The Tourism Blight in Lalibela
Roger, Pat and I were discussing the Canadian tourists at the breakfast table at Mountain View Hotel in Lalibela. The town is the spiritual heart of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Normally such nice and restrained people, this group was loud and, quite frankly, offensive. The men dressed mostly in shorts, T-shirts and sandals, most of the women in tight, half-mast leggings with the camel toes and panty lines clearly showing.
They had absolutely no sense that they were in a very conservative and most holy place. To them it was just another Disney experience: Ooooooh, ancient stone churches and poor devoted people, how cute! If they were Christians would they go to mass in a cathedral at home dressed like that? I doubt it.
But they were not the worst. On our first day in Lalibela we attended an annual ceremony to honour King Lalibela’s successor, Nakotolab (four kings were responsible for building the amazing churches and each has his holy festival day). I noted Russian, German, Italian and French groups. Most were dressed similarly inappropriately and many thought it acceptable to barge through the ceremonies and point their cameras and mobile devices right into the faces of the high priests as they chanted holy incantations.
It is regrettable for the very many nice Europeans, but we could think of nothing kinder to call these barbarians from the so-called civilised world than Euro-trash. (You can tell the Germans from the Russians from a distance because the Russians wear much thicker socks with their sandals.) Funny in a way, but they were much better behaved, relatively, than the French or Italian speakers at the festival.
Lalibela is a very poor place, very devout and – it appears – very tolerant of outsiders; they need the money desperately. Walking in the streets every person seeing a priest will approach him; he then produces a cross, touches their head, they kiss it and sometimes his hand. There are around 900 priests so it’s a constant thing. Tourism money is helping keeping the place viable, but at what cultural and spiritual cost?
The Ethiopians have every reason to wish they could have retained their isolation from outside influence and moral decay as they were able for most of the previous 2,000 years. Someone needs to cast the first stone at the tourism delinquents who are ruining it for everyone else.