Our 2010 trip to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia was for the purpose of bringing home our two new babies. When I think of our ten days in Ethiopia, it is as if we took two separate trips. One trip was a grand adventure to the heart of Africa where we saw and did things we had never experienced before. The other was an emotionally heavy trip where we met our children Sadie and Sebastian for the first time, bonded with them and brought them home. Somehow we had both of those trips at the same time, but I have never really written about the grand adventure of the first trip. Adopting is such a journey in and of itself; the narrative of travel just wasn’t something I was dialed into during those emotionally charged days in Ethiopia.
Of all the places I have traveled to, Ethiopia attached itself to my heart the most. I think mainly it is because I met my children here; I fell in love with my babies and simultaneously fell in love with their homeland. The Ethiopian people are the most regal and humble folks I had ever met.
We are planning on returning to Ethiopia in the next several years with all four of our children. I decided that I wanted to remember the travel details of our 2010 trip to help inform our future trip. There are many places we visited that we hope to return to and a few new places that we look forward to exploring as a family of six.
Here then is what I remember from our 2010 adventure to Ethiopia.
Sam and I flew to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia from San Francisco in late January 2010.
We took Ethiopian Air and loved it. As soon as we landed in Washington D.C. to transfer over to Ethiopian Air we felt like we were already in Ethiopia. First off, most of the passengers were Ethiopian. We clearly stood out being white and only speaking English. I was immediately fascinated with the way the women were draped in scarves and robes; many had facial tattoos as well. While we had felt strongly about adopting from Ethiopia we initially knew nothing about the country or its people. This first experience in the Dulles Airport with roughly 200 Ethiopians was our crash course. The flight was about 24 hours total flying from San Francisco ->Washington, D.C. -> Rome (just for refueling) ->Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We were pretty baked by the time we landed but I remember feeling my emotions close to the surface as this was the first time I was seeing my children’s homeland. From the air it was like a patchwork of brown and green. Africa is SO expansive. You really can’t appreciate the enormity of the continent until you have flown over it.
When we landed we were taken immediately to our Ethiopian attorney’s office to handle the final financial part of the adoption. Then we were taken to our living quarters for the next 10 days, YGF Guesthouse. This guesthouse is associated with the French run orphanage our children were adopted from, SOS Enfante Ethiopie Toukoul.
We dropped off our many bags at the guesthouse and then drove to the orphanage. I think we had a total of ten bags on this trip; three were just donations for the orphanage. The drive to the orphanage was very bumpy and dusty. Although we were in the country capital of Addis Ababa the entire time, the roads were terrible. I think there was ONE decent road in the entire city. There were thick plumes of black exhaust smoke from all of the cars and no one really wore seatbelts. The smoke gave us headaches for the first two days. This is just something everyone is accustomed to and after a few days we got used to it too. When I drove for the first time back in California the roads felt like clouds and my minivan like a little palace!
Toukoul mainly consisted of large shipping containers that had been repurposed into buildings. There were a few one story brick structures and one large traditional “toukoul” but most of the orphanage was made up of containers.
To read more about our initial impressions regarding our babies go here.
We went back and forth to the orphanage over the next three days, helping the babies get used to us and getting rid of our jet lag (which was significant). Once we officially checked them out of SOS we brought them to the guesthouse, cleaned them up and started spending time together as a new family. With our older two children back home in California with their grandma, we just had our babies to focus on and that was great. We had help from two wonderful women at the guesthouse who served as nannies while we traveled around Addis a little. We didn’t want to take the babies out (they had never been exposed to so much noise and commotion before and would not have helped their transition) but we wanted to make the most of our short time in Ethiopia. We couldn’t have managed without these women and are still so grateful to them for their love and care.
One of our favorite experiences was journeying to the Merkato, an enormous open-air outdoor market in Addis. It is the largest open-air market in all of Africa and trust me, it felt like it. Sprawling doesn’t begin to convey how large it is.
Our translator and driver, Tesfaye, was very concerned about us visiting the Merkato. We spoke no Amharic and relied on him completely to translate. He was concerned about our safety and I know we made him nervous because we kept jumping off the course he was setting for us into alleyways and stalls and behind buildings. We wanted to see it all and both Sam and I felt like we could handle ourselves. But poor Tesfaye; he was so glad to get us out of there. A Merkato highlight was the spice stalls where we bought lots of cinnamon, coriander, nutmeg and some various teas. The cinnamon we purchased in Ethiopia was the BEST cinnamon we have ever had. The photo of me buying spices from the woman in the shop is a personal favorite of mine. She spoke no English and I spoke no Amharic; our transaction was lots of pointing and smiling. The strangest thing we bought were “toothbrushes”; the word is in quotation marks because it was really just a stick that the vendor was calling a toothbrush!
This ^^^ is Tesfaye. We spent every day of our 10 days with him and when we left, we all had tears in our eyes. He became a trusted friend and we hope to see him again when we return to Ethiopia. We can’t imagine doing a trip without him. His kindness and humility and generosity was one of the best things to witness on our trip.
We knew that many people visiting Addis went to the museums (the ancient bones of Lucy are there, for instance) or stayed in the expat-friendly compounds and hotels (the Sheraton Hotel is the nicest place to stay in the city) but that wasn’t what we wanted out of this trip. It would have felt very out of place staying at the Sheraton (though we did go to the grocery store there to find a specific kind of baby food when we couldn’t find it anywhere else) when so much of the city and country is impoverished. We wanted to soak up the place our children were from and that meant really spending time with the Ethiopian people, not expats and tourists. We repeatedly asked Tesfaye to take us to the poorest parts of Addis and drove through truly the most humble and depressed areas I have ever seen. We had never witnessed poverty like we witnessed in Ethiopia. You can’t see these sights and go back to your “real” life again; you are changed. The magnitude of loss and lack is unlike anything we had ever experienced.
