The Long Flight Home

After a 5 hour midnight flight from Addis to Frankfurt, I stumble (sleep-deprived, silent and shocked) through the shades of early-morning airport-gray. I try to keep up with the sterile, fast-moving, screaming, electric world around me, but fail.

I fall into my middle seat in the back of a brutal, excessively long non-stop flight to Seattle. I instantly fall asleep.

When I nod awake, I pull out my laptop and try to keep my elbows from nudging my neighbors as I delete one bad photo after another photo. There are a lot of bad photos. Chaotic, busy…and not in a good, artistic way.

Even with my memory freshly imprinted with the stories, with my love of the place and people — I can’t stop seeing the reasons and ways they are all wrong. How they failed to capture the magic that was there, that I felt in person.

Tired shoulders sag as I slump forward in my seat. Stomach churning. I feel like I failed.

I flew all the way to Africa, my very first time, in the place I have dreamed of, for years. (After only settling upon Ethiopia as a starting point because of a photo I once saw, while hammering together a photo show of my own…) And looking at the photos I worked so hard to collect, that I’d hoped would capture the amazing, magic of it all…

Instead all I feel is a disappointment so personal and intense, I can feel it burning its way up from the core of my heart to my blood-shot eyes as I fight back bursting into tears. I take a deep breath.

Are you a National Geographic photographer, then? the passenger to my right asks me. His English is accented with German.

Um, me? No… Weak smile, he must be trying to be nice. But thank you. That’s generous of you to say….

Your photos are really very amazing. The sincerity, the timing — it stops me. What are they for? he asks.

And so I tell him, the elderly man in 28F, about my month in Ethiopia. But it leads to more questions. So then I tell him more. I tell him that I quit my corporate job a few years ago, I started freelancing and traveling (working my way around the world, one amazing place at a time) building a business, in the meantime. When he asks, I tell him I’ve been traveling for 5 months now, ending in Ethiopia, finally making it to Africa. He’s impressed.

And the man in 28E, on the other side of me starts to listen in. Then chimes in. He’d lived in Addis Ababa, years ago, as an archaeologist before the famine, before the Derg fell from power. We compare notes and stories. And then, over a horrible-over-mircrowaved airplane egg breakfast  I’m telling the stories of arriving on Ethiopian New Years, of coffee ceremonies, of dancing, of learning Amharic, of traveling to the stone churches of Lalibela, massive crumbling castles, of smoking crosses at Meskel and being hoisted on the shoulders of men as hundreds of thousands chant with me abeba, abeba, abeba... of working through power-outages, internet-outages, ATM-outages, of sipping avocado shakes and rich, blueberry-cherry coffee and listening to the boisterous, chaotic, pentatonic sounds of life in Ethiopia…

When I catch my breath, even in my everything-in-me-screams-with-beyond-tired-pain in between spasms of an overwhelming sadness for the place and people I’m leaving further and further behind, I am overwhelmed with waves of amazement. Incredible gratitude to have just experienced. This just happened. This is my life...

Maybe I didn’t get it perfect. Maybe I won’t have just the right shot. But this was never the point.

Neither can get over that I went it alone. That in and of itself is pretty amazing. Incredible. You realize that?

I shake my head, and smile. How will I ever adjust living in Seattle again, blends-in-the-crowd, not-so-perfect Joya, now? How will I ever be able to sit through an average day again? What is the next thing, where is the next place? Will I ever want to stop? How do I keep this going…

Will you go back? They both want to know.

I’ll do a few things differently, I’ve learned a lot. I failed a lot, too. I suppose it’s all part of the process, part of life. And so I don’t hesitate, Yes.

An Afternoon Taxi Ride, Stories of the Derg, and Finding “Home”…

The British military musicians find me working in the lobby. They’re full of new stories, describing their eager-to-learn recruits, their (failed) first attempt to work in the midday heat…(first, thinking their students were lazy, until they realized they were just smart.)

They can’t believe I leave today. I can’t either. I tell them to talk of something else. So we talk about music. The African origins of our American banjo as I show them pictures of Meskel in Gondar.

They rise to leave. Shake hands. (The cute one winks.)

As they leave, I think of the one or two things I have left to do today, how many goodbyes left to go. Suddenly the room feels incredibly empty. Like a vacuum sucked the life and color right out of my day. I don’t want to go through with this, saying goodbye.

