Dame and our drivers arrived early Friday morning to take us back to Addis. Unexpectedly, Dame had strapped 2 live chickens strapped to the roof of one of the vehicles, and explained he was transporting to his family to celebrate the Ethiopian New Year, or Enkutatash (traditionally, on Sept. 11, except in a Leap Year, when it is on Sept. 12). Interestingly enough, the Ethiopian Calendar not only celebrates the New Year in September, but being based on the Julian calendar, the Ethiopian Calendar is 7 years and 8 months behind the Gregorian Calendar (traditionally used throughout most of the world). I knew that we had traveled far, but was quite surprised to read ads in the newspapers proclaiming “Happy New Year 2009!”
Fortunately, we departed at 8:00 AM in order to allow for plenty of time for the long ride back to Addis! As is all too often the case with the best laid plans, this journey didn’t quite go as anticipated. Barring a stop for lunch, the trip in its entirety took us far longer than it should have. Driving back to Addis, we were awake, and conscious of the orderly chaos, and I found that I was unable to tear myself away from the window during the drive. Entering Yirgalem, we passed a beautiful mosque, a city swarming with people mainly on foot, accompanied by an abundance of livestock- primarily cattle, goats, sheep and donkeys. Amidst the lush green fields, we passed traditional Sidama tukuls (cone-shaped mud huts with thatched roofs), and small, square cinder block homes situated in such close proximity, it was difficult to discern if they were attached to each other. The paved road, covered in potholes, would unexpectedly switch to segments of dirt and gravel and then return unexpectedly to a paved section. Unable to determine a rhyme or reason, the constant flow of traffic of cars, Tuk Tuks, motorcycles, donkey carts, our driver somehow managed to find a way to avoid the abundance of livestock that continued to haphazardly cross the road. Slowly falling into a rhythm of watching the abundance of life unfold outside the window, I was captivated by the constantly changing scene and yet the repetitive feeling that the same story was unfolding over and over.
It’s difficult for me to describe, yet it seems that with all of the trips I’ve had, I still find myself surprised by the seemingly quick process of adapting. Trying to understand and come to terms with another culture, tradition and beliefs often becomes surreal.
I found this particularly true as this trip was so short. Being immersed in the newness so quickly, it seemed that it was “easy” to adapt – but as we neared the end of our trip, I found myself in a situation that led me to really struggle. As we stopped at a roadside stand for the drivers to purchase a few watermelons, our vehicles were immediately swarmed by a group of bold, confident children. We stayed in the vehicles, but were immediately accosted with small hands through the rolled down windows, repeating, “You, 1 birr, You, 1 birr.” Their brazen demand really struck me. When I’ve been asked for money- most often in the US, it is often conveyed through the means of a cardboard sign or accompanied by a story of personal hardship. Yet these children approached the situation as if it was a toll, and we owed them 1 birr to pass and continue traveling. And I couldn’t help feeling that perhaps we did. Perhaps they are right to demand money, and perhaps I would do the same if I was growing up impoverished and hungry. If we are all humans, and connected by our shared humanity, then I should feel uncomfortable and upset to be part of a world that turns a blind eye to so much suffering.
I was told by Haile and Dame that these children are instructed from a very young age how to beg and yet, I still couldn’t help but feel the injustice of it; of this world that we live in. Whether they are trained or not, it brought up the reality that regardless, I did want to give. With the exchange rate of 22.16 birr to 1 US Dollar, I realized they were asking for the equivalent of ~$0.045. I could feel the weight of the birrs in my bag, realizing that the amount they were requesting had less value to me than a nickel. Sandwiched between two of my fellow travelers in the backseat, I felt utterly ashamed as I repeatedly replied “No, sorry” to them over and over. Thoughts of trying to give to all of them, to avoid causing mass chaos, to avoid a situation where they would be fighting, to avoid worrying, to avoid that thought of “don’t give to one unless you can give to all.”
