3 Important Life Lessons We Almost Didn’t Learn

It’s hard to believe there was a time we considered cancelling our trip to Ethiopia. Things happening thousands of miles away from Addis Ababa almost kept us away. Ebola in western Africa, school girls getting kidnapped in Nigeria, violence at various African borders, vague travel warnings issued by the State Department. It all sounded legitimately frightening from afar. We’d researched this part of our trip so extensively, talked with people living in the city, learned everything we might need to know as a family going to the continent. Our logic told us this would be a safe and incredibly valuable experience for our family. Yet, our fears nagged at us with unfounded what-ifs and paranoid possibilities.

Luckily, we managed to focus on the facts and not on our fears. Looking back now, we can’t imagine having skipped what turned out to be one of the most eye-opening experiences of our lives. Being in Ethiopia, even just for this short period, has taught us lessons we will keep with us forever. We met so many wonderful people that we will stay connected to for years to come. Helping at organizations throughout Addis gave our girls a perspective we never could have instilled in them through conversations, books or movies. Our family is forever changed. We’ve had a peek into what Africa has to offer and it’s given us a different perspective on life. While there are so many things we’ll take with us, three clear lessons will influence on our daily lives from now on.
Lesson #1: You Can’t Judge A Life by Its Clutter
Given this crazy, go-with-the-flow journey we’re taking with 3 kids in tow, it’s probably a little surprising to learn I’m a bit of a Type A personality. I used to make sure the kitchen was spotless before I went to bed. I would tell my daughter I couldn’t read her a book because I had to put the laundry away – right that very minute. Driving up to my home my eyes would focus on those pesky weeds pushing their way up through the sidewalk cracks and minutes later I’d be out there with the weed killer, squirting away in my work clothes. These are the confessions of the closet neat freak. If I could add up the hours of my life spent making things perfectly clean and tidy….well, actually I shouldn’t do that because it would be incredibly depressing.

Our time in Ethiopia has shown me the error of my ways. I’ve been slapped in the face with a filthy and cluttered metaphorical hand, and it’s helped me put things in perspective. Walking through Addis, we’d pass the remains of decaying animals, tread on crumbling sidewalks and dodge piles of trash. We saw grimy signs, colossal weeds, and rusty metal buildings. Suffice it to say, Addis is not a place overly concerned with appearances. Life just happens. Sometimes it’s messy, sometimes it’s beautiful. Sometimes you step in it and spend half an hour scraping it off the bottom of your shoe. It’s not perfectly manicured or organized in a cabinet.
Being in a place like Addis that’s so disorderly helped me see how out of order my domestic priorities were. The work and chores came first, which meant the most important people in my life often came second. This viewpoint seems so ridiculous now as I stand in a more enlightened, comfortable-with-the-mess place. I think my meticulous mentality was the result of the fast-paced treadmill our family was on, going from one meeting or practice to the next. When things felt chaotic and overwhelming, the ability to make my physical environment “orderly” helped convince me everything was going as it should. The tidy kitchen and weed-free sidewalk camouflaged the frenetic pace we were keeping and the damage it was doing to our family’s relationships.

While I’m not going to boycott housecleaning, I also know I’m not going back to my neat freak ways. Ethiopia taught me when it comes to the appearance of things, there’s a happy medium. It’s somewhere between rotting animal carcasses in the yard and cleaning out the dishwasher’s detergent compartment with a Q-tip. (Not that I ever did that….) Putting the clothes away can wait, the kitchen doesn’t have to be perfect, the beds don’t have to be made every day. We won’t be living in filth, but my household priorities have certainly shifted. Making someone feel good will always come before making something look good.

Lesson #2: It Feels Better to Just Share the Wealth
No one likes to think they’re getting taken advantage of. As Americans, our entrepreneurial, hard-working spirits lead us to look for the best bargain and turn a cold shoulder when someone attempts to get the better end of the deal. However, Ethiopia showed us that getting taken for a ride isn’t all that bad. Especially when you’re a westerner in a developing nation where a large portion of the population lives on less than $2 a day.

