Friday, July 1, 2011

Ethiopia or Bust: Travel Day #1

It is 4 PM on Sunday, June 26th.  We've been sleeping since we arrived at Ethiopian Guest Home at 11 AM.  I can hardly believe we are just hours away from holding our sweet Penny.  She is looking up at the same clouds that we are seeing outside our window and my stomach is in knots, turning over with excitement and anticipation.

It has been quite an adventure in the last 24 hours of travel to get here... We began our trip to see Penny with a flight to Dulles International Airport, which was uneventful.  We had a 3 hour layover there and stopped for a bite to eat.  Dustin ate like it was his last meal and said he was "carbo loading" for the 13+ hour flight to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

We were greeted at the door of Ethiopian Airlines by a stewardess wearing a gauzy white traditional Ethiopian dress/ tunic.  Our seats were right at the bulkhead and at the front of an enormous economy section.

The woman who sat next to us was middle-aged and appeared to be alone when we first took our seats.  But, a few minutes later, a younger man plopped this beautiful little boy - about ten months old I would guess - into her lap and we didn't see the young man (presumably the father of the baby) for more than 13 hours when we landed in Addis.  The stewardess brought out a collapsible bassinet that she hung from the bulkhead wall in front of us.  Other than the occasional "I'm hungry" or "I'm tired" cries, that little guy entertained us for hours.  We played peek-a-boo, giggled as he smiled, such a cutie.  We ate chicken curry with Basmati saffron rice, potato salad and chocolate cake very shortly after take-off.  We had touch screens in front of us that held a variety of movies.  The funniest thing was watching each other crawl, literally scaling the bulkhead wall, out of our seats to get to the bathroom without waking our new baby friend asleep in the bassinet in front of us.

We landed at 8 am this morning and exited onto the tarmac.  The smell of Africa hit me right away and I couldn't get enough of that wonderful smell... a mixture of dirt, car fumes, smoke from fires - separately, each of these smells is not on my favorites list but together they smelled amazing and I felt at home in this place I had never been.  It brought back so many great memories of my previous trip to Kenya 13 years ago and I was so ready for the adventures that waited for us off of the tarmac...

We loaded onto shuttle buses that took us to the enterance of the Visa/ Customs building.  Up an escalator and into a line waiting to buy our temporary Visa for $20 a piece (this was definately the least costly expense in the adoption process!) - what a bargain!  Waiting in the Visa line was the beginning of some major excitement as we began our time in Addis.

The Visa line stretched around the building and down the escalator.  Thankfully we were one of hte first in ine because of our builk head seats.  We waited for about 20 minutes before we made it into the Visa room - organized chaos is the best way to describe it!  A long table with 4 government officials sat in a line- but rather than proceed from person to person down the table, these officials passed paperwork around back and forth like we were playing the ball hidden under the cup game at a circus sideshow.  After 15+ minutes of shuffling our passports around again, we had our visas in hand and Dustin went to exchange currency whiel I waited for a receipt.  We met a man while waiting in line who was also adopting using the adoption agency we had used.  He told us his story of how terribly difficult the whole process had been for his wife.  They had been waiting for 2 1/2 years to bring home their son.  My heart just broke from him as he shared but I reminded myself that everyone's experience was different and we weren't in this for an "easy ride" - we were ready for whatever God had for us in this process.  This same man asked us where we were staying and when we told him, he proceeded to tell us the terrible experience he had with that very place on his last visit.  Oh Great!!  Thanks new guy for all the encouragement - you are just sunshine and rainbows aren't you?  ... Of course, hearing all of his woes made Dustin and I a bit anxious about what we might be in for.  In hinds sight, after hearing a bit about new guy's rat race through legality and red tape over the last months, I think his perspective was a bit cloudy but it certainly left us feeling a bit uneasy.

Dustin and I walked a few paces over to baggage claim and I could tell Dustin's anxiety was going up.  I prayed for him as he gathered our bags and a luggage cart.  "God, send Dustin some encouragement so that he can be at ease."  My prayer was eventually answered but not at all in my timing - it only got worse before it ended up getting better a few hours later.

We got our Visa receipt and entered customs - can I just say that I pretty much loathe customs in every country I have been in.  It is just plain scary!  I feel out of control and the process seems to be so unpredictable.  Today was no different.

I took my backpack while Dustin hauled all 130 pounds of luggage to the x-ray machines.  Bags moved quickly and we could see the open air of Addis just across the hallway.  Backpacks ran through the machines, our box of donations that we brought for the orphanage went through - all good.  Then we got to the two 50 pound bags of baby formula that we had brought with us to donate to the government run orphanage nearby.  We were carrying them for an amazing organization Brighton Their World that receives and organizes donations of baby formula to be sent to orphanages all over the world - feeding children that would otherwise not have the basic nutrition that we take for granted here in the states.

The security personnel, a small thin man with a blue uniform and a smile, asks us "Are these cans expired?"..... Expired?  Uh, oh geez, I hadn't even opened the bags to check!  Oh, this is just awesome - white powdery substance in possibly expired containers... My imagination started to get the better of me as I pictured them dumping out full containers of formula and licking the powder only to find that it wasn't formula, but coke - that would be just swell:  Get a hold of yourself Heidi!  This is not a James Bond movie!
"No, they are good."  says Dustin while I squirm thinking that we could be in some serious trouble here...  The clerk didn't want to take our word for it and zipped open our bags to go through them.
"I need you to take all contents out on the floor.  We need to count it and log it,"  says the clerk.