I barely realize I’m turning down an offer for a taxi. (A habit after month of answering the question when I didn’t need one.)

Wait, yes! Yes, I need a taxi.

I half-heartedly haggle with a man maybe 25 years old in a crisp shirt and friendly grin for a flat rate for the afternoon/evening. Then we’re off, swerving between goats and car-sized potholes, through rusted-tin slums and buildings of Italian era façades, a whirlwind stop at the Hilton to grab my last Ethiopian birr withdrawal, then to see the famous Piazza district, the world’s fastest tour of St. Georgis cathedral, with its unusual octagonal shape built by Italian prisoners of war who were defeated at Adwa in 1896.

Much to the chagrin of the tour guide (until I point out it’s better than nothing) he agrees to condense a two hour tour into twenty minutes. I hear the complex story of emperor Haile Selassie (whose coronation dress is preserved — though photos are not permitted, the tour guide tells me, as he instructs me that I may take just one, this one, as his back is turned), Italian occupation, of earlier kings and brutal wars.

The afternoon moves steadily onward as we wait in traffic, weave around traffic, get honked at by traffic. And when the gas light flicks to “empty”, we drive for what seems like forever (waved onward by attendants past three gas stations, they are out of gas for the day?) until we find a place to fill.

And, it’s heartening. To shake off my negative taxi experience in the smokey-blue-gold afternoon Ethiopian sun. We talk (in Amharic and English). As we drive, I deluge him with questions, on history, culture and Amharic. I never once get the creeps. I’m not scared at all. I never once worry. And it inspires me to try the same approach with other things. (How can I let go of other things.)

And my driver makes an effort to point out, across from Meskal Square, the higher grandstands (that once flew the banners of the much feared Derg) is now stained, shuttered concrete building.

Once they held ceremonies of various sorts, with the Derg commanders addressing the crowds in Meskel Square, but it had a different name then, “Abiot” or Revolution Square.

Massive portraits of Karl Marx, Engels, and Lenin looked on. The area held annual revolution parades, and other, different events (but he won’t go into detail, but I can surmise…as I kick myself for not finding my way to the museum while here). I ask if he remembers it then.

He nods, a little. He was young. But he remembers the uncles and family that disappeared then.

It’s a moment when I fumble for what to say. Everything I think of sounds so trite and cliche…as I think of my uncle or brother showing up dead at the hands of a government that was to be for empowering the people…

Is it different now? 

He nods.  Now they just disappear, instead of just killing them. 

We wait our turn in the knots of traffic, watching the runners continue their ceaseless training, jogging across alternating tiers,  in the setting sun.

We pick up my bags at the hotel, one last time I climb the stairs to my room. I say goodbye at the front desk. I will myself to walk out the door, trying not to think when it might be that I’ll be back here.

And then we sit. The taxi driver and I, laughing, in the sun as he tugs at grimy wires in the engine, trying to coax it to start again.

Then we’re driving to Gerji (Gerji? He laughs with surprise that I know the off-the-tourist-circuit suburb) Now you want to go to Gerji? Of course you know someone there! Shaking his head, we turn further down Bole Road then under Ring Road with it’s massive cues of taxis and people). 

The sun sinks, like a pile of liquid gold, into the green mountains.

The memories wash over me. My first day on this road, the intensity of those first, curious stares, the busy market, the butterflies in my stomach, getting surrounded by men and boys, trying to memorize my way home by landmarks (“turn left at the goats”).

When we pull up to the Gerji guesthouse of my first week, I’m hardly out of the car before young Nati yells and jumps into my arms, wrapping arms and legs around my waist and pushing his soft, curly head under my chin. You’re home. You’re home!

Nati scolds, You were away so long. I have missed you so. I have missed you. But you’re home now…

When he looks up at me, I’m crying.

Turning 32 in Ethiopia

I take the next day off work and rest. I cancel my trip south to coffee country. I slowly re-gain my strength. Then suddenly I only have one day in Ethiopia left.

It’s my birthday. October 6th. It’s the fourth year I’ve managed to be out of the country for my birthday. I take my last lukewarm shower before the power goes out, I pick up the room, then hang out the balcony to watch the road wake up. Whisper a “happy 32nd birthday!” I made it. I finally made it to Africa. All on my own. And while it’s had its rocky moments, I couldn’t be happier.

