Shalom, Hello and Salaam from the Shalom Hotel in southern Sudan's hot, dry, dusty, and very expensive capital. Seriously, $150 a night, per person in a room that looks as though it was made from a pre-fabricated trailer, and is missing a shower curtain? Fortunately the organization is picking up the tab...
I'm back in Juba for a few days, while we attempt to sort things out, and figure out what happens next. As you may have already read, the organization was among the 13 NGOs kicked out by the Sudanese government from the country. What this effectively has meant is that they're banned from the north and Darfur, as the south is basically independent from the Khartoum government. The southern government, based here in Juba, has made it clear that they want the organization (along with the others that were kicked out of the north but have programs in the south) to stay, and keep working.
It seems as though the dust is beginning to settle, in a sense. It looks as though I'll be staying here as planned, but not necessarily going where I originally thought I'd be. Originally, I was scheduled to be going a little farther north, into what are called (depending on whom you ask) the 'transitional areas,' '3 areas,' or 'provisional areas,' where the north and south collide. Now, it looks like that won't be happening, at least not right away.
I left Yei yesterday morning, taking my first flight on the World Food Program's Humanitarian Air Service. When we arrived at the dirt airstrip on the edge of Yei, I couldn't help but notice a big banner on the side of the 'terminal' (a two room building with a large hanging scale, a few official-looking pieces of paper on the door, and a guy sweeping the floor with a grass broom) for the Delta Connection Frequent Flyer program. Seriously. Not the commuter airline based in Atlanta you might be thinking of though, but Delta as in 'Nile Delta,' and 'Connection' as in a Kenyan airline flying between Nairobi, Entebbe, Juba, and a handful of other places, including Yei. The thought of earning frequent-flyer miles seemed a bit ridiculous, but hey, why not?
Shortly after we arrived, a large group of large Americans arrived, complete with heavy bags, strong Tennessee accents, and some serious Jesus-y fervor. I saw a church nametag, and although they seemed friendly, I was glad they were getting on another flight (yes, more than one airline flies to Yei). While they waited for Eagle Air to take them back to Entebbe, the tiny WFP-HAS plane arrived. Stopping in the dirt maybe 50 meters in front of us, we hauled our bags over and stuffed them into the small luggage bins underneath the single-engine compartment, but only after verifying that our names were on the passenger manifest. Climbing on board, the pilots asked us to move as far to the front as possible, meaning that I was sitting directly behind the pilot, close enough to read the altimeter on his instrument panel. After buckling in and bouncing over a few smallish puddles, the pilot revved the engine, and we raced down the dirt strip, taking off over the trees and grass.
I've been on countless planes over the years, but this was a very different experience- there was a small window almost directly at my feet, a little disconcerting. Flying in planes even smaller than your average regional jet or turboprop in the States feels odd, as you get a much clearer sense of motion, including the side-to-side and rolling sensations that a bigger jet might mask. Fortunately the flight was very smooth, and as a bonus, offered a pilot's-eye (