Our first night at the Hudad, we had dinner around a bonfire on the bluff with the mountains spread out before us, like a movie theater in the round. We were accompanied by a group of Australian woman, who were at Lalibela Hudad trying to set up a school for the local village children. The current closest one was more than a ninety-minute walk away, which meant that most kids didn’t attend. The guards for the Hudad, who were fathers and grandfathers to these children, joined us around the fire after dinner. One of the Australians bought them a round of beers and then explained a nightly tradition where new guests must sing a song from their country.
Nico and I looked at each other; our expressions caught in mild panic. Neither of us could carry a tune. Across the fire, the kids were asleep on a couch under a heap of blankets to keep them warm in the cold mountain air. The guards and Australians looked on with expectant smiles, as Nico and I suggested and dismissed song choices to each other. Suddenly Esme’s eyes fluttered open and she began singing in a soft assured voice:
My grandma and your grandma were sitting by the fire.
My grandma said to your grandma, I’m gonna set your flag on fire.
Aiko Aiko, the song made famous by the Dixie Cups. It celebrated the tradition of Mardi Gras Indians: African American men in New Orleans who wore elaborate beaded feathered costumes they sewed themselves, as they roamed through the streets in ritualized choreographed confrontations on Mardis Gras Day. My father’s family came from New Orleans, and the Indians figured in his—and, therefore, in a smaller way, my and Esme’s–family’s culture. It was the perfect song choice.
Nico and I joined in, but Esme was the only one who remembered all the words, and she sung alone the stanzas we had forgotten. Propped up on one elbow she gave an embarrassed laugh, explaining that these weren’t her lyrics, before offering the final verse–See that guy all dressed in green / Aiko aiko an nay / He’s not a man, he’s a love machine / Jockamo feena nay.
She got a big laugh, and I was struck by the confidence in her voice, especially in front of a dozen strangers, half of whom had little idea of what she was saying. I thought about a conversation with family friend Carol Gilligan, the sociologist and feminist scholar, whose seminal work, In a Different Voice, outlined the importance of the female voice in human conversation.
Carol and I were talking about her study of adolescent girls on which she based some of her observations on female moral reasoning in In A Different Voice. She noted the loss of physical confidence, and the assured voice that went with it, that marked an initiation into womanhood for many of these girls. When they hit puberty, their voices, which had been loud and booming, became high and breathy and soft. Girls who had once been able to climb high ladders and were unafraid of heights suddenly lost their balance.
I’d been struck during the month we’d been traveling so far by my son’s ease in entering into play with other children, mostly boys, no matter that they shared no common language. I brought along a mini soccer ball from the States, and as we traveled through the southern part of Ethiopia, which is home to numerous tribal people who live a traditional way of life largely untouched by modern culture, Roman brought out his soccer ball in each new village and started a game with the local kids. Often he was the youngest child, but as the owner of the ball and perhaps possessing a sense of the special status that came from being a privileged foreigner, Roman chased it down, racing bigger boys, to take hard kicks on the goaltender. He played with a mysterious compulsion, running for our entire lunch hour around a dusty village square, as if something larger than simply having fun was at stake.
One night we camped out in a tent in a small village of Hamer people, a tribe whose young men ran across the top of a line of bulls for their initiation into manhood. Their sisters and female relatives participated in the ceremony by begging to be whipped beforehand as a way of indebting their brothers to them and spurring on their performance. We were fortunate (in my view—many tourists would disagree) to not witness a bull jumping ceremony, but I couldn’t help noticing the deep scars on the backs of many of the young women. Here, at the height of cultural difference we’d experience during our time in Africa, Roman once again produced his soccer ball. He began to run with the other boys between the goat and cattle, kicking up dust and laughing.
Esme, on the other hand, looked on, trying to seem at ease. I noticed that she had developed a habit of whistling when she was uncomfortable. She whistled now, her hands pressed into the small of her back, looking sidelong at the young Hamer girls, most of whom had nothing covering them except for narrow swaths of fabric wrapped around their hips and ropes of beads falling between their budding breasts. They kept eying Esme’s blond hair and Nico gestured that they could touch it.
A few seconds later, Esme was surrounded by half a dozen girls, each of whom had taken up a section of her hair. They began to braid it. The braiding seemed spontaneous, as if they were unable to keep themselves from the nimble plaiting they so often performed on one another. Esme stood frozen in the center, whistling faster now, as flies kept lighting upon her face. I took out my phone to videotape the moment, and then turned it around to show them, which made more girls gather around, pressing forward to catch sight of the video. “Help me,” Esme mouthed, not wanting to be rude, but unable to tolerate the press of bodies, flies, and most of all, attention, for much longer.
