Saturday, January 29, 2011

Meeting Addis in Addis: A Daughter At Last! (Jan. 24-26, 2011)

From the land of the Queen of England to the land of the Queen of Sheba, from Princess Di to Princess Ev!

Ethiopian Airline does not have a very glamorous fleet of smaller planes. If your Ethiopian Air plane is post-1981, then you’ll probably be okay. Our planes on the way there and on the way back to Heathrow featured worn blue seats with lime green starbursts and lime green seats with aqua starbursts. They also featured the most tenacious flight attendants ever. They literally shook people awake for coffee and tea service, and I think I have a bruised kneecap from one flight attendant slamming my tray down when I was sleeping so she could give me a meal that I already had said I didn’t want.

We arrived at Bole Airport on Monday morning at 7 a.m., just as the sun was rising over the Entoto Mountains. The scenery was like nothing we’d ever seen.

Ethiopia comes into view

Beautiful mountains

First view of Addis Ababa

As we landed, we zoomed by an old airplane graveyard that lined the runway. It took no time to get through customs, get our transit visas, and exchange $60 for 994 birr (about 16 birr to the dollar). I panicked when no one from CHI was apparently there to meet us. This was our first taste of Ethiopian hospitality. Many people asked us if we needed help, and one man tried to help us track down the phone number of the guest house where we were staying. By the time we racked up major minutes on our international phone, we were found by Hermella, the House of Hope Guest House (known as HOH 2) coordinator, and the CHI driver.

And this short drive to HOH 2 was our first look at the indescribable poverty of Addis Ababa. Tiny shops lined the streets, along with people sitting along the sidewalks with their wares, some selling just a basketful of tomatoes or stalks of sugar cane, and many stores selling rusted auto parts and traditional Ethiopian clothing, baskets, and carvings. Lots of children walked around selling packs of gum and bundles of sticks that Ethiopians chew on to clean their teeth. Clothing often didn’t fit right or was so tattered and dirty that you couldn’t tell what colors the fabrics were. There were many huge areas of “neighborhoods” in which the homes were made of corrugated tin and tarps. Looking inside you could see they were just one dirt-floored room used for every purpose, likely for big families.

Homes behind corrugated tin fences

The streets are lined with tiny shops like these.

Driving in Addis is an experience like no other. Once away from the airport, the roads were, for the most part, unpaved and rocky. There were no lanes or traffic signs on these roads; people would just drive where they saw fit. Many roads were only passable by one car at a time, even though they were two-way roads – even some having four-way intersections. We saw men guiding donkeys with huge packs on their backs, and lots of dogs basking in the sun. People walked freely in the middle of the road. Yet, in all the disorganization, we didn’t see any accidents, and when our van was cut off or drove perilously close to pedestrians, no one got angry or even gave a second glance. It was clear that to Ethiopians, it is sometimes more important to just live by the laws of courtesy and kindness.

We also saw some lovely things on these dingy streets. There were lots of schoolchildren making their way to their schools in brightly-colored uniforms. And in Ethiopia, friends walk hand-in-hand or with their arms around each other’s shoulders, regardless of gender. Our driver seemed to know everyone, and people would stop their cars or vans just to say hello or have a quick conversation. I described it as a city of loiterers. Everyone is so laid back and just enjoys each other.

Schoolchildren at lunchtime at the school next to HOH

We arrived at HOH 2 about 20 minutes after we left the airport, met the other four families staying there, unpacked a little, and were at House of Hope – CHI’s transition home, where our children were! – by about 9. HOH is a U-shaped gated two-story complex with a courtyard in the center that serves as playground and laundry area. There were ten families in our travel group, and nine of us were there (the tenth were out at a different orphanage in a far-away region called Mekele, meeting their children).

The courtyard at HOH - so much laundry, all the time!

Everyone else had arrived on Saturday or even earlier, so we were the last to meet our child. Basically, whenever we went to HOH to see our kids on this trip, we went upstairs to a “family waiting room” and the nannies would bring our children to us. Evelyn was the last one brought in – torture! – but we were so thrilled to finally meet her! She was dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and, of all things, a cheerleader outfit, which was hilarious. She’s a little tiny thing, probably a size 3-6 month even though she’s almost 10 months old, and all eyes and cheeks, and just beautiful.

We're excited, she's confused!

First family photo! (Zachary was with us in spirit!)

