Adventure in ET – Part 10 (The Final Chapter)

We’ve reached the end of our journey.

It’s been fun, and challenging, to recount our tale of adoption. The sights, smells, sounds and emotions are still very vivid for us. We hope our story has stirred a fresh gratitude for our God. Thanks for traveling with us!

Here’s links to the rest of our story.

Monday, September 8, 2008 – Rockford, Michigan

I suppose the account of our experience would be incomplete if I didn’t record our homecoming. So, I’ll start by rewinding to Friday night, September 5.

After a long day, we arrived at the airport is Addis around 6:45pm. Our flight was scheduled to leave at 10:15pm so we had plenty of time. After getting through security (if you can call it that) it was necessary to exchange our ET money back into U.S. dollars. We were told to exchange at the airport – and only at the airport. So while Katrina went with the girls to get in line for ticketing, I proceeded with a wad of ET cash to the ubiquitous “hole-in-the-wall.”

I lined-up behind a gentleman who apparently did not approve of the exchange rate he was getting. He was making doubly (and triply) sure the clerk knew about it. I was in a hurry, and about ready to pay the guy just to move along. When it was finally my turn, I anxiously plunked my pile of birr down at the window and gave a look that said, “Let’s get this done. Give me some greenbacks!” The nice man behind the counter looked at me and calmly said he could only exchange a maximum of $150US. I responded with a good ole’ American, “Say what?” I stood there – shocked. Trapped. Over a barrel. In a pickle. Cue the sweating. My first thoughts was, “I can’t take this stuff home – Meijer doesn’t take Ethiopian birr.”

So, I resigned myself to get what I could. The nice man said he needed a passport to do the transaction. I pulled out the bag of passports we had been clutching to our persons the entire trip. It had all four of our passports. Noticing the number of passports, the clerk quickly blurted, “Oh, you’ve got four passports. I can do $150US for each one.” Harps played. Angels sang. This Dutchman was happy.

I caught-up with Katrina just as she was checking in. Somehow in the melee we got our tickets, checked our bags and didn’t lose the girls. On to immigration.

Our task at immigration was to complete a cryptic form for each of us. Our leaving Ethiopia depended on our ability to correctly complete this form. We were at our wits end (or so we thought) and the girls were getting pretty mischievous. We guessed on half of the questions, wishing it was multiple choice.

Completed forms in hand, we proceeded to another nice man behind a counter. Fortunately, he indeed was nice and we made it through. Then we waited. We ordered food. And waited. We went to our gate. And waited. Looking back, I’m not so sure why we were in such a hurry.

In the end, our flight left Ethiopia about 1½ hours late. It got a little wacky in the boarding area with about 20 adoptive families waiting with their children. The delay was frustrating as we all just wanted to board the sardine can that would carry us to our blessed America. To add to the crazy and cramped (pun intended) conditions at the gate, my friend Montezuma was trying desperately to make his way onto the flight.

Our girls were very excited about the plane. We divided and conquered as we had 2 sets of seats, one in front of the other. Katrina sat next to our oldest, me with the younger. One benefit of our midnight departure was that it was nighttime – which means we could reasonably hope that our girls would sleep. Our oldest slept pretty well. The younger – not so much. The young one insisted on watching the in-flight movies. Unfortunately, all the movies on the menu were PG-13. As an alternative, I set her up with some music. But that wasn’t good enough. We exchanged some “friendly fire” – her pushing buttons on her arm rest, me pushing “corrective” buttons. All that button pushing (literal and figurative) was just a foretaste of the battle of wills to come. The younger and I finally managed to get about 3 hours of sleep before they turned all the cabin lights on for breakfast – at four in the morning.

The rest of the trip was mostly uneventful. Overall, the girls did as well as can be expected after being cooped-up in a hotel room for 3 days followed by a 30-hour journey home.

The flight did not provide respite from my friend, Montezuma. His resurrection at the Addis airport vaulted him to the top of my “to worry about” list as I pondered the horror of airplane restrooms. To close the book on my illness, let’s just say that I am still struggling a bit here at home. But, I survived the journey back home without significant incident or accident. Your prayers were vital to that end.

Although I said the trip was mostly uneventful, there is an incident that I must recount. Someday, it will be humorous.

