Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Over the course of my life I have seen any number of looks of terror. The incidences usually begin the same way, as they did this morning. People just standing around some place - including bystanders such as myself - an unmarked vehicle with no license plates pulls up and men jump out. They are usually armed...no, I take that back...they are always armed. Menacing, threatening men. They always act with an air of importance, impertinence and swagger. Sometimes they have uniforms, sometimes they don't, depending on the state sanction of their activities. They wave the guns and point them at nearly everyone in the vicinity. They begin beating someone - also usually either a bystander or someone unimportant until they get the information they want. Others who try to intervene also get beaten or a gun pointed at them. There is always yelling. Eventually, the people they want are dragged out to the car. Sometimes they are fighting; sometimes they go quietly. But they all, and always, have the same look of terror. Abject and total pleading fear and desperate hope that someone will stop it all and they won't have to get in the car, or the bus, or the van. But no one does anything. The men waving the guns make sure of that. Then, the armed men jump in, the doors close and the vehicle speeds away. It always speeds away.

Monday, January 25, 2010

A quote for your Monday morning...

“There’s a truth that’s deeper than experience. It’s beyond what we can see, or even what we feel. It’s an order of truth that separates the profound from the merely clever, and the reality from the perception. We’re helpless, usually, in the fact of it; and the cost of knowing it, like the cost of knowing love, is sometimes greater than any heart would willingly pay. It doesn’t always help us to love the world, but it does prevent us from hating the world. And the only way to know that truth is to share it, from heart to heart.” - Gregory David Roberts

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Travel Zen

I like to think that there is a special state of mind into which frequent travelers often descend. You will know these people by their irksome calm when they, in the same awful travel predicament as you, watch calmly as you lose your temper. Their bags might be missing, their flight delayed, or cancelled, the airline clerk being a heinous twat and yet they stand next to you with that placid look of acceptance and love for the airline clerk, and the airline industry - and universe at large.

Sometimes, I enter this state of travel zen. No, I don’t enter it…it usually descends upon me for no apparent reason and in those moments I feel calm – and somewhat superior. I’d like to think that most of my travels over the holidays I was in that state. Flight from Amsterdam cancelled…no problem. Flight to Boston cancelled…no problem. Flight to DC cancelled…no problem. I was the poster child for travel zen.

But now the universe is tempting my resolve. I am set to fly DC, to Amsterdam, to Nairobi, overnight and then take early flight to Juba. Everything goes badly from the get-go but my resolve cannot be shaken. Bags overweight…no problem just shift stuff around. Flight delayed an hour and half out of DC making it impossible to make the connection…no problem just overnight in Amsterdam. Zen, remember?

But then it happened…the small and seemingly innocuous travel blip that shatters the calm. Eight hour flight; in-flight entertainment system broken. It unravels from there. The Nairobi flight is delayed and so I make the connection in Amsterdam and get on the 9.5 hour flight only to find out that the entire planes in-flight entertainment system is working but my seat is broken. (For the record you can read two books in 18 hours). Arrive in Nairobi but no bags. The Nairobi airport is awash in bags – some looking as though they’ve been there since 1910 but no bags from Amsterdam.

Believe it or not, I have yet to despair. I wait in the hour long line and fill out my paperwork and know there is no way that these bags are ever going to find their way from Nairobi to Juba without me but that’s ok cause I’m going to get to sleep soon. Where? An interesting question because I haven’t made any reservations but assume that the guest house where I normally stay will have a bed for the now-six hours I get to sleep.

[A brief aside about Nairobi for those of you who haven’t been here. It’s filled with sheisters and isn’t exactly the safest place to roam around at midnight. People are routinely in horrible traffic accidents, robbed, mugged, and hijacked. I don’t know why there are so many sheisters here but when God was handing out conniving Nairobi folk got a double-portion. I don’t say this to denegrade the Kenyans – many of whom are wonderful friends of mine - but Nairobi, as a whole, is out to rip you off. Just bear that in mind.]

I approach the taxi stand and negotiate my ride. I should have been more wary when the smiley girl calls her ‘friend’ who isn’t actually a taxi driver but pulls up in the most ginormous land cruisers you have ever seen. Only if I had been wearing a pith helmet and knee socks would that safari car have been appropriate. It’s also a piece of junk. I drive land cruisers and know that this one is about to fall apart. But what can you do? We get in and go. Needless to say, the vehicle doesn’t even make it half way to town. No, not because it’s a piece of junk (which it is) but it runs out of gas. The driver is assuring me that he will walk to the nearby gas station to get some gas. I, in no uncertain terms, tell him I’m out of there. Except…it’s 11pm. In Nairobi, on the highway from the airport. Do I stay in the car or do I get out and hike? [It’s like a choose your own adventure book.]

I get out and hike. Cars are laying on their horns cause they can’t see the broken down heap of junk and the driver is jogging along beside me as I stomp down the dark highway promising to be back in 5 minutes. I do (mother? Danielle? Are you listening?) realise that this all was a very bad decision. In fact, the further I walk into the darkness (but luckily without my bags!) the more I realise what a bad decision it is.

I finally get to a dark street corner where there is a tree and by the tree is a guy with a car.

‘Hi,’ I say. ‘Are you a taxi?’

‘Yeah,’ he says. Cause he’s not an idiot.

‘Are you crazy? Or going to kill me? Or is your car going to break down?’ I ask – having learned my lesson and wanting to do due diligence.

‘Uh, no?’ he says.

I can’t be that easily convinced though. ‘Really?’ I ask. ‘So if you’ll take me to such-and-such I’m not going to end up dead in a ditch somewhere?”

‘Uh, no?’ he says. ‘But it’s 1000 shillings.’

I would have paid anything at that point. So I get in and we go. Slowly, cause his car is also a piece of junk but it gets us there. And there’s a room available…so despite not having clothes, or shampoo, or mossy repellent, having to get up at 5.30 in the morning and having bad travel documents that probably will get me expelled from Sudan tomorrow I’m thinking that travel zen is just about to return.


Any minute now.