Friday, March 27, 2009

And Then I Kissed the President: Part II

Read Part I:

Well...I left Gedaye's house the same way they I walked in, I'd taken off the traditional dress but kept the head wrap to cover the rollers. Yes, I walked through the streets of Ethiopia with rollers in my hair. I walked through the courtyard hugged and kissed the kids as I made my way my way to the blue gate. This had already been a long day and it wasn't even 4:00 yet.

I made my way back to the hotel, I walked up those three flights of pretty white marble stairs, I took two hits on the rescue inhaler to catch my breath. I hope you can understand how much rushing around that I had to do. I tried on a couple of things and they were shorter than I remembered and even those that weren't did not go with those ugly brown sensible shoes with the wedge heel. I pulled out my long flowered skirt with the bright orange trim and then remembered that I'd brought a knit two piece set. You know a sweater set but it was knit material. That would have to do. I felt like I was going to a church meeting, you know how you feel when you are dressed but not feeling it? I decided right then and there if I was going to the PALACE I was not going to let a silly pair of shoes get me down. I knew what I had to do. I had to work it out, put a smile on my face, and walk proudly out the door.

Always, always accentuate the positives, so I concentrated on the upper half, I whipped my hair and applied a flawless painted face with extra lip gloss for shine. My goal was to draw attention to my face so that no one would feel that they needed to look down. From the neck up I looked good and took a picture of my self to prove it! You all have seen it a couple of post back. I got down to the lobby right at 3:30 and saw that my host was still dressed in her same outfit from earlier in the day. It was cute but I instantly realized that she obviously had not gone through the same pull-everything-out-of-your-suitcase-and-try-it-on event that I had. She looked great. Like me she focused on prettying up the face.

We headed out of the lobby and all I had in my hand was my small wallet that was large enough to hold my passport. This was shocking since I'd become known for carrying a big bag around with every pill, disinfectant, food, and what not in it. I hadn't asked many questions, well I hadn't asked any questions and jumped in the white CARGO van for the ride. As we pulled away, I was fascinated watching my host drive that stick shift wearing that long gown. We started driving and this was the first time I was passing the same sights that I'd only seen in the darkness of my arrival two night before. On the corner was a makeshift market selling clothes and shoes. My hostess with the mostest decided that we should sing as we drove to make the time go faster. She decided to sing The First Noel and Silent Night. We sung these songs a couple of times until we had two part harmony going. We sang and laughed in between. I just starred out the window trying to take in every site. It was obvious that we were traveling through several residential areas and there was so much to see.

I still really didn't know where I was going and to be truthful I didn't see anything that made me feel like we were getting closer to the palace. Maybe Gedaye was right afterall. Well we finally made it to a main road, rounded a corner and without warning pulled up to a cast iron gate. The gate was closed and as we pulled the car up a man dressed in a gray suit approached the van. He had a clip board and instantly checked off my host' name. Then it would became like something out of a movie. Amharic, Amharic, laugh, laugh as the man continued to pour of the list of names obviously not finding my name there. He turned the pages over, he looked at the list that I could tell were late additions because they were written in ink and not typed. I was NOT on the list and we just sat at the pretty gate. My hostess was relaxed and leaning out the window. Amharic, Amharic, laugh, laugh and they opened the gate and we pulled forward. We pulled inside the gate but not too far. She pulled the car over to the side and another person approached with a clipboard. It was obvious that I wasn't on the list but not obvious whether or not I'd be able to attend. We sat there for about 10 minutes while we saw several people, some armed, some not go back and forth trying to decide what should be done.

My hostess grabbed her cell phone and called inside the palace. She handed the phone to one of the people standing there, there were probably 10 near the gate acting in some official capacity. We were asked to step out of the van. I took a deep breath. "Is everything okay?" I asked her not really sure what was going on. The next thing I know a man came with a mirror attached to a large poll and started searching under the vehicle. I took a deep breath, but my hostess was so relaxed and interacting knowingly with the people near the gate. There was a guard shed and I saw one of the men pick up and talk on the phone. We stood outside the van and I tried to act very unconcerned. It wasn't scary, just uncertain. Finally we were approached by two women in military uniforms with guns. They directed us to follow them and we walked across a little courtyard to a small bricked structure. I took a deep breath and followed along like I do this everyday. They searched us like that do with the wand at the airport. They went through my wallet and examined my passport. We were cleared? Yea, WE were cleared. We went back across the courtyard and down about three steps to where the van was parked. We got back in and drove down a little farther to the parking spaces.

