By popular request, I have compiled some of our family’s tips on successful homeland travel in Ethiopia. Not that I am an authority on the subject!… Others travel much more often than we did. But we had an amazingly successful trip, with happy children, happy grandparents, happy parents, and happy birth family at the end of the trip.
1.Plan your trip around your children’s wants and needs at this time.
We talked extensively with the girls about what their priorities were at this point in their lives, at seven years old, and 5 years from their adoption. Our recent trip was as much about reconnecting with Ethiopia, as it was about seeing family in person. So the girls made the priorities, and we executed them. We made sure that no one else’s priorities took precedent, and so we were able to do exactly what the girls needed on the trip. In our case, that was to go to the spa, spend time in the bush with wild animals, and see their family.
2.Take only useful people.
When planning the trip, we really thought about who we should invite and take along. We decided to invite my parents, and it was a great move. First of all, my mother has been to Ethiopia many times, and is comfortable in most situations. My father, well I was a little worried about him! in advance… I didn’t know how he would handle the culture shock. He just got very quiet for a few days, and after that, was like a duck in water. But I knew that the girls feel safe around him, and he would provide muscle , if needed. (Complicated family stuff.) He was also very helpful keeping an eye on the girls, and breaking the ice with young Ethiopian family members. The flipside is to make sure you don’t invite anyone to go on vacation. Homeland travel is about the kids, and their priorities can even easily get overthrown by adult priorities, especially people who have spent a lot of money to fly across the ocean.My advice is to not to take anyone who needs babysitting themselves. If they are uncomfortable in other cultures, not well-traveled, or have other high needs, take them on a cruise some other time. So in a nutshell, my tip is to take only people who want to be there to support the kids, not people who have their own agenda. Harsh, but that’s my advice.
3.Run scenarios about birth family.
Everybody has a different story, and everybody has a different relationship with their extended family in Ethiopia, or the country of your child’s birth. We have an open adoption, and my mother and I have this did the girls family before. But the last time that the girls were in personal contact with their family was five years ago, when we picked them up. So we knew exactly which family members we were going to see, but we didn’t know how they would react with the girls. We ran 1000 scenarios… And one or two more right before we left. We talked to doctors, counselors, and Ethiopians about what might happen with various groups of family members, and all that consultation and scenario forecasting totally paid off. The important part of this is that we talked through each scenario with the girls. No matter what happened, we knew what our plan was. The girls knew that if they were overwhelmed, we would allow them to stay in a safe place with a parent or grandparent. They also knew that they were not allowed to run off, and knew some of the cultural events that might happen. I can’t stress enough how much this paid off. We have extremely complicated extended family, and it helped us navigate what would have been several overwhelming days. (A side note, some people object to us saying our family, but within our open adoption, that’s what our I feel can family calls us and that’s what we called them. Family. And the parents and grandparents are included!)
4.Expose your child to as many cultural practices as possible before you go.
Honestly, we didn’t plan this. It was a complete surprise, how much the girls connections with Ethiopian Canadian culture and my many visits and experiences from Ethiopia paid off. The girls learned a few words that they have heard before in short order, the language wasn’t the mean thing. The main thing was that they understood the basic intricacies of social interaction. They knew that anybody who was connected to them in anyway would scoop them up and smother them with kisses. They knew to make themselves scarce and quiet when adults were having coffee. They knew to take their food last after the adults, and that stuffing their faces was mandatory. All those little tiny things really paid off, and the girls felt completely comfortable in Ethiopia. Well not completely… Sugar did find Addis too busy for her. But aside from that, they were right at home. Fish in water.
5.Build in time for processing feelings.
My girls actually suggested that I put this on the list, because for them it was a huge part of the success of the trip. When we were planning our adventures, we made sure that we had time just as a family, without the excitement of Ethiopian family, friends, or volunteering. Even time away from the grandparents. For us, the times our little family feels closest is in remote locations with few distractions. Every family is different, but you know when you really gel and connect with each other: You need to make sure that this happens during the trip. My dad suggested that we go to the bush, Lake Langano, after our visit with the girls’ family, just in case they had big feelings to process. Well, the big feelings still haven’t arrived… But having that space and time with us together was wonderful. The girls also said they really appreciated having every evening together, with no distractions. We made sure that, when in Addis, we stayed at the same guesthouse each night, with private space and a little garden. That meant that there was consistency in location and in routine, even amongst our travels.
Hopefully these tips and tricks for homeland travel are useful to you. Again, every situation is different, but I recommend going as soon and as often as you can afford. We told the girls that their next trip will be within five years, and they are happy with that. In closing, the second-biggest question I always get is about the fallout of our trip. “Do the girls have unresolved feelings, or big nagging doubts or questions?” We ran the scenarios! Lol, as you we’ll imagine. But the truth is, the culture shock and angst simply didn’t happen. Maybe because we were so prepared, or maybe because we were lucky, but our trip to Ethiopia was a highlight in the girls’ lives so far.
In February 2014, we took our daughters back to Ethiopia for the first time, since their adoption in 2009. This is one of many blog posts we have written about our family’s homeland trip. I also go to Ethiopia every year with our charity, Vulnerable Children Society, so there are additional blogposts from all my trips to Ethiopia to enjoy!