Exploring our roots in Ethiopia

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September 5th 2008
Published: September 19th 2008
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Africa - Ethiopia - Addis Ababa

09/05/08 - 09/15/08

Exploring our roots in Ethiopia

Written by Mary Polytaridis (Nico's Mom)

It all started as a joke as Nico and Hannah were prepping for their year-long adventure: “Why don't you guys meet us in Ethiopia and celebrate Mary's 50th birthday while showing us your native country?” Both Lakis (my husband) and I were born and raised in Ethiopia, he in Addis Ababa and myself in Dire Dawa, but hadn't been back for over 30 years. What would it look like now? Would we still remember the country we gave so much of our lives to, and more importantly, would we still appreciate it? What about the exorbitant costs of flying to Africa and who would take care of Terra (Nico's dog) while we're gone? After months of thinking about it and weighing the pros and cons, we committed ourselves to the trip and booked the tickets. After all, we can always pay off our credit cards later and with our neighbor graciously volunteering to take care of Terra, when else would we get an opportunity to show our son and (soon to be) daughter-in-law the country of our roots? As Nico would say, “You only live once!”

On the plane I sat buckled up and smiling at the familiar sound of Amharic, the Ethiopian language, spoken by two Ethiopians. In a couple of hours we would be descending to Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, where we would eventually be joined by Nico and Hannah. In the meantime, I close my eyes and remember my life, as a little girl in Ethiopia.

Addis Ababa, meaning “New Flower” in Amharic, has changed a lot from the way Lakis remembered it when he lived here 33 years ago. New roads, new buildings, and an increase in population have made this city unrecognizable. Sadly, however, some things have remained the same, like the striking contrast between the haves and have-nots which is so evident in the streets of Addis Ababa: little tin-roofed shacks (slums) bordering beautiful tall buildings. Lakis had the fondest memories of his teenage years and the most devastating ones, having lost his home and all that his family worked for to the Derg during the revolution in 1975.

After many hours of traveling (over 40!) we made it safe to Ethiopia. The bags got lost somewhere between San Diego, New York, Paris, and Cairo, but eventually made it to us in Addis Ababa after five days of reusing our travel clothes!

The reunion with Nico and Hannah was indescribable - it had been close to seven months since we bid them farewell in LAX so you can just imagine everyone's excitement. We talked and laughed all the way to our guest house where we spent a couple of days before we started our week-long Ethiopian safari of the Rift Valley in the Southern region. Lakis wanted to show us the places he went to as a child and we wanted to see the different tribes and cultures of this diverse community.

We drove through Bishouftou, Lake Langano, Lake Abiata and visited Chencha, a village high up in the Guge Mountains where the Dorze tribe lives. On our way up to the village, we encountered kids of all ages who performed funny dances hoping to get some money from the “ferengi” (foreigners). It's the funniest thing to watch 2-6 year-olds do all kinds of things to attract our attention. Some wiggle one leg while tapping on their head with one hand, others stand on their head with their legs straight up, others tap dance or do the Dorze dance (tapping with one foot while shaking their little toush). They look like little marionetttes, but whatever they do, they do it with a big smile constantly screaming, “Ferengi, ferengi!”. Interestingly, they also beg for used plastic water bottles (named Highland) that they later use for transporting liquids during their everyday life (imagine being so poor that you can't afford to buy used water bottles!). We joked that this is the ultimate recycling of water bottles.

Our first stop for the night was Yirgalem where we stayed in a very nice and cozy lodge called Aragash that is owned and operated by the Missailides family, friends from many years ago. This remote little lodge is comprised of 25 “tukuls” (bamboo-huts) and is situated on top of a mountain in the midst of what felt like a jungle. With its natural environment, its well manicured gardens, its home-cooked meals, and its friendly and warm staff, Aragash was by far the nicest, cleanest and most hospitable place we stayed in. As we took in the views before sunset, we were greeted by a spotted hyena, some witty-looking monkeys, squirrels and all kinds of birds. In the morning, we took a walk through the woods and saw some Columbus monkeys, a species of monkeys found only in East Africa.