At one point during the flight, our youngest decided she no longer wanted to wear her seatbelt. I discovered this when we hit a bit of turbulence and were required to buckle-up. To use a hockey expression, that’s when our little precious “dropped the gloves”. While attempting to help her get buckled, tears flowed with screams close behind. Instantly, all eyes and ears were one this little African girl sitting with her dazed, airplane restroom-phobic father as they engaged an epic battle wills. In the end, the belt was buckled. It was not a victory to savor. Little did I know that this would be round one of what will forever be known as, “The War of Personal Protective Equipment.”

The warm-up to round two began as we approached DC. More turbulence, this time from tropical storm Hannah. As the bumps began, I stared nervously at the overhead console, waiting for the little light behind the unlatched seatbelt symbol to illuminate. I desperately hoped the pilot would let us enjoy some of the bumps. You know, a bit of amusement park fun to end this long journey. A few jolts, and few laughs, a butterfly in the stomach – it would be a riot! Reality killed that dream as the light illuminated. The subsequent “dong…dong” of the cabin bell signaled the official start of round two.

The last 40 minutes of our flight was filled with tears, screams, whimperings and sniffles (from me and my daughter). I fastened and re-fastened her seatbelt at least a dozen times. Finally, I got desperate and tied a knot in one side of the belt to keep her from loosening it.  The other side I held in tension with my hand as she tried to squirm out the topside. She continually screamed the name of her sister while sobbing. It was emotionally painful for all of us. But the belt stayed buckled.

As we landed, it felt really good to be in the States. Our first impression: it smells so good here! The first impression of our oldest: it smells funny here! Interesting.

Upon exiting the plane, we herded like cattle through customs. We presented our sealed, super-secret documents from Mr. Grumpy Pants in ET to the nice man behind the counter. He was very calm. Seemed sedated. He stamped our stuff and we were done…so we thought.

While stopping at the restrooms, I noticed others in our group waiting for their luggage. I found that odd and asked if they had checked their luggage through to their final destination. They said they had, but were told they needed to get it here and then re-check. Once again, cue the sweating. Apparently our sedated customs officer forgot to tell us that key piece of info.

I found our luggage, which had already been taken off the conveyor (helpful, but slightly disturbing). We loaded-up and headed out through another checkpoint. It was now about 10:15am and our flight from DC to Chicago was to leave at 12:24pm. Our flight from Addis arrived late in DC so our comfortable layover was quickly evaporating. But things were still looking good. What wasn’t looking good was the deluge of rain pouring down on DC at that moment. With tropical storm Hannah churning outside, there was decent chance our flight might be canceled or delayed. That would be nightmarish based on our physical and mental condition at this point in the trip.

As we pushed our luggage through what we thought was the last checkpoint, a nice man (we met lots of nice men) sitting on a stool (not behind a counter) said to take a right turn and get in line. I turned right. I wanted to scream. There was a line of 30 people in front of us, each coaxing mountains of luggage forward. They were waiting to hand yet another nice man (who reminded me of Puddy from Seinfeld) their super secret envelopes that had been opened just a few minutes prior.

I wanted to lay down right there and assume a fetal position. Katrina and I were both like dangling nerves. Time was ticking. Puddy was slow. And we had no idea why we needed to be in this line.

In the end, we only waited about 15 minutes before being called to the front. There, a nice man told us to have a nice day. Apparently, we had finally passed U.S. customs. Another collection of nice men took all of our super secret documents from the super secret envelopes and put them in a pile for delivery to some super secret place to do…something secretive.

We exited with only our girls, passports and luggage. It felt like closure. The girls were US citizens (mostly – more dollars are required to make it “official”). More importantly, they are our daughters.

The rest of the journey was great. We arrived about ½ hour early into Chicago to partly sunny skies. We drove the last 3-hours. On the way, we introduced the girls to Popeye’s Chicken and biscuits. They turned-up their noses, but certainly ate their fair share.

As we neared home, we called the family who had been caring for our boys the last few days of our trip. They were anxious for our call, and had their van loaded and ready to bring our boys home. They arrived shortly after we did. The boys burst into the house – our friends close behind with a camera to capture the moment. It was an amazing reunion – and introduction.

Each of the boys greeted the girls with a hearty “Selam”, which is “hello” in Amharic. The girls were a little stunned, but knew they were meeting their brothers. The girls greeted the boys with a traditional Ethiopian handshake—right hand extended, left hand holding the right elbow, and then a slight bow. They all interacted well. Shyness left quickly. It was good.

