Friday, March 23, 2007

Escaping from Leper's Village

Unpacking the Trip – Part 6

It was in the late afternoon on our fourth day in Ethiopia and we found ourselves in the back of a mini-bus with our driver and new friend, whom I will call Jacob. He was not driving at the moment, but rather two others were driving the mini-bus we were in (imagine a VW van) and had pulled up to a large black iron gate. They were yelling intensely, but with an air of respect, out the windows of the bus pleading our case with a well-armed guard. They were trying to convince the guard to open the gate and let us pass through. I could see open space, lush grounds, and a nice building beyond the gate that looked nothing like the poverty that existed on our side of the gate.

The rifle-toting guard would not budge. He was so unmoved that I am not sure if he even spoke. It was clear that this would not be a way out of Leper's Village for us.

This was not exactly what we had planned on.

Note: I know that blog culture expects short posts and this post is very, very long. You had better get a cup of coffee.

Our plans for the day were formed many weeks earlier while we were still in America. Some old friends of ours passed through town and told us of a couple from their church that recently sold all that they had and moved to Ethiopia to be missionaries. "You have to go see them," they told us. So after multiple emails, plans were set for us to head out of Addis Ababa to visit them.

The air in Addis Ababa is thick with diesel fumes from the many vehicles that billow smoke – but still run – and so are not in need of repair. We were looking forward to the fresh air on the trip to Debre Zeit, but to no avail. The road to Debre Zeit happens to be the main road from Addis Ababa to the port of Djibouti, which is a critical port for the now land-locked country. The truck packed road was also all downhill. As we drove out of the cool altitude of Addis we encountered ever rising temperatures.

Upon arriving at Debre Zeit, we weaved our way through the city trying to get to the "bobagayu" (lake). Despite a phone call for directions, Jacob regularly asked passersby if we were going the right way. Although this seemed wise at the time, in the end this resulted in our being directed the wrong way around the lake. In a country with marginal roads, being directed the wrong way in a 1980 Russian built taxi is not to be taken lightly. After much confusion, an elderly gentleman got in the car with us to show us the way. He led us on a "road" onto which I would have been uncomfortable taking my 4WD pickup truck. Bowling ball sized stones jutted out of the packed dirt. I suggested a couple of times that we get out and walk to take the pressure off the vehicle, but Jacob insisted it would be OK.

Finally we pulled up to the gate of our destination, from the wrong direction. Ethiopia is a land of gates. Arriving at just about any destination, there is often a large foreboding gate and one is never quite sure what to expect on the other side. As we stood in front of the large green gate we were tired, thirsty, hungry and about to meet people we did not know. I did wonder what we would see on the other side. As the gate opened, the central theme of contrasts played again through my mind as we saw a lushness that matched the grounds of the Hilton. The several hours of fellowship with our new friends was remarkable and refreshing on a deep level.

On the trip home, it was clear to me that something bad had happened to Jacob's car in the rock field we had driven through. He denied it at first, saying, "This is Russian made. It is a sturdy car." But I could tell he was being polite. He was driving with two hands on the wheel and even stopped once to look things over. I knew this was not good for Jacob. This is just the sort of thing that can cause a major economic setback from which recovery is not certain.

I debated in my head if I should offer to pay for the repairs needed. I hesitated at first knowing Jacob would resist and not knowing how much it would cost. Upon a moment's reflection, I realized that it did not matter how much the repair cost. For if it were inexpensive, it would be no big deal and if it were expensive, then how in the world would Jacob pay for it? An expensive repair would in no way jeopardize any of the things that make me rich (food, clothing, shelter, access to health care, etc) while it could seriously jeopardize the welfare of Jacob and his young family. So I started a discussion with Jacob about how one's greatest strength can be a weakness. We had a great discussion about this idea and then I pointed out that one of his greatest strengths is his politeness and how this strength might be a weakness if it did not allow him to receive help from others.

He resisted at first because, after all, he is very polite. It was in the moment that he acquiesced that I thought I sensed a shifting of the shoulders – a slight relaxing of tensed muscles, perhaps. It seemed like a good moment.

But good moments come and go.

Upon reentry into Addis Ababa we were greeted with more construction. This forced us off the main road onto a dirt road also under construction. There was a traffic jam since a truck also forced off the main road had hit a temporary power or phone line strung too low across the road. Eventually, someone stood in the road holding up the line by hand so all of us smaller cars could pass under.

Then, about 200 yards later, the taxi died.

Jacob and I got out and he looked the car over. He checked to make sure there was gas in the tank in the back and checked the heat on the gas pump. Then he pulled the gas line off the pump, sucked hard, put the line quickly back on the pump, and then turned and spewed the gas out of his mouth. It was to no avail. Jacob walked up the street to try to find another taxi for us, but there weren't any taxis. The area of town we were in was too poor for people to afford taxis.

