Tuesday, January 8, 2008

What am I doing here?

How I came to be lying on a mattress in the dining room of a German hostel wondering what the hell I was doing in central Africa:

Monday morning, I booked myself out of the Novetel (a wopping $180 a night), took my bags and went to the OCHA office here in the Chadian capital, N'djamena. I spent the day trying to get travel permits in order, figure out who to talk to, how to make the printer work and where to find food. By 6:30pm, I was exhausted. I had met someone who works for the World Food Programme on the plane and he invited me to dinner with some colleagues (an opportunity I can never pass up as a journalist, because - especially in Chad - so much of the info you need comes from casual conversation with people in the field.)

So the OCHA driver dropped me off at a cheap hostel I decided to stay at run by the German Service for Development (one of many international organisations working in Chad). The beauty of this place is that you can't go anywhere alone. You must always be in a vehicle. And not just any vehicle: one with a UN-recommended driver. So I called the UN recommended driver, paid three times the price I would pay in Dakar and spent a nice evening with good food and good company. When it came time to leave (at 10:30pm), I called the driver back - he didn't answer. I called another taxi number the UN gave me - it didn't work. I waited outside the restaurant for 20 minutes - no taxis. Finally, I saw one, and feeling uncomfortable staying too long outside the restaurant with my purse, I decided to take it. There was someone in the passenger seat already - never a good thing because two men are harder to fight off than one - and I wasn't exactly sure where I was going because I had only been to the hostel twice. But what choice did I have if I ever wanted to get home. We agreed on the price, I got in, and luckily, there were good people and took me home.

I gave him the money and he said "what's this?" I said "it's 3000 francs". All of a sudden he starts telling me that I owe him 15,000 - which was so unreasonably out of whack. Normally, the price is 2,000. At night, it might rise to 3,000, but that's it. He started alking about how it was dangerous for him to be driving at night. He also seemed genuinely angry. We argued for 15 minutes. I was frustrated and just wanted to walk away, but you never know what they will do to you. So I gave him 5,000 and walked into the hostel... Only to get another surprise.

The guard told me the hostel was full. I told him, "oh no, don't worry. I already have a room." He told me, "no, but someone else came." I laughed and said "no, but all my things are already in the room." Then he took me to the hostel office where all my stuff had been dumped into a big plastic bowl because some German woman had come and they had double booked the room. I couldn't believe it. I was ready to flip. I couldn't go back outside into the dark to find a new place to stay. All the rooms here were full. I started crying! The guard set up a mattress for me in the dining room and that's where I slept - among the mosquitos. It's not really a big deal, but when you've had a long day, in a different country, any little thing can push you over the edge.

They told me Chad was a miserable place. I expected things to go wrong, so this is normal. But certainly, life here is difficult.

You can't go anywhere without a UN driver. You can't imagine how this limits your freedom. Buying food, going to pick up something from the store (ie. mosquito repellent), etc. all has to be done with someone else. My life consits of getting picked up from the hotel by the driver in the morning, spending the day at work (and using the driver any time I have places to go), and being dropped off at the hotel at night (I'm at a different hotel now of course), where I sleep and then do it all over again. I can't really get to know the people because I can't really go into the neighbourhoods and chat with locals the way I would in Dakar. It's really frustrating being in a new place you want to discover, but being stuck behind the windshield.

The way I describe it makes it seem like it's totally dangerous - which it isn't. But there are incidents every now and then, and they don't want to take any risks.

I go home to the crappy hotel room and the one channel of Cameroonian TV and have the urge to talk to mom & dad, friends, etc. but the communication is so expensive and isnt always good quality. I called my friend in Senegal and the line was so bad, it just added to my frustration. So now I don't bother.

It would all be worth it if I got to do what I came here to do - get perspective, talk to real people on the ground, here their problems and tell their stories. But for the moment, I'm in yet another office, waiting to get clearance to travel.

Still, these feelings of fear, frustration and isolation always happen at the beginning. I had them in Senegal at first as well. And I know once I get more comfortable here, (if I can do that in 3 weeks!), that will change. One thing is for sure: my grandma's constant harassment in Egypt - "Heba, do you want to eat, Heba have an orange, Heba, bring me your laundry" - will be a welcome change.

N.B. You must all understand that I use my blog as a sort of diary. And what I feel today often disappears tomorrow. So now that you are jts reading my thoughts of this moment and that it will all change soon.

A bientot!


Still.Searching said...

Heba.. NEVER EVER EVER not even in Egypt, get into a cab with another gy in it or let the cab pick up another person EVER. I understand the concerns but this is way way too dangerous.. go back in the restuarant and ask them to get you a cab. That cab will know the restaurant people know he picked you up.

Maybe you should indeed start writing a book about your adventures as you sit bored to death at night! You are a tough girl!

Your secret admirer :-)

teh MLE said...

Oh Heba!

Chad sounds miserable. It's a valuable learning experience even if you're spending all this time getting papers in order and such. How many people outside of there really know about how things (don't) work in Chad?

And don't feel bad about the crying. I was a huge mess when I got sick in Singapore (all 4 times I had medical emergencies...). At least you haven't fainted in public yet, (and, insh'allah, you never will!).

Soon we will be laughing about all this in a place as yet undetermined :)