Saturday, December 10, 2011

Juba Nights Part Two: Ordinary Juba Nights

This will be the last installment describing what a typical 24 hours is like for me in Juba.

Work day ends around 5:30 pm usually and, upon return to my room in the company guesthouse, I get ready for football, which I now play almost every night. I put in contact lenses and toss two bottles of water into my backpack, along with an extra tee-shirt, some South Sudanese Pounds (money), my work ID and my cell phone. I have a little pre-football work-out routine in my room, too, during which I imagine myself in solitary confinement doing pushups and sit-ups to maintain fitness in case of attack from other inmates. Then I grab my backpack and scoot downstairs.

The guards at the gate seem enthralled whenever I go outside in my football garb, even though it's a nightly occurence. I suppose it is unusual here to see any middle-aged white man heading out for football, but clearly, this is a first for someone from my outfit, and the young guards are full of surprised smiles and approving nods for me when I walk out, no matter how many times they've seen me do it previously. “You are going for football again?” they ask while sliding open the heavy iron gate for me. “Ahh, it is good!” they say, or “You are very fit!’’

I hustle out to the main road to catch a boda (motorbike taxi) to UNMISS (United Nations Mission in South Sudan) compound just down the road. Twice a week on weeknights, I meet up with members of my expatriate football club, Juba Unathletic, at a nice little dirt field in the compound belonging to BanBat, a battalion of Bangladeshi UN peacekeepers who allow us to train there. Near the BanBat field, I look for my favorite cow, a rhinoceros-sized bull named “Ban Ki-Moo,” rumored to be owned by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. This all-white bull has a camel-sized hump behind its head and enormous gray horns like scimitars, one of which droops downward like a mammoth tusk. The horns are so heavy that the bull’s head is dragged low, and as it lumbers slowly around the UN compound, always alone, you can see its gigantic neck straining. The animal is as big as the white UN pickup trucks whose drivers unfailingly give it the right of way. The bull goes where it pleases.

On nights when my team does not have training, I leave my backpack at home and jog down to a rocky, slanted pitch across from the airport near UNMISS to play with a team of tall, athletic South Sudanese men called the Juba Airport All-Stars. Though I've never seen another white person there, the All-Stars always invite me to jump in with them, and there is no fuss, just a perfunctory nod or two, maybe a handshake. They see and share my love of the game, enough said - pass the ball. I have arranged a few matches between the All-Stars and Juba Unathletic. In fact my expat team, which is quite competitive, has matches somewhere in Juba against different South Sudanese teams almost every Saturday afternoon, often attended by a hundred or more local spectators. Recently, we borrowed the All-Stars’ pitch to play a game against a club called Konyo-Konyo, but the match ended abruptly when players on the other team began yelling and criticizing the referee, who in response pulled a semi-automatic handgun out his sweatpants. My boys and I quietly exited the field, climbed into our trucks and drove away, though from what I heard, no shots were fired and everyone is friends again. When I informed my boss of my adventures at the airport field she was nonplussed. “Has it been de-mined, I hope?” she asked.

After football each night I return to the guesthouse, where I find 10 or 12 people from my company gathered for dinner, catered by a hotel called Logali. The food is brought in trucks and set up by hotel kitchen staff in warmed chafing dishes. There is usually plenty of it – chicken, beef, rice, maize porridge, sautéed local greens. I shovel down a plate and go upstairs to shower, then look for Tahra and the kids on Skype. Video chat and get caught up with the girls, a little email, then climb into bed. Sometimes I read or watch a downloaded movie on my laptop. Recently I saw the painfully funny “Borat,’’ recommended by my brother, and enjoyed a documentary called “Bill Cunningham New York’’ about an unusual photo journalist in Manhattan. If you never caught it, a low-profile Denzel Washington movie called ‘’The Great Debaters’’ is outstanding, and “Man on Wire,’’ about a French tight-rope artist, is brilliant.

I pull up my fuzzy bedspread and wish my family a good night in a westerly direction, leaving only my nose exposed in case any malarial mosquitoes have penetrated the defences.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Third Rotation

Above: View from the patio at the Ole-Sereni Hotel, Nairobi. I've seen real giraffes from this porch, as well as zebras and ostrich Ole-Sereni Hotel, Nairobi

I now feel like an expert traveler. Seven months after first flying into terra incognita, gone is the bowel-twisting sweaty anxiety before hopping on and off planes in places like Wau, Aweil, Rumbek, Juba, Nairobi, Amsterdam. These days, trip preparation is fuss-free. Packing lists I once pored over and revised are now brief afterthoughts scribbled on the backs of envelopes in between doing other things. Yawn. Another trip across the continent.

