Lessons on joy and gratitude from a holiday vacation gone horribly wrong

Sometimes the most profound life lessons are learned in moments of discomfort

"This is the worst hotel I've ever stayed in," my husband said.

The guidebook had called this small inn in Lalibela, Ethiopia, "a romantic spot for budget-minded travelers." Our arrival luncheon, enjoyed under flowering trees in the courtyard, had delivered the romance, but here in the room, the drapes sagged, dirt menaced the corners, and wiring burst from an outlet. Then, the toilet handle broke off when I tried to flush.

"I spent one night in a French pension that might have been worse," I said, checking the bed for fleas. "But I was younger then, and more tolerant of squalor. Do you think the kids are safe?"

"They're fine," John replied, "as long as they keep their socks on and don't step directly on the floor."

This was our first return to Ethiopia following the adoption of our son, 13, and daughter, 12, from the country a decade before. We'd just come from an emotional reunion with their birth relatives in the southern part of the country, so I was counting on Lalibela to be the fun, touristy part of the trip. Along with our 14-year-old daughter, our family friend Cara, her sister, and Cara's two adopted Ethiopian daughters who'd just finished their own hometown visits, our crew had commandeered an entire wing of this crumbling establishment to celebrate Christmas together. As squeamish as I felt about sliding under the hotel sheets, I knew we'd been lucky to get rooms at all.

On the way into town, our car had glided past Ethiopians climbing slowly through the thinning air, camping bundles strapped to their backs. For centuries, religious pilgrims have trekked to this spot 8,600 feet above sea level, drawn by the monolithic stone churches carved into volcanic rock during the 12th century at the behest of King Lalibela to create a new Jerusalem. These pilgrim encampments take over Lalibela for the holidays, and visitors set up their own food, coffee, and craft stands to create a town within a town. The lively, crowded scene, punctuated by a few goats and donkeys, looked to me like a Biblical outtake.

It rained a lot that week, which meant the pilgrims were camping in mud. Back at the hotel, we found ourselves begging for towels in order to shower off the grime. We'd received just three towels for our party of nine at check in, with assurances that more would be forthcoming, but when I followed up, the man at the desk explained that the wet weather made washing towels impossible.

"No drying machines in Lalibela." The man shrugged. "Maybe tomorrow." But he did promise to fix our toilet.

Tomorrow arrived, and the toilet was still broken. The clerk assured me that we'd have our towels in "just 10 minutes."

Then the toilet in the kids' room stopped working.

On the third day, Cara and I marched into the office together. "Providing a towel is basic hospitality!" I cried. "We need showers."

"They stink," another guest interjected. The woman, a tourist from Holland, told us she had no electricity in her room, so it was sweet of her to care, considering she had her own problems.

"I must buy more towels," the clerk said.

"Please do," I said, pretending we'd settled the matter.

"I didn't want to set foot in that disgusting shower anyway," Cara whispered as we left the office. And then we started to laugh.

Who were we kidding, demanding towels? Poor John had become the Designated Family Flusher, thanks to his heroic willingness to reach inside germy toilet tanks and jigger things around. The window in Cara's daughters' room had a jagged hole big enough for a sparrow to fly through; someone had left the displaced shards stacked neatly on the pavement outside. The restaurant staff had twice accused us of shorting them on the dinner check, when both times we'd paid and left a generous tip. One night, during a dinner rush, the restaurant had set up a table full of tourists right outside our room, leaving a mess of smashed injera and empty beer bottles for us to find in the morning.

As we strolled back to our rooms, defeated yet amused, Cara shared an observation that an Ethiopian friend of ours had made: Americans expect to be comfortable. Ethiopians don't expect that. It's okay to be uncomfortable sometimes.

That got my attention. In Lalibela, Christmas wasn't about decorations or commercial trappings. Instead, we were surrounded by people who'd walked for miles to worship, people willing to sleep in tents, in the open air, in the rain, just to experience the place. At Yemrehanna Kristos, a 900-year-old church erected inside a cave, we'd stood transfixed before a pile of human skulls, the remains of pilgrims who'd journeyed to Lalibela to die. Yes, I wanted to wash my greasy hair, but that was a temporary, surface discomfort, one that would be immediately soothed when we returned to modern conveniences. Beyond the hotel gates, in the churches and the streets, an unmistakable, collective joy thrummed. We all felt it. Not even the kids complained with any sincerity. All the griping had served as comedy, really. In fact, I'd laughed more in three days than I had all year.

That afternoon outside St. George's Church, where hundreds stood waiting to enter the sanctuary, the line eventually shuffled us past an Ethiopian Orthodox priest offering blessings. My grandmother used to say that you should accept prayers from anyone, regardless of their faith, and so I knelt, stinking, before the priest as my family, friends, and fellow travelers looked on. The priest's wooden prayer beads thumped heavily against my back as he murmured a wish for my safe return home. Amesegenallo, I said. Thank you. I stood up, and my youngest daughter threw her arms around me for a hug. I felt overcome with happiness, overwhelmed with the mystery of arriving here, in this unlikely moment, in this faraway place, together.


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