Saturday, June 20, 2009


A couple weeks ago, I headed up to a central Kenyan town called Isiolo, about a four-hour drive from the capital, Nairobi. I was going to research a story about insurgents from Somalia's civil war recruiting Kenyans to fight with them. I had been told that a young boy (a Kenyan who is ethnically Somali) from a village near Isiolo had blown himself up in Somalia's war, and I was going to meet the family. It was ... quite an experience.

I was supposed to leave Nairobi with an elder from this village and a Somali civil society activist at 6am. I barely slept the night before and woke up before the break of dawn to be ready on time. I arranged to rent a car and they were to meet me and the car downtown at 6am so we could get on the road early and possibly come back the same day. At 6am, I called them from downtown to see if they knew the exact corner we were meeting at. The village elder was still sleeping. They arrived at 7am, with another pleasant surprise. We still had to go back to the elder's home in Nairobi to pick up his wife and son. (Apparently he couldn't go back to the village without his wife because she's the only one that can cook for him). That took two more hours. I should have known that Somalis are worse than Egyptians when it comes to timing.

The ride there was in and of itself interesting. Along the way, huge trucks raced by carrying kilograms and kilograms of a stimulating plant called khat. It is illegal in many countries, but a staple among Somalis. Thew chew it daily - no, hourly - and I guess it gets them kind of high, but in a natural way. I was once told any interview past noon with a Somali would always be "lacking in details"... but I was also told by someone else, the best way to get information from a Somali is to chew with them.

The khat export business has become quite something. The plant, grown in central Kenya, is sold in Somalia and as far as the UK. Apparently, the trucks carrying the stuff don't stop until they reach their destination. Because of the "sensitive" nature of their orders, they cannot afford to be a minute late. So when a truck is flying down the highway and it flashes its lights - that means get out of the way or you'll be killed, cuz this thing ain't stopping. In an effort to combat that, it looks like local government officials have tried to make speedbumps. Only, in some of these places, money is a little lacking for the cement. So instead, they dig out a little strip of the road, like a small trench, and that forces people to slow down in the same way. They say the trucks are so heavy that when they are going downhill, they have to travel at a ridiculously low speed, because if they relied on the brakes to slow them down, the brakes would just burn into flames.

We drove across the equator, where an improvised tourist attraction had been set up. A bowl of water with an egg on each side of the equtor - to demonstrate that gravity pulls the water in different directions (which explains why toilets flush in different directions) on either side.

It was interesting seeing the different landscapes as we travelled north. At first it was extremely fertile, with red clay, trees, plants, and plenty of growth. Then the closer we got to Isiolo, the more arid the landscape became. First it was ranches - acres and acres of land, owned almost exclusively by foreigners. "If Jews had all this land, they would have commcercialized it," the villager elderly said. Ultimately, we found ourselves driving through dust so strong that we couldn't see through the windshield.

At times, we'd be driving in seemingly the middle of nowhere only to find people walking on the side of the road. This is normal in Africa. You find people herding their cattle in the middle of nowhere, because they sleep out in the bush with their animals. But this time, it was a man in a suit. What is a man in a suit doing walking kilometres and kilometres in the middle of nowhere? Had he just finished a business meeting in one village and was trekking back home to another? It always fascinates me. He just looked so out of place in the midst of the wind, sand, and cows.

We finally arrived in the afternoon, to a small village where homes were made of timber and iron sheets and camels casually walk through the sandy alleyways, grazing on the homes' fences! I was almost instantly renamed Hebo, a Somali name with the same meaning as Heba (gift from God). I was also taught how to say "How are you?" in Somali. The term is "Makag Sheig Tee", which litterally means "tell me something". I was told it comes from the time when Somalis were all warriors. When they met someone along the way, they would ask about the situation in the village the passerby had come from. "How is it there? Tell me something". So the best response to "How are you?" in Somali is "Nabat"... "peace".

We ate traditional Somali/Kenyan food - meat/potato stew with ugali, a maize-based (I think!) thick, dry dough that is piled in mountains on your plate! I soon discovered that everything in the house was covered in aunts - food, if you leave it out, the toilet, even, eventually, my purse (where I discovered I had left a piece of chocolate, which the aunts found instanteneously).

