After that great trip to connect with my college roomie + Lanie readers in Boston, I checked in three arm-stretchingly heavy suitcases (full of books for Ethiopian kids) and flew down to JFK airport and off to Amsterdam and then Addis Ababa. Any opportunity to travel back to Ethiopia is total thrilldom. Alas, it also means my body has to survive being shuffled through all kinds of time zones–asked to sleep when all its cells are shouting, “It’s daytime!” and to stay awake when every single bingle cell is longing for sleep.
I stepped into the Addis Ababa airport and was smacked with smells: red, peppery smells. A touch of tangy eucalyptus mixed in. Cement, maybe? (Construction is booming.) Car exhaust? Dirt flung into the air by the raindrops of rainy season? It smelled like home.
Though I cleared passport control quickly, I stood for a long time watching bags on a conveyor belt, thinking about the Amharic words for finished? and gone, increasingly sure that MY bags had headed for Cairo, my original connection city, not Amsterdam. (Indeed, my luggage didn’t arrive until July 5, which made me think we all probably lug far, far more clothes than we actually need.) The day those books arrived, I was the one delighted person in the piled-up luggage section of the airport, glad I’d studied the Amharic phrase that essentially means, I’m one happy happy clam.
For a week, I got to hang out with my brother and 16 other funny, smart, interesting educators. We got to connect with Ethiopian educators, artists, shopkeepers, relatives, van drivers, guest house staff and friends. They’re still there. I was driven back to the airport by a man who grew up in Addis Ababa in the same years I did, and we talked about all the things we miss in the new huge city: trees, little meadows, streets never clogged with traffic jams, Fiat taxis that took you anywhere for 25 Ethiopian cents (12 cents US).
It’s all gone, he said.
Except for the memories, I said.
As I pack for the Vermont College MFA program in children’s and young adult literture, I’m thinking again about something I learned during the Red River flood of 1997: some memories are tangled in places. When we lose those smells, those sounds, those people, we lose so much.