It's my third rotation, my third company-approved trip for R&R outside of Juba. The company pays for a round-trip ticket from Juba to Nairobi every eight weeks. I pay for the ticket home to Key West and back, a steep $2,500 with four connections and 36 hours of travel, but worth it to see the girls and Tahra even briefly.

Inside the Juba Airport, waiting for my flight out, the chaos now seems normal to me. Surly six-foot soldier in camos and machine gun demanding suddenly to see my visa? I wordlessly whip it out with a bored and unintimidated expression. When he flicks his eyes toward the right I know he is ordering me into another queue, to sign a passenger list. My motions in transit are now mechanical, designed to ensure maximum comfort and minimal expenditure of energy. In the crowded, hot and smelly waiting room all the seats are taken. I spot a stack of brown plastic chairs in a corner and help myself, grab one swiftly, hold it over my head and place it on the end of a row directly in front of the door out to the planes, because there will be a breeze from the door and also because I can jump instantly into the line for my plane when the barely audible call is made. I wedge my pack firmly between my legs and dive into my Kindle, flaring my arms out to ventillate damp armpits while losing myself in another Jeff Lindsay Miami murder mystery.

On the one-hour Kenya Airways flight to Nairobi I skip the in-flight meal of chicken whatever. The sodium-laden airline food, with its infused cardboard and plastic, upsets my stomach, I have realized. In Nairobi I turbo-walk past slow passengers and speed down the tunnel to the visas area. My connection to Amsterdam doesn't leave until 11 p.m. and it's only 4:30 pm or so now - no way I'm sitting in the dank and dark Nairobi airport, which reminds me a little of the old Rolling Valley Mall, for seven hours. So I take the trouble to fill out the forms and find the shortest line possible to purchase a transit visa. I produce a crisp U.S. $20 bill with no marks or writing on it (they won’t accept any other kind of US money at the visa counter, I now know), get my visa stamp and skip downstairs to get my suitcase. I find the baggage belt for my flight, even though it’s incorrectly marked as a flight from Dar es Salaam, because I’ve asked a bright-looking baggage guy and I know the belts are usually mislabeled here. Miraculously, my suitcase is one of the first around the bend. I grab it, whiz by the airport cop telling her I have nothing to declare, and exit into the sea of drivers – maybe 100 or more -- waiting behind the fences holding signs with people’s names. The drivers hush down a bit and look at me expectantly – each one of them hoping I’m their guy so they can get out of there and hit the road. As I stroll by looking for a sign with my name on it, a short Kenyan woman who works for the Universal Car Company pops out of the crowd.


I am astonished to be greeted by name.

“You remembered me from last time?”

“How could I forget?” she said.

I ponder the meaning of this. Of all the travelers passing through, she would remember ME? Is it because, the very first time I arrived in Nairobi, I got in the wrong car? Is it because I tipped one of the drivers $20, once, after drinking two double bourbons at the Ole-Sereni, and he told me he had no money to eat? Is it because I’m a freak?

In any case, she handed me off to the Universal driver who took my bag and led me to the parking lot. Twenty minutes later I was seated in the luxurious Big Five restaurant inside the gorgeous Ole-Sereni Hotel, deposited by my driver, whom I asked to return at 9 p.m. to take me back to the airport. I like this hotel because it is close to the airport and you don’t have to pass through any of the murderous roundabouts or get stuck in the notorious Nairobi traffic in order to get to it. In addition, there is a very good restaurant with a balcony overlooking a game preserve, with scrubby acacia trees and tall blonde grass, and great sunset views. However, the only animals I’ve ever seen at the hotel so far are bronze sculptures.

This evening, I have parked myself on the balcony at a table for four looking east over the preserve. When my waitress comes I order my customary double bourbon (I feel really cool saying “Make that a double!”) and an aloo tikka appetizer (shallow fried potatoes with crushed pea paste and hot peppers), and then a pan-fried leg of duck.

I drink my first bourbon while watching the sun set over Nairobi, and think about what I’m going to do when I get home again.