Sunday, March 8, 2009

Foreigner in a Familar Land

As I write part two on my trip to Addis, I think of all the stories I read about the poor conditions in Ethiopia and wondered what I would find when I arrived. Many people talk about the situation of beggars approaching them as they leave the airports and move throughout the city screaming out to them "ferengi" or foreigner. I've read how families develop strategies for dealing with the beggars; some decide to hand out money, others swear that we should buy fruit, a few take sweet treats from home, and I've even heard of people handing out pens. I've read some who say that there are far too many beggars and that you will never have enough and so when you start giving out anything more come.

With those stories in my head the only thing that I was fearful of was landing alone in Addis at 9:30pm dependent on strangers who said they would pick me up at the airport. Would they be there on time? How would I know them and how would they know me? In looking for my strangers would I be swarmed by beggars coming out of dark places? I am usually game for any challenge but as my plane landed I felt my heart racing a little. I've landed in tiny airports like the one in Kingston, Jamaica that greets you with tropic heat and people singing. I've landed in Los Cabos, Mexico where you have to hit the button to find out if you will get a green light for go or be stopped on red. I've landed in San Juan and Mexico City, and even at the tiny airport hut on Martha's vineyard, but in this unfamiliar land so far away, I wondered what I would find.

I guess if I'd given some thought to the fact that large Jets from Ethiopian Air, Turkish Air, Lufthansa, Emirates, and Alitalia are landing there daily, I might have envisioned a large international airport like so many I've landing in around the country. I walked from the plane expecting something third world, antiquated, dusty, dark, old, hot, and a little unwelcoming but when I stepped onto the concourse at 9:30pm in Addis it was a big international airport busy with people and activity. Every site was familiar from the lines, the signs for baggage and ground transportation. I knew that my first stop was the visa office and I wondered how much I'd have to explain and how my trip would be scrutinized. These were people about their business and I was nothing more than customer 1,225 for the day paying my $20 and getting a stamp. As I stood in the line I was surrounded by Americans, Europeans, Ethiopians, and people from many other African and non-African countries. It was like landing at Dulles or DFW or any other airport where you find many of the service workers to be people of color. It was like landing in Hartford or Detroit, maybe even a smaller version of ATL.

Still I had to get the visa and then figure out how to get to my bags, through customs and find my ride. It took about 25 minutes of standing in line, the same usual suspects complaining, trying to cut, and suggesting that the process should be more efficient. Some of us looked at each other with knowing head nods as we watched one man continue to kick his bag along the floor in front of other people until they had to let him move forward in the line. Usually I am always in a hurry, but I found myself looking at people who looked like me or people that I know trying to imagine where they'd come from or even what they were doing in Addis. It was efficient as there were about four people checking passports, taking money, handwriting receipts, and affixing visa stamps for a never ending line. The time went quickly I think because I was busy studying the faces of the people that passed me by. I was cleared to the next step, where I stood in line and waited to be officially cleared to enter Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. That $20 stamp and my time in line was enough to get me through.

I followed the arrows and found the baggage carousels that were labeled just like they are at home. I saw my bags come around on the conveyor and before I could get to them a skycap approached me; the way only a skycap can do, wheeling his cart insisting that he take over. You know, just like at home. I pointed my bags to him and he pulled them off the belt. I have to tell you after 20 hours on a plane I was happy to see him and glad for the help. We really didn't speak so I don't know much about his English skills but if you travel you've done this dance before. We approached another checkpoint where people were lined up to go through a customs check with their bags. My guy with my bags directed me away from the lines and he took me directly to a man that was some kind of gatekeeper. The two men spoke it Amharic and I only gathered that somehow I was being given the hookup that allowed me to bypass that checkpoint. The gatekeeper asked me if I had any electronics in my bags. When I said no, he ushered me through.

I'm thinking this isn't bad at all. Just as we wheel pass the customs checkpoint, I'm feeling a lot more at ease and we go around a corner and there are two WOMEN holding a sign with my name on it. I didn't have to look, hunt, wander around looking lost and confused. They were right there. One was the owner of the hotel named Senait and the other was the hotel assistant Tsion. Senait kept repeating my name. "You are Valarie A. (add my full name)? You are not at all who I expected to see. You are the Americano Valarie A. (insert full name). I had imagined someone very different. Welcome my friend you will have a great trip here. May I give you a hug?" We hugged each other and kept looking in each others faces, she was looking at me as though she were trying to find some connection that she was sure was there. There was another couple with us who were traveling from Germany. I instantly felt secure whatever fears I had went away and I began walking out of the airport into the darkest, darkest night.

