Lucía’s Journey: the Tale of Another Birth

Homeless again, we were on a ferry crossing el Estrecho de Gibraltar, nine miles of ocean separating north from south. It was  the third time in 2015 that we traveled through the Mediterranean. Behind us, a chaotic ten months of development consultancies in a wholly different Ethiopia than the one I knew in 2010, one in which the government’s strategy was to issue fewer and shorter visas. The visas themselves, like Russian nesting dolls, each extension shorter than the last, and each bribe larger than the first. Chile still had no relationship with Ethiopia, making it even more difficult to legalize the Latino side of our family. Our Ethiopian journey brought us our first daugter, and when we took our final flight, we set ourselves on an odyssey that would unknowingly end with another daughter born in another country. As a family, we waved goodbye to the African continent not knowing whether we would return to the places that saw Elisa grow from infant to toddler, where she learned to walk, to speak, eat injera, drink papaya juice and listen to Ethiopian jazz.

 

Month 1: November-December 2015

We spent November and December discovering new places with old friends with new kids, traveling from Casablanca to Madrid. On the way, we tripped around spontaneous desert picnics, the yearly saffron harvest, a ton of dates, and carried the little ones through the wadis and mountains. Through the windows of a rental car, we went from Extremadura, where we spent the days drinking and eating like a family, folding origami animals, huddled under blankets of friendship, around a table and el brasero. We toured Cordoba with a Spanish priest. We camped out in deep canyons of El Chorro in Andalucía and drove east, among the greenhouse plastic flapping in the desert winds of Almería and Arabic language radio stations stretching across age-old borders. Here somewhere along the arid expanse of el Cabo de Gata, on the corner of Spain and Europe’s only desert, we like to think our second child was conceived. We traveled through deep Spain, like modern-day Quijotes and faced illusory adversaries—tilting at windmills—inching toward the Iberian winter, unknowingly carrying our speck of life up the coast, through Cartagena, Altea and to the gran urbe that is Madrid.

 

Month 2: December-January 2016

In Malasaña, our paths diverged and Ignacia and Elisa flew on a Norwegian Air flight to Los Angeles. We learned the hard way that Norwegian Air is nothing more than a bare bones bus ride through the atmosphere, no blankets, no water (everything has a price flying on budget). Elisa celebrated her second birthday with her trans-latina family in gringolandía, los Marianos, in the best style in Southern California, and I flew back to Ethiopia. I stayed in Meskel Flower in yet another house, visited the north and wrote about community health programs. A week before Christmas, I sat down with Eskeder and Emanat, two sisters who lost their mother and live alone in a small room in Bahir Dar. I documented their story of survival, how two girls on the streets of Ethiopia worked to get an education. I thought of my family, my daughter. In the corner, the sisters had crafted a Christmas tree out of cut-up colored plastic bottles and made ornaments with the caps. I fought back tears, and took photos of smiling faces. Once again I turned my back on unfair poverty and flew back to Utah to be with my very fortunate family. When catching up on OBGYN checkups at the Planned Parenthood in Ogden, we learned of the speck’s existence, and Christmas 2015 became a celebration of a new life. Elisa’s sibling would be either a Lucía or a Diego.

 

Month 3: January-February 2016

We carved out a downhill tubing track through grandma-grandpa’s backyard, sending Nardos bouncing off pine trees and bumping down rocks, laughing like a crazy onto the icy driveway. The snow kept falling, and our family was split again, moving in two directions. I grabbed another flight back to Ethiopia to help close down the a big agribusiness project and stayed in Bole Medhane Alem with a couple of Bronco fanatics who were patiently waiting to get their adopted daughter from a local orphanage. As they waited, we drank Gabe’s whiskey. Our community of immigrant climbers put the finishing touches on the local crag at Amora Gedel, and we produced a short film about rock climbing in Addis Ababa. Ignacia flew back to Chile for the start of the southern summer and a reunion with our Chilean side of life. She paid a visit to friend and bruja Anita, a clairvoyant that she has been seeing off and on for the last fifteen years. The bruja told her about our future child, saying that she was a girl with a free soul ready to jump into life with reckless abandon. She told Ignacia, ‘Tu rol como mamá va a ser amarrarla con cuerdas a la tierra’, but since Ignacia herself is in continuous orbit, I fear that task will fall on my shoulders. She reminded her that Elisa is an ‘alma vieja’ already in its twelfth life. Each daughter is at the opposite end of a spectrum: one with her feet in the dirt, the other with her head in the clouds. At the end, the bruja said Lucía would not be born in Chile, the US or South Africa, where a project bid had my name on it.