I decide to eat at the Dreamliner and see if I can catch the Brits, mostly because showing my face at the Hilton feels a little embarrassing right now.

And I’m choking on waves of ink-black exhaust. It never seemed so bad until I got back from Gondar, with its crisp-clean mountain air, and now my eyes constantly water as cabs belch black smoke and I have no choice but to drink it in.  I stop in the middle, waiting calmly in line with the locals, as speeding cars (one blaring “we all need somebody to lean on”) come within inches of either side and massive open air jeeps that cart blue-uniformed military men with guns.

I pick my way through tumultuous (in name and reality) Congo road, past piles and piles of coal wrapped in ropes, tattered tarps and blocks of rusted corrugated tin-walls. The dust in the warm morning air, the faltering trill of Amharic, man chants guttural over a microphone, a white wrapped swirl, as I try not to think how this is going to end. Try not to be too hard on myself.

I head upstairs for breakfast and buna, but the buffet is over. It ended 15 minutes ago. When I wave off the inconvenience with a chigreyellum the wait staff stop.

Then the head waiter says he’ll see what he can do.

Next thing I know I’m being guided through my own private breakfast, cooks standing by to serve me whatever I’d desire as I recite  unkalal (eggs), leitat (milk), dabo (bread), firfir (leftover injeera mixed with redhot berbere spice), chemaki (juice)…as each word takes my, already nostalgic, mind back to the moment in the last month when I first learned those sounds: sitting in Tsbuy’s quiet dining room, holding hands and laughing in that cold kitchen, ducking into the tiny tienda to sit with the woman, the tiny store in Gondar where the sisters and their elderly father served me bananas one-at-a-time so I could practice, working from the coffee shop…

I sit down to breakfast after answering the requisite questions about why I’m here. Then peace. I flip open my laptop to start working. Then 10 minutes later she’s standing in front of me, Excuse me (thick with some European accent).

She’s 50 or 60. Bright red lipstick and dark hair. She’s tense or nervous, she’s wondering if I have a map. She has no idea where she is. Do I know this area.

I don’t have a map, but try to draw her what I know on a napkin. (I’m surprised how much I can connect of this maze of streets.)

She is trying to think of something to do, she has no idea what. Her friends just left her. Can you believe it? Left me? I’m here now, here, alone.

I take a sip of my coffee, and tell her that I’m sorry for that.

She continues: I have no one. Absolutely no one right now. You cannot possibly understand what it is like to be alone in a big, ugly city like this.

Perhaps some of her sentiment is lost in translation. But I smile and chuckle softly to myself. As I take a sip of my coffee, eye my dying laptop battery, then take a deep breath to listen.

She flew from Switzerland with her friends, a younger, married couple. He’s a photographer, he takes pictures of children and has a big camera, he pays them, the children. She doesn’t like that. (I nod my head, I’m not a fan of it either.) He spends too much time trying to get it just right. She doesn’t like that either. They had a big fight. She woke up this morning, they’d taken the guide book and  left to go exploring…

I keep sipping my coffee. Adding an “oh”, “ok”, “ah” when it seems appropriate.

She then describes in detail the incompetence of the staff, to precise detail (how they’ve made her wait, how they are mean, how…)

Just then the waiter brings me coffee, with much flourish:

Buna!

Amasaganalo.

Minum Eider.

Letat?

I shake my head, take a sip. Betam conjo Amasaganalo.

I laugh and wave him off.

She sits, jaw hanging. It is unbelievable. But they are so nice to you.

(I hate the way she says “they”) But I laugh, I have met some of the kindness people here.

But there are evil ones here too. Bad things they will do…

But…bad things exist anywhere in this world. Bad people too. It’s a problem of humanity….I add softly, not Ethiopia. Not Addis Abeba. 

Ah, but it is easy for you! She points accusingly at me, You are young, beautiful and… you are not alone here. You cannot know how I feel. 

Then I can’t hold back my, surprised, laughter.

She asks: Have you been scared?

I’ve had moments, but nothing came of it. More often I’ve been overwhelmed with the kindness and character of the people around me. I know this is a rough start, and not what you’d hoped, but you will have an amazing time here. I am sure of this. I smile reassuringly.