We pulled out everything and wrote down container size, expiration dates, how many cans in each bag and then headed back over to the clerk.  He was still not satisfied.
"I need your passport," he said as he looked down his nose at me.
"Sure.  Can I have it back after the bags are repacked?" I asked.
"No.  You need to get a receipt from customs to claim this first,"  he said as he took my passport and put it in his pocket.

Oh great!  I just broke the #1 rule of international travel - never let your passport out of your site.

At this point we had spent an extra 45 minutes counting and logging formula.  Dustin was frustrated.  I was frustrated and we were both nervous that our driver we had scheduled to pick us up at 7:30 would be giving up on us and would leave before we could find him (it was not almost 10:00).  I went up to the clerk and pleaded, "Sir, we don't have time to wait in 2 lines for a receipt from customs.  Our driver is waiting and if he leaves, we have no way to get where we need to go.  Can you take our bags?  We will just leave them with you."  The clerk looked at me, at the bags, at Dustin, back at me... then took my paperwork and turned around to the man behind him.  After a quick exchange in Amheric while they both gave me a stare down the 2nd man signed our paper and the clerk handed it back to me.

"Now you no line... drop off and bring receipt to me."  (sigh of relief inserted here)

After we finished delivering the formula to customs so that the orphanage could come to pick it up upon submission of a written request to customs as to the nature of the donation, we were ready to head out into the arrivals greeting area.

We started to walk toward the automatic exit doors that were locked open.  A massive group of people were standing behind guide ropes while to armed guards holding semi-automatic weapons stood at attention at the exit keeping the crowd back from entering the customs area.  We caught our breath, looked at each other and then walked through the armed guards and mass of people to find our driver quickly.  We were more than ready to move on from here after the 2 1/2 hours of customs interrogation.

We stepped out into the welcome area and I scanned the crowd to see if I could find someone holding a sign with our name.  No sign.  No driver.  Our directions from the guest home said we should look for a man wearing a black polo shirt with  "Ethiopian Guest Home" embroidered on it.  I remembered new guy that told us in the Vis line how he and his wife were stranded during their first trip and I thorugh we were also.  We wandered through the crowd for a few minutes.  The more we wandered the more we drew attention to ourselves and taxi drivers began to petition us to go with them.  One man swore that he was our driver but couldn't show us proof so we walked away as he pleaded to take us.

We had no change for a pay phone, no cell service and a wad of money in our pockets that we didn't want to take out in a public place.  We saw some hotel kiosks on a far wall but no one was standing at any of them as we looked for someone who might be able to help us.

"Lord, we don't know what to do next.  You promise to be our guard and we know you came here before us to prepare the way.  Please show us what to do next. Send our driver or someone to help us."
I looked in a hotel kiosk - no one there.  I glanced athte next kiosk - no one.  Then back again at the first kiosk and out of NOwhere a young lady stood behind the counter.
"Can I help you with something?"  she smiled using perfect English with an American accent.

Dustin and I are convinced that this woman was an angel, sent at the perfect time so that we could see that God was in control of all things.  She seriously appeared out of thin air...

"Yes, that would be great!  We need to find our driver or call our hotel.  Coud we get change from you to make a call? "  we asked.

"No.  Just use my cell phone,"  as she pulled out her cell phone from her pocket and handed it to Dustin.

She called our guest home, led Dustin through the crowd by the hand to look for our driver and within minutes they both returned followed by our driver, who had been waiting for us for three hours but hadn't seen us come out of the building.  We were so thankful to finally have made it out of the airport that we followed our driver straight to the van without asking much about him or checking to be sure he was the correct person.

The driver loaded our things into his van, we hopped in and started to head out of the airport parking lot. I looked at the driver and realized he wasn't wearing a black polo shirt and I had never seen a sign that said "DeMaio" on it.  Panic started to set in... I should NEVER have watched that 48 hour mystery special on kidnappings abroad last month!  My palms were sweaty, my heart was racing and my mind was wandering as I thought about where this many might take us, and how long it would be before I ever saw my children again - that is, if my parents were willing to pay a million dollar ransom for my life!... This is the end!  I'm going to die in a dirt alley in Ethiopia, never having seen my baby girl!... Get a hold of yourself Heidi!  I started asking the driver questions that he would only know if he worked at the guest home... "How far away is the guest home?  How long have you worked for them?  Which of the five guest homes are we going to stay at?"  His answers checked out alright but I was still not convinced.  We drove further and further from the airport, down alleyways until finally we pulled down a rocky dirt alley.  I convinced myself that four hooded men were going to jump out from behind a building, attack us, take our money and stuff us in a wooden barrel.

A wrot-iron gate opened to our right and a smiling and eager man motioned us to come through the gate and into the home that waited on the other side - we were saved!  My nightmare that happened completely in my head and had no concrete, viable evidence for concern washed away as relief swept over me.  We walked through the courtyard of the guest home, were greeted in the hallway by the receptionist that sat at a small desk to the side of the dining/ living room of the house and were led to our bedroom where I am now sitting typing this.

Dustin and I closed the curtains, turned out the lights and crashed for the next five hours - we were sooo glad to finally be in the same city as our baby girl!  Tomorrow is the day we see our Penny!!!

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