When I told people I was going to Ethiopia as part of Save the Children -- to blog about my experiences and discuss the important work the organization is doing there in terms of international health care -- I thought the hardest part was going to be explaining why I chose to leave my family and my safe home in the suburbs of New York City for a week to fly to the other side of the world with people I didn’t know at first to meet people I have nothing in common with.
I was wrong.
The hardest part wasn't the trip there or acclimating to the heat (80 degrees in the sun while it was in the 30s at home) or even the language barrier. The hardest part has been trying to explain to the people back home just what an extraordinary trip it was and how much I learned.
There is a strange smell that permeates Ethiopia and I still smell it on the rug I bought in a market back in March. It's now July. I bought the rug after practicing my negotiating skills for hours. I was so nervous and yet it turns out I barely needed them.
The rug salesman was friendly and all too happy to discount the rug. Now, back home, away from the sticky heat and the clanging bells around the market, I smell that oily sticky smell again and I can almost imagine myself back there again. It’s the same scent I caught on the hair of the little girl who held my hand as we walked around her rural village in the northern part of the country. That was the second day of our trip. We had made the long journey from Addis Ababa the day before and were tired and grumpy from many stops along the dusty and unpaved road.
She was about the same age as my daughter (6, maybe), but I know Sammy (my kid) would never be so welcoming to a stranger, especially a stranger who didn't speak her language and who jumped out of a strange white van wearing sunglasses and hauling a giant bottle of water. I have often warned my children never to talk to anyone who must have looked like I did to this girl.
But, instead of being scared, she smiled. She took my bottle, offered to carry it on the walk toward her house. Despite her being half my size and probably not as strong as me, I let her take it mostly because I was so touched by the gesture.
She also loved my sunglasses. We managed to communicate a lot just by sharing my Ray-Bans back and forth between us.
After touring this little girl’s “model home” (a home designated as the cleanest and most show-able to visitors from NGOs like Save the Children), we made our way to a health center on the edge of town. It came out of nowhere along the dirt road. First there were homes made of loosely laid stones, one on top of the other. Brief glimpses inside reveal rugs covering dirt floors and dust everywhere. But then there was this modern health center at the end of the road, replete with white walls and shining floors.
At the health center, we are ushered into a waiting room full of pregnant women, all of whom are staying there, waiting to deliver their babies. Since Ethiopia has so many home births, the fact that they prioritized delivering in a health center so highly to stay days before their due date was considered a massive victory for health education.
As an American who has listened to the debates about homebirths versus hospital births, it struck me as ironic that in Ethiopia, the goal is to get women to deliver in the hospital or health center, while here, women are up in arms over not being allowed to deliver at home. So many of our arguments are privileges we take for granted.
Soon after the health center, we headed to a second village. At one point, a 10-year-old girl spotted a pack of cinnamon gum peeking out from inside my purse. It's the kind of sugar free "grownup gum" my kids would never touch, claiming it burns their mouth. They prefer other kinds of candy and lollipops. Thinking of them, I asked my companion:
“Should I ask her mother if it’s OK?” I was nervously glancing around the village, searching for anyone resembling an adult.
“That’s the most American you have sounded all week,” my friend said, laughing. And it’s true. Only in a country as rich as ours with so many privileged issues to debate -- organic versus conventional; candy; high fructose corn syrup -- would we really waste our passion and voices on such trivial matters. I gave her the gum. She took it. She loved it. She took the rest of the pack to give to her friends.
It was hot and we made our way slowly to our next home visit.
The concept of time in Ethiopia is different, too. The rural people are busy and they work hard, but the pace is slower. There seems to be more laughter in general. Our last home visit was with a mother who had just had a baby 15 days before. It was her fifth child. Her oldest was 20. She welcomed us with stories, telling us about her birth and how she hadn't planned to give birth at 40, but she had switched from Norplant to tablets and found herself pregnant.
Her openness and honesty were welcoming and made me feel like less of a weird intruder walking into her home and asking questions through our translator. The baby girl had charcoal black eyeliner around her little eyes, sharp eyebrows, and no name. Not yet anyway. The naming ceremony is done much later, after the danger to newborns has passed. It could be as long as a month or two. So many babies in Ethiopia don't make it so long, it's hard to even imagine the horror one might feel upon losing one with a name.
It has to be a method of self-protection.
Months after my trip, it struck me as fascinating that so many people were horrified by Kate Middleton and William waiting a couple days to name their son, when in other cultures, they refrain from naming children because of the incredible vulnerability. Again, how spoiled we really are.
The next day, we went back to Addis Ababa where we visited a hospital. We interviewed mothers who had given birth just hours before and were practicing Kangaroo Care (a major initiative for Save the Children) in order to help their babies grow. Watching these young moms -- the same age I was when I had my first -- I couldn't help but miss my own babies back home, probably just after school ended. They were probably headed to ballet and gymnastics and karate. They felt very far away.
I asked one mother what she hoped for her baby in the future. She smiled. “I want them to have love. I want them to have an education and happiness and every opportunity,” she told me.
We live thousands of miles apart, but what we want for our children is exactly the same. My guess is our paths to that will look awfully different, though.
I left for home the next day.
When people ask me about the trip, they always ask me if it was incredibly sad. It wasn’t. Or maybe it was. But not in the ways they think. It was sad because I had to leave. It was sad because I had to go back to the U.S. where I feel tremendously grateful for many things -- amazing access to health care, constant monitoring, cleanliness, great hygiene, and even private hospital rooms. But I also feel sad about the things we don’t have. The children I met in Ethiopia were freer and happier in many ways than my own children or the children I see in our upper-middle class suburban neighborhood.
There were no iPads or movies that couldn't be missed. There weren't 50 different activities scheduled every night to prepare to get into an Ivy League school or a day so jam-packed there is little time for real play and exploration.
There are many things they don’t have in Ethiopia. But there are many things we don’t have either. When people ask me why I was willing to leave my family for a whole week to travel with strangers, I have an answer now: Perspective.
This trip has changed mine forever.
Have you ever had a life-changing trip?