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  • The monk looked at us tiredly. They were about to close, he said, we didn't have long. He motioned to the metal box with a cross on top, a standard issue donation box in Ethiopian Orthodox churches.

    "You can make a donation," he said, in what sounded closer to an order than a suggestion. "I will show you the cross and the Bibles and you can take photos."

    I'd first come to Lalibela as a 17-year-old during Christmas when thousands of white-clad pilgrims swarm through the churches, praying, crying, kissing the ground. It felt so sacred you could understand why there's a legend that angels built the rock-hewn churches here.

    But each subsequent visit had left me feeling a bit emptier, like I would never quite get back that first feeling of wonder and human communion that I had that first time. I am not like most pilgrims, I know that. Instead of taking weeks to walk here on foot, I always come on a plane taking only a few days out of my life, like an afterthought. My prayers and requests are not made to specifically to the Virgin Mary or St. George, but to something vague that I cannot name. But couldn't I be a pilgrim too?

    The answer seemed to be no: pay up, take your photos, and move on. That is what I looked like I wanted with my camera strapped around me, my head uncovered-- this was the path that I myself had chosen.

    The priest was wearily collecting the artefacts for display. I had not come to take posed photos, but I lifted my camera anyway as he looked at me expectantly. Maybe some part of me had come for this. He held up the crosses for me, then the holy book, looking off to the side as I took some of the photos. I wondered how many others he had posed for today, how many vacation albums he would appear in.

    Afterwards, outside back in the sunlight, my husband and I were roaming around the rocky mountaintop above the church when we heard someone call out to us.

    "Come, eat with us. Come eat."

    It was the monk, with the rest of his order, gathered around a small bowl with a meagre serving of injera, the local bread. We ate together and then they invited us to a small tin shed to drink the local beer, tela.

    Sitting on the rough logs that served as benches with the monks, I felt something I hadn't since my first visit-- communion with something sacred.
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