 

Month 4: February-March 2016

I said goodbye to the habesha life, closing the door on more than four years of experiences, friends, travel, and language in Ethiopia. Before leaving, I went to the birthday party of the son of my old roommate and friend Habtu. The two-year old was lavished with copious amounts of Johnny Walker, a goat and the laughter of more than 50 guests. I flew over Africa en route to South America, to Chile. We moved into a friend’s fourth-floor flat in Nuñoa. We opened the doors and windows to a sun baked-Santiago, and enjoyed the relatively empty spaces of the capital. We camped in the far reaches of the Cajón de Maipo, barbequed with old friends and celebrated eating and drinking with the family, as per usual. Sooner than later, I was back at work, on another continent, this time in Beirut writing about apples, olives, and rural tourism. I worked on the first-ever USAID-funded rock climbing project in the small town of Tannourine, and admired how the Lebanese enjoyed their lives despite a splintered society caught in the constant throes of political calamity. One night in March, on a Skype call, an old family-friend, Eduardo ‘el Papa de Paty’, maneuvered the ultrasound that confirmed the bruja’s hunch: our little Lucía was not going to be a Diego.

 

Month 5: March-April 2016

I was overjoyed to hear that Elisa would get a sister! Visions of a girl-powered household and of me, the masculine nucleus, made excited for the future. Elisa and Lucía would become an inseparable team, each with their beginnings rooted in different countries and cultures but from the same family. I came back from Lebanon to our new-used Subaru wagon (the same model and color that I had in Santiago back in 2009), and we celebrated the second trimester embarking on a southern Chile road trip with no restrictions except those of the winter, a two-year-old’s caprichos and our hearts’ proclivities. We spent the first night high in the Andes in the Valle de los Cóndores, celebrating Easter and Semana Santa with hundreds of climbers scattered across a volcanic plain surrounded by basalt walls, waterfalls and la cordillera. We stopped through Antuco where the sun warmed us and took a cocaví (picnic) to the shores of Laguna de Laja, drove through the Araucanía to Puesco and filled the stove with wood as Señor Autumn reached his fingers into our nerves. We walked through the tree houses of Huilo-Huilo and ended up on Lago Rupanco in a family reunion with our cousins Vera and Pablo. Invited to explore their hidden paradise, isolated from society. On arrival, they immediately led us to the tinaja (fire-heated hot tub), and the starry skies of the Southern Chile covered us like a blanket. Rupanco was the highlight of the journey, Ignacia rediscovered far off branches of her family tree, Elisa fell in love with boats on water, and I, nostalgic for Chile’s wilderness.

 

Month 6: April – May 2016

When the clouds cleared over Rupanco, we got enough of a signal to check our messages and learned that I had a job on the new trade hub project based in Pretoria. We celebrated with champagne and a swim in the frigid waters. At this point, we had to soon abandon the road trip to prepare for the move to South Africa. But before that, we drove further south to Puerto Varas. Lucía’s mass increased from a speck to a plum, sheltered in utero as the winter inched closer. We stayed with Pitu and Cristobal in a cabin with incredible views of the snowcapped Osorno and Lago Llanquihue. I worked with an old friend at Chester Brewery bagging hops for a day, and we relaxed as Elisa made new friends whose love for Peppa Pig was far more fanatical than hers. Before heading north, we spent the day hiking in Alerce Andino, the furthest south we would go and a smidgeon from our original goal of reaching the Chilean Patagonia. The rest of the country would have to wait. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate with the entire family anyway? We turned the car around and headed north. As we neared Santiago, an epic rainstorm caught us in San Fernando where we stayed with more friends, waiting for the flood to subside. After another week in Susanna’s urban farm in Malloco, we each left Chile in different directions, this time the last time.

 

Month 7: May-June 2016

We won a short term contract to create material for an HIV and family health project in Botswana, and I spent three weeks in the dusty savannah on the edge of the Kalahari in the house of a former Ethiopian boss tucked away in a fancy golf community on the outskirts of Gaborone. I traveled to villages learning about how a country with such a small population, proactive government and seemingly sustainable source of capital couldn’t control the spread of AIDS. I witnessed again how the unfair treatment of young girls fueled conflict and disease. Being the skeptic and hedging our daughter’s future, I kept a door open in the development aid job market. For one interview for a job in Colombia, I bounced around the house looking for the best signal to conduct an interview while holding the laptop like an absurdly large cell phone. When I returned, we moved back to Utah in order to mobilize to South Africa. The contract seemed to be guaranteed, and then we learned that a competitor was contesting the award. Now, it wasn’t just a question of when but if. Lucía gestated into the final trimester, and we celebrated a local holiday, camping out in the San Rafael Swell with friends. Lucía kicked, Elisa played in the river, and a current of uncertainty was moving quickly while we floated on the raft of the unknowable.

