. Her walking speed had not slowed down, but it was very obvious she was in quite a lot of pain. Her lips were tight and after a while, she didn’t speak anymore, so instead, I opened up even more about myself.

I told her how, as a little girl, I had always wanted to become an explorer, and about my disappointment when I started to realize there wasn’t much of a demand on explorers in our century any more.

My next goal was to save the world, but I didn’t make it through the first selection; I couldn’t deal with the constant flow of demeaning comments coming from my fellow recruits. It was tough; I had been ambitious in my choice and was barely able to comply with the physical level of the group, but the lack of support from those I was supposed to trust, and on top of that some other stuff, made me throw in the towel and turn my back on the army.

Then I took a completely different road and listened for one time to my mother’s advice. It wasn’t easy to convince the teachers about my true interest in midwifery, but they allowed me to give it a try, and none of us ever regretted that decision.

And now I’m here, and that circle is more or less complete; in a few weeks’ time, I will be living in some godforsaken town, trying to save lives by providing the best care possible for women and their babies.

By now, Cécile was leaning more heavily on me, and I offered her my arm for better support. She looked at me and I told her lightly, “I can also carry you, but I’d like to keep that as a final option if that’s okay with you,” accompanied with my widest smile to make clear I was kind-of joking.

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