Thursday, August 19, 2010

Back from Ethiopia: Gondar

We arrived in Gondar around lunch time, and agreed to split a taxi with a German couple. I had no idea how seriously the husband took bartering, and all to save 5 birr. I think he may have pissed off our driver too. We seperated from them at our hotel, the Lodge du Chateau. From the moment we drove into Gondar, it had a very different feel to it. Our driver told us about how they love Americans there because so many of their family members live in America and send money back to build. He motioned toward downtown, "All this is paid for by American dollars." I didn't know that, but I could see the difference in the personality of the city. The clothes were more western, and I actually saw quite a few people smoking. There were nightclubs, and people flirting out in the open. Oh my! There was also new government subsidized housing, and it actually looked like "projects". I don't really know that they got the best of our culture. The staff at our hotel were by far the friendliest and most helpful people in the city. Our room was very affordable. My only quibles were that the bathroom door didn't shut and we had such loud music coming through our wall for twelve hours a day, it felt like we were in a discotheque. I never did figure out what was next door to the hotel. The hotel manager says it is a music store... On the other hand, Lodge du Chateau has one of the most beautiful views in Gondar. They have a well maintained courtyard garden, that is meticulously cared for every morning by their staff. They should be very proud of their flowers, especially the daisies. And the terrace where they serve breakfast was amazing! You can look out over the city, and watch people in the neighborhood going about their day. It was simply priceless to watch kids play marbles, or walk to school with each other. There was a motorcycle that appeared one morning, and the kids totally congregated around it pushing each other on and off it. You could tell when the owner was near because they disappeared really quick. On the last morning, I watched a woman cooking outside her hut. It was very humbling. Most everything I experienced on our trip was humbling. We did not get a guide for Gondar, and I think we did alright on our own. We waited until our first full day to go sightseeing, and we went to the Royal Enclosure right when it opened (50 birr each, priced just right). It wasn't as amazing as Lalibela, but it was pretty amazing on it's own. It isn't just one castle, it's a whole series all built near each other. The first was built in the 1600's and each successive emperor would add their own building or castle. You could see the different styles in each building. The coolest is Fasilida's Castle, but they are all beautiful. I just wish you could go inside more of them, but I don't think they are in the best shape inside. And I saw more birds, so that was great! I didn't know I liked birds so much until I came to Ethiopia. But now I've decided I'm going to make a book about birds of Ethiopia. I have so many photos of them, I just have to. Just on the castle grounds I saw a beautiful little gray bird with a blue belly and red spot by his eye, and a brown bird with a perfectly speckled belly. There was also sparrows flying in and out of the castles. They seem to have nests in the castles and they swoop quickly round and round the arches and through the windows. Anyway, moving on. After that, we walked through downtown past the internet cafe (not super quick but very affordable) to the Dashen Bank. Best exchange rate on the whole trip. Then we hiked 1 km out of town (but it felt a lot farther than that, probably because we were huffing and puffing up a hill) to see the Debre Birhan Selassie Church (25 birr each, again priced just right). Debre Birhan is famous for the painted walls and ceilings inside the church, and they are breath taking. There is no flash allowed, so you need to have a steady hand and a great camera. The ceiling is the most famous part with it's 80 cherubic faces, but I was just as impressed with the front of the church. There are tiny paintings going all along the curtained archways and corners, and the awesome Holy Trinity above the crucifixion scene. And like all amazing Ethiopian churches, it is still in use today. There was a particularly nice boy in the church courtyard that wanted to practice his English, and he walked all around with us talking. Outside the church, he went on his way, and we started back to the hotel. It was really sweet and refreshing to talk with a boy that just wanted to talk, especially after our walk through town. By the time we had gotten back to our hotel, I told mom that everyone seems to think our names are Mrs. MoneyPotts and Mrs. MoneyPenny, but mostly the kids. I understand we are western tourists, but we had already given all our clothes away in Lalibela. Our money was dwindling since this was our last stop, and I still wanted to go to the Falasha settlement and Goha Hotel for dinner. There is no easy way to explain this to young boys that have limited English. We hired a driver to take us to the Falasha settlement. This is where the Ethiopian Jews had a settlement before they were air lifted out over a number of years. From what I understand, now most of the families that live there are half Jewish. They still have amazing handicrafts, much of it with the Star of David. And I think I can safely say, it is home to the most determined sales women in all of Ethiopia. It was a rainy afternoon and we were the only visitors. From the moment we stepped out of the car, we were surrounded by women and children selling their wares. They started with necklaces and clay handicrafts, holding the necklaces four inches from our faces, each jostling to put their product closest to our eyes. "30 birr, 30 birr, okay for you, 25." They didn't even slow down when the rain started to pour. It was just like all of a sudden we were surrounded by umbrellas and untouched by rain. We tried to buy a little from everyone. Every time they would see us buy something, they would appear in front of us with similar items in that category, like, "Oh she likes the baskets! Show her our baskets!" And their prices were great, so I didn't bother bartering much. I loved their sign that said, "We will not beg for money, we do not charge for photos." Dude, they earn their money. I'm glad I saved my money for that village. Shopping there was an experience by itself. We drove to the Goha Hotel next, which sits on top of a mountain looking out over Gondar. The Goha is the nicest hotel in the neighborhood, and you can pay a bit and actually get Wifi up there. I've heard that it is the nicest hotel in the government hotel chain, and that wouldn't surprise me. Their restaurant was certainly along the lines of any five star American restaurant. Except they had birds flying around and chirping inside, which actually made it six stars in my book. Plus, I was able to find a copy of Journey to Ethiopia at their gift shop, which is out of print and very hard to find. We went to bed early, and left for the airport in the morning. I have to say the airport security there was much more vigilant than any of the stops we had previously been to. I'm not sure if it's always like that or what, but we were ready to go home by then. We ended up spending about eight hours in the Addis airport before it was time for our flight home to leave. I was pretty impressed by the shops in the upstairs of the Bole airport. Many of the stores had very good prices, and there was a lot of variety in the goods. Eventually, we made it all the way back to my family and home and bed. Thus ended my very first trip to Ethiopia, and my first trip out of the U.S. I am beyond excited to be going back, although this time for a much different reason. I won't have much time for sightseeing or shopping on this trip. Well, maybe just a day or two before all the fun starts...

