Carla’s Trip Journal — Installment 1

NOTE: I made notes for this blog while I was in Ethiopia on a trip to deliver quilts tor orphans and needy children for Quilts Beyond Borders. As background, this was my first trip to Ethiopia in 46 years, but I had spent my childhood in Ethiopia as the daughter of the man who headed the National Airline Training Project, working to train the employees of Ethiopian Airlines. I arrived in Ethiopia at the age of two and left at eleven. I became involved with Quilts Beyond Borders in 2008, because it combined my love for quilting and my love for Ethiopia. This trip was extremely exciting and emotional for me because of my background. It was made even better since I was accompanied by two of my dear friends, Brenda Barnett and Linda Visentin, who I’ve known for many years and who both have made quilts with me for QBB over the last few years. Journal entries and pictures will be posted over the next several days.

Within the last year I’ve gotten back in touch with a number of the children I grew up with in Ethiopia. Some of you might remember that I wrote an entry some time back about a fellow who’d contacted me because he’d read my Father’s Day blog, and was trying to reconnect with his high school sweetheart, whose father worked for Ethiopian Airlines at the same time my dad did. Since then, we’ve found many of our childhood friends, and we’ve made new friends that were there at the same time. Because of that, I know my blog entries will be read by two audiences – the “Addis Kids” with whom I grew up and the many wonderful volunteers who have made quilts for QBB. Therefore, some of you might find yourself a little bored at all the details about the trip and about Addis, and others might find themselves a little bored at all the info about quilts. My apologies to both groups! I’ll do the best I can, and hope you can all find something to enjoy. Cheers!

Prep for Trip

Week before:
Packing 150 quilts for a trip half a world away isn’t a trivial exercise. The quilts are all “crib-sized”, approximately 42×60”, and weigh somewhere between 1 and 2 pounds each. We packed up 50 for Brenda in two large duffle bags, “amidst much laughter”, as they say. We took a couple of trips to WalMart along the way, buying a 32-inch collapsible wheeled duffle (at 2 pounds and only $14, we consider this the deal of the year!) and multiple space-bags. My dogs went nuts every time we turned the vacuum on to suck out the air, and it took several hours to complete the task of stuffing all the quilts into space bags and stuffing all the space bags into duffle bags. I’d already sent 20 quilts to Linda to add to the ones she’d received directly from quilters, and I knew she was going through the same exercise in New York.

The Ethiopia trip isn’t the only endeavor that QBB has going on. We’re also sending 120 to children in Uganda and I promised to send 55 to contribute to that effort. So I pick through the stacks of quilts, pulling out 50 for me to take to Ethiopia, including the ones I made personally, and I start packing the rest for Uganda. Along the way I discover several I received recently that need some work. Quilts that are hand-quilted are lovely, but unlikely to hold up to the “iffy” laundry conditions in the orphanages. Therefore, I had to throw several of the quilts on my frame and long-arm them, trying to stick with the “spirit” of the quilting that had been done, but make the quilts sturdy enough to survive really brutal laundry conditions. I manage to get enough quilts together for Uganda, and pack them all in boxes to send to Oklahoma to await couriers to Uganda and then packed 50 for myself to take to Ethiopia. At this point, “much laughter” had left the building, and I was pretty burned out on packing. But at last it was done and I was ready to rock ‘n roll.

Day before departure:
Linda called on the verge of tears. She’d miscounted the quilts, and realized that she had 43 ready to go, and the remainder required binding or other work. She was terribly concerned that we would be leaving 7 orphans uncovered. I pulled 3 more out of my paltry remaining supply, put them on the frame and finished them up, squeezing them into one of my bags. Linda packed up four unbound quilts with binding, and we made plans to finish them up during the evenings so they’ll be ready for primetime by the time we have to deliver quilts to the last of the orphanages on the agenda.

The Trip

We left Chicago early Wednesday, April 18th. Jim (Brenda’s husband) and Cliff (mine) dropped us off at American Airlines with our seven (yikes!!) bags, five of which held 103 quilts. The other two, our carry-ons, held all the clothes we’d wear for the next two weeks. We’d heard that some of the airlines waived the excess baggage charges for charitable missions, and we threw ourselves on the mercy of our ticket agents, but they were apparently unimpressed. We went to the gate 5 bags and $270 lighter. (Note to self — check out the baggage policies of other airlines for the next trip!)

The flight to Dallas was uneventful (always a good thing!) and we linked up with Linda at the gate for our trip to Frankfurt. Linda had been charged $210 for her 3 bags of quilts. We’re contemplating future involvement in a charity that transports paperclips or something equally small the next time out…

The flight from Dallas to Frankfurt took about 1000 hours. We arrived in Frankfurt before most people had apparently awakened, and found the terminal practically deserted. We walked the hallways trying to figure out where we were supposed to go for sustenance during our fourteen hour (!!!!) layover, and were occasionally passed by a person riding a bicycle, a Segway or a golf cart. It was a little like being in a Fellini movie. Eventually people started to appear, and we discovered a few shops and restaurants. I also discovered that I was with the ultimate glass-half-full-glass-half-empty twosome when Brenda turned to me and said, “There are REALLY a LOT of good-looking men in this airport!” at almost the exact time that Linda turned to me and said, “WHY are ALL THESE GUYS picking their NOSES?????”

