When we came to Ethiopia as a family the first time, James was a year and a half old. We stayed for six weeks, and we had two students traveling with us. It’s a bit different this time… James is four now, we have Lytle who is a little over one, and we are here off and on for three months, with our own home base in Bahir Dar.
So, what have we been up to? Take a look….
- Art! We have done art and art and more art. My first order of business upon moving in to our new home was to start some decorating. The refrigerator is a real masterpiece, and we’ve done some origami and lots of collages. James has become quite the scissors artist; we make a collage and slowly he whittles away at it until it is a uniquely shaped piece of paper. Ditto for the maps that we’ve drawn, so that the maps are more interpretative than anything else. The supplies I brought were basic and have proved to be sufficient: masking tape, construction paper, thick white paper, colored pencils and pens, hole puncher, scissors, ribbon and yarn, paintbrushes, and some paint.
- House projects! Travis is the master of great projects around the home, and he has not disappointed. The fun thing is that here, the projects are a little different than the ones back in Maine…
(1) He and James have planted a bunch of trees in these small compostible plastic bags that we’ll bring to the Bata church forest* before we leave. The two of them pilfer dry seed pods off trees around town. They even collected some “fertilizer” from the streets (perks to cattle and donkeys everywhere, right?) for the soil mixture. So far Travis estimates an 80% germination rate!
(2) Honey with the wax still in it has been purchased from the market with the intent of separating the two out to make Bahir Dar honey and beeswax candles. This has been somewhat successful – it would have worked better if either of us had brought candle wicks. The baby food jars from Italy are a great size for the candles though!
(3) Fruit drying. Mango season is almost upon us, and Travis built a large wire cage with trays for drying out the fruit. Possibly the best part of slicing off nice, even pieces of mango for drying is having the pits leftover for gnawing on. Tomatoes are abundant as well, so we’ve been trying out sun-dried tomatoes. We’ve got bananas on the rack right now and we’re all very curious to see how they will turn out, if there are any left (James sneaks outside to eat the drying fruit at least once a day). Papaya are in season so we’re planning on trying some of those, and these small green peach-like fruits called “kwuck” are also going to get dried. And just yesterday we threw some hot peppers on to dry out. Yum!
- Making friends at the pool! One of the aspects of life here that I sometimes have trouble wrapping my mind around is being wealthy. We are wealthy here. Proof? We are members of the swanky Kuriftu pool/spa. There is a crew of expats who all go to the Kuriftu pool with kiddos around James’ age. They’ve been so hospitable and welcomed us into their routines. One of James’ new friends, Afomia, turned 5 a couple of weeks ago and her parents threw a heck of a party – any party that includes someone passing around a tray of boona (traditional Ethiopian coffee served in little espresso cups) after the cake gets an A+ in my book. The expat community is quite fascinating. Travis came, expecting to leave early and instead had to be dragged away. He met the president of Bahir Dar University (himself an Ethiopian, married to an American from Oklahoma), a German woman involved in the Bahir Dar Biosphere Project who talked buffer zones and church forests with him, a Finnish couple involved in eucalyptus plantations and a local honey factory, and a Swedish woman whose family is reclaiming degraded land and converting it into a permaculture demonstration site. Afterwards he said, and I quote, “The best 3 hours of professional networking I’ve had since arriving here and it was a 5 year old’s birthday party!” I drank some South African wine, chatted with moms, and tried to limit James’ sugar intake. It was a good afternoon.
- Celebrating the holidays! We had American Easter with the expat crew two weekends ago, and just celebrated Ethiopian Fasika here a week a later. We went to a lunch hosted by a club of sorts, a group of girls from rural villages who come to Bahir Dar for post-11th grade and university schooling. Lunch was delicious. Melakam Fasika!
- Family meals. Not a surprise given my food and table obsession. A lot like life in Maine, but the food is a little different! Now that Ethiopian Easter has come and gone and fasting is over, Travis is all about the steak dinner at home, although the steak is little more lean here than in the States. And I’ve had fun experimenting with the old-fashioned “toaster” we inherited. I like to make a big deal out of snack time and do little picnics for James and Ly. And on occasion, we treat ourselves to a swanky dinner out (which is ridiculously affordable here). We had a really nice dinner together on April 3rd (for those who were in Vermont with us four years ago that day, wasn’t that a great party?!).
- Getting involved in local life. Our night guard, Assamen (see above re: us being wealthy here!) has a lot of family in the area and his cousin got married this last weekend. We were invited to the wedding and it was amazing. Great food, and infectious singing and dancing. Made me want to get married all over again.
The funny thing about your life is that you are living it wherever you are. What I mean to say is, home is where the routines are. Where your family is. Where you make it. And for us, right now, home is here even though we are on the go.
This all definitely gave me pause before deciding to come here. James, at 4 years old, is at an age where he questions everything and pushes boundaries. Does some of that come from a year of traveling around with little stability? I don’t know.
Here is the spectrum along which I am operating:
There are two articles that I’ve read that lay out vacation and travel with children perfectly. One, from a parenting magazine, described local “stay-cations” only a couple of hours from home over three-day weekends. This allowed working parents to manage time off from work easily, was much cheaper for their family, and more enjoyable with much less travel time. Brilliant! The second article was from Lucky Peach, primarily a magazine about food around the world, and the article described a family on the go with children developing crucial life skills through travel – managing their boredom, learning to get along with each other because there was no one else to play with, rolling with the inevitable travel punches, a willingness to brave the unknown. Brilliant! But is one article more brillianter than the other? I love both of these perspectives but as with all things parenting, the best place for most families is going to be somewhere in between and will likely change as children grow, jobs alter, and money situations vary. It’s hard to know at any given time which is the “right” thing to do.
Ultimately, the question is: what is the purpose? In my opinion, vacations should be about relaxing, rebooting, and enjoying time together as a family. Travel is about growing as a person, about expanding your understanding of the world, about, as my Mom used to call it, “broadening your horizons.” These both have value, both have a place in personal life and in parenting and family life. It’s safe to say that most of what are doing now is travel! I hope that exposure to different sights and sounds is good for the wiring in Jamie and Lytle’s brains. I hope the (mild, monitored) exposure to different germs and foods is good for their immune systems. I hope the exposure to different people and cultures is setting a foundation for open-mindedness. I hope the exposure to travel challenges is building character. I hope, in short, that I am doing my job as a parent as we have our home on the go.
*Some of Travis’ research here involves looking at “church forests”, these stands of mostly old-growth and indigenous forest that represent the last bastion of forest biodiversity in Ethiopia. He will be bringing American undergraduate students here for the next three summers to study them. And the Bata forest is the one closest to our house here, and it is also the one that Stannard Farm donated fence supplies to! Now that they are working on a fence for the forest, Travis and James are helping to increase reforestation rates with their seed project.