Ethiopia Trip-the Logistics

When I was trying to organize our big trip to Ethiopia I found great resources in the online groups I mentioned previously, as well as with friends who had done similar trips before. Planning a trip like this can be overwhelming and I found even with the resources I had, there were still some big question marks that left me feeling anxious even as we arrived in Ethiopia. In this post I hope to go over the (sometimes boring) logistics for those of you interested in planning a family trip. I’m also going to go into money spent while in country because that was the hardest thing for me to budget. No one could give me a good idea on how much they spent for food, drinks or lodging but have no fear! I kept track of every dollar spent so that you have a better idea for your trip.

This trip we flew Qatar Airlines. For the two trips prior we flew Delta/KLM and both Zach and I agreed Qatar featured nicer planes and more comfortable seats. Around January of 2015 I made myself a Google Alert to notify me of any flash airline sales flying to Ethiopia. In March I was notified of Qatar offering a flight from Chicago to Ethiopia for just $700/person. Having spent roughly $1500/person for both previous trips I jumped at the chance to cut the ticket price in half. There’s my first piece of advice-get yourself some Google Alerts! We saved around $6,000 because we were flexible with our travel dates and we waited until there were flash sales. 

Visas. My understanding is that you can get them before your trip and they last 2 years for $70/each or you can get them at the airport for $50/each and they last for just your current trip. We chose the latter and it worked just fine. If you’re doing the math that is $350 we spent in visas. They will take Ethiopian Birr or USD but there was no one at the window to exchange money so we ended up just paying in USD. Also important: make sure you have the address and phone number of where you will be staying in Addis handy as you will need that when going through the Visa process.

If you do fly Qatar know that they will usher you out of the Domestic side of the airport. We found out it was because most Ethiopians fly Qatar so they both load and unload all flights for that airline through the domestic instead of international. This is important information! We landed a little after 1am local time and could not find our driver anywhere. Dailah was crying, Zach and I were freaking out a little bit because there was not an english speaker to be seen. We finally found another english speaker with a phone and called our hotel to ask about the driver we had arranged for an airport pick up. The driver had been on the international side of the airport the whole time. So if you are flying Qatar and are arranging an airport pick up, make sure you tell them you will most likely be coming out of the domestic terminal.

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Interestingly, the difference in the domestic and international is HUGE! Our return flight left at 2am so we got to the airport about 9pm just to allow our driver the chance to see his family and to ensure we had plenty of time to find where we were going. On our previous trips we enjoyed surprising luxury at the Addis Ababa airport but when leaving from the domestic side it’s a totally different story. The bathrooms are less international and more like what you will find throughout Ethiopia. They treated the Ethiopians rather terribly, making them squish into tiny spaces to make room for diplomats or forenji like us. Even when we were waiting at the terminal, the services were so far below what they were in past trips it was shocking. None of this is bad enough to avoid Qatar but if you were planning on waiting to buy trinkets at the airport you will be totally out of luck.

Our first night we stayed at Wellspring Guesthouse. It was a beautiful house with top of the line accommodations. We were able to stay in one large room that had a queen bed, 2 bunk beds and a cot. It also had a large bathroom and large closet space. It was by far the nicest place we’ve stayed while in Addis Ababa. We pulled into the guesthouse at around 2am but had to pay for that night as well as the next. For our large room it was $190/night. Considerably more than we had ever paid for a room in Ethiopia, actually in America as well. 😉 The breakfasts were delicious and the owners were friendly. There was also a decent amount of room to play soccer in the gated courtyard in the front of the guesthouse.

At checkout they did charge us for the airport pick up even though I had thought I arranged that with no additional fee. We were already going to be paying a driver for that day so had I known they were going to charge us $40 for an airport pick up I would’ve just arranged for our driver to pick us up instead. Next piece of advice: just get it all in writing. Make sure you understand what you are and aren’t paying for, this includes water set out in your room, etc. If you have all the money in the world to throw at the trip then you can avoid that little nugget of wisdom but if you don’t-it will save you so much stress and hassle.

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After getting some sleep and eating breakfast, our driver Solomon (more on him later) picked us up for a day around Addis. I hadn’t done much planning of what I wanted to do I just knew that I wanted to have it be pretty laid back to ease us into the new time zone. I told Solomon the only thing for sure I wanted to do was go to the National Museum and he took charge from there. It was so great to have him plan the rest of the day.

He first took us to exchange some of our USD to Ethiopian Birr. There is a good chance your driver will know of a place to get a better exchange rate than the average bank so I would encourage you to ask for that! Solomon found us a place that exchanged at a rate of 1 to 23 instead of the 1 to 20 at banks. It may seem like a small difference but when talking about the amount of money you’ll spend on the trip it really helps!

Our trip to the Museum was our best one yet. They’ve upgraded it since the last time we were there so it was far more educational for the kids. Solomon arranged for us to have a guide who was so great. For $5 he took us through the whole museum explaining things in really vivid detail. Other than Trysten who was pretty much sleeping while walking, the kids were captivated by the history of Ethiopia. In total it was just $10 for all of us to go to the museum and to have the guide-this is a must do in my opinion!

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We then went to a local zoo. Though it cost just $3 for all 7 of us, this is something I wouldn’t recommend. We are clearly pretty big animal lovers so I’m not a huge fan of zoos anyway but this was the saddest zoo I have ever seen. There were maybe 10 animals total, all of them looking old and unhealthy. This was also a place the kids felt the most uncomfortable as there were a lot of locals that just stared at my kids instead of the animals. Because it was so crowded my kids were often petted and and touched in a way that wasn’t as common the rest of the trip. It did kill time for the day but in the end I would avoid it.

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Solomon then took us to the Lucy Restaurant next to the museum. It was a nice restaurant with authentic Ethiopian food. It was almost exclusively foreigners who were dining there, a common theme for the places Solomon took us to eat. Because this was our first restaurant in the country we had no clue how much food to order so we each ordered an entree. We made that mistake a few more times before realizing the 7 of us needed only to order about 3 entrees. We are all really big eaters (when I’m making a meal at home that says it can feed 12 I double it and rarely have leftovers. We just really, really love food y’all) but injera has a way of expanding to fit the size of your stomach really quickly. There’s not really refrigeration readily available so there’s no point in leftovers and I have a thing about throwing away food so if you do too I would order less-knowing you’ll always be able to order more if you still have hungry kiddos. Helpful tip: order less than you would in an American restaurant and enjoy passing the food between the group!

We then went to the top of the Entoto Mountains. It was incredibly beautiful! This was another of Solomon’s ideas and I’m so glad we went with it. Make sure you have your driver take you. Great photo opps and fun climbing areas. There’s also ample opportunity to race up the mountain as long as you’re mentally prepared to watch as cars fly far too close to your babies during the race.

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We had Solomon drop us for a little siesta after that. Within minutes all 5 kids were snoring loudly in their beds. I would recommend carving out a little time for a nap the first few days, especially if you have kids around the ages of mine (9-12) as they are too told to typically fall asleep in the car or on laps but sometimes have a harder time coping with jet lag because their bodies are so programmed to sleep at certain times, eat at certain times and the like.

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For dinner I wanted to go to a traditional restaurant so the kids could see the dancing and traditional clothes and listen to traditional music. Solomon took us to 2000 Habesha. We had been to two different places the previous two trips and they all kind of run together in my mind. I think you really can’t go wrong with traditional restaurants so if I were to do it again I would ask Solomon to take us to one less expensive. I remember when we went 5 years ago (I know it was 5 years and there’s little things like inflation, but still) Zach and I paid for the two of us, a bottle of wine, a few beers and 4 of the drivers who all had meals and a few rounds of Cokes. Our total then was $35. This time for all 7 of us it ended up being $150! It was still worth it, the kids had a blast and the food/dancing/music was wonderful! I highly recommend doing the traditional restaurant thing for your kiddos but be prepared for that price at the 2000 Habesha.

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The next morning we ate breakfast at Wellspring (free with your stay) and were off to Hosanna. Most drivers will charge you a flat rate for their driving and then have you pay for their gas as well. To fill up Solomon’s van that fit all of us and could off-road like you wouldn’t believe it cost around $45 to fill up the tank. We had him drive us from Sunday-Saturday, driving all over the South of Ethiopia which required just 2.5 tanks of gas. Totally worth the $115.