At 10 that night we boarded an Ethiopian Airlines plane to go to Addis Ababa.  Someone told me recently that they never took Ethiopian Airlines because they didn’t want to deal with the chickens running up and down the aisle. Since the last trip I’d taken on EAL was in 1966, I wasn’t qualified to respond, but after two trips in April, I just want to say that guy was full of beans! If he sees chickens running up and down the aisle, he either has an over-active imagination or he’s been smoking something. I’d like to disabuse everyone of any notion that Ethiopian Airlines is a dirty lousy airline. With more legroom than any airline in the States that I’ve flown over the last 20 years, it was an absolute delight. We were in Economy Class, and frankly I was treated better than I’ve been treated in Business Class on any US airline. The food was actually “restaurant-good”, and the flight attendants (male and female) were very attractive and attentive. They offered us newspapers (when’s the last time THAT happened in the US in coach class??) at the beginning of the trip, and a hot washcloth for our hands at the end of the flights. Their English was excellent. The plane was spotlessly clean, even the bathrooms. I’m pleased to report that the bathrooms on the Ethiopian Airlines flights are big enough to turn around in, and aren’t nearly as claustrophobic (or dirty) at the ones you see in the States. Both Linda and Brenda told me it was the best flight they can remember taking. Those of us whose fathers helped to build that airline can take pleasure in knowing that it’s still a world-class airline. I’ll fly it
every chance I get!

The Arrival

We arrived in Addis at 6:30 AM. The money exchange wasn’t open yet, but we were able to buy visas using US Dollars. Ethiopia has arrangements with some countries, including the US and Canada, whereby we can buy visitor visas at the airport, rather than having to buy them ahead of time. While we were standing in line to get the visas we met a woman from Canada who was coming to Ethiopia to adopt a child. She was the first of several adoptive parents we were to meet on our trip.

Once we’d gotten our visas, we went through passport control, and then stood in line again to get money. It’s illegal to bring more than 20 Ethiopian Birr (the equivalent of about $1.14 total!) in or out of the country, so it was a long line. Once we got our money and picked up our (ELEVEN!) suitcases, we had only one more stop – Customs!

I guess eyebrows get raised when 3 people on visitor visas bring 11 suitcases, 8 of them quite large, through Customs. The Customs officials were standing in front of a large pile of clothes and things they had confiscated. I’d never heard any of my QBB colleagues tell me that they’d had issues with Customs, and I wasn’t anticipating any issues. In response to his questions, I told them we were with a charity called Quilts Beyond Borders and that we were bringing quilts for children in several of the orphanages in Ethiopia. First problem – he had no idea what a quilt was. I explained that it was a bed covering, like a blanket. Then he wanted to know if they were new. I said yes, that they’d been newly made for the children by volunteers. Then he pointed at one of the space bags in the first duffle and told me to open it up.

Visions of 150 quilts suddenly sucking in air and growing and expanding and billowing out flew through my mind. I knew we’d never be able to unpack them for his inspection and then somehow manage to squish them down and pack them all back up and get them out into a single car or van in a reasonable period of time. It took us days to pack up, and it was going to take days if we had to do it all over again! “Okay,” I said calmly. “They’re all vacuum-packed, and we’ll need a vacuum to re-pack them again. Do you have a vacuum?”

“No,” he replied. “What can you show me?”

I opened one of the small space bags that we’d tucked into the end of one of the duffles at the last minute. It only had 2 quilts in it.

“Are they new?” he asked.

“Yes, of course,” I replied. “They were made by American women for the orphans.”

He unfolded one of the quilts, and showed me the label. Unfortunately the quilt had been washed and the ink on the label had bled a little.

“THIS is NEW???” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied with great certainty, “but they were all washed after they were made.”

Then he asked if we had identification for Quilts Beyond Borders. I only had a business card, and Brenda and Linda didn’t have that. So THEN he asked if we had a letter from the requesting organization. Nope, we didn’t have that either.

At this point I think the poor man had no idea what to do with us. He let us through with a lecture to bring proper documentation the next time, and we promised that we would.

I consider us very lucky to have gotten through that. Since then I’ve talked to another charity that attempted to bring in sweaters for children and had them all confiscated. I also understand that Customs routinely takes anything deemed to be “used clothing” in excess of what the traveler has for themselves, because they feel that the influx of large amounts of used clothing for sale or donation into Ethiopia could eat into the market for domestically produced textiles.

Finally out the airport doors, we looked at the crowds waiting for people and spotted a young woman, coltishly loping toward us with a big grin on her face. It was Carolyn Williams, Program Manager of Cherokee House, the guesthouse of Cherokee Gives Back, where we would be staying for most of the time while in Ethiopia. Caroline had done a wonderful job of lining up a driver (Haile, who’d been the driver for Karen and Carolyn, when they went to Addis last year) and arranging an itinerary for us that included quilt deliveries to 3 orphanages and 2 feeding centers and giving lessons for 5 women who would teach 25 HIV-positive young single mothers to sew.

The drive from the airport seemed like we were in another world. Brenda and Linda probably expected that, but I really expected to recognize things – after all, Ethiopia had been my home for 9 years, right? Of course that was 46 years ago. However, every once in a while I’d find myself shouting, “I remember that fountain!”, and asking, “Are we on Jimma Road?” It was a bit surreal.

The day’s agenda included dropping us off at the Umma Hotel, where we would stay for the first night (Cherokee House was full the first day we arrived, hosting a group from North Carolina).  Then after a short snooze and shower we’d have lunch someplace and then head up to the Kingdom Vision International Orphanage for the first delivery. I’ll leave off here tonight and pick up tomorrow to tell about our first day in Ethiopia – and I’ll have lots of pictures!


3 Responses to “Carla’s Trip Journal — Installment 1”

  1. Nan Vermillion Says:

    Can’t wait for the next installment–I’m lovin’ it!!

  2. Ollie Gayle Kryszczuk Says:

    I really enjoyed reading the 1st part. Sounds like a adventure for sure.
    Ollie K

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