Wednesday, January 02, 2013

My Sick Day in Ethiopia

All the Americans at the guest house have been going to bed at 6 or 7pm, as soon as we finish dinner, look at our photos from the day, and send our emails. Then we wake up at 2am, which is mid afternoon in Colorado and Oregon. We drift like wraiths through the silent nighttime guest house, (when in Gulele the muezzins have stopped calling, the dogs have stopped barking, even the roosters are taking a little rest,) down the stairs to check email, then back up again. We eat granola bars and trail mix, take Benadryl, turn on a white noise app, don an eye mask, and pretend to sleep. I huddle under what feels like 20 pounds of necessary blankets, sliding my nose and ears under from time to time to warm them up. I watch for the street lamp outside my north window to flicker off, and check my east window for for the first dusky beams of morning light. I am glad when I hear the call to prayer start, for soon it will be morning.

When the light comes, I turn on the space heater and crouch on the floor next to it with my diaper bag and clothes for the day. My shower has only ever shown the faintest hint of warmth, so I bathe with baby wipes warmed on the heater. One warm afternoon I go so far as to wash my hair in the sink. I'm not naturally a smelly person, and the threshold for body odor in general is much higher in Africa, so I get away with it.

Today is my court date. When I wake at 2:30 I feel too tired and cold to sneak downstairs, so I get out my iPod and listen to classic jazz, drifting in and out of sleep. Dianna Reeves crooning "In a Sentimental Mood" punctuated by a dream that I'm stuck inside a children's play tunnel. When the light comes, I decide to put on yesterday's clothes and wait to wash and change until before court in case the baby has another poopy blowout. About halfway to the bathroom I realize that I'm sick. I've caught the baby's cold.  No big deal. I'll feel better once I get moving. I make a cup of hot water in the microwave and log on to gmail. I email jc that I feel "lousy".

When I get back upstairs, exhausted and gasping for air, I desperately dive under the covers fully clothed. I count my panicky respirations: 40. Pulse is only about 100, not so bad.  Nail beds are a shade of lavender. Capillary refill slow. I don't have enough red blood cells to walk up a little hill in Addis, forget dealing with mucus in my airways. I pile my pillows in a stack and prop myself up as best I can to promote airflow. It's 6:30am. I contemplate going downstairs and leaving a note for someone to check on me, but realize that would feel like riding up Pete's Mountain Road. I abandon the idea. Hopefully someone will come when I don't show up for breakfast.

I'm dozing again when I hear a knock on the door. I want to shout "come in" but it comes out more like a whimper. It's my housemate. She offers Advil cold medicine, which I take. Reaching for my water bottle on the bedside leaves me breathless again. Soon there is a very timid knock; it takes three invitations before the cook shyly opens the door and asks if I would like chai. Yes, please. She returns with the receptionist with tea and homemade doughnuts. It takes a long time, but I sit up and drink and eat.

By the time the driver arrives to say hello and check on me, since I'm skipping the morning foster home visit, I can laugh at his jokes without gasping. The Sudafed is working. My nailbeds start pinking up and I can sit up in bed. I ask to have my bedroom and balcony doors left open so I don't feel so bored and isolated. I can see Tunisia street with the blue and white taxis and minibuses waiting on the corner, laden donkeys plodding by, the breeze stirring the trees. I even see my first road biker in Addis, which causes me to exclaim out loud. He's dressed in red Lycra from head to toe, out of the saddle, straining up the grade. Time passes as I watched, and soon I found that when the wind blew the door shut I felt well enough to get up and reopen it.

I decided the momentous occasion warranted a bath after all, especially since I had spent the entire morning lying about. There was no stopper for the tub, but I managed to coax some lukewarm water out of the handheld faucet and enjoyed a suds and a good rinse. Then I donned the cotton salwar kameez, beige with turqouise accents, and matching head scarf. I went downstairs and read quietly on the sofa until it was time to go.

Though the nights get chilly in Addis at over 8,000 feet, the mid afternoon sun still feels pretty warm, downright hot through the car windshield. I chatted with the driver about the sights during the 30 minute drive to the courthouse. There is no shortage of things to look at. There are shops, street sellers, a complete range of hotels and dwellings and pedestrians, not to mention the traffic itself. We parked directly in front of the unassuming low-rise court building. We had to wait a bit, so I settled comfortably on a low curb and watched. Then the door was unlocked and the driver went in with me, laughing at my expense as my breathing quickened more with each of the 4 flights of steps; maybe 5, I was too out of breath to count. We sat in the nondescript waiting room for 20-30 minutes as people trickled in, and I discussed with the driver the similarities and differences between Ethiopia and Kenya, Addis and Nairobi.

