Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Day Like No Other

First, two quick notes:
1. I'm trying to post pictures, but the internet connection is extremely slow at times, and the pictures seem just too big to load them on...I'll keep trying.
2. The following post is essentially going to be a brain dump, so I apologize in advance for lack of organization or structure.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011. Addis Ababa.

It is almost impossible for me to believe that we have been in Addis only this one day...that we arrived in the wee hours of the morning.  It is a different world from anything I've ever known.

We didn't actually do that much today.  We climbed into bed shortly after 5:00 this morning, totally exhausted by wide awake.  At 5:30 we heard the calls to prayer from some nearby Moslem mosque and, although Geoff finally fell asleep, I listened to the whole half hour+ of chanting.  It wasn't loud enough to disturb, but it was certainly a different early morning than I'm accustomed to.

I fell asleep sometime past 6:00 and slept until about 8:15...not nearly enough, let me tell you, when you're surviving on minimal sleep over the previous couple of days...but enough to get me going for the morning. Around 9:00 we were served in our room the breakfast we'd ordered upon check-in: very buttery scrambled eggs; toast with butter and jam; juice; and wonderfully strong, sweet coffee (beloved by me, less so by Geoff).

Geoff had some work to finish up for his employer at home, so while he spent a couple of hours doing that, I got frustrated trying to access my email and blog...I learned only later that apparently today was not a good day for internet connections!  I guess it's just like that here sometimes.

During those hours, I also took a bit of time to process some of the stuff going on inside of me.  To my surprise, I was in no hurry to leave the hotel room and I finally figured out that I was experiencing some anxiety about what we might experience here.  I'm a woman who has a really hard time watching World Vision infomercials, and yet here I was about to set foot into what I envisioned might be something even more difficult to see because I was actually going to be experiencing it first hand.  I was glad for those couple of hours of time on my hands, because it took me that much time to ready myself to leave the comfort and security and safety of our accommodation.

During those two hours, I watched the life being lived outside of our walls.  There is a family living just below our windows.  When I look outside, I have a firsthand view of three or four adjoining metal-topped shacks, with some type of concrete 'courtyard' interlacing them.  They are fenced in with more corrugated metal sheeting.  As I watched out the window, essentially invisible to anyone else, I watched the families that lived there coming and going between the shacks and in and out of the fenced enclosure.  I watched the women sweeping out their homes and the courtyard area (which frankly looked no more appealing for having been swept), and then bring water in via jerry cans, which they then used to wash out the floor of their homes, several large dishes and pots and steel plates, odd bits of laundry that they then hung on the lines that criss-crossed the courtyard, and ultimately wash/scrub their hair before combing it out.  In the midst of all of this activity, I saw them prepare a meal for the family, who seemed to come and go as they were hungry - only the women stayed constantly in the scene, tending the food and doling out the portions.  I watched as the children, from tiny barely-walking toddlers to beautiful teenage boys and girls, take turns carrying clothes into one of the shacks and coming out again dressed for the day.  Unlike children that we would see elsewhere later in the day walking home in their school uniforms at the end of the school day, these children did not go to school and I wondered in sadness what would become of their lives.  This family, or families, worked hard just to eek out their daily existence, and to maintain a sense of orderliness in the middle of a concrete, metal-encased, dirty home environment.  What would it be like, I thought as I watched a lovely teen girl walking about and helping her mother with the chores, to be a teenage girl in her shoes?  What would it be like to be one of those women, toiling away so as to be able to keep that existence intact?

What made it even harder for me to watch was seeing how utterly like you and me these people are.  Interspersed with the grind of daily life, I saw a father reach down to caress his daughter's cheek and smile lovingly at her; I saw a boy teasing his little sister to the point where she went running to the woman I assume to be their mother; I saw a girl combing out and caring for her hair in as careful a manner as I've ever seen any other girl caring for her appearance; I saw men and women and boys and girls wearing clean, tidy clothing in an effort to look well.

Perhaps it's typical of someone new to this kind of experience to wonder about the fairness of life, but I'm certainly there.  Why do I have so much, when they have so very little?  As I took my shower a couple of floors above them, I wondered about the justice of being able to do that very thing while they cart water in to have an opportunity to clean themselves.  The injustice is breathtaking.

That was my morning.  I was ready to head out...and we did.