I spoke with a bunch of the deceased young man's friends, who were shocked at the whole story. He was born in Kenya and had no connection to the war back home in Somaila. His friends were clearly unimpressed, and gave different explanations for why he would do go: religious brainwashing, money, the feeling of doing something with your life - when you have nothing and your life has no meaning and you see no future, suddenly - the argument goes - committing suicide seems like something of an accomplishment. Many others from Kenya have left their homes to go fight in Somalia, along with people from Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Afganistan, Pakistan, even the United States and the UK (usually, Americans or Brits of Somali origin, but caucasians have also been part of the fighting). People worry that on top of all its own problems (civil war, poverty, humanitarian crisis, piracy), Somalia is becoming a new safe-haven for al-Qaeda. And Somalis fear that this new trend is causing a disgenuine interest in their country by the international community. "The White man is not interested in Somalia," says the village elder with whom I was staying. "He just wants to fight al-Qaeda."

In the end, I was gone three days. As you can imagine, the departure time was just as casual and unimportant to my hosts as the arrival. So I spent some time with members of the family - the mom, who you can see in this picture making breakfast on a charcoal-heated pan. I also got a good crash-course on the Somali clan system. Somalia has been at war with itself since 1991, when warlords overthrew a dictator and then turned on each other. Clan has been the defining factor in Somalia's war for a long time, with different clans fighting against each other and members of the same clan sticking together. What is a clan? Basically the lineage of a family. For example, members of the Issak clan are descendants of Sheikh Issak, an Iraqi who came to Somalia 17 generations ago. He had 8 children. Each of them had children. Every Issak can trace his lineage back to Sheikh Issak, naming every father, grandfather, greatgrandfather, etc. along the way. When a Somali boy is born, he is taught his lineage immediately. No matter where in the world an Issak is, he knows where he's from. "We don't get lost. We're just like the Jews," the village elder told me. What's interesting is that the mother's heritage doesn't matter. As long as your father was an Issak, you are an Issak, even if your mother is an Ethiopian or a Caucasian or whatever. The woman is just a tool the man uses to spread his clan. "She's a box - put your things and move it. She's an industry." ha.

The other interesting thing about these guys was their relationship with their country. I was with two Issaks from Somaliland, an autonomous area that is technically part of Somalia, but has unilaterally declared its independence - which no one in the world recognizes. But while Somalia is tearing itself apart, Somaliland is actually relatively safe. And amazingly, instead of being concerned about what was happening in Somalia, this was the elder's opinion: "Somalia? Let them go to hell. Our country is Somaliland - and there, we are at peace." And then they complain that the international community doesn't care about Somalia. Amazing.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Kenyan superstitions

The woman who serves us coffee at work is called Esther. She's a tall, broad-shouldered woman who is always smiling and insisting I have just one more cup. She's been sniffling lately, with some kind of flu. Then the other day she told me her auntie - not aunt, but auntie - had died. Turns out, the two are linked.

One day, I found her reading her aunt's obituary in the paper, while sniffling. "You still have that cold?" I asked her. "It's because of my auntie," she said. "When you are sick, it means something bad is going to happen to your family." She says African/Muslim tradition says that when someone in your family feels pain, you too will feel pain. Everytime you get a headache, it means something bad is coming.

But get this. Anytime you accidentally shatter glass - you drop a glass for ex - you are diffusing some bad thing. So instead of being angry that you broke something, you should be grateful that this has happened instead of something worse.

Everytime I walk my this construction on my street, I wonder if the scafolding made of wood will just collapse... But I never get a headache, so I guess these workers are safe!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


About 3/4 of the way along my jogging route, I always run into a group of Kenyan women sitting at the intersection, waiting. They wait, all day everyday. For a job. I don't know how they expect the job to fall from the sky. But they wait for someone to approach them with some kind of opportunity.

One of these women would always laugh and cheer me on when I ran by. One day, I decided to stop and introduce myself. As I did, I told her, "tomorrow, you're coming with me!"

So the next day, when I got to her spot, I stopped and said "let's go!" She got up off the rock she was sitting on and ran a block with me in her orange dress. We ran slow and she breathed hard, but she actually did it! I was impressed that she wasn't just talk. That day we exchanged names for the first time. Hers was Jane

The next time I ran by, I stopped to say hi. Jane told me her brother had died in Nairobi's biggest slum. She needed money. It was amazing how little I felt. Two years ago in Senegal, that would have tugged at my heart. I would have felt I had to give her something to feel ok with myself. This time, I felt something completely different - that I wanted to set a different tone. I wanted it to be clear, from the beginning, that a friendship with me is to be a true friendship - and not for any other purpose. I obviously still have questions about this. Sure, she shouldn't befriend a stranger just to ask for money, but what if she has no option? Sure, in Africa, asking someone for money isn't really using them because the needs are just incomparable, and if you can give, you give. But I guess I just wasn't happy with the expectation that I was now going to be her bank. So I said, "I'm so sorry to hear that" and kept running. Have I become cold?

