At least now I can tell my grandkids about the swamp...
Pagak is on the South Sudan side of the border. According to Google Maps and Thuraya (sat phone) we're in Ethiopia; naturally the SPLA begs to differ with such newfangled/highfalutin technologies, so we're in South Sudan. Unfortunately, for 8 months out of the year, Pagak (and this entire remote section of South Sudan) is completely inaccessible to any piece of machinery that doesn't have wings.
That's where the swamp comes into play...
To get to Gambella - the sleepy little Ethiopian town 100km from the border that supplies practically everything to Pagak - during the rainy season (read: April-December) one must first brave the mud up until the border, shouting "Nuer!" back at periodically naked children who are intent on repeatedly reminding you that you're a khawaja. Finally the (above water) mud ends and everyone starts rolling up their pants.
When in Rome...
Not having spent much time in Louisiana, swamps are relatively new to me. This one basically looked like a massive high school science project gone horribly wrong. Grass poking up in random places and maybe even growing down from the surface at points...? A busted bee hive wreaking havoc. Purple flowers that might or might not give you a fun disease. Mosquitos and more mosquitos. Squishy, clay-like mud under the surface daring you to take another blind step. Nescafe-colored water with [insert your worst hygiene- and critter-related nightmare here] floating serenely to and fro. Wait, was that a snake?!
Despite the dangers, my mantra worked like a charm. Apparently "don't fall. don't fall. don't fall. don't fall. don't fall." causes one to focus intently on not submerging one's backpack/whole body in the swamp… the fact that one of the clumsiest people I know (yours truly) didn’t slip was much to the disappointment of the ever-growing audience of children waiting for the splash. Khawaja 1 : 0 Swamp
One bumpy ride in the back of a beat up Land Cruiser pickup plus more than my fair share of sunscreen... and 3 hours after setting off we finally arrived in Gambella. Excuse me folks, I must go straight to the shower to wash the lower half of my body. Immediately. Repeatedly. Vigorously.
We development aid workers have a fairly self-deprecating sense of humor, encapsulated best by the Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like blog of which I was honored to be a guest-poster earlier this year. We enjoy the facial reaction we get when telling a friend of a friend in a Harvard Square bar that you've just spent 2 months without plumbing, fighting off animals with sticks. We delight in one-upping a fellow aid worker's "remember that time I was in the bush?" experiences by telling them you waded through a swamp barefoot. We imagine ourselves a dashing mix of Indiana Jones, T. E. Lawrence, Oscar the Grouch (when the internet's not working) and Mother Teresa.
Most notably, we also have a peculiar penchant to periodically participate in hyperbole and exaggeration (see above).