Lalibela, Ethiopia -- The rumpled, brown landscape of flat-topped, striated hills around Lalibela resembles the mesas of the American Southwest.
Little boys with all but the front of their hair shaved wear necklaces with talismans, safety pins and buttons to protect them from evil in this Orthodox Christian nation of Ethiopia.
Children follow me for as long as a kilometre down the single cobblestone street. Pen? Money? Candy? One birr? Plastic? Children who have learned to see the "farenji," or foreigner, as a source of free cast-off things ask for my extra socks and T-shirts.
On Saturday, we hear the market before we can see it. It's the sound of hundreds of human voices and the cries of goats. After two months of vegetarian food between the beginning of Lent and Easter, the townspeople crave meat. The men wear white woven cotton, the monks saffron skull caps, and the women have blue tattooed crosses on their foreheads or temples.
The market sells no plastic buckets or packaged soap, only produce from the countryside carried up the mountain on the backs of donkeys: chickens, lentils, chilies. Sun-bleached black umbrellas are the only modern touch in this traditional scene.
I've always longed for the past, wished that it could be visited, wished that time were as navigable as distance, and I've chased the dead on almost every continent. But here the past is alive; its spice burns my throat as I breathe, and it looks upon me in the squint of a crone.
Rock-hewn churches over 1,000 years old are still in use here. The naves are closed to all but the monks and hold replicas of the Ark of the Covenant, which the Ethiopian Church claims is hidden in a church in Axum.
Hermit holes carved into the rock are still inhabited. These are the original pigments, this is the unadulterated religion, and these are the descendants of the fleas that nibbled the ankles of kings.
Forty-two kilometers from Lalibela, we climb through a gully to Yemrehanna Kristos. The churches here are built below a great overhang of dark grey rock that squats over the site like an iron cloud heavy, foreboding. On top of the rock grows an Eden of trees full of birdsong. A trickling stream falls off the green edge and mists the entrance of the cave.
Under the rock it's instantly evening, and the place feels like an interior, like a Hollywood set of a courtyard and buildings. It has the wet woodchip smell of an animal cage. The church roofs skim the underside of the rock, and their architecture reminds me of houses in Mecca.
At the very back of the cavern, a platform is littered with skeletons: skulls, pieces of spinal cord with ribs still attached, and long thin calf bones ending in feet wearing skin like old socks.
I'm no longer looking into the past. Instead, I'm watching the present disappear under a million tons of stone. This Christianity isn't the one I know. It's as ancient and as brutal as the oldest stories. I can't get the smell of it off me in the hotel shower with my miniature bar of scented soap.