Saturday, July 11, 2009

Friday, July 3rd: The longest day

I doubt I will ever know the name of the architect responsible for designing the departure gates at the Addis Ababa airport. I've heard that the unemployment rate in Ethiopia approaches 75% at times and really wish this architect nothing worse than unemployment, so probably he has been rewarded for the catastrophe his/her efforts foist on adoptive parents each day. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

Most long days are confined to the normal 24 hour boundaries that we associate with a calendar day. However, for sheer, grueling, gut-checks life can sometimes add a couple hours if you're traveling fast enough. This was our experience.

Our journey home started at 6:00 P.M. Addis time (which is actually anywhere from 6:15-8:00, but I digress again!). Larisa and I, along with 11 other families -- including the 15 newly adopted children -- all packed into a bus that had been, apparently, designed for use by the Pygmy population. Nothing else could explain the 12 inch wide center aisle or the 6 inch clearance between your seat and the back of the seat in front of you. While the other transportation on our trip had been tight at times, this bus totally redefined cramped.

On the trip to the airport I started to notice that something -- the water, supper, a flu bug.... -- was bothering my stomach. I wasn't unduly concerned as Larisa and I had both been intermittently queasy the entire trip. Nothing bad, just a little reminder that you weren't at home.

When we arrived at the airport, Larisa stood up and there was an audible "pop" from her right knee. She immediately dropped back to her seat in pain. Ultimately, we think it was a sprain, but there is no real way to know. She was forced to hobble off the bus, down the tiny aisle on, essentially, one leg.

Potty Break One: as Larisa hobbles down the bus steps with child in tow, I'm milling about with our group of adoptive families trying to sort through our luggage (which came on a different vehicle). Then I hear one of the two dreaded phrases from my son: "Shinte! Shinte!" Larisa is hobbled and can barely walk, we are a few long queues away from even being inside the airport, there are people swarming all over, and Yikealo has to pee. One good thing about Yikealo is that he usually waits to mention this situation until he is dancing with discomfort and has about 45 seconds until things explode. Time for a male-bonding moment: we head for the nearest palm tree and hose 'er down. He looks askance as I drop his shorts, but this wasn't really my idea then, was it?

Back to the luggage sorting maelstrom. Larisa has procured the services of a ghetto luggage cart: it barely rolls, but is better than lugging four large rolling suitcases, a laptop, a backpack, and three carry-on bags by hand... oh yeah, and one expensive piece of artwork that completely prohibits any sort of useful stacking of items and requires the full attention of at least one adult hand... I'm questioning this purchase about now.

A tip for those of you in sales.... during this whole process there are several Ethiopian children milling through our crowd trying to sell us sticks of gum. Not a decision you want to be faced with while trying frantically not to get left behind by your travel group all while corralling your luggage and doing some male-bonding. These little entrepreneurs have learned that while the harried looking Americans will not buy their gum, the newly adopted children will gladly grab anything offered. Thus, I am induced to pay a day's wage for four sticks of gum that Yikealo had grabbed. It's a nice system: tempt the child when the parents have already used all their small bills.

After purchasing the most expensive sticks of gum I've ever owned in my life, I wrestle ghetto cart up the hill while Larisa does pack-mule duty: two carry-on bags, one painting, and one gum chewing, newly adopted child. The terminal is at the top of a hill relative to the parking lot and I am totally.... sucking.... wind..... at....... 8500......... feet. Time for security check one. We all queue up to have our baggage and ourselves scanned. So far so good, and onto the next queue at the ticket counter.

Potty Break Two: as we approach the ticket counter, Yikealo pipes up -- for all the queue to hear -- with the other dreaded phrase: "Ka-ka, Ka-ka!" Is it just me or are the other families smirking behind their hands? Time for super-dad again. I throw on my cape and rush (ok, walk briskly.... all right, have it your way... gasp my way) towards the nearest "Toilet". No worries, I'm a dad now, and we're back in line before the other parents have had a chance to wipe the smug looks off of their faces.

