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.