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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Doing Great!!

Sunday Morning, Nov 30:  3:00 am Addis Ababa

As I am writing this post, it is currently 3 am and we were awakened by an Iman calling the muslims to prayer.  The singing echoes across this neighborhood, which is on the outskirts of Addis.  Because our days and nights are still mixed up (it is 6 pm at home), we are now awake and not very drowsy.  We stepped out onto our balcony (we are on the top floor of a very tall house, one of the tallest in the neighborhood) and the night air is refreshingly cool and the dogs are barking like crazy - and I mean Crazy!  The houses in this area (some are nice houses and most are tin shacks jumbled together in a maze) are so close together, and the chorus of hundreds of dogs is accompanying the call to prayer.


Now to go back and mention a few details from our trip so far… We took the Friday morning flight out of Washington DC and the flight was less than half full.  I had heard that with the Friday flight, there was the possibility of fewer people and that was true.  We were able to spread out – we had one middle row of 3 seats, and 3 outside rows of 2 seats, to ourselves.  The row of 3 at least allowed each of us to lay down completely for a few hours during the flight.  The row of 2 allowed us to spread out and the kids were able to lay down.  So despite the brutally long 15 hour flight, it was reasonably comfortable and the kids were able to get 4-5 hours of sleep.  Jay and I each got a few hours.  We had 3 full meals during the flight – which feels like it is too often because of the lack of exercise. You just kind of hunker down and try to endure.  The flight attendants also hand out a little package of socks, toothbrush/toothpaste and an eye mask.  The eye mask was helpful because it blocked the light – which they would turn on and off at odd times.


There were only a few other "white people" on the flight and when we stepped off the plane, their small group quickly separated and headed to another flight.  We were the only white faces to actually get off in Ethiopia from our flight.  I didn't even notice it at the time, but I became aware of it in the chaos of the baggage claim area and the lobby, as we became very noticeable. 


We were able to quickly get our visas in what seems like a painstakingly slow process.  You pay the $20 per visa and they check your passports and then hand-write your full name and other identification on a visa sticker and paste it into your passport.  From there, you walk through customs where they look at your passports again.  At this point, we should have exchanged some dollars for birr (before customs) but we failed to do that and walked into the baggage claim area. 


Lots of porters dressed in burgundy overalls tried to help and we waved them off repeatedly.  We loaded 2 carts with our luggage, and suddenly a porter exclaimed that we had loaded the cart wrong and he grabbed our luggage and started re-arranging it.  We waved him off too, but not before he demanded a tip for "helping" us.  Then we were gestured toward a long line of people and luggage carts that were slowly making their way through a security detail.  As we headed toward the line, a security guard approached and asked us what was in our Rubbermaid containers.  "Do you have medicine in here?" he asked.  No – we explained that it was baby formula which he did not understand.  He gestured for another man who had the same questions and confusion, and then as the crowd began to press forward, he suddenly waved us through the open door passed the security area.


The open door leads outside where a sea of faces is waiting to greet arrivals and relatives.  Heading out that door was a bit intimidating because of the number of people and the chaos.  But we immediately saw a man holding a sign that said "Karen Wistrom".  We waved and he introduced himself as "Aki with the Guest Home" and he helped wave people away from us and we made our way to the parking area.  He had 2 drivers with him, one that helped with one of the luggage carts and the other guarding the van.  (The van is a blue and white taxi van with stuffing spilling out of the seats and a clutch that barely worked.)  We loaded the suitcases into the seats and the drivers guarded the van while we went back to the airport to exchange money.  We were greeted by several serious-looking guards (wearing blue camouflage) carrying rifles and not smiling.  Jay and the girls waited outside with Aki, while I ventured into the airport again (after nearly getting strip searched) to find a bank.  The exchange rate is about 10 to 1.  10 birr is about $1, 100 birr is about $10.  I exchanged $200 for about 2000 Birr.


Then back to the parking lot and into the rickety little van.  We drove through the city and the driving is insane.  I was sure we would hit someone – as we had many near-misses but that seems to be the norm here.  We drove through the downtown area of Addis on one of the only paved roads, and then through several "villages" on the outskirts where the roads are just dirt or gravel.  People walking everywhere, goats and donkeys and chickens, and cute kids everywhere, and then we arrived at the Guest Home.  The van pulls right up to the gate, and then into the yard.  We checked in and were shown to our rooms.  It was at this point that Maea became terribly home sick and tears streamed down her face as she tried to hold them off.  The exhaustion and culture shock hit her with full force.  She explained that she had been scared during the drive because the van windows were open and we were so close to so many people.  I'm sure she could sense Jay and my apprehension at the airport as well.  Needless to say, it was a lot to process for a little girl.


