By Selem Helil
The summer after my senior year in high school, my parents decided to finally have a long overdue trip to Ethiopia. We hadn't been in ten years. I had only been there for a month when I was seven years old, and the only memory I had was the incessant throwing up from the terrible food poisoning I got. Now that I was older and would be more aware of my surroundings and experiences, I was excited and nervous. Needless to say, it was definitely an interesting trip.
I should preface this by saying that despite having hardly been in Ethiopia, I have always tried to be aware of the culture I come from. I knew the language fairly well because of the time I spent around family, ate Ethiopian food frequently, and kept up with the news there. The moment I stepped out of the Addis Ababa Bole International Airport, I knew there was no way I could have anticipated the differences in life. Non-travelers weren't allowed in the airport, so hordes of people stood outside awaiting friends and family on the side of the parking lot side adjacent to the airport exit. Finding our family in the crowd proved to be more of a challenge than anticipated, but seeing my grandma, uncles, aunts and cousins that I have grown up hearing so much about (despite very limited memories) and being able to see the tears in everyone’s eyes was a surreal moment. I thought I understood it—the immensity of seeing the most important people in your life after years of uncertainty that you ever would. In retrospect, though, I'm not sure I fully understood that moment because my strongest emotions were exhaustion and relief to be off a 20-hour flight.
When we first arrived, strict guidelines were placed on us about leaving the house by ourselves. My parents were staying at my grandma's house, and my sister and I switched between crashing at our grandma's house and our aunt's house. Our nights were filled with laughter, conversation, and games with my cousins, aunts, and uncles, when we exchanged stories about the different lives we lived and discussed politics. After a few days of wandering between the houses, though, my sister and I were eager to see the city beyond our houses. We started by frequenting the gift shop in the neighborhood that my aunt and uncle owned, the coffee house, and the internet cafe across the street. Getting access to Internet would mean buying an Ethiopian SIM card for my phone and paying to fill it daily. Going to an Internet Cafe and sitting at a desktop gave me a reality check as to how modern the technological era we live in is. Eventually, we made our way to Bole—the downtown-esque, modernized district of the city where the best restaurants, hotels, malls and coffeehouses were.
Transportation in the city was a whole other set of customs with many failed attempts before I could finally get anywhere. The Ethiopian roads had hundreds of cars and people maneuvering in the streets with hardly any consideration of lanes, lane changes, signaling, traffic lights, and at times cars were just barely swerving to miss hitting pedestrians. What was even more astonishing was how good the drivers were at it. My parents rented a car, but even they were too scared to drive in Ethiopia after decades of adapting to the calm streets in America. They convinced my uncle to drive them around, and while some days we would all go out to visit distant family friends or get food, most days my dad and uncle would go out with the car from morning until around dinnertime. On those days, my mom would go out with her sisters in something they called a "contract taxi." The idea is similar to how taxis work here, but they would hire the driver for the day and pay him a lot at the end of the day. My sister and I quickly opted out of visiting people with our parents after about a week, and we spent our days hanging out with family, and exploring the city with whoever would show us around. We took the regular "taxis", a system similar to our bus system.
While there was a lot of contrast to life in Ethiopia, the biggest surprise by far was culture. I thought I knew what to expect because I knew the language, but I had no idea how unfamiliar the culture was. I found a community that was much more respectful and family-oriented than I expected, but most of all, it was religiously centered. My family was in Kara Kore, a region that is generally traditional, despite being located in the more westernized capital. It is a predominately Muslim community, but there is a strong Christian population as well. I could hear the adhan from multiple masjids in the yard of our house. On Sundays, I could hear the locals church's Sunday sermons overlap with the adhan at times. Almost all the women, Muslim or Christian, dressed conservatively, covering up their hair, or at least casually throwing on headscarves, and wearing long skirts and sleeves. Because we were in Ethiopia for Eid, I got to be one of the hundreds of people praying on the streets because we couldn't make it to the stadium prayer. I witnessed the amazing sight of thousands leaving the stadium after Eid prayer. Religion is a major part of life in Ethiopia and for me, the highlight was seeing the unity among people with different faiths and practices living as neighbors, despite the world conflicts with religion going on today.
Our trip in Ethiopia lasted a month, but it has continued to stay with me ever since. Long after we had left, the emotion I didn't understand in my families eyes became fears and tears we all shared. It changed my perspective on family, culture, and, more than anything, travel. I used to think a trip to Hawaii or Paris would be the most amazing thing in the world. Of course, the thought of seeing one of the world's remarkable tourist attractions still excites me, but now I see the value of going somewhere, even if it may seem unglamorous. It's about seeing a new culture, new customs, and a totally new world. I had been excited for the reunion with my family, but I forgot just how incredible where I was going would be. We have too long misunderstood the purpose of travel. It may not be about upping your life standards, or enjoying yourself, but rather learning something and humbling yourself with the grandiosity and diversity of the world, and surprising yourself the oneness of humanity.