Democracy on the bus

The traffic, as usual, was horrible on my way home from work the other day. The bus driver decided, as they often do, to take an alternate route to "beat" the traffic. Of course, that route only led to more traffic and half an hour was wasted. People on the bus got testy. Women started screaming at the fare collector to give them their money back since they were now going to miss their appointments because the bus was no longer taking them where it was suppose to. I watched as yelled and yelled. And he just stood there silently, not even acknowledging them. I could feel their pain. It was, for me, an avid reminder, of what life is like in many African countries without democracy. You can protest all you want, but nobody listens. And you certainly never get your money back.

Matatu in the rain

The other day, I thought I’d beat the Kenyan traffic, so I left work at 3:15pm. Figured I’d be home before 4pm and I’d have a relaxing afternoon. So I caught the bus and about half way home, I got a call on my cell phone – an interview I’d been waiting for all day. So I pulled out my notebook and scribbled down notes while riding along. We spoke for about 15 minutes. Then I hung up and waited for my stop. It never came. After 15 minutes or so, I looked around and realized I really wasn’t anywhere near what I was used to. By this time it was close to 5pm. “Excuse me, do you know if the Yaya Centre is coming up?” I asked the guy next to me. “Oh we left it behind long ago,” he answered. Ha. So much for getting home early. I got out then and there and found myself in one of the "people’s" neighbourhoods, let’s say, where tin shacks grew out of the muddy, garbage-filled streets. Paths, I should call them, because there was no tarmac. Then, as I waited for a bus going back the other way, it started pouring rain. It's the rainy season in Kenya, meaning every other day it spontaneously starts pouring buckets! A jolly old guy next to me let me stand with him under his umbrella. All the buses coming through, as well as their smaller, ghettoer versions, the minivan Matatus, were full. I climbed around in the soggy red clay dirt with my high heels, looking totally out of place. We reached a place further up the hill where we caught a matatu. When you climb into one of these things, you feel you can never get out again because they are crammed with people so tightly and I always manage to put myself in the corner furthest from the door. Given the traffic on the main road, the matutu made a U-turn and drove off onto a side street, where we got stuck behind some car stuck in the middle of the road. The back door of the van kept flying open. When it didn't, the passenger door couldn't seem to close. Everytime we went over a bump, we all went flying in the air, our heads banging against the rickety sides of the van. I think I got home around 6pm...

Sunday, May 10, 2009

"This is Africa"

So... I'm back in Kenya and committed, for the next little while, to stay on top of my blog. I feel totally disconnected from all of you and want to make a better effort to make you informed of my life and be informed of yours.

So, basically, I'm living in Kenya now. Every day, I go jogging in the morning (I get the funny stares from everyone, because running is huge here - but seemingly only for men). Then I ride bus no. 46 to work (I pay 40 Kenyan shillings, or about 50 cents). I work out of Bloomberg's office here, mostly continuing to cover Sudan. (I do analysis, or call people by phone, etc). But I've become increasingly frustrated with not doing any work in the field, and I'm trying to engage myself a little more with my surroundings - ie. to actually feel that I am in Africa and not just sitting in front of a computer screen. Then I ride the bus home again in horrible traffic, pick up groceries from the supermarket and make dinner. Pretty normal life really.

But there are always reminders.

The other day I was reading the newspaper on the way to work and found a tiny article, hidden on page 6, about the murder of a politician. He had been on way his home at 10pm one day, when a car drove by, shot his tires flat, and then kept driving. He got out of his car to ask for help, and the same car drove by and shot him in the head four times, again driving away, without stealing anything.

I was shocked. It was a two-paragraph story on page 6 !!! I showed it to my Kenyan colleague when I got to work. He hadn't even noticed the story. The Kenyan capital Nairobi is known to have high crime, but not like this! He said the politician must have been mixed up in some shady business and this was payback. Then he went back to his desk as if it was nothing.

