Month 1 (March 15 – April 15)
Homeless in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, my friends offered me and my girlfriend Ignacia a guest room in their house while we looked for a place to stay. They work for the US government and live in a house with wi-fi, stale furniture and a fancy water sanitizer. They were both out of town when my child could have been conceived in the room located on the northeast corner of the one story house. A few weeks later, my friend Tom, a renowned African aloe-explorer and Oprah’s aloe supplier, asked me to go into the Ethiopian highlands to collect the seeds of the rare aloe ankoberensis. Ankober was once the summer residence of the Ethiopian monarch Menelek II where he came to hunt in the fertile forest. We spent a frigid night in the town’s only motel under lime green plush blankets, on a sunken mattress. In the spirit of seeds, we could have conceived our daughter then and there. Nobody knew anything except that she was conceived in Ethiopia, and there’s no doubt about that. We moved into a nearby house in Bole close to Chechnya road where the days go to die and are resuscitated with blaring music and aggressive women dumping offer on every type of demand. We lived at the end of a cul-de-sac across the street from the M.T. Guesthouse and shared the compound with the owner, Tiruwerk, meaning Good Gold, a pious Christian widow with a cross tattooed on her forehead who drove to church and drank coffee from thimble-sized cups typical in Ethiopia at least twice a day. My dog Mino found a comfortable place on a chair in the living room staring out the front window, and in the mornings a street cat came to our porch and sat on the patio furniture flaunting his freedom to purvey the territory of any and all domestic animals on premise. Mino stared at the intruding cat waiting for someone to open the door to chase him off the porch while barking the way a scared chicken would squawk. Then one day, Mino peed on the sofa, not on his chair, but on the sofa where Ignacia or I might sit, and I knew it was no accident. It was Mino’s first protest piss and who could blame him? He too had fallen in love with Ignacia and wished everything in the world to be the father of this litter. In hindsight, Mino was the first one in the family to know of our child, but there was no way to chase this intruder away.
Month 2 (April 15 – May 15)
Ignacia’s body told her she was pregnant, but she kept ignoring it until one day after climbing when the nausea was too great to ignore, and she bought a couple pregnancy tests and the little lines appeared. Ignacia had just started medication to kill off a pesky amoeba that she had adopted while in India, and when our gut doctor told her instead to make friends with the amoeba, we did our best to introduce our poroto to her stomach’s invertebrate tenant. Globalized family planning was part of my expat existence, I reasoned, and the only way I could imagine the story of my life would go. Me, the American father fell in love with the Chilean mother, she moved to Ethiopia, my dog pissed on a sofa, and suddenly we were walking to the Marie Stoppes clinic in Welo Sefer to see the poroto for the first time. We stared at Arab soap operas while it rained outside, Mino flopped under a chair, and the clinic staff offered a glass of milk for the wait. This clinic charges two dollars to see a doctor specialized in mother and child health and three dollars to use the ultrasound, an outdated machine and display with black and white fuzz of sand-in-water texture. While he rubbed the probe over Ignacia’s stomach, the doctor spoke English, a few words of Spanish and made jokes about being a farenji and after each joke trapped a throated giggle between his sternum and sinus and when he finally found the heartbeat, it was as clear as a drum and we rejoiced. Tears and kisses followed. The Pregnancy HD app estimated poroto would arrive by December 10th and who can argue with an app? The contrast of a handheld computer and the ancient ultrasound was as much a sign of our age as the state of Ethiopian healthcare. After all, we were both discovered in utero by similar machines in the late seventies and early eighties.
