Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Celebrity


Joseph Epstein once quipped that he felt that the amount of celebrity that he had was just about right. He was surprised to find that he was somewhat famous and lucky that hardly anyone knew about it.

Anyone who has travelled in places where outsiders are rare will tell you that being a foreigner has something in common with Epstein’s feelings. Just by being foreign gives you a certain amount of celebrity. My friend Jen is the one who pointed this out to me while in Indonesia. There are people to carry your bags, people to drive you from place to place, people who want to try out their English or French, people who want to touch you, who point and stare and whisper and wave. I think of this because of two things that happened today.

In the first, I was being introduced to a group of women who were eating separately from the men. I was ushered in and conversation ceased. They hurriedly made a place for me to sit and brought me tea – not in the glasses that they were using but in a cup with a handle. And then we sat there and looked at each other. No one spoke English. My Arabic is still wanting…to put it mildly. Every now and again someone would make an effort and say something completely incomprehensible to me and I would smile and shake my head in a vague way. Then, I would do the same in return and there was laughing all around. I mostly was thinking about ways to leave. They were probably wishing I would so that they could get back to their conversation and gossip about me. ‘Look, quick, over there. Isn’t that so and so? What’s she doing here? She looks older in real life! Can you believe what she’s wearing?’

In the second, I decided to go for a bike ride - which is the same compulsion that, I suppose, compels Brittany Spears to don a disguise and stroll down Madison Avenue. There is some deep seeded desire in us all to do normal things no matter who we are or how much people will stare and while we try to make it look effortless and natural it comes off as contrived and false to anyone else. And, while I’m loathe to admit it, I like having someone carry my bags and drive me around but I get tired of people picking me out when I try to do something routine. So, deciding to go for a bike ride was ill-advised for the following reasons:
a) women don’t ride bikes here – the flowing robe kind of puts a damper on that
b) I’m white
c) I underestimate how fascinating this will be to the town’s children
I don’t know what I was thinking but the term ‘kawaje’ has been imprinted on the back of my skull. It was the riotous and instant cry of every child who could walk in Garsilla when I peddled by…and it spread like wildfire. ‘Kawaje! Kawaje!’ they yelled at me hoping that I would stop. ‘Kawaje! Kawaje!’ they yelled to their brothers and sisters and neighbors and friends who came running. Soon, I was being followed, yelled at, hounded by a small mob of paparazzi that would do Brittney Spears proud.

Finally, I stopped and shook all their hands and had broken little conversations over and over that went something like this,
‘Hello.’
‘Hi.’
‘What is your name?’
‘My name is Kelsey. What is your name?’
‘Fine, thank you. Good evening.’
‘Good evening.’
‘Good morning. What is your name?’
‘Salaam Malekom [hello]
‘A laykum a selam [hello in return]
‘Shwey, shwey.’ [A little bit]
Laughter
‘Wahid, Etnayne, Telairte.’ [1,2,3…]
More laughter

Having reached the end of their English and my Arabic. I shook all their hands again and rode off, trailing kids who continued to chant, ‘Kawaje! Kawaje!’ and cling to the back of the bike. And, I guess that’s the problem with being famous. You have to take both sides of the coin. Even insignificant celebrity comes at a price.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Garsilla



Yesterday I took a helicopter from Nyala to Garsilla. Garsilla is in West Darfur and the security briefing we get on arrival went a little something like this. The field coordinator stood by a big map on his wall and sweeping his hand over different locations. “We are 60 km from Chad and it is unstable but we will only be in trouble if Chad chases the rebels into Sudan. 10 km south of Garsilla is a Janjaweed training camp. 25 km northeast is a Janjaweed training camp. The western corridor is off limits. Basically, there are problems all over West Darfur and all around us but here is quiet. But, here is your evacuation bag anyway.”



I am here to do audit preparation and find out how to support the administrator. His name is Robert and he is the tallest man I have ever seen. Serious and soft-spoken he comes from the south and would like to return as most of his family is still living in refugee camps. This morning all of the office staff were invited to the house of Saliman and Hawa for breakfast. Breakfast begins about 10am and is done in a highly expedient fashion. We turned up at about 11am and sit down on mats on the dirt street outside the brick walled compound. Being the only foreign woman – and a kawaje (white) to boot - I fit into an alien gender category in the minds of the Sudanese. It is not expected that I will cover fully or help with the food. It is ok for me to sit, speak and eat with men – things the women here would rarely do. Two boys come out of the compound carrying a tray the size of a small table laden with bread and about five dishes, all containing either meat or beans. This place is a vegetarian’s nightmare. We all eat out of the same dishes – right hand only!! – dipping the bread into various bowls. It is a messy affair.