This was the first time that I actually looked around. I was on the grounds of the palace. I was at the home of the sitting President. This was not Menelik's Palace. I couldn't wait to tell Gedaye. We got out and I looked back up the hill to see the others stopped at the gate, pulled to the side, ushered to the guard house, and walking the path I was walking. The grounds were beautiful, It was so green, with a lot of trees. I could see two building in the distance and we kept walking leisurely towards them. As we walked, my hostess told me about the grounds and that their were lions there. It was pretty casual conversation for such a once in a lifetime event.

It was a beautiful serene place. I'm not sure that even I can find the words to describe how it seemed we went into a tropical paradise. We walked down the drive and rounded the corner passing one building on our way to the second. Ahead of me a get see a small line of people forming on the steps to the entrance. As I got closer I realized that I was standing on the red carpet that I assumed had been rolled out for the occaision although I still didn't know what we were celebrating. I walked up the red carpeted stairs to an attendant that asked for my wallet and searched it an then she grabbed a clipboard looking for my name. Amharic, Amharic, I was not on the list. My hostess was obviously known to the people they exchanged smiles and laughs and unbelievably I was motioned to move through the metal detector that was the last stage before entering these tall magnificent golden doors. The doors were huge and the carvings were magnificent. That provided us entry to these huge and regal room that was like something from a movie. It was about the size of a footbal field or two basketball courts.

Once we stepped into this palatial place there were seating groups at both far ends of the room and interspersed at places in between. To my immediate left there were several different types of chairs formed in a U shape facing a settee. There were glass towers that ad encased the largest vases that I'd ever seen. To my right far down were a group of priest, maybe eight or nine dressed in the traditional garb that you see in the pictures. There was a bar section next to them that had wrapped gifts on it. We were ushered across the room and seated on a long settee. When I sat down I saw four or five more of these grouped sitting areas and there were two stuffed lions on the floor facing the huge open doorway. After I sat down facing the door I looked to my right and there was another group. There was a man that was all dressed in white traditional clothes leaned back in a very high back chair. I looked down and saw that he was wearing white gym shoes. I didn't know who he was but I was instantly more comfortable in my wedges.

As I sat in my spot, curling my legs behind me, I just observed all around me. People walked in and they were directed to certain areas of the room to sit. Some where dressed in sequens and some who were much younger were wearing jeans, I could tell that they must have been family members. Men were dressed in suits and some ladies had on traditional garb. Some looked regal and royal and others looked like they were going to church. It became clear that you were seated by your importance and then I realized that they group to my right was the most important when a gentleman came and asked that we follow him and we walked right towards that group of Quenn Anne styled chairs. I was asked to walk down one side of the U and introduced as some stood, some shook, my hands, and others kissed my cheek. I don't know it was maybe six people and then at the bottom of the U was the man in white, wearing tennis shoes. Next to him was a man sitting in another high back chair. I was told that he was the son of the President and who do you think was to his right in the tennis shoes, it was the President of Ethiopia. He looked up at me and called out my last name with a big smile and a hearty laugh. He looked like a black Santa Clause with the beard or funny red suit. I was so surprised that he called me by name and he said, "Of course I know who you are, I asked for you to come." He extended his hand and as I reached out to shake it, he drew me in closer and that's when I kissed the President or more accurately that when he kissed as only Ethiopians do on the cheek. The right side, then the left, and then the right. I got carried away and kissed him again on the left and they laughed at me. He looked up at my hostess and said, "She is not Ethiopian?" And, then he asked me if I was sure and where my father was born. We were kind of moved along by the group following us. I met the other dignitaries as we completed the U, like the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

We moved back to our seating area and were approached by two handsome butlers rolling a drink cart. They had on nice shiny black shoes, black pants, and bright white jackets with black bow ties. They wheeled this nice cart up to us and asked what we wanted to drink. I asked for red wine but in Amharic it must sound like Black Label because that's what he began to pour. After a couple of points and head nods, I had a glass of Merlot. We sat and I watched more people come in and whenever someone more important would come in, someone near the President would be asked to surrender their seat. I was there, it was surreal and maybe after 30 or 40 minutes when all the quest had arrived two men went and closed the big, heavy, golden doors. The President stood up and walked and a procession of people followed him through another open doorway. Just as we had been seated, someone official came and asked us to follow. Wow, there were six long tables with about 12 people each and a head table.

