Addis Interlude: Helplessness Blues

Confidence and travel go hand in hand. As travelers at home, either preparing for or coming off a trip, we hear over and over again, "How do you do all that without knowing the language?" or "Aren't you scared to just go off to a place you don't know?" or "How will you get around on your own?" All legit questions, all answerable with "You just do it." 


You learn a little of the language, you look at some maps, you email some hotels, you get some vaccinations. To this day, I, an admittedly anxious person, still feel a node of worry in my stomach, but ultimately, I know I have to defeat it to do what I love most and make the trip happen. So most of the time, I'm actively quashing that worry and telling myself it'll all work out - and it almost always does. 

And then.

And then, when you're on a flight back to Addis Ababa from Dire Dawa, knowing that you leave the next day on a 7 a.m. flight to Lalibela, you notice your travel companion looking more than a little peaked. Your travel companion who is, really, the one who has the lion's share of the confidence and calm and resourcefulness. And then you slowly, quietly, as imperceptibly as you can, freak the f*@& out, in hopes that your newfound panic won't make him feel worse. 

My husband rarely gets sick, and I have never in our 12 years together seen him anywhere approaching the level of illness that blossomed within him between Dire Dawa and Addis. I could see him actively holding it together enough to get a cab to take us to our hotel, check in and get to the room. Ashen, limp and listless, he crawled into bed, one of two spots he would occupy for the next 12 hours or so.


This being just a few days into our trip, we were reticent to break out the antibiotics, which have to be used in a series, leaving him antibiotic-less for the remainder. As I read the list of side effects, it seemed that they weren't all too different from the symptoms he was experiencing, which would leave us no real way of knowing whether he was improving or not. But really, we had no choice. Down the hatch. 

I wanted nothing more than to WebMD the hell out of his symptoms, but I travel without techie things like smartphones and laptops and I didn't want to leave his bedside to go use the computer (located in another building), as I was sure that if I did, he'd drown in vomit within 2 minutes of my absence. My brain, in its infinitely morbid creativity, conjured scenes of me struggling to carry my limp husband through the streets of Addis, begging in vain for directions to a hospital. Knowing I needed to get some food in him, and fast, I took my chances and ran downstairs to get soft bread, bananas and a few liters of water.

The watch-and-wait game that followed gave me a taste of what real helplessness felt like - and so too the fear that accompanies it. I looked out from our balcony as dusk descended and Addis grew steadily bigger, more indecipherable; not menacing, but profoundly indifferent to two distressed foreigners. In that moment, I couldn't help but ask myself why the hell we were doing this - flinging ourselves into the wide open world, when we, as humans, are such vulnerable and delicate beings, capable of puking ourselves to death. I couldn't come up with much of an answer, but there I sat, in Addis, immobilized. When you're alone and helpless and thousands of miles away from anyone who knows your middle name and remembers when you had chicken pox, you just have to deal with it.

By about 4:30 a.m., my ragged patient was insisting that he could make the flight. He remained gracefully patient as I fired a barrage of "Are you sure?" queries every few minutes, insisting that we could eat the $70 ticket cost if he needed to stay in bed. He soldiered on and eventually looked less haggard as we ate stale cakes in the one open restaurant in the airport. I knew he was truly making progress when he cracked wise about how crappy our breakfast was.

Somewhere nearby, in the terminal, someone was roasting fresh coffee beans for buna. We boarded our plane. Shortly thereafter, we touched down in the hills of Lalibela. And suddenly, again, it made sense why we were doing this.