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Embassy Date!

We actually recieved our embassy date while I was still coming back from Ethiopia! But I've been so busy with preparing for our new daughter to come home, and doing laundry, and catching up on everything then getting ready to leave again, that I haven't had time to post about it. Our embassy date is just 32 days after our court date! I can't believe it myself. My post about Gondar is coming soon.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Back from Ethiopia: Lalibela

We went to the airport early in the morning. The plane is a Dash 8 and looks brand new. It's a super fun flight and less than an hour long. The countryside is beautiful and green. We go on a wild twenty minute ride from the airport to town. We see tukuls, livestock, barefoot children tending goats and a few woman carrying the bright yellow water containers. We hire the guide that is associated with our hotel, Derabe, and he proves to be the best guide ever. We are staying at the Tukul Village Hotel, and it is beautiful and luxorious. We quickly meet Getu, a teenager that is sponsored by one of my forum friends. I had promised to bring him a bunch of winter clothes and books for him and his brother as a favor to her. We also included a lot of things from us. It proved to be one of the highlights of our trip. Getu invited us to coffee at his house. His brother is currently in another city going to school for nursing, so he lives by himself in a one room house. Derabe goes with us, and Getu leads into his neighborhood. We climb around mud houses, up hills, and around holes. People walking down the street stare at us as we fumble to get to his house. We are one of only about six farenjis on this side of town. Getu has a neighbor girl fix the coffee. His house has a dirt floor with mats on it and two bed rolls. His walls are covered with posters of Obama, Mary and Jesus. Cds also decorate the walls, shiny side out. I am so humbled when he offers us seats and serves us popcorn (it is salty and sweet and quite good), while the girl starts washing the coffee beans. The water comes from two big yellow water containers that sit near the door. It was amazing to be able to watch the full coffee ceremony. She lights charcoals and roasts the beans, then she uses a mortar and pestle to smash them over and over. She uses the old style coffee pot to heat the water and cook the coffee grounds in it. I should mention here that I hate cofffee, and I determined ahead of time that I would drink the whole cup regardless of what it tasted like. It was served to us in little cups and saucers with raw sugar offered in a jar. I added sugar, and took a sip. Amazingly, I loved it. It was not bitter like coffee I've tasted before, and it was very dark. But it was wonderful. I had two cups! Later we start our tour of the churches. For those traveling to Lalibela, the price of admission to the churches has gone up again. It is now 350 birr per person, which is still good for four days. It is worth it, but we had not anticipated that price ahead of time. We climb up and down, and we take our shoes off and put them on again for every church. I cannot describe how amazing it is to see churches carved from the cliff side 800 years ago. These are churches that are still in use today. It's just awesome! When it starts to pour down rain on our way to see the church of St. George, we stop and take shelter at an artist's tukul. He makes his own paints and paints religious pictures on goatskin, and he also has about 30 students that he teaches to become deacons (the next step would be priests if they choose). While we're in his tukul, two more women come in, and the man just keeps moving his little table toward the back. At one point, there were eight people in the tiny tukul, and it felt like a clown car. I was glad we stopped there. He had very low prices, and even signed the back of his art for us. My favorite is a little picture of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednago in the fire. As the rain dried up and we walked away, two boys appeared at the door and started reading very loudly from their prayer books and another boy started singing a few feet away. It was like they were all trying to be heard the most. We invited Getu to dinner that night at the Jerusalum House. He said the last time he had eaten there was two years ago when my sponser friend took him there. He said it is normally too expensive for him. He ordered injera with beef tibs and an orange soda. He tells me about how much he loves injera. Getu is endearing.

