Our flight touched down in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and as we walked, stiff legged and sleepy into the dusty little airport it was immediately evident we had arrived somewhere quite unlike anywhere we had been before. Soft brown birds flew through the steel beams of the ceiling as we went through two more security checks. A river of people washed into a cramped area with lines of chairs pushed into crooked rows and many more people than seats.
The women here walk in clouds of vibrant, conflicting patterns. A thunderstorm of color conceals their skin, leaving only the tips of their bodies, the back of a hand, the cleavage of two toes, an oval of face visible. Perhaps a glimpse of a long brown neck. Often a length of cloth in a conflicting pattern is wrapped around their back, under their arms and tied across their chest, forming a pouch of color in which children sleep. Bright blue skirts with yellow birds frolic alongside hot pink plaid or maybe green checks. Dust floats in the air, sparking in the sunbeams. Lightning crackles, hidden by head scarves. Thunder is muffled in the rustle of skirts as the women move in clusters of three or four. Sometimes they follow in the wake of a man with a round cap perched on his head like the smallest tier of a wedding cake. The men lounge in their suits. Several preachers laugh heavily, fingers tracing the edge of their little white collars.
A plastic seat becomes available and we swim through the crush, sinking into it in a crumpled pile. We wait for our last flight to Nairobi in a wash of language that is not Spanish and only occasionally English. It floats mistily in the air and smells of ozone.
I watch a tiny boy cry and complain in his mother’s lap, pushing away food with a small clenched fist. She bounces and shushes him but he is relentless in his anguish. Finally she stands up and bends slightly forward at the waist, balancing him on the small of her back. The child settles as she enfolds him in a wide length of fabric and leaning his head into the hollow of her spine he stuffs a fist into his mouth and falls asleep. I smile at him as he slips into secret dreams under his mother’s patient pacing.
I look around and realize that Matt and I are the only faces I can see in the entire crowd which are not a rich shade of brown. For the first time in my life I am conscious of the weight of my heritage settling around my shoulders, heavy under the gazes of so many. I’m different here. My arms are exposed, the outline of my legs clear, my colorful left side bright against my black shirt and leggings. I study the ink, trying to discern the feel of my eyes from others’. A couple of days later, in a supermarket in Kenya, I will bring a group of schoolgirls to a halt, tripping on each other as they stop their conversations to stare at my arm. I wait in long sleeves for my sense of normalcy to adjust, my equilibrium to return.1