She was very shy and hesitant that morning, and she cried a bit (she had a little cold, so that made her a little extra-cranky). We of course were hoping that she’d be the happy, smiley baby we had seen all these months in the photos and videos from other CHI families, but she only really lit up when the nannies were giving her attention. Really, though, that’s a wonderful sign. Children in orphanages often have a hard time attaching to their caregivers, since they switch caregivers so often, so when they are all smiles and go to anyone with no problem, that can indicate an attachment issue. As Tsegay, the CHI in-country coordinator, told us, Addis (Evelyn’s given Ethiopian name) is very attached to the nannies, and that is a great indicator that she is capable of attaching and bonding to people well. He also said she never cries, babbles a lot, and always is smiling. The more she was with us over this trip, the more we saw her coming out of her shell and witnessed those important bonding signs, like eye contact and grasping. She’s a big snuggler, so she spent really every moment we were with her melted into one of our shoulders. It was precious!

So snuggly!

Snuggling on Mama...

...and on Daddy!

After about 3 hours at HOH, we went back to guest house for lunch and rest, and then back to HOH from 3-6. That afternoon, I took lots of pictures and videos for other CHI families who had asked me to do so. One such child was the now-famous cousin-to-be, Neal and Jenni’s son “Baby Y,” who is, by Tsegay’s account, “a real powerhouse.” He’s all open-mouthed smiles and big belly laughs and pure sugar. He and Evelyn are in fact roommates, with their cribs caddy-corner from each other!

The door on the right leads to "Infant Dorms #1 & 2" -

home to Ev and Baby Y!

In the afternoons, I also played a lot with the older kids (ages 2-5). The children are all so adorable and loving, and really well cared for. They called all of us adults Mommy and Daddy, would hug us and blow us kisses, and would offer us their half-eaten candy canes to share with us. I had so much fun playing ball and blowing bubbles with them. The families who are going to become their Forever Families are truly blessed, as are the children.

It was hard to say good-night and good-bye on Monday when we left for HOH 2 for dinner, but we had to go, and Tuesday was a big important day ahead. Meals at HOH 2 (and, I’d assume, at the other guest houses) are all family-style and unbelievably delicious. Lots of soups, stews, Ethiopian traditional dishes, pastas, and salads. Bottled Coke was served at every meal, and rich Ethiopian coffee afterwards, though no desserts. The best part about the mealtimes, though, were the friendships we forged with the other four couples who were staying there. For those few days, we really were a big family and support group. We’ll all hopefully see each other in a few weeks for our Embassy trips, and there’s already talk of everyone attending the CHI annual reunions.

On Tuesday, we woke up and went to court right after breakfast. The whole court trip is a very new thing, and every experience for each travel group has been different. We all drove together at about 8:45 to court and got to see a different section of the city. This section had paved roads, though still not many traffic signs or lights. There was a lot of new construction, and as you see in these pictures, the frames and girders are made up of huge stalks of some plant that I’ll need to ask about. Yikes!

New construction in Addis Ababa

When we got to the court, we went to a holding room, where all the families who had relinquished their children earlier were sitting. The court house was a very simple building – maybe four stories high. We obviously didn't know who was who. They called us in by our children's names in groups of 3 or 4 - not individually, because there were so many of us in our group of ten families. The "court room" is just the judge's little office. We sat there and she just rushed through yes/no questions to the group as a whole, which we answered together, all yesses: "Have you learned about Ethiopia? Do you all have other children? Do they know about your adoption? Do they approve? Have you met the children? Do you want to go through with adopting these children? Do you know other families in your area with Ethiopian adopted children?” We’ve heard with smaller groups, families go in individual and the judge asks similar questions, but open-ended as a conversation. Then she told us where we were in the acceptance process. We were told that the birth mother was present that morning in court and gave her consent, but they were waiting on one paper to come in at 11 a.m. All of the CHI families passed, as expected – and because one of us was adopting siblings, ELEVEN Ethiopian children have new loving homes in the U.S. Congratulations and countless blessings for all of these wonderful families!

We then went back to HOH 2 for our individual birth family meetings in the courtyard. It was awkward, like a junior high dance - adoptive parents waiting on one side while birth families waited on the other until we got matched up. Because there were only two translators there, it took a long time to get through everyone. Meetings were 20-30 minutes on average. I think everyone videotaped and took pictures. Everyone had different experiences - some were very jovial, some (like ours) were extremely reserved - but all birth parents truly appreciated getting photo albums with their children's pictures in them.

