Author of Poetry and Prose
You asked me what love is, but instead of giving a generic answer I would rather take your question seriously. What I understand about love was taught to me by your mother.
The basics of our story you already know. Your mother and I fell in love, we then agreed to get married and start a family. But there is so much more than that! As is with most things in life, it’s not that simple. Our love grew over time, across continents and cultures, through war and peace, in poverty and prosperity; in sadness and in joy.
It began (like many love stories) with a group of friends at a party. I had come to study in Aberdeen, northern Scotland, with the ambition of developing my research in international affairs and ultimately earn my doctorate. After surviving my childhood in Puerto Rico, being in the United Kingdom was a dream become reality.
I made friends from all over the world during my first year there, and a couple of them were the same friends who invited me to the party. At the time I thought I was in love with Margaret, a beautiful girl from Northern Ireland; but we broke-up and got back together so many times that I was frustrated with the relationship. We were at the party together but we weren’t entirely on speaking terms, nor were we interested in pretending to be a happy couple in public.
There was a group of students from Ethiopia there and they had relatives who came over from Africa to visit them. I was curious and decided to spend my time with them rather than with Margaret. In the group were two teenage girls visiting their cousin. They were bright-eyed and quite excited to be enjoying the attention of older guys. I was already in my mid-twenties and uninterested in the girls except for their humor and pleasant company. I didn’t know that one of them would eventually become your mother.
The next evening one of her relatives came to me in the pub and asked if I would be interested in marrying her. He said he could arrange it but the dowry would have to be above $20,000. I thought it was a joke at first but soon realized he was completely serious. Unfortunately for him; I don’t believe in such traditions, and he asked at a time when I was tired of love and arrogantly focused on my academic career. I politely turned him down and said she was too young for me and I could not possibly deprive her of her youthful freedom and ability to enjoy life. He walked away offended, and I almost immediately forgot the incident.
It did turn out to be better for her because soon afterwards my stepfather died and with him went the funds for my ongoing education. I loved him very much and his death caused me such heartache and despair that I almost crumbled into dust. Knowing that I could not go on in Scotland, I returned to Puerto Rico to be with my mother and try to rearrange both our lives. We went from riches to rags in a matter of days and had to do everything possible to stay afloat.
I got a job as a history teacher and discovered that I was very good at it. A couple of years into my new-found career I was given an opportunity to once again pursue my doctorate and continue with my research. This time I went to Budapest, Hungary, and enjoyed a full scholarship (including living expenses) at Central European University. It was a wonderful experience in so many ways.
This led to a second important party. There were a lot of parties in my life, especially in those days. It is a miracle I managed to get any education at all, or so your grandmother keeps saying. Again I was able to meet many international students and make many close friends. This time I was in a serious relationship with Natasha from Poland and we had an apartment together in the fashionable district of the city. Before you ask, there were many love affairs in my life before your mother.
Our apartment was the scene of many inebriated evenings and jolly celebrations. However, Natasha was never really amused with my taste for parties and our relationship soured. She returned to Poland and I stayed in Budapest while we tried to work through our differences. Nevertheless, I continued the tradition of hosting friends and colleagues at our apartment. I loved to cook for people and made sure they drank their fill. During one New Year’s Eve party I was able to count 43 countries being represented, and I cooked enough food to feed every single person that night.
There were two very nice women from Mexico studying with me and we became close friends. Being Hispanic we had a strong sense of solidarity and community. They asked me to host a party in the apartment on their behalf for a group of visitors from Ethiopia. I was more than happy to do it, especially when I thought of the Ethiopians I had met in Scotland.
At the party there were two girls who looked familiar to me. They had grown some and at this point should be called women. I was not sure why but the one woman caught my eye and reminded me of that night in Aberdeen. Another guest from Ethiopia noticed me looking at the pair and told me that I shouldn’t speak to them. I guess she wanted me to focus on her but; me being myself, I ignored her completely and felt compelled to go talk to them.
One of the women was your mother. We half remembered each other but didn’t really speak about it. Instead we started our acquaintance anew and ended up chatting together all night. Then something wonderfully unexpected happened, she stayed after the party and spent the night. We enjoyed ourselves more than I think either of us had done in a long time.
Over the next few days we spent as much time together as we could, mostly in secret and never outside the apartment. Her activities were being monitored by another interested party and I didn’t want to get her into trouble. Then, as quickly as she had appeared, she was gone. Back to Ethiopia and out of my life, or so I thought.
