Our arrival in Ethiopia, our first stop in our trip around the world, did not get off to an auspicious start. We’d stopped over for the night in Dubai, where we marveled in the airport at the talking hologram displays, the four story interior water feature, the banks of gleaming stainless automated sinks in the bathroom. At the Bole Airport in Addis Ababa, the escalators didn’t work, the toilet door didn’t close, and there was only a limp hand towel with which to dry your hands. (But the toilet wasn’t a hole to my daughter’s great relief.) Without much signage, we followed the other passengers hoping to find our way to passport control.
While waiting in the lengthy customs line, I went to retrieve my cell phone-–out of habit mostly as we’d canceled our cellular plans–and couldn’t locate it in the pocket of my purse where it belonged. After searching through the other two dozen pockets of our four daypacks, I became convinced that I’d left it on the plane. To make matters worse, I had been hectoring everyone in the days leading up to our departure about the importance of everything having its own place and always returning things to it. Now I’d lost my cell phone before we’d officially made it into the country.
I hopped out of line and ran back to the plane to search for it. A surly Ethiopian soldier waved me through, and the stewardess and I searched all around our seats to no avail.
One of the kids had been playing a game on the phone, after the other devices ran out of batteries, and as I returned to customs, my mood gathered into a dark cloud ready to burst over their heads. I got back just in time to learn that we needed to get our visas first and must now take our place at the very end of that lengthy line before returning to the customs one. We queued up for another wait.
“This is why I don’t like you kids touching my stuff,” I began.
“Why don’t you sit down,” interjected Nico, pointing toward a row of benches. “You can’t find something when you’re in a panic. You know you are not going to be able to use your phone anyway?”
“Yes, I know that. I’m the one who canceled the cell service. But I still want to make sure it isn’t lost.”
Esme and Roman trailed after me unhappily, taking turns blaming the other for being the last one who’d been using my phone.
“You had it,” insisted Roman, who is five, his voice quivering with the injustice of being falsely accused.
“No I didn’t,” said Esme, my eight-year-old. “You were playing with the compass.”
“No I wasn’t.”
I was telling them to knock it off when my hand, searching for the fourth time in the pocket of my purse where the phone belonged, seized upon its hard contours behind a fold of fabric. “It’s here,” I said, breathing a sigh of relief.
The kids both looked at me with aggrieved expressions.
“I’m sorry for blaming you.”
“Blame, blame, blame,” Esme muttered under her breath.
We rejoined Nico in the visa line, and I waved my phone at him. The passengers in front of us–who had likewise started off in the wrong line and therefore witnessed my panic–congratulated me, making me feel even more like a fool for creating so much fuss.
We stepped up to the immigration agent who told us that we had to pay the required $80 entry fee in U.S. dollars. Since we had forgotten to get extra dollars at the airport in Boston from where we departed, I was back to searching through my purse, this time trying to scrounge up my remaining U.S. currency.
Finally, we had collected our bags and after another few minutes of panic and blame when one of our daypacks (the one holding all our medications for a year) went missing–it got stuck in the X-ray machine required on exiting the building–we made our way out to the taxi area where we’d been told a driver from the guest house would be waiting to meet us.
A line of neatly-dressed men holding signs waited at the bottom of the hill. Travelers identified themselves with a smile and a wave, and the men stepped forward to relieve them of their bags. We glanced around. No signs spelling out “Nico” or “Bliss” or the name of the guesthouse that we could see. What was it called again? We turned to each other. Alibaba? Adababa? Ababa?
“Didn’t you write it down?” I asked Nico.
“I thought you did.”
The storm clouds began to roll back in. Meanwhile, the freelance taxi drivers swarmed around us. “Where are you going? I’ll give you a good price. You need a place to stay. I have just the place for you.”
“Aydellum. Aahmesugenalew.” We repeated the Amharic words for “No” and “Thank you” we had just memorized on the flight.