We asked to be taken to the HIV orphanage associated with the orphanage our children had been at. Initially we were told no. We pressed and said it was important for us to see these children and spend some time with them. Finally we received clearance to go but it was only after we pushed.
Once we pulled into the compound, we noticed that this orphanage was much more desperate than the one our children had been at. Tesfaye translated for us and we were led on a very short tour of the baby room, the kitchen, a living area and a TV room. We were told we could not take any photos. The baby room had approximately a dozen infants, each in their own cot. They all appeared fine…until I saw the last cot. This baby was shaking and clearly looked very sick. We were ushered out quickly. The kitchen was small and hot and I made a conscious effort not to look to carefully at anything in there. I asked if there was HIV medicine for the children and was told no. Only food and basic medical necessities were here. We were then brought into a medium size room where there were about 20 children, ages perhaps three up to young teenagers. There was a small TV and several couches and chairs in the room; the children were all watching TV. I entered the room immediately behind Tesfaye and suddenly a child screamed. Then more of the children screamed and cried out. I panicked and looked to Tesfaye – what was going on? I looked behind me but it was only Sam and one of the workers. I looked at Tesfaye again who was now talking to one of the workers. We were told that the children had never seen white people before and thought that we were ghosts.
White people had never come to this orphanage before. These children had no idea what was going on.
I knelt down on the floor and held my hands out in front of me while Tesfaye guided each child over to touch my hands to see that I was not a ghost and was in fact real. That experience was the single most profound of our trip to Ethiopia. I realized in that moment that these children would probably not be adopted; they were going to be made comfortable and that was it. This was not a place adoptive parents were brought to. My legs were shaking as I stood up and walked out of that room, back to the front of the orphanage. It took everything I had not to cry. Before we left, one of the workers brought me a very large book, kind of like a photo album. I leafed through it, looking at photos and lots of text written in Amharic. I wasn’t sure what I was looking at until Tesfaye translated and told me that the workers were waiting to see which of the children we were going to choose to adopt. I was crushed. They were so hopeful until I explained we had just completed an adoption for two children and would not be able to take any others.
The tears came when we got back into our van with Tesfaye. I will never forget that experience. What makes one child more lucky than another? Why did my children get a family and these children did not? It was a crushing experience to drive away and know that for these children, their lives would end in that orphanage.
We drove and drove and drove. We stopped at a market and had the best coffee in the world with such lovely women.
We don’t drink coffee but that day, the liquid not only tasted good but it warmed our souls. We could not help every child we saw in Addis…but we could help our two new babies. We could make the world a better place for them. In that moment, that had to be enough.
We also visited the ALERT center for Leprosy. This center is right on the edge of Addis and specializes in treatment of both leprosy and tuberculosis. Patients are both treated and housed here. We bought most of our handmade souvenirs from the gift shop on the premise. We found a beautiful hand loomed/embroidered king size blanket and decided it would be perfect for our bed at home. After we purchased it we asked if we could meet the people who had made it. Initially we were told no, but we pressed. Finally we were brought into the workrooms upstairs to meet the patients and artisans who created so much of what was in the gift shop. We understood that this was unusual to have visitors in the workrooms and we were very grateful that they trusted us and our intentions.
Our time at ALERT was very special. We were so glad that we pushed to meet the people who live and work there; it made the treasures we purchased all the more meaningful.
We also went to the top of Entoto Mountain. Entoto is the highest peak overlooking the city of Addis. Sam especially wanted to visit Mount Entoto because that is where many of the great Ethiopian distance runners train. The drive to the peak took awhile but we were rewarded with smog-free air (hallelujah), the smell of eucalyptus and fantastic views of the city below.
There are several churches and religious sites at the top of Entoto, as well as a village.
When we reminisce about our time in Ethiopia, we always wax nostalgic about ORANGE FANTA! We were obsessed with orange Fanta while we were there. Please do not try to convince me that it tastes the same in the US because it does NOT. We were downing at least two bottles a day each…but only while we were in Ethiopia. Back at home neither one of us drinks it!
You may notice that in most of these photos I am wearing a yellow scarf. I wore it from the time I met the babies at the orphanage until it was time to travel home. It was both a potential head covering (depending on where we were in the city) and a visual cue to my new babies that mom was the one in the yellow scarf. I’m not sure many white women had come into their lives before me but just in case, I wanted them to have a visual tie each time they saw me. Once I got home I rarely wore the scarf anymore; I have it packed up with some of my special keepsakes from the trip.
The thing that surprised both me and Sam about our time in Ethiopia was how familiar it felt to our spirits. As soon as we landed and walked out of the airport in Addis we said to each other that this felt like a place we had been to before. Some of it reminded us of our days in Queens, NY. Trust me, if you have lived in NYC there are parts that can remind you of a foreign country. But it was more than that. I believe it felt familiar to us because we were always supposed to come to Ethiopia. Our youngest two kids were always meant to be in our family and so of course we needed to travel there to assemble our complete family unit. How else can I explain the feeling of familiarity?
Ethiopia will always have my heart and I can’t wait to go back as a family of six. When we return in a few years, we hope to visit the towns where both of our kids were born, back to Addis to visit the orphanage and some of the sites that were important to us and to Lalibela to see the famous rock-hewn churches. What an adventure that trip will be!