Fast forward to 2012. I was asked to participate with an organization that provides free two-week surgery clinics to repair cleft lip, cleft palate, and other facial deformities for children around the globe. They needed a last-minute nurse replacement for a team heading to a small town in Ethiopia: Mekele! I have been a volunteer team member since 2001, but never did I dream I would return to the town that had so altered my life and worldview. I jumped on the team in a minute and was given the rare chance for a trip back in time.
The raw beauty of the terrain, the rich culture, and the warmth of the people were unchanged. On a day off we traversed the desert to the rock-hewn Church of Abraha Atsbeha, dating to the 10th century. Revered, sacred, and old - old like I never knew before.
On my first trip to Ethiopia, the natives invited us to participate in the sacred coffee ceremony, an invitation that is considered a mark of friendship and respect. The coffee beans are roasted in a flat pan over a tiny charcoal stove, the pungent smell mingling with the heady scent of incense. The lady who is conducting the ceremony, dressed in native muslin garb, gently washes a handful of coffee beans on the heated pan, then stirs and shakes the husks away. When the beans have turned black, they are ground with a pestle and long-handled mortar. The ground coffee is slowly stirred into a black clay coffee pot, the jebena. I had been given a jebena on my first visit that tragically crashed to bits in a move. Almost three decades later, the only souvenir I purchased was an authentic jebena, now sitting proudly (and sacredly) on a high shelf of my bookcase.
Most important, we eagerly worked long hours with a brilliant international and native team giving the amazing gift to families whose little babies with mangled smiles return after a 45-minute operation as beautiful cherubs. The team gathered one day at the same castle where I had stayed long ago, and we had a moving toast to old friends and new. It all started in Mekele, a little town in Ethiopia - the love of travel, a deeper understanding of unversality, and the wonderful gift to have a trip back in time.
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