I had a sense of how we must have appeared to the Ethiopian drivers—-wary, afraid of giving offense, unaccustomed to being in the minority. In fact, our neighborhood back home in Brooklyn, New York City, is very mixed, and my son had been one of a few white-looking kids at his public school. But it was true that we were wary of being taken advantage of. One particularly persistent guy threw up his hands and turned away.
“Are you sure they were supposed to meet us?” I asked.
“That’s what she wrote. Someone would meet us past the taxi stand.”
“But you didn’t write down her number or the name of the place.”
“I think we already established that I thought you did.”
“This is just great,” I said under my breath.
Up and down the dusty parking lot under the hot sun we walked. A driver for one of the hotel’s shuttle buses took pity on us and invited us to wait inside his bus out of the heat.
“Where are you staying?” he asked. Misha was his name. We tried out the name again. Adiba or Ababa, something like that. He called over to the neighboring shuttle where a group of other hotel shuttle drivers were waiting. Nobody knew of any place by that name. “Where did you find this place?” Misha asked.
“Some friends recommended it, but it’s on Tripadvisor.”
The drivers all nodded. Tripadvisor they had heard of.
“Do you have your friend’s number?” Mishi asked. He was determined to help us solve our problem.
We shook our heads. We had corresponded by email. If we had Internet, we could look it up. I suggested we go back to the airport where someone must be able to get us online. Misha laughed. They didn’t have Internet there. He offered us the use of his phone, which had very slow wifi service.
After about a half hour of painfully slow searching, we found the name of the place – Abbaba’s Villa, but there was no address listed beyond the general neighborhood, and no one answered at either contact number. Misha left a message, and we sat in the hotel shuttle bus, waiting for someone to call back. In the meantime, Misha tried to convince us to stay at the hotel where he worked. Although we hadn’t put down a deposit on the guesthouse, it was located next to one of our two contacts in the city, and we were hesitant to choose another place.
“It’s possible,” Nico said, after we’d been waiting for over an hour, “that I put the wrong arrival date in my email.”
I held my tongue, but my expression conveyed my annoyance.
The kids were getting hungry and thirsty. We made up our mind to take a cab to a café with Internet where we could get them some food while we tried to locate the actual address. Misha went to find us a cabdriver and came back with the driver who’d been particularly persistent in offering us a ride. He knew where Ababba’s Villa was. “I told you two hours ago I would take you,” he said.
We tipped Misha what we later realized was a grand sum for allowing us to use his phone and generally being so kind, and then agreed to a fare to the guesthouse that we also learned was similarly inflated. But we were finally on our way. Up a steep dirt road crowded with pedestrians, oxen, goats and sheep the taxi crawled. Its tires caught one of the huge loose rocks that littered the road and shot it out behind us, nearly catching a man’s leg.
Ramshackle shacks the size of dumpsters constructed from brightly colored corrugated steel sheets lined the streets. One nestled up against the other, they housed butchers, bakeries, tailors, groceries, and stores with towers of plastic tubs and stainless steel cookware. In gaps between them, I spied clotheslines hung with washing, small cook fires smoking, and shoeless children dressed in rags. A teeming mix of poverty and industry.
I thought of a piece of advice offered from a friend who’d traveled with his children when they were close to our kids’ ages: try to maintain an open attitude and accept that whatever happens is the adventure you are going to have. And then I remembered something that I’d heard in a Ted Talk by the sociologist Brene Brown about the nature of blame being our attempt to discharge pain and discomfort.
I’d blamed the kids twice that day, for losing my phone and for distracting me when trying to exit the airport and we temporarily misplaced one of our daypacks, and then Nico once for not writing down the address or number of the guesthouse. I didn’t like to think I was so uncomfortable, but it was true that I was far out of my comfort zone, which was a large part of the reason we’d chosen to come to Africa in the first place. I was going to have to try harder to accept whatever this journey might throw our way.