I was rather surprised by what happened next. Jacob told us he would escort us home but we would have to leave the car. Leave the car? Really? You have to understand that this car represented life to Jacob. He depended on it. He was entrusted with it by his extended family, all of whom contributed funds to him so he could buy it and have a life as a taxi driver.

"Jacob," I said. "Are you sure it is OK to leave the car here?"

"It is OK," he replied, but I could not discern if it was the truth or if it was his politeness again.

So we all took off walking. K.D. on Jacob's back, F.G. proudly carrying a backpack, and my wife and I. A spectacle, to be sure.

We walked a couple of hundred yards to a bus stop where there were mini-buses. I could tell Jacob felt a little uneasy since his casual saunter seemed a little more deliberate. He left us at the bus stop while he went off and talked for awhile with a driver of a mini-bus. After a few minuets of debate and arm waving, he came to get us. He had basically rented the entire mini bus for us. I found out later that the price Jacob negotiated was about 10 times what they would normally get for a bus full of people. We paid 70 birr (less than $8 US dollars).

The four of us plus Jacob piled in the back as the door operator from the inside and another man on the outside with a crow bar tried to close the door. (The door operator is the guy who normally does not get a seat on the bus but crouches near the door, opening and closing the sliding door and taking the money) The driver was impatient and started going before the door was closed, leaving the man with the crow bar behind. After a hundred yards or so, it was obvious that the door was not going to shut so the driver pulled over and came around the van to demonstrate yet again how to close the door. The trick is not to try to keep the sliding door in the tracks as you close it but to slam in into the track at the very last moment.

About a mile away across a small valley we could see the part of town to which we needed to go, but Jacob explained to us that the drivers said the bridge was closed for construction and so we had to go another way. As we drove the road appeared to end and we continued on a dirt road with lots of rocks. The road was just a little wider than the van and packed with people. It was obvious that not only do "ferenges" (foreigners) not go here, but neither do mini-buses.

The poverty was incredible. The sides of the road were lined with walls made from all sorts of scrap materials, primarily tin and sticks. We could see over some walls and through openings in others. There were mud rooms for houses, no running water, children half dressed with the telltale enlarged stomachs. We rode in silence.

One boy walking along the road reached out and merrily grabbed my arm which was resting in an open window. When I looked down at my arm I saw red and in a split instant a million thoughts went through my mind. Was that the boy's blood? Was that my blood? Did my skin break open? Was that our blood? The HIV panic moment passed quickly when I noticed that what I saw was not red, but orange. The boy was probably eating injera with a berbere sauce on his hands that was then wiped onto my arm when he touched me.

Jacob explained to us that this was Leper's Village. Yet another reason not to put my arm back in the window.

Presently we came to the iron gate - our passage out. Jacob said that beyond the gate were the grounds where the lepers doctor and the "hospital" were. If the rifle touting guard would let us through, we could get to the other side where the roads were that would take us home.

But the guard would not.

The drivers turned around the van and started snaking through Leper's Village in another direction looking for an alternate way out.

As we were bouncing along the road at a walker's pace, I was struck with how I could feel in the very members of my body the confidence that comes with privilege. Sure we were seeking to escape from Leper's Village, but it was a stress-free adventure for me with no doubt about the outcome. Even if this bus broke down (which was a real possibility seeing that a nasty noise in the frame had recently developed that was not present at the outset) or if things got really bad and we had to call the US Embassy, I never doubted our "escape".

This confidence stood in stark contrast to that of the many people within arm's reach of me who were also hoping to escape from Leper's Village. Hoping for a job, for a better life, for better medical care, for better nutrition for their children. What was an imminent certainty for me was an elusive dream for them. Rather than an air of adventure, theirs was an air of desperation.

We did make it "out" and back to the guest house where we enjoyed a very nice home-cooked meal. Such is a life of privilege.

By the way, Jacob did get his car fixed. It needed a new ball joint (93 Birr) and the labor to put it in (25 Birr). The total bill in US dollars was less than $15, which I happily paid.
The gas pump just needed to cool down.


Sugar Creek Girl said...

Hello. My husband and I have enjoyed reading your blog. Your posts are insightful and make my heart ache to begin our own adoption. We are trying to get as much advice as possible about funding an adoption. Would you mind sharing with us how you all did it? There are so many details (like what do you drive with six kids, etc...) that hopeful adoptees wonder about. Thanks for the posts, I am enjoying your family very much.

CrazyD said...

Thanks for the comment. As far as funding goes, I have heard many tales of how to do it. There are different foundations around that provide some grant money, some people ask for support from family and friends, some charge it on a credit card and then pay it down when they get a large tax refund from the adoption credit. I would recommend that as you look for an adoption agency, you ask them about funding. Many agencies have connections with foundations or have some programs in place to help with the funds.

You also asked about the car we drive. It is a 12 passenger van. We love our van. We love that we can take our whole family plus friends or grandparents along with us wherever we go. As you can tell, in the form vs. function debate I lean heavily to the function side.

Good luck as you look into adopting. Let me know if there is anything else that you want to know.