Thursday, March 26, 2009

And Then I Kissed the President: Part I

It was my second full day in Ethiopia and it was some kind of day. Gedaye had asked me to be up and ready to go to church with her at 7:00am. Tsion who worked at the front desk of the hotel told me that she thought it was awfully early for church and told me that she attended at 10am. She suggested that I might have gotten the time wrong although she explained that people attended at different times. I thought she meant that in the same way that most of our churches have early bird service. No matter, I took my tired self to bed, I woke up to the hot sun peering into the many windows that lined one side of my room but without the 6am wakeup call from the front desk. Thank goodness I'd also set my cell phone clock because having landed only two night before, my body clock was a little off. I got up and took a quick, hot shower and then I rushed downstairs. It was 7:10 but there was no Gedaye.

I waited about twenty minutes or more and then I asked the staff to give her a call. "Good morning Valencita," she decided that Valencita was a better name than Valarie and insisted on calling me that for the entire trip. "Where are you, you should be here with me. Come, come why are you not at my house?" Maybe I was more tired than I thought because I know for sure she said that she would pick me up. So, I took my 10 minute walk from the hotel, out the gate, down the hill, around the corner, up the hill, through the alley to the big blue orphanage gate and knocked, waiting for someone to answer. There was a new guard at the gate and he didn't recognize me so he blocked the gate a little to let me know that I wasn't just going to walk through. My baby saw me and shouted something to the other children and all of a sudden they were all at the gate. My baby went under the guards arm grabbed me by the hand and pulled me into the courtyard. I was smothered by a lot of little-people-kisses as I tried to make my way through the courtyard, around the crooked paved sidewalk of the narrow space that leads to Gedaye's backdoor. I must have hugged every child at least three time and believe me hugging the kids is like an aerobic workout. First you have to bend deep at the waist to get to their level and so that they can grab you around the neck with both hands clasped. Then they pull so hard at your neck that you have to lift them to your level just to take a breath. While you are with one the others are making kissing faces and noises waiting for their turn and please, please, whatever you do don't leave one of them out.

The backdoor of Gedaye's house was open and feeling so familiar I walked in and called out to her several times before she answered. She was in her room dressing and told me that she had picked a couple of traditional dresses for me to try on. It was the observation of Gabriel in Ethiopia and she told me it was important that I wear traditional dress. I chose one put it on and because they are one-size fits all, it FIT! It did absolutely nothing for my high waistline and made me look about 10 pound heavier but at least I was properly dressed for the day. After she and I were dressed she went into her room and came out with a very nice perfume by Krizia. She said that it was a gift from one of her daughters and she sprayed herself and then sprayed me. She said I was ready but she just wished that I had on jewelry for the occaision. I kept looking at the time and now at least an hour at passed. What time was church? Were we missing it? I didn't want to miss anything, but Gedaye said that we needed to sit down and have our coffee. Her maid Haimenot washed my hands for me by pouring cold water over them from a special pot that flowed down into a basin bowel. She then kneeled beside each of us as she poured the dark hot coffee into those tiny little cups. We sipped slowly and the time kept passing. I wanted to go to church. What time was it? Finally it was time to go. Finally...

I thought for sure that we would go out the front door where I was surprised to see a late model Mercedes in the driveway. Instead we went back to the courtyard and through the maze of kisses and hugs to get into the blue Toyota. Everything in Ethiopia seemed to be blue for some reason. So, we hope in the care to back out of the narrow gate. Mmmmmm. This was the start of my most adventurous day in Ethiopia by far. It became clear to me very quickly that this was going to be the scene from Color Purple. You know the one where Ms. Millie dropped Sophia off to visit with her family but really didn't know how to drive a stick shift. This was the EXACT sam scenario.. It took 10-15 minutes of stop and go, forward, backward, right, left to back out of the gate the WRONG WAY! Imagine each time the engine died another worker appeared from somewhere shouting instructions. The wrong way means that the director only knows how to cut the wheel to the right or she hasn't figured out that you cut the wheel the opposite way that you want to turn.

Finally...we are out of the gate facing but now we are facing the wrong way on a narrow, ROCKY, busy road with huge craters in it -- big and deep enough to bury 10 bowling balls. It took another twenty minutes to point the car in the right direction. At every hill, and there were many, the car stalled but I'm not sure if I was more scared at the herky, jerky stops or when she really got the car moving. She blew the horn at anybody who was in the way and almost dared them to continue even if they had the right of way. Is there such a thing on the roads of Ethiopia?