I can see her slowly relaxing, shoulders less hunched, mouth less frowned.
It’s time to get back to work, so I begin to make my move when she looks me in the eye and tells me, I am very pleased we have met and I wish you well on this trip and your life. You are an exceptional woman.

I shake my head. But she insists. No, do accept this. If nothing more you have made my life better for this. I do not know how to thank you for this morning. It is amazing what you have done. I believe you have helped others, along the way, without even knowing of it. 

It’s an unusual sentence, perhaps it’s her accented English that makes it peculiar. But it gives me little chills. As if knowing I was feeling exceptionally useless in the past few days, and needed to hear some encouragement today, the universe delivers, to Addis Abeba, with love.

I stand up and give her a warm hug: I’m so sorry this has been hard, and I’m so glad we talked. I hope you have a wonderful day, today.

Malaria Scare and Throwing up at the Hilton

I start my morning with a walk to Kaldis (the Ethiopian coffee chain that looks like green-logo mimic of Starbucks). While the coffee is decent, the burgers are fantastic, and the waitress (who now runs up to hug me upon arrival after a week away) is a friend. I order in unfaltering Amharic now. She grins with my improvements. Then leaves me to work–which is one of the reasons I keep coming back to this place, I can concentrate on work in relative peace (compared to other places, where I’m hounded with questions and male attention). That, and I know the two tables where there’s a power outlet.

Today the food is great, but little peace. An Ethiopian family, visiting from Australia, applaud my Amharic, as their 10 year-old son eyes me curiously. He complains that the burgers don’t have any toys (i.e. McDonalds) and asks me my name and how old I am. He speaks no Amharic, he won’t learn, his father tells me, then continues to say that I know more than him. Now that’s a shame! So I teach him one, two and three (and, huluet, sost) before they leave.

No sooner do they leave, than three British men walk in, to take their place. They do a triple-take when they see me sitting there with a laptop, trying to focus on the screen. What could I possibly be doing here? So on.

The gentlemen continue to tell me their story. They’re in a band. Prompting my question, What could you possibly be doing here?!

They’re military musicians. They’d volunteered with the military to train up the Ethiopian military band here in Addis.

Eventually, I retreat to the Hilton lounge to hide and work. On my walk up Menelik II Avenue, I break into a woozy sweat. Perhaps it’s hotter than I’d thought. But I plod on, each step feeling like a hundred pounds. A weak smile to the UN guards, who salute back. A tired hug to the Hilton guards, who dismiss my open bag over greetings of guardenia (friend) and questions about my husband’s health (He is doing well, amasegnalo) and questions of when they’ll possibly meet this most amazing man who could have won my hand in marriage (Gheez, I’d like to meet him too! Instead I shrug my shoulders and give a vague nod and a in a day or two, yichallal, it may be possible)

I drop into the nearest chair. I feel like trash. Look up, Franz (the German I blew off the night before) is one table over with another woman, and nods coolly. Great, to late to move now.

I try to focus on work, on my lamb sambusa and pepper salad that I always eat with ravenous delight. But my stomach is churning and the room is spinning. My whole body aches, my throat dry. My fingers look as white as the china teacup in my hand. What is going on.

Malaria pill. I forgot to take it last night. Again.

I’m dizzy as I google the symptoms for maleria, as my throat tightens into short asthmatic wheezes between waves of nausea. Who knows what this is. But I know I’m alone in this. I never did get travel insurance. That was stupid.

Ok, think Joya. But my sweaty hands can hardly type. I buy a 72 hour emergency evacuation pass, with medical rescue, the works: the $80 I spend is what I assume would be cheaper than sorting out what comes next if this does get bad. I can barely sit up straight when the payment processes and I see the confirmation number. My helpline.

I slowly stand up to cash out my tab when the room spins so sickeningly fast that, in front of a horrified Franz, the sweet waitress and a few other well-dressed Ethiopian women, I proceed to projectile vomit through cupped hands full of birr notes. Then I’m heaving, wretching over the sink, as it feels (and smells) as if my insides are being expelled from my body through my mouth. The smell alone makes me vomit more, as tears of utter pain and a shame squeeze from my eyes.