After a few minutes, our friends had us circle-up and hold hands. We were blessed by their prayers for us that covered us with love and wrote the first line of the story of our family of seven. We could not have been more richly blessed and honored upon our homecoming.

(Katrina here: Yesterday (Sunday) we spent a quiet day shuttling the boys back and forth to church. They were starting new classes and didn’t want to miss. I was mostly home with the girls, though we did get to see a few people at church during pick-ups, which was pretty emotional for me.
In the afternoon, we all went outside to ride bikes (or learn to ride bikes in the case of two little girls) and scooters and play basketball and draw on the driveway with chalk. I took some pictures and at one point, brought one to Chris that showed all five kids playing basketball together. “We have five kids!” I said. “FIVE kids. This is totally real, Dude. We have five kids.”  Chris’ eyes glazed over as he spoke mostly in garbled syllables. Perhaps the remnants of Montezuma? Or a wave of shock and awe at our situation?

When we brought the boys to church for their evening class, Chris and I ran to Meijer to get a new tube for a bike tire, training wheels, shoes and belts for the girls (tiny waists). The girls took to Meijer as if they had never not known the likes of that place. They touched everything, the younger panting like a dog at many things. The older wanted some very cool socks even though she has about 15 pairs at home already. We are well aware we now have a little diva in the family. The other one we could call “The Screecher.” You just wait, you’re gonna hear it at some point.

On the way home, our middle son sat between the girls, who were wearing their new $2 pink flip-flops. When he came to the back of the van to help me bring in our bags, he saw the many versions of pink Disney Princess bike helmets the girls had chosen. “Oh, Mom. Did you have to?” he asked, rolling his eyes and grabbing a helmet to bring in. He’s a trooper!)

It’s good to be home. The other day I said to Katrina I thought our adopting is as much about the work God wants to do in our hearts, as it is about providing for two orphaned girls. We are already seeing the truth of that statement. Our journey to Ethiopia is over. But the story started there colors our lives today. And tomorrow. We are being called to a deeper understanding of what it means to give, serve and love. To be part of a bigger story – God’s story.

Adventure in ET – Part 9

If you’re just joining the journey, catch-up here:

Friday, September 5, 2008 – Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Montezuma is dead.

I woke this morning feeling about 80%, which is miraculous given my condition the past few days. After some breakfast and lunch, I think I’m on the mend. Words can’t capture my gratefulness to God for strengthening me. Katrina and I both need to be on our “A” game for the 30-hour journey home. We leave tonight (Friday) around 10pm Addis time. We arrive in Chicago sometime after 1pm (Chicago time) on Saturday. We covet your prayers for patience, sleep, good health and uneventful flights.

As we wait, some final observations about hotels in Ethiopia. First, there are no vacuums. They simply mop the carpet. Seriously. Also, there are no screens on the windows. Doesn’t matter how high you are (we’re on the 5th floor) you can open the window and have unencumbered access to the outside. Finally, when the water supply shuts off (which it does daily) and air gets in the pipes, there’s never a ban on drinking. No “boil before you drink” notices. The sporadic water supply is just a normal part of life here. Even so, I think I have an idea about how I encountered my friend “Montezuma.”

Our agenda for today is simply to amuse ourselves while we wait to leave for home. It’s been quiet, which is nice. But we’re running out of ways to stay occupied. About every hour, we do a “family run” up and down five flights of stairs. We’ve also had piggy back races around the foyer that joins the rooms on our floor. We’ve played “toss the stuffed giraffe” for about as long as any of us can stand. We’ve colored – a lot. Needless to say, we’re stir crazy. At least after lunch we were able to persuade the girls to take a nap. They are pretty worn out – as are we.

(Katrina here: Today, they are installing wireless in the hotel. What?!??! They came to our door to apologize about the noise. I told the owner of the three Desalegn Hotels that if in the future people can have email from their rooms, we are more than willing to endure the noise. When I almost hugged him, I think he knew my level of homesickness was extreme. I’m sure the lady in the internet café next to the hotel was a bit curious this morning as I kept wiping tears from my face.)

