Certain that Richard would be thrilled, Penelope hurried home to announce the news. Instead, over the next few weeks, he morphed from a loving husband to an angry man who flashed daggers or stared into space without saying a word.
In the midst of packing for a nine-day flying tour of historic Ethiopia, Penelope realized the timing couldn’t have been worse. Knowing how much he loved exotic travel, she agonized before summoning the courage to confront her husband. “We need to talk. I’m worried such a rugged trip will endanger the baby.”
Richard exploded. “Don’t be ridiculous. We’ve been planning this trip for months, and you’re already past the first trimester.”
“But I’m almost forty; pregnancy can be dangerous for a woman my age, and I’ve waited a long time to become a mother.”
“And I’ve looked forward to visiting Ethiopia for years. Once this baby arrives, we’re stuck. You’re ruining my one passion in life.”
“Your one passion in life? I suppose that excludes me.”
An aura of gloom enveloped them while the travel arrangements moved forward.
Having landed in the Capital, Addis Ababa, they settled into a luxury hotel with a swimming pool, which Penelope intended to avoid. Even at this early stage, she eschewed wearing a bathing suit.
One morning, as they strolled the broad avenue outside their hotel, two young men accosted them. One said, “Good morning English. How are you today?”
“Keep walking.” Richard tugged at Penelope’s arm.
“I am Dawit and my friend is Hagos,” the man said. “Where are you from?”
Penelope stopped and extended her hand. “We live in New York.”
“Beautiful place, New York. We’re poor university students trying to earn money; we can show you around if you like.”
Richard extracted a map from his pocket. “I know exactly how to find the National Museum.”
“Very nice,” Dawit said. “You should see their replicas of ‘Lucy.’”
“She’s the main reason we’re going.”
A look of confusion crossed Penelope’s face. “Who’s Lucy?”
Richard wagged his finger. “I knew you weren’t listening last night while I was reading to you about ‘Lucy.’
“Sorry. I couldn’t keep my eyes open after the long flight. Tell me now.”
He sighed a long sigh. “At 3.5 million years, ‘Lucy’ is the oldest hominid ever excavated. A hominid is an ape/human, walking upright.”
“They found her skeleton thirty-five years ago, in ’74, here at Harar,” Dawit said with pride.
Richard chuckled. “The archeologists named her ‘Lucy’—after The Beatles song, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
Penelope sang a few bars. “In that case, we must pay ‘Lucy’ our respects.”
“Is good day for sightseeing when sun is shining.” Dawit grasped Richard’s arm. “I think is raining tomorrow—better time to be inside museum.”
Richard glared, twisting to shrug off Dawit’s grip.
Turning to Penelope, Dawit said, “For you, Mrs. New York, I have store selling best quality handicrafts at low prices—not like cheating tourist shops.”
“Let’s do the museum tomorrow.” She gave Richard a pleading look. “The guidebooks say Ethiopia has fabulous artifacts.”
Richard sighed again. “How much will this sightseeing cost us?”
“Special price—only five dollars.”
He frowned and reluctantly agreed to go.
A short distance ahead, Richard spotted the museum and gestured toward the entrance. “The museum’s right here. Why can’t we go now?”
“Relax. I’ll send ‘Lucy’ a note, saying to expect us tomorrow.”
Several blocks further, they found themselves at a store chock-full of Ethiopian artifacts where they happily examined the hand-crafted rugs, baskets, and art work—one more appealing than the next. Initially, Penelope chose a parchment depicting St. George slaying the dragon, but a scene of wide-eyed Ethiopian women, squatting before their cooking pots caught her fancy as a unique kitchen wall hanging.
She held up an oval basket in a rainbow of bright colors. “This is perfect to store my sewing threads.”
Without looking up, Richard answered, “That’s fine” and continued combing through a pile of rugs to find one that typified Ethiopian art. He happened on a goat-wool carpet with a stylized Ethiopian lion symbol and called to her, “Wouldn´t this grey and black rug be sharp next to the den couch?”
Penelope examined the rug, wrinkling her nose. “Phew! It smells of goat, and it will shed like crazy.”