Month 3 (May 15 – June 15)
They call it morning sickness even though it carries on all day. Then that sickness turns into fatigue, and Ignacia the Incubator became too tired to join me on daily rock climbing outings at Armora Gedel, so I named my next route Poroto Gringo after our future progeny. Poroto, Chilean word for bean is used to denote all the small things that make people happy. Gringo, both euphemism and epithet for white American. More than anything, Chileans love beans and some love gringos, so Ignacia spread the news about our poroto gringo. I still hadn’t met her family and was as mysterious to them as she was to mine. I was the guy who got their daughter pregnant in Ethiopia so I had some explaining to do, and we made introductions over Skype, saw grainy webcam images of each other, smiled and laughed in surprise when I spoke Spanish. For Ethiopian Easter we traveled to Lalibela and then to the Adwa Mountains and finally to Gheralta Valley to visit my friend Tewolde and his family. I wanted to show Ignacia the rugged beauty of rural life in those villages not yet connected to modernity’s comforts, the way people walk, greet each other, wait, fetch water and spend vast amounts of time in the sun, dirt and silence. I hiked, climbed and celebrated with my friends while Ignacia took naps in restaurants, rested in the shade and mostly watched Ethiopia happen from a tired, expecting mother’s perspective huddled over the tiny being growing in her belly. On Easter day, we joined Tewolde’s family on a small farm near the town of Megab in Tigray. After rejecting the third plate of diced sheep stomach in spicy sauce, we joined festivities and played with the children teetering on the end of a giant fig’s tree branch swinging and hollering as it flexed under our weight. Tewolde’s two year old son Nicodemus confidently refilled my plastic cup with the family’s homemade beer and even poured himself a cup of the rural elixir. As our poroto developed and we gradually recognized our upcoming role as parents, we watched how one Ethiopian family raised their son on fermented barley and threats of the dula or “big stick” for misbehavior. When we got home, we called my mother on Mother’s Day and told her the news. Everybody cried.
Month 4 (June 15 – July 15)
We debated names for weeks, made a list and narrowed them down to those on which we could ostensibly agree while discarding corny American names like Brayden and Chloe, anything with a K, typical bible names and complicated ones. Ignacia liked Jose, I liked Santiago which was too long and complicated, Ignacia liked Elisa, I liked Lucia, we both liked Diego. Ignacia always felt the baby was going to be an Elisa, and she ended up being right so the discussion was just practice and Lucia never had much of a chance. We found a fancy ultrasound in the same neighborhood for 15 dollars and we made an appointment to find out if we had a poroto or a porota. On a rainy Addis Ababa morning, amid the bustle of Bole, a nurse wearing a burka confirmed Elisa’s existence and vindicated Ignacia’s intuition. Every baby comes with a marraqueta under the arm, that’s what they say in Chile because in addition to beans, Chileans love bread, and the marraqueta is their favorite. The meaning is simple: babies bring bread, bread is fortune. Ethiopians certainly love babies, in fact I’ve never seen so many babies in my life, but in my experience, not many of these babies brought bread. Perhaps if you say it often enough, it will come true, and especially in Chile where the president announced he’d pay every mother 200 dollars for each baby after the third. So when I was offered a job to work on an agriculture project in Liberia, we deliberated about life in West Africa while drinking fresh orange juice. Post conflict, lack of health care, malaria, typhoid, and other tropical diseases are weighty enough deterrents to make any couple think twice, but our adventure was meant to go further than Ethiopia, and we both knew it. So we accepted the offer, we knew our original plan of not having a plan would end up appearing like a plan, and the biggest change would start with a wedding in Santiago only a few weeks away.