Then the court aide came in and called our orphanage. I followed her into a small inner room and handed her my passport, which she gave to the judge. The judge proceeded to ask me the 10 or so standard questions, culminated by,

" Do you understand that this is irrevocable?"


She shuffled papers a brief moment longer, looked up at me with a smile, and said,

"Mamush is yours."

My passport was handed back to me and I walked out, beaming, by the waiting room full of people. Tears came to my eyes in the hall, and my shoulders shook with small sobs as we descended the stair.

Then I went to the foster home and held my son for the first time.


Tuesday, January 01, 2013

I am an Independent Woman

I had grandiose plans for how I would spend my free afternoons in Addis. I would have injera and wot at a local restaurant for 20 birr before setting out down Churchill Avenue taking in the Piazza, San Giyorgis Church and Menelik Square: walking all the way down to Le Gare at the south end.  If I was tired or time was running short, I would take a blue taxi back to the guest house, and save the walk on Ras Mekonnen, Sidist Kilo and Arat Kilo for another day.  I would be very frugal, and avoid spending money needlessly on the driver.

My frustration mounted during the first Sunday in Addis as my expectations were dashed one by one, and with them it seemed my autonomy was being brutally snatched from me. When I asked where I could get injera and wot for my first lunch the driver informed me that he would take me to the buffet at the Semien Hotel and wait while I ate.  I already knew that this one meal would use up most of what I had budgeted for food, but there seemed to be no choice.  At least it was less than I would have been charged for the cheeseburger at the guest house, and the wot was delicious.

That afternoon it also became clear that we were not expected to leave the property unescorted at any time.  The life that I had carefully built was falling like a card house. My childhood, teenage, and young adult life was so full of choices made for me by parents, teachers, and pastors representing god. I so deliberately demolished the paradigm, learned to make my own choices and stand by them. I can’t even stay at someone else’s house on vacation without starting to feel smothered.  My own dear jc would rarely dream of even suggesting what I should do.  But it comes down to this. Everything has been decided for me.

snap out of it
I took my cryptic crossword and sat on the tile stoop next to  our 25 square feet of green grass and decided to be happy.  I spotted pigeons very like the elusive band-tailed pigeons of the Florida keys sitting on the light post, a larger version of what reminded me of a magpie  with white bib and wing patches squawking and chasing each other, small grey sparrows with a striking white eyebrow eating crumbs out of the flowerbed, and fork-tailed eagles in soaring play overhead. I refused the gatekeeper's offer of a chair, truthfully asserting that I was comfortable on the stoop, and taking comfort in my decision making.  I watched the daily flow of traffic back and forth down the cobble alley behing the guest house: women in high heels and business attire next to school children in uniform, women in headscarves and traditional dresses, but more in pants.  I took comfort in the normalcy of the scene, and I reminded myself: the purpose of this trip is not my pleasure, but to make the precious boy who cuddles so sweetly into my arms my son. 

And that is what I will do.


first glance

As enthralled as I was upon arrival in Addis, I was well aware that in a few short hours I would see my son for the first time.  I was introduced to the nice couple who had arrived at the guest house the previous evening and would also be meeting their son for the first time.  We ate breakfast, I took a cold shower, and soon the driver arrived and we rode the short half kilometer to the foster home. A toot of the horn and the gatekeeper let us in.  The driver called upstairs to the nannies, shouting the names of our sons. 

We waited with bated breath for moments that seemed ever so long before a woman emerged from the staircase into the courtyard with a boy that I recognized from dozens of photo updates perched on her hip. I approached him cautiously, reached for his hand. “Selam. Andemnedeuch?” I said to this beautiful child.  He is a naturally curious baby, looking around at all the people gathered around, not wanting to miss anything.  This quiet white woman is not very interesting.  After a few moments though, he came to me easily enough, and I took him inside the visiting area to show him the toys I’d brought.  He has two bottom teeth all the way in, and two top teeth breaking through. He’s looking for anything to put in his sore mouth.  I gave him the wooden giraffe and he sucked on its leg.

I stood him at the table where he held on, but wobbled.  He can sit by himself most of the time, but plays contentedly through our visits propped on the floor between my legs.  He army crawls after things that look tantalizing, most notably the Christmas tree balls and the brightly colored Croc shoes in a row on a shelf; and he once cries briefly at being denied a Christmas ball to eat.  He laughs and smiles easily at any silliness, or at anyone he knows.  He giggles when swung upside down. He took his bottle from me that first morning, falling asleep while still sucking, nestling into me, his small hand wrapped around my finger, and I feel as content as he looks, cradling his warm body against me.