Personal Journey: To Ethiopia and back there again

Kelly J. Collins took this photo on her first trip to Mekele, Ethiopia, to work on famine relief in 1985.
Kelly J. Collins took this photo on her first trip to Mekele, Ethiopia, to work on famine relief in 1985.

A reader has a pair of life-changing experiences on a pair of trips to East Africa.

Posted: April 28, 2014

Twenty-nine years ago, in 1985, I traveled to Mekele, Ethiopia, for a six-month stay under the auspices of an African relief agency to participate in famine relief. It proved to be my most life-changing experience. We lived in Haile Selassie's empty summer castle, commuted by truck to the famine camps, and worked alongside other international groups inoculating, feeding, and hydrating the thousands displaced and affected by the ongoing drought. Life-changing, heartwarming, moving. rewarding only begin to express the experience.

I have worked as an inner-city emergency-room nurse for most of my career, but always jump at the chances that nursing provides, at the chance to offer more-needed, more-raw, more-appreciated health care, along with the great gift of travel.

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.


Did a travel experience move you, change you, or give you great memories? E-mail us how, in 500 words or fewer (include a photo, caption information, and daytime phone number): inquirer.travel@phillynews.com. Put "Personal Journey" in the subject line. If we publish your piece, we'll pay you $25. (Response volume prohibits our returning or acknowledging your submission.)

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