Month 5 (July 15- August 15)
Elisa was halfway there according to the app that provided us with weekly updates and stats and we celebrated with our friends and it was the last time we were all together after three years in Addis Ababa. It was on my birthday. Out of town friends visited and we took our final vacation in Ethiopia to the eastern city of Harar where Ignacia protected Elisa from ‘friendly’ hyenas. Ignacia’s visa was expired and for her first time ever, she was an illegal alien, a ghost in the system, out of bounds with no valid number or card, she was trapped in Ethiopia, but she felt more free than ever. So we went to Ethiopian court to see the immigration judge in Mexico Square across the street from the Wabe Shabele Hotel. I interpreted Ignacia’s case and presented her defense, an abbreviated version of our love story, predicated on the thought that there are no immigration laws or officials persuasive enough to keep a pregnant women away from her family. The judge showed leniency, giggled at my Amharic and handed down an 80 dollar fine, and in no time Ignacia was on an airplane to plan our wedding back in the winter of Santiago. I wrapped up three years in Addis Ababa while Mino stayed in country and would miss our wedding all together and I arrived five days before the wedding and we still didn’t have a venue for the bodorrio, wedding party. On August 8th at 9am in the Las Condes city offices on the Vespucio southeast interchange, a temporary blackout delayed our nuptials until 1030am, and we appeared before a servant of the state who quipped about the camera flashes. We vowed to love and honor and follow all the rules under the shrewd and unpromising guise of Chile’s president hanging in regalia on the office wall. Fingers were ringed and tear ducts emptied and mirth infused every word spoken for the rest of our time in Chile. Ignacia and her family organized in a matter of a few days the warmest way to share our love and our future with nearly 60 family and friends on a chilly night in the foothills overlooking the central valley. Under her flowered blouse and jeans, you wouldn’t know Ignacia carried Elisa, and when she put her hands on her hips to shake her shoulders like an Ethiopian dancer, the dance floor trembled like the strongest Chilean earthquake. We spent our honeymoon at the Termas del Corazon and they snuck a bouquet of flowers and champagne into our room.
Month 6 (August 15 – September 15)
Tropical rain at 100% humidity, traffic jams and chronic potholes welcomed us to our new coastal home in West Africa. At first we lived in the Cape Hotel in Monrovia overlooking the Atlantic ocean and bars where foreign workers spend happy hours drinking expensive beers and discuss working with the Liberian government, loose cannon aid workers and the prices of just about everything. I started my job, and Ignacia searched for an apartment and we moved in ten days later and then we bought a car and we went grocery shopping for the first time in a long time. We took malaria prophylaxis, some do, some don’t, but every Liberian has had malaria several times in his life and we didn’t want Elisa to know about malaria now or ever. She was growing strong and kicking like a donkey, and we visited the clinic to meet our new doctor, a towering woman with large hands who treats the families on the US Embassy compound. I flew back to Ethiopia, said goodbye one more time, picked up Mino and flew him back to Monrovia on a Kenyan Airways flight. The aircraft dipped down quickly, bounced off the runway twice and pulled up to then successfully land on another attempt. Mino was in a crate in the airplane’s hull which is like being in the trunk of car. After all the movement and the chaos and the uncertainty, we relished the family stability and sat down at the table together to eat on plates and placemats. We stayed up late reading Shel Silverstein poems and watched Dr. Seuss cartoons, especially my favorite: The Sneetches. Ignacia, my big belly sneetch, turned our apartment into a home and Mino quickly claimed his place on a chair facing the sliding glass door. On the second floor, there was little chance of seeing a cat, but any dog putting on his bogus guard dog repertoire had to play the part.
Our next door neighbors, the Belgians, are also expecting and became a wealth of experience resulting in their two year old son and life in Cameroon and Gabon, both havens for malaria in Central Africa. Their son sometimes goes to a playgroup, plays in the pool, but never stays out past night time when the malaria boogie man comes out. I went to the office and we slid into a routine for the first time ever in our relationship. We went to the beach, tried new restaurants and met people living in Liberia. My brother Pitter showed up unannounced on my doorstep and spent a week in Monrovia collecting and certifying some Liberian diamonds. My impromptu family was beginning to mold with my traditional family, the one I’ve always had and counted on. The seven month Elisa got heavier and sleeping patterns changed according to back pains. Then on a Friday night, Ignacia woke up with stark contractions, and since each of her sisters had a daughter prematurely, we didn’t want Elisa to unexpectedly appear and especially not in Liberia where people say the JFK hospital is the acronym Just for Killing. After a rigid night of sharp pain, vomit, diarrhea and the urge to push Elisa downwards, Ignacia tested positive for typhoid and evacuation was on our minds. She recuperated quickly thanks to penicillin, but the fear of an early delivery and stunted fetal growth were now inescapable and critical enough to send mom back to Santiago six weeks after arrival. Mino and I dropped her off one night when the skies were calm and a light air blew across the main road to the airport and I saw a billboard that says: All Big Belly Go to the Hospital to Test for HIV. My big belly sneetch and I were separated once again.