I am so sorry, I am so sorry, I am so so sorry. I whisper to the waitress who hands me towels, as I mop up the mess and wipe away tears.

Despite the horror and disgust that must be overwhelming her, I will never forget my waitress of the last 4 weeks patting my hand and brushing back my hair, It is no problem, angel. God be with you. And bless you. God be with you. And bless you….

They’ve called the nurse, I can hardly stand. I stumble through the Hilton halls to the infirmary. I sit. Hands in my head. I recount my travels. I recount the breakfast and lunch I’ve had time and again without so much trouble. Thanks to my little iron-stomach. And we deduce, when I spent 20 consecutive minutes not throwing up, that I probably don’t have malaria. That I should come back if I feel worse. Otherwise, I’m free to go.

I don’t know what to do. Too traumatized from the taxi-threats the night before, that I shuffle home, one slow step. Half-dead. I empty my pockets of any non-wet birr into the hands of the street beggars.

Thankful they’re busy at the front desk to notice my pathetic arrival, as I climb the stairs. I fall into bed, barely able to stand up, but still not throwing up, and set the alarm for 45 minute intervals, just in case the nurse is wrong and I do succumb to a malaria-induced seizure while sleeping (apparently, one article I read thought this was common — people resting and then never getting back up.) That way I can at least, I don’t know, email for an emergency evacuation and/or text my family and tell them I love them or something. I’d not thought that part totally through as I was still a little woozy. (I’d just thrown up all my internal organs.) But in the moment, it all made sense. Otherwise, I’d just nap for a spell and hope this passes so I can enjoy my last days in Ethiopia.

And I sleep.  For 45 minute, then 2 hour, then 5 hour intervals, until 14 hours pass. And while I can’t get out of bed for more than a minute or two at a time, I am alive and holding steady. It’s probably not malaria.

I curl up on my tiled balcony and watch the sun rise, in the cool morning, head alternating between the smoky heavens and resting on my knees.  Travel. It would be nice, I admit, to have someone here right now willing to trudge down the six flights of stairs and the half mile to the store…

Working Too Late and Paying the Price

Sitting in the low chairs of the Hilton lounge, I work late into the night on a caramel macchiato roll.

I look up frequently, thinking I’m starring off into the endless Ethiopian evening, conjuring up the right revenue model, the particular word with just the right nuance, the percentage of conversion for a highly-targeted email campaign…I yawn, absentmindedly smile, what an amazing place. It’s not until he gets up to leave the bar and waves to me  that I realize I was being watched. And to my surprise (since my uniform these days are jeans, T-shirt, not-quite-dry hair in a French braid and worn gray backpack), he returns, the German engineer, full of compliments and interest, suggesting we grab a drink later.

Thankfully, it’s late. Nearly 11pm and well past the hour I try to be home. So it’s easy to make excuses and leave.

It’s much harder getting around the massive, muscular guard, who eyes me nervously, like a mother hen, instructing me not to leave, but stay at the Hilton.

I blink. I laugh. It is late, but to play it safe with a night at the Hilton (at $250 a night) is worth more than five nights at my hotel. No.. I need to go to my hotel on Bole.

He shakes his head. When I insist, he sets out to find me a taxi. I think this will be easy, looking at the parking lot full of parked taxis.

But the guard interrogates with a barrage of questions and (with disgust) dismisses the first five.

I’m tired. I’ll be fine, I insist.

So he sticks his massive frame into the window of the next, yelling questions and a rate. He turns to me apologetically shaking his head, 50 birr to Bole. It is the late-night price. It is robbery. 

I want home. I’ll pay it. (I flip my ring onto my wedding finger. I quietly tighten down my backpack.)

There’s more arguing. Then the guard and the driver shake. Then more arguing.

Finally I’m in the cab, heading to Bole.  I realize instantly the roads that are well-traveled around 8PM and 9PM, are now nearly deserted. The few figures on the streets are not women. I’m on my guard. I watch his driving, looking for any sign of deviation from our route while he continues prying into my personal life: what is your age (32) and a husband (yes, married four years), where is he now (at the hotel, waiting up for me, I called him before I left the Hilton), children (no, but hopefully soon).