I wish I could describe what it was like to walk that first time down Gabon Road, headed towards Bole Road.  It was fairly slow walking, because my eyes had to do double duty:  I wanted to watch every single thing that was happening around me; and I had to watch very carefully where I was walking because the 'sidewalks' are incredibly - what's the word - inadequate.  Pavement drops all over the place, there are dips every few steps, juts of concrete sticking out everywhere, and suspicious looking and smelly stains every few feet.  It was an adventure just trying to walk the sidewalks.

On either side of me, and as far as the eye could see in front or behind us we could see tiny shacks that served as homes and stores.  The poverty, oh the poverty.  People sitting at the side of the street and milling about.  Mothers with tiny babes holding out their hands for money, being reduce to asking for it, loving their child as much as I do mine.  Children the age of my son approaching us with curiosity and pleading and saying "fine, fine" as if wanting to practice the only English word they know but not knowing to wait first until I ask the question they seem to want:  'how are you?'  The age of my son, and these boys are begging for money...would that I could take them all home.  Men leaning against metal shop sidings standing straight up and calling "sister sister - please - hungry" as we walk by and say hello.  Beggars or street sellers not giving up, but walking along beside you and pleading.  Friendly strangers wanting to know where we are going and if we need help getting there, and walking alongside us to show us the way.  Men looking at me appreciatively in a way that a large woman is generally unaccustomed to experiencing at home.

And on and on the broken sidewalks extend, waiting for us to carry on, despite the tears that continually threatened, despite the heavy sighs that I couldn't help letting out from time to time.  It was overwhelming.

Perhaps more overwhelming because, in contrast to all of the poverty, the people seem so genuinely lovely...friendly, smiling, always ready to say "selam" ("hello").  Little children, so many of them, waved at us and gave us huge smiles; I had to think, of course, about the children we hope shortly to call our own.  And although I am a wealthy, overweight, white woman traversing the streets of the people who live here, I never felt afraid in the end...I felt sad...and I felt oddly acceptable.

As we continued to walk, we were struck over and over by how, against all expectations, the city was as westernized as it is:  most of the shops we by-passed had Beyonce or Akon or some other popular singer blasting out from the radios inside; many women wore high heels or platform shoes despite the horrific sidewalks; the signage in places looked distinctly western and many of the larger storefront signs were printed also in English.  Again and again we made small such observations.

Another thing that was interesting for me was this:  the entire day, I have not seen a single woman whose hair wasn't beautifully and carefully and, in many cases, intricately styled.   Do you remember from previous posts that I have a real fear about 'doing' a girls' hair?  Well, let me tell you, my fears are well justified!  I cannot imagine any possible way of being able to 'do' my daughter's hair like any of the women and girls I saw today.  I saw afro hair, minutely braided hair, straightened hair, bobbed hair, updos, loose ringlet-style hair....you name it we saw it.  It was beautiful!

When we finally stopped for some late lunch, it was for pizza and a machiata.  Now, I don't drink coffee that often, but I do love a good latte or cappuccino or mocha once in a while...I'm a bit of a coffee snob in that way.  No cup of coffee I've ever had before in any way comes close to the divine goodness of that tiny cup of sugar-sweetened jo.  It was delicious.   I could have consumed several...but stuck with one.  Of note, we paid less than $5 for our lunch, including taxes and tip...for a pizza that we couldn't finish (we gave the leftovers to the very grateful porter at our lodge), and for our beverages, including my best ever coffee.

Eventually, after making a quick stop at a grocery store, we hopped into a cab and, having forgotten to negotiate our fare, paid way too much for the ride.  But oh well, we figured...even though we overpaid by quite a lot (probably double), it still only amounted to approximately $3.

Shortly after we got back to our room, we got a phonecall from another Imagine family who is staying at Afro Land, too, waiting for their court date tomorrow.  It was great to talk a bit about how their trip was going so far, and she also told us that another Imagine family (unknown to me, as they aren't part of the yahoo forum) was also staying here (they passed court today).  We ended up getting together this evening for dinner.  We piled the six of us into two broken-down, twenty-something-year-old taxis and, on the recommendation of our driver, went to a restaurant called Abyssinian.  The restaurant featured traditional Ethiopian cuisine and traditional music and dancing (man, could those folks dance...and did, for hours!), and it was really excellent to be there and to spend time together.  The food was the best Ethiopian food I've eaten yet, and we topped it off with a traditional coffee ceremony, complete with popcorn and some kind of coal-burning incense.  Including tip, taxes, alcoholic beverages for those who had them, the coffee ceremony, more food than we could possibly consume, and an evening of really excellent entertainment, we spent $50/couple.  Amazing.

