By Georgia Walker-Keleher
The cold was overwhelming and the threat of baldness-by-bat-pee was an ominous one. We were in a tunnel, below 50 tons of solid stone, following a guide to an Ethiopian Orthodox Church, surrounded by bats with acid pee. Why the heck were we doing that, you might ask? The answer is somewhat complicated. I guess it began in Portland, maybe Corvallis, Arlington perhaps, or Boston? Or maybe it began before that; a hopeful Swarthmore couple looking for adventure and world travel. And I was being dragged along. That’s what you do when you're someone’s kid, isn’t it?
Anyways, the trip had been fun so far. We were visiting Ethiopia on our way to a new life in Doha, Qatar. By this point, the airports, skin colors, and strangely colored bananas had begun to lose their appeal. We would have much rather been in our grandparents’ hallway than this dark, cold one. Ellis had started the classic, “Are we there yet?” but my parents were very occupied with the history of the charcoal dots on the wall. My interest level could be compared to the light level in this hallway (both very low). But as the light at the end of the tunnel grew brighter, so did my optimism. Maybe this would be cool after all! It could be a castle, and it could have a moat, even a drawbridge, (I was obviously confused about the meaning of Ethiopian Orthodox ).
Finally, with the smell of dark pools of muddy water left behind us, I was able to gasp without choking. The church was HUGE! And made entirely out of stone! The ground looked far away, but it was above me! I tuned-in eagerly to the adult conversation.They talked about Muscle Mens and hidden churches. I understood the hidden part. From far away, you could barely tell there was anything there, let alone understand it was a church. Now about these Muscle Mens… They might have been the really strong guys who made the church but why would Christians be afraid of being attacked by their own workers? This didn’t make sense, so obviously, being Georgia, I asked a question. What are Muscle Mens? My parents smiled like they still do when I mispronounce words, one of the side effects of learning new words by reading and not hearing. They strategically corrected this Muscle Man misconception by carefully articulating, “Muusssssliimmm” saving me from an awkward conversation when I arrived in Qatar. And then I found out we could go inside!
The inside of the church reminded me of my art room, too much artwork in too little of a space. In its day, I could imagine the whole roof covered in vibrant colors, but now, the rock was aging. All that was left of the bright colors was a neon yellow. My immature brain giggled at the thought of Ethiopians’ veneration of pee and the thought of the bats being their guards. My brother and I decided to explore. Two kids, a giant stone box, and plenty of caves – it would be craziness not to look around! After a while, we returned to our parents. My skinned knees and torn pants couldn't keep the smile off my face. My parents weren’t quite as excited as I was. Half of us exited the church happier than we were before, which is unanimous if you round up from 50%!
That evening, after my bath, I lay in bed covered by a mosquito net, listening to buses honk and smelling gas that drifted through my bedroom window. That night, I dreamed of castles, knights, and paint. I sweated with slaves and drew with ancient Ethiopians. My experiences had given me a depth of understanding my dreams couldn’t even capture. The next morning, I thought to myself that other cultures and places are pretty cool, but you can’t be afraid to rip your pants or get peed on by guardian bats to experience them. Then, I skipped out of bed to make some popcorn with our Ethiopian cook. Our laughter woke up the rest of the family!