The night was very, very dark and it reminded me of the dark summer nights that we spent in Indian Rock, Virginia when I was growing up. It was a different kind of uninterrupted darkness and my family would joke that it was a place where you had to pipe in sunlight. With little more than small light bouncing off of the cars, there were many people hanging out in the airport parking lot. Was I really in Africa? It didn't feel like I thought it would feel, look like I thought it would look or even smell like I thought it would smell. I kept looking around amazed at how much walking into that parking lot reminded me of driving down Madison on the west side of Chicago on a hot summer night. It was the same way that you see people on the corners in groups talking loud, laughing, drinking, or smoking. It was like walking out into that urban area that exist in any big city where the late night activity is just hanging out in the neighborhood in a way that makes many uncomfortable but where people are really minding their own business and keeping their distance.

Here I was going through the parking lot with these two very attractive women and watching beautiful petite Tsion wheeling the big heavy cart with my luggage and the luggage of the other family. Something about it didn't seem right and I kept offering to help. She insisted on pushing that rikity old cart with one bad wheel alone. We kept walking and I heard men saying things in Amharic that I only can imagine were something like, "Damn, girl you look good. What's up can I get a number? Why you walking so fast? Where you goin', can I go? Why don't you let me carry that?" It was all in Amharic and delivered in softer tones that I'm use to hearing but I was sure I understood. You could tell some were on the late night neighborhood hang, some where hustling offering to wheel the cart for a fee, some just wanted the momentary attention and then there were a few that were begging, looking for hand outs. Well I don't even know if they were begging but you could definitely tell that they were down to their last and needed some help. Some it looked like made the parking lot home for the night.

I am a big city girl so the sights and sound were not all that unfamiliar. I might hear and see all the same things going to church on Roosevelt and Wolcott in Chicago that is flanked by an amazing Medical district on one side of the street and dire poverty on the other. I think I was more surprised at how "city" it seemed. When I was a teenager in Indianapolis you might have seen the same scene being played out at the McDonalds on 38th and Meridian or at the White Castles on 38th and Keystone. Any sista that grew up in or around the neighborhood knows is that you keep walking with attitude and give NO eye contact, men will do their cat calling but there is a level of respect in some weird way that they don't go beyond; I saw the same thing in Addis. We walked through the parking lot deliberately but were slowed only momentarily when we Tsion and I looked back to see the German couple way behind. They had gotten caught up or something I don't know. They obviously stood out more as foreigners but Senait went back tried to move them along.

There was one beggar that caught my attention. Without realizing he had been walking in front of me a little earlier, I now saw him standing dressed all in black, obviously trying to keep warm. I saw many people walk by him just like he wasn't even there, but I couldn't take my eyes off of him. I had just made a purchase and still had the change in my hand. I passed by the man the first time, but I doubled back and put almost two dollars in the cup he was holding. I had watched this man for nearly 30 minutes being passed by dozens of people, so I was shocked to see that he had one coin in his cup for all his efforts. When I put my money in he said, "Thank you and God bless you! I hope you have a good day." I could understand him perfectly and he spoke clear English. That's not really surprising considering that it was last week and this man was standing outside of the McDonald's on the corner of Wacker and Washington in downtown Chicago. In the city of Chicago it is nearly impossible to pass through the downtown streets or enter any big corporate building without passing by one of these homeless forgotten people. Some are lame like those I saw in Ethiopia, some are just down on their luck, some created their own problem through a series of bad decisions. But they are the same, they are there and many of us walk pass them without thought. I'm not sure why people have to go to a third world country before they recognize poverty when the same conditions exist in our own backyard.

I know that times are difficult in Ethiopia and there may be homeless beggars screaming out to ferengis at they pass them by, but the same scene is played out in every city throughout America every day of the week. I honestly was not approached by one beggar while I was in Addis Ababa, not when I went through the parking lot of the airport, while I went through the streets of the Merkato, or even as I walked daily from the hotel to the orphanage. I saw the poverty in the streets, I saw the people that you knew had nothing, and maybe once or twice I saw people look at me trying to decide if I was ferengi or one of them but no one extended their hand to me looking for a hand out, a hand up, or just a little compassion. I do, however witness that any day that I walk through downtown Chicago.

We got all of my bags in the van and headed out of the airport down the long dark streets. The van we got in was a non-descript cargo van with a seat for me and my driver. It was an old stick shift that Senait drove with confidence wearing her "pretty girl outfit" and cute high heel sandals. Her nails were done, her makeup was fresh and she new she was cute. As we drove the fifteen or twenty minutes, I saw familiar sights of people walking in the darkness carrying their lives in plastics bags. We talked about Oprah, Obama, God, and how an Americano named Valarie A. (insert full name) could arrive looking so much like an Ethiopian. We continued the drive and I learned that Senait sings Opera. She assured me that she was the only Ethiopian that sings opera and she started singing Ava Maria.

