I’ve traveled a great deal in my lifetime. Crossing the borders of nearly 50 countries, I’ve managed to take in several shining splinters of the world and I am a better man for it.
Those who know me often ask if there was ever a time during my global crusade of experience when I felt afraid. The reason being, aside from wandering through standard traveler fare like Italy, France, Greece, China and Thailand, I’ve also taken the time venture into places like Rwanda, Syria, Iran, Sudan and North Korea. The reputations of such places are like quicksand in the minds of so many, pulling them deep into a foggy quagmire of stereotypical thinking and marginalized thought. Thus, the query with regards to fear and the curiosity that always follows.
In all my travels, the only time fear played a role in my empirical odyssey of the soul was during a trip to the great African nation of Ethiopia. After landing in the capital city of Addis Ababa, I took a small 24-seat plane to the town of Lalibela. With a population of little more than 10,000, the airport was a simple concrete pad. Why it even existed was the very reason for my journey to such an isolated place. Lalibela is a town in northern Ethiopia known for its monolithic or rock hewn churches. One of the African continent’s holiest places, the Orthodox Christian Churches, the layout of the town, and the names of the major buildings are believed to be a symbolic representation of Jerusalem, circa 1187. A series of eleven churches, they are carved into the rocky ground and comparable in architectural complexity to traditionally constructed buildings. Think of one piece of stone being sculpted into a two-floor, four-room, eleven meter high dwelling – a remarkable feat to be sure and no doubt why they are considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Upon my arrival, I found a beat up old bus outside the airport and climbed aboard. The only white man in sight, I stood out ridiculously, but no one even so much as looked at me. I took my seat next to a very old and very tiny woman, with a basket of freshly dug sweet potatoes on her knees. After a 45-minute trek that sliced through red sandstone mountains and long winding roads, I arrived in Lalibela. A township cradled atop a set of treed and rolling hills, it was a vision of simplicity. The hotel was a collection of single-dwelling small detached cabin-type constructs, with a winding path and the makings of a courtyard running through their center. The office was in a small shack near the entrance and after checking in, I was quick to enjoy my amenities. No hot water, no heat, and electricity between the hours of only six and nine pm, I nevertheless had a warm bed, plenty of candles, and a stand-up shower. In the end, it was all I needed. Although only late afternoon, I was exhausted from the trip and passed out in my single bed not long after walking through the doors.
I awoke several hours later in total darkness. I fumbled around to find my cell phone, and using it as a flashlight, tracked down some matches before lighting two long white candles. As my shimmering shadow danced on the cracked plastered wall before me, I felt hungry for the first time all day.
It was only 10 pm, but when I made my way outside I saw no one. I walked through the courtyard and was surrounded by an eerie silence. The office was empty. I looked towards what looked like a parking area and saw the gate was closed. A ten-foot wall, parts of which were topped with barbed and razor wire, surrounded the complex and a security guard stood watch at the only entrance. I walked towards him as he lit a cigarette. He was surprised to see me approach him. “Any place to get something to eat around here? I asked curiously.
He told me there would be nothing available at the hotel until tomorrow. It was then I asked him to open the gate. He gave me a look of half-amazement, but did not for an instant refuse, quickly adhering to my request. I figured there must be something open somewhere, where a guy could grab at least a bag of chips; and so, I wandered off into the African night in search of food. The streetlights were much dimmer than I was used to and much further apart, cloaking me in a numbing half-darkness. Most of the buildings were made from mud and stones and at first, all I heard was the hum of the power lines.
I eventually noticed a group of men standing on a street corner some 100 meters ahead of me. It was only as I got closer did I notice they were all of fifteen or sixteen years old, and draped across each of their shoulders were what looked like AK-47 assault rifles. The site of the guns momentarily caught me off guard, but whether it was security guards with machine guns in Cairo shopping malls or gun-wielding tour guides in Arusha, this was something I’d seen before. Accordingly, I readily approached the group of what turned out to be seven armed teenagers and stuck to my mission. “How’s it goin’? I’m in the hotel up the street. It’s all shut down for the night… any place a guy can get something to eat around town?” I asked with an ever so slight smile.
The young men looked at each other in a somewhat puzzling fashion and soon began speaking in their local dialect. After a minute or two, one of them motioned for me to follow him with a simple tilt of the head, slung his machine gun over his shoulder and made his way in the other direction. He was a tall lanky fellow, but his wire-thin arms were chiseled with muscle and his head was shaven clean. He wore a green sleeveless shirt and his khaki pants were stained with dirt and mud. He plodded along with heavy black boots and without hesitating for an instant, I followed.