The car stalled at a very busy uphill intersection, cars were blowing as we kept rolling back down the steep hill trying to make a dangerous left. A left? The church was straight ahead, couldn't we just keep going in that direction. At that point, I wanted to get out and walk across the four lanes of traffic to the church. She decided that the problem of the stalling was because she did not have enough gas, so we bypassed the church that I was so happy to see to headed to the gas station; turning on what seemed to me to be a one-way with cars coming towards us. I kept gripping the handle right above my head holding on for dear life. God, could a woman really persih on her way to church? Please God, don't let that happen. She told me to relax and that the forward moving cars that had the right of way would stop for us because she had shown them the turn signal. Then came the confession. She said that she was a new driver and had not had much practice. She was very honest and said that it was like anything that if you don't practice you can't get good at it. I wasn't sure we should be talking AND driving so I just said some silent prayers and remembered that in The Color Purple version Ms. Sophia came to rescue. I absolutely ADORE her but driving is not her calling.

Anyway we made it to this beautiful church, St. Mary's. But the experience was different than what I expected. I don't know if it is because we were so late of if it is just custom. But there were many people that simply prayed and worshipped outside the doors of the church. There was a praying alter and prayer corners and benches. That is where we sat and prayed. At one point Gedaye said that if I prayed for God to let me have or give birth to a baby that I should promise to bring the child to Ethiopia to be baptized. She assured me that God could do anything and that 43 is not too old to have a baby. I believe God can do mighty things and that's why I decided not to offer up that prayer. I did feel a different spirit in that place. There was a reference and seriousness of the people that approahed the building. They brought their children and older parents and kneeled as they approached. There were so many people kneeling and on the outside. It was quiet and everyone was having their own private mediation.

As I sat on my own bench across from Gedaye, I prayed simply that God confirm that I was on the right path. I asked that he make it clear, crystal clear that I was in the right place at the right time and that He would not let me leave Ethiopia without know that this was indeed his plan for me. We rose from our benches and then we walked around to each of the doors of the church, Gedaye would pray a prayer, touch, and lean her forehead against the doors. There were offering boxes at each of the 10 or so doors and she placed money in a couple before moving on to the next. I could see as we walked that the church building was empty. Still, I felt that I'd had a really intense worship experience. After some 40 minutes of prayer time and without every entering the church, we returned to my hotel and had tea together we hung out in my room with her telling me that she hardly ever takes time away from the children and I can attest to that. We loaded up the last bag of goodies that I had for the children and drove up the hill, stalling and stopping all the way, the gas had not helped at all. Behind the bright blue gate, I spent time with the children until it was time for them to be served lunch. Again the kisses, my little girl followed me around and my little boy kept motioning for me to pick him up and hug him.

My plan was to go and see the city but I never made it. Church took a little longer than expected. The girl at the hotel had arranged a car to pick me up. I was to pay 100 bir or $10 for 4 hours of touring she had told him where to take me and vouched for him. It was so late and the director refused to let me get in a car with someone that she didn't know. She said she felt personally reasonable for me and this began the second adventure.

Just how much does it cost to tour the city or better yet how long does it take to negotiate a price to tour the city? The first driver arrived and the price was 250 birr, the next 300 birr, the next 400 birr. In between each driver was a long discussion and negotiation. One drive's price was so ridiculous that she told me to close the door and walk away, she was sure that he would lower the price so we began walking back down the hill around the child sized holes. He stopped but never spoke to us again. So, since we had walked all the way out of the alley and onto the main street, we stopped at the corner market and actually sat on crates to talk with the market owner. This store was like any neighborhood corner store it had everything from finger nail clippers to coffee. There were snicker bars and M&M's, Johnson's baby oil, and vaseline. The custom was for the patron's to sit while the clerk or one of his workers went through the store gathering things to be purchased. We weren't buying we were just sitting.

This was the hottest part of the day and that bright sun was hanging over my head like a tracking satellite. I grew uncomfortable sitting on the crate so the shop owner let me sit in a very high chair behind the cash register. Staring out the window, looking at my hotel that was not five minutes away started to annoy me. Why am I sitting here? Gedaye told me the sun was too hot and I should wait before walking. I used her cell phone to call the hotel and they said to stay put and they would send a car. A car? I want to walk and I want to go now, but here I sit perched in this high chair wearing a floor length traditional dress with my head covered. No car came but the security guard from the hotel walked across the street to make sure that I was me, the Americano from the hotel and then he proceeded to go up and down the street looking for taxis. This really is how it happened. So after sitting in the market I was tired and really didn't feel much like sight seeing. I told Gedaye that I was walking back to the hotel and against her urging that the sun was too hot and and in spite of the uniformed bell hop that was still walking up and down the street looking for a taxi; that is exactly what I did. I ended this two-hour adventure in five minutes flat.