Next stop was Arba Minch (translated as “Forty Springs” for its many small springs), southwestern Ethiopia's largest city, where we stayed in a lodge atop a mountain with spectacular views of the scenic Rift Valley and its lakes, Abaya and Chamo. What's amazing with these two lakes is that they are so close to each other, yet, they are so different: Abaya has a deep red color caused by excessive concentrations of ferrous hydroxide while Chamo is just plain blue but filled with massive crocodiles. The two lakes are separated by a natural bridge which the locals named “the Bridge of God”. This sometimes floods and the two lakes become one, each maintaining their respective red and blue colors. Our rooms which resembled to Dorze huts (bamboo-mud huts made in the form of an elephant's head) faced the two lakes, providing an amazing view of the lakes and Nech Sar National Park, translated “White Grass National Park”) for the white bleached color of the grass that covers this area all year-long. During our stay in Arba Minch we went off-roading on a mini safari through the Park where we saw a huge warthog, a greater kudu (an antelope with gorgeous spiralliing horns), Grant's gazelles, pairs of monogamous dik-diks, many baboons, zebras and all kinds of birds. In the afternoon we rented a small boat (dinghy) for a thrilling experience in search of crocodiles and hippos in Lake Chamo. I have to admit I was a little concerned having heard some horror stories about man-eating crocs but the experience was exhilarating and unforgettable. While in this area we also visited Konso with its rock formations that resemble high rising buildings which the locals named “New York”.

Our final destination was Dire Dawa, my birth place and the second largest city in Ethiopia, situated in the Eastern region some 500+ kilometers from Addis Ababa. We arrived there after spending one night in Lake Langano at the Sabana lodge which sits right on the lake and another night in Harrar. Lake Langano is where Lakis, as a child, went on vacation with the family and later as a teenager came camping with the boys. He has many fond memories of which include boating, water skiing some hunting and of course just being care- free teenagers of the 60's.

Early on the morning of September 13, we were awakened by Hannah being all excited because Nico felt well enough to celebrate his birthday (he was sick the day before). In preparation for Nico's b-day, Hannah designed a beautiful logo, “Do It Like The Locals”, and had t-shirts made for all of us. The shirts turned out great and you should have seen his face after seeing the surprise! All four of us wore our matching 'Do It Like The Locals' shirts that day and looked like the perfect tourist family!

With much excitement and many emotions running through my body, we took the winding road down to Dire Dawa and arrived into town early the next day. I caught myself thinking, “Am I going to recognize the city that I was born in, its streets and landmarks, any of the people I left behind 40 year ago?” Our driver had only been to Dire Dawa once before many years ago and had explicitly said that he was relying on me to find our way around. In fact, he had joked by saying, “I will be the tourist today, and you will be the guide”. As we entered Dire Dawa I asked him to make a left onto the street that would take me to my old house, the one I was born in. Unfortunately, we passed by my house and I didn't recognize it, as it had changed completely. “Not a problem, we'll come back later”, I said as we proceeded toward the center of town, stopping at the Greek Orthodox Church & School. “Nothing has changed” I exclaimed as we went through the classrooms of my first school. The walls, benches, and blackboards were just the way they were 40 years ago. Memories started flooding in as I recounted unforgettable incidents to Hannah, Nico and Lakis, who were equally excited to relive these with me while clicking away with the camera. At the school we were greeted by Eleni Frangheskakis who had last seen me as a seven year old child. She is one of very few Greek people living in Dire Dawa and has dedicated herself to taking care of the Greek Orthodox Church. Every Saturday she opens the church and cleans it thoroughly so it's as immaculate as it used it be, albeit more worn out. We hugged, kissed, and cried while exchanging addresses and promising to keep in touch and send her the recent pictures.

One of the main reasons I wanted to come to Dire Dawa was to visit my dad's gravesight. I held my breath as I placed a call to our old neighbor, Teresa Rizzo, to see if she could meet us and show us around. I hadn't seen her in 20+ years and wasn't sure of what she would say when I asked her if Tirfe, my old nanny, was still alive. Having also raised my mom, Tirfe would be close to 100 years old. What a relief when Teresa said, ”I will send for her so she can meet with you ...” and there they were at the Ras Hotel, both Teresa and Tirfe, dear friends of many many years, smiling, laughing, crying and hugging tight on me. Feelings I had as a little 12-year old being consoled at the discovery of my dad's passing away, engulfed my body and I held on to them even tighter. Although the years of hard life are shown on Tirfe's face, her smile and good spirits have not changed at all. I asked her,”how old are you?” and she replied, “I don't know, but I do know that I am ready to raise Nico's children in America”. Hannah was completely taken by Tirfe's good spirits and didn't leave her side, hodling her tight and helping her around as we walked the dirty streets of “magala” (the local market). Tirfe, proud to be surrounded by her children told everyone she encountered on the streets that “these are my children, and they have come for me and soon I will be going to America”. As Teresa and Tirfe showed us the way to our old house, I wondered whether the current residents would allow me to see the house. Good luck was on our side that day and the people were happy to oblige. Although the house has changed a lot, the front door still remains the same and engraved in it still exist the names of my mom and brothers “Elena, Italo, Dino”. I guess they must have engraved their names as they were leaving Ethiopia in 1974, after my dad's passing and my going away to boarding school.