I tried to carry on with my life in Budapest but couldn’t seem to keep my head straight. Natasha and I put the final nail in the coffin of our relationship and I spent more time at the pub than in the library. It all caught up to me and I was eventually forced to return to Puerto Rico.
During the flight home I designed what would become my first company, and after arriving I engaged firmly in the task of making it a reality. Things were slow and difficult until a close friend offered me a contract with the commonwealth government. It was a good deal on paper, but the reality of corruption and bad governance in Puerto Rico eventually slapped me across the face. After serious incidents and disagreements I withdrew from the contract and migrated to Atlanta, penniless and disillusioned. I have not returned since then.
Luckily for me; your grandmother is from Atlanta, and our family has always had one foot on the mainland and one foot on the island. This made it easy for me to come here and once again rearrange my life as best I could. I dedicated myself to consulting, odd jobs and freelance journalism. But I wasn’t satisfied with myself or the direction I was heading in. When I was most distraught I thought of Africa, of Ethiopia, of the woman I had loved for a week in Budapest.
I started to look for any projects I could work on in Africa, especially if they could get me into Ethiopia or at least as close as possible. Then I found the answer. It was a small university in Somaliland that was looking for foreign staff able to implement education and field research projects. The die was cast and I was on my way.
Somaliland was a completely different experience for someone coming from western academia. But since I grew up in the Caribbean I was able to easily adapt and overcome the difficulties of life there. Somaliland is an unrecognized state that broke away from Somalia; and the region is known for abject poverty, armed conflict, instability and bad governance. That being said, Somaliland is a lot better off than what remains of the old Somalia.
Shortly after arriving in Hargeisa (Somaliland’s capital city) my colleagues and I discovered that the university we were working for was unstable and could not support the projects we intended to implement. We then turned to the local campus of Admas University; the headquarters of which is in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. They happily brought us and our projects into their organization. Mission accomplished!
Admas University was a wonderful experience and I am grateful for my time there. I became a close friend and colleague to the upper administrators of the Hargeisa campus. Through them I had finally gained access to Ethiopia and an opportunity to put my innermost secret plan into action. Although, in all honesty, it was more of a delusional belief that somehow I could find the girl that came in and out of my life like a flash but still managed to stay firmly in my mind. It was as if somehow finding her would miraculously cure my madness and give me back the faith and dignity I had lost.
Little did I understand then how far I had come and how close I really was to finding her. Thanks to the university I had a visa to Ethiopia and a reason to visit Addis Ababa. Around graduation time we had a long holiday and so I went. Going by land through Somaliland and the Somali region of Ethiopia is not easy. It’s at best unpredictable and complicated, and at worst dangerous. But once you are in Jigjiga you know you are relatively safe and halfway there.
It took me some time but I made it to Addis Ababa and to the office of the university’s president. Mohammed, a dear friend and colleague from Hargeisa, had gone there separately to prepare the graduation paperwork and escort the Ethiopian delegation that would be attending. Two days before we were to leave he invited me to lunch with some university officers and the president’s secretary. It took my breath away when I realized the president’s secretary was your mother.
I could have kissed Mohammed that day, and ever since then I wonder if he really understands what a great favor he did for me. There she was, all grown up and professional; but still bathed in beauty and girlish charm. We didn’t say a word about the past; we just had lunch and exchanged polite conversation. In fact, we have never spoken of our encounters before that lunch. We just took it as “Day One” and carried on from there.
In the unspoken world of our bodies we both felt the tingle, the spark and the proverbial lightning bolt. We started our great love affair that day. We were both very sad when I had to go back to Hargeisa with the delegation, but we had finally made real contact. From that day onward we spoke on the phone and emailed every chance we got. I started writing poems for her and feeling more alive than I had in years.
A few times I ran away from home, so to speak, and traveled on my own down that long road from Hargeisa to Addis Ababa. It would take me a couple of days to arrive but I never felt tired or resentful of the journey. In your mother’s arms was my life, the spirit and soul that I had lost so many years ago. She made me a better man than I had ever been.
Now was the time to implement the final stage of my plan. Your mother and I agreed to get married and live together in Addis Ababa. I sent her all the money I had managed to save and told her to rent an apartment and buy furniture. Then I left Hargeisa and arrived there two days after crossing a troubled dessert, imposing mountains and dozens of security checkpoints. That was the key turning point in both our lives.
We started a new and happy family together. Now here we are, years later, living in Atlanta and still very much in love. There has been no moment in our marriage that I didn’t feel love and happiness. Your mother and I crossed oceans of time and difficulty to be together. Ultimately, you were created from our love.
You asked me what love is, love is the long road to you.