Seven years ago, my son and daughter and my brother’s daughter took time from their college years to volunteer in an Ethiopia Reads library in Addis Ababa. They taught English classes and made stories pop off the page using puppets and dance and songs. They lived in the neighborhood of the library, hopping over sewage puddles on the way to the compound every day.
These things always sound like grand adventures when they become words on a page, don’t they?
I was proud of them for being so interested, so brave, so willing, so open to the world.
The girls had raised money for their adventure and prepared for months and months. They intended to stay a year. Jonathan joined them at the last minute, but–as a young man–he was the one who ended up with a lot more freedom to travel around and practice Amharic.
He became a photographer in Ethiopia. He’s the one who took one of my favorite mountain pictures while he was hiking, an image I never get tired of looking at, especially when I think of all the people who ask me questions about hot, dry, flat Ethiopia. (It’s below.)
The girls, meanwhile, struggled with some of the realities of being young women outside of America. Part of the adventure was that they got homesick.
My daughter got especially homesick. So when I was invited to do author visits and speak at a reading conference in the Persian Gulf, I jumped at the chance and planned a stop in Ethiopia to see the kids.
I’m going back to Abu Dhabi in February to do an author visit, so I’ve been remembering that time as I pack.
It’s embarrassing–since I’ve spent so much time talking about Ethiopia with people who have inadequate or wrong images in their minds–to get out into the wide world and discover how little I know.
There’s no doubt a reason why travel writing is such a powerful genre.
We get out into the world and we open up.
We see and smell and taste and hear the things that our minds gloss over when they become everyday occurrences.
Sometimes we travel to worlds within.
We pay attention.
We are surprised.