The next day we went to see the rest of the churches. I particularly like Bet Abba Libanos. In my head, I call it the hobbit church. It is more of a cave church, but it has a gigantic tree towering over the facing cliffside. It is secluded and peaceful and lovely. We are fortunate to have come during the rainy season when everything is exploding in bright green and the rocks are covered with moss. We've finished seeing all the churches by mid morning, and Derabe takes us to see the market. They have a market day once a week, where people come from all around to sell their wares. Some people walk an hour, some a day, I am told. They seperate themselves by what they sell. We pass piles of firewood first, then a row of men selling "tire shoes". Simple shoes made from tires. They cost about 10 birr. I am told they last much longer than the prettier plastic shoes that sell for 20 birr though. Although, I think the plastic shoes look a little more comfortable. There are many people selling livestock, goats, cows, mules, chickens and eggs too. I see one woman emptying eggs out of a carrier made of fur turned inside and sewn up. It actually looks quite a bit like an inside out rabbit. There are rows of teff flour, legumes, sorghum, hops (for beer), rock salt, sugar, then rows of woven fabrics and dresses and scarves. It is quite a sight to behold. We take it easy that afternoon and get packed up to go to the airport in the morning. We see Getu, and he ties a small wooden cross around my neck, and then one around my mom's neck. He tells us that he bought them at the market for us to remember him and remember Lalibela, and he will pray for us. Positively endearing.

Back from Ethiopia: Addis Ababa Court Trip

We arrived in Addis Sunday night, and we were pretty exhausted from the long plane ride. We made our way through the airport, first time ever that my baggage claim tickets were actually checked. They actually x-ray your lugguage on the way out of the airport, so that was a little different. Sidenote to future travelers: the porters outside the airport are very determined, and if they so much as even move your suitcase from the ground to a taxi, they will expect a tip. It's a good idea to have a few 5 birr notes especially for this. We met all of our fellow court travelers at the airport (and it was a large group of 15 families), and headed to the agency guesthouse. As it turned out, our room was up four flights of stairs, so I soon saw the drawbacks of both my mom and I taking two suitcases each. Then again, on the way back I appreciated all the space in those two suitcases for all the things I bought.

The next morning, we headed straight to the care center where I met Child #4. I was especially nervous about that because by all accounts she does not take well to strangers, and she's described as a serious child. She is fourteen months old, but she was with the babies. I was actually thankful for that because it meant that I would get to have one on one time with her. She initially cried when everyone came in, but the nanny insisted on passing her to me. She calmed down quickly and spent the next hour and a half sitting in my lap and watching people around her, then she fell asleep toward the end. The next day went very similar, but she made a lot more eye contact with me. She really enjoyed chewing my finger and went right to sleep. She smelled wonderful, and her hair is soft. She has big lips and big eyes, but she doesn't smile or babble much. I wonder if she will be like this on the plane ride home, and what will her personality be like when she is secure in our love. That night, we went to the Yod Abyssinia Cultural Restaurant for dinner. We ate traditional Ethiopian food. I love injera, but I am not so good with the spicy meats. My favorite is actually the cabbage and the lentils. There is wonderful dancing, and it makes me wish I had my camcorder instead of the digital camera.

The day after that we have free time for shopping and exploring. It was a very fun day, and I love all the shopkeepers that I meet. I buy traditional outfits, tshirts, necklaces and coffee at the first store, and the lady has fun teaching me the correct way to say Ah-ma-say-guh-nah-lo (thank you). In another store, an old man visibly enjoys bartering with me over a goatskin drum. I notice belatedly that he's missing fingers. He is so adept that it doesn't seem to affect his cashiering skills. I love shopping, but getting to know the people was almost as fun. I fall asleep early that night. It seems like I'm getting up earlier and earlier, which is totally out of character for this night owl.

Day 4 is court day and I'm wide awake before the sun comes up. I go on our balcony and take photos of the neighborhood waking up, and all the colorful birds that I constantly hear chirping. I am meticulous with my makeup and clothes, and I'm ready to go two hours before it's time to leave. I end up going up and down the stairs aimlessly trying to burn off my nervous energy. Court turns out to be more mundane than I've built it up to be. When my turn comes, I go into an office, give my passport and POA from hubby, and sit in a chair. The judge is kind, but very soft spoken. She asks a few questions about our family and preparation to adopt, and I answer her in a shaky voice. When she says, "then she's all yours" I thank her three times and almost forget my passport. I have to go in the hallway because I burst into tears. I am so grateful that it has finally happened. She is ours and we are hers. I finally know that she is definitely coming home.

After we leave the court building, we drive to Entoto mountain road to visit a weaving shop set up for the women fuel carriers. Those are the women that carry up to 200 pounds of wood on their back on the mountain road, which they sell for people to cook with. The weaving shop is an alternative to selling wood. I bought quite a few scarves there. I have never seen so many beautiful scarves in so many colors. They are all woven by hand on looms. There are a few boys there that get a kick out of seeing short videos that I've taken of them weaving. Afterwards, we head back to the guesthouse and pack all our things. We will be heading north to Lalibela tomorrow morning, but that will have to be... in another post.