I'm listening to her amazing voice as we passed areas where it was obvious that life had been less kind to some. We laughed on this dimly lit night about how we could get Oprah to do an expose on Ethiopia and feature Seanait and her operatic aspirations. Laughing with her on the drive we covered religion, her thoughts about adoption, and politics and it seemed that I wasn't that far from home. In Ethiopia like any other big city it is difficult to travel through to your destination without passing those that really have no where to go. We pulled up into the quietness of the Dimitri hotel. People came from inside the hotel to usher me in with my bags. Tsion now went behind the desk to do her second job of registering me as a guest and a small woman about 4' 10" and 90 lbs came to get my bags. My heavy bags that barely met the Lufthansa weight requirements. She told me I was on the third floor and looked for the elevator but all there was in front of me where a set of white marble stairs. I watched this tiny woman, happy to be working insist on carry my heavy bags one by one up three exhausting flights of stairs. I tried to help her but the urgency and pride that she had required that I assume my role as guest and watch her work. I watched her lug every false idea about the industrious nature of Ethiopians on her back without a complaint. I can't tell you how hard it was to watch her struggle up those stairs and do nothing. I walked the stairs once with my everything in a purse bag and needed to use my rescue inhaler once I reached my floor.

Many of my preconceptions were shattered from the time that I landed and made my way through the dark streets of Addis. I stared out the window of my hotel room and reflected on the earliest days of my adoption journey. One question that people would ask is why Ethiopia? I always responded that Ethiopia had chosen me. For months I heard the same refrain in my head, "I am the God of everything, not the God of the United States. These are ALL my children and care for them ALL the same. What you do for the least of these is what you do for me." I began exploring this far away country and thinking how big the world was and how small and insignificant I felt in it, but landing in Ethiopia assured me of my faith.What I've learned on this this emotional and spiritual journey is that I live in a world that is small and that it is the God of my creation that is big.

I've watched my worldview grow and the world itself shrink into familiar themes and connections centered on the same core values of love, hove, determination, perseverance, and compassion. There is no body of water or distance that will ever separate us from the fact that we are all connected. The bible says that there is nothing new under the sun but that it only time and chance happens to us all. I went to bed exhausted and anxious to see what the morning would bring.


Debbie said...

Reading about your trip to Ethiopia makes me even more anxious for our future trip. Thanks again for sharing, in such detail.

Robbin said...

Valarie you always give me what I need. You know how irritated I get about the perceptions of Ethiopia but then the same PAP will rave about their experience in Russia or China. Then when you touch down yourself and realize that could easily be on the southside of Chicago or in Epps Louisiana, you say "damn" how deeply ingrained is racism......

Sorry, not hijacking... Just couldn't resist. As always I love every word about your trip and look forward to the day this loving memoir is published. Definitely its time for another perspective of this magnificent land and its wonderful people!!!


Angela said...


Thank you for sharing your experience in Ethiopia. My husband and I experienced the same familiarity while visiting our local Ethiopian restaurant. They also studied my husband's face very carefully.

From my understanding, an AA's experience in Africa is unique to others. There's a sense comfort compared almost to the feeling of arriving home. I can't wait to travel in June as well as for our big "gotcha day".

kristine said...

Robbin said it so well. Publishing this seems almost a forgone conclusion. Not because I want to suggest to u what you should do with your time but because it is so needed.

Adopting1Soon said...

Beautiful writing! I was right there with you. I can't wait to go.

LoveNotes4CocoPrincess said...

Valerie, again, thank you for bringing the beauty of "HOME" to the forefront. I get so tired of reading blogs in which the "land" of Ethiopia has been trampled over and thrown to the side but yet, these same bloggers rant about their desire to have the "fruit" of the land...until they come off as "priviledge" with noses looking down...I sometimes cry when I reflect upon what's going on and then I understand why ET-Government is moving in the direction of "change". . . I'm getting emotional right now, but again, THANK YOU from a sista's heart!


Great story!

As usual, I always love reading your blog. You are a very good writer.


AmyG said...

Valarie..I just got home from a trip to ET three weeks ago. Your descriptions are perfect. The whole airport section could be copied and pasted into my family album :o)...except for the fact that I am not from a big city and I did have a lady with a baby approach me in the parking lot at 4am. I fell in love with ET hard during my short trip. Thanks for sharing!

Bennett said...

wow Valerie I was waiting to have a really quiet moment to read this entry. I feel so connected to your story that the visual experience that I am having right now is just unbelievable. I can't wait to read the book!!!

Dawn said...

That was nice Valerie. It is really something when you feel the familiarity of a place you have never been before.

I am convinced our DNA knows when it's home...

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