Saturday, March 4, 2017

Goals for Return Trip #2

I had three goals for our trip to Ethiopia. Let's see how well I did.

Goal #1: Give our kids a positive experience of Ethiopia.
We absolutely met this goal. Six months later, the boys are still talking about visiting their family, about Lalibela and Lake Tana, about the food, even about the Edna Mall. There were definitely things about Addis that they didn't like but those were minor compared to the pride and knowledge of their country that they gained. I give us an A.

Goal #2: Do it as affordably as possible.
We spent about US $4,800 for six weeks. This includes lodging, transportation, food, activities/guide/interpreter fees, and souvenirs, but does not include gifts to family in Ethiopia. It works out to just under $120 per day. We cut costs by mostly staying in guesthouses in the "budget" and "moderate" categories, and by camping for our week in the kids' village. A good strategy was to find cheap accommodation near a nicer hotel, then get a day pass and use the hotel's pool and other facilities. We probably saved the most money by not having a driver. Instead we used a combination of mini-buses, buses, bajajes, and locally arranged private cars. For longer distances, we flew using the huge discounts available to anyone who enters the country on Ethiopian Airlines (for example, Lalibela to Addis was only $63 for me and $53 for each child). We only used an interpreter when we were in the village and the rest of the time English and my minimal Amharic were sufficient. For tourist attractions we found the guides on site or those arranged by our guesthouses to be very good and affordable and we didn't need to bring an outside guide. Despite getting ripped off a couple of times, we did well. I give us an A-.

Goal #3: Be a bottomless well of patience.
I knew the trip would be challenging for the boys and from the first day I saw behaviors that I hadn't seen in years. One of the boys returned to what I call "shadowing," where I start to say a sentence and he finishes it with me but with a quarter-second delay - "What would you-you like-ike to-to drink-ink? Do-do you-you want-want a Fanta-anta?" This was actually a helpful strategy for him to learn English. On our trip I was generally understanding when he started to do it again. But have someone shadow you every day for weeks without a break and you will see how grating it gets. There was also a lot of complaining from one boy, especially when it came to walking anywhere. I did a good job being patient with it but it didn't leave much patience for other annoyances. Between the shadowing and the complaining, I had two blow-ups on the trip. And by the end of the six weeks, with my husband around to share parenting, I had moments when I literally hid from my children. Overall, I give myself a B-.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Ethiopia return trip #2 Part 7

We woke up at 5:00AM to be at the small Soyema bus station at 5:30. There are two buses a week to Konso, and there are always more people who want to ride them than there are seats. We waited outside the gates, and when they were unlocked at 6:00AM, T and our teacher friend rushed in like it was Walmart on Black Friday. Luckily we got seats. The bus left the station with every seat full but no one in the aisles, in adherence with transportation regulations. Then it drove two blocks down the road and picked up everyone else who hadn't been able to get a seat. I entertained myself on the two-hour ride to Konso by waging a silent battle for six inches of floor space with the woman next to me.

The day before, T and I had climbed 30 minutes up a hill to get cell phone reception and call Chuchu, our resident guardian angel in Konso. He was waiting for us at the bus station. He took us to breakfast, to the rock formations known as "New York" -

and on a tour of a Konso village. Very cool winding rocky streets and hundreds-years-old community houses where teenage boys spend their nights guarding against invaders.

Chuchu had arranged a van to take us to Arba Min'ch. He said that four years ago I wrote him a review on TripAdvisor that made his tour business take off, and because of that he didn't want any payment. I think his business took off because he's a great guy and excellent tour guide. We did persuade him to accept our tent as a gift, so now he can also offer camping tours (I have his contact information if you're interested).

In Arba Min'ch we stayed at the Soma Lodge, right on the edge of the escarpment. Positives - amazing view, comfy beds, interesting fellow travelers including a group of adult adoptees returning from Spain, a large troop of baboons living right below us on the cliffside. Negatives - barely functioning bathrooms.

In Arba Min'ch we arranged a boat ride to finally see the famous crocodiles of Lake Chamo -

and we walked in Ne'ch Sar National Park. 

The rest of the time we hung out by the pool at Paradise Lodge. Honestly, we were done. After the great week in the village everyone was ready to go home, but we had a couple of days to wait and it was more pleasant to be in Arba Min'ch than in the pollution of Addis.