In Hosanna we stayed at the Lemma International Hotel. There is a new hotel in Hosanna called the Shembelala that I’ve heard good things about. The Lemma: there’s a reason there’s a hashtag created just for this hotel. #lemtastic is perhaps the most ironic hashtag that ever was. The rooms are tiny, requiring a family our size to rent 3. Zach and I were in one with a queen bed, Trysten and Binyam took one with 2 twin beds and the other 3 decided to squeeze on one queen bed as well. The price of room varies depending on where it’s at in the hotel as well as which kind of bedding configuration but we spent 3 nights total at the Lemma and paid $190 for all 3 nights (if you’re paying attention you’ll notice that was exactly what we paid for one night at Wellspring-there is no doubt the Lemma is a steal!) Unfortunately you get what you pay for with the Lemma. 2 of our toilets didn’t flush at all which required moving rooms a few times. They also never cleaned the rooms the 3 days we were there. Normally this wouldn’t be a huge problem but the Lemma is where I got really sick (and Trysten dealt with a small bout of sickness as well) so we could’ve used clean towels and bedding and flushing toilets. I did ask for them repeatedly but was never brought any.

I’m not sure of the prices of the Shembelala compared to Lemma but if we were to do it again Zach and I both agreed we would probably book the Shembelala. We are outdoorsy, rarely wash our hands kind of hippies and yet we were all a little overwhelmed by the Lemma. If it’s possible to budget for a little more money spent at hotels I would say splurge a little on the Shembelala, if nothing else their bedding is certainly newer than at the Lemma and that little difference would’ve felt like luxury. *It does need to be said that I was feverish and ill all 3 days that we were there so I’m not sure I have the necessary perspective. I don’t want this to come across as whiny so take all of that with a delirious grain of salt.*

I chose the Lemma because I heard their food was really delicious. I wonder if maybe they weren’t just having an off week because even though I don’t have picky eaters, no one was impressed with the food. We tried almost everything on the menu and were only blown away by two of their traditional meals. I do want to point out that most of us are either vegan/vegetarian so we didn’t try all the meat dishes-I chalked up our lack of enthusiasm for the food to the Lemma staff’s focus on the meat dishes. 🙂 That said, you can’t beat the prices for their meals. On average a meal for all 7 of us ran us around $15.

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It does need to be said the Lemma’s coffee and macchiatos are second to none. If you stay at the Shembelala make sure you make it over to the Lemma for coffee!

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While in Hosanna we used the services of a friend of ours that has delivered correspondence from us to our special people for the last 7 years. If you’re looking for something similar leave a comment or shoot me an email and I can put you in touch with him. Zach and I both agreed his service was worth the fee and we can’t imagine ever going back to Ethiopia if he’s not able to be with us when we visit our special people. He has done such good work building trust with the locals so they will often tell him things they maybe didn’t mention during the adoption process or had previously not told for fear of stigma. A translator who can be trusted by both birth families and adoptive families alike is one area you don’t want to cut financial corners!

After our incredible time in Hosanna and surrounding communities we were off to Lake Hawassa and the Lewi Hotel & Resort. Many of my friends recommended finding a place at the end of our trip to unwind and process. I am so glad they did! There is another great resort along Lake Hawassa that was a little nicer (we went to compare) but cost a bit more as well and didn’t include unlimited pool access. The Lewi was just perfect for our needs. We got two rooms that were attached. Our room had a pretty rockin’ circle bed, a huge living room and nice bathroom. The adjoining room had a bathroom with a jaccuzi tub as well as 2 queen beds.

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At the Lewi you can choose from a variety of options. Bed and breakfast, Bed, breakfast and unlimited pool access or all inclusive. They have a workout room, miniature golf, and ping pong tables as part of the all inclusive package. We chose to just do the bed, breakfast and unlimited pool access which ran us $145/night. The rooms at the Lewi were the nicest we stayed in and the service was terrific. I highly recommend the resort!

We ate the rest of our meals at the Lewi as well, each one averaged around $35 for all of us. The food was really, really good! Meals did take longer to prepare so make sure you go before you feel really hungry. We made that mistake the first night and after an hour of waiting for our food we begged the waiter for some bread to tide the kids over. It was no problem after that since we knew to account for extra time.

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Solomon ended up taking us to the Hawassa fish market. We were skeptical at first due to the whole being vegan issue but Solomon had yet to disappoint us so we went anyway. It cost $7 for us to enter. We went later in the day so the frenzy of a typical fish market had died down but it ended up being a really fun trip. Solomon encouraged us to try a fish that was prepared before us with a spice blend that was common in the area. Delicious doesn’t begin to describe it. If you find yourself near the fish market please go! We also got to see Ethiopian volleyball, storks and the fishermen preparing their nets for the next day. Plus it was just gorgeous.

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While at the Lewi we actually only ended up swimming twice. The weather was warm but not hot so it wasn’t as big of a draw as it would’ve normally been. All things considered, we were really glad we got that as part of the package because our kids are big swimmers and made the most out of it. We were also glad we didn’t do the whole all inclusive package. We tried asking how much it would cost to just play mini golf or just allow the kids to play a game of pool. The prices ran the gamut from $1 each kid to $5/minute depending on who you would ask. Other than mini golf we probably wouldn’t have used any of the rest of it so unless you’re planning on spending your entire days at the resort without venturing out into the city, I don’t see any reason you would need to buy the complete package.

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Another reason I just don’t see the need to buy the full package is because of the monkeys! My kids spent more time feeding, playing with and obsessing over the monkeys than they did in the pool and rightfully so! They were incredibly adorable and could get playful or even downright nasty if you tried to withhold food.

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But seriously, it was just unbelievably breathtaking. Zach and I ordered a bottle of wine and took it to our room to relax and talk about the trip. It was a perfect way to spend our last night in country.

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On our way back to Addis we stopped at a different Hailie resort in Ziway for lunch. It was beautiful there as well. The food was good and it was a nice little stop to break up the 5 hour trek from Hawassa.

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Having bought most of the traditional Ethiopian items our last two trips we didn’t have anything we really wanted to get on a shopping trip other than coffee. The Tomoca bags are now about $7/each and worth every penny. There is simply no better coffee than Ethiopian coffee and they make such great gifts!

If you are in need of specific shopping items, there are Ethiopians who will get them for you. For $100 you hand them a list and they go get them. If we needed anything at all, I would’ve definitely bought this service. I hate haggling with a hot, hot hatred but I also hate knowing I’m paying more for something than I should be. This shopping service is a great way to sidestep those things! You can still go shopping for a few little things if you want to have your kids experience it but for the bigger items I would certainly recommend the shopping service.

Solomon. He is so good at what he does. My friend Meghan had told me that he is superb with kids but I think she might not have even done him justice in that description. A few of my kids who aren’t real trusting of strangers or are a little quieter with them spent no time opening up to him. Tariku and Tomas specifically bonded with him in a way they don’t normally which made me so happy to see. Those two would often ride up front with him and learn Amharic words for the things they were seeing. It’s true he was incredibly kind and sweet with them but he also didn’t let them get away with anything-which is such a blessing for a mama like me. It’s no secret Solomon hates electronic devices so he didn’t hold back in telling the boys to put them down and enjoy the scenery. *For the record, our kids did play their iPods on the trip. You do what you feel is right for your family. The iPods ended up being a great way to come down from their emotional highs and to take some of the edge off. Plus, they all took their own pictures with their iPods so seeing the trip through their eyes is fun as well!

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We were with Solomon for around 12 hours a day for 7 days straight, often in close proximity in his van. He ended up feeling more like a fun uncle than a driver by just the second day. That said, he never ate meals with us or stayed in the hotels with us. Solomon told us it was a “Driver’s Code” and there always had to be that small separation between the family and the driver. So in terms of budgeting, plan on budgeting for the driver (the ones I researched were always somewhere between the $80-100/day) and the gas but you will not pay for their food or lodging.

I can’t stress enough that the driver should be the number one place to splurge. Solomon was fantastic with our special people, was attentive to all of my kids (Trysten had a rumbling belly at the fish market so Solomon dashed off to get him a lime. He taught him to bite it and suck out the juice, hailing it as the cure all for any upset tummy. Trysten said it worked so suddenly the other 4 had upset stomachs. Off Solomon went to get 4 more limes. 😉 ) I have no doubt Solomon isn’t the only truly wonderful driver in Ethiopia but make sure you get recommendations before booking with one-you’ll spend far too much time with this person to not get along with him or her. *Notice Dailah crying in the picture below-she was so sad to be leaving Ethiopia and Solomon in particular.

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I know it’s a little uncouth to talk about money so openly but I don’t want any unknowns to deter you from planning a trip like this. The unknowns of the financial cost is what took us so long to bite the bullet and I know had I had a better idea of the cost we would’ve went so much sooner.

We spent approximately $500 for our 7 days in country on food for the 7 of us.

We spent approximately $800 in hotels for our 7 nights in country.

We spent around $100 just buying a few things at the Post Office Shopping center and Tomoca coffee shop.

We spent nearly $100 on trips to museums, zoos, markets, etc.

The cost of translators and drivers vary but those will need to be worked into your budget as well. I can give you a better idea what we spent if you leave a comment or send an email as those two will be your biggest financial cost by far.