As we conclude our trip to the southwestern and eastern regions of Ethiopia, I have a strong feeling of serenity, fulfillment, appreciation and plain happiness for having had this fantastic opportunity to explore my roots with my family. What a great gift for my big 50 birthday! I thank God, my family, and our friends and neighbors for making this dream a reality.

Next stop is the western, historical region of Ethiopia: Bahir Dar and Lalibella.

Click here for a separate photo collage, Faces of Ethiopia.

Additional photos below
Photos: 69, Displayed: 30


20th September 2008

Happy Birthday and Travels
What a great post! Thanks for sharing more of your adventures. Happy birthday Nico and Mary. Eric
20th September 2008

So happy
Shalyn and I are so happy (in tears actually) reading Mary's account of your time in Ethiopia. What a special joy! We have a very dear friend also from Dire Dawa, and can't wait to share this story and pictures with her. We'll be praying that the rest of your trip is safe and fruitful. We miss you all so much, and are so happy to know that you are well. God Bless!
21st September 2008

What a wonderful story!!!
Hello everybody!! Well, first of all, now I know where Nico gets his amazing gift for writing. We really enjoyed reading this post (all of them really). We are so glad that you all have this opportunity to spend time together and to go back to your roots. We can only imagine all the incredible emotions. We can't wait for the next dinner get together so we can hear all the stories first hand. Please travel safe and we miss you guys!! Love, Blair and Amy P.S. If you come across any more of those shoes made from tires....grab us some, we'll gladly pay you back. Those are a conversation piece to say the least. Amy is 6 or 6.5 and I'm 10.5 or 11.
24th September 2008

Oh mann.....I have tears in my eyes after reading this entry. This was really moving and the fantastic pictures say it all as well. I still remember meeting Mary and Lakis in San Diego, along with Yaya and can never forget how unbelievably hospitable your family is. I just got back from trying Ethiopian cuisine for the first time and thoroughly enjoyed it. It's unlike anything I have eaten before but so tasty. The blogs are great and I will have to catch up on them again but I am so happy that the family was able to dig into the roots and heritage for it truly contributes to who you are. Also noticed that Peru is a potential future trip on your list. I am trying to book something in October/November timeframe for about 10 days so let me know if that coincides with your plans. Your journey is an inspiration to us all and I hope the messages you share will shed new light for readers who come across your words.
7th October 2008

thank you
I am an Ethiopian living in London and i just want to express my appreciation for your interest in Ethiopia, a poor but potentially rich country which unfortunately, and may be rightly suffers from bad image. But I found your story nonjudgmental well balanced unlike most travelers who are in the habit of making a mockery of other people's culture and misfortune! thanks for sharing your story any way!
23rd October 2008

An amazing story!
Mary! I am so happy that you had the opportunity to celebrate your 5oth birthday with deer friends and family! Thank you for sharing this amazing adventure with us, going back to our roots it's a good way to find ourself deeply and appreciate ourself.... I read this message late (I don't know know why.) but sincerely... Happy Belated Birthday!
21st January 2009

trip to my birth place
hi mary, thank u so much for ur lovely aritcle.. it took me back to my memories... i wish i can go back one day to DD, i left dire dawa during 1976 ie when i was 8 years old , my dad was a teacher there then. But it always thrills me to read anything about harrar, diredawa......may be b'coz thats my birth place... once again thank u for literally taking me to DD... God bless
28th August 2010

Greek from Ethiopia
I happen to come across your travel blog, and it gushed long forgotten memories to the forefront. I too am Greek born and raised in Addis Abeba and had a class mate called Michalis Polytaridis. Wondered if you were any relation to him? Would love to get in touch with him and other class-mates that he may still be in contact or know their whereabouts. Regards, Mirella Phoebe Andrianopoulos - Chavez

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