A Milestone in Addis

March 17, 2011                                           Addis Ababa, Ethiopia  

As I set out for this trip, though I knew that I would be turning 30 on the road, I didn’t give much thought to where I would be on my birthday. This is very unlike my usual self, who loves to celebrate and be celebrated. However, this year, I was somewhat relieved that I could just slide by my birthday and avoid making a big deal out of the looming 30 milestone that I wasn´t so keen on facing. So, I made a pact with myself to continue on my journey and make the most out of whatever place I land in.

This place just happened to be Ethiopia.  From the moment I arrived in Addis Ababa (meaning new flower in Amharic), I felt a sense of community that I have not felt elsewhere in my travels. After only a week in Addis, I had made so many incredible friends: Shimrit-an amazing Israeli girl (also a social worker) traveling Ethiopia solo; Selome and Yibe-both friends of friends back home living in Addis; The owners and staff of my hostel; And many other local Ethiopians that I had met and befriended at local cafes and restaurants. Walking through the streets of Piazza, (the area of Addis I stayed in) I felt as if I had lived there for years.

After some time in Addis, Shimrit and I decided to take a road trip to the south of Ethiopia. I very coyly mentioned to her that I prefer that we be back before the 14th of March. Surprised at my rigidness around dates, I had to explain so I finally broke down and told her it is my 30th birthday. Excitedly she exclaimed, “Well then we HAVE to celebrate!”

Our trip was truly a journey of a lifetime. We hired a car and along with it came three staff people: a driver, mechanic, and guide. As our road trip progressed they transformed from the “driver, mechanic and guide” to three of our very best friends. Together we visited beautiful lakes, played with monkeys, sailed in swamps with hippos, went to natural hot springs and visited one rural village after another.

When I arrived back in Addis, I walked into my hostel and immediately all the guests exclaimed, “Did you hear about Mike??? He stole your birthday money?”

Mike is an English guy who I believed was the co-owner of the restaurant and hostel I was staying in. During my week in Addis we became friends and he constantly went above and beyond for me. When my phone got stolen in the market, he replaced it for me within 1 hour, anytime I needed anything he was the first to offer to help and he had volunteered to host a party for me in ‘his’ restaurant. A few nights before I was leaving for my road trip he asked to borrow $500 and promised to repay it the following morning. Though at first I obliged, I immediately had a really bad feeling about it and my instincts told me something was wrong. Conflicted, I talked to my friend Shimrit. She told me, “Rox, trust your gut. You cannot risk playing with this money. Just tell him no and if he’s really your friend he will understand.” So I called and told him I couldn’t loan him the money.

When I got back I found out that he is a scam artist who has been traveling the world, creating fake identities and manipulatively stealing money from people. He stole several hundred dollars from the hotel, thousands from other foreigners, and a lot of money from local Ethiopians who work so hard for every dollar they earn. In his final venture he stole the $100 my mom and sister had wired to the hotel to buy flowers, champagne and a cake for my birthday and left the country.

Upon hearing this, although I was shocked and angry at myself for being manipulated and not seeing through him, most of all, I felt so sad for the local people he had hurt so much. The irony is that in coming to Africa there is the presumption that you are always viewed as a walking wallet that Africans try to take advantage of. Yet in this case, what happened is precisely the opposite; A westerner exploited African people’s kindness, simplicity, trust, and willingness to help a friend and I am sure this situation escalated their mistrust in foreigners.

That night at the hostel, we all bonded over the loss and being duped by Mike. In spite of everything, people just kept telling me, “Don’t worry Rox, we are not going to let Mike ruin your birthday.”

So I decided to put it behind me. The next morning I woke up to so many phone calls and emails from my friends and family and my friend Shimrit knocked on my door with flowers, a gift, chocolate, and took me out to breakfast.

Later in the day, I went up to my room to get ready and Shimrit said, “Don’t come down until I call you.” Around 8:30 pm she walked me downstairs and I saw the whole restaurant was decorated with balloons, lights and a long table where all my friends were sitting. Yibe and Selome and some of their friends, a group of pharmacy students (who had kindly rescued us by giving us a ride home the night before), the three guys who we had gone on the trip with us, other guests from the hostel and many people from the Piazza community. The staff of the hotel pitched in and got me a huge birthday cake in the shape of a 30, some of the other travelers bought bottles of champagne, and everyone contributed to the celebration in one way or another. I saw that even in spite of something bad, people could be so good. We ate, danced, drank, sang and laughed together.

Throughout the night people kept coming up to me and saying “How did you make so many friends here this fast?” I wondered the same thing myself. I was so deeply touched by everyone’s kindness and couldn’t believe that in less than two weeks, I felt like I had so much in this country. The only answer I had is there is something special about Addis that made me feel so filled with love and so close to home, even when I was thousands of miles away. 

After all the celebrations and excitement, I woke up the next morning, for the first time in my new decade, and thought about if I felt different. I was the same person I was the day before when I was 29 however, turning 30, as corny as it sounds, I felt a new sense of empowerment. I realized there is not a better place I could imagine being in my life. Taking on this trip independently has taught me to trust my instincts (like I did with Mike) and not doubt my path in life. Society precribes that you should strive for certain milestones at 30 such as  have a career, get married, buy a home, and have children. However, I realized that what I am doing now, makes me feel just as fulfilled if not more than having those things. I am living every single moment of my life to the fullest and I feel alive in a way that I haven’t felt in a very long time. There is nothing holding me back in life.  I am embracing so many different experiences and seeing the world; I really couldn’t ask for anything more and I vowed to be proud of who I am and where I am in my life instead of dissing on 30.

As much as 30 represents independence and empowerment for me, even more so it has made me realize and appreciate the importance of relationships. I thought about all my friends and family back home who even from thousands of miles away were still a part of this moment in my life. How their love, support, and encouragement, is what gives my journey meaning. Then I thought about all the people I have met along the way and how through each person, even Mike, I have been able to see a piece of myself. That sometimes it doesn’t matter whether you have known someone for 20 years or for 20 seconds but it is about the connection you share. Being able to cultivate a community in such a foreign place like Ethiopia made me realize that community is not just where you live or where your friends/family are but anywhere you feel love. And this love is truly what makes us fulfilled in life: not necessarily the other milestones we are pressured to value.

I am a believer that everything happens for a reason. You are meant to be in certain places at certain times. I feel that somehow the stars aligned for me to be in Ethiopia and be on this incredible journey on my 30th birthday. I will forever be thankful to all the people who shared this birthday with me, made it such a unforgettable night and witnessed my transition into a new phase of life. Guess milestones are not such a bad thing to celebrate after all.

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