Afterwards, I asked our host if I could go visit the women who are inside the house. There must have been about fifty of them sitting in the shade, drinking tea, cleaning, and cooking. I was introduced to them each and promptly told how many children they had. The numbers ranged from one to ‘oh, over a dozen.’ When I said that I was not married and had no children looks of shock and pity registered on their face. ‘Oh, we will find you a husband,’ they said.

However, my favourite part of the morning came when I was walking back to the rest of the group. The neighbour woman came out and asked me to meet her three children whom she promptly called over. The two oldest beamed. The third, a boy of probably two, meandered over, took one look at me, screamed in terror, burst into tears and ran away crying. Obviously, not the reaction I was going for. “He has never been so close to someone so white,” the mother explained. I’m trying not to take it personally.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Sunday, April 16, 2006

What Rain Sounds Like

It takes very little time here for your ears to become acutely sensitive to the sound of water. Any sort of water. In the shower, the sink, out of bottles or water filters it simply isn’t a sound that you can take for granted where water is in short supply. And that is why when it starts to rain someone shuts of the TV and we all look at each other, stunned, and go outside. It’s like we’re aliens who’ve just dropped into the planet and have never seen anything so exciting and miraculous as water falling from the sky.
“Is it raining?” someone asks.
“I think so,” I say holding out my hand to catch a drop.
The guard comes inside the gate and motions at the sky. ‘It’s raining, it’s raining!’ he says, or we assume he says.
He is speaking Arabic, afterall, and might be telling us that an air raid is about to occur. But, by his excitement I think we can safely assume that he’s talking about the rain and that he’s as delighted by it as we are. So, we all stand there listening to it tip, tap on the tin roof, on the hood of the car, on the water tanks. It only rains at night and even then not very much - not even enough to make the ground wet but it means that more is coming. I can only compare the feeling to hearing an orchestra tune their instruments before the ballet, or the last day of school before summer break. It’s magical.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Day One

4:30am – Got up.

5:00am – Logs took six of us to the airport. Mad crush of people packed into a room the size of a kitchen. Managed to get our bags through the x-ray machine by forming a human chain and passing them over, around and under others.

5:30am – My bags are overweight. The UN flights allow only 15 kilos (30ish pounds) of luggage. I have 25 kilos. I tried to look pathetic and said it was because I was moving for a year. ‘A year?’ the South African WFP staff said. ‘In Nyala? Oh, I’m sorry,’ and he waved them through.

7:00am – Flight departs. I try – fairly unsuccessfully – to catch up on sleep.

9:30am – Descend into Darfur. The landscape is flat, and dusty, red-brown intermittently dotted with scrub. Dry river beds wind toward the horizon. Burned villages compounds are the only evidence of violence until we fly low over the largest IDP camp in Darfur. From the air it looks like a peaceful suburb of tents arranged on interconnecting dirt roads. Seeing things from the air can make them deceptively simple.

9:50am – Touch down on a newly tarred tarmac and drive out on a newly widened asphalt road. The war economy is benefiting some. Nyala itself has the feel of an outpost town in the wild west. The town is laid out on a grid with most of the roads being dirt covered in fine, deep silt. Donkey carts pulling wood, or onions, or cement share the road with hoards of white NGO vehicles and pickup trucks filled with AU soldiers or police, all jostling and passing each other while trying to cling to the blacktopped roads.

10:30am - Arrive at the office. Hotter than heck and bright – so bright it hurts your eyes to be outside. We have two compounds here and the office is a tan stucco cluster of buildings that contain, respectively, a pit toilet, several bedrooms, a kitchen, and three offices. Each of these sit around an open patio area that heats up like an oven at noonday. My desk is in one of the cooler corners of an office with windows that open out to the back brick wall.

1:00pm – After meeting the staff and unloading I check e-mail, access to which we have intermittently and start work. Spend most of the afternoon either in briefings with my boss or starting to go through the books.

5:00pm – UNDSS security coordination meeting where you hear everything you don’t want to know. ‘The general security situation has deteriorated,’ the security officer began pointing at a massive map of South Darfur on the wall behind him that was spotted with post-its indicating security incidences. He then launched into the details of the twelve new cases since last Sunday ranging from kidnapping to shootings to conflict between the government and rebels to your run-of-the-mill banditry and ended with a cheery, ‘We are concerned about the situation and consider it highly unpredictable at this time.’ The NGO representatives attending oscillated between taking furious notes and looking generally hot and bored.

6:00pm – Check the UN flight manifests to ensure that staff are making their flights to bases further afield.

6:30pm – Go back to the office and pick up my computer and misc. luggage.

7:00pm – Go home. The compound where permanent staff live is about ten minutes from the office and closely resembles it in layout. There are no water or sewage systems and our water is trucked in and fills giant tanks that sit on the roofs to be heated by the sun. Start to unpack and sort out my room which is a cot, a wardrobe, a lamp and night table.