 

Month 8: June-July 2016

By late June, the project in South Africa was unraveling, or at least unable to get on the same page with Lucía. Ignacia and I lay in bed at nights wondering what the next four weeks might have in store. It was more and more clear that this baby was not going to be born in South Africa, as predicted by the bruja. We were 34 weeks pregnant, had no health insurance, no work contract and no idea where Lucía would be born. We came up with harebrained schemes to flee to Canada; Mexico was another option. It was a sad commentary on my own country that exorbitant healthcare prices might dictate the birth of its own citizens. Then I was offered the job I interviewed for while in Botswana—a land tenure project in Colombia—after two long weeks of anticipating resolution, we accepted the move to Bogotá on the last day of June. Much like Elisa brought us a job in Liberia, Lucía brought us a job in Colombia. Another baby, another loaf of bread under the arm, or so goes the Spanish expression. We set a mobilization record of 15 days, got Mino’s shots and papers and jumped on a flight to Bogotá one day before the 35 week no-fly date for expecting mothers. Before we left, we found a doula named Lina through Facebook and on the plane talked about the best-case scenario for a natural and free birth in a country where nearly half of all babies are delivered surgically.

 

Month 9: July-August 2016

In Bogotá, we moved into Hotel 80-10, next to a city park, surround by all the expected sounds of a bustling Latin America capital. People in Bogotá are so friendly, we soon realized that we hit the jackpot. If the Colombian people were assisting this delivery, we were in friendly hands. The doula introduced us to Dr. Mario, one of few natural birth practitioners, and on the first examination, he told us how Colombia had progressed in the arena of ‘el parto humanizado’ (humanized births) because now the father could also hang out in the delivery room. We grimaced worryingly. He softly placed some geometric shapes with little photos of catholic saints on Ignacia’s belly, and we quietly asked those saints for a birth with no unnecessary intervention. Ignacia bought new noise-blocking headphones, because she worried that excessive administrative demands and overachieving nurses would kill her birthing juju. At 39 weeks, just a month after arriving to Colombia, Lucía was ready. Contractions started at 3am. We breathed through the pain, showered under steamy water and moved through four hours of contractions in the hotel. I turned on cartoons for Elisa, and my boss Anna came down to help out. In a nod to our nomadic life for the last two years, we went from the hotel to the hospital in a taxi. Ignacia was blindfolded and her birthing playlist pumped melodies to her brain, which by then submitted itself to instinct and was likely unable to muster a thought based on logic. We stood down on the street waiting for the ride. Ignacia looked like a pregnant jogger being kidnapped by a taxista.

 

Birthday: August 15, 2016

The city was quiet, and most had the day off to commemorate the Assumption of Virgin Mary, or the day Jesus’ mom got the keys to heaven. Down the freeway we rolled, and once we were inside the Reina Sofia hospital, we were immediately moved to an intermediate waiting room where nurses performed the nearly impossible task of making a woman in labor lie still for twenty minutes while a heart monitor does the painfully obvious task of confirming the mother is indeed in labor. A head scratcher, that one. In a nearby consultation, a couple was overheard planning their cesarean while Ignacia listened to deep meditation beats surmounting pain with joy. As contractions increased, random nurses came by asking why the mother was blind and wearing earphones. To which I told them ‘qué pena con Usted’, but she was not interested in talking until she has given birth, she needed focus, a critical part of having a baby with no anesthesia or painkillers. Colombians are relentlessly friendly. I jumped the administrative hurdles of standing in line, paying for the birthing room, and delivering the receipt to the right person. Forty minutes later, we reached ground zero. Dr. Mario showed up grinning at the thought of a natural birth, not a common occurrence in Bogotá. After only a few minutes, when a nurse ordered the team to strap Ignacia down to the gurney (much like they do in movies), she was already on her knees pushing Lucía through the birth canal, doing her job faster than the nurses could prepare for it. The doctor barely had time to wash his hands when Lucía made her debut squawking and squealing as high-altitude oxygen filled her tiny lungs. And our journey ended there, a suckling baby in loving arms, a bewildered team of nurses, and a proud husband who admired his wife’s strength to not only give birth to another baby girl, but to have carried her all over the world for nine months.

 

Postscript

We never added up the distance traveled to reach this point, on the road and through the skies of seven countries, temporarily living in more than 25 houses and a trusty tent. We owe so much to old friends, our extended families and all the people we met along the way. Lucía was just nine days old when we finally moved into the flat we call home in Bogotá, and an overwhelming feeling of permanence simultaneously filled us with joy and dread. We haven’t moved since, but are itching to buy a camper-van before the nomadic spirit is suffocated by four walls and crushed by the roof that protects our little family.

 

Glossary

Wadi: river canyon

Brasero: brazier

Bruja: witch

Tu rol como mama va a ser amarrarla con cuerdas a la tierra: your rol as a mother is going to be to hold her with ropes down to earth

Alma vieja: old soul

Semana santa: holy week

Caprichos: whims

Cocaví: Chilean expression for picnic

Que pena con usted: Colombian expression that means, I am sorry for you