How A Surprise Trip To Ethiopia Gave Me Hope In The Time Of COVID

How A Surprise Trip To Ethiopia Gave Me Hope In The Time Of COVID
Now is as good a time as any to evaluate what we all individually want and actually need in our lives.

(abovethelaw)–“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s OK. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.” Anthony Bourdain.

As the world was beginning to sequester into lockdown and come to the realization that Covid-19 was not just China’s problem, but OUR problem, I found myself traversing through eerily empty international airports en-route to Ethiopia. My week in Ethiopia would consist of completing an assignment to meet with families who lost their loved ones in the Ethiopian Airlines ET302 plane crash, followed by a side trip to some of the most remote tribes in the world – a place where they are only now ending the ritualistic killing of “cursed” children born out of wedlock and where “Lucy,” the world’s most famous early human ancestor, was found (her remains are 3.2 million years old).

In my thirty-eight years on this planet, I have traveled to seventy-nine countries in a quest to reach one hundred. I travel mostly for pleasure, sometimes for work. Ethiopia was my seventy-eighth country. I embarked on this trip without the realization that this place would instill me with a profound new perspective on life I would desperately need in the coming months in light of this Covid nightmare.

How did I get to Ethiopia in the first place? Flashing back to “ski week” in California, I was standing by a pool with my friend Cathy and our three children at a hotel in Lake Tahoe feeling somewhat sorry for my eight-year old son who had shed a few tears earlier in the day about the lack of snow. Climate change had ruined his ski week. At that moment, my colleague Craig Brown, CEO of Bridgeline Solutions, our temporary legal placement division, called me and asked if I’d like to go to Ethiopia in two weeks. “Of course,” I replied, “for what?”

Craig was asked by Ken Feinberg and Camille Biros, Administrators of the Boeing Financial Assistance Fund and long-time clients of Bridgeline on domestic and international matters requiring contract attorneys, to go to Ethiopia himself to assist the Fund, but, when Craig couldn’t go, I jumped at the opportunity to represent Bridgeline on this journey. Ken and Camille are renowned in the area of distributing monies on behalf of governments and corporations in high profile matters, such as the 9-11 Victim Compensation Fund, BP Deepwater Victim Compensation Fund and TARP, the bailout of America’s banks in 2009.

These two brilliant and thoughtful minds, Ken, a lawyer by trade, and Camille, an eminent business leader, have now been charged with divvying up a $50 million fund for the families of the crash victims and another $50 million fund Boeing has set aside for community projects to memorialize their loved ones. And I had been tasked with traveling to Ethiopia for the one-year anniversary of the tragedy to commiserate with the families and answer any questions they might have about accessing the Fund.

As a world traveler who missed the international pro bono work, I had been able to do as a corporate attorney working in BigLaw prior to my beloved career in legal recruiting, I felt this task was the assignment I had been waiting for. As a Principal at Lateral Link, the part I love most about my job is learning about the work that attorneys do as I meet with them to assist in their transition to a new law firm.  The human interaction component of my job is fantastic, but nothing can quite replicate the satisfaction that came from the international pro bono work I was able to do in my previous career.

Joining me on this trek to the other side of the globe was Kerry, my great friend, fellow humanitarian, travel companion and international public health expert. Kerry had actually worked for UCLA in disaster preparedness for pandemics, and so, not only was she there to join me in meeting with the family members, the two of us acting as the sole on the ground representatives of the Fund, but also she was the one who kept us Covid-free, obsessively wiping down our plane seats and pointing out anyone who coughed near us or on our baggage. She was also able to predict just about everything that was about to unfold in the pandemic before it actually happened. Just like magic.

We arrived in Addis on a Sunday morning, two days before the anniversary of the crash, and were tasked with meeting with victims’ families, both being an empathetic ear and learning and documenting the ideas and missions they had come up with in order to honor their lost loved ones. We learned about the groups and associations the victims’ families had tirelessly formed in order to get through the grieving process together. We listened intently to their ideas on how the Fund could both memorialize their loved ones and allow them to support charities they felt could leave a lasting legacy in place of all that they lost.

