musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Over the Hills and Through the Swamp

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).

Friday, October 19, 2012

Dodging Dogs and Cows

Lauren threw down the challenge before I left.

"You're going to lose more weight," she said definitively, citing scarcity of food in the field and the fact that I had lost 10 pounds since our round-the-world-trip ended. Unfortunately for me, food in Pagak has been much more acceptable than expected and, even if there's only rice and lentils to be had, I have a tendency to just eat more rice and lentils.

But the gauntlet had been thrown... so... challenge accepted!

Task number 1: portion control.
Task number 2: run.

Running in South Sudan has always been an interesting experience for me. I came around to the benefits only a few years ago after picking up Runner's World out of utter boredom while in Iraq. I'm yet to truly instill it as an irrevocable part of my schedule. Would love to be that guy that wakes up an hour early every morning to start off the day on the right foot. I'm just not.

For most South Sudanese (notable exceptions excluded), running is something they did away from bad guys with guns during the prolonged civil war. 'Footing' (walking) is something that is only done when the Land Cruiser is broken/out of gas, and running is only for crazy people. And Khawajas. And some Kenyans. And periodically Ethiopians. But almost never South Sudanese.

So upon arrival in Pagak I was pleased to see that our compound is right next to the airstrip. 827 meters of straight, flat dirt. I asked our now-departed British/American logistics/former pilot guy how he measured such a precise distance.

"I walked it," he replied without hesitation.

Of course you did.

So the airstrip is approximately 827 meters. Which, for you math nerds, means that there and back is... you guessed it, about a mile! Do that 3 times and you've got yourself a 5k. Do that 8-9 times and you might collapse from heat exhaustion. (On a side note - why don't we all just use the metric system?)

After getting over the predictable 'you're back in South Sudan but you're used to Whole Foods' stomach bug, I was ready to hit the dirt. Unfortunately, so were the following obstacles that have made my running experience in Pagak... well... never dull:

  • packs of wild dogs that camp out on the airstrip in the morning (though thankfully just strays, not these terrifying creatures) - I now run with a big stick;
  • periodic marching and singing exercises by soldiers. I generally stop running when they start marching... it only takes one hungover soldier;
  • the drunk and/or high local who decided, during one afternoon run, to run straight at me as if playing chicken. (He won.) After dodging him (his being intoxicated made my mad moves look legendary) two more times, I quit running;
  • a herd of cows with large, awkwardly-shaped horns... none too enthusiastic about my stick;
  • Ethiopians who laugh at me when I tell them I'm like Haile Gebrselassie;
  • Nuer children who also laugh at me. Who then, often barefoot and sometimes pants-less and always snotty-nosed, escort me until they tire.
Obviously the last group is my favorite. Sometimes I wish I knew how to speak Nuer so I could hear what kind of names they're calling me. Could be anything really. Except, of course, for 'Fast White Guy'...

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Don't Fly in Small Planes...

An old roommate, dear friend of mine and serial exaggerator once made up a set of rules by which she lived. Numero uno on the list:

"Don't fly in small planes. You will die."

It's a good thing she wasn't with me yesterday. On a small plane. In South Sudan.

Arriving (for the fifth day in a row) at the Juba office at 0730 with bags fully packed, I was less than optimistic about my chances of leaving. As I frantically tried to busy myself with [insert generic office task here], the minutes turned into hours and before long I was hungry.

Which was exactly when I was told we were leaving for the airport... hurray!

What came next is fairly standard for folks with experience in humanitarian aid, South Sudan, etc. and so this post is predominately meant for my mother and other interested non-crazy persons.

When we pulled up to the cargo area of the airport the yelling had already ensued. As the resident foreigner, it was presumably my fault that we were 4 hours late leaving.

"Look. My friend," I managed in my best East-African-colloquialism-tinged tough guy impression. "I'm just the passenger. We can stand around all day yelling or we can get the hell out of here so you can get paid." Somehow the money angle usually works.

Unfortunately we still had to load the plane with the medical supplies that would be going with me (actually I was the one hitching a ride with them) up to Pagak, my new home for the next 5+ weeks. That took another hour. Still no food in my belly.

The plane is a Cessna; a reliable work horse of the humanitarian aid and aerial safari communities. All manual. Goes anywhere. Lands anywhere. The Kenyan pilots get in and start pushing buttons. And turning the plastic wheels that I'm assuming control the flaps. They remind me of Big Wheels tires.

"Seat belt on?" Check. Now that's what I call a safety briefing!

We're first in line for take off. Actually, we're the only one in line for take off. As we taxi over to the runway I notice that the pilot's door is still ajar. I figure I'll wait until we're on the runway about to take off to say something. Good thing I waited. He was deliberately keeping it open... air conditioning.

Elevating up over Juba is always magnificent. Tin roofs, dusty streets, cows, and the beauty of seeing utter chaos blend together from above. This time was a bit bumpier than usual, but as soon as the main pilot took off his shoes, leaned his chair back ever so slightly, signed something in the logbook and started to eat a sandwich, I dozed off to sleep. Probably not the right reaction in hindsight but I was really just jealous he had a sandwich.

Some turbulence woke me up about halfway into the two-hour journey. Glancing outside at 8,000 ft I saw... well... absolutely nothing. Imagine the feeling you get when flying over the ocean... just not over the ocean. No tukul. Nary an animal. Nothing decipherable. Where was I going??

After another quick nap I found out the answer. Wait, where are we going to land? Just over those trees and down onto that piece of dirt? Hmmm. Ok...? I wonder if I missed lunch...

Again I come back to the Cessna; an excellent machine that made the Pagak's 'runway' seem like glass. Even better were the pilots who not only got me here safely, but were able to avoid a herd of cows running across to the runway just before take off........


Jet boating... Mekong triathlon... Juba jet skiing... great white shark diving... Vietnamese motorcycle road trip... helicoptering... elephant riding... bungee jumping... small planes in South Sudan... for a guy who's the self-described opposite of an adrenaline junkie, 2012 has been quite the year!

Although, to be fair, I am marrying a woman who thinks that everyone just naturally wants to jump off a bridge with nothing but rope around your legs...

Thursday, October 4, 2012

(Already) Back in Africa!

The saying goes that once you've drunk from the Nile (a somewhat vile thought that is nonetheless indirectly true for most people who've spent time in Juba) you always come back. So I'm generally not surprised to be back in South Sudan... I just didn't think I'd be back so soon!

For those that don't know, I'm helping fill a management gap in a field office for an NGO for the next 6-7 weeks. With my job search in Boston still continuing (even from South Sudan), I'm happy to be adding funds to a bank account that has been rapidly going in only one direction for the past several months and even happier to get 'back in the game' so to speak.

Turns out, against all odds, I actually missed Juba a little bit... who knew? It's been almost six months since I left but there will always be a special place in my heart for the cackle of a local laugh, a 'rolex' in my belly every morning and the seemingly never-ending intellectually stimulating (say that five times fast) discussions. At the end of the day this is a challenging place where moving from A to B is about as easy as multi-variable calculus. As a country they have a ways to go to get where they want to be, but they'll get there. Someday.

Alas, today is Thursday. I was supposed to be at my field site already but, in true South Sudan style, I was not on the plane manifest for Wednesday and today's charter flight carrying medical supplies (and me) to the inaccessible northern part of the country failed to leave because... well... let's just chalk it up to a misunderstanding (and not multiple layers of incompetence, because that would be mean). So I'm supposedly on a charter flight in the morning. As long as it doesn't rain tonight.

Or there's not enough fuel.

Or a herd of cows doesn't decide to sit on the runway.

South Sudan oyeee!!