Monday, November 18, 2013

A Note to Myself, and Other Adoptive Families Headed Towards Ethiopia

This is a very long, mostly adoption/culture-related post that won’t apply to most people.  Just sayin’.

Seat belts aren't necessary
When my husband and I travel internationally, we know we stick out.  There aren’t tons of white people here in Addis.  In fact, it’s rather surprising to see another one on the street!  So our glowing skin must scream “American tourist” in so many languages.  However, that being said, we do try not to stand out any more than we have to.  We try to get along as best as we can with the nationals and not demand too many “American” things.  So I’m compiling a list of things that have helped us and might also help another family traveling to Ethiopia.  Feel free to add to my list in the comments section!

Women: Mostly, they wear skirts here.  Long pants are acceptable, but primarily it’s longer skirts.  Tops have sleeves and do not show any cleavage.  Indeed, the only tank tops I’ve seen are on white girls.  Usually there is a wide scarf to wrap around your head or neck, or whole self.  Many women wear scarves over their heads, Muslim or not.  According to our hostess, it doesn’t matter one way or the other for most women.  You can do whatever you want.  Nothing has to match, as long as it covers you!  Looking “cute” here isn’t necessary, thank goodness!

Men: I think I've’ve seen one pair of gym shorts.  Long pants are definitely the norm.  It’s not super warm here, so long pants aren’t a burden.  Long or short sleeve shirts are ok, but certainly no tank tops. 

Shoes: Closed-toed shoes are almost necessary.  Because of the uneven ground and random bits of debris, it is great to have something more substantial protecting your feet.  In the rainy season, I’d suggest rain boots since the streets turn to mud with even the slightest rain.  Many of the side
I love international stop signs.  They are not
very common here, and no one seems to
pay attention to them.  Hmm.
streets are not paved.  This isn’t an indication of a “bad” area necessarily.  They just haven’t gotten to putting cobble stones on the roads yet.
  • ·         Most things are given or received with the right hand.  I’ve noticed that this is not an absolute, depending on the circumstances: a woman holding a baby might find the only hand available to pick up a diaper bag or give her baby food is her left hand.  Evidently that is ok.  But waving, picking something up, eating, accepting something handed to you… go with the right hand. 
  • ·         It’s respectful to shake hands or give/accept something with your right hand, and your left hand supporting your right forearm near the elbow. 
  • ·         There is a greeting where someone will extend their right fist about waist level.  Treat it like a handshake.  This caused mass confusion for me, but evidently if someone’s hand is dirty, they will present their fist or the outside of their arm.  Just shake their wrist lightly. 
  • ·         Greetings are done with a slight bow to show respect.
  • ·         Greetings between women that have previously met: the whole kissing thing on both cheeks.  Yup.  I’m one who freaks out at women kissing me, so thankfully this is just a kiss-sound in the direction of your face while pressing the sides of your heads together.  (Usually.)  You always kiss both cheeks, not just one (so I was reprimanded), and it seems like the more you know someone, the more times you kiss them.  I don’t see this among men, but from time to time I’ve seen it between and man and a woman, but it’s infrequent.  Men pretty much don’t touch women unless it’s a handshake in greeting, and women don’t really touch men.  
  • ·         Men are more touchy-feely in general.  It is common to see men walking down the street with their arm around each other’s shoulders, holding hands, leaning on the other, etc.  It’s not creepy, it’s just friendly. 
  • ·         Unlike some other cultures, there really isn’t a class system here.  People are respectful of each other, rich or poor, and regardless of tribe/region.
  • ·         Tribal markings are pretty common, so don’t be shocked to see women with tattoos on their face.  Usually they are pretty subtle- dark tattoos on dark skin. 
  • ·         It’s acceptable for men to turn to the side of the road to urinate.
  • ·         It is common to eat with your hands.  It’s not a lack of propriety, and it’s not done sloppily.  Actually, the Ethiopians have made a sort of art form of it.  Napkins are a totally Western thing. Don’t assume one will be provided!
  • ·         Most things are done with cash, including our guest house, driver, taxi, etc.  Bring plenty, as there are not ATMs on every corner.  A 25 minute drive across the city, two hour wait, and a drive back may cost you $40.  A safe estimate would be about $150/day.
  • ·         It seems as if most Ethiopians are honest.  Even the times we’ve walked the streets at night, I’ve felt safe.  Now, remember that Ethiopians blend in with the dark, and are hard to see.  J  We, however, are like glow-sticks.
  • ·         Animals aren’t pets.  There are horses, donkeys, dogs, goats, etc., in the most unique places (i.e. middle of the street), but they are either used for work or let free to roam.  Approaching to pet is probably not wise.
  • ·         Electricity and wifi aren’t always reliable.  In the first days we were here, we had 36 hours without power.  It was unusual for it to last that long, but power outages of 30-60 minutes are not uncommon.  Don’t assume you’ll be able to always use or charge your kindle/smart phone/ipad/laptop etc.  Data is actually illegal for most people here (I think our lawyer here has it). 