Once I got into the lobby of the hotel there was a little bit of talk about taxis, drivers, and the mix up. I told the hotel owner about the taxi drama and she said she would take me sightseeing but she had a party to attend at 4pm. It was 1:50. Before she arrived a priest had come into the hotel. I watched with great interest as he went to people in waiting in the lobby to over them blessings. Would he bless me? This priest had been part of the St. Gabriel celebration and had carried the talmut for eight hours. He was wrapped head to toe in white. The wrinkles on his sun-beaten face showed his seriousness and wisdom. He sat down to have his lunch with the hotel owner and she told me more about the significance of the day. I was happy and surprised when she asked me to sit with her and the priest. She asked for him to bless me and he prayed over me in Amharic. It was a long prayer and in between he would touch me with the cross or look at me for a response. After the prayer, he continued to talk to me and she had to explain that I was a black Americano. We had some laughs about it but I sat with him while he ate his lunch, he talked to me and I didn't understand one word. I only hoped that God heard him and that they working together to help me on my journey.

In an unexpected moment, Senait, the owner said that she wanted me to go to the celebration with her at 4pm. It came out of the blue as we both sat in the cool lobby dressed and blessed in our traditional dresses. Without much explanation Senait told me that her engagement was a celebration at the palace. I assumed it had to do with the Gabriel holiday. The next thing I know she picked up her cell phone, I was leaning back when I wasn't sure I heard what I heard. "El Presidente it is me, Senait. Yes, your Excellence, I am sitting here with Valarie A. (full name), she is a Black Americano from the United States and I would like for her to be my guest today. They laughed and still wasn't sure who she was talking to. They had a lot of laughter and exchanges and then she was told how to register me for the party. I was told that I needed to be ready by 3:30, to wear my finest clothes, let down my hair, put on makeup, lipstick for sure, get my passport, leave my big everything-that-I might need bag and meet her in the lobby. She told me that I was going to The Palace to meet The President.

I had come to Ethiopia to see my children and to work at the orphanage. I brought comfortable clothes and though I never, ever wear sensible shoes I bought a pair just for this trip. What on earth could I find in my bag to wear? My best friend had urged me to take one really nice black dress but I didn't heed her advice. Anyway I went to the room trying to figure out what one wears to meet the President. That's when I noticed that I had the orphanage director's keys in my bag. I called her hoping that she would help me figure out what to do. I was hoping that she would offer me some wonderful outfit for the occasion. I was hoping she would jump right in to help me prepare but that just didn't happen. I called her up all excited about my news, and she told me that I had to be confused and needed to bring her the keys. She told me that I sounded ridiculous thinking that I was actually going to meet the President of Ethiopia. At this point the curling iron had stopped working and I'd thrown a few rollers in my hair. I put on a head wrap to cover my rollers and walked my tired butt back up that hill. I gave her the keys and asked her what I should wear?

Gedaye laughed at me and said she had no idea what I should wear to the palace because she has never been invited. She teased me and told me that they must think I am a relative of Obama to get this special invitation. She kept laughing saying that someone was playing a trick on me and I was probably going on a site seeing tour of Menelik's palace, the one that is no longer used. It was 3:05 and I told her that I had to go and would call her in the morning if I actually made it to the palace. "No," she said. "If you go to the palace you come back and tell me tonight!"

Stay tuned for part II.


kristine said...

Ooooohhhh No no no!
You cannot stop there!!!

What did you where???? And you didn't bring a little black dress? You of the - you never where sensible shoes? Oh my gosh!

I really don't care what your day is like or what you are doing - I hope you are writing, writing, writing and posting very quickly.

I must know - WHAT DID YOU WEAR?!

And the adventure of walking to the hotel is very funny.

And to hear you say 'my baby' heart tugging.

I cannot imagine the depth of your emotions.

The church service too was fun to read.

paige said...

MUST know what happens next!!!!
Hurry! Um, please.

Debbie said...

Seriously, that is the stopping point?!!!! What did you wear? did you go to the palace? Ahhh!!! I can't wait to read the rest.

Original Court Date: April 18, 2009
Final Court Date: May 18, 2009
[607 total days & 165 days w/IAN]