As I sat at a meeting with the first association, a group of French family members, and they went around the table to introduce themselves and who they had lost, including siblings and children whose lives were really just beginning having recently graduated from college, or those about to embark on the journey of a new marriage, I was brought to tears. I had not lost anyone in a plane crash, but their pain seeped across the table and enveloped me in a way I simply could not contain. One woman had lost her twenty-something daughter, also her best friend. I thought of my own six-year-old daughter, and how close we are. I could not and still cannot imagine the depths of their pain. And there I was, the only one at a table of ten people, sobbing, without veil of professional decorum. The French association graciously shared their Kleenex and the President of the Association, Virginie, a mother around my age who lost her brother in the crash, thanked me several times for my tears.

Others were angry, and while defensiveness is a normal reaction when you are confronted with anger, I felt nothing but pure empathy here.

I was struck by the variation in stages of the grieving process I was confronted with in each meeting. One man I spoke with, Solomon, lost his wife, the love of his life and the mother to their young daughter. He simply did not want to carry on. And how could I blame him? I came to represent the Fund, but I wanted nothing more than to reach across the table and give him a hug. He had met his wife when they were both in law school in Ethiopia, a story I knew all too well.

Everyone we met with had a story, all tragic, relatable and indiscriminate.

I met another man who was the epitome of strength and perseverance. Paul had lost his wife, his mother-in-law, and his three young children in the crash. While some of the people we met with in Addis had been understandably paralyzed by grief, others had focused on rebuilding their lives. Paul had bravely put his grief towards advocacy. He had tirelessly worked lobbying for aviation safety, even testifying in front of the United States Congress.

It was one thing to read their stories in the New York Times but sitting face to face with this beautiful group of people, with pain so apparent in their eyes, was truly transformative. This could have been my family, my loved ones, or even my children growing up without their mother. I guess that feeling of being able to relate to each and every one of the victim’s family members is part of the power of the human experience and one of the positives of this global pandemic where the world is coming together to help one another. It reminds me of being in New York on September 11th; in an instant the country changed, and we were all in it together. And with Covid-19 that has happened again, only this time on a global scale.

The resilience of everyone we met with was remarkable and is something we could all use right about now in the midst of this global pandemic. How can we keep moving forward? Can we use our resilience and strength to better our situation and make a positive impact on those around us, or will we crumble in our own misery? It is our story to write.

Flashing back to the week before my trip to Ethiopia, I was in the parking lot of a grocery store, daydreaming of Africa, while discussing the more mundane aspects of parenting and balancing work (paid and volunteer) with the other moms in my daughter’s Girl Scout’s troop. Here we are in Marin County, outside of San Francisco, California, a parental utopia of sorts, or at least a place that purports itself to be that way. A place where my son, at five years old, once lamented that he was the only kid in his class who didn’t yet know how to ski, a kid that is now confronted with problems as grand as a true lack of snow, having to settle for skiing in the homemade stuff during his ski week in beautiful Lake Tahoe. I get it, we all have our own struggles and they are all legitimate. But what I personally need in my life, every now and again, is a dose of pure reality; to understand my place in this crazy universe.

The reason I decided to travel to Ethiopia to take on this emotionally challenging endeavor in the midst of a brewing pandemic is simple. Travel is the only way I can actually understand and make sense of my own reality and experience. The world is only as big or small as you make it and when I choose to stay home and confine myself to my small town, that is my world.

Whether travel is hopping on a plane and flying halfway across the world, or even jumping in my car and driving to a Chinese grocery store in Oakland, spending countless hours and disposable income traveling has always been far more valuable to me than keeping up with the fancy kitchen remodels that clearly are an important part of my “local” California culture.

Again, it’s all about perspective. And now is as good a time as any to evaluate what we all individually want and actually need in our lives. Do I need that kitchen remodel? No. Do my walls need to be painted? Yes.

Suddenly, in Ethiopia, I found myself, meeting with mothers like myself, who had more to deal with than planning the organizational nightmare that is Girl Scout cookie sales (I’m not kidding. I have not and will never volunteer to run that “program”). These women from around the world who congregated in Addis Ababa for the memorial of the crash were balancing work and child rearing while grieving family members who died too soon.