We won’t tell you much about Ev’s birth mother or the conversation we had with her. That will be Evelyn’s to share, if or when she ever wants to. But we can share that her birth mother is very sweet and shy, and that the baby has many of her physical features (including her beautiful big eyes, dimples, and tinyness) and mannerisms (including her expressive eyebrows). It was clear to us that Ev has always been very loved and adored, and that this meeting brought some peace to her birth mother. We were able to videotape our meeting and take pictures with her birth mother, and these are truly gifts for adoptive families to have. It is extremely rare in international adoptions to meet relatives, nonetheless to have video and photographs that will be so important to our children as they grow older.

Then, what we all felt was the weird part. We new adoptive families stayed and ate lunch, and the birth families went to HOH to see the children one last time and say good-bye. I have mixed feelings about this, which I’ll generally keep to myself except for saying that I can't imagine what it was like for these birth families, who gave up the kids months ago, to go to court in the morning to officially sign off on their relationship with these children and then go to see them again.

We had convinced Hermella to take us to the Mercato (outdoor market) to shop a little bit after lunch. We will go back on our next trip, but we all spent plenty of birr on gifts and special items for our homes and our children. We felt like we were spending lots of money – 900 birr on lots of different things – but in reality, it was only about $50. We were inundated with children and women holding little babies begging. They wanted to shine our shoes or sell us gum or maps of Africa. A policeman stood by us, though, holding a big bamboo cane, and if the beggars were too aggressive, he’d wave his toward them and they’d scatter.

Ethiopian treasures at the Mercato

We then went back to HOH around 4 and stayed for a couple of hours. Evelyn warmed up to us and was much more connected than on Monday. We brought a bunch of clothing and medical donations for Tsegay to use at HOH and to distribute to the orphanages that needed them, as well as adorable taggie blankets that Jenni sent to me to pass along.

Much more "connected" to us on Day 2!

It of course was so hard to say good-bye to Evelyn, knowing that we won’t see her for about a month. But, we also know that she is getting well taken care of and that she is getting lots of love – and there is so much more on the way!

Partying in Cousin Y's crib

One last group dinner, and then everyone went to their rooms to pack up. We left for the airport at 8 p.m. Addis time with two other couples who were leaving on an earlier flight (our flight was at 1:35 a.m., but we had to take that van to the airport!) We spent a little more quality time with them at the café in the airport and browsing in the overpriced duty-free shops, and then we said our good-byes.

More time in the airport, where I got online for two minutes – long enough to announce that we have a daughter and finally post her picture - and then on the first plane. Addis to London was 8 hours, and though we left at 1:35 we arrived in London at 7 a.m. London time. I actually slept on the plane! And, hooray for WiFi at the airport! I sent the photos and videos off to the other families, made some snarky Facebook comments, and checked and deleted tons of e-mail. We ate a quick breakfast (bonus points to those of you who know what bubble and squeak is!) and boarded for Newark at 12:45, and took off at 1:15 London time. And here I am on that very plane, wrapping up a very long blog entry that I told Morrie would be short and sweet, and after 8 hours of flying we’re going to be landing shortly in Newark around 4 Eastern time! Longest Wednesday ever!

We are so thrilled to be sharing all these details with you, and we look forward to sharing the news of our visa approval phone call, which will be in a few weeks and will signal the booking of our second trip! Looks like we’ll be going back at the end of February or very early March to bring home baby! Lots of baby room- decorating and clothing-buying to be done before then!

We love you, Evelyn Sisay - can't wait to see you soon!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Royal Stop-Over: Our London Vacation (Jan. 19-23)

As a precursor to our long-awaited Ethiopia trip, we decided to take a vacation in London, which is a common hub for plane changes to Ethiopian Air. It's been at least eight years since we went on a kid-free vacation, so we took the opportunity, and it was well worth it!

We took off for London on a very quiet, uneventful, and unfortunately sleepless flight on Wednesday night. By the time we got to Heathrow on Thursday morning, I was completely exhausted. We stayed at the Millennium Gloucester in Kensington—a great choice, if I do say so myself—and as soon as I saw the bed I essentially passed out for much of the rest of the day. We eventually got ourselves together and walked down to the ritzy department store Harrod’s, just for the experience of seeing the first floor. We didn’t venture upstairs, because really, when you can’t afford a box of chocolates, you can’t afford a diamond-studded dog collar or even half of a pair of shoes there.

If you want a $150,000 watch, this is where to get it!

