Friday, April 22, 2011

Entering Juba

530 am
For the final leg of my trip, to Juba, I'm flying out of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. I get checked in and through Customs with enough time to look in a couple gift shops. In surveying cool-looking travelers, I have noticed that the carabiners I clipped onto my carry-on backpack, in hopes of looking like a rugged and experienced action man ready for anything, such as having to rappel down an airport wall, are quite wimpy compared to other people's carabiners, which are huge and scraped up, and actually used-looking. Mine are the cheapo kind people buy at gas stations to attach to key chains.  Theirs look like they get hooked to steel cables that pull Land Rovers out of mud pits.
On my company’s extensive briefing sheet for South Sudan, under the “things to bring” section, a bandana or a scarf for the dry season is recommended, apparently because it can get very dusty. It is the ONE thing I didn’t bring. I picture myself going Arab style with a white-and-red checked scarf. I actually find one in a store, but it’s as big as a bed sheet and I can’t picture wrapping the thing around my face - the volume of leftover fabric would mummify me. I also wonder about the wisdom of dressing in Arabic fashion in a place where Arabs and tribal Africans have been fighting with machine guns for 40 years. So I settle for a smaller one that’s only as big as a table cloth. In a dust storm with my tiny carabiners and large scarf, I should be ready for all contingencies.
The flight to Juba is full of people in business suits, young African men and women with BlackBerries, Android phones and laptops. Definitely some relief and development types too. There are some Chinese business guys. The man next to me is reading something on his Kindle. The flight is short and uneventful. As we descend into Juba, I catch a glimpse of the very wide, muddy Nile River and look closely for herds of large animals, a squirrel – anything.  But am disappointed. As we roll down the tarmac towards a shabby main building, I see some bright yellow and white-and-blue U.N. helicopters and planes. A few soldiers in fatigues with guns.
In the grass behind the U.N. aircraft is a chain-link fence topped with razor wire, but the fence has some gaps/open gates in it, and I see a few mud huts topped with conical thatched roofs, called “tukuls” on the airport grounds. People are living  in here, inside the airport landing area?
Outside, an unsmiling South Sudanese man holding a TIM MAY sign nods when I walk up expectantly, and leads me to a large white Land Cruiser with a 10-foot high black antenna mounted on the right side of the hood. He loads my bag into the back.
I will take you to the compound now, he says.

The tall antenna wobbles as we leave.

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