The driver is full of questions. First very friendly. (Where I’m from, what I’m doing in Ethiopia, what do I think of it so far, how have I learned so much Amharic?) When he finds out that I’m from Seattle (where he says his sister lives), he tells me that we are friends, like family now. And then it gets weird. (He asks me to have a drink with him, to which I respond with:  “I don’t drink.”)

He shakes his head. He tells me that it is sad. That were he my age, he would be married with children. He says that I must be very sad inside to have no children.

I try to change the subject, but he returns the topic of children. So I let him rant as I watch the road.

When we near the gravel road turn off, he stops. 200 birr, he tells me.

I stare at the dark road. No. That’s robbery. You promised 50 birr. (which is already 10X higher than what it usually costs in the day).

I promised the guard. I did not promise this to you. He tells me slyly. He then tells me that the gravel road will damage his car.

I snort laughter that going a half mile on gravel would do anything than knock some dust off his rust-chewed, heavily-used exterior.

You will pay it. Or I leave you. It’s a dangerous place. To be alone here. Maybe you are fine with one or two. But alone…as a woman you will be beaten and worse. You will be raped. 

His matter-of-fact tone and the violence he promises, after swearing friendship and family earlier, sends chills up my back. You will pay me 200 birr.  

My voice is hoarse, but I order him to take me to my hotel, fully ready to jump from the car, moving or not, (fingers already have the door latch released) at any moment. But figure the less I have to cover on-foot, the better.

The sound of gravel crunching between his slowly rolling tires, the pounding of my heart, as he continues to threaten me. You will pay me 200 birr.  Habesha men will find you and beat you and worse, because you are a woman. 

I’m shocked when I see the hotel come into view. The guards stand up. My first impulse is to turn this man over to the mercy of the guards. At the same time, it’s such a weird situation–I don’t want to bring a fight to the kind people here. For $10.

I reach into my bag and then fling birr notes at him, and yell, You are a horrible, evil man…and you are NOT my friend.

I am shaking when the guard jumps to my side, realizing this wasn’t a usual ride. But I call him off. It’s ok–let him go. I want no trouble.

They sit me down at the front desk and I tell them the story. They gasp in shock, appalled, and agree that he is bad and apologize for the experience and insist I tell the guards when I need assistance. I apologize for the trouble, but they tell me not to worry — I’m with friends.

What’s $50…To a Man Walking on His Hands, in Addis Ababa

I awake from ten hours of sleep, sluggish and tired. But start my routine, shower and buna before the power clicks off. Then lockup, walk along Bole to Meskal. Pausing at the massive, tiered semi-circle to watch an impromptu women’s soccer game as men crowd around. These women, they dart after the worn soccer ball. Not at all the wrapped, demure women of the smaller towns or even Addis’ side-streets. They are quick and fierce. A grunt of exertion, a wail of defeat. Sweat dripping from toned, bare arms.  I want to stay and watch. (I want to capture their power on camera.)

DSC_0082But I’m discovered, unsuccessfully trying to hide my ferengi frame in the back, and attention drifts away from the players to the cab ride and trinkets and husbands I most surely need, I smile and slip away. As I smile and walk away, the game resumes.

The sun starts its slow descent and I start my walk home. No matter how often I make this trek, the gray-dead eyes and leather faces of beggars wrapped in muddy white leave me breathless. A woman cries, sistah. When he catches my eye, a child, sitting on the dirty ground flops a limp, leg one-hundred and eighty degrees behind him. My shoulders sag as I plod along, through this enduring gauntlet of pain. Theirs, mostly. Mine, I know, is strictly secondary. One man pushes his hands into my stomach, fingering the hem of my shirt as if it were something holy, as we brush past each other. For a second I think of I would give to, for a moment, feel none of this. See none of this. The pain of conscious thought. Then realize that was my life before. I had that. I lived a life wrapped in carpeted security and fluorescent lighting. I  knew of poverty and struggle, as it existed, in theory.

Here. Now. It is different. Unbearably painful.

I walk home, defeated. Head pounding, picking my way through the rubble-laden sidewalk, hoping from cement chunk to the next. I think of that man. Walking on his hands, here. Would I be able to do that? Would I, with my degrees and accomplishments and work-experience, be so strong?  I would like to think I would be, but I honestly don’t know.