We flew to Addis on August 19 and stayed in a little hole-in-the-wall hotel. We had our last meals with friends, went shopping for gifts and food to take home, watched some of the Rio Olympics, and in a last minute surprise, got to see Dawitt, our wonderful guide from 2014. In the early morning of August 21 we took an ancient Lada taxi to the airport and flew home.

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Thursday, March 2, 2017

Ethiopia return trip #2 Part 6

This post is going to be about our week with our boys' family. For the sake of privacy I'm not going to use names or relationships. I will refer to all adult relatives as aunts and uncles and all children as cousins.

We spent our first night in Burji in Soyema, the only town in the area. At 5:50AM our interpreter (a local teacher who is a friend of a friend) called to say that he was with the boys' family. I asked for a little time to get ourselves together and by 7AM we were at the cafe for our reunion.

Reunion was beautiful and joyful but I won't be posting any pictures. Here's a picture from later that morning.

A was immediately comfortable with his family. He remembered them from our last trip. D was happy at first but then started to feel confused and needed to stay at my side.

After a while we went to the home of the family we had stayed with on our last trip. The adults visited while the kids hung out with a niece we had met two years ago. A few people went to the store for food to take with us. Finally we loaded people and bags into two very stuffed bajajes, and drove out to the village.

Last time we had come in April when there wasn't much farmwork that needed doing, and a huge crowd had greeted our arrival; this time we came at the first harvest / second planting so the village was quiet, with everyone off working. We set up our tent behind Uncle M's house. Some extra cloths were hung up around the outdoor toilet for additional privacy. We brought out the soccer ball and the kids got a game going. By now D felt comfortable too. As people returned from the farms they came to greet us. Kids came to stare. We went to visit the family of another child adopted to the US who lives in the same village. Then after a dinner of injera and eggs, and as a slight rain started, we went to sleep in our tent.

The next day I felt sick - maybe the eggs? After breakfast we walked down with Uncle M and our teacher-interpreter to see the farmland.

Along the way we met the relative of another child adopted to the US, who lives in a nearby village. It was heartbreaking to have only a single picture and no news to give. I told our interpreter that the child now uses a different name in the US. Our interpreter declined to translate this information.

In the late morning we returned to Soyema to buy more supplies from the twice-weekly market.

We gave everything to Aunt M, with whom we had arranged for meals during our time in the village. In the afternoon I still felt sick, so I lay down while the kids played soccer. All evening a continuous stream of people came to greet us.

The following day after breakfast we all went with Cousin C to the farmland on the hill above the village. Uncles W and M brought oxen and we all had a chance to try to plow. Plowing is a lot harder than it looks.

Later in the morning we had coffee in Aunt C and Uncle D's yard and more people came to see us. 

Then we moved into the house for a more private conversation. We had lunch with Uncles W and M and Aunt M, and in the afternoon the kids went to play soccer. 

After lunch our interpreter left to take his father to the clinic in Soyema so we were on our own. Luckily we have enough Amharic that we could communicate the basics, and with our interpreter gone, more people who before only spoke Burji came forth as knowing some Amharic.

Aunt M was one of the people who knows Amharic and the next morning I tried to help her in the kitchen (I was not very helpful). After breakfast Uncle W took us to the small village market to show us off and buy the boys some sugarcane. Then I was able to communicate to Uncle M that the boys wanted to help Cousin C bring the cows to the farm. It was T's turn to feel sick, so I went with the boys to the upper fields. They really enjoyed driving the cattle up the hill. At the top of the hill Uncle M plowed while the boys watched the herd and played. After a while D was feeling sick too, so I returned to the village with him. A stayed with Cousin C to watch the cows. Later I asked him how he and Cousin C communicated and he said they pointed at things and named them in English and Burji, counted, said the alphabet, and created miniature plows out of sticks. It didn't matter that they didn't speak the same language, they are the same age, and they had fun together. 

We had lunch at Uncle M's house and then Aunt C insisted that we have a second lunch at her house. By then our interpreter was back and T was going to return to Soyema with him to run an errand at the bank. They went to the road to look for a bajaj, and when one pulled up, T looked in the back and saw a young man we had met in Colorado! He had told me he would be in Burji getting married and would look for us. His family is from a village on the other side of Burji but as the only ferenjis around, we apparently weren't hard to find. T and our interpreter took our Colorado friend's bajaj to town while he stayed and translated for me.