Later on Thursday, we got our Oyster Passes (subway cards) to take the Tube (subway) to meet Morrie’s friend (okay, mine too) Jay at the stop by his office, and then on to Jay’s house to hang out with his family and then go to dinner with Jay and his wife (my newest Facebook friend!) Alyssa. It was great to catch up with old friends in a new environment. We were last all together in Boston at their older daughter’s Bat Mitzvah last year, and now they’re working in/from London for the year. Did you know that Jay changes into pajamas on overseas flights if they are provided by the airline? He has two pairs to prove it.

Over the next few days, we did as much sightseeing as we could squeeze in. I think my favorite site was the Tower of London. We did the audio tour, which was a good move, since we knew so little about its history and it is so massive. The history is fascinating. If you are one of my Facebook friends (like Alyssa!), you will see some of the cool old stuff we saw. Writing this now, I regret that I didn’t recite any of Poe’s “The Raven” outside the raven cage, or the first 18 lines of the General Prologue to “The Canterbury Tales” (which has nothing to do with the Tower of London other than it was written by a Brit about Brits.)

In front of the Tower of London

Lots of tower. Moat used to be where the grass now is.

The White Tower

I found it "humourous" that the people who worked at the
Tower of London park right under the tower.

Ye Royal Huge Catapult

We also loved walking down the Thames at sundown from the Tower to Parliament and Big Ben, which allowed us to see lots of the famous sites, including London Bridge (not falling down at all, and actually now reinforced with cement, lit on one side with red lights, and totally anticlimactic), the London Eye, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, the Tate Modern, and of course Big Ben and Parliament. On one afternoon we took a cruise in the reverse direction past those same things.

Totally NOT falling down!

Globe Theater - this photo dedicated to my Salem High students!

We and a few thousand other people went to Buckingham Palace for the Changing of the Guards, which happens every other day. We were right in front of the palace and had a great view. Basically, it’s a lot of band fanfare and pretty horses and marching about. Then the royal band played right in front of the palace. You’d think they’d play “God Save the Queen” or something Englishy. Or maybe something by Queen or Prince. Instead, they played the theme to James Bond and “For Your Eyes Only.” You’d also think that the royal band would be a bunch of really official pros, but this was a very young group, most of whom looked like they were in high school, and the ceremony included them setting up their music stands and sheets, and one drummer screwed up. It was like halftime at a Parkway North football game in 1986. Morrie said he expected the Buckettes to come out twirling flags, but no such luck.

Guards changing

More guard-changing shenanigans

Buckingham Palace

From there, we walked all around that area and got ourselves sufficiently lost, but somehow managed to see a whole lot of sites. We stumbled upon Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus, and then hopped on a Big Bus Tours bus to get to Parliament and Westminster Abbey. We unfortunately missed our opportunity to tour the Abbey, so instead we gawked at the outside and pictured the famous dead people who were buried inside. And again, I missed my chance to recite passages from English literature.

Big Ben/Parliament with the London Eye in the background

Parliament/Big Ben

Main entrance of Westminster Abbey

We decided to take the Big Bus back to our hotel and ride on the top. We had commented throughout our trip that we thought the people that rode the open tops of the buses in the winter were complete chumps, yet there we were, major Dumb American Tourist chumps. Did you know that 6 degrees Celsius translates to “really cold” in Fahrenheit? And did you know that it is very misty and windy at the top of a double-decker? We ignored these basic science facts but felt like we got a little more out of our London experience, including Morrie’s opportunity to start a Z-pack, thanks to the sickness that ensued. We caught it early enough for it not to affect the much more important second half of our trip. Thanks for the prescription, Dr. Lorah!

"Hello, I am a dumb, frozen, American tourist!"

We also dropped a few pounds at the casino in the downstairs of our hotel (the currency, that is, not the weight measurement, which would be stones… didn’t drop stones either, the rocks or the weight measurement). It was really more of a large room with slot machines and a few tables. It was like playing with Monopoly money, since we never really wanted to admit to ourselves that a pound is about $1.75, until we left with less money.

Of note: If you watch Top Model or any other mindless modeling-related show, you know that London fashion trends tell us a lot about next year’s fashions in the U.S. Get ready for 2012, ladies of America! You’ll be wearing very, very short shorts with tights underneath, even when it is 6 degrees Celcius! And, tennis shoes and cross-trainers will be staying in the gym and Uggs in Australia – the fashion footwear will be brightly-colored sneakers and leather boots, short and tall. If you can wear a peacoat and look like you are not wearing pants, you have the look right! And, you will probably not be seeing me in this look. I’ll stick to the shoes.