Once inside the confines of what amounted to a shanty town, there were no street lights whatsoever. Within only a few seconds I found myself in the midst of a darkening maze. We ducked under a clothesline and made one turn, then another, and soon another. Eventually we walked down an alleyway – barely three feet across – and the smells began to hit me; fried fish, straw, wood-burning fires, livestock and sewage. We moved into a more uncluttered space, tantamount to a small street, and came across several open ditches filled with stagnant water and trash. For a moment, I was reminded of Kibera.
A year earlier, I’d spent some time in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi following a safari through Masai Mara. While there I took the opportunity to walk through Kibera. Home to a million people, it’s the second largest slum in the world. While what appeared to be Lalibela’s equivalent was no where near the size and therefore produced no where near the waste, it was nonetheless a slum. Nearly all the buildings were made with mud walls. Sheets of either tin or scrap wood were used for framing and finishing. There appeared to be no plumbing, little electricity, and no waste removal process. Above all else, all there were living in absolute poverty.
Many homes were not supplied with power, but from time to time the flickering light of a television gleamed through the cracks of a doorway, or the tinny sound of music blaring from a pocket radio filled the night air. When we once again entered a labyrinth of tiny alleyways, I felt it for the first time.
“Where am I going? There is no way in hell I could ever come close to finding my way out of this place,” I said to myself, as I looked behind me.
It was at this point, whenever I looked back, the streets appeared to be closing in on me. I soon realized I was at the complete mercy of my guide – an impoverished teenager with an assault rifle, who had yet to even speak a word of English to me. “All your years of traveling, you should know better…. what the fuck have you managed to get yourself into, Dave,” I said under my breath, my heart beating just a little faster than it was before.
The combination of being with an armed, and perhaps even desperate unknown, along with having absolutely no ability to guide myself out of my current surroundings, even if he wasn’t there, filled me with a sense of fear – for the first and only time in all my travels. I felt my heart flutter in my chest and my eyes pull back into my head. My fingers began to fidget. My breathing quickened. After what seemed like a long walk, my guide stopped at a small mud hut, slid his gun off his shoulder, and pulled back the curtain that served as the door. He stepped inside and motioned me to come in. I didn’t have any idea what was waiting for me, but by this point it was entirely too late. I simply succumbed to the emancipating powers of fate and walked through the darkened doorway.
Sitting at a small rectangular table directly opposite the door were three young children. I figured their ages ranged from around 5 to 10 years old. The sight of three children was much less ominous than what I was anticipating and my fear began to fade. A woman who looked about 30 sat in a chair near the door and next to a large upside down wicker basket. I stood atop a dirt floor, and looked up to see a thatched roof patched with tin. I was surrounded by mud walls, plastered over and cracked in several places all the way up the the ceiling, and could see the entire construct was made up of two small rooms. As my guide spoke to the woman, the three youngsters couldn’t take their eyes off me, the youngest of whom wore an ear-to-ear smile on her bright round face. Then quite unexpectedly, she asked me a question. “What’s your name?” she inquired in a tiny voice.
“David, what’s yours?” I promptly replied.
She informed me her name was Adila and introduced her older brother and sister, whose names I cannot recall. Little Adila however, was a memorable young spirit. Her eyes danced when she spoke, her plump cheeks wore dimples, and she exuded a warm and soothing energy that immediately made me feel safe. The young man who brought me to this place then spoke English for the first time. “Please, my friend… sit down,” he requested politely and pointed to the chair behind me.
“Bring it up here,” he said wanting me to pull the chair up to the table where the children sat. Above the table, attached to the wall, was a 21-inch TV. I took a seat, he turned the old television on and then flipped the knob to find an English speaking program. The younger boy then said something to him and just by the way he playfully pushed him down into his chair, I began to think my guide was the eldest brother and this was his family. As it turned out I was right.
My fear was met that night with the fact that this young man took me to his mother’s house, to his home, and asked his mom to make me something to eat. A momentary sense of shame rolled through me for having thought the worst of a young man nothing less than kind and decent. I certainly wouldn’t take a man off the street to my family’s home and feed him. He was a better man than me.