It hit home for us when we went on a camping trip with a big group of friends and our housemates. When our vans pulled up to the Lake Wenchi area a crowd of locals surrounded us. We piled out and one of our Ethiopian friends was in immediate discussions with the local guide. It seemed the price had gone up a bit when half the party turned out to be white ferenji. After sorting out the cost of hauling our gear into the camp site, we began our trek down into a beautiful river valley. There we would take horses through the river gorge leading into the Wenchi Crater Lake.
Originally thought to be about 10 Birr per horse, when we arrived the price had gone up to 100 Birr. After a gorgeous ride in, we eventually arrived at the waterfront, where we would take a boat over to our campsite. Again, the price for the ride had shot up to 100 Birr per person. Despite the great day we’d had, frustration rippled through our group. Really? We were going to get charged 10 times the expected amount?! These people were taking us for a ride! Literally and figuratively!

But then Brian and I had a bit of a financial epiphany. These 100 Birr fees we were so irritated by equated to $5 each. In the U.S., if we wanted to go on a 2-hour horseback riding adventure, it would cost at least $50. A ferry ride somewhere would be at least $10 or more. It wasn’t the money that was the problem, it was this feeling we were getting “screwed over” because we were tourists. So we stepped back and took a look at the big picture. Who exactly was getting the raw end of the deal here?
The abundance switch flipped on for us in Ethiopia. With the incredible wealth disparity we’ve seen, it seems crazy to complain about paying a fee to a family living without electricity or indoor plumbing. The question for us going forward will be whether or not we can afford it, not whether or not we’re getting a “good deal.” This mentality will follow us back home to the United States as well. While in Ethiopia we were seeing a different kind of poverty, but similar struggles happening in our own country were never far from our minds. Our experiences in Ethiopia will make us more generous toward our fellow citizens from now on.

Lesson #3: Change the Attitude into Gratitude
Clean water. Healthy food. Shelter. Clothing. As we’ve met people working so desperately hard to acquire life’s most basic needs, we’ve become more appreciative for things we once took for granted. Gratitude abounds when you visit a place like Ethiopia. Gratitude for the things you have. Gratitude for the people and organizations working to improve lives. Gratitude for the experience, because having seen it up close you’re now a happier person. It seems like backwards logic to say that seeing poverty, disease and other tragedies of humanity have made us happier. Certainly we aren’t a family of cruel, sadistic people finding joy in the pain of others. This experience has simply put life into perspective. It’s not only made us realize how many things our family has to be thankful for, but it’s also shown us the countless good things happening to combat the tragic situations our world faces.

We are so glad we didn’t let our fears of the unknown keep us from our experience in Ethiopia. We only wish we’d made the trip longer. We would have had more time with our new friends and the organizations we worked with, and more time to digest the many lessons that come from visiting this beautiful yet struggling country, full of opportunities and challenges. Ethiopia has given us many reasons to go back again someday.
Uno night
Tyson on his birthday

About the Author

Mom, wife, friend and change agent traveling the world with my family to learn our place in it. After spending a career in organizational change management and community initiative implementation, I put my career on hold for our family's trip around the world. In April of 2014 we sold almost everything we own, put the rest in a storage container, and departed on this journey. While my husband continued his software development work to financially support our trip, I planned and documented our adventure, homeschooled our three daughters, and found volunteer work opportunities for us to do in the communities we visit. Now that we've returned to the U.S., I'm completing book about our family's adventure and our lessons learned.

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  1. I have loved taking the journey beside you. I have found the accounts of your travels up lifting. I am Reuben’s step mother. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself with us.

  2. Lesson #2 is great! I need to remind myself of that sentiment when I travel. I have enjoyed the pictures from Ethiopia. Brian did a great job of capturing the natural beauty.

  3. As an Ethiopian, these pictures totally brought back memories. I agree with your lessons, I always return back to London feeling somewhat more appreciative of what I have!

    Please post more 🙂

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