Richard scowled, and the store owner hurriedly intervened. “Not smell later, Madam and not shed. Is very good carpet!” Wasting no time, he rolled up the rug placing it in a carrying sack with shoulder straps. Removing a pencil from behind his ear, he tallied the purchases.
Pleased with their new treasures, Richard and Penelope paid the guides. Adding a large tip and thanking them profusely, they taxied back to the hotel where, out of curiosity, they stopped by the hotel gift shop to compare prices and congratulate themselves on their bargains.
Instead, they discovered the same goods priced far lower. Red-faced, Richard barked, “You and your poor starving students.”
Feeling like she’d been slapped, she grabbed her sketchbook and fled to the patio.
During lunch, they barely spoke, and Penelope had trouble swallowing because of the lump in her throat. After a few mouthfuls, she put down her fork. Behaving as though no harsh words were said, Richard suggested they visit The Mercato—market.
“Whatever you decide,” she said listlessly.
At the market, a mixture of exotic aromas emanated from the most dazzling array of spices Penelope had ever seen. Her mood brightened, and she purchased little gift packets of saffron, which were like gold to the serious chefs in her cooking circle.
The large bolts of bright, colorful cloth on display puzzled her since most local shoppers wore plain, traditional Shemmas of white gauze-like cotton with blue borders. “These must be for the tourists like us,” she said.
As they meandered through the produce section, the putrid smell of rotting fruit assailed her nostrils and bile flooded her throat. Barely over her morning sickness, she gagged and leaned on Richard. “I’ve had enough, let’s leave.”
Then, across from the hotel, she spied a leper with his begging bowl. His entire body was clothed in rags, and a mask obscured most of his face. Only a pair of haunting eyes stared out above the filthy wrappings. She shuddered and tugged at Richard´s arm crying, “Look at the poor devil. He must be sweltering in this heat.”
“He has no choice. If he dared expose his sores, he’d be stoned.” Pulling her toward the lobby door, Richard said, “Quick, get inside.”
The frightening image pursued her into their well-appointed room and haunted her throughout the night; she worried the sight of a leper would taint her unborn child.
How ridiculous, she chided herself—a PhD in psychology buying into superstitious blather!
A woman admired for her beauty and intelligence, Penelope had begun to shrink inward. Her chestnut brown hair had lost its sheen and gone limp; her waistline had nearly disappeared. Almost immediately, her stomach popped out, and she saw herself as a blob in shapeless maternity clothes begging for crumbs of affection like the creature outside.
These days, Richard rarely laughed or joked; he only came to life during morning debates or nightly card games with the other tour members, an impressive cross-section of professors and U.N. workers. That evening, when two Harvard professors dropped in for a post-dinner chat about their various travel exploits, she enjoyed a fleeting vision of herself as a desirable woman. Her hand-washed silk underwear lay drying outside, and both men kept looking from the patio back to her with hungry eyes.
She knew Richard had noticed. When the two professors left, he hugged her and offered to bring tea from the café downstairs.
After three days, the group flew to Bahar Dir and lodged near Lake Tana in a moldy and grimy stucco hotel with dingy rooms and barely edible food. Along the shore, signs warned, “Do not fall in the water.” The lake, reputedly housed parasitic worms that caused schistosomiasis, a disease that could engender internal inflammation or scarring.
The comical wording helped ease the tension between them. Becoming their private joke, they would repeat, “Remember, whatever you do, don’t fall in the water.” But secretly, besides worrying about the food she was ingesting, thoughts of parasitic worms planted new seeds of concern for her baby.
That afternoon, as they trudged up the barren hills of Bahir Dar en route toward Tisissat Falls, the source of the Blue Nile, Penelope felt depressed and abandoned. Richard led the group, forging ahead without checking to make sure she was all right.
As members of the Home Guard, two boys, seemingly no more than age twelve, had been charged with protecting them; each held an arm to assist her in the climb. To Penelope, they posed a greater threat than rumors of bandits in the vicinity. She watched warily hoping they wouldn’t stumble in the rough terrain and set off their rudimentary rifles.
The next morning, the tour guide proposed a visit to one of twenty surviving 13th century shelter monasteries in the middle of Lake Tana, which could only be reached by Tankwa, a papyrus reed canoe. Because Penelope, like other tour members, had suffered digestive problems, she feared being stuck in the middle of the lake without bathroom facilities.