Well, we can almost smell America. A few weeks ago, we read an email from another family who was returning to the U.S. from ET. She closed that email with, “God Bless America!” I laughed as I felt her statement cliché. Well, today I echo her sentiment. Can’t wait to touch-down in Washington DC, and proclaim with a renewed sincerity, “God Bless America!” We are a blessed people.

Adventure in ET – Part 8

If you’re just joining the journey, catch-up here:

Thursday, September 4, 2008 – Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Not much new today. We are stuck in the hotel because we cannot be seen in public with the girls. It’s a precaution against those who may disfavor what we are doing in our adoption – that is, outsiders coming inside to take away Ethiopian children.

So, in our sequestered state we are looking forward to the biggest task of today, which is to go to the U.S. Embassy. There, we will complete the last of our paperwork (for now) and get travel Visa’s for the girls.

Since yesterday, my physical condition has worsened. The nausea is extreme, and my head is just pounding. I’ve been pouring-out continual petition to our Lord that Katrina would remain healthy and patient with our girls. She has been doing most everything since we got them. I am also praying that I will be well enough to ride to the embassy for our appointment. I cannot miss that appointment. We can’t leave the country without getting Visa’s for our girls. As their father, I have to be present.

Update: God answered my prayers from earlier today. I am a long way from well, but did make it through our 2½ hour appointment at the U.S. Embassy. To add to the fun, our paperwork was messed-up (Alemu?) and we had the joy of being waited on by “Mr. Grumpy Pants”, a 20-something kid from the States. I found it ironic (but not unexpected) that a fellow American would be the snarkiest person on this trip. In the end, we got through redoing our paperwork and a rather long wait. We were issued the necessary Visas and popped-out at the bottom of the embassy stairs to cheers and high-fives. Hopefully those cheers brought a little bit of sunshine to Sir Grumps-a-lot.

Later in the day, Katrina ventured back out to shop. This time it was because of need, not desire. She went with Getachew (an associate of Alemu) to get some shoes for our youngest. Despite our best guesses, the shoes we brought for the girls are about two sizes too big. Of course, they being skinny as rails and undernourished doesn’t help. Our plan is to have the older wear what we intended for the younger while buying some shoes for the younger to gets us by until we can get home. Katrina snagged some snazzy “Tom & Jerry” Velcro athletic shoes – with lights! We could soon be dealing with some serious coveting (yes, I would like a pair for myself)

(Katrina here: Surprisingly, I was ready to be pretty firm on a price for the shoes. I was aware that I was at a disadvantage as soon as we pulled into the mall. This wasn’t a market or street-side shop where bargaining is expected. The man smelled my powerlessness and went for the kill. The cheaper shoes (which he branded inferior—he’s never heard of Walmart!) were out of stock. Finally, I just said, “Achi” (okay) to the more expensive Tom & Jerry’s. He then wondered if I might also need some pants.  “Nyuh” (no), I responded and gave him my hardest “You’re-a-big-turkey” stare. He should count himself fortunate, as no 4-year old has ever had a pair of $20 shoes in the De Man family. Yet another first for us.)

Tonight was the night Alemu had arranged to take the group to a traditional Ethiopian restaurant, complete with dancers. It’s an end of trip celebration, and a gift from Alemu to us. I’ll let Katrina tell about that experience. I was still going toe-to-toe with Montezuma and this tribe. My night consisted of switching between BBC news and The National Geographic Channel on the television (those were the only stations in English).

The girls? Ah, yes. The girls. Well, as part of the evening, Alemu had arranged for babysitters for all of the group’s children. That way we were free to enjoy an evening out. It also gave the kids a break from us (which they needed). Even though l was unable to join the festivities and stayed at the hotel, we chose to leverage the babysitting so I could get some rest. Frankly, our little beauties would have eaten me alive in my depleted state.

(Katrina here: the traditional dinner dance was nice. I can only give it that adjective because I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want more Ethiopian food. I didn’t want to listen to the music anymore (Sami, our driver, had given us our fill via a cassette tape that looped endlessly). I didn’t want to sit on a backless chair and eat with my hands. I guess our Embassy compatriot’s mood (a.k.a. Mr. Grumpy Pants) had spilled over and I had lapped it up. As I observed our fellow travelers, though, we were all in the same place—tired and ready for bed. As I sat there, I also replayed, like a slow motion movie flashback, many moments of the last 8 days with these people. Perspective is everything.)

Late tomorrow night…we head for home.