The next afternoon at Lalibela Hudad, Esme uncharacteristically joined an impromptu soccer game between Roman, our guide, Workeye, and one of the Australians. But she soon became upset over some perceived unfairness in the application of the rules. Tears ensued, followed by a heartbreaking wail that she wanted to go home. We chalked up the tears to fatigue and the altitude, but the homesickness was real. When she asked to stay alone in our tukul hut to read, while Roman continued playing soccer and Nico and I headed to the western edge of the mountain’s plateau to watch the sunset, we relented. Everyone needed some downtime once in a while, and it wasn’t us she longed for, but her friends. The companionship of a book would have to do.
When you are traveling as a family and sharing rooms, romantic moments are few and far between. As Nico and I watched the sky deepen into pinks and purples over the darkening mountain range, we smiled mischievously at each other. The rest of the Hudad’s handful of guests were at the other end of the ten-hectare plateau where dinner would be served. Did we dare? But just as we lay back upon the heather, we heard some voices approaching. Apparently we weren’t the only ones who had the idea of watching the sunset. As the moment passed, my maternal instincts kicked in. It was nearly dark outside. I better check on Esme, I said, while Nico headed off to collect Roman. We’d all meet at the hut they called reception for dinner.
The Hudad has five tukul huts for lodging spread out across the ten hectare plateau. None in view of the others, and all of them set back a distance from the mountain’s edge. Large areas of brush between the huts added to a sense of seclusion and privacy. I was picking my way through these bushes, having veered accidentally off the path, when I caught the first strains of Esme’s terrified wailing.
I began to run, stumbling in the tall grass and on the bumpy earth. My mind ticked past and discarded various possibilities—some kind of intruder had gotten past the guards and come upon her, one of the many baboons that shared the mountaintop with the lodge had entered the hut—to recognize that she was simply and profoundly scared. Her bravado of yesterday was gone. She was alone in the dark in an unfamiliar place, without the false comfort of electric lights save one faint solar-powered florescent bulb, and she didn’t know where her parents were.
I’m coming, I’m coming, Esme, I called, but the wind seemed to sweep my voice away over the cliff’s edge. How could she hear me over the sound of her wailing? My chest burned with the thinness of the air. My legs felt as if they were running through quicksand, like in a dream. How had I ever thought it was okay to leave her alone in the hut as night was falling?
I found her rocking back and forth soundlessly on top of the bed, her misery elevated to the higher plane of silence. I lay my body on top of hers, willing myself to become a sponge, soaking up her fear and her loneliness from being half way around the world from her friends. I’m here. Mommy’s here.
“I couldn’t find you anywhere.”
“You went looking for us?”
I thought of the large groups of baboons who fed at dusk, the mountaintop’s sudden and fatal edge, the tall bushes that obscured her vision. Her feet were bare. “You went out barefoot?”
“I couldn’t find my shoes. It was too dark.”
“What about the headlamp?” I’d left her one on the bed.
“The batteries died. That’s why I couldn’t read anymore.”
So she’d gone out barefoot in the dark without a flashlight. I hugged her tighter.
“Then I tried to find reception, but I only got as far as the next hut. It was empty so I turned around. That’s when I started to cry.”
“I’m so sorry. I never should have left you,” I said.
Esme’s mood remained fragile through the evening and the next morning as we rushed around packing up our things to make the morning descent down the mountain. She put up a fuss about helping to pack, refused to go to the adjacent outhouse by herself, kept complaining that she didn’t feel well. “I couldn’t sleep,” she said, which is something my family had heard me say throughout our trip as a way to excuse a short temper. “You slept,” I said. I’d been awake reading in the middle of the night once again, while the rest of the family slumbered, and witnessed her sleeping myself.
When she refused to choose one of the breakfast options, saying she didn’t like any of them, we began to argue about the importance of eating something before embarking on a two-hour hike. My empathy had begun to wear thin. Suddenly she stood up and clutched her stomach. “I don’t feel well,” she said, her face going pale. Three times she emptied her stomach in a neat line along the bluff. The Hudad’s resident calf, whom everyone called Madgie Moo after the Australian named Mage, trotted over to investigate.