Be aware that most hotels will not accept reservations ahead of time. Even the guesthouses in Ethiopia wouldn’t let me book rooms until about 2 weeks before our trip so try really hard not to freak out about that (I failed miserably at staying relaxed on that account). The Lemma didn’t take reservations and I could never get the Lewi to confirm my reservations via their website or email ahead of time. No worries, there was plenty of open rooms at both places. Even if worst case scenario happens and all the rooms are booked, there are now multiple hotels in both areas so you’ll always have a back up.

If planning a trip like this makes you nervous there are plenty of travel agencies who will plan it for you. The cost is steep but it’s totally understandable if you don’t want to put up with the hassle. Zach and I have far too much German blood to spend on such luxuries so instead I just bombarded my friends with questions for 6 months straight. I think most of them still love me. 🙂

I hope after this post you’re feeling empowered and ready to plan a trip for your family. Obviously I can’t answer whether or not your kids are emotionally or mentally ready for a trip like this but if you’re dragging your feet let that be the reason rather than the overwhelming nature of the logistics.

If you have any more specific questions please feel free to reach out. I think it’s become pretty obvious that I’m a bit of an open book so get in touch-your kids will thank you for it!

Much love,
Tesi

The Burden and the Blessing of Genetics in Adoption

I look like my mom. I have my dad’s nose and his genetic code that forces us to eat every few hours or we feel faintish like the damsels in distress in old black and white movies. But when I walk by a mirror and catch my reflection I’m always taken aback by how closely I resemble my mom. I have this image of her and me in a van we rented for a family vacation when I was around 6. This was a time before seat belts so I was sitting on her lap, facing her in the back seat. I was undoubtedly telling her a captivating story when I put my tongue between my teeth and made that fake fart sound that is all the rage with that age group. My mom belly laughed hard. So I did it again and again until she was crying happy tears and gasping for air. I’m not sure if the vivid memory of her face while laughing is what she actually looked like at the time or some combination of what I look like now and how I remember her from my youth but either way-we look and sound eerily similar when we are belly laughing.

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My most favorite thing about our trip to Ethiopia was that my boys finally got to do that too. Tariku’s special person stands exactly as he does in pictures. Exactly. When Tariku was playing soccer with his special people they played so similar. Nevermind that they’ve not played together for 7 years, all of their idiosyncrasies in the sport were the same. And their disappointment if they messed up? Identical. When Tariku’s special person put all of Tariku’s people on the same team there were always 5 identical reactions happening after any given play-either that of joy or frustration.

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Ethiopia is like every other developing nation in terms of the way dogs are treated. For the most part they are wild and often rabid, the closest they come to family pets is with regards to being a guard dog. Though even as guard dogs they are tied to a short leash and left in their cages, barking throughout the night. Not Tariku’s people though. They have an actual family dog that follows them around and helps them on the farm. When we went into the hut to enjoy lunch together the dog came too, lying at the feet of one of Tariku’s special people. Of course the one family in all of Ethiopia with a pet dog belongs to Tariku. I say “of course” because Tariku has always loved animals far beyond the average child. Obviously Zach and I have an affinity for animals as well but Tariku came to us like that, he was never scared of dogs the way every other child adopted from Ethiopia often is. Tariku loved it when we pointed out that he clearly came from a long line of animal lovers.

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We were able to get a picture of Tomas and Binyam’s special person they lost. “Look at the furrowed brow Tomas! Oh my goodness it’s yours exactly!” Tomas beamed, “It really is, isn’t it mom?” Tomas met a special person who shares his big heart and tendency for happy tears when the occasion allows-when they first saw each other both broke down in undistinguishable happy tears. When a funny story was told of Tomas I was hit by a surround sound of identical laughs from him and 2 of his special people. It made the rest of us in the hut echo their laughs as well, happy tears springing from my eyes as well.

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Binyam looks just like one of his special people who always found her way next to him. This special person knew Binyam was shy and liked to keep to himself so she never pressured affection but she would often try to catch his eye and together they would smile-an exact mirror of one another. Binyam was obsessed with the chicks at the farm and spent the entirety of our time with his special people holding at least one chick. That’s funny, one of Binyam’s people said, another special person shows a tenderness to the chicks when he’s feeling anxious too. When Binyam’s special person was saying the Kembatissa word for “anxious” her miming looked just like Binyam’s-right down to the way her eyes became twice their normal size and her mouth-pulled tightly at the sides-almost looked like she was smiling.

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We had a chance to ask their special people about the ones they have lost. What were they like? Do you see any of them in our boys? The expression on my boys’s faces at their responses always reminded me of Harry Potter’s whenever someone told Harry about looking just like his dad with his mother’s eyes. It’s been said many times over on here how big of a fan I am of the Potter series, I think I became an even bigger fan after we adopted Tariku. There’s a scene in the first book where Harry Potter finds the mirror of Erised, a mirror that shows the user his or her heart’s deepest desire. For Harry it’s his parents standing behind him looking content and pleased. Of all the things for an 11-year-old to choose and he chooses to see his parents, this is a pretty big lessen for adoptive parents if we allow it to be.

The movie "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone", (alt.: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone), directed by Chris Columbus, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling.  Seen here, Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter gazing into he Mirror of Erised, seeing his mother, Lily Potter (played by Geraldine Somerville) and father, James Potter (played by Adrian Rawlins).  Initial world premiere (London) November 4, 2001.  Screen capture. © 2001 Warner Bros. Credit: © 2001 Warner Bros. / Flickr / Courtesy Pikturz.  Image intended only for use to help promote the film, in an editorial, non-commercial context.

In many ways the genetic code can feel a bit like a tether, reminding us of who we come from and where we are when it feels like we’re on our own floating into the nothingness. A visible marker that proves we matter to someone. But it can also be a burden, particularly for kids who have suffered trauma or loss at the hands of those carrying their genetic code. I don’t want to oversimplify the experience our boys had while connecting to their like DNA coded kin because the truth is now that my kids know from whom they received the look of their eyes or the furrow in their brow it can be a reminder at moments that are not the most ideal to process adoption related emotional issues.

For kids who are 11 or 10 or 9 being reminded when you look in the mirror of the person who caused you the most amount of pain-no matter how worthy or right the reasoning-is a really hard thing to work through. And sometimes due to the lack of maturity in their physical ages and the stunting that takes place developmentally when trauma is introduced into the equation-the manifestations of the shared genetic code are disrespectful, rude or hurtful. When those manifestations happen it’s hard to remember that they aren’t actually hiding their pain from us as adoptive parents but are indeed showing it to us in a way that speaks to their age. Though I don’t share any DNA with my boys, when they are in pain I feel it just as viscerally as if I did share their DNA and so am called to remember to respond in a loving way-no matter how annoyed or angered I am. This isn’t always easy but sometimes it’s a little less complicated for the precise reason that they look differently than I do. This difference in our physical appearance triggers the reminder of the pain so when I’m at my best, which I regret to admit is not always the case, I’m reminded of the trauma and can engage in a nurturing way.

I don’t claim our trip to Ethiopia has been a life altering thing for the boys yet, I think it’s both too soon to tell and also too early in their maturation for them to vocalize its true effects. I do know, though, that this morning in the bathroom Tariku was combing his hair when I was putting on my make up. He smiled a big smile so I asked him what he was thinking about. “Sometimes I just like to smile because I look like my special person. Sometimes in the mirror it looks like he’s smiling back at me.” I smiled back at him, “I totally get that, Tariku, when I’m having a bad day I do the same and I see Mimi Connie as well. It feels like exactly what I need some days.”

He shook his head yes and turned towards the mirror as did I, both of us smiling. Our own Mirror of Erised infusing love and support into our splintering hearts. Together we left the magical moment and went about our day, still feeling the power of our special people behind us. The burden and the blessing. Today I’m grateful for them both.

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On Raising Children of Color

Last night during Trysten’s basketball game I received a phone call from one of my babe’s teachers. I didn’t answer it as I didn’t recognize the number but she went on to leave a lengthy voice message about how bad of a day this babe of mine had had. She sounded frustrated and over him. The message was left at 6pm, it had been a long day for her.

Normally I get angry, we have consequences at home and it’s kind of over. But with this situation in particular the phone call hit me hard because there’s been a subtle boiling of rage within my cherub lately. I wasn’t sure if it was his way of dealing with impending puberty, his wrestling with the independence he feels a right to and the dependence on us that comes with being his young age-a fact for which he really dislikes-but I knew it was a matter of time before the bubbling brook became a river of rage. I could feel it more succinctly than Zach because often the rage that presents itself in signs of disrespect is directed at me. Women. It’s a thing for my guy. It was no surprise that the teacher calling was the female teacher and not the male teacher who takes up the other 50% of his day.

The truth is there was no big thing he did yesterday that warranted the phone call. I could hear in her voice that yesterday was the proverbial straw that broke her back. That 3 months of letting the small things go had led to this moment wherein she undoubtedly felt like she would do anything to get him out of her class and he felt like she hated him. I could feel the tension between the two of them at conferences and I did my best to build a bridge but the bridge was burning in my babe’s eyes and I had a feeling it was too late. When this sweet child of mine has decided he’s done with you there is no possible way to come back from that.

