Tuesday, September 4, 2007


Probably the most frequent question I've gotten since getting home is: How was the food? This is easy enough to answer. At the guest house, two cooks prepared all our meals. The "American" food was fine - roughly what you'd get at a decent American family-style restaurant. But the Ethiopian food was AMAZING. If you ever have a chance to eat real Ethiopian food, take it. The second most popular question is "how was travelling with the kid?" Well, let me tell you - I can't say I'm a huge fan of taking 30 hour trips with an infant, but it went pretty well. First, let me back up and tell you about the trip there, which in many ways was more of an adventure than the trip back. As we said in an earlier entry, we had some... difficulties. We started off by flying out of Appleton, which was probably the smartest thing we did. Both travel agencies we talked to attempted to get us to fly out of Milwaukee, which would have meant taking our own vehicle and trying to drive home after 30 hours on planes with almost no sleep. Landing in Appleton meant our families could get us home in 15 minutes. When we got to the airport, the requisite two hours early, we discovered that all the flights to Chicago had been delayed. Apparently, bad storms in Chicago had stranded several people in Appleton for hours, and flights that were supposed to have left at 11:30 that morning (the time we stepped into the airport) were delayed until 1:30. And so on, meaning our 1:30 flight was going to be delayed for many, many hours. This was, of course, bad, because we needed to be in Chicago at a certain time, so we could be in Germany by a certain time, so we could be in Addis Ababa by a certain time. And this is when we had our ONE stroke of good luck. The very nice lady at the counter moved us from the 1:30 flight to the 11:30 flight, which meant we would be flying to Chicago at... 1:30, thanks to all the delays. And so we flew out of Appleton on time. Then we sat in Chicago for a few hours, and ate some lunch, and talked to a nice lady who was going to visit her boyfriend in England. She noted (without irony) that she didn't know what language they spoke there, and hoped she wouldn't be the only person who spoke English... (No, I'm not kidding.) Also there were probably fifty Boy Scouts, who were all headed to the world jamboree in England. We boarded our plane in Chicago on time, and here is where things started to go wrong. It was very warm in the cabin of the plane, and after a few minutes, I noticed that while the plane was full, we hadn't actually, you know, gone anywhere yet. And then I started to worry, because in Germany, we had an hour layover before we had to get on our next flight. Then came the announcement - the plane had a problem, but it would be fixed "soon." The problem, we were later told, was a bad battery - the one that helped to run the air conditioner. It took eight people an hour to change that battery, and the last guy I saw working on it walked by me carrying what appeared to be a large roll of white duct tape. Now, while all this was going on, Kara and I started to panic. We flagged down a stewardess, who said we "might" be able to make our flight. When we begged her to call ahead and ask them to hold the flight for ten minutes, she said she "couldn't do it" and that "maybe things would work out." Let me state, for the record, that I really, really, really wasn't impressed with this answer. Even now, I feel a pretty hefty amount of animosity towards pretty much every air host and hostess on that flight, all of whom managed to find a way to be really unhelpful. (And keep in mind, this entire time, we're on a full international flight, with no air conditioning. Brilliant.) So we called our travel agent, who managed to book a flight out of Germany... for the next day, because that was the best she could do with the airline we were using. She also booked us a hotel. At that same moment, we discovered that another set of folks on the plane, about three rows back, was also headed to Ethiopia on the same flight we were, and they too, got their bookings changed. (Nice folks, by the way, who we later encountered at the Embassy, and again on the flight home.) Once we were in the air, of course, there wasn't a whole lot we could do. Chicago to Germany is a nine-hour flight, and up in the sky all we could do was hope that our flight out of Germany would be delayed by ten minutes. So we sat, and I read a little bit, and watched Wild Hogs (not a great movie, but not an awful one either) and Shooter (a pretty decent action flick, that I'll probably watch again another time when I can pay closer attention). I also ate a lot, because they feed you all the time on international flights. And I might have slept for a few minutes here and there, as well. When we landed in Germany, we discovered that, yes, our flight had already boarded and was "closed" (but not off the ground! argh!). So we were sent to another counter, where a nice German fellow said, basically, that we'd have to fly out the next day. And this, right here, was my favorite part of the trip. Kara, who is just so cool in so many ways, is fluent in German, and she busted it out, right then and there. I might have said it here before, but it was like being married to an international superspy, just for a moment. Using this awesome skill of hers, we were redirected to another ticket counter, where they put us on Egypt Air and said we'd fly out in about three hours. I spent the next 20 minutes making frantic phone calls to our travel agency (closed) and our social worker (who I reached through her cell phone) in an attempt to let someone, anyone, know that we were going to be landing in Ethiopia at 3 in the morning, NOT at 8 in the evening, and that we would need someone to pick us up there. So we sat, and drank some water, and bought a few trinkets, and then got in a small argument with the lady who was supposed to give us our boarding passes, because I couldn't find our luggage stickers for a few minutes. Once I gave her the stickers, she spent, oh, five or ten minutes attempting to reroute our bags, and it's here that I suspect that things went wrong. As she babbled in German to a coworker, who then attempted to help her with something, I could sense, from years of working with people working with computers, and she had NO idea what she was doing. I suspect she managed to remove our luggage from the computer system totally, making it impossible to track the bags later. But I'll come back to that. We got on our flight, where we met a nice man who had lived in something like four countries, and talked about the fact that the rest of the world really, really dislikes George W. Bush, and think he makes America look bad. We also learned that all Egypt Air flights begin with a prayer read aloud on the intercom, before they do the whole "here's how you stow your luggage" thing. We ate, and watched roughly half of Music and Lyrics (funny, great songs), and then we landed in Cairo, which was neat, but we approached from the wrong direction