7:30pm – Watch TV, eat bad Chips Ahoy replicas, and chat with my boss who also lives in the compound.

11:30pm – Get ready for bed. Room has been overtaken by tiny red ants. Ants are everywhere. Massive black ants that walk in lines in the courtyard, brown, hairy ants that crawl over your feet while you’re in the bathroom or shower, tiny inquisitive red ants that seem to have a penchant for paper products.

12:00am – Lukewarm shower (am just happy to have one…my feet are black with dust!) Ants take up investigating everything I leave sitting on the floor.

12:30am – Write this and am gripped by the sudden suspicion that this is all a terrible mistake - that I can’t live here for a year, that I’m trapped, that I have no idea what I’m doing.

12:50am – Decide it’s too late (or early) to be passing judgement on career choices and better to go to sleep.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Local Transport

“So, I said to two of our logisticians plunking myself down in a chair in their office at 5pm on Sunday. “How would one go to church if one wanted to?” Our weekends are, well…Friday – not so much a weekend really according to popular usage as much as a day off.

“Well, girlie,” one said after several sardonic comments about redheads confirming both that political correctness has its bounds and that redheads are a victimized people-group. “One would take local transport like everyone else.”

“One couldn’t get the keys to the car or a driver?” I asked.

“Not unless one is Khartoum staff or an approved driver.”

“Hmmmm,” I said.

“Get a guard to go out to the road with you and get a taxi,” came the helpful, if not slightly patronizing advice.

“They speak English?” I asked, meaning either the guard or the taxi drivers.

“Oh yeah, no problem,” they said.

I should have been more dubious. However, naiveté won out over pragmatism and I trooped out to the road armed with a guard and all the Arabic I know (meaning the words: yes, no, my own address and how to count to the three). Thus, proving once again you don’t know what you don’t know.

At the sight of white woman standing by the side of the road the first vehicle passing stopped. It was a small, battered minivan that redefined the word, mini. I put on my best Arabic accent and said, “church” pointing to the address on the post-it note. The guard nodded. The driver nodded. Everyone was apparently on the same page. I got in.

We drove for ten minutes in what I thought to be the wrong direction but what do I know? I’m the foreigner. We then made a u-turn and drove for five minutes back in the exact opposite direction until we arrived at the airport. The taxi driver beamed. My Arabic wasn’t going to get me out of this one so I haggled over the price, paid him, got out and promptly found another taxi.

Taxi driver number two clearly spoke better English. He gesticulated, he parroted the address, he positively exuded certainty. I got in and off we went.

We drove for ten minutes in an entirely different direction which I thought was promising. Then, he kept slowing and looking at buildings…also promising. Then, he rolled down his window and began shouting at an expat, “church, church.” We had pulled up outside the Italian Embassy. He looked back at me and said, “Italians, Catholic? Yes?” My driver didn’t have a clue where he was going but had reasoned if he found a cluster of Christians surely they would.

The woman happened to speak Arabic as well as English and I explained my predicament to her and she gave concise directions to the driver who was clearly proud of himself for his ingenuity and ability to keep a fare. We were off again.

Not five minutes later, as we pulled up to a roundabout…crash! We were rear-ended by a truck full of construction workers. Again, my Arabic isn’t quite up to snuff but I’m fairly sure there was a whole lot of cursing, there certainly was yelling, there were arms flailing and all sorts of impolite hand gestures. There was me, sitting in the cab wondering if I have whiplash and…more importantly, I’m somehow going to somehow find myself out on the street in a hostile mob taking the blame for this.

Luckily, the light changed and my driver felt it was more important to try to rip me off for than get any money out of the truckload behind us. We drove away and, finally, I made it to church.

You would think that would be enough taxi-adventure for one evening. Alas, no, I had to get home. Leaving church, I hailed a cab and the first one that stopped proved to be an actual taxi. In Khartoum this means he drove a beat-up yellow car. I said my address in Arabic and sat back waiting to be taken home. We went somewhere but it wasn’t home. He stopped and shouted the address out the window to a guy sitting by the road who shouted something back. He turned and looked at me. I said the address again. He turned off the lights and shut off the engine. In his opinion, we were there.

I hesitate to say that I panicked but I did have several fleeting panicky-type thoughts. I could call the team house but no one there spoke Arabic either. I could get out and find a new taxi but we were no longer on a main road and I had no idea where I was. And what was I going to do, hop from cab to cab until someone understood my address? I got out my mobile phone and started scrolling through the numbers until I reached a name of one of our Sudanese staff that I was pretty sure I’d met. Luckily, he answered and was able to talk to the driver who had trouble even understanding him. This should have been troubling but I chose to take it as a sign that my Arabic wasn’t so bad after all. Five minutes later we were, not at the airport, the embassy or a church. We were back home and I have never been so happy to see House 41 so much this entire trip!