At the ticket counter we undergo another security check, implore Ethiopian Airlines not to smash our painting, and move onto.... another security check (exiting customs I think...). This is the fourth time we've had our passports checked... good thing we remembered to bring them along on a lark at the last minute.

Finally, we're to our gate and, what!?... another security check? Those folks at queue one must have been complete blathering, incompetent fools because nobody beyond queue one seems to trust the job they did. Makes you wonder why they were allowed to openly carry AK-47s if they were so dense.

Finally, we're through security check five! Seating straight ahead! Let me just grab something to drink and... you're kidding right!?... there are no restaurants, no kiosks, and not even a vending machine in the gate area? Things are starting to look grim. Larisa can hardly walk, I'm still sucking wind and cannot catch my breath, plus my stomach is a little worse and I notice my Stoma pouch is starting to fill up. We both look at each other as if to say "your turn to watch the kid while I sit for a spell."

Our plane boards an hour before take-off. With 1:15 to go, Larisa heads out for a potty break only to discover that there are no "Toilets" in the gate area. She has to go back through security check five to use the "Toilet". Somewhere, I hope there is an architect who is unemployed.

Potty Break Three: I amuse myself by watching my ever-patient (sarcasm) wife queue back up for security check five. My entertainment is interrupted by "Shinte, Shinte"! You've gotta be kidding, right?! Nope! At least Larisa is already on the other side of the security check. I run to the check point and try and pass Yikealo through only to be told that he must leave his passport at the airline counter before he can leave the gate to pee. Are you kidding me!? Are these people insane? I am sooooo close to having a little male-bonding with my son right there at the security check point -- maybe a stoma pouch emptied onto the floor for good measure -- but my better nature kicks in, and I dump the passport and pass the kid to my frantic looking wife (five minutes until we start boarding).

Potty Break Four: from the gate area, I watch as Larisa and Yikealo re-queue. They slowly work their way to the front of the line and Larisa has her items in the security check tub when, presumably, Yikealo announces: "Ka-ka. Ka-ka!". I am sooooo dead when she finally gets back here. As I type this blog, Larisa is explaining how badly her knee was throbbing at this point, and the fact that the only restroom was half-way across the airport wasn't helping the situation. I thought she was looking a bit piqued at the time.

I'm not really sure of the purpose of a security checkpoint that doesn't require your passport (which is already beyond the checkpoint), but regardless, my wife and son did make it back to the gate area and did, in fact, retake possession of their passports. Boarding must be one hour "Ethiopian Time" before take-off, because it's now 45 minutes to take-off and we still haven't started boarding. My plan to wait to empty my pouch until we're on the plane -- and thereby not be separated from my passport -- is looking worse and worse. The thing is swollen like a football causing an attractive lump in my abdomen. Wonder what security would think of that?

Joy... families with small children may board first! Parenting Perk number one. Of course there are about 30 adoptive families on our flight (no doubt to the delight of all other passengers), but this is a huge plane and does get us seated in rapid fashion. I'm able to deflate the football before it pops, but not by much. Definitely not feeling any better.

So, we fly to Rome in about six hours. Yikealo is in a Benadryl-induced slumber. Larisa is in a lot of pain trying to keep her swollen knee in its cramped quarters, and I'm running to the toilet every hour as my GI gets worse, and my stoma keeps filling up the pouch. By the time we reach Italy, I'm in really bad shape. I head to the bathroom once again only to be hit by a wave of nausea. I can't hold back any longer, shove past a little kid as the next toilet becomes available, and vomit spectacularly into the Pygmy sized airplane toilet. As I'm cleaning up the mess and preparing to deflate my football-sized stoma pouch once again, the flight attendants start getting pushy and banging on the door. Something about "you must return to your seats while the plane is cleaned during the refueling" ... apparently if things go wrong during refueling and the plane erupts into an inferno, your family will be happy to know that you died in your seat with the belt fastened and not in the toilet stall.