Guys everywhere are selling brooms and mopw
Things to bring:
Just up the street from us: a few local fruit markets
  • ·         A converter.  The plugs are different here.
  • ·         Airborne/Zicam/anti-cold stuff.  It’s currently saving my bacon.
  • ·         Hand sanitizer.
  • ·         A water bottle, since you’ll be using it all the time.  You can’t drink the tap water, so even brushing your teeth will be from a water bottle.  Bottled water is pretty inexpensive.  Because of the high elevation, you must drink more water than normal! 
  • ·         Anti-diarrhea medicine (for when you don’t drink enough water).
  • ·         Melatonin.  My friend in China told me to pick some up before I left the States to help me adjust to the time change.  It’s great!  It makes you sleepy, but not groggy, and when you’re wide awake at 2am, ready to start the day, it’s a life saver! 
  • ·         Powdered laundry soap in a bag.  Our guest house will do laundry for us, but I feel bad asking someone else to wash my clothes.  You can bring fewer clothes this way, too.
  • ·         Bug lotion/spray.  She says they are not mosquitoes, but they sure sound like mosquitoes and they itch like mosquitoes.  And they are heck when you’re trying to sleep.
  • ·         Anti-itch stuff for the not-mosquitoes.  They are driving me nuts.
  • ·         Ear plugs.  A MUST.  Great for the airplane, and even better for the 2am-10am Orthodox Church music that happens between Thursday night and Sunday morning.  We figured out that the sound carries, but is amplified as it echoes off the concrete building outside our bedroom. 
  • ·         A backpack- carries everything discretely.
  • ·         Dust masks if you have allergies to dust or diesel fumes. 
  • ·         Obviously you need passports, but you MUST bring them to your court appearance!  And, you need them to exchange money. 

Donkeys high-tailing it off the road

About the kiddos:
  • ·         At least for our orphanage, there is a need for cloth diapers (with snaps or Velcro), and clothes.  It would be nice to bring some as a gift.
  • ·         It is not uncommon to see boys wearing girls clothes or vice versa at the orphanage.  In fact, our son came out in girl clothes when we first met him, and we had no idea he was ours…  it made for a few awkward moments of “is she ours??” before we were enlightened.  Oops.  Parenting fail.
  • ·         It seems as if children are dressed in layers upon layers of clothing.  Our son was wearing a onesie, a dress, flannel pants, and a hoodie over it all, and the day was mild and cloudy.  Our daughter was wearing a onesie on her head as a hat, along with multiple rompers. 
  • ·         Don’t assume that the lack of “American standards” in the orphanage indicates a lack of care of love for the children.  At least where our kids are at (and we are VERY blessed!), our kiddos are well fed, clean, loved, looked after, and…. moderately safe?  J No hand rails, baby gates, soft floors, table bumpers, etc.  But, I’d rather they have concrete with love than all the stuff in the world without love. 
  • ·         Bring cookies or chocolate to bribe your child to stop screaming at you.  It works, and it’s cultural to feed someone you love.  We found chocolate wafers at the market for about 60 cents.

I’m sure there are more things, but this is all I can think of at the moment.  J  Hope it helps!

*** A few other things I thought of:

  • Don't flush the toilet paper.  There is a trashcan by the toilet where you throw it away.
  • "Standing in line" is not part of this culture, in general.  If you're not assertive, you may be constantly pushed to the back.
  • Carry toilet paper with you.  It is not always provided in public restrooms.
  • It is common to be patted down by security before entering a building.  Men with men, and women with women, but it is a very thorough pat down.  
  • A "yes" is often indicated by a sharp intake of breath and a jerk of the head upwards. 


  1. The one about a fist about waist high being a variation of a handshake is good advice. I think I definitely would have viewed that as a fist bump and probably would have caused some issues.

  2. Wonderful list! Thank you! Many of the things to bring are things I've taken other places like China - especially dealing with drinking water. But it's so good to know many of the cultural things. And how much cash.

  3. sells inexpensive, but nice diaper covers and supports orphans in China.