Shyness is overcome quickly at the orphanage. In less than an hour of my arrival, I am surrounded by half a dozen giggling girls stroking my hair and my cheeks. "You!" they say, mouths open in smiles, "You are so fat – so fat and white!"
Peter leads me up the stairs, through the kitchen and into the courtyard of Layla House, a center for orphaned children in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, run by an American adoption agency. He points at things and children, nonchalantly throwing out useful tidbits, like "Don’t eat the pasta", and "That’s Meron, she’s going to Denver", and "Use the staff bathroom, the kid’s are still figuring out toilet paper".
He does not mention my plus-size figure would be the source of constant delight and amazement for Ethiopians.
The children, of course, are wonderful in their optimism and courage, jumping over cracks in the cement, arguing over who will brush my hair. They babble in Amharic and look at me nose to nose. One girl concentrates, with her tongue out, as she combs my eyebrows. They hold my hand, wrap around my neck, sit on my lap and pinch my upper arms. More giggling and they say I’m beautiful. "Very beautiful," Marta says, concentrating now on my braids that have unwoven, "And very, very fat."
The Crown Hotel is the first of our obligatory touristy destination stops. It features traditional Ethiopian dancing and music. We arrive early for good seats, stools crafted from one tree trunk. The stools surround a mesob, a round table that holds a plate of injera – the staple of any Ethiopian diet.
The other volunteers are chatty and adventurous. Aaron is taking a hiatus in Addis after getting shot at in the Congo while teaching HIV awareness classes. He’s young and bright-eyed, a recent graduate from a Canadian college, eager to change the world. Brett and Kara are the honeymooning vegetarian couple. Kara is a size two and directs a homeless shelter back home; Brett was accepted to medical school and runs five miles a day. They are, unequivocally, the nicest people I have ever met.
And then there’s me. I’m from Wisconsin, where we all carry an extra 30 pounds to keep us warm in the winter.
Our guide waves to get my attention. "Look!" he says, holding up a stool from the other side of the room, "I got you a big stool. Big stool just for you!" He laughs and gestures for me to take it. My cohorts stay diplomatically quiet, but Brett reaches over and pats me on the shoulder.
Riding in a mini-bus in Addis is a terrifying, deeply religious experience. There are no discernable traffic laws and a distinct fondness for roundabouts. On the dashboard of this particular mini-bus is an icon of Mary, a picture of Bob Marley and a sticker of the rapper, 50 Cent. I consider praying to all three, to be on the safe side. The interior of the bus rattles, everyone bumps along in tandem.
Brett is chatting with his seat partner, Kara is smiling dreamily as we rumble past our destination.
"Waddatch!" I say, which I believe means stop, although I’m not entirely certain. I’m hot and uncomfortable. I feel overwhelmed by the city and its poverty. I have pangs of guilt constantly, the emotion is sharpened by the humbling contentment of everyone I meet. The people of Addis seem delighted, genuinely so, that I’ve gorged myself on American consumerism, obviously, food. The effect is stifling.
"Waddatch! Waddatch! Waddatch! WADDATCH!" I yell, raising eyebrows and turning heads. Kara asks what’s wrong and I tell her I don’t want to walk a half mile back to the volunteer house. The man sitting in front of us turns around and says, "You could use walking," he smiles and shakes his head gleefully, "You are so fat."
The boys at Layla House crowd around me almost as much as the girls, although with hesitancy. They’re eager to show me their Kung-Fu moves, they jostle each other to clear a space, raising their voices and then smiling sweetly at me.
A ten-year-old dramatically assumes the classic Karate Kid pose, I bark out a surprised laugh.
"What did you learn in America class today?" I ask. The children take turns telling me – and pantomiming – the details of a typical American house. The class is designed to prepare the children for their new post-adoption lives in the U.S.
"Big, big houses!" a young boy says, straining on his toes to show me how high. "With a kitchen!"
"And what kind of things are in the kitchen?" I ask. "Is there an oven in the kitchen?" Yes, everyone nods that there is – and a refrigerator.
"No, no," one boy says, his forehead creased in seriousness, "In America, every room has refrigerator, not just kitchen. And one is full of meat!"
I try to dissuade him of this notion, I fail, spectacularly. I can only think of his adoptive mother’s confusion at this undoubtedly un-met expectation.
I change the subject to something I think is very important.
"Listen to me!" I raise my voice over the ongoing refrigerator debate. "Listen! When you get to America, you must not tell anyone they are fat. Do you understand?"
No one understands. The boys are confused and they ask each other questions; some in Amharic, others in broken English.
The boy holding my hand says with an appropriate gravity, "You are very fat."
"Yes, I know," I say. "But you can’t say that when you get to America." I forge on with resolution. "If you say ‘you are fat’ to someone in America, they might get angry." I show them my angry face. "Or sad."
Ah. The boys nod. They look at me with wide eyes and murmur agreement. I nod, too, smug and impressed with myself for saving them from overweight school-yard bullies.
A tall boy in the back raises his hand, "How much do you weigh?"
We take a Saturday to do some shopping in the textile district, or rather, the place where all the dresses are made. Arriving by mini-bus, we start peeking inside row after row of tiny shops, filled to the ceiling with clothes and scarves. Each shop is bursting with all sorts of colorful things, the dresses hanging in doorways look to be making a form of escape.
We stay at one shop, watching Kara try dresses, chatting with the two saleswomen. They’re like most Ethiopians, gracious and eager to please, constantly smiling and ready to forgive our botched attempts at communication. They send out for coffee, which arrives in a steel warming bucket. They smile shyly when we thank them a disproportionate number of times.
The traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony is beautiful. I thumb through the ceremony dresses for one I like. "Do you have my size?" I ask.
"Oh yes," she says, rummaging around in the back. She nods to her associate, together they unravel the largest dress I’ve ever seen. It almost reaches from one side of the store to the other. "Just your size! It fit perfectly!" Smiles all around.
I shell out 65 Birr and am now the owner of a tent in the shape of a traditional Ethiopian coffee dress.
When I returned home and began digesting my three weeks in Addis, the adoption agency forwarded a letter written by one of the little girls at Layla House. It was seven pages of drawings, in neatly written sentences that repeatedly exclaimed my name, her name, Wisconsin and "I love you".
On the third page, near the bottom, she wrote in loopy ten-year old letters – You are so fat.
Hannah Vick traveled to Ethiopia in May, 2006. She can be contacted by e-mailing BootsnAll.