"This is Africa," he said.

p.s. For those of you who are now freaking out, Kenya is overall a very good place to live. There are no wars, and quite a bit of development - a step up from Sudan anyway! But the next day, the newspaper showed the pictures of 26 men who had been killed in execution-style killings in the last two months alone. I expressed some concern about this to my colleague, and he said, as long as you're straight in your dealings, you'll have no problems. Let's hope so!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Bumps, Bribes and Baboons

I'm back in Kenya for a short trip. Last time I came here, I wrote about how it felt like Europe: the men in suits, the skyscrapers, etc. This time, I'm getting more exposure to its African identify.

First, on the way home from the airport, I saw a zebra standing on the side of the main tarmack road. A zebra!

Then I went to Nairobi National Park, where I got to see a selection of zebras (they much fatter butts than I expected), giraffes (beautiful), water buffalos, baboons, gazelles, and a lion, among other animals whose names have escaped me. This park is just a few kilometres outside of town, but is as close to the Kenyan savana as you can get in the city. It's amazing. You can see wild animals in their natural habitat, with skyscrapers in the background! Plus the park isn't fenced, allowing animals to pass through during their migration. No wonder a zebra had wandered onto the road!

The next day, I headed with a friend to Mount Longonot, 2776 above sea level, for a little hike. On the way there, we were pulled over at a regular checkpoint by Kenyan police officers who noticed I wasn't wearing a seatbelt and immediately said "We are going to arrest you." ha. Of course, what they really wanted was money. If it wasn't the seatbelt, it would have been the car regisration or the lights or they would have found something to pick on. They said I would have to stay in jail for two days until the matter could be sorted out. Again, ha. Of course, we knew better. So, we proposed to settle the matter "locally and amicably" ie. pay a bribe. Some $25 later, we were on our way. "Have fun at Mount Longonot," the police officers called out, as we drove away, pissed off. Reportedly, they make $300 a day in bribes. I can tell you there was a long lineup of cars pulled over behind us!

Turns out we had taken the wrong road and the journey to Longonot, which should have been a smooth ride on a tarmack rode, turned into an adventure on small, bumpy dirt roads in a car that really shouldn't have been put to such a test.

Eventually, we did make it, and were appointed a guide, Anne-Paul. I asked her how long the hike would take. She said she does it in 40 minutes, but people "who spend all day in the office" were slower. The book had said the whole thing would take 6 hours, so I wondered just what we were in for and whether I was one of the lazy office people.

It turned out to be quite a challenge, with some parts really quite steep. Dad, you would have loved it. The climb to the rim of the volcanic crater lasted, as Anne-Paul had promised, somewhere around an hour. But from there, the path around the 2-km wide crater and to the summit, was another story.

We made it to the unremarkable summit eventually, covered in dust from the volcanic ashes. Along the way, we saw, again, plenty of zebras and giraffes. But most remarkable was the view, on the edge of a huge crater, overlooking the Rift Valley that crosses much of East Africa. At times I felt I was walking in the clouds.

Coming down was almost worse. Terrified I would slip and fall down the mountain in the midst of the unstable earth beneath me, I took one baby-step at a time, until I gave up fear and just started running down the mountain like a crazy person on speed!

I hadn't exercised like that in a while and it felt good...And also reminded me that as developed as Kenya was, it was still home to plenty of bumps, bribes and baboons!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

My work

I always get questions from you guys about what I'm writing. So I've put together a separate blog where I will post all my work. I've tried to update it up to now, with a selection of stories from Sudan. I hope you get something out of it!

Monday, February 16, 2009

When there's nothing you can do...

I began the hostile environment training at Centurion Risk Assessment Services today (for journalists and aid workers who are working in war zones). During the morning we covered basic first aid, and were given an outline of what the week would entail. It seemed pretty straight forward. I didn't understand what all the fuss was about (These courses have a really great reputation and cost somewhere around $3,000 for one week). One of the other students told me he had heard the practical work was very realistic, but I didn't think much of it.

After lunch, we were told we were going to take a tour of the campgrounds in which the course was taking place. The 10 of us students loaded into a van and were off. When we reached a gate about 10 minutes into the woods, the driver stopped until they opened the doors.

All of a sudden, gunfire broke out to the left of the van and men wearing black masks over their faces ran towards the van, pointing guns at us and screaming at us to get out. We all knew it was part of the training, but it was, as I had been warned, extreamely real. In fact, it was the realest simulation I have ever participated in.