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Some pictures

Anchor touring up the Nile

On the boat trip

Washing

A Dust Devil on the Nile

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Public Diplomacy

[I find myself in a bit of a tricky situation. All the things that I want to say and tell you about the situation here I’m disallowed from saying. Namely, because it’ll be better for me (read: alive and in the country) if I don’t. So, some fair warning lest you think I’ve become passive, uninteresting and without opinion. (You should be so lucky!)]

Arrived at five Thursday morning and Khartoum from the air is unimpressive and, well, dark. We went straight from the airport to the team house which is a five-bedroom, concrete behemoth that was originally built for a Dutch company during the colonial period. Anywhere from three to twelve people live here at any given time. I’ll be here until I get a travel permit to go to Darfur.

In the light of day – and there certainly is a lot of light – Khartoum is dusty, dry and hot. Not as hot as I had been led to believe but everyone says the temperatures will climb. The air is full of a fine, red dust that settles absolutely everywhere. The mosquitoes here are less like the vengeful kamikaze bombers in Indonesia and more like lethargic teenagers hanging out at the mall. They hover, they pretend to be interested but I have yet to be bitten.

Timing of arrival couldn’t have been better. Arrive Thursday, work for half a day. Friday is the weekend, Saturday the entire staff took a boat trip up the Nile, and Monday is Mohammed’s birthday and so a public holiday. In my first week here I’ll have managed to barely work half a day.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Day 20...in which I get a Sudanese visa and lose £100,000...

Ack! And just when I was hitting my stride with my plan to bore you with details of life in London I get a phone call. It goes a little something like this,

"Allo?"

"May I speak to Kelsey please?"

"This is she."

"Oh, it didn't sound like you."

"That's because I'm practicing my British accent. How do you think it's going."

"Hmmm, great..." (sounds unconvinced) "We have your visa. Can you leave tomorrow night?"

At which point I experienced about fifteen emotions at once. I was thrilled, and a bit unsettled, and excited, and disappointed - because however much I enjoy complaining about London I really have a soft spot in my heart for it and I doubt very much it will be quickly replaced by Khartoum. You see, it simply doesn't have the same ring to it, does it? Khartoum, Khartoum. (My only consolation is that I have a party invite in Khartoum on Thursday night and it looks like I will be able to attend. Small consolation.)

And, again, the phone rings. News travels fast.

"Allo?"

"You owe me £100,000."

"Oh shoot! I do, don't I?" I say forgetting all about practicing my British accent and remembering the somewhat foolish bet I had made with a friend with whom I am in the habit of making £100,000 bets. I'd bet that my visa would come in a week ago and he'd put money on today.

"It's like I'm a prophet."

"Do you take installments?" I ask. "Or can we go double-or-nothing on the other bet." (We have another bet in which I maintain that the U.S. will win the 2010 World Cup.)

"Sure," he says. "But I'm charging interest. (He being nothing if not generous) Or, you can also begin paying in Creme Eggs."

So, today I now have a bit of packing and arranging to do. Must clean out Tesco's stock of Cadbury Creme Eggs, and do some laundry. Things which even I find too dull to write about so I'll spare you. And will write again very soon from Sudan!

Monday, April 03, 2006

Day 19...Sticky Toffee Pudding Day...

Good morning! It's Monday and sunny here in London (and is expected to remain that way for the next 3.5 minutes!) With an apparent lack of anything else to do I'm going to regale you with the minutiae of my life until I get a visa and am able to leave the country. At which point you will all breathe a collective sigh of relief and only have to look in on the blog once or twice a month.

I caught bus number 1 and took it to Tottenham Court Road to meet with a friend who is visiting from the states. We made a key mistake...we decided to walk around Oxford Circus. Oxford Circus is, well, a circus. If you ever wanted to be pushed, jostled and generally man-handled by a succession of Japanese, Poles, Italians, or Russians, Oxford Circus is the place to do it!

After an afternoon spent avoiding crowds of people - including clumps of Italians (they are never alone but always in clumps!) - I had dinner at a charming restaurant in Westminster with a friend who has a blog you should visit (www.conservativehome.com) simply in order to realize how little you know about British politics. I thought I was doing well by being able to identify the Prime Minister and his party, as well as a couple of key opposition figures. Nope. I'm a moron - and it comforts me to know that you, dear reader, probably are as well.

Some other interesting tidbits from my evening include Michael Caine and sticky toffee pudding. The restaurant had, inexplicably, pictures of Michael Caine everywhere. On the menu, in the ladies room, everywhere! So, not to be outdone, I'm including one for you here. Enjoy.

Also, at the suggestion (read: dictate) of my friend I tried sticky toffee pudding. It's a dessert that is...well, sticky and toffee. Not quite as sticky, nor as toffee, as one might expect but there you have it. I think I am a better human being for it.

Because I can...