The next two days we had private conversations with each member of the family and with the other local families whose children are in the US. In each house we sat and talked, with our interpreter translating, and I filled pages in my notebook. Uncle W told us about how he and Aunt M got married. Aunt M told us about how hard it was to grow up without a mother. Aunt C told us about working in the fields when she was very young and being scared of the monkeys. Uncle D - who is a spry 80 years old - told us about the Italians. They talked about what our boys were like when they were little. Uncle W disappeared for half a day to go get a relative from a village in the highlands and when they returned, we found she looks exactly like A. Aunt C told us that Uncle D was a chatterbox in his youth, just like D. 

A and D were interested in some of these conversations but not all, so at times while we talked they went off with other relatives. They went with Cousin C to load a donkey with water from the pump. They spent a couple of hours driving oxen in circles to thresh 'tef, having a blast and getting covered with 'tef dust head to toe.

The last day we said our goodbyes over meals at Uncle M's house and Aunt C's house and then we returned to Soyema. 

Our week in the village was the highlight of our six-week trip. Logistically, it worked out really well. The tent was comfortable enough. Buying food and hiring Aunt M to cook for us was great. Having an interpreter unconnected to adoption and whose father lived in the village was very important. T, D, and I each had a day when we felt sick, but it was nothing serious. The outdoor toilet was better than expected. The weather was cool and dry enough that a week without showers was fine - we just used a lot of wipes and I wrapped my hair when it got greasy. 

More importantly, for that week our boys were surrounded by love. They got used to walking down the main road and having old women rush up and hug them. People argued over whose house they would eat at and cried over who they looked like. Staying a week allowed us to meet more distant family that we hadn't known existed. We were there long enough to stop attracting crowds and join the family in their daily activities. A week gave me context for a situation that I have mixed feelings about. We got to know personalities, see how people interacted with each other, and imagine what it would have been like for our boys to live here. It was a wonderful week.

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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Ethiopia return trip #2 Part 5

After Lalibela we flew back to Addis to wait for T. I halfheartedly tried to book an overnight tour to Awash National Park but couldn't justify the US $400 pricetag. Instead we stayed in Addis, ate fir-fir at Depo St. George House, went to the Edna Mall (Ethiopia's version of Chuck-E Cheese), saw a movie, went to the Natural History Museum, swam at the Hilton pool, and visited with our old Amharic tutor (yay!) who was in Ethiopia for a wedding. Arafat took us to the airport to wait for T on the night of August 3. We had to wait in the parking lot, since they only let travelers into the airport. Funny D quote - when T came out he was backlit and hard to recognize; D scolded me, "Didn't you see his BROAD shoulders? His RIPPLING muscles?" Umm, no, I didn't see those things.

We gave T one day to recover from jetlag and then flew to Arba Min'ch. We stayed at the Tourist Hotel, which has cramped rooms but the best restaurant, with garden seating that takes up the entire grounds of the hotel. Unfortunately, maybe because Arba Min'ch has fewer tourists than the historic circuit in the north, it seemed like every store, bajaj driver, and tour operator was trying to rip us off.

The next day we did a tour of a Dorze village, which was sort of interesting but a very fixed set of experiences - go here, look at this, taste this, buy, buy, buy. The best part of the tour was when we stopped the car on the way back and walked through the conifer forest - a completely different ecosystem than anywhere else I've been in Ethiopia. It looked like the Rocky Mountains. Back in Arba Min'ch I found a print shop to make photo albums for our kids' family - I got LOTS of opinions about which photos I should include - and took A to get his hair braided.

The following morning we were sitting in the garden restaurant when a man sat down next to us and holy crap, it was Chuchu!!! The guy who had rescued us from the river back in 2011!!! We had kept in contact with him for a while but over the years we had lost touch. It was great to see him again and as it turned out, he helped us out again. Our plan that day had been to go to Konso and spend the night at the hotel owned by our friend's family but Chuchu told us it was a bad idea. A man had been killed by security forces in Konso that morning and there were soldiers everywhere. He told us to go ahead to Konso but he would arrange for us to continue straight through to Burji. So while we were on the 3-hour bus ride to Konso, he was making phone calls. Outside Konso soldiers stopped the bus and had everyone get off and show ID. They were friendly to us but we were very aware of their big guns and unrestricted authority. Back on the bus we continued until the outskirts of town where a group of people flagged the driver down and asked, "Do you have two ferenjis with two kids with you?" Chuchu had sent them. We got off and they immediately drove us out of town.

A few hours later we arrived in Soyema, Burji. The local teacher who would be our interpreter in our kids' village came to meet us and took us to dinner and the local "hotel."

Read Part 6