Within minutes I learned that I was one of some 70 or 80 people that had been invited to his 85th birthday party. If I wasn't there I wouldn't have believed it myself. Sitting across from me was a French businessman with a beautiful Paul Newman type face and strong accent. Next to him was his beautiful Ethiopian girlfriend who owns a fashion magazine. There were some introductions, a brief video presentation, and then the magazine owner who is also a known poet in Ethiopia stood to read a special poem that she had written for him. A priest stood and delivered a prayer. The table was lavishly set and there were like 8 glasses in front of each person. Butlers and servants were busy pouring wine and water for the guest and table by table was being ushered to go into another long room were the food was served buffet style. There was a mix of American food and Ethiopian food, there was a separate table for those that were fasting. There was injera and assorted American style rolls and curiously at the end of each table where large bowls of potato chips. I fixed my plate and returned to my table.

We had so much fun with the couple sitting across from us and in that moment between French and Amharic accents I felt like an international traveler. We talked and ate and then they rolled in a big birthday cake with the numbers 85 appearing from the top. We stood and someone made a champaigne toast and then my hostess began singing Happy Birthday in English and everyone chimed in. They thing sang it again in Amharic and I'm sure sang the part about "how old are you?" There was more laughter and exchange of jokes with the people across the table and then the President stood up and walked back towards the large open room and to his seat. We all followed out of the room one table at a time and then were directed to sign the commemorative picture in gold pen. We all stood around watching others take their turn signing the matted frame around the picture of the President.

After that we were escorted back to where the President was sitting. There were two chairs, one on each side of him. That's when my friend and I were escorted to the chairs to sit and take pictures with the President. The ending to my night at the palace was sitting next to him while he laughed only calling me by my last name. There was an official photographer but in between the pictures the President said, "(last name)... you have arrived from what city?"

I answered, "Chicago?" (picture) He said, "I was there many years ago, it is the home of Obama. I was there in 1950" He laughed when I told him I'd not be born yet and then pointed at the photographer and told me to smile. (picture) "Obama will be a great President and you are from his great city. (Last name) it was a pleasure having you here." We rose from our seats flanking the President and on our way out invited the three people that had been sitting across from us back to the hotel for drinks.

I was asked if I took pictures and the answer is no, because cameras are not even allowed onto the grounds. However, my friend has contacted me and let me know that she was sent my pictures and that she will keep them until I return. So, there are pictures of me and the President. In case you are wondering what I wrote in gold ink on his commemorative picture, I wrote,

"Happy Birthday and may God grant you many more days of greatness. These are the greetings I bring to you from the USA home of President Barak Obama. Valarie A. (last name)"


kristine said...

I've been leaning into my computer - munching on my lunch - which has been dripping all over me - because I could not take my eyes away from the screen.

Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. Extraordinary. I am so happy you were able to be there! Spectacular. I just can't think of the right words but I'm so happy that I got to experience it through you.

LoveNotes4CocoPrincess said...

oooooh Valerie...kristine said it all for me; however, leaning into the computer are not my words --- leaning into the computer with chills are more accurate for me!

...thank you for allowing me to experience such glorious moment-to-memories too!

Anonymous said...

I swear, it could be a movie. Great story.


Anonymous said...

It gives pleasure to read your well-written experience in Ethiopia.
"About your father being an Ethiopia, look back the Abyssinian church (NY) history and story. He could be one of them."

VALARIE said...

You all are too kind. It was definitely a once in a lifetime experience.

My fathers family is mixed with many things but I don't think that they are Ethiopian. My paternal side is from Georgia and they are Black (undefined origin), Scottish, and Cherokee.

I wrote a post and posted pictures of them sometime back; however since starting the journey my father and I have talked quite a bit about how many of my family members look Ethiopian (much more so that I do.)

Debbie said...

AWESOME!!!! What an absolutely memorable trip!!!!

Queen Diva said...

Great story!

As usual, I always enjoy your writing style.


LoveNotes4CocoPrincess said...

But what if your Dad's people came from Ethiopia? My Dad use to say, "Abesha blood runs deep and proud!" You could be of Ethiopian decent. . .not all of our middle passage families came from the West Coast of Africa...I'm just saying, we could be cousins!!!!!

VALARIE said...

You might be right, anything is possible.

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