The male teacher of his ended up calling us last night to touch base and reassure us that we can all work together to get him back on the right track. This morning he sent a follow up text, “I just want to encourage you as well that I really do love having x in class. He has such a great sense of humor, he is so bright and does so well academically and his peers look at him as a leader. He has all the potential in the world. I know some of this can be discouraging but there is so much good here too.”

After a night tossing and turning and being equal parts overwhelmed and scared about my babe’s future that text was a salve to my soul. It still makes me cry just reading it.

The truth is I’m scared for my babe. I’m so scared that the parts in him that need to be right all of the time, that gets so personally offended when confronted with any reminder to behave better will get him killed. I’ve written before about how terrifying it can be to raise black sons and I wasn’t exaggerating. When raising a defiant, young, black man there are nights where you’ll lose sleep thinking about the ways in which he might use his obstinate nature on the wrong kind of person and the lights will be out. This is a very real possibility for my son and it sends me into a cold sweat every time I think about it.

There’s a phrase “School to prison pipeline” that surely haunts the night hours of anyone raising black youth. Children of color face harsher discipline than white children in schools and are more likely to be pushed out of school than their white peers. There is no doubt in my mind that my son did exactly what the teachers said he did, my fear is that when he gets into middle school and high school the teachers won’t know him as well as these teachers do and will punish him more harshly for doing exactly what he did yesterday-something his white peers have also done. (Go here for more information on the school to prison pipeline-the graph is all you need to see to understand the epidemic.) Though he has 2 parents who will have his back no matter what, the fact that he’s not as free to make mistakes as his oldest brother is infuriating.

Then there’s a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of our “great” country spouting lies and racist rhetoric about African-Americans. The educational system is a petri dish full of ways in which it will be a tougher road for 3 of my boys, there is no denying that. When I add one of my son’s inclination to disrespect in moments of tense conversation to the petri dish the narrow window for him to get into a great college and land a great job gets narrower. Land of opportunity my ass.

I am overwhelmed at raising my young, black sons because I have never been a boy and have never been black. Though I’m a woman, which can feel “other” in certain circles, there is no denying a good percentage of our country sees black not just as “other” but as a specific kind of threatening “other” so I’ve never felt the same weight my boys do/will. I don’t know if some of my son’s anger has to do with the heaviness of adoption related trauma or the burden of this country’s claim on his black body. Maybe it’s just pre-teen hormones or anger at a girl choosing a different boy. Odds are there’s a little bit of all of that pulsing through his beautiful veins.

What I do know is that though I can be immeasurably frustrated when he’s being disrespectful to me, his transgressions are not what I think of when I picture this boy in my mind. Because he’s also light and love. That teacher was right about all the ways in which he holds in his small body the ability to do big, beautiful things with his one big life. Even though he and I both went to bed crying last night, this morning he asked me if I needed help with anything before he went to get in the car before school. The way he treats his younger cousins is the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen from a boy his age and his tenderness with animals is truly something to behold. The list continues ad infinitum and yet…

I know if the worst happens and his disrespect gets him killed the news will focus on that time in elementary when he threw a paper at his teacher and not the time that he brought in a stray cat during winter and tried to hide it in the garage to nurse it back to health. They might focus on all of the pictures I have of him half frowning-a head full of emotion swirling behind his dark eyes rather than the ones I have of him in moments uninhibited where his head is cocked to the side and his eyes are almost closed because he’s laughing so hard.

I know for those not raising brown or black sons this may sound alarmist but it’s a reality for so many people in our country. Tamir Rice wasn’t just a 12-year-old boy gunned down in his youth, he represented how easily my boys could do everything right and still die at the hands of those meant to protect him. Just as the mass shooting at Sandy Hook had all of my white friends raising white babies terrified at the thought that it could’ve been their child; the names of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Laquan McDonald and Michael Brown haunt our nightmares because they represent a daily occurrence of black bodies being taken for no reason and with no justice. I’m just getting around to feeling it now that my sons have turned from chubby cheeked little brown boys to man-boys with facial hair and sculpted deltoids.

I didn’t sleep last night because as I was washing his bedding yesterday I was overcome with love for my son. When I pushed his sheets into the wash the smell of his hair and stale coconut oil washed over me and I just sat and cried. We’ve come a long way he and I and I’m proud in so many ways of where we are. I just don’t want my failings as a mom to get in the way of his future. I don’t want our failings as a country to handicap him in any way and I don’t want his own personal failings to be anything other than what they are for the rest of us-a stepping stone to be better and do better the next day.

I don’t know what it’s like to be a person of color but I do know what it feels like to be a mom. I know there is no limit to what I will do to encourage him to be a better man and take ownership for the times in which he really messes up. But today the realization that it might not be enough is hitting just a little too hard. Raising a black son amidst so much fear mongering and anti-everything means that no matter how great of a kid he is-and dammit he’s one of the best-it just might not be enough. What a heartbreaking reality.

Ethiopia Trip-Our Second Day in the Villages

This post was written on Wednesday, November 11.

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I woke up this morning knowing I was going to make it to the villages. I had slept soundly through the night, despite sleeping most of yesterday. After careful calculations I realized I had slept 21 of the last 24 hours. My body put up a good fight and won, I’m so thankful.

This morning we were off to Tomas and Binyam’s village first. We spent the morning talking and playing soccer with his special people. Though the crowd of 200 people wasn’t there to greet us today, we had a truly beautiful time in the hut with our special people. True to our experience in Ethiopia, there was a steady stream of community members who came and sat at the doorway of the hut just to watch the ferengi (foreigners) talk with their fellow villagers. Binyam and Dailah remained fixated on the tiny chickens. Binyam, I think, because staring back at the dozens of eyes staring at him was just a little too much for my introvert. Dailah because they were simply too cute (one of T & B’s people told Dailah she should name the chicks. She named one “Cutie Patootie” and they all really loved that. )

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I loved that the special people didn’t just ask Tomas and Binyam questions but also Tariku, Dailah and Trysten. It was clear they saw no difference between the siblings and loved them because of their relation to T & B as well. It’s rarely like that in America where one of the first questions we get asked is, “But are they brothers?” about our Ethiopians, as if the fact that I called them all my kids wasn’t enough proof that they are brothers. The Ethiopians never asked if Trysten and Dailah were our biological children or how/why our family came to be. They just started calling Trysten, Dailah and Tariku “son” and “daughter” as well. What a beautiful thing that is.

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We were served roasted beans (delicious), crackers and soda. Despite my churning belly I was struck by how relaxed I was. Obviously no one in the tent save for our family, our translator and our driver spoke English but it never felt uncomfortable. It just felt really, really good to surround our boys with so many who love and pray for them every day-Ethiopian and American alike-and sometimes just sit and marvel at the miracles they truly are.

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We got to hear funny stories of Tomas and Binyam when they were younger. Both sides of the family (Ethiopian and American) loved to hear that, though so much has changed, in many ways the boys remain remarkably similar to how they were when they lived there. We have told similar stories they told with just a few different cultural variables. Some of the stuff I had worried might be adoption related with both of them turned out to be something they’ve done from the beginning. It felt so reassuring to hear details on those personality traits and think to myself, “Oh my, they’ve been doing that since they were babies, everything is going to be ok.” Very rarely with international adoption do you get to fill in holes of the adopted child’s story so I genuinely can’t tell you what it meant to do that in so many ways for Tomas-adopted at age 6 and Binaym-adopted at age 3.

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After many photos and prayers, we were off to Tariku’s special people for the afternoon.

We found out that one of Tariku’s special people had essentially told the village they weren’t allowed to hang around their hut the two days we were there. This special person didn’t want a spectacle made of the return of a beloved. It is perhaps why it felt so much like spending time with family while we were in their village.

They set up a soccer game, Tariku’s special person chose teams this time and definitely stacked one of the teams with all of Tariku’s people. Normally I would question the fairness as Tariku’s gift of excelling in sports ran rampant through his team, but it was clearly making his special person so happy so I just sat back and enjoyed the show.

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Zach and I sat on chairs with other special people to watch. Our translator walked around so it wasn’t as if we were holding conversations but there was something so universally joyful about those moments. To be watching the two worlds collide in such an ordinary way. No fanfare, no staring. It felt like a regular Wednesday in so many ways. I have to admit it was maybe my favorite time of the whole trip.

I’ve been asked if it was weird to not be able to communicate. Of course there were times when the translator was maybe in one area and we were in another that I would’ve normally started small talk with the people around me. But without the small talk, when we were able to communicate via translator our words had more purpose and more weight.

