Let me introduce you…
With much anticipation and I’m not going to lie, some fear and uncertainty, I journeyed to Juba, South Sudan. While I’ve traveled to (only) about 7 or 8 other African countries, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I arrived in Juba. I had been given some pretty clear instructions on which line up to get into, what to write on the entry forms, and who would be waiting, but one never knows what will really confront them on arrival.
And sitting in the airport in Nairobi, sipping my decaf, soy, caramel machiatto at the famed Java House was not helping me mentally prepare for all that Juba has to offer…
I finally made my way over to the waiting area at Gate 15 for the departure. As I sat, I played a little game in my head of trying to guess the travel reason for all the other passengers in the lounge. It is pretty easy to determine the reason for travel of other passengers when you board a flight to Cuba or Mexico. But going to South Sudan is not quite as straight forward as my vaccination nurse in Vancouver would have led you to believe when she asked me, “Are you going for business or pleasure?”
While I am sure I will find much pleasure in South Sudan, the passengers waiting in the lounge were not likely embarking on a relaxing vacation. Still, guessing people’s purpose for travel was not as straight-forward as one might think. Yes, there is the older man with the UN lanyard or the ones like me with their NGO acronym splayed across their t-shirts. But then there were the 3 teenage boys in baggy jeans and backward caps bopping to hip hop on their ipods, or the young woman with striking makeup and 2 inch long fake finger nails furiously tapping between her Samsung Galaxy and her iphone 6. Returning home from a holiday? Visiting their parents on a school break? The guessing game made the waiting time go faster.
Boarding commenced as it has in most African airports I’ve been to (and European as well). You first all cram onto a bus to be driven far down a tarmac, sometimes in seemingly random locations. I’m standing on the bus when an older guy comes up to me and says “You must be Alida” – I was suspicious at “You must be….” because it is not uncommon for unfamiliar men in foreign countries to pretend to know me, so I immediately had a guard up (scam artists fish around for information which they get you to unwittingly disclose and then use the info to convince you that you know them and while your guard is down, they are eyeing or stealing your phone, wallet etc). I guess I shouldn’t have been so suspicious – I was on a bus in a secure location. How far could a devious thief get?
No, it was a fellow colleague from Medair, who had heard there was someone else on the same flight to Juba. And my “Medair” branded t-shirt (which I was instructed to wear) gave me away… It turned out to be handy and reassuring to have someone who was familiar with the airport procedures guide me, rather than me trying to incognito read my tip sheet as I passed through the steps.
As we circled for landing, I took in the landscape. The familiar red soil, green trees and shrubs stretched for miles with small rocky hills pocking the landscape. The Nile, meandering its way north (yes, the Nile flows up to Egypt), and then the sprawling city of Juba.
On landing, you again realize you are not in an ordinary African city. The only other commercial airplane was one from Egypt Air. Otherwise, there are rows and rows of UN, WFP (World Food Program), and Red Cross airplanes and helicopters. Our plane parked between a huge WFP plane waiting for clearance, and some smaller UN planes. I bid goodbye to my beautifully coiffed cabin crew on Kenyan Airways and welcomed the reality of South Sudan. Or at least my sweat glands certainly did. I had been mentally preparing for 50 degree celcius heat and my first thought was “Oh, it’s not that bad, I can handle this” but within a few short minutes (or seconds) I felt rivulets of sweat streaming down my cheekbones and draining down my neck, meeting in the middle as if they were tributaries. And I hadn’t even walked to the arrivals building yet!
Before Arrivals, you have to walk through the Ebola screening tent. I followed my colleague on a short-cut through some grass towards a WHO (World Health Organization) tent, where for some reason I expected a thorough and high tech environment. After all, how many times have I quoted WHO in an academic paper I’ve written? I imagined anything inside a WHO tent must be state of the art. Alas, there was a plastic white table at the far end of the tent, a few tired and hot looking people lounging on the side, and one older gentleman scanning everyone’s foreheads with an infrared thermometer. Fortunately, the shock of heat did not raise my internal temperature and he waved me through with a nod.
Next step was customs where I tried to absorb the mild chaos of what was going on around me. I noticed the woman at the desk being asked for multiple ID’s even though she had a visa, so when my colleague said “get out your ID”, I had already mentally remembered where I packed it in my bag. Fortunately the immigration official was satisfied with my visa and smiling face, so we moved 15 feet to another official who then checked to make sure we had actually received a stamp in our passport. A mere 5 feet away from this check-point was a single luggage x-ray scanner. Once you find your luggage in a big stack, you have it checked by yet some more officials. Most were men in army fatigues but there was one woman, who was so exquisitely dressed in a satin bodice dress with frilly sleeves made from traditional African fabric, I thought she must have just come from a wedding. But then I remembered, African women are always dressed this well and it is I who looks like an under dressed, slovenly mess. I wonder what they must think of my faded linen pants, sweat stained tshirt, and running shoes?
She was kind enough to take my word that there were only clothes (no satin dresses!) in my bag and didn’t require me to open everything up and spread it out.
A mere 5 feet from the baggage inspecting area, was another gentleman who checked our baggage tags with our luggage before allowing us to proceed. In a space of a couple hundred square feet, I had been checked 5 times. They certainly are serious about passengers passing through their airport!
We finally we lurched out of the tiny airport with all our bags and walked to the Medair vehicle. Again, I thought “Well, the heat isn’t so bad” and then I caught a reflection of my face in the truck window – it was 100% glistening with sweat. To the point it looked like I just got out of a swimming pool. I may need those ORS (Oral rehydration salts) sooner than later.
A short drive took us to the Medair compound where I promptly met the base manager. She immediately took me round for a tour and many friendly introductions. I’m the new one on the base and Juba is brand new to me. Let me introduce you….