When she begged to remain at the hotel, Richard chided her, “Be a big girl; the pills we brought work like magic.”
“The doctor said I should only use them if absolutely necessary.”
“Those pills won’t hurt you; believe me.”
“I’m tired of your callousness,” she shot back. “This is our baby, not just mine.”
“I’m a microbiologist,” he insisted. “I know what I’m talking about.”
Once on the island, the tour proved worthwhile. The church of Saint Stifanos held glass-sided coffins, containing the mummified remains of several former Ethiopian emperors. And Daga Istifanos, one of the most sacred monasteries, had served as a temporary hiding place for the Ark of the Covenant.
At the last monastery, a decrepit-looking monk, who appeared as ancient as the building, slowly shuffled around, croaking on, in a barely audible voice. Penelope found it increasingly difficult to concentrate, growing more anxious as the minutes elapsed; she breathed a sigh of relief as their Tankwa neared the lakeshore.
But in exiting the canoe, she slipped and fell sprawling on her back in the wet dirt. Richard rushed to her side, and assuring himself she was unhurt, he gently helped her up. Cradling Penelope close, he slowly led her back to their hotel where he cleaned off the mud and insisted she lie down to rest.
That evening, Richard surprised Penelope with a cake to celebrate her birthday. It was tasteless and dry, but as she blew out the candles, her eyes welled up in gratitude.
Later in their room, Penelope kissed his cheek and thanked him. She gazed lovingly at her husband of fifteen years, who in her mind was the perfect embodiment of his profession with his tall, ascetic good looks, tousled hair, and rimless glasses. For the first time since her pregnancy began, the light in Richard’s eyes had returned. He took her in his arms and kissed her deeply.
“Today’s special—it’s your birthday.”
On day six, they flew to Gondar where Penelope beheld a more urban landscape, and the simple—but clean—hotel offered an improvement over the last accommodations.
At lunch, Penelope, who was always hungry, greedily gobbled up thick, spicy lentil soup and even attacked the roast ox, a tasty new dish. She smiled contentedly when Richard suggested they relax in the garden before touring the former Imperial Capital.
Richard studied the guidebook while Penelope selected a charcoal pencil and started sketching. “Here’s today’s schedule, Pen,” he said. “We’re touring the 17th century churches and bridges built by Emperor Fasilidas, the founder of Gondar. The decorations are supposed to be fantastic.”
They were right to come, Penelope thought; this was a dream trip for an architecture buff, like Richard.
He added, “Did you know they call Gondar the African Camelot because of its large, imposing medieval castles?”
She pointed. “I’m drawing the brown crenellated castle over in the distance.”
The tour commenced with The Bath of Fasilidas, a three-story stone pavilion and large sunken pool, still used during Baptisms. At the Debre Birhan Selassie, Richard was awestruck by the vibrant artwork of the church.
What caught Penelope’s attention was the beamed ceiling depicting magnificent winged cherubs with their big, slanted eyes and quizzical expressions. She said, “It’s amazing the way each one of the 104 images is different.”
During the next stop, the children of the Black Jewish Falasha village evoked a darker response. There they found themselves in a dirty and dusty settlement of pole and straw huts, topped with a thatch roof and identifying six-point Star of David.
According to the guide, the Falashas were predominantly weavers, blacksmiths, and potters; although they didn’t speak Hebrew, they practiced many Jewish customs and observed the Sabbath.
Across the courtyard, a young, dark-haired beauty had set up a collection of hand-made ceramic pots and figures. Her hair, pulled back with a blue scarf over a high brown forehead, accented her delicate features. A shy smile peeked from her full-lipped mouth, displaying even white teeth. “Have a look,” she said, “Beautiful and very cheap.”
Penelope fingered the various objects and delighted in the group of laughing children, who had formed a circle around them. All at once, she reared back at the sight of movement—movement over the eyes of each child—eyes covered with flies.
Richard shook his head in disbelief. “This is horrible; the flies are actually laying their eggs in the children’s eyes. Now I understand why glaucoma is a major problem in Ethiopia.” Grabbing Penelope, he hurried them off to the waiting van where she began gasping for breath. Richard encouraged her to inhale deeply and helped her to their room. She tried to rest, but the nightmare vision of the swarming masses played over and over in her head.