I realized that in America it’s so easy to “know” people. Maybe we small talk on a pretty regular basis, perhaps we comment on all the social media the other posts. We share the same language and perhaps we talk all the time but we don’t know each other. One of the truest gifts we received in Ethiopia was our ability to get to know our special people. When you don’t speak the same language there’s no fluff-our conversations were about the hopes, dreams and fears the other has. The stories told weren’t just silly anecdotes they were glimpses into a larger narrative about who my boys were then and how they’ve affected who they are now.

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We had some funny moments too to be sure because there was an awareness of the weirdness of the whole situation.

There’s no doubt God never intended Tariku to be with us and not with them, adoption was never part of the original plan. I think we were all aware of that in a rather profound way. But somehow we found ourselves huddled over a large plate of injera and shiro celebrating the messy, traumatic, complicated way in which we had become a family bound together by the absolute love we share for Tariku. If Tariku’s special person would’ve allowed village members in I have no doubt they would’ve recognized the common language of love in our adoring eyes and directed smiles whenever Ethiopian or American looked Tariku’s way.

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I was asked recently if it was awkward to be around Tomas, Tariku and Binyam’s special people knowing in some ways we share the same roles in their lives. In all honesty, I feel so grateful to have partners in this monumental task of raising our sons. An open international adoption is weird and inaccessible at times but when I’m feeling dark or hopeless about my abilities to raise my boys right I’m reminded of who is alongside me and I get a tremendous amount of strength from that. I feel more reassured that the boys will be okay knowing I’m not alone in raising them.

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When Zach was speaking to Tariku’s special people he said, “I just hope that I make you proud as his father with how I’m raising Tariku to love you and to love Ethiopia. I think of you often when I’m with him and just want to do right by you. Thank you for the opportunity to help raise our son.”

I thought it perfectly summed up our time spent with all of the special people. It was our way of thanking them for the gift it is to help raise our sons and to celebrate the gift in a beautiful multi-cultural, multi-lingual way.

Ethiopia Trip-On Water

Ethiopia Trip-On Water

While we were having lunch with Tariku’s special people at the hotel I started to feel my belly rumble. It had been feeling off all day but I assumed it was nerves and excitement for the day to come. I excused myself and made the long walk up 4 flights of stairs to our room where I got sick and then laid down until the dizziness passed. Over the next few hours I did this 3 more times, always trying to go join the group afterwards.

On the final time, the getting sick part was so violent and lasted for far longer than the previous trips so it took my body too long to stop shaking and sweating. I lied down and fell asleep until my family joined me upstairs.

This continued for the next many hours, roughly every 45 minutes. I would doze in between but because this is a family blog I will tell you I have never been as sick as I was at that time. Never.

I didn’t have a scale there but I would assume that in the next 48 hours I would go on to lose about 10 pounds because of the combination of getting sick and lack of appetite. I’m typically right around 125 (give or take a coconut milk ice cream sandwich, obvs) so 10 pounds wasn’t insignificant. I tell you this only so you can understand that after I came out of the worst of the fog I couldn’t shake the gratefulness I felt at having 10 extra pounds to give.

As I slowly recovered Zach and I tried to figure out what it was that caused me to become so violently ill. Because he and I were eating roughly the same thing for meals we originally couldn’t come up with something that could’ve made me sick and not touched him. Then I remembered eating some fresh greens that hadn’t been cooked but had been rinsed by local water sources.

The irony that I had gotten sick from unclean water was not lost on me.

Even though I’ve been a pretty passionate clean water advocate for 7 years, being sick by unsafe water put things in a whole new perspective for me.

-What happens when these children, mothers and fathers don’t have 10 pounds to lose?

-What happens when they don’t have a support system like I had in Zach who took care of me in ways never foretold in our marriage vows? (Seriously, moment of appreciation for the man that Zach is. I am crying just thinking about his service to me.) What happens if their support system needs to work to keep the family alive or feed the family?

-What happens when they don’t have the world’s best driver leave his hotel for the night to get prescription medicine, rehydration packets and bottled tonic water?

-What happens when they don’t have access or financial resources to access those in the first place?

Well we know what happens to them don’t we? 1 out of every 5 deaths of children under 5 in Sub-Saharan Africa is still caused by water-related disease. I don’t just know that statistic anymore, after personally suffering from water-related sickness I know that statistic. Without all the things mentioned above, I’m not sure what my survival rate would have been and I’m a grown, healthy woman.

The day after the special family trip to the hotel we were supposed to go to the villages of all 3 of my boys. I woke up that morning determined to go, regardless of how I felt. I was able to put some clothes on and walk downstairs but as soon as I smelled food I made the 4 flight trek up the stairs just in time to get sick again.

I missed the first time my boys saw their villages again because I was sick from unclean water. This is nothing when you compare it to the 44 million school days that are missed because of water-borne illness in Sub-Saharan Africa alone. Or the 64% of the families who rely on women to collect the family’s water-and will often go without when she falls ill.

Missing a day in the villages was a really big deal for me and I still haven’t quite gotten over the guilt I feel about it. That said; it becomes easier to not revel in self pity when the reality of the world water crisis is so much bigger than my few days of poor health.

Once I was able to get the strength to correspond I sent my sister (in law) Leslie a text saying essentially, “After this whole debacle I am even more passionate about the Water Party, let’s do what we can to not let this happen to anyone else.”

I’m so grateful I have a healthy outlet to channel my outrage at getting sick because of dirty water.

The Water Party is in 3 days. This year the committee working on the event is bigger and more motivated than ever to get people passionate about the water crisis. We are raising money once again to provide local people (this time in Tanzania through Empower Tanzania) jobs as well mechanics. These well mechanics will go on to fix the broken wells that are pumping out dirty water and making their families and friends sick. My favorite thing about the last few years of the party is that we’ve been creating sustainable solutions to the water crisis by providing jobs and dignity to my brothers and sisters around the world-empowering them to take the crisis into their own hands.

When I was sick Tariku’s special people went out of their way to bring me bananas. Solomon, our driver, dropped everything to get me medications. While Zach took the kids to the villages, the Ethiopian people in the Lemma hotel stopped by my room every hour to check on me and see if I needed anything-offering to go outside of the hotel for more medication if necessary. Our translator came to my room offering a ride to the hospital. Tomas and Binyam’s special people gave Zach a local herb that I was to chew that settles the belly. This bitter herb smelled terrible but worked in the short term. And the next day when I arrived at the villages, before hugging the children, these special people came to me and asked if I was better-praising God when I told them I was.

The Ethiopian people didn’t withhold love or care because I wasn’t Ethiopian; they took care of me as one of their own and did it in a way that restored dignity to me.

And I want to do the same for my Tanzanian brothers and sisters. I know there is so much pain and suffering happening right here in America but if we continue to close our borders (literally and figuratively) when the world needs us they will do the same when we need them. I’m not sure what my week in Ethiopia would’ve looked like without the care given to me willingly by Ethiopians, I truly don’t want to think about it.

So this week I’m going to celebrate that in the midst of so much terribleness in the world, on Saturday we will change mourning into dancing. We can’t change lives for everyone but we can do all we can to change the lives of as many people as possible.

You can join us, if you too are needing a little celebration. If you’re in the Davenport, Iowa area please come to the event. November 21, downtown Davenport, 3rd floor of the Redstone Building. Check out the event page on Facebook to hear how we use local vendors and artists to provide global resources. We have always believed that we can do both as Americans-support and encourage small business in America while working to end the water crisis. It’s the very best kind of 2 for 1.

If you can’t join us you can still donate. 100% of your donation goes to providing access to clean water because Leslie and I fundraise separately for the cost of the event. Go here to donate.

You can also purchase these beautiful handcrafted bracelets. Designed and crafted by local Maasai tribe artisans, these bracelets are a show stopper-I’m always getting compliments on mine when I wear it out! For just $30 you’ll be providing clean water for 2 people, what a small price to pay for fashion. Buy those here.

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You can also enter our raffle to win a $300 purse, a $350 bottle of Opus One Wine, an authentic Maasai kanga and one of the Tanzanian bracelets. We will ship to you should you come out the victor! Enter to win here.

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We are living in a moment of time riff with violence and devastation. The only way I know how to cope is shine a little light in the darkness. It doesn’t necessarily help the people of Lebanon, France, Kenya or Nigeria but hope is contagious. I just want to plant a seed of hope this week and see how it grows over time.

Thank you for reading these blogs of our trip. Despite the sickness (or maybe because of?) I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to take our family and for the outlet this blog has provided to wade through my experience.

Much love.

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An image in Southern Ethiopia of kids swimming, bathing and collecting water from this river. Zoom in to also see the animals doing the same.

Ethiopia Trip-Hopes

This was written our first full day in Ethiopia-Monday the 9th. I love reading what I was hoping before it all went down, particularly because even though I clearly had high hopes-it turns out I wasn’t shooting high enough. Tariku specifically was a changed boyman almost immediately. Hallelu.