They started pulling people out of the van and throwing them onto the pavement. I was further back in the van and had a bit more time to think. But I had no idea what to do. I considered hiding in the van, but figured they would find me and only beat me harder for disobeying. They grabbed me and knocked me down onto the pavement. "Heads down!" they screamed, as they covered our faces with black hoods, all of us lying face down on the ground.

Then they forced us up onto our feet, and marched us about 5 minutes away. I couldn't see a thing and was guided only by the person in front of me. I had a hard time keeping up with them because I was being pulled from behind by the next person in line. When eventually we stopped, they forced us all to kneel. The ground was wet and I could feel the mud through my jeans. Then one by one, we were pushed up against a cement wall, our hands up against it. They came by each one of us and searched our whole bodies for any valuables. They stole my ring and watch - that's all I had with me of any value. Then they got in the car and drove away.

I didn't know what to do or if they were truly gone, so I didn't move. I stayed there, with my palms against the cement wall, my breathing getting heavier and the black hood seemingly closing in on me more and more with every breath. Everyone was quiet. I wondered what the others were thinking, and what to do next. I tried to inch my hand over to see if I could reach the person next to me, but was scared to move it too far or too quickly.

Then I heard one of the others try to move - and immediately a gunshot. As I suspected, our captors hadn't yet left - at least not all of them. I tried to listen intently for any indicators of what was going on. I thought about what to do, what my options were. I couldn't think of anything. I couldn't see. I could barely breathe. I didn't know where I was or who was with me. And I didn't know how the captors would react to any movement. I knew it was all fake, but I kept thinking to myself, "if this was real right now, what would I do?" And my mind was blank. I thought of calling out to the captors - asking what they wanted. But I feared that too would result in death. So I just kept quiet and still.

It's crazy how quickly and easily we can be made to feel like little nothings. And it's crazy what the power of guns can do to people.

Slowly, the area around me got quieter and quieter. I heard people being taken away and by the end it seemed that I was all alone there. Then someone grabbed me from behind and led me along through the mud. A few minutes later, he forced me back onto my knees, pushed my head down and removed the hood. All the other participants - already free - were standing there waiting and smiling.

Back in the classroom, we debriefed. I had so many questions. What is someone supposed to do in that situation? Is it a good idea to comply, or should you try to escape? Should you communicate or stay silent?

We went through the whole scenario of abduction, from the surveillance you undergo before it happens all the way to the rescue, if there is one. We talked about the mental challenges of being in captivity and about the ways to avoid being abducted in the first place.

In the end, we were told the best opportunity for escape is in the first few moments of the capture, when there is confusion and lots going on. It's in those first few moments, when you do not yet realize what is happening, that you have to be most prepared and alert. Once you're hooded and tied, your chances of escape are slim to none. The instructors told us to co-operative completely. You should never give up and always pay attention to what is happening and opportunities to escape, but never give them any reason to be angry with you.

I have begun getting used to being completely at someone else's mercy. It's a weird feeling. You fight with yourself. At times you feel weak for complying so completely to their orders. At others you fear the slightest resistance could get you killed.

Of course, there is no right and wrong in these situations. Once you're in this position, there's not much you can do but try to stay calm. I think that's the most this type of training can do for you - it prepares you mentally for the possibility of this happening, so that if it does, the shock is smaller and your reaction better. That might be the only thing that keeps you alive...

The wonders of Bloomberg

Last month, I had been given a grant by the Rory Peck Trust to take a training course on being a journalist in hostile environments. These are very expensive, week-long courses offered to journalists and aid workers who work in war zones. Back then, given my work in Sudan, I thought it was high time I did such a course. The training was in London, England, and this grant - given to freelancers who can't afford the training themselves - covered most of the cost. So I signed up for it, only to have to leave Sudan a few weeks later. Still, I thought it would be a worthwhile thing to do because who knows where I will end up. So here I am in London! And I came a few days early in order to discover the city, meet some friends and take care of some business.

One of my first stops was the Bloomberg office, to meet some editors and get registered in the Bloomberg system (There is no office in Sudan, and so, until I got to the small Cairo office, I had never met anyone that I worked with).