As I continued to sit, my wallet growing heavier in my lap, next to my digital camera, the wave of guilt hit me full force. Our driver, coming back from the fruit stand shouted something at the children, and then attempted to chase them off. When they didn’t immediately leave, he picked up a small pebble, and threw it, carefully, in the direction of their feet. And I continued to sit in the backseat. I felt thoroughly sick, with him, yes, but also, with myself, with the situation, with the world. Unable to communicate with him in English, I tried to discuss the situation with my fellow travelers in the back. At what point, did this become ok? I’ve always considered myself to be conscientious and thoughtful. I’ve been driven by service, compassionate, trying to understand and consider the struggles of others. How can I, and how did I, just allow that to happen? Was it culture shock? Was it my own attempt to adapt to the culture? Was I so caught up in my own needs and concerns for my own safety, that I sat by? Was I so unprepared, and so shocked, that I was unable to respond? In the book Night, Elie Wiesel conveyed the the desperate circumstances in which survival becomes one’s only goal, and harsh loss of humanity when forced into such a terrible situation. While I’ve traveled extensively, this experience really forced me to truly think about what this meant for my actions, and my life. Seeing how seemingly easy it is to ignore, as well as accept, to adapt, really struck me. It’s a difficult thing, to realize your own selfishness.
We continued on, and stopped at another roadside stand, this time, for onions. In a different setting, I was now taken aback by the entrepreneurial skills of a young girl and her siblings. The shed was absent of adults, sheltered four children and contained an immense pile of onions. The girl, who couldn’t have been more than 11, deftly grabbed plastic bags, and helped fill and weigh. Determined, she negotiated the price with Dame, and expertly counted the payment received, while her younger brother picked up the toddler. It was actually somewhat reminiscent of children working at their family’s farmers’ market stands that I’ve often seen back in Madison, and yet, it was a contradiction, seeing that these children were running this family business, in the absence of adults. Dame and one of the drivers tossed the bags of onions in the back of one of the vehicles, and we continued on our long journey.
After about 6 hours of traveling on the narrow road, we were alarmed by our driver’s sudden swerve to avoid something, and then pulling over onto the unpaved shoulder. We were informed that our tire was missing all but one lug nut, and that our driver was trying to remove lug nuts from the other tires to attach to the problem tire. About 10 minutes later, our driver pulled over again, attempting to now change the tire as the lug nuts did not seem to be tight enough on the tire. Unfortunately, we soon found that the rim was bent and dented, that he was unable to remove it to change the tire. A quick discussion between our driver, Dame, and the driver of the other vehicle, led to the decision that we would all ride together in one vehicle and our driver would stay to attempt to fix his vehicle. He pulled into a petrol station and after we paid and said goodbye, we all crammed into the other Land Rover. As the driver was piling our suitcases on the roof, and strapping the onions next to the chickens, we were playing our own game of tetris, though thankfully, we had a Land Rover to work with. With Dame riding in the passenger seat, we only had to worry about cramming 6 of us into the back seats and back trunk area. Just a bit tight, with a few suitcases piled onto our laps, but we were able to make it work. Dame reassured us that he was only riding for another 30 minutes or so, as we were dropping him off at his home outside of Addis. The scene was utterly comical. As Ellen and I were facing the rear, we were told to keep our eyes out for any falling suitcases. Anytime the driver slowed or we hit a bump, we could hear onions rolling. Ellen remarked that our other driver would easily be able to trace us through the city as we left a fairytale trail of onions in our wake. Funny how sometimes 30 minutes may fly by, and other times, it can feel like ages for that half hour to pass. This was certainly a long half hour to reach Dame’s house, but we made it. After saying our goodbyes to Dame, and our chicken companions, we found ourselves with a bit more space to stretch. We stopped at the SCFCU Office to bid a brief farewell to staff there, and then continued to a hotel for dinner. Arriving around 5:00 PM, we finally found ourselves approaching the end of the day’s travels, and at the end of our adventure. The ride seemed endless, and yet, within a few hours, many of us were on our flights back and once again, returning to our “normal” lives. It doesn’t matter for me, truly where I go, or for how long. Every trip gives me the opportunity to be grateful for all that I have, and a chance to try to better understand a different, yet still similar, part of this world.