Clariss was an incredible woman and mother I will never forget. She lost her twenty-four-year-old daughter Danielle in the crash. Danielle was a true world diplomat, marathon runner, valedictorian and fundraiser extraordinaire who brought Canadian indigenous communities together to tackle environmental issues. Clariss now signs every email with “treasure your family, they are the home you will carry in your heart forever.” Wise words that give me perspective each time I feel overwhelmed sheltering in place with two active children who bring me immense joy but who also make me feel like I’m a zoo keeper in a wild animal den, or, let’s be real, a cast member of the now iconic Tiger King show.

After my mission for the Fund was over, Kerry and I traveled to the Omo Valley of Ethiopia to meet with some of the most remote tribes on earth. Omo Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, known for its importance in the study of human evolution.

One of our first challenges took place when our driver got lost on a dirt road, six hours or so into our trip with no signs of civilization, no cell phones, no food or water. As the sun was setting and our anxiety was brewing, we finally came across signs of life in three members of the Kara tribe walking along the river. We shared lollipops we had in our bags and exchanged smiles and expressed awkward gestures of “we come in peace.”  Kerry whispered, “this is incredible,” and told me to take notice of the young woman trying to take the wrapper off the lollipop we had handed her. She had clearly never seen one, didn’t know how to unwrap this treat, or probably any edible item arriving in a package. What a contrast to our having grown up with most of our foods, even the local, organic, farm-to-table compostable, in some sort of disposable wrapping. The only packaged food these tribes had seen came in the form of corn, dropped in a large white sack from a small plane sent by the World Food Program.

It would only get more interesting from there.

After a short plane flight and a long car ride on unpaved, unmarked roads (“African massage”), Kerry and I were fortunate enough to arrive at the incredible Lale’s Camp, where we spent a few days with several fascinating tribes.

Legend has it that the people of the Omo Valley did not know Ethiopia existed until

after World War II, but what we found is during the Coronavirus pandemic, which in some ways seems like World War III without a human enemy, is that some of the tribal people still do not know that Ethiopia exists. In their minds, we came from Jinka, the “big” city a few hours away by dirt road. To these beautiful people, we were “ferenji,” the Amharic word for foreigner, so yes, different, but American, what’s that??? As we heard snippets of news from around the world through a spotty portable Wi-Fi, we learned no one in this area had heard of Coronavirus, stock markets, Tom Hanks, the NBA, or even Disneyland.  We learned that George and Laura Bush had visited this camp a few years ago and nobody knew who they were or frankly even cared. The tribal people of the Omo Valley just found them odd for requiring a forty-two-person security detail that had to accompany them everywhere and check out their next location before they even arrived. I would have loved to see the Secret Service show up to these tribes with their entire “tribe.”  I wonder if they too had to pull over on the boat for a crocodile check before they got out to pee in the bush.

There is no doubt all of humanity aches for the ill and feels compassion for the needless loss of human life, but as news spread that the world as we know it was falling apart, we found ourselves in a place where the cancellation of March Madness, the closure of Disneyland, and the deterioration of our stock markets had little significance.

My headspace suddenly shifted. The sense of urgency I felt to get some air conditioning into my house and coat my walls with fresh paint before summer all but disappeared. Instead, I found myself wondering if there was any way to solve the clean water crisis that was right there in front of me as a mother pleaded with our guide Lale to help her solve the dispute she had gotten into with one of her husband’s other wives over access to water for her children. This mother, again, around my age (although nobody in the Omo Valley actually knows or keeps track of how old they are), just wanted to give her children some water. She wasn’t even going to take any for herself, she explained, and, anyway, the tribe was supposed to share with each other. Looking back, why didn’t I just give her the water I had in my water bottle? I had shared with others on subsequent tribal visits, but why not her?

We saw this time and time again. We learned we weren’t supposed to give the tribes money or candy as Lale, our fearless leader and tribal elder, explained, in order to maintain their culture, but water was OK. Water is a fundamental human right. And when another person asks you for water, and you have some in your bag, you have to share. I guess it’s like the toilet paper struggles folks in the US and other countries who haven’t adopted that bidet lifestyle are dealing with right now?