and didn't get to see the pyramids. It was 41 degrees Celsius there (about 106 degrees, folks!). Inside the airport, we were all cordoned off into different areas, depending on where we were headed. Those of us headed to Ethiopia eventually ended up taking a short bus trip, where we were herded through a security checkpoint. Then we had to hand a nice man our ticket and try to get boarding passes. Problem: The tickets didn't print in Germany, and so we were issued a carbon paper ticket, written by hand. So the nice man in Cairo took our ticket, and our passports, and told us to sit in another room with everyone else. In movies, people who hand over their tickets and passports and go sit in another room are later dragged off to prison, unable to contact friends or family, and with no recourse, because they can't prove who they are... But in real life, we got our boarding passes after an hour or so. We landed in Ethiopia at 3 AM. We got our VISAs. I exchanged all our American money for Ethiopian money. We discovered that all of our luggage was missing, and that it wasn't anywhere in the computer system... we also discovered that most of our new friends' luggage was also missing. (Ours eventually arrived on Monday night, though only one bag ended up in the computer system. Our friends never recovered two of their three lost bags, and were wearing mostly the same clothing at the end of the week that they were wearing at the beginning.) A very nice man helped us fill out paperwork to recover our luggage, and we found out that, yes, our driver had arrived at 3 AM to pick us up. Which I was very grateful for. And so we arrived at the guest house at 5 AM, with breakfast scheduled for 7 AM. That was the trip there. The trip back was, in some ways, much easier. We got to the airport, along with everyone else, at around 7 PM. The baby was in a Baby Bjorn, and she slept through most of the lines and security and ticketing. And then things got bad. She got fussy. REALLY fussy. A fresh bottle, and a fresh diaper, made no difference. It was 10 PM, she was up MUCH later than she needed to be, and she wasn't able to sleep, and she just screamed and screamed. Finally, once we got through the last security checkpoint, I was able to walk around with her, and she finally went to sleep. Which was great, because she slept through 8 hours of the 9 hour flight. I never took her out of the Bjorn, instead opting to sacrifice my back to keep her sleeping. The hardest part of the trip was landing, which she didn't enjoy at all, because of the whole ear pressure thing. Luckily, a nice stewardess filled a bottle with water for us, and the sucking motion helped to calm her down. Things took an iffy turn in Germany. At that point, our little one was up and awake, and there wasn't much we could do with her. The airport was crowded, and while she needed to be set down, there wasn't a place we could do it. On top of that, smoking is allowed in German airports, which is something she didn't enjoy a whole lot either. And then the flight. Ugh. Now, at this point, you have to realize that we had woken up at 7 AM on Friday, and then gotten on a 10:30 PM flight, which went for nine hours. Neither of us really slept, and we had a baby with us who wanted to, you know, play. Only you can't really do that on a plane. And she had just slept, so she couldn't really settle down. And, she filled her diaper three different times on the flight. If you've never changed a baby on an airplane, here's how it works. First, you go to the bathroom section of the plane. Then, you wait around for one of the bathrooms with a changing table to open up. You look really stupid doing this, because if three bathrooms are open, and you're just standing there, people generally don't know what you're doing, and you can't always explain on an international flight, because they don't speak English. Once the bathroom opens up, you open the door, step in, and drop the changing table. Then you try to find a place to set the fresh diaper, wipes, rash cream, etc. Maybe the plane lurches a few times, just for good measure. If you're very unlucky, in the middle of moving from the old diaper to the new, your daughter's bladder lets go, and she manages to cover her outfit in fresh urine. So you have to take her out into the plane, covered in paper towels, to and have your wife change her clothes. Yes, this really did happen. Yes, it really was NOT enjoyable. As the flight wore on, I could tell that the kiddo was getting tired of us. She wanted to play on the floor, and move around a bit, and there was no floor to move her to. We tried putting her in the bassinet, but she hated that as well, because there was nothing to look at in there. Plus, the bassinet is about as comfortable as, say, trying to take a nap on a slab of granite. (For those of you who are thinking, hey, I've never seen a bassinet on a plane... here's how they work. You know the bulkhead in coach? Where there's no seat in front of you, but they have those strange metal plate that stick out from the wall? Those plates fold out. And then they stick a little bassinet on top of them. They work okay, but they suck up a LOT of the space in front of you, and make it hard to get up to go to the bathroom.) Eventually, I think out of pure frustration, she fell asleep for about four hours. In that time, I watched bits of Shrek the Third (okay, but not great) and all of Blades of Glory (funny, but not worth owning). As far as I can recall, I slept not the tiniest bit on that flight. The little one was in a much better mood after her nap, and we landed with the aid of a bottle to lower the pressure on her ears. In Chicago, we called both sets of new grandparents, to let them know we were safe and mostly sound. We finally put our little girl on the floor and she literally flailed her limbs and laughed and smiled she was so happy to NOT be cramped up next to mom and/or dad. And then, yep, we were on a plane again, though only for forty-five minutes. To give you and idea of how tired I was - while sitting on the runway, I decided to close my eyes for a few minutes. When I woke up, we had taken off and had been in the air for about twenty minutes. After our final landing, I pulled out my camera and took one of those "at-arm's-length" photos, so we could document the moment, and a nice person saw what we were doing. We explained we were taking pictures of our new family member as she landed in her new hometown for the first time, and they asked if we wanted to have them take a picture of us. We said yes. Then we got off our plane and said hello to all the new grandparents. And that was the trip. The little one did great, I think. I should note, however, that she had never been in a car seat, and so she screamed all the way home. Which was another good reason not to fly out of Milwaukee. But then we gave her a bottle, and put her into her crib for the very first time, and she slept it off and felt much better in the morning. Not much of an ending, I know, but whatta ride.


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