After a sleepless night, Penelope rose early the next morning, counting the minutes until Richard wakened. “I can’t take any more: the leper, the worms in the lake, the flies. I want to go home.”
“Pen, I’m sorry. We have two nights in Lalibela, and that’s it. I’ve always wanted to see those churches carved out of rock.”
“Please listen to me; I’m worried something bad will happen.”
“What could go wrong?” He soothed her with words and kisses until she calmed down and agreed to continue, but inside she felt deeply afraid.
The next morning, they crowded in three-abreast for a forty-minute flight to Lalibela. Penelope sat wedged between Richard and a friendly young woman returning to teach. She introduced herself as Aisha and told them her mother had taught in Lalibela nearly forty years before at a rudimentary school. The city now boasted two modern schools—albeit with classes containing up to eighty-five students each.
During the descent through the mountainous terrain to the almost 2000 meters high airport, Aisha noticed that Penelope looked frightened and patted her hand. “Not to worry. Ethiopian Airlines has an excellent safety record. When my mother first came in the 70’s, by Prop Jet, she had crates of food for the hotel kitchen to keep her company, and the entire airport, consisted of a grass hut in the middle of a field with grazing cows. So we’re way ahead of the game.”
Aisha laughed. “No pun intended.”
She added, “Lalibela is a designated World Heritage Site; tourists and pilgrims arrive every year to visit the eleven monolithic rock-hewn churches, so you’ll find comfortable hotels and even a hospital.”
Her words reassured Penelope, now riddled with anxiety about staying in such isolated surroundings.
Outside the airport, a guide waited with a land rover to drive them slowly up the long, winding road, a former isolated mule trail; it was packed with rugged-looking people, draped in traditional muslin and made thin by poverty. They soldiered on, carrying their meager offerings to market in the valley below; a few fortunate souls had donkeys to bear their bundles, but one woman was bent nearly in half under a burden of firewood.
At the hotel, perched atop a mountain, Penelope closed her eyes and basked in the sun while Richard made the long walk down to the market. On his return, he reported seeing small piles of produce and dried herbs, a few baskets, rope, straw, some hand-woven cloth—the most pitiful exhibition of goods he ever encountered at a market; even so, villagers had trudged as many as sixty kilometers to display them.
During breakfast, Richard said excitedly, “I read the churches here date way back to King Lalibela’s 12th century reign, and they’ve been in continual use ever since. The old rascal commissioned them to score points with the Ethiopian Christian church.”
Penelope gave him a wan smile and said nothing.
He continued, “These churches are awesome; each one was excavated and chiseled from a single rock then connected by underground tunnels and walkways across sheer drops.”
Penelope raised her eyebrows, but again remained silent. Inside she wondered how she would survive the day.
Sensing her misgivings, Richard said, “The tops of the churches are at ground level, so we have to walk down to each monument. There’s quite a lot of climbing; are you sure this won’t be too hard on you?”
“I can make it,” she replied. “We flew thousands of miles to see them, didn’t we?”
This time Richard helped her over the uneven ground and broken steps, trying his best to fight off beggars and the swarms of flies.
The first church, a massive, almost two-story-high structure, imparted a sense of strength and security to Penelope. With renewed energy, she proceeded to the second church, which was more like a cave, carved out on the inside.
Initially, she was enthralled by the artwork, but soon the walls began closing in, and waves of dizziness washed over her. She steadied herself and gamely forged on to a church, etched out on all four sides and only attached at the top. Another church with a cruciform-shaped roof boasted fragile windows; the inner walls exhibited Islamic tracery, carvings and paintings.
A vendor approached proudly dangling a silver necklace in front of her. He grinned revealing a mouthful of crooked teeth, broken up by one prize gold tooth. “Just for you, madam. I have Coptic cross, made from very old silver coins.”
Hoping it would bring her luck, she startled him by paying his first price. He pocketed the money and scurried away congratulating himself on his good fortune.
A monk, wearing colorful brocade robes, offered to pose with them for photos. Feeling overheated and bone tired, she declined and sat on a ledge, fanning herself with the white embroidered shawl she had purchased earlier. Then slowly she climbed to the top and leaned against the upholstery of the waiting car until her heart stopped pounding.
