Sunday, July 31, 2011

Inside the New Republic of South Sudan

The first change I noticed upon returning to Juba after the country's triumphant independence on July 9th was the giant new luggage X-ray machine inside the chaotic old baggage room at the airport. It used to be that upon disembarking, people would crowd around a hole in a side wall and wait for the bags to be handed from a pickup truck. Then you would take your suitcase to a soldier with a machine gun and watch as he disinterestedly shoved your clothing around before dismissing you. Now, however, there is a giant metal box through which all incoming baggage is screened. A tall woman seated at a small table sits next to the box watching a video monitor. A couple of airport guys then hand the suitcases up to an L-shaped, high wooden counter, crowded three-to-four deep with mostly very large men in suits waiting to grab their bags. I successfully retrieved mine by wrestling my way up front and wedging myself sideways within reaching distance of the counter. One of the other passengers, much taller, eyeballed me suspiciously as I lunged and yanked my second heavy suitcase off the counter, making a ripple in the pool of waiting people. The tall man asked loudly "He has TWO?!" but no one else seemed to care, and I left my quizzical fellow traveler in the dust and rolled for the exit.

Outside I got a close-up view of the new airport terminal under construction next door. Arching metal roofs, steel buttresses flying this way and that, a lot of tall, tinted glass windows facing out on the city. It looks like a real airport terminal. There is also a large new outdoor waiting area under a newly built pavilion with benches and a proper roof. And across the street are vast new parking lots with properly graded and smoothed grounds, still under construction. Up the main tarmac road to my company’s guesthouse, I was astonished to see that tall metal, solar-powered street lights have been installed in the medians, traffic lines have been painted on the roads, and thousands of tiny colored flowers (along with some garish large plastic roses) have sprouted up. They have even strung wire between the new lamp posts in the curbed medians to prevent humans, trucks and motorbikes from randomly slashing across them to make dangerous U-turns. What’s more, the city has been cleaned! Where are the water bottles, the blown-out flip-flops, deflated tires, broken billboards, floating scraps of plastic bags and smoldering heaps of trash? They are gone – at least on the main roads. Even the watery ditches on the side of the roads are cleared of debris – what have they done with my Juba?

My driver that afternoon is now a proud new citizen of the new Republic of South Sudan. He seems happy and relaxed. He told me the celebrations were wonderful, people filled the streets draped in their new national flag, soldiers hugged civilians. There was no trouble in the capital and, aside from the PA system breaking down temporarily at the start of the big formal ceremony in the stadium, everything went smoothly.

As I rode up the road on the second Sunday after independence, Juba looked quiet, calm and restful. I saw people sitting with their backs to their shacks and storefronts, children playing in earth swept clean. It was done. After centuries of oppression, 21 years of the most brutal conflict in the history of modern warfare, the loss of more than two million South Sudanese lives – somehow, these strong people not only survived – they prevailed. They kept their oil. They will grow their own food. They will open embassies and consulates around the globe. They will have a seat in the UN in New York. They will compete in the Olympics.

On Monday, in my office, I asked about the national anthem and a colleague in the cubicle next to me, a South Sudanese man with a specialty in livelihoods, stopped typing, turned to face me and sang it loudly from memory in a deep, rolling, pitch-perfect voice full of reverence. “My favorite is the part about the martyrs,” he said when he was done.

I didn’t even know he could sing.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Juba-Nairobi-Amsterdam-Atlanta-Key West-Atlanta-White Plains-Chatham-New Paltz-Woodstock-Manhattan-Albany-Detroit-Amsterdam-Nairobi-Juba

I am back in Juba after a good long trip home to see Tahra and the girls. When I had to leave, Gryffyn’s tear-riddled cheeks in the airport caused a huge lump to materialize in my chest. She knows I’ll be back, though she doesn’t understand clearly why I’m leaving again, and while mom wins in most departments, I tickle better.

The stone in my gorge accompanied me through security undetected and dropped into my gut when I sat down at my gate, alone. I didn’t know it then but another extra burden would be the source of some anxiety for me in Nairobi. I had a good many kilos of other people’s stuff with me in my checked baggage, necessitating an extra (second) full-size suitcase, and though I remembered something about weight limitations on Juba flights, I chose not to dwell on it when packing. Whilst in the States, an Ethiopian colleague who works in remote Northern Bahr el Ghazal desperately requested that I pick up an iPad for him. (I wouldn’t have done it for just anyone but he is a trustworthy friend and I may be crashing at his apartment in Addis Ababa sometime soon.) Also, a Juba co-worker had her mom mail me a box of noodles and granola bars from somewhere in the mid-west. (Couldn’t say no, she cc’s me on email whenever something fun is going on.) And headquarters asked me to carry back a sack of mail that included serious correspondence along with a book about how to make cocktails. All the extras went into my luggage, along with work equipment, clothes, toiletries and fancy food items for me including bags of dried papaya and mango, tamari-soaked almonds, and salted cashews and pumpkin seeds. My Juba larder is larger thanks to all that good stuff, which I got at the Chatham Real Food Market Co-Op, an awesome local-food supporting establishment that Tahra’s step-dad Seth Rockmuller helped start in Chatham, NY.