What must it take to get out of bed, knowing you’ll spend every minute painfully crawling across debris and waste with the fingers you’ll use to eat later in the day. Everyday. How calloused they must be. The cracked, leathery pads of my feet, for fingers. Does he wish for more? Did he know another life, or always this? Does he dream of something different? Does the frustration every become too unbearable?

I wish I had given him money. Something to cheer him on, to tell him I see him, I admire his courage (even if I can’t possibly understand what it takes). Why did I not do something to help him, then, when I had the chance? So scared in my helping, I would offend his sensibilities (he wasn’t asking for a handout). But, what is the offense in trying, when it’s sincere? (I know this now, the worst offense is not trying. The worst insult is doing nothing.)

I promise, then, if I ever see him again, I will do whatever I can to help him. Help others like him.

And, in a perfectly timed twist that is too-strange and too-magical for any story except real life, I see him, again. A low silhouette crawling along the the sidewalk. A pale-yellow plastic sandal on one hand to protect it. Two stubs of legs, curled up as he swings his weight and hobbles forward.  It’s him. I try to speed up to break pace with the five teens tailing me, calling for money as they walk on a pair of young, healthy legs. Then shew them off and reach secretively into my bag for 900 birr. $50 US. It’s all I have on me. But with estimates of average annual income in Ethiopia of around $300 US, it might as well be $7,000 (or 20% of the US average annual income)

When I look up, he’s no where in sight. Dude can walk!

So I break into a run. This is my chance to, at least, make this right. Even if it means I’m running down the Addis Ababa sidewalk in search of a man who walks on his hands, heart-pounding with nervous excitement, as children and adults eye me curiously.

And then I see him. Sitting outside my favorite coffee shop, Kaldi’s. Spidery shadow of a man. I tower above him.

Tenastali, I bow my head with the respectful greeting. Then reach out my hand and grip his and smile.  Gray-green eyes water. I place a roll of tightly wrapped green birr within it.

He whispers words I don’t understand, then he whispers: O dishallo. 

Hands to my heart, I understand. I whisper, O dishallo. (I love you.)

I feel weightless as I walk home. Free to do as I please. With my money, my travels, my life.

Heading Home…to Addis

When I arrive in Addis, I revel in the familiarity of what was foreign just weeks ago. I know where to go and what to do. The blue-white taxis, the noisy dirt-paved streets, the mish-mash of buildings.  The way “amasegnalo” slides off my tongue (compared to the tongue-twister it was just two weeks ago when I arrived here). The way we’re on a first name basis, and I call this, simply, “Addis” now.

I can tell my impressed cab driver, listening to Katy Perry, where to turn and where to stop.

The Hilton guards, the UN guards remember me and call out warm Amharic welcomes. When birr starts flying from the ATM to my hand, in weathered piles of paper (after nearly eight days without access to cash, in Africa), it feels like I’ve won the lottery! My heart is lighter than air. I know where to find the bank that can wire the money to the trusting hotel owner in Gondar.

When they see me coming, my Addis hotel guards hop from their stools with big grins and waves. Everyone wants to know, “Did I see it? Did I see Lalibela? And Meskel?”

And when I put my hands to my heart, “Lalibela, betam conjo. Meskel, betam conjo. Fasilidades castle, betam conjo. Oh, Ethiopia, betam conjo!” Everyone gasps and laughs with pride!

Five winding flights of stairs up, my room is waiting for me: tidy and clean, fresh sheets stretched across my so-luxurious king bed. I unpack my bag, folding clothes and lining shampoo, conditioner and soap in front of the bathroom mirror, thinking how great new places are, and how good it feels to be home.

I close the doors to the two empty, spare bedrooms and open the balcony door and all the windows to let in the sounds of my Addis side street and hungrily eat spaghetti (a standard in once-occupied-but-never-successfully-colonized-Ethiopia). Even the Italian red-sauce seasoned slightly with cardamon and pepper, for a spicy-sweet Ethiopian twist to the classic, tastes familiar now.

I collapse, dead tired, coughing. Barely remembering to take the malaria pill that I’d already forgotten the last two days in a row.  (While no worries in Addis, where high altitude temperatures keep malaria at bay — my meds must be dutifully taken two weeks after leaving malaria zones. And I’ve repeatedly forgotten. And I’ve spent a week in malaria-plagued Gondar.)