And now we're back in our room.  Tired, and ready to get some sleep.

We have plans for tomorrow. We are hiring a driver that was recommended to us by one of the other couples at dinner tonight (and he drove us to and from the restaurant), and we will be doing a bunch of the touristy stuff that we have on our list.  We want to shop for a number of things on our list, and also see a few sights that we've heard about.  For an entire day of driving us around and bartering for goods with us, and taking us to places that would be hard for us to find on our own, etc etc (and including gas), we will be charged about 450 birr, or about $27.  I'd say this fellow is worth his weight in gold, but I'll let you know more about that tomorrow!

I really, really appreciate the comments many of you have been leaving me - it helps me feel connected, and it also helps me to know that what I'm writing is of interest.  So thank you for leaving me comments - you should have seen how excited I was to log in to my computer tonight and find all of your comments waiting for me!!

And so I'm off for tonight.  I hope you're enjoying my chronicles thus far, despite some of the report being about hard things that I wish I never had to talk or think about.  But this world isn't simple, is it?


  1. Wow! What an experience, and it's only been one day! I am eating it all up! Are you able to get right on to blogger to post, or do you have to email it on there some funny way?

    I look forward to your next installment!!!!!!


  2. Ruth, I'm hanging on your every word! Enjoy the rest of your trip and good luck at court! Will be thinking about you and Geoff!

  3. So glad to read that you have made it and you are doing well!
    Wish I was there and having Yod Abyssinian too!
    I am looking forward to your next post.

  4. Glad you are taking the time to take it all in Ruth. Hope you have a great time sightseeing tomorrow.

  5. Ruth,
    I am so totally enjoying your posts! You describe it so well...it brings me right back there!! Sounds like you are staying at a great place if you get wi-fi there. At the KVI Guesthouse we were lucky if we were able to connect with their slow dial up. The people are really lovely though, aren't they?! That is the part that would draw me back to Ethiopia the most.

  6. Wow, loving your chronicles. The trip sounds amazing, I'm soaking up everything! Have fun shopping!


  7. Thanks for your posts Ruth. It brings back so many memories of Ethiopia. Have an amazing time!


  8. Not a simple world at all ,

    So trilled to your chronicles Ruth , so much to think about and I do feel like I am there with you and that is what makes this so special.

    Thanks for writing for us and staying in touch
    All the best as you get ready to meet the kids ( just in case you do not think that I will watching for this update every five minutes )

    Hope you found some sleep
    love Shannon

  9. Within a few moments of beginning to read your post, I could have sworn I had had a whiff of the warm, smoky air in Thailand, from my first international travel experience last year. Your description makes me want to be in Ethiopia, too! I always thought I wanted to visit classy European cities (ok, would still love to see the architecture), but my yearning may actually be leaning more toward experiencing more of the simple life in less prosperous parts of the world - some of it is difficult to see, sure, but there is a strange beauty to it as well (I think your descriptions of shared humanity identifies that).

    Glad things are going well so far, and looking forward to hearing more!

  10. It's so great to hear about your trip Ruth! And, I wish I could try some of the best ever coffee!

  11. Thanks for such an amazing post! It almost feels like we`re right there with you with all of the wonderful descriptions. Have a great day sight seeing and taking in the sights and sound of Ethiopia! The best is yet to come!

    Tracey (trying to be patient waiting for our court date)

  12. I'm there with you Claire, eating it all up, so happy to see another post!! It sounds like a exhausting day! What a lot to go through in only one day...
    Can't wait for your next post!

    And so far, you would recommend the afroland lodge?? if you can let me know, or we can still switch to something else...

    Maria (4half weeks when i'm there cant wait!)

  13. Thanx for being eyes and ears that describe the sights and sounds of global brothers and sisters that we can now, in just the tiniest of ways, get to know thru you. Blessings as you prepare your hearts for court.

  14. Oh Ruth--what a remarkable travelogue you've written! I have all kinds of pictures in my mind evoked by your words. This experience will surely be recollected by you for time immemorial. I can hardly wait to see your pictures.

    Love you!


  15. What a beautiful post Ruth. It's the most description I think I've read so far about somebody's first impressions of Ethiopia. So glad that you are having a chance to acclimatize a bit and rest before meeting your bambinos. I'll be checking for your next post! Love, Katie in Ottawa.