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It’s 2:30am in Ethiopia and I’m hiding in the bathroom of our guesthouse so as not to wake up the rest of my family. Tariku has been in and out to use the restroom a few times already but in his sleepy state he hasn’t noticed me in the corner. I’ve apparently become even creepier while in Ethiopia.

Zach too woke up around 1am. As the dogs barked and fought outside and a mosquito buzzed around us we got to talk about the kids we love so much, now snoring loudly around us, and this country we also love.

When we were waiting at the gate for our final flight from Qatar to Addis Ababa, Zach, Trysten, Dailah and I were the only Caucasians at the gate. I couldn’t help but feel so grateful my boys get to experience what it’s like to be a majority for the next week and half. I know it’s something I take for granted often, being a majority in the country in which I live, but because they don’t experience it as part of every day life in America, I’m grateful beyond reason they get to now-even just for a few weeks.

When you’re parenting kids who have experienced trauma it’s insanely difficult not to want a quick fix. I would be absolutely lying if I said booking the flights to Ethiopia wasn’t, in some way at least, doubling down on the hopes that this trip can fix some of the pain my boys have been through. In my head I know it’s not that easy, that’s like taking an antibiotic and expecting it to work immediately on a chronic condition that is roughly as old as you are, but in my heart I just hoped the boys would see how much they are loved.

It doesn’t work that way, I’m aware, and yet already I see the small signs of the antibiotic taking effect. Tariku grabbing my hand in the van without any discussion from me, for instance. Tomas eating plate after plate of Ethiopian food not because he’s scared there won’t be more but because he so appreciates how much it tastes like home. Though Binyam is quieter and more reserved in nature than the other two, he has yet to shut down completely-his go to coping mechanism when things get intense-which is a really big freaking deal.

I don’t think I can pinpoint what exactly I’m hoping to come from the trip other than an appreciation for the country in which some of my sons were born, a chance to see their special people and get to know them as much as possible over the course of a few days and to reconnect as a family. These aren’t specific hopes, obviously, but ambiguous ones that acknowledge the fact that it could take weeks, months or years for us to see just how much this trip has meant for our family.

It’s a big day for Tariku today. We will be heading south in a matter of hours, which explains the tossing and turning I hear coming from his bunk. I tried to engage him on his hopes and fears regarding these next few days before we left for Ethiopia but he was really closed off. I didn’t blame him, of course, but I was so frustrated when I thought about the 7.5 years he’s been with us and yet his inability to reach out when he’s feeling anxious remains.

Tariku still hasn’t voiced any questions or concerns he might have for the most part but as I bring up what the next few days will look like he’s more interested now than he was in the last months when the subject came up. Last night before bed he folded and placed beneath his bed the outfit he will wear today (he said it was his nice outfit) and as he crawled under the covers he asked Zach and me specific details about when we would leave for Hosanna and what we would do when we got there. Marking that as at least the 5th time we’ve told him.

I often think if there was a way for me to take my heart from my chest and show Tariku just how much of it is dedicated just to him he might never for a minute doubt he is beyond beloved. Maybe then he could see that I would never hurt him on purpose because it would be hurting me so deeply too. It might not be enough for him to let me in but if there’s one thing my Tariku has in spades it’s self preservation instincts so at the very least maybe he can understand that I would never willingly hurt such a big part of my own heart.

Since that can’t be done I suppose I’ll just continue to lie awake at 2am in Ethiopia, talking to Zach about the extent with which we would do anything to make our kids feel as loved as they truly are, praying constantly that this trip allows even the slow drip of that truth to settle into their hearts.

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Ethiopia Trip-Singing in Joy and Sorrow

I wrote a few blogs while in Ethiopia but never had solid enough wifi to post them. I’ll post some now and then I’ll write a recap blog that is more about specifics about our itinerary, cost of the trip, etc for other people considering taking their kids back to Ethiopia for a birth place visit.

I just need to urge any adoptive families to do it. And do it as soon as possible. Zach and I don’t have a lot of money-he works for a non-profit and I’m essentially a stay at home mom-so I understand how daunting it can be to consider. But it’s so worth it, I promise. And I genuinely believe it’s essential for our adoptive kiddos. Essential.

On to the trip…

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As soon as we touched down there were cheers, clapping and singing. Our Qatar flight from Doha, Qatar to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia was full of Ethiopians-save for the 4 American borne of us and 2 other Americans we would later learn were about to bike across Ethiopia (silly ferengi). As soon as the cheering and singing started, a huge smile lit up Tomas’s face. He was home.

This theme presented itself throughout our 8 days in country. From our 3rd floor private room, we huddled around the windows overlooking the front entrance of the Lemma Hotel waiting for Tariku’s special people. Our breaths held until they let out in forceful puffs, steaming up the windows. Finally, a glimpse of our translator pulling up and our special people getting out of the car one by one. Tariku, usually one to keep his emotions tightly in check, began to wave frantically-catching me so off guard it knocked the camera out of my hands. In his excitement he knocked on the window and caught the eye of one of his special people. She looked up and started to mirror his frantic waving. In this moment Tariku forgot it was safer to not let anyone know how he was actually feeling and just allowed it all to come out without over-processing. It struck me as the first time he had behaved quintessentially Ethiopian in 7 years.

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The next day was spent in their villages of birth. Tariku’s was up first. I spent countless nights before the trip praying that Tariku wouldn’t close himself off to his special people, knowing they would want access not just to him physically but emotionally as well. Not only did I think they deserved to meet my real “Chooch” but I knew he deserved knowing what it felt like to reveal himself fully and be fully loved in return.

And he did. In the pictures it’s easy to see he didn’t just allow people to hug him, he fully embraced them as well. Tariku also welcomed the wet kisses, hands placed on forehead while prayers were whispered, and tears of both joy and sadness that ran from the eyes of his special people down his cheek and on to his shirt. Though he didn’t shout out or sing-he was at home in a way that he’s not often in America. The land had a way of reminding him that he was made to wear his emotions on the outside because the whole community would do the same. It’s impossible, in that way, to be lonely in Ethiopia.

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As Tomas and Binyam entered their birth village, the crowds began to gather. Soon enough, around 200 people had come to celebrate the return of two of their sons. A church choir was brought in to sing, 2 chairs were placed at the head of a table for which to seat their little princes. On the table, flowers bursting with color and scent-all worked to join in the celebration of their arrival. Tomas, adopted at 6-years-old, has always been good at embracing his feelings. Perhaps because he had the most time of my 3 in Ethiopia, whether it’s joy or sadness he’s feeling-it’s quite easy to tell. But in Ethiopia even the tone of his highs and lows were brighter and more vibrant. His smile had no pull at the edges, only full abandon-taking up the majority of his face.

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Our Bini is perhaps too introverted to thrive in an environment where he’s seated at the King’s table and made to sit and watch as the community pays tribute to his homecoming. So he spent the time in his villages playing mostly with Dailah and the chicks instead. It wasn’t until we got back to the hotel where he could unpack what had just happened that he told the story with giggles and gesticulations not common with our Bini. He too, had embraced his Ethiopian nature to live life in a big way.

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It was essentially the same as we left the villages on our last day as well. Though I’m sure the words in the songs were different, there was still singing. There was still clapping and there were still tears. Even as an American who considers herself pretty openly emotional I felt rather stunted, I had no idea whether to laugh or cry. It occurred to me that I can do both as it was the happiest and the saddest I had felt in a very long time. Though I’m not currently able to do what Tariku calls “The Ethiopian yodel”, I am able to feel two seemingly contradictory emotions at the same time. Arguably that’s what makes them even stronger, being able to compare the high and the low right next to each other in the same moment. One without the other dulls them both.

Only time, the true author of our stories, will tell whether they continue to allow that openness in a considerably more closed off America. I hope so, because over time they will grow to understand that their emotions and feelings are safe here too, even if we don’t express it as empathetically. If nothing else comes from our trip but the ability to better express what they are feeling then it will have been worth it. So, so worth it.

Upon landing in Chicago I turned to Tomas and started clapping and jumping in my seat. A smile spread across his face and he joined. Next time, I told him, let’s start cheering too. Yes, he said, let’s do!

Coming to Terms with My Own Struggles So I Can Better Help My Kids Come to Terms with Theirs.

Last night we had to sit down with one of our sons and break the world down for him a bit. We’ve noticed this child has started to do things just to be cool. For now it’s nothing alarming, mostly just wanting to wear all the “right” clothes. He layers on his accessories like he’s never heard the phrase “less is more”. Bless.

If one of the kids has a friend over this child is known to say things that are so clearly wrong -last night it was telling a friend that tofu was a fruit-only to try to sound smart. He also claimed to have finished a book his siblings had already finished so that he could watch the movie with them. With just one question about a main plot point in the book it was quite obvious he hadn’t read it.

