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!


Anne said...

Yay and Congrats!! Your little Ev is just beautiful!
And as another CHI family, thanks so much for the detailed account of your experience.
:) Anne

Anonymous said...

Fantastic story - so glad it is finally unfolding