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Lalibela, Ethiopia
Lat: 38°15'9.59"N Lon: 85°45'30.44"W
Lalibela, Ethiopia - Lalibela is about an hour’s flight due north of Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa, but until fairly recently it wasn’t so easy to reach. The local airport was an airstrip for bush planes and the mountain roads were teeth-rattling washboards. All this has profoundly changed. It’s not exactly Disneyworld but tourism has ramped up considerably, helped along by a lineup of visiting luminaries including President Bill Clinton, traveling with daughter, Chelsea. Remarkable what a US President can inspire when he shows up in the middle of nowhere.

Well, it’s not nowhere anymore. Recommend you see this World Heritage Site before Starbucks arrives, serving up Ethiopian lattes to bus tours. Of course, I could have never afforded the trip if a television network hadn’t underwritten my journey (same old story) but I’m here to tell you that along with Aksum and Gheralta, Lalibela makes Ethiopia one of the great destinations in the world today. If I’d known before what I know now I would somehow have found the airfare (hello, Mr. Visa card).

Lalibela is a vast subject worthy of chapters of complicated history. But in brief it’s all the 12th/13th century creation of a brilliant king named Lalibela who was rather disturbed by the recent fall of Jerusalem to Arab invaders. He decided to build his own Jerusalem right in Ethiopia so his Christian citizens would no longer need to make dangerous pilgrimages abroad. But without plank-wood or building supplies of most any kind, he used the most plentiful resource on hand, the rock beneath the earth. There are eleven elaborately hand-carved churches arranged in two major clusters in the town, all below ground level (some looking more subterranean than others). These churches comprised a new capital of Christianity in Africa.

It worked—and it still does! The churches are plainly magnificent as examples of industry and design. Legend has it that angels assisted in the carving process; it does give one pause. The precision and scope of the stonework is astonishing—but the truly remarkable thing is…these churches are still being used a thousand years later. It’s all very spiritual in Lalibela.

Short, shameful anecdote: while shooting, I was approached by a young boy in the village and asked several times for dollars. He said it was for school supplies and uniform, otherwise he couldn’t attend in the fall. I ignored his request figuring I was being conned. Weeks later, though, I asked our fixer if this indeed was the case, expecting to be confirmed that the boy was some agent of a local thug dispatched to squeeze the visiting American TV host. Instead, the kid was likely telling the truth, said our man. He couldn’t attend school without the necessary uniform and his own supplies. That’s the Catch-22 rules of the education game in most Ethiopian villages.

How awful do you think I felt? Awful enough to join a group called www.travelwithballs.com, which attempts to help kids just, like him. Their simple and immediate cause? Providing soccer balls to village children, all around the world. Now I’m looking for a way to give uniforms.

by providing soccer balls to villages. Have a click!

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