A couple of weekends ago a colleague was in town from North Carolina so I went to Lalibela for the second time. The trip was just as worthwhile as the first, for overlapping reasons. During the first trip I was so overwhelmed with the idea of the rock-hewn churches that I spent the entire tour of the churches in that "holy cow!" fog. The sheer size, complexity, and unbelievability of the task blocked out any detailed inspection of the sites. On the second tour I noticed significant details that I'd never even seen during the first trip: things like the ornate carving and painting in St. Miriam church, or the exactitude of the pillar carvings, or the many many different crosses carved into the windows of most of the churches. Each church we visited started to form some individuality in my mind. (St. George is still my favorite.) This time we also went for a two-hour hike into the hills surrounding Lalibela for a view of a monastery. As the guidebook said, the trek is better than the destination. My companion, a flatlander who lives at near-sea level, did an admirable job of keeping up in the altitude.
On the way from the airport we met an older Ethiopian man who was staying at our hotel. He described himself as a domestic tourist, who was on a one-month mission "to discover my country." A lifelong Addis resident, he had never seen the churches of Lalibela, the castle at Gondor, or the obelisks at Axum. In his bush jacket, safari shoes, and carrying his Brandt guide, he looked just like the tourist he was trying to be. His enthusiasm and love of country was infectious. "So many people live in this beautiful and historic country and never see these wonders" he said with great earnestness. "I won't be like that." When we last saw him he was headed for Axum by road.