Month 8 (October 15 – November 15)
Absent, I missed the entire eighth month of creating Elisa, a continent and an ocean away from my wife who sent me the weekly updates from our baby maker app which still maintained we were due December 10th. She ate more and more while Elisa danced in the uterus at the slightest taste of nectarine, peach and cherries, fruits she tasted for the first time. I could only connect over Skype and check on the big belly week by week. I had time alone and time to play sports, I walked with Mino, I met up with friends and talked about being a father, daddy’s little girl, terrible twos and the like. Only a few days were left of my 34 years of not raising a child, and the box that contained those 34 years tucked away in one corner of my brain was closing. My brain had already begun creating a new brain box for all the images, sounds, and smells of my daughter and the rest of my life. Ignacia shared books with me about giving birth and how my upcoming role as partner in the birthing room was going to ease her epidural-free pain. Through her insisting, I studied the negative effects of the modern hospital’s intervention such as inducing labor and diminishing mother-to-child contact. I read that above 40% of Chilean women have cesareans often to accommodate the doctor’s schedule. More and more babies are born on Friday, a relatively calm day for most doctors. These modern mothers no longer respect the baby’s desires, and birth is seen as a mere obstruction to life, a small problem with an easy solution. We made vows to assist Elisa with her arrival by respecting the design of life on her terms and conditions and would wait out contractions no matter the length, no matter the pain. Parenthood was getting closer and we were ready for our daughter even if we hadn’t decorated a room, bought a crib, and had no clue about breast feeding.
Month 9 (November 15 – December 15)
I wrapped up everything at the apartment and office and flew back to Santiago on the last day of November. I caught Thanksgiving dinner on layover in Miami and my big belly sneetch was waiting for me in the airport. Summer temps were rising in Santiago, and we moved into an apartment for the first ten days. Near the door, we left a suitcase packed with clothing, food and other small things that would make Elisa’s birth more familiar: an Indian oil candle to show our gratitude, a playlist of soothing African instrumentals and a liter of Ignacia’s favorite juice. We had no idea what to expect and waited in the apartment day and night talking to Elisa asking her if she was ready to join us on the outside. The due date came and went, contractions were erratic and although the app sent us information on late arrivals, we doubted the due date and pushed it back a week meaning Elisa was likely conceived in the village of Ankober, Ethiopia. Still waiting, we moved to a small house on the outskirts of Santiago in Malloco away from the traffic and the noise. My parents came to visit from Utah and on the fourteenth of December we held a family celebration uniting our Chilean and American families. Unbeknownst to anybody, the family feast would be Elisa’s last day inside the uterus, and we filled our bellies with the substances of life, plenty of marraquetas and wine, and toasted to the newest member of the family! We walked around the neighborhood quietly preparing ourselves for the night. We slept until Ignacia’s water broke at 130am and the infant struggle which was in progress since Mino first peed on the sofa was nearing its apogee. I drove in silence across an empty, glowing Santiago landscape. In the night covered clinic, I followed the midwife and Ignacia through a hall of translucent lights into the darkness of the birthing room, and then through the rhythm of contractions into a spiritual trance of human instinct and emotion. I accompanied my wife’s movements from one corner to another, to the bathroom and back. She looked at me with incredible, emotional eyes interrupted every few minutes by a wave of agony. I whispered the few words of love her then primitive mind could process and grunted, moaned and hollered to my daughter moving through the birth canal. Ignacia’s reaching down and touching the child’s head evoked joy and flooded her body with more and more hormones to carry her through. Deeply embraced, Ignacia sobbed into my neck and the screech of the newborn completed nine months of nurturing. Mother pressed child to her skin as the sun rose over the Andes Mountains, and I fell asleep clutching a very small pillow the size of a poroto.