Didn't we do this like 25 years ago?

The one thing that continuously resonated with me in London was more about the U.S.A. We often regard the Revolutionary War and all that came after as events that took place a very long time ago. But we live in such a young country —not even 235 years old—a blink of an eye in the history of countries like the U.K. And, when people in the U.K. (or Europe in general) get on a plane for a few hours, they end up somewhere really cool and historical and old, whereas when we do that in the U.S., we go to St. Louis or Disney World or Phoenix. I don’t know why this was so striking to me, but it was.

Even though we were only there a short time, we really felt like we saw London, and there’s so much to do when we eventually go back.

And then, we boarded an 8-hour evening Ethiopian Airline flight on Sunday to arrive in one of the world’s oldest (is it the oldest?) countries at 7 a.m. on Monday. And to finally meet our daughter!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Days Away!

At this point, time feels like it's flying, and it also feels like it's stopped. We can't believe we leave for our long-awaited Trip #1 - the one when we finally get to meet Evelyn and become her parents - in just a few days! It's amazing to think about our overall journey to her, one that has taken many years, and that this journey will be over very, very soon as our new journey as a family of four begins.

I wanted to post a travel update so you know what we'll be up to on this special trip!

Morrie and I leave the evening of Wednesday, January 19th and fly to London, where we'll be staying through Sunday. We're looking forward to our first vacation with just the two of us in about eight years (maybe longer). We will of course see the sites, which my mother insists must be written out on a schedule. We also will spend a little time with Morrie's long-time BFF Jay, and hopefully his family, who are in London for the time being.

We leave late on Sunday evening for Addis Ababa, about an 8 1/2 hour flight, and land around 7 a.m. Addis time. We'll be picked up by a CHI driver, who will take us to House of Hope, the agency's transition home.

We will be staying at HOH this trip, in a guest suite that is very nearby. HOH will be a type of bed-and-breakfast for us - we'll eat our meals there, sleep there, and basically spend all of our non-court time there. We'll get to meet Evelyn hopefully shortly after we arrive on Monday, and will spend most of the day playing with her and the other children (including cousin Neal and Jenni's son "Baby Y"). We're very excited to also meet the other nine families traveling at the same time as us!

We'll hopefully sleep well on Monday night (though probably not, between nerves, excitement, and the howling dogs - we were told to bring earplugs!)

On Tuesday, January 25th, we'll go to court and meet with the judge who handles all Ethiopian adoptions. We hope that all of our paperwork is in order and that we pass court without delay. Oftentimes, paperwork mishaps cause families to "not pass." Though we don't anticipate this happening - I don't think it's ever happened in our agency's history working in Ethiopia - there is always a glimmer of a chance, and while not passing court would not require an extra trip, it would cause a delay in our Embassy visit, which would delay Evelyn's homecoming. So please think of us and say a little extra prayer on the 25th that we pass!

After our meeting with the Judge (which will hopefully conclude with her words, "She is yours!"), we will be honored to meet and speak with Evelyn's birth mother. In Ethiopian adoptions, the person who relinquished the child must also appear in court that day, and then we have the opportunity to all sit down with an interpreter and talk. We hope to learn a lot about Evelyn's birth family and their hopes and dreams for her future, and we hope that we will bring reassurance and some semblance of peace to a woman who made an extraordinary personal sacrifice for her daughter, and for our family. We do plan on capturing this emotional and life-altering meeting on film, but it's likely that we will not share many - if any - of the details with anyone. Evelyn's history will be hers to tell someday if she so chooses. For now, we will be cherishing this meeting as sacred and extremely personal.

We'll then return to HOH, hopefully have time to love on Ev a little while longer, and then we'll say our goodbyes for the five to six week wait that we'll have until we meet again for our Embassy visit, when we'll be bringing her home! We hope that trip will be in early March.

And then, we'll board a plane to London around midnight Wednesday morning, and will have one looooong, extended Wednesday - flying 8+ hours to arrive in London around 6 a.m., hanging out at Heathrow until 12:30, flying another 8+ hours to Newark and arriving around 4:15. Should make for some interesting jet lag!

We have an international phone and will hopefully be able to update you all between phone calls, text messaging, Facebook status updates, and e-mails. We'll be able to update the blog upon our return, once our bodies adjust to New York time, and can't wait to finally be able to post the long-awaited photos that we've had all these months - as well as photos of us with our beautiful daughter in our arms!