I'm going to blog about the events on Friday while we were in Ethiopia before I forget all the wonderful details (and now I can finally post pictures to illustrate!). I could not get an internet connection on Friday night, and on Saturday we were packing and getting ready for our trip home. On Friday, we spent a relaxing morning at the Guest Home until Robel arrived around noon to take us to THE Mercado. I told Rachel we were planning to go and she just said to remind Robel to keep a very close eye on all of us and to make sure he understood. We had asked the Guest Home to pack us up some PBJ sandwiches but I dont think they understood the idea of a picnic. They actually cut the crust off the sandwiches (which Emme really appreciated!) and brought them out on plates. I realized they did not have sandwich bags, so we quickly ate them before heading out.
Kate and I had reviewed our gift list the night before so we had a pretty clear plan in place for the shopping expedition at the Mercado. Robel explained that it is relatively safe - the biggest threat being pickpocketing which there are many scams and creative ways that people go about to distract you while another picks your pockets. We needed to exchange more money for birr, so Robel asked if we wanted to go to the Hilton. I said "we can go there or another place if it is more convenient". So instead of the Hilton, we ended up parked in an alley somewhere while Robel and our driver, Ismeal, went to exchange our dollars. They explained that people who are travelling to America have a hard time getting dollars so they will offer a better rate (10:1 instead of the normal 9.7:1 rate). Of course you wont get a receipt for this exchange which means if you have any birr left over at the end of your trip that you want to exchange for dollars, you will need a receipt to make the exchange. I was not expecting to have birr left over so we were not concerned.
As we approached the market, we could already see lots of people walking and carrying all sorts of items. At one point, a man walked past us carrying mattresses stacked to an impossible height. I tried to get my camera out in time to take a picture but I missed it. He must have been carrying 20 or more mattresses - Impossible!! We drove through a sea of people looking for a place to park, when suddenly a man materialized from the crowd and gestured us to a parking spot. This man then became our "mercado guide" for the rest of our expedition. At first, I was a bit perturbed to have him there trying to direct us where to go - but after a bit we began to appreciate him. He knew his way around the market and helped us barter at times. He was quick to brush people away that were grabbing at us and trying to get us to enter their shops.
Emme and Maea were overwhelmed and were holding on to us with both hands (see above photo where Emme is holding on with both hands and burying her face in Jay's arm). Tariku was on my back in the carrier, and Dagmawi was safely in Robel's capable hands. We had our "guide" at the front of our group (he said his name was "local reagen"), with Robel interpreting and watching over us, and our driver, Ismeal, suddenly became our bodyguard. Seriously, Ismeal took up the position at the rear, and with his ipod earbuds in his ears, he looked just like our personal secret service. At one point, Kate fell a little behind and he reached into the crowd and pulled her to him and then kept his arm around her as he pulled her back to the group. I turned around just in time to see this play out. Kate smiled and said she really felt safe with him keeping an eye on things.
The first shop we went into was a very small garment shop where they sold traditional Ethiopian outfits. I had remembered that my sister wanted an outfit for her son and daughter, so the bartering began. This tiny shop had floor space of maybe 10x10 and we were all pushed inside to view the wares. There were 2 men doing the bartering with me, a woman to find the emboirdery colors and sizes that I needed, and the "boss" sitting off to the side observing everything. Kind of an odd situation, but we struck our deal and then shook hands and went to the next shop.
We ducked through a low door way into an underground basket shop. Inside, again, there was barely room for 5 people to stand and the ceiling grazed my head - Jay, Bob and Robel had to stand with their heads cocked to the side due to the 5'5" ceiling. Baskets of all sizes and colors were stacked about 3-4' deep from floor to ceiling. Since I had purchased one for Dagmawi earlier in the trip for 25 birr (that's $2.50 for a hand-woven basket) I had a good idea of a fair price. We picked out baskets for Emme and Maea and I found the cutest hand-woven basket purse with leather detailing. **A note to future travellers - if you enjoy the bartering exchange, it is an expected part of the buying/selling process. Of course they will automatically quote you a higher-than-normal price just because you are a foreigner (firenge) and you can afford it. So as a general rule - offer half or slightly less than half of the intial quote price. They will act a bit offended and say "no profit for me" but stick to your price and inch up slowly. We usually ended up agreeing to a price of about 1/2 of the initial quote. And once the agreement was made, everyone was all smiles and happily shaking hands on the deal.
Next, we were off to the spice market which was about a 10 minute walk away. We could smell it before we arrived - delicious aromas of cinnamon and spicy peppers and coffee and other scents. Peppers laying out in the sun to dry and open ivory burlap bags overflowing with spices of all colors. Across from the shop we stopped at, several women were churning butter and setting it out in large pots. I stepped into the shop to look through their selection and began bartering for berbere (a classic Ethiopian spice) and another red pepper spice that is a popular local flavor. I also asked for sorghum (just before we left, I watched a Bizarre Foods episode with Andrew Zimmern, and he was highly recommending the sorghum kernels that were being popped like popcorn). The sorghum kernels were quickly located by sending a young boy running to another shop, everything was weighed on an old-fashioned scale, after a lengthy barter we finally struck our deal and we decided we had had enough of the Mercado and were more in the mood for a less-pressure filled shopping experience.
This is Robel helping me figure out the spices.