Again, it’s all relative.

People travel for so many reasons. Many of them try to escape the reality of their daily grind and take a break. Most people find it relaxing to fly to Hawaii and park on a beach at a resort for five days, a typical American vacation. And I get it. Kerry and I are different. We love the ocean but there is nowhere in the world we would rather be and nothing more profound than traveling in order to step out of our world and into another. There is learning and growth that happens when we land in a place that makes us feel at least somewhat uncomfortable. Many parts of my trip to Ethiopia were like that. I was rarely comfortable and can only think of a few short moments where I actually felt relaxed. Yet the impact the experience had on my life and current reality is unparalleled. And here we all are now in the midst of this pandemic, experiencing a reality that only the handful of those of us on the planet who were alive during the Spanish flu can actually comprehend.

As nightfall turned to day we visited more tribes over the course of the next several days and learned that they still practice arranged marriages, where they marry off their teenage daughters for the sum of one hundred and twenty-seven goats. Some of the issues the tribal communities face include lack of access to clean water and food security, most recently due to changing weather patterns, heavy rains and floods, or damming of their rivers by industries exploiting the natural resources their ancestors had used to sustain themselves since literally the dawn of civilization.  I guess when basic human needs are lacking, people don’t have much choice but to trade the assets they do have, even if those assets are their children. It’s insane to think about but it does grant perspective when your second grader doesn’t get through the sixty-five-page packet of work he’s supposed to do in a week. What can I say- I’m just not that stressed about it. My child has the chance to go to school, at least through age twenty-two, food on the table, some of the best water in the country coming right from his sink, and he even can ski, sort of.

Ever since the influx of AK-47 guns from South Sudan and Somalia, the indigenous wildlife that some African countries have protected and rely upon for tourism, is now missing in Ethiopia. A drive through the Omo Valley, a place where our guide grew up among lions, giraffes and elephants, is now void of wildlife, except for those the tribal people use for farming.

Covid-19. Yes, you are a force to be reckoned with. Yes, you have taken over our lives and our livelihoods. You have tried to conquer all of us. You have even gotten dangerously close to people in my inner circle – David Lat and Craig Brown (who sent me to Ethiopia in the first place), my incredible and fierce colleagues who battled this virus, faced death and came out the other side. Still, you continue to wreak havoc on our lives and, like travel, have likely changed all of us forever.

Or as Robert Griffin III, Baltimore Ravens quarterback bluntly put it, “whoever said one person can’t change the world, never ate an undercooked bat.” Ha.

Upon returning to California, I found myself coming home to notably different circumstances and a world I almost didn’t recognize. What keeps me each and every day from crumbling into my own stress, anxiety and even misery, places I have been in a not-so-distant past, is Ethiopia and the beauty and resilience I found in human life there.

I keep in touch with both Lale, our guide and tribal elder who maintains that the people of the Omo Valley still know nothing of the Coronavirus, and Clariss, one of the victim’s mothers who continues to send me writings and videos of her daughter which I treasure. In the words of Danielle Moore, 24-year-old ET302 victim, “in the midst of changing times, in the midst of a looming future, we can also revel in the idea that such a change/collapse can bring upon a new way of life. So, I choose hope, and that’s what I hope to share.”

The challenges I face on a daily basis in this crazy time along with all other working parents, of figuring out how to entertain and school our precious children, while simultaneously working and fielding internal battles with the stress of the unknown (including the local and world economy, our future and even physical health) are real, however, for now, my family and friends (finally) are healthy, we have access to clean drinking water and an unlimited supply of food. And while I may show up at my local Costco and find they are temporarily sold out of organic chicken breasts and toilet paper; I have no problem feeding my family or even supplying my kids with a variety of treats their Omo Valley counterparts have never even dreamed of. And so, I thank you Ethiopia, and everyone I met there, for saving me from the most difficult part of this journey through life in the time of Covid, the internal battle I have conquered with my own mind that has enabled me to stay positive, hopeful and anxiety-free. Thank you for being the administrator of my rescue.