At dinner, Penelope could barely lift a spoon to taste the bean soup set before her. After one mouthful, she pushed the plate away.
Richard stared hard at her. Aside from her growing belly, she looked alarmingly thin. “You need food; with all that climbing, you have a lot of calories to make up for.”
The waiter arrived with plates of the traditional Ethiopian dish, wat, a stew served with injera, a flat, fermented dough pancake used as an implement to soak up the wat. Penelope took a small bite of the bread and made a face. She threw it on the plate, in disgust. “The bread tastes sour; it turns my stomach.”
“Try a little meat. You could use the protein.”
He spooned a small portion into a separate bowl. “Just eat this much, and I won’t bug you anymore.”
Penelope hesitated, then dunked the injera into the stew and brought it to her mouth. She gagged. “There’s something wrong with the meat.”
As soon as Richard tasted the stew, he lunged for the bottled water, splashing the liquid on two napkins and handed one to Penelope. “Quick, wash off your tongue. This is vile.” Repeatedly wetting the napkin to wipe his tongue, he urged her to follow suit.
“It’s useless. I’m going to the room; I can hardly hold my head up.”
Within an hour, Penelope felt the first cramp. She sat hunched in the bathroom shivering with chills and wracked by stabbing pains. Sweat poured from her face. Between sobs she cried, “Ever since we landed, I’ve worried about getting sick in this God-forsaken place.”
Richard pulled a blanket from the bed to wrap around her shoulders then touched his lips to her forehead the way his mother used to. “You’re burning up; we need to get you to a hospital.” He ran to dial the front desk.
Penelope gave a loud gasp followed by a sickening cry, “There’s blood, Richard. Do something! I can’t lose this baby.”
“Hold on,” he called out. “The hospital is sending an ambulance.”
Back in the bathroom he found Penelope doubled over.
“Please don’t think the worst, Pen.” He knelt, rocking her in his arms. “You may have eaten spoiled meat. It could even be amoebic dysentery; there’s usually blood associated with dysentery. The baby will be fine. They can fix you up with antibiotics.”
Praying the ambulance would arrive soon, Richard buried his face in her shoulder and began sobbing.
In minutes, the emergency workers were in their room. Bundling Penelope onto a stretcher, they loaded her into an ambulance that rushed them to Lalibela Hospital. Along the way, Richard held his breath, not knowing what kind of facility they would encounter. At the hospital, which proved to be meticulously clean and equipped with modern technology, Richard identified himself as a microbiologist and questioned the staff carefully until he felt satisfied with their educational backgrounds and medical expertise.
After the doctors performed an ultra-sound and a series of tests, an intern, who spoke excellent English, gave them the results. Addressing Richard as a fellow scientist, he said, “Fortunately the pregnancy is progressing normally; we hooked up a monitor to watch for any signs of baby distress.”
Penelope clutched her chest and smiled for the first time in days. “Did you hear that Richard? Our baby’s going to make it.”
“You came through this like a trooper.” He pulled her to him. “I’m proud of you.”
The intern cleared his throat and continued. “We gave Penelope a transfusion to replace a small amount of blood loss, but we found evidence of a bacterial infection, so we put her on a course of antibiotics.” Gesturing toward Penelope, he added, “If all goes well, we can probably send you on your way in ten days or so.”
“That’s great,” Richard said. “Now I can visit the churches we haven’t seen.”
Richard and his churches, Penelope thought.
After several days, the bleeding and the cramping had disappeared. When Richard stopped by on his return from sight-seeing, he kissed her and exclaimed, “You’re positively radiant.”
“The doctors say the baby should be fine if I take it easy for the remainder of my pregnancy.”
“You bet he’ll be fine,” Richard said. “He’s one tough little guy. Do you think we should name him after King Lalibela?”
“Hold on a minute. He could be a she.”
“No way—I can’t wait to take him on a trip with us—as soon as he starts walking.”
Penelope frowned. “Babies walk between nine and twelve months. You can’t subject an infant to your adventures.”
“We could always hire a nanny to look after him while we’re away.”
A dark shadow crossed Penelope’s face. She closed her eyes. “You should go now; I need my rest.”