We tipped our "guide" 50 birr ($5) and we headed to the post office area to finish up our shopping. By the way - EVERYONE here talks about Obama. The Ethiopians are very proud that a black man is President of the US and memorabilia is being sold everywhere. Our guide had asked us who we voted for and we said we did not vote for Obama. He then squeezed Jay's bicep and said "aaah - you strong man, you like to fight". So that is their general impression of the Busch presidency - a President who likes to fight (war).
On our way to the post office area market, Robel suddenly pulled the van over and called me to front. Dagmawi was sitting up front with Robel and he suddenly started to recognize the area we were driving. Robel said to me "Something amazing is happening - he is recognizing this area from when he was a child living with his mother." I asked if he thought we could find where he had lived and we began to follow Dagmawi's pointing finger. Soon he recognaized some kids he used to play with, and one of them hopped into the van with us to help us find where his mother lives. After weaving through several bumpy, stone streets, we stopped at a little tin door in a wall. This was where Dagmawi had lived with his mother. I was in awe and I asked if he wanted to step inside that door with us and he shook his head "no" and waved his finger at me. He didnt want to go any further.
Ismeal, our driver, knocked on the door for me and we were ushered into the small "courtyard" area where a tiny woman rented 7 one room "homes" to 7 families for 100 birr a month each ($10/month) - which must have been most, if not all, of his mother's monthly wage. There were 3 women there at the moment and they recognized Dagmawi immediately. His mother had just left minutes ago for her clothes washing job. They explained that she worked during the day when she could, and Dagmawi ran the streets with the other children. They shared a communal cooking area which was little more than a tin roof and walls with an open firepit and 2 injera pans. The walls and ceiling were covered with soot, ashes were still in the firepit with a few unburned sticks. No electricity, no water, and a one-room home with a dirt floor. I began to understand only a little bit how this woman lived and how she loved her son enough to want something more for him (the greatest sacrifice a mother can make). I could not see directly into the room they had lived in together because she had padlocked her tin door to protect her few belongings. I hugged the women who lived with her in this tiny compound and asked them to tell his mother that we were there. Then we drove away and Dagmawi did not look back once.
This was the communal "kitchen".
We stopped at a coffee shop to buy coffee and each of us enjoyed a caramel machiatto. I purchased 20 bags of coffee for gifts at about $2.50 per 1lb. bag, for some of the best coffee in the world!! We drove to the post office mercado and the contrast was amazing. A few days ago we had been here and the girls had clung tightly to us. Now, after the craziness of the BIG Mercado, this little market was familiar and the girls walked around freely and with confidence.
Robel met up with several of the street kids that he has been helping put through school. Street kids are children who are either orphans not living in an orphanage, or are from poor families in the countryside that came to Addis alone to try to scratch out an existence. Robel personally finances the education of 23 of these children and he meets with them regularly to provide some sort of parental guidance. He proudly informed us that many of them are doing well in school but one or two are academic standouts! They sell kleenex and chewing gum when they are not in school to be able to buy some food occassionally. At night, they disappear down into the sewer system for warmth and safety.
Robel explained that the old sewer does not operate any more and it is very small and tight. Difficult for adults to access. So the children live down there at night. While we drove around I could occassionally see holes in the ground that lead to the sewer system. We purchased several packs of "much-needed" chewing gum and kleenex from these kids and they were extremely appreciative. Robel is working to try to develop his one-man street children ministry into a more formalized program so he can raise funds to actually rent homes and hire houseparents to care for 10+ children at a time. He explained that most of the children he has contact with are boys because the girls are extremely elusive. The girls living on the street are preyed upon as prostitutes or raped, so they tend to hide alot and are very distrustful. He has only been able to consistently help 2 or 3 girls.
As we pulled away, a new little boy arrived at the scene and came up to the window to beg us to buy some gum. We were pulling away but we quickly scrambled in our pockets and I pulled out a 10 birr note ($1) and we frantically tried to pass it back to the window so Jay could give it to him. He raced alongside the vehicle with such desperate determination on his face, reaching and stretching his fingertips to grab the birr. Jay finally let it drop since we were quickly outdistancing him and we held our breath in fear that he would step into the traffic. He stomped on it with his foot and then triumphantly held it up and gave us a big thumbs up and waved wildly to us. Jay commented "I will remember that smile the rest of my life!"
We drove back to the Guest Home and spent the evening talking about all of the events of the day. After dinner, we bathed Tariku and Furtuna in the big bathtub again, and then began packing for our trip home the next day. Plans for Saturday - a drive up Entoto mountain.
By the way - several families were wondering about the policy of keeping a low profile for adoptive families. We were told that much of this is because of the government officials and diplomats that usually stay at the Hilton or Sheraton. Many of them question all of these white families "taking" Ethiopian children and since their countries don't necessarily have a strong adoption program (or any adoption program) to address the staggering number of orphan children, they don't understand adoption. With our small travel group of 2 families, we were fairly low profile anyway - and as long as we stayed away from the posh hotels where all the diplomats were, there didn't seem to be too much of a concern about us being out-and-about. All of the Ethiopians we came into contact with were very friendly and regularly came up to us to tell us that our adopted kids were very "lucky" to have parents, and to have opportunity in America. I was told this repeatedly during our travels and many times on the airplane home as well.