Like throughout most of Africa, all of the children spoke English and we chatted while their mother put something together in the next room. The mud brick walls and the dirt floor didn’t seem to match the fact that Tom Cruise was on the screen above the table, but then again the profound ability of film to infiltrate the furthest reaches of the world was something I’d seen many times over. I told them I was from Canada, but living in Dubai, and that I came to their little piece of the world to see the churches. They were quite fascinated and told me although they saw others come to the churches from time to time, they hadn’t actually met a white person before and certainly never sat around their home and spoke with one.
Shortly thereafter, their mother returned with a plate of a reddish stew of some kind and a piece flat bread. The mixture was cold and I assumed it was goat meat. She then came back with a tall glass of very murky water and placed it on the table next to my plate. The food was gritty and did not have the best taste, and nether did the water, but I ate every last bit of it, not wanting to offend the extreme kindness afforded me. I asked the kids questions about Africa, Ethiopia, Lalibela, and their schools, the entire time thinking of how blessed I was to have such an opportunity. There I was, sitting in a family’s home, eating a home-cooked meal and talking about life in an isolated Ethiopian town. For a moment, I felt overwhelmed. Emotions ran up into my chest. I felt so very happy to be alive.
Within 30 minutes of my arrival, I felt it time to leave and thanked my hosts for their kindness. It was at this point I took out my wallet and gave their mother want amounted to 20 American dollars. I was later told she would not see that much money in a month. It made me happy. Just before heading out the door, I was struck with a sudden thought. I stopped and reached into the front pocket of my faded jeans. Pulling out my key chain, I removed all the keys, and stepped down to one knee. I handed Adila the key chain made up of a stainless steel Canadian flag. “This is for you Adila… something to remember me by,” I said softly, a smile stretched across my unshaven face.
Her eyes lit up as she held it in her hands. She thanked me and for a minute I thought it likely she didn’t even have a single key to put on it. After all, their front door to their tin-roofed, two-room mud hut was a bed sheet. Rising to my feet, I said good-bye to all there and the young man whom I thought might be leading me to my demise took me back out into the maze of run down homes. The walk back was less than ten minutes and seemed much shorter this time around. Soon enough, I found myself on the same street where my journey began. My guide, who never did introduce himself, then said, “It seems you’re not afraid of much. Life is better that way, I think.”
He paused for a moment and I didn’t respond, but only nodded. He seemed to want to say more and soon did. “The only reason we carry these guns is that someone needs to protect the people from thieves and violence. We have no police here. We’re just trying to keep our town safe… along with white guys like you who wander in once in a while,” he finished with a smile.
I shook his hand firmly, thanked him for his kindness, and made my way back to the hotel. I soon found myself caressed by the soft candle light of my room, sitting atop my bed and under a swaddling mosquito net that hung from the plastered ceiling. It was quiet. I was alone. Suddenly, I wished I was back sitting at the table with my new friends.
The next few days were spent exploring the churches of Lalibela, as well as traversing the amazing country side around the area. I hiked through rocky terrain, visited villages, stood within the confines of a monstrous cave nestled in the side of a mountain face that doubled as a church, and witnessed worship the likes of which I’ve never seen; but still, years later it’s the sight of Adila’s dancing eyes that remains strongest within the mystical chords of my memory, along with the gesture of kindness afforded to me by her older brother – a man whose name I will never know.
There are many differences amongst us and there are no absolutes, this much I know to be true. Despite these differences, we are more alike than different, no matter how difficult it may be to recognize our similarities. It’s in our nature to see our differences before we see that which is the same, but when given the chance to truly see, like a blind man regaining his sight, what was always right in front of us becomes an emancipating vision of truth. On a grander scale, the reflection of our internal selves can be seen in almost any human soul. We are all mirrors, all reflections of one another, yet so many simply cannot see.
We all need to shine a light upon that which makes us feel uncomfortable, odd, hurt, or even angry, so that we can see inside ourselves and begin to understand. The result will be the inspiration to learn more, to experience more, to understand that which we do not, and see that which we have never seen. By extension, people all around us, regardless of who they are become more like the person we see in the mirror each day. In the end, exposure and experience bring understanding and hope, and the further we reach into the bottomless depths of empiricism, the smaller our majestic world becomes.
A human being is a part of the whole called by us the universe,
a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his
thoughts and feelings as something separate than the rest, a kind
of optical delusion of his consciousness. The delusion is a kind
of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection
for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves
from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all
living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.