When my husband and I adopted our two daughters from Ethiopia over a decade ago, we made a promise that we would return. It was important to us that the girls establish a relationship with their birth families and forge a personal connection with their heritage. This spring, we made the journey with our three children, ages 10, 11 and 12. Thoughtful planning and research helped us prepare for the trip, and the generous, joyous spirit of the Ethiopian people made it a life-changing experience for the whole family. Here are some tips that helped us make the most of traveling internationally with our three children as well as some lessons we learned along the way.
Preparation and Packing
Give yourself plenty of time to get ready for the trip– there’s no need for the added stress that comes with last-minute scrambling. Research what documents and immunizations you may need before traveling. You will need passports, of course, and you may need to bring your children’s birth certificates as well. If your kids are applying for their first passport, there are special rules to keep in mind.
Visiting any developing country also requires an immunization check. I made sure we were all up to date on our routine vaccinations, then made appointments for yellow fever and typhoid shots. We also took malaria pills and brought a Z-Pak antibiotic, just in case.
When it comes time to pack, be practical and take cultural customs into account. In Ethiopia, women and girls dress modestly, so we followed suit, leaving short shorts and sleeveless shirts at home. Bring shoes that you can easily rinse off after walking on wet, unpaved roads.
Once you’re dusty and dirty, it may be tough to find soap, toilet paper, or even water. We found that toting wipes, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer was necessary to make this (literally) sticky situation as comfortable as possible.
Finally, familiarize yourself with your accommodations so you know what to expect. Even if the house or hotel where you are staying has electricity, power outages may occur, so bring a travel flashlight or headlight along as a precaution.
Small Irritations That My Kids Tolerated
Prepare to be patient with your kids (and yourself) as you all adjust to a very different land. For us, the inability to access the Internet resulted in a major whine fest. Fortunately, this subsided once the kids realized that simply looking out the van window revealed a colorful and chaotic scene that was completely new to them. The squat toilets were initially a source of amusement, but the adventure got old fast. The girls became jealous of the boys in the family, who did their business along the side of the road like all Ethiopian men.
Forging Cultural Adventures
Take every opportunity you can to introduce your kids to the local culture and landscape. Ethiopian tradition dictates that meals be eaten by hand, a custom my kids totally latched onto. They loved using injera, a spongy, sour bread, to sop up their meat, lentils, cabbage, and potatoes. My young archaeologists also enjoyed seeing Lucy, the 3.2-million-year-old skeleton that resides at the national museum in Addis Ababa.
The kids were awed by the dramatically different landscapes in Ethiopia, taking photos of the verdant hills and farmland dotted with tukuls (straw huts). And, because kids will be kids, they laughed themselves silly at the monkeys that frolicked in trees overhead and tried to steal our food. The fact that these naughty primates had “blue balls” delighted my tweens to no end. They still giggle at the memory. (Oops– now I am, too.)
What I Could Have Done Better
I wish I had better prepared the kids for the cultural rituals we took part in, such as ceremonial, handwashing before each meal and greeting family with kisses on each cheek. They stumbled awkwardly through these experiences the first few times, but eventually got the hang of it.
Every family we visited performed a coffee ceremony– the coffee brewed in front of us and then presented with pride. None of us drink coffee, but we realized almost immediately that it would be rude to decline. It was delicious, and almost made a coffee drinker out of me, but the kids seemed freaked out by the formality.
On a serious note, I wish I had discussed the reality of poverty in Ethiopia with my kids more frankly. However, I have no regrets that they experienced this social issue first-hand, as they now have a different perspective on the comfort of their lives back at home.
The Emotional Connection
Watching my daughters being smothered in love was by far the most memorable part of our trip. After trekking to their remote family villages, we were met with flowers and fanfare suitable for returning heroes. Kisses and blessings flowed abundantly. We shared homemade bread and honey while relatives of all ages applauded each nugget the translator shared about our daughters. The generosity and joy displayed by these families that have so little and gave so much is
unforgettable. Tears, hugs, and a promise to return punctuated our incredible journey.
This post was written by Marika Lindholm. She is the founder of ESME, Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere, the confidential community of Solo Moms, by Solo Moms. A trained sociologist, for over a decade Marika taught classes focused on the issues of inequality, diversity, and gender at Northwestern University. Having experienced life as a Solo Mom after a divorce left her parenting her two children on her own and, later, when her spouse’s work required him to be away for weeks at a time, Marika became aware of the myriad challenges Solo Moms face everyday. A project of love for Marika, ESME is redefining single motherhood. Marika currently lives with her husband and five children in New York’s Hudson Valley.