Even just a few weeks into school we are starting to see a pattern where he’s finishing his tests and work in class as fast as he can or not bringing work home to study at all. Though his intention is to look smart/cool, it all crumbles when he receives a D on his test. His friends might not know about his terrible grade, obviously, but he momentarily forgets that his mom has 24 hour access to his grades online and that she checks it roughly once every hour knowing he is not a kid who will be able to skate through school on his smile and good humor alone.

In some respects I believe this is typical behavior for boys his age. The struggle between the illusion of independence from parents and the obvious dependence on the parents is real. It is, of course, the human condition to want to be liked and admired. I don’t even believe this in itself is a terrible thing. More often than not when other parents or teachers talk about this son of mine they mention how kind, caring and respectful he is-all attributes built from the same place his desire to be liked is housed. A double edged sword indeed.

But it’s also typical orphan behavior as well. This charismatic son of mine did what the adoption community calls “mommy shopped” for almost 2 years before we met him. His desire to be loved and seen as cute/cool went spectacularly in Ethiopia, every time a friend of ours went to Ethiopia before us they gushed over his adorableness and his friendliness. As soon as I was able to make public his photographs I received an influx of emails from people who had traveled the previous 2 years saying roughly the same thing, “As soon as we got home my husband and I prayed about going back for him. If we could’ve gotten the resources together we would have. You are so lucky!”

I remember when the kids were little being physically exhausted roughly all the time. Trysten and Dailah slept through the night since they were 8 weeks old (don’t hate) and the boys have all been phenomenal sleepers since we brought them home as well so I’m not really referring to the sleepy fog. I’m talking about being physically exhausted in the way that, when Zach got home, I basically threatened him within an inch of his life to not touch me. I so vividly remember being a human playground and often the only one able to comfort an upset child.

As the kids continue to get older I’m no longer physically exhausted, the tables have reversed a bit in that department-I’m typically the one smothering them when I’m feeling a little low or needing some personal connection. Parenting older kids feels so emotionally exhausting instead.

This thing with our son has stirred up some heavy reminders of when I used to be so concerned with being cool. I never did it in the ways he is doing it: I didn’t ever care much about what I was wearing or being the smartest in class. But I did care about my status as an athlete, always having a boyfriend, being liked by as many people as possible.

I’ve done some pretty terrible and painful things to other people and to myself in the name of “being cool”. One of those things I did when I was roughly the age of my son that still haunts me from time to time. My best friend in elementary and I had decided to be locker partners in middle school, we had bought the mirrors and other things in which to adorn our shared locker. But that summer I started hanging out with someone else more. She seemed so cool and didn’t have the elementary baggage that my other friend had (by the way, none of this is on the middle school friend-she continues to be one of the kindest, most compassionate people I know) so a week before middle school started I called my elementary friend to let her know I was changing things up and would no longer be sharing a locker with her. How she forgave me for that (and many, many other things) over the years and continues to be a friend I have no idea.

And honestly, as I got older, the stakes were higher and so were the MIstakes. The need to be loved and adored was so acute I hurt people so deeply that some, rightfully so, haven’t forgiven me since.

Last night I related all of this to my son and told him, “Do you know why I fell so hard for your dad? He showed up to our first date in clothes from Goodwill and shoes made of duct tape. He was the first person I ever knew to be so completely him all the time. Your dad has never put much thought into what people think of him and yet people love your dad. They are so devoted to him because they know the person they are claiming their devotion. They know it’s not going to shift and change depending on the season-your dad is your dad-take him or leave him.”

Then I reminded him that we aren’t expecting an overnight success in his ability to just be ok with dropping the masks and showing the world just who he is. We are ever evolving humans after all and, though Zach has inspired me to drop all of my masks since the day I met him, I continue to struggle with the old demons from time to time. That struggle is the reason I got “I am God’s beloved” tattooed on my collarbone-it’s a daily reminder that no matter how badly I’ve effed it all up (and woof are there some doozies in there) I am so completely and incomprehensibly loved.

And so is he. Because, as I told him, the people who will be put off by the real him were never meant to be in his life in the first place. And the people drawn to him? Those will be the people who will live and die for him. Those are the only people he needs to worry about doing right by.

I slept so poorly last night because I just kept thinking of ways in which I could save all of my kids, this son in particular, from making the same mistakes I’ve made in my life. I longed a little for the days when I was terrified of outlets and steps rather than BIG feelings like self acceptance and people pleasing gone too far. The risk feels greater now, the repercussions heavier. It’s impossible to know whether I’m doing the right thing as a mom now that my kids are becoming fully formed young adults before my eyes but every night I fall asleep knowing I did my very best and will apologize in the morning for the ways in which I fell short.

The risk is indeed greater but so is the reward. Getting to know my 5 on a personal level is one of the coolest experiences of my life. It’s so humbling to watch them wrestle with the same things I did at their age and so gratifying to watch them beat the beasts that took me so much longer to conquer.

Last night I looked my son in the eyes and said, “God made you so perfectly, son, I am so in awe of how wonderful you are. I love you so much there is absolutely nothing you could do to stifle that and nothing you could wear to make that love any bigger. Let’s show everyone else the son I get to see-they will be awestruck by the awesome.”

He smiled and went to bed and as he did I realized I was talking to myself, too.

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Preparations for the BIG trip to Ethiopia

Next month all 7 of us will be on an airplane bound for Ethiopia. Yes, all 7 of us.

We told the kids in March. This was their reaction, please play close attention to Binyam-our little guy in the corner.

Mostly excitement (and how much did you love Trysten’s reaction, “They are adopting!” When you’ve been sat down and told news of an adoption enough times you come to expect it at every family meeting) except for Binyam. If you watch Binyam close enough you can see him keeping his emotions pretty close to the vest, when the image is clear enough it’s obvious he’s looking around at all of his siblings waiting for cues on how to act excited. At the end, when I ask them if they are excited, you can hear him say “Kind of a little.”

It’s safe to say that for the last 6 months, everyone but Binyam has continued to grow increasingly excited. I’m not exactly sure why Binyam hasn’t been excited, I think it has mostly to do with the unknown. I’m not entirely convinced he understands that we will all be going over and we will all be coming back together. I’m also not sure he understands that we’ll be staying in something a little nicer than a hut or that we’ll have access to safe water and plenty of food. Though Binyam swears he has no memory of his 3 years in Ethiopia, it is clear some visceral part of him remembers and continues to be traumatized by it.

Tomas has been the most excited, with the obvious exceptions of Trysten and Dailah, which is true to his character. He remembers the most of his life in Ethiopia but, having come to America at 6-years-old, he has glamorized his birthplace to some extent. There was a time a few years ago where if there was something he couldn’t do (backflips, for instance) he would just tell us that he used to do them all the time in Ethiopia. He has outgrown much of those complete fabrications but I can tell a large part of him is excited because he remembers all the best Ethiopia has to offer, a natural thing we humans do when something or someone is no longer with us.

I was most nervous about telling Tariku. He has been in such a great rhythm, for the most part, the last year or so and I was terrified how news of returning to Ethiopia might set him back. I’ve been so pleasantly surprised with his reactions. He’s not scared like his little brother and he holds no illusions to Ethiopia’s grandeur as his older brother, he’s quite realistic about what might happen there-which is true to Tariku’s character.

As the departure date approaches the proverbial wet blanket has descended on the house. In kids who have experienced trauma or loss, anxiousness isn’t just a general sense of malaise but a relentless, never-ending assault on your emotions. What does that look like in young boy-men? It looks like notes on behavior with kids who never get notes on behavior. It looks like disrespect towards adults from a kid who is typically the most respectful. It looks like wanting to quit a sport that’s been a favorite for 7 years. It’s reverting back to orphanage coping mechanisms. They aren’t constant but they are obvious.

So why do it if I could see this happening?

There’s growing evidence to support the idea that kids who have been adopted need the connection with their birth countries and birth families to have the best chance possible at overcoming some of the trauma from the adoption. I won’t ever tell their personal stories on this blog, perhaps that’s something they’ll be interested in doing as a guest post when they are older, but I’ll just say another major impetus is that we still have people special to us over there and there are just too many unknowns in developing countries in terms of basic survival. I knew I would never forgive myself if I didn’t get the boys over to see their special people before they were gone no matter how nervous I was about whether or not they were ready for such a trip.

We have been doing a few things that I think have helped ease some of the BIG feelings for the boys in preparing them for their visit to Ethiopia.

Let them help plan: This one is kind of tough because there are some major logistical things that need to be worked out with international travel that can’t be done with too many (young) fingers in the fire. Plus, we didn’t want to tell the kids the trip was happening until we had bought the tickets and knew for sure the dates so we wanted to have a few things put in place first. For us that meant we wanted to make sure the man who has been our liaison with our special people was available for the dates we were going to be there. That was our first priority because both American and Ethiopian sides of the equation are used to him and respect him. Once we knew he was available, we booked the tickets and told the kids. Since then they have helped us navigate how much time they want to spend with their special people, if there are any cultural things they want to learn more about, etc. This obviously works so well because the boys are currently 11, 10 and 9-years-old but I think letting the kids help in an age appropriate way gives them the feeling of control, which is essential for our adopted kiddos.

