Ethiopia? Why on earth are you going to Ethiopia?"
This - proclaimed in a startled tone of voice - seemed to be the standard reaction as I told friends and colleagues that I had seized a last-minute opportunity to take a nine-day trip to this East African nation.
Why indeed, I began asking myself as I packed my bag the night before leaving late this winter. I knew Ethiopia was one of the poorest nations on the face of the earth, a country still facing an intensifying famine in its south. At the time, it was also fighting a vicious border war to the north. I also knew that the reason I had been extended a late invitation to join a tour group was that other participants had become fearful and dropped out.
Maybe, I told myself, as I tucked mosquito repellent and Band-Aids into a far corner of my bag, this was not such a great idea.
But it was too late for doubts. Before I knew it, I was boarding a plane bound for Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, still almost entirely ignorant about the country I was to visit. Some vague mental images of vast desert spaces being invaded by the Italian Army were all I could conjure up. I had everything yet to learn.
Ethiopia, I would discover, is a singular nation in many respects. It is the only African country never to have been colonized. It also inhabits its own peculiar time zone: Its official calendar is eight years behind the rest of the world's.
Ethiopians insist that they are the direct descendants of a king born to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Such legendary origins would, of course, account for the renowned physical beauty of the people.
The nation's character also appears to have been touched by a special grace, a native warmth untarnished by the poverty in which so many of its inhabitants live.
I did not yet know these things, however, when I got off the plane in Addis Ababa, and I wasn't sufficiently prepared for the sight that greeted me outside the airport.
Throngs of people stood in waiting, restrained by metal fencing, but eagerly watching the foreigners spilling out the airport doors. I hadn't yet heard the word faranji ("foreigner"), which would follow me everywhere I went, but it was my first taste of being regarded with the mix of desperate neediness and intense curiosity that would pervade much of the next nine days of my experience.
Addis Ababa - with its broad boulevards and odd, retro-looking archways with fading Marxist slogans painted on them - had its own peculiar charm. But as I wandered its streets that first day with a few companions from the tour group, mostly I was conscious of the poverty. This, I learned, was not the result of the recent drought or ongoing famine. It was the chronic state of life in this third-world country.
Beggars and the curious surrounded us wherever we went. Eventually we fell into step with a group of young boys, their clothes streaked with dust, but their faces somehow lit with a disarming innocence. It was impossible not to feel drawn to them, and yet I also felt wary, not quite sure what they were hoping for or how far to trust them.
I was not sorry when we finally said goodbye to the boys at the gate of our hotel that evening.
We were scheduled to leave Addis Ababa the next day and spend a week traveling through the center of the country. But what actually began the following morning was more like the unspooling of a long ribbon of incomparable moments.
We climbed through fantastic, inexplicable churches carved out of living rock. We toured crumbling castles and saw medieval monasteries on remote islands. We fed wild hyenas and wandered in the dust of a camel market.
One night we fell asleep in candlelit hotel rooms, listening to the combined howling of wild dogs and roosters. Another morning found us at an inn perched among mountain peaks, being gently awakened by the distant chant of prayers drifting up through the cool air.
But what was most astonishing to me, everywhere we went, were the children.
There were throngs of them, hordes of them - all of them laughing, eager, intelligent, remarkably beautiful. Sometimes they were bold (mostly the boys), occasionally they were shy (mostly the girls), but they were always curious, clinging, calling to us hopefully, unable to turn away from us, and yet all somehow marked by that strange, unearthly, and extremely touching innocence.
When we finally returned to Addis Ababa to fly home, the end of any wariness on my part toward Ethiopian children was quickly evidenced by my pleasure in rediscovering the same boys who had accompanied us on our first day. No longer on my guard, I thrilled them by letting them work my camera. I photographed them all, promising to send copies once I got home.
"All friends together," beamed one small fellow, clutching my arm as my little posse escorted me back to the hotel.
I thought of that happy young face many times in the days that followed, as I slipped back into daily life at home and saw the papers now full of accounts of that country's devastating famine. But it was only as I read the news stories that I began to grasp for the first time why I had needed to travel to Ethiopia.
In part it was so I could understand that famine and drought are not the whole of that strangely blessed country. But even more urgently, it was so I could never again imagine that the famine was a thing happening to strangers. It was part of the lives of those tender young faces that - for a few days - had surrounded me with such beauty.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society