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"i'melkam Guzo": in Other Words, Have a Great Trip!

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: Kathleen Prime, who lives in Coram, New York, is a client of Captain Cook's Travel & Cruise, specializing in providing travel services to the blind and vision-impaired community. Contact on the web at: http://www.cookstravel.com or http://www.cgta.com E-mail rick@cookstravel.com, or phone 541-552-9388. The following article is re-printed from The O&M Opinion E-Zine

I found myself and my traveling companion, Nesria Mohammed, a lovely Ethiopian woman living in Portland Oregon, on a plane going on a trip I had dreamed of making for several years. My heart was overflowing, as we were about to descend into the Ethiopian capital after an interminable flight of fifteen hours. Since I am totally blind, I wasn't able to appreciate the view of the city from the plane! However, my other senses were ready to perceive whatever this African sojourn had to offer. Aside from the fact that I had come a long way to meet a very special person in my life, I was also eager to visit the many historical sites in Addis Abeba, and to experience this ancient and beautiful culture.

The city of Addis Abeba, means "New Flower" in Amharic. The warmth and friendliness of the people is ample proof that the city was rightly named. It is a city blossoming with life, full of music, and known for the fragrant spices used in cooking.

The weather is spring-like for most of the year, and although it was supposed to be the rainy season, the climate was as pleasant as ever. My traveling companion and I where able to enjoy swimming and outdoor massages from blind masseurs. The historical sites and cultural traditions are a unique blend of African, European, and mid-Eastern influences.

I was touched by the warm welcome I received everywhere I went in Ethiopia. Thanks to the graciousness of the people and my own familiarity with the Ethiopian culture, I never felt like an outsider or an unwelcome guest. On the contrary, in each house that I visited, the people made a great effort to make me feel at home and to prepare delicious meals.

In Ethiopia, sharing meals, coffee, and conversation is an essential part of life, one which we, in our fast-paced Western society, often fail to nurture. Once you have spent a day or so visiting with an Ethiopian person in his or her home, that person will consider you a good friend and may even address you as "brother" or "sister."

During my stay in Addis, I found that blind people were treated as the equals of sighted people. I did not sense any uncomfortable tension among blind and sighted people. All of us, regardless of culture or disability, interacted freely with one another. All voices were heard with the same attentiveness and respect. Conversely, in American society, I have, at times, felt out of place because people were either afraid to approach me or were limited by their apparent ignorance concerning those with disabilities.

In Ethiopia, tour guides made a point to describe everything for me in detail. In restaurants, people were always willing to explain how the food was arranged. What's more, everyone was interested to know about American life in general and about the challenges confronted by blind individuals in the United States. People were always ready to offer assistance, but not in a condescending way. I felt that they cared more about the inner beauty of each person than about any physical impairment that the person may have had.

While in Ethiopia, I had the chance to visit a boarding school for blind students and to participate in an awards ceremony to honor blind high school and college students who were at the top of their class. The younger children performed songs and poems, which they themselves had written. During this program, I was asked to speak to the students, teachers, and government officials about the education of blind students in the United States. We compared notes on this subject and were pleased to have this opportunity to learn from one another's life experiences. I felt privileged to be asked for my input.

The Ethiopian National Association of the Blind, of which my close friend is president, has made a great deal of progress in serving the needs of blind and other disabled individuals. However, the lack of monetary and technological resources does present some difficulty, since it limits their efforts to bring about positive changes in the living standard of blind people in their country. Despite our more advanced technology here in the U.S., I believe we have much to learn from the African people on a social level.

In general, African cultures place a strong emphasis on family, community, and the value of life itself. This was very evident in the way I was accepted by the people I met in Ethiopia. If you are a blind person looking for an experience that will change your life and appeal to all your other senses, Addis Abeba is the place to go! I was happy to see that in Ethiopia, food is eaten with the fingers, thus precluding any need to cut meat!

The music is full of exotic tones to which our Western ears may not be attuned at first. It would be best for a blind traveler in Ethiopia to have access to a car of some kind, since buses and taxis are quite crowded and service is not always reliable.

There are many street children begging for coins, and yet, we tourists were able to ride in a Mercedes that was driven by our tour guide. When we decided not to give any coins to one little girl who was begging for money, she looked at the brand name of our car and said in Amharic "But if you are driving that kind of car, you must have hundreds of coins!" Needless to say, I wished we had given her something. And, after that, I would have preferred to walk, rather than be seen in that expensive car!

People were very appreciative of my attempts to practice Amharic and were also pleased by my willingness to be immersed in the culture.

English is the business language of Ethiopia, so communication was easy for the most part. I had such a wonderful experience that I am eagerly awaiting my next opportunity to return to Ethiopia. I consider myself fortunate to have visited such a vibrant, welcoming country and to have learned many things from the people I met.

It has been a pleasure to share these thoughts with you. If any of you are considering an international trip of any kind, I encourage you to follow your heart in pursuit of your dreams, you can accomplish anything that you set out to do. If you hadn't thought about Ethiopia until now, think again! And, if you do go there, then I say to you "I'melkam guzo". In other words, have a great trip!

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