I ignore the attendants who get progressively pushier and finally open to door on me. Apparently Ethiopian Airlines flight attendant school doesn't have a class on "what to do when you try and kick somebody out of the toilets during refueling only to be met with the smell of vomit and an American sitting with his pants down, holding a football-sized bag of waste attached to his stomach"... either that or the sight of my white compression socks left over from my hospital stay -- lace frill at the top (I'm not kidding) and all -- pulled up to mid thigh scared them off. Regardless, they closed the door. I'm not even sure if it was a male or female attendant that I ran off. I can't turn my head to look and probably wouldn't have cared enough to do so if I could.

I barf twice more in the air between Rome and London. This time I'm prepared and get to use those keen little bags they have in the seat in front of you. My stoma keeps doing its thing, and I am getting severely dehydrated. Finally, things settle down, but the "8 ounces of water every 4 hours" service just isn't keeping up with my body. I'm sure the flight attendants on our plane grew to hate me, but I did what I could to get them to bring ice, water and -- somewhere over the Atlantic -- crackers. This seems kinda weird to write, but the flight is so long that I actually had time to get sick, be sick, take one of those "post-vomiting-out-like-a-log" long naps, and start my recovery... all on the same flight.

Meanwhile, in seats 38 F and H, Larisa and Yikealo are hanging in there. Larisa's knee is now pretty severely swollen, and Yikealo is doing pretty well. Aside from being, apparently, the only child on the planet not interested in watching movies, he is really being pretty good. Somewhere over the Atlantic he gets another dose of Benedryl and is out again.

Somewhere over Maine my dehydrated body starts cramping. First my hands, then my feet, then my calves, and finally my shins. If it wasn't for all that spacious legroom on the plane, I'm not sure how I would have gotten by... oh wait... there was no room... how could I forget? At this point, I'm so weak that I'm skeptical of my ability to carry even my laptop, let alone my other baggage when it comes time to debark the plane in about 45 minutes.

At this point, I would like to applaud, laud, salute, and otherwise praise Larisa. I've always been amazed by mothers who are able to hold their little loads for hours on end with, seemingly, no difficulty. They do this while completing housework, yard work, or shopping at the mall with 50 lbs. of purchase also strapped to their bodies. God definitely turned Mama-mode to "on" in Larisa because as we left the plane she was on a sprained knee and carrying about 40 lbs of luggage plus one chunk of a newly adopted child. Babe -you're my hero!

So anyway, we debark onto this mobile lounge thing and, as I'm being amazed by my wife, I notice a wet, sticky sensation on my stomach. Surely not... I stick a finger under... yep. The seal on my stoma pouch has broken....

There really are no words to describe the panic in Larisa's eyes as I casually mention "hey dolly, I think my stoma pouch just sprung a leak." I feel horrible for having to say this. It's not enough that she has to deal with our now well-rested-and-ready-to-run son, all the luggage, and a bum knee? Now she has to deal with a medical emergency of sorts? Turns out super mom can handle this too. Shortly, we find the three of us crammed into the handicap stall of the women's bathroom in the customs area. Fortunately, Yikealo is fascinated with the sensor activated toilets that keep flushing because, in this close of quarters, somebody is constantly setting it off.

Well, that's about it really. Not too bad in the re-telling. Our trip through customs was a breeze. We spent less than five minutes total actually dealing with the customs agents. I was so weak that I couldn't stand without getting short of breath. In all the airport queues I had to crouch down to a squatting/sitting position at each stop in the queue. Our painting made it to DC unharmed but the frame was smashed somewhere from DC to Cleveland.

A huge "Thank You!!!" to Jason and Gwen Riggenbach for meeting us in Cleveland. Having friends to meet us and handle the luggage, but who were also committed to not making a scene over our new son, was a fantastic blessing. I promise that we'll re-focus on the chronological experiences of our trip later, but honestly, other than meeting our son, this horrible day probably stands out the most in our minds! At least we're laughing about it one week later!


  1. You post had be belly laughing and also wanting to cry for you at the same time. Glad that really LONG day is far behind us.

  2. David, you missed your calling... Drop the engineering and start writing!