Despite the misery of parting, what a great trip, and what a relief to squeeze and smell my two daughters when I arrived. Words cannot describe the feeling when I heard their high-pitched squeals and saw them sprint at me like hungry little cheetahs in the baggage room, and then saw my beautiful wife smiling and sparkle-eyed, hands in pockets and long hair whooshing around her as she strode fast through the sliding glass doors to me. The world was whole again.

Loads of fun in Key West. Dinner out with the Hamiltons and their kids at Salute on the beach, where all four Mays slurped our favorite buttery mussels, and another supper out at Geiger Key Marina with Randy, Ellen and our quintet of little humans. One afternoon, Narceline and Michel took the girls (who are in love with baby Julien) while Tahra and I biked to the Tropic to see Midnight in Paris. Then up to Chatham, NY by way of Atlanta and White Plains for a stay in Tahra’s old hometown in the Hudson Valley, a locavore’s paradise where Seth and Tahra’s mom Katharine live, along with grandma. Visits ensued to Seth’s side of the family in New Paltz for the SIXTY-FIFTH wedding anniversary of close relatives, and then to Woodstock to see old friends Liv, Will and Liam. Liv’s mom and sister, a former Norwegian supermodel, were both visiting too. It was a reunion for the girls and Liam, whom they regard as half brother, half action hero.

We squeezed in a weekend in Manhattan, too, at the West Side apartment of Seth's sister Ellen and her husband Joel. Their place looks over Broadway and has views across the Hudson straight over to my old stomping grounds, Edgewater and Cliffside Park, in New Jersey. We had hotdogs and pretzels in Central Park, took the kids to their first ever marionette show, road the subway, took cabs, and had a Japanese barbeque dinner out with Tahra's brother Ben, who later showed us the view from the top of his skyscraping Midtown apartment, from which you can see the Hudson AND East rivers. You could also practically touch the gargoyles on the Chrysler Building from his rooftop. Tahra's cousins David, Anna and Tavi, all young city dwellers, stopped by to play with the girls. It was my first time back to Manhattan in a decade, and Tahra's aunt and uncle were perfect hosts, gracious and loving.

While in Chatham we got to see Emily Houk, Tahra’s recently matriculated sister and the girls’ favorite aunt. Emily is a crafter of fine things, including the stuffed Totoro and sprite sitting on our couch in Key West. Like her mother, she could make a fortune with her fingers if she wanted. And I finally got to meet Emily’s boyfriend, Jedediah Berry. I am reading Jed’s critically acclaimed first novel The Manual of Detection on my Kindle right now. I’m only a quarter of the way through but it’s a fantastic read - ominous and sly -- and puts me in mind of Magritte and Ray Bradbury. (Jed if you read this I swear I came up with that before I saw the reviews.) When your first book is fawned over by The New Yorker, and your writing is compared to Kafka and Paul Auster, you know you’re doing ok. Not only that, but Jed, who turns out to be a great guy, beat all of us at Balderdash one night after the kids went to sleep. I came in last, unable to bamboozle anyone with my made-up definitions except Tahra, once, and I think it was actually a sympathy vote.

To get back to Juba I had to go Albany to Detroit, then Amsterdam to Nairobi, where I discovered that I was 20 kilos overweight with my luggage for the last leg of my trip, the Juba flight. A friendly Kenyan baggage man at the airport spotted me before I checked in, and whispered that I should ask the guy sitting next to me, who only had a carry-on, if he would agree to check my second suitcase as his own. I furtively inquired, and the other passenger gave me a good look while he thought about it. We were both wondering if this was ok to do and whether either of us could get arrested. I played it cool, like it was no big deal either way, and the guy shrugged - he was game for a little luggage caper. Later, as I walked toward Customs with both of my big suitcases successfully checked, the helpful baggage man materialized again.

“I just saved you one hundred dollars in fees,” he said quietly and expectantly, which may have been true. I thanked him, gave him my last 200 Kenyan shillings and got on the plane, wondering what changes I would find upon landing in a country just seven days old - the infant Republic of South Sudan.