We arrived in Addis at 9 am and we were able to rest and sleep until about 2 pm.  We ate a quick lunch at the Guest Home – spaghetti with tuna, and chocolate pudding!!  My sister knows that I have a hate/hate relationship with Tuna and she would have laughed to see me try to choke it down.  Emme gobbled it down despite the tuna flavor – I guess she loves spaghetti regardless of the meat included in it!  We then went with Aki for a walk through the neighborhood.  This was great for all of us to get out and walk and feel more comfortable with our surroundings.  We are the ONLY white faces here and we got lots of curious stares, but when you make eye-contact and smile and say hello, they are all quick to smile and say "selam" back.  The kids love to stare and giggle and wave.  Jay commented that he could almost blend in, but walking around with 3 girls (2 blonde and one red-head) was like being in a circus act – we may as well have been juggling flaming swords!  But overall, the kids are feeling much more comfortable and the people are very friendly.  We saw a lot of beggars in downtown Addis, but not so much in this area which is a very poor but friendly neighborhood.


People are everywhere, pushing or pulling rickety little handcarts, children playing, shopkeepers with tiny storefronts with fruit or large sides of meat on display.  Several people carrying large sticks which they use in their cooking fires or for scaffolding on construction projects.  I think they even use the sticks as framework for the concrete structures.


From our room at the Guest Home, we have a great view and many people look up and wave.  We can look down into the yard next to ours, where they have chickens parading around and a little boy was helping his mother with the laundry.  Doing the laundry at a spigot in the yard and scrubbing the clothes in buckets, and then hanging everything to dry.  The little boy even bathed in the laundry water, and waved and giggled at us.


A little after nightfall, the power suddenly went out and we scrambled through our luggage looking for flashlights.  They explained that the Guest Home always has power because of the generator, but the generator was being repaired at the moment.  We were in the dark for about 1 hour (with flashlights and headlamps) and then we left to get pizza for dinner.  When we returned, the power was back on.  Aki explained that each area knows when they will be without power, because the government rations it and directs it to large construction projects.


We had dinner at New York, New York, a pizza place where the young crowd likes to hang out.  Again the ride into downtown Addis in a rickety little van that I swear had no headlights!  Narrowly missing people – as we turned into the restaurant, we actually bumped a man and the driver animatedly gestured him to move out of the way.  The traffic which doesn't seem to follow many road rules, and the number of people weaving through it, makes for any interesting trip!


We were the only ones at the Guest Home today – but it sounds like 2 families with Christian World Adoption arrived late tonight.  Sunday night, Kate and Bob Hutchinson will arrive along with several other families and the 2 Guest Homes will be full.  On Sunday, we are planning to visit the National Museum (Lucy – the skeleton of the earliest known hominid is housed here) and the Lion Zoo – which has the black-maned lions endemic to Ethiopia.  In the morning, I'm planning to re-arrange our luggage and separate out all of the donations.  This will give us a lot more space in our room.  Right now we have 3 rubbermaid containers for formula and 5 large suitcases.  Once the donations are delivered on Tuesday, we will be down to 1 ½ suitcases.


The Guest Home is very clean but very sparse.  All concrete construction, with tile or parquet floors, and wall-to-wall wardrobes in each bedroom (much like Europe or Israel).  We will share a bath on the 4th floor with the Hutchinsons.  We have a queen-size bed and 2 bunk beds for the kids in our sleeping room.  A full-height wall of windows with a balcony gives us a great view.  There is a laptop and a computer at the main desk, and after several repeated attempts to get a connection, I was able to send a quick note to family and friends to say we had arrived.


It is now 4:15 am and the dogs seemed to have settled down although the Iman is stilling singing in the mosques.  There are roosters crowing and we are going to try to sleep again. We are feeling much more comfortable with our surroundings, but I am sure we will continue to experience extreme culture shock in the coming days.  So far, everyone is feeling healthy but remembering to not use the tap water (for brushing teeth and rinsing things) will be a challenge.

 ***Sunday about 11:30 am – Several Imans were singing and preaching until 6 am.  The noise and the competing voices makes sleep deprivation a real issue.  We finally fell back asleep around 6 and slept until 9 am.  Many travelling families had recommended bringing a "white noise" machine and I would highly recommend following that wise advice.  We are all doing well - it is a beautiful sunny day and we are looking forward to meeting our sons tomorrow!  I can't believe that much-anticipated day is almost here!! with love, Karen, Jay, Emme & Maea

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