Talk about potential what ifs, including the ones that might be a little scary: I’ve been so lucky to have many friends make this kind of trip before me so I’ve been a sponge for things they’ve learned along the way. One friend told me that sometimes Ethiopians will spit on the kids to either 1) ward off evil or 2) in celebration. We told the kids of that possibility. We also told Trysten and Dailah that when we were in Ethiopia both times, the Ethiopians loved touching and pulling my hair. We talked of the possibility that the boys could be carried on shoulders in their home villages but also that it would be a quiet homecoming. We’ve told them of the real poverty and what that actually looks like in Ethiopia. We also warned them that many beggars have club feet-a potential trigger for our son born with the same condition. Though no one who knows me will be surprised that I’ve taken a “tell it like it is” approach to the trip (I am, after all, the woman who just told my U12 soccer team that they have the right to protect their penises and breasts from the soccer ball but otherwise can’t use their hands-to which they all giggled and Tariku whispered to me, “Mom, jeez, can’t you just say private parts?”) Telling the kids of any known possibilities has seemed to curb the onslaught of fears of the unknown. The more they know the more confident they seem to be in the trip, which has been easier on all of us.

Talk about hopes and fears: We try to do this at the dinner table so that everyone is involved and the boys don’t feel singled out by the questions. Zach and I talk about our hopes and fears and prompt the kids by asking if they’ve ever wondered about something similar. Some good discussions have come up about the first time seeing and smelling this country they haven’t seen in so many years. If you’re doing this with your kids, maybe try to keep the discussions short and sweet. I’ve found when I try to drag them out the boys start to disengage but when I make a point to change the subject after a few minutes and then maybe broach the subject again a few minutes later, they are more open.

-Show pictures: Google is an amazing thing isn’t it? Even though some of the places we will be staying are small and have no online presence to speak of, we’ve been able to find a few images here or there. Tomas has come home from school a few times asking to see pictures of one of the hotels, proving they are thinking about it. This helps offset unrealistic expectations as well. Yes, we will be in hotels for many nights but no-none of the hotels will be like the hotels they are used to here.

-Join online communities: If you’re on Facebook and are interested, there are a few groups dedicated to homeland tours and one specifically for the are in which my boys were born. Email me for those details.

The planning for the trip hasn’t been easy. The hotels and service industries in general are not anything like they are here in America. I have yet to book an actual hotel room because I keep hearing, “Oh but your trip is so far away, contact us when you’re in Ethiopia.”

Gulp.

I find myself reacting in an adult version of the way the boys are feeling-since I can’t control what’s going to happen there in many ways, I want to control every other detail. It’s been so frustrating not being able to work out my control issues in that healthier, more widely accepted way. Also the image of 7 of us with our luggage and nowhere to sleep at 2am continues to wake me up in the middle of the night.

But ready or not, in a month we’ll be there. I’ll, of course, be posting here as much as possible. This continues to be the place I go to really work out how I’m feeling about any given topic.

Ready or not…

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On being a Christian who doesn’t go to church.

One of the more popular texts/emails I received after my last blog was from the Christian contigency of readers asking if I had found a church. If you’re not in Christian circles you might not be familiar with the very prevalent idea that once you find a church, you will also find a group of people to hang out with and thus never feel lonely.

I used to be better about accepting that ideology. Go to church, meet other believers, build your family around that church. When we first moved to the Quad Cities I was having a hard time finding friends with kids so my sister-in-law suggested I try a church she thought we would like. We did and I did. I ended up meeting some really amazing women there (you might remember it was at that church and with those women that the idea of Water for Christmas began.) I forgave a few things that bothered me about the church (namely that the pastor often said some rather sexist things in the form of terrible jokes) because I loved the women. But then the church waved proudly all the red flags I had been seeing over the years when, instead of helping some friends of mine after their world was shaken, they chose instead to kick them while they were down. It was an in your face way of showing how they really felt about sin-hide it, suppress it and don’t speak of it otherwise we will publicly shame you and push you out of the church.

Message. Received.

I didn’t go back to church after that and I started questioning everything I had once believed. I decided that if I were to go back to church, and take my family with me, I would no longer stick around if the pastor was a teeny bit sexist or if I thought the message was a teeny bit derogatory towards poor people. I didn’t (and don’t) expect perfection from pastors or a church but I certainly expect to hear more love and a little less joking at the expense of an entire group of people.

A few years later we happened upon a church that was taking place in a bar.* Sunday mornings they gathered, soles of their shoes sticking to the floor from the previous night’s shenanigans. It was a group of 50 or so who worshipped with their eyes closed, hands raised and their feet moving side to side coming unglued from the alcohol laden floor with the rhythm of the music. On our second time trying out the church a parade of members including the pastor and his wife got up on stage. As the music played they turned over cardboard signs with the worst sins they had committed written on them. These weren’t your “I stole an eraser from my friend in 4th grade” (I did that by the way) these were the big ones. And I started the ugly cry immediately. To be in a place where the leadership of the church was so openly admitting to their humanness was exactly what I needed.

Of course we stuck around. The two pastors were both equally amazing, always on point with their message. They never went for the easy sermons either, meant to make you feel ok about heading home to your cushioned couch to watch the football game on your big screen without a second thought to what it means to be a Christian. They were always asking us to do more, love more, give more (not to the church-but to community organizations or to the Water Party), volunteer more. Once a month on Sundays instead of a service, the whole church would volunteer at area organizations. Sometimes they literally just went to the neighborhoods surrounding the church and did little projects for the elderly that lived there. They welcomed refugees and helped them navigate life in America. They never confused a relationship with Christ and a relationship to a political party. We naturally became friends with people from that church, and continue to be today.

And then we moved. We moved to a small town in Michigan that features many churches. We’ve tried the largest church in our town that many of our friends go to. It’s not for us. I hold no ill feelings towards that church, its pastor or its members but I just can’t do it anymore.

I am no longer impressed by fog machines, cafes and hundreds of people. I am impressed by vulnerability, openness and authenticity. Those will always, always win out for me.

I no longer feel like church has to be a part of our routine “for the kids”. I would rather them experience God in nature on our Sunday hikes or in a book on our Sunday reading sessions. I would rather them get to know God because of how He talks to them in the quiet stillness that accompanies our relaxed Sundays than hear a bullet pointed kids sermon while they are gripping a climbing wall.

I would rather them grow up knowing God is love than grow up learning from the church and its people about what God hates. And by that I don’t mean what God actually hates but what Christians often hate.

I refuse to go to a church that dives into politics unless to talk about our commands to help the poor, welcome the refugee and love one another.

Any mention of an “us” versus “them” philosophy is a non negotiable for me. Whether that be Christians versus non-Christians, Republicans versus Democrats, Americans versus non-Americans, etc. If you’re into polarizing rather than uniting-I’m out.

If you spend more money on your church renovations and your coffee than you do on local community support, I’m not interested. If your church would close its doors and the community wouldn’t feel the pang of loss (other than the members), you’re doing it wrong-I’m out.

I don’t have much interest in piousness (as evidenced by my affinity for cussing and my aversion to the modesty culture for women) but I can’t get enough of the tenets of forgiveness, peace, hope and love.

I love Jesus but sometimes I find it so incredibly hard to love Christians.

In Rachel Held Evans’s book, Searching for Sunday, she writes, “I often wonder if the role of the clergy in this age is not to dispense information or guard the prestige of their authority, but rather to go first, to volunteer the truth about their sins, their dreams, their failures, and their fears in order to free others to do the same. Such an approach may repel the masses looking for easy answers from flawless leaders, but I think it might make more disciples of Jesus, and I think it might make healthier, happier pastors. There is a difference, after all, between preaching success and preaching resurrection. Our path is the muddier one.”

Yes.

I know many can grow in their faith and love in humanity through the hallowed walls of a church and, in some respects, I’m jealous of that. Because for me the times I’ve felt God’s presence the most have been when all 7 of us are snuggled on couches reading books, in the quiet moments right after my meditation when I’m breathing in the vastness of the world and in a tiny room in Ethiopia sharing tears and coffee with our special people.

In the end, though, I can’t quit the church entirely. Being surrounded by relatively likeminded people can be a salve at the end of a long week. A sense of belonging to something bigger than oneself is a powerful thing. Find me a church that’s not defined by who it leaves out but by who it lets in, and I’ll be there. Probably crying, definitely being vocal when I agree. Standing with my brothers and sisters who have done and seen the worst but still claim the worst powerless against love.

 

 

*Connection Church in the Quad Cities, go check it out or just listen to the podcast like I do!