Friday, June 21, 2013

Are we there yet?

I left Australia for Aweil, South Sudan on Monday evening, and three days later I am still not there.

The flight over was an ordeal – they had me on an aisle seat, so lots of disturbances from people and trolleys going past, and no views, and being one row back from the bulkhead meant more disturbances from the child crying and howling in the cot. MSF paid for the tickets this time – which was nice – but then, I didn’t get a choice of where to sit. The Emirates Airbus 380 had a crew of 26. The food was good. Twice I got to the Million Dollar Question on Who Wants to be a Millionaire and both times picked the wrong one.

At Dubai 15 hours later I was in a transfer bus for about 20 minutes going from Terminal One to Terminal Three on the other side of the runways. The air was so polluted planes were invisible before they had cleared the runway. Terminal One looks like a huge striped slug, and inside it’s  very poorly designed, with vast empty corridoors and halls but hopelessly tiny check-in areas where one has to squeeze and jostle to go from one side to the other, and toilets that  would be slight overkill for a busy Petrol station but for a terminal that has something like 60 million visitors a year, and in a city that flaunts its massive wealth in obscene excess at every opportunity they are ridiculous. Only at Dubai have I ever had to join a queue that started outside a toilet !

Terminal Two is  much smaller and even more cramped and crowded – I ordered a smoothie which was very refreshing and then I was off with FlyDubai Airline for Juba, a four hour flight that went right over Addis Ababa. Looking down  from 35,000 feet I felt real affection for  that chaotic and scruffy but friendly city, for all my Ethiopian friends and their homeland.

Two hours later we landed in Juba, capital city of the worlds newest country. It is the start of he rainy season so it was cloudy and grey. They are building a new Terminal and they certainly need one – the “arrivals” area, baggage claim, customs and immigration are all crammed into one room that was literally standing room only. To get anywhere you had to push and shove and squeeze, and be pushed and shoved and squeezed in return by mostly black men, perspiring and panting in the smelly congestion. In desperation I climbed over a counter instead of going through a sort of funnel of scores of people trying to squeeze through a gap in a partition wide enough for one person at a time. When I got to the Immigration window to pay my $100 in US notes, the person in front had his notes rejected because apparently they were too old.  He kept submitting alternative bills and they also were rejected so in the end he squeezed his way back past me looking for a friend who may have had newer money - Mine were criso and unused : No Problem. I finally dragged my luggage outside to a covered over shelter and found the MSF driver - It had taken an hour and a half to get through .

It was only a short drive to the MSF Main Office, secured behind a high steel gate.
I met many friendly MSF staff and was given briefings about security, about my Mission, and about Juba, they gave me a mobile phone  and my “per diem “ – which is  my daily allowance of about  $15, and took me to the Accomodation building a few km up the road, also secured behind a high wall. It was a new building with shiny tiled floors , a big living area with a satellite TV and each room had an en suite – but no hot water, no power during the day and depending on demand the room could be shared.  Local people are employed as cleaners and cooks, and dinner was going to be available at 6. Predictably, my short pre-dinner nap ended well after midnight because I had been awake most of the previous 36 hours.

The next day, Wednesday I would have flown to Aweil, my final destination , but the one flight was already fully booked. There was little to do and  wandering the streets was discouraged for security reasons, though there seemed to be no significant history of violence in the town. However for lunch I arranged for a driver to take me to the Juba Bridge Hotel and had grilled chicken. That evening there was a lively gathering of dozens of ex-pats at the  accommodation place, apparently a weekly thing for everyone to catch up and have some beer. I met more lovely people with interesting backgrounds and stories, most had completed many missions with MSF, most seemed to smoke, and everyone was very welcoming .

On Thursday morning I was up and packed early, and back at the airport at 7 for my flight to Aweil. Again there was horrendous congestion , standing room only and mud everywhere because it had been raining. I was directed to a queue and after 40 minutes got to the counter and was told this was the wrong queue! The correct queue that I was directed to was thankfully very short – but this was because the flight had been cancelled! I would be rebooked for Friday!

The plan had been that I would arrive in Aweil and have a day with the person I was replacing so I could be shown the ropes. Now I would have to get a quick “Handover” at the airport, because the plane I will be going on will be bringing the departing Doctor back.

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