“Gross,” said Roman, as we tried to shoo away the calf who had begun setting the vomit.
“Poor you,” I said to Esme.
“I told you I didn’t feel well,” she said. We figured it was the pepper steak for dinner the night before. Esme usually didn’t eat meat, and she’d eaten a lot of it, and it was spicy.
Esme threw up a few more times before we started down the mountain. We kept telling her that getting it out would make her feel better, but she looked worse and worse. She tried to put on a brave face as we began the hike down, but I could see that her step was uncertain as we navigated through the rocky terrain and eventually she asked to be carried.
I promised her that we could spend a quiet day around the hotel we’d booked down in the town of Lalibela. Although there was no pool, the room had a terrace with a less dramatic but still beautiful view of the mountain range and a cozy place for reading. Also, it had high-speed internet, which meant she could Skype her friends back home.
After a rest and some dry toast, Esme was feeling well enough to make some calls. It was early enough in Brooklyn that we caught her two best pals before they’d gone out for the day. One after the other, they relayed their plans for the weekend: two birthday parties that day and then a trip the next day to Spa Castle, a local Korean bath with multiple floors of indoor and outdoor pools and saunas and pretty much the most fun place ever, hosted by their favorite teacher from school.
This time Esme clutched her heart. “You’re killing me,” she kept saying, reaching for a hyperbolic tone to conceal that this news indeed killed her. She told her friends about hiking up to the Hudad, about the baboons, singing around the campfire, and the cow Madgie Moo, but after she hung up, her enthusiasm and good humor disappeared, and she refused to leave the room for dinner.
Finally I had to remind her what happened the last time we’d left her alone, and she relented, but she swore she wasn’t going to eat anything. Everything Nico, Roman or I said was met with a short or nasty comment. We understood that she was hurting, but as a rule, we didn’t tolerate anyone taking out his or her bad mood on the rest of us. Let me try, I said, as I saw Nico beginning to lose his patience.
Esme and I fell behind on the walk to the restaurant for dinner. “Are you thinking about your friends at home?” I asked.
“No,” she said glumly.
“Okay. But if it was me, I would be feeling really left out right now. I can remember that feeling when I was a kid and we would move to Martha’s Vineyard for the summer—all the parties and outings I would be missing at home. Even though I loved going to the Vineyard.”
“You felt left out?”
“Sure. Lots of times. But we didn’t have Skype and long distance calls were expensive, so I didn’t have to hear about everything I was missing.”
“Sometimes it makes me feel worse to talk to them,” she said. “It’s not the same as seeing them at all.”
“I totally get that.”
It was getting dark, and the streets were filled with the shadowy figures of children and adults stacking long eucalyptus twigs for bonfires. The next day was the festival Meskel, which celebrated the discovery of the cross on which Jesus Christ was burned. According to the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition, Saint Helena, or Queen Eleni as they called her, had a prophetic dream that the smoke from a bonfire would lead her to the location where the remains of the True Cross were buried, and everywhere, people lit bonfires in commemoration.
“How much farther is the restaurant?” Esme asked.
“Do you want me to carry you?”
I had wanted to carry her down the mountain, and had even pulled her onto my back at one point, but our guide Workeye was insistent that I put her down. I wasn’t strong enough to put her on my shoulders and carrying her piggyback-style didn’t allow me to have my hands free if I should need to catch myself from a stumble. He put her up on his own shoulders for much of the way.
But I could carry her now. I bent down and she climbed aboard.
The next few days didn’t get much better. We woke up at 6:30 the next morning to catch the lighting of the large bonfire in the town square and missed it by a few minutes. We toured the rock-hewn 12th century churches the city was famous for. While Nico and I marveled to each other over the degree of faith, the feat of engineering, and the sheer persistence required to chisel by hand out of solid rock these beautiful places of worship, the kids were slumped in boredom by the fifth church on the benches used by the worshippers and pilgrims. Nobody slept the next few nights because we were all too busy scratching. It turned out the churches were covered with fleas, and the kids got it the worst from sitting on the benches. As we moved on to two more cities in Northern Ethiopia, there was too much time in the car, and too many ancient buildings and long histories of kings we’d never heard of and weren’t likely to think about again.
But for the moment, as I bounced Esme higher up my back and interlocked my fingers firmly under her butt, I thought how the kids weren’t the only ones for whom this trip would cultivate their hardiness and compassion. I too could be a mighty mighty snow leopard, and I could carry any one of us whenever he or she needed me to.