All I can say is WOW. The biggest newsroom in Canada doesn't even come close. I have never seen anything like this. When you walk in, it almost feels like a bar, it's so dimly-lit. Security guards wearing ear pieces and suits guard the front escalators. A woman sitting in front of a digital screen checks your identity. Once you get past the woman and the guards, you ride the escalators - lined with neon blue lights - up to the reception. They take a picture of you, print it on the spot, and make you a badge. To the left is a massive snack bar with all-you-can-eat chips, fruit, drinks and other treats for the employees. Red couches along the side make the place feel like a cool evening lounge. Then through a hallway into the newsroom area are three floors of journalists, all visible through the transparent glass walls, ceiling to floor. At each desk (ie. for one person) are between 2 and 4 computer screens. Each desk is also lined with a "Bloomberg" notepad, "Bloomberg" pencil and tons of coffee-stained paper "Bloomberg" cups. They have an incredible system of financial analysis - stats, graphs, calculators, analyst recommendations, contact numbers - all right there in the system. Financial reporters can just punch in whatever commodity or company they are looking at, and up comes a whole series of analysis and numbers - gold prices went up because of this, gas prices are 40% lower than yesterday, etc. etc. It's truly madness. It had been a long time since I was in any news room at all, and this one just blew my mind...

And more ...

It's been a bit weird being on this side of the fence...

Sudan expels reporter over Darfur, arms: US

Journalist told to leave Sudan
(Public Radio International)

Canadian journalist recounts days leading to expulsion from Sudan

"They asked me why I was asking about arms. Then they said they wantd me to leave the country"
(Reporters Without Borders)

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Goodbye Sudan

By now most of you have heard the news.
I was kicked out of Sudan. National Security called me in for a meeting and told me I had two days to leave. They said it was because I was asking questions about the arms industry. Who knows what the real reason was. I am now in Cairo with family deciding what to do next.

Here are some articles about my expulsion:

From AFP

From the Christian Science Monitor

Friday, January 30, 2009

On the Road in Sudan

As you've all noticed, my blog has been a bit lacking lately. It's because: A - I'm so busy and B - I just don't know what to write about much of the time. My life here has lost much of its wonder. I've got satellite TV and air-conditioning; I eat museli, yogurt & fruit for breakfast and make shrimp curries for dinner; I play soccer a few times a week; and spend most of my work-time on my computer, and not in the field. So for all intents and purposes, it's not much different than my life in Canada - in fact sometimes better. But I've managed to scrape together a few stories, all having something to do with traveling.

I get internet here through a little thing about double the size of a flash disk that I stick in my USB drive. It connects to the mobile phone network and where ever I go, I get internet. So I can take my laptop and little USB thing to any coffee shop or friend's house in Khartoum and have internet! Sometimes I use it while I'm waiting at the airport, for example. It's like super wireless. Better than anything I've seen in North America. It's amazing that in the midst of all the underdevelopment here in Sudan, this sort of advanced technological feat exists.The other day, we were coming home from a press conference and the traffic was horrendous. So, as we were stuck in the jam, I pulled out my laptop, typed up my story and sent it in! As we drove along, I checked my e-mail, visited a few websites, and conversed back and forth with editors in South Africa. The efficiency and success of it all amazed me ...

Of course all good things come to an end. And efficiency and success in Sudan are certainly good things. Today, I went to the market with the reporters from Reuters and Agence France Presse, two of the world's largest news wires. Andrew, the Reuters reporter, always complained about the car. The windows, for example, don't roll down. They just down. We got to the market, parked in the sun, and walked around for a few hours. When we got back, we expected the car to be a sauna. We got in, turned it on - and low and behold - the air conditioning did not work. Imagine being in 40+ degree weather, in a car that had been sitting in the sun for hours, with no air conditioning and windows that don't roll down. We drove home in a mad rush, sweat dripping off our faces, and Guillaume, the AFP reporter, barely breathing! Every now and then, he or I would open our doors and drive with the door open, just to make sure we made it home alive. What an adventure that was. Andrew suspects the wires melted together or something...

I end my travel section on an upbeat. I was taking a cab home the other day. I knew it should cost about 7 pounds (about $3). The cabbies always start at 10, but you should be able to negotiate down to 7. Lately, they've been sticking to their price though. (The Sudanese are much less willing to negotiate than other Africans I've met. In Senegal, I could spend half an hour negotiating with someone over 50 cents, and eventually we'd come to some agreement. You pretend to walk away, they call you back, etc. etc. It's a silly game, I know, but here's it's too far in the other extreme. Sometimes they say 10, you say no 7, and they say no, and just drive away. They don't even try to convince you. I still haven't figured out whether they're just not business savy or whether the Senegalese were just so desperate they would take whatever money they could get). In any case, so the taxi insisted on 10, and I refused and he drove away. The next one I pulled over saw this. He tried for 8 but accepted 7 quite easily. I got in and he said 'How much did the other cabbie ask you for?' I said 10. And he said something to the effect of 'Well if 7's all you've got then I can't not accept it, now can I?' I thought it was the sweetest thing ever ... I think he also said that meters were evil ... haha

On a non-travel note, I went to a restaurant today called Carnivore, named after the same restaurant in Kenya. Basically, it's an all-you-can-eat meat place. The waiter comes by with chicken, beef, lamb, crocodile, ostridge, camel, etc. and keeps coming around (dim sum style) until you can't take anymore. Today there was no camel, but I did try the crocodile. It tasted fishy but thicker and chewier. Interesting, but not quite something I'd eat everyday. Anyways, if you're ever in Nairobi, go to Carnivore restaurant - quite the experience.

Sorry for the randomness of this posting.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Sudan through new eyes

I woke up jet-lagged today, but stepped out into the heat of Khartoum and felt refreshed. I am happy to be back. Vacation in Canada was great - and I am so grateful for the wonderful time spent with friends and family - but it was also lots of running around. It's nice to settle down again. But my happiness is about more than that. Being in Canada, being one step - well thousands i guess - removed from the details of daily news reporting, helped me gain a lot of perspective. People asked me questions that forced me to think - 'So what is your conclusion?', 'Are things getting better or worse in Sudan?', etc. etc. - and those questions reminded me of how important it is for me to be here. I think I lost track of that along the way.

I've decided to make a real effort to connect with Sudan this time around. To say hi to strangers on the street more often. To go to cultural events. To go to people's homes. To really understand this country... and to smile more! To see the beautiful sides of this place and to live more happily here.

This morning I went to exchange money, get a new sim card, and renew my internet subscription. Everything went so smoothly and I thought... maybe things can work in this country! Maybe I can build a life here after all...(temporarily anyway)

The Nightmares of Flying

In less than two months I have been on 14 flights. Yes, 14. I counted yesterday, while I sat bored out of my mind, yet too tired to read, at the gate, waiting to board my flight - one of 4 I had to take to get back to Sudan. And it seems every flight is worse than the one that preceded it. Service is dead. Punctuality is dead. Efficiency is dead. Competency long buried. In the good old days, a delay or baggage loss was the exception. These days, it seems that it’s impossible to fly problem-free. On my way to Vancouver to visit my mom, we sat in the airplane on the runway for 3.5 hours before taking off for some de-icing exercise – apparently the West Coast doesn’t understand how to handle snow. On the way back, I was delayed I don’t know how many hours, then my bags didn’t show up.

When I booked my ticket to return to Khartoum, I was amazed at how smooth it appeared. Ottawa – Toronto – Frankfurt – Khartoum. No more than 2 hour layover in both stops. Less than 20 hours flying time. Perfect. Well… until the Toronto flight was delayed 2.5 hours and I missed my Frankfurt connection. Then I had to wait in a line for God knows how long, before being directed to another line, where I was told the next ticket wouldn’t get me there until 2:20am … instead of 5:40pm. Ugh. At this point it was 5am Ottawa time, I hadn’t slept, and I wasn’t in the mood. The only available flight was through Istanbul, adding another leg to the journey – which, with two heavy carry-ons, is never fun.

‘Is there any compensation?’ I asked. ‘We can give you a meal voucher, but that’s about all I can do for you here. You can send a fax to this number though…” This is crap, I thought to myself. But I took the voucher anyway. I wasn’t hungry – not one iota. But I wanted Lufthansa to lose as much money as possible. So I stood in line at McDonald’s and ordered 10 euros worth of stuff. (Frankfurt fries are not quite as crispy, but the sundaes are quite good!)

If before, only certain airlines were known to be poor – now even the best ones are inconsistent at best. But what to do? With this work, I have no choice but to submit to their ridiculousness.

The only plus of this journey – if you could call it that – is that the Finnish World Junior Hockey Championship team was on my flight from Toronto – a bunch of lads who couldn’t speak English getting drunk and causing havoc. It was quite entertaining.