Nicole Heim ‘My sweet honey, my sweet honey’.  This is the English translation for the Amharic words that echoed through the hills of Ethiopia on my last day in the field.  I heard them an entire valley away before I met the sweet little girl singing them.  She was hiking up a hill with a heavy pot strapped to her back, filled with lunch for her parents who were working tirelessly in the field.  I wasn’t about to tell her that I couldn’t think of a more appropriate phrase for her country, or that she was a perfect example of all that it embodied.

I was in Ethiopia with the non-profit organization charity: water. It was a volunteer role – a brand new one lacking ground resources or financial support. For six weeks, I ventured to rural areas of the country, often traveling up to 30kms per day, beads of sweat rolling down my face.  With nothing but a GPS unit and a translator, I scaled mountains aimlessly, trekked through fields of cow dung, and visited traditional villages – all in search of remote water projects. I blissfully celebrated with communities when water was flowing and empathetically felt helpless when it wasn’t.

Ethiopia

Although I had traveled significantly before, it took many moments of staring fear in the face to remind myself that I was capable of traveling through Ethiopia as an independent female, in search of water wells I knew little about. Sure, I had had months of preparation before heading off on the assignment; however, even the preparation could not adequately answer questions I worried about, or address the anxiety I felt: Would I be able to find a reliable driver and translator?  Would I really be able to locate wells and navigate a country without the relevant resources? Would cultural or religious differences impact the way I felt as a solo female traveler?

“Although I had traveled significantly before, it took many moments of staring fear in the face to remind myself that I was capable of traveling through Ethiopia as an independent female…”

In the end, it was the culture and and the people that inspired me to move beyond my fears and move forward with my work successfully. Ethiopia itself is exceptionally charming: the streets are a buzzing bazaar of color and texture; the cultural clothing and handmade fabrics are timeless; and the religious devotion instills deep values and traditions in its people.  The landscape is incredibly diverse and dramatic, with 900-year old rock-hewn churches still in use today.  The food is delicious and always plentiful, and you’ll never be hard-pressed to find blaring beats; the country moves in unison with their shoulder-shudder traditional dance moves. Above all, with their stunning cheekbones and joyful spirits, the people of Ethiopia are profoundly kind and stunningly beautiful.

In fact, while most would consider the rural communities of Ethiopia to have very little, they were, in actuality, filled with endless amounts of happiness and life.  Villagers invited me into their homes, made by hand of local wood and mud, to partake in religious celebrations and share in all that they had.  They laughed, smiled and prayed, while sharing their food, coffee and water – the very thing they need the most.  These special moments gifted me with a global perspective, allowing me to remain grateful for all that I have and compassionate for those who are less fortunate. 

The people of Ethiopia showed me more love and kindness than I could have dreamed of. They taught me how to relate to just about anyone; after all, we’re all striving for the same meaningful desires: love, safety, and a hope for a better future. Above all, though, these moments and interactions made me feel comfortable – they helped to ease my anxiety; helped me move beyond my fear; helped fuel my work.With any luck, I can only hope that I played a very small part in their lives, as they have played such a large role in mine.

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Nicole Heim is a New York City-based fashion designer who recently left her corporate career to follow her passion for travel and find a more meaningful use for design. Find more inspiration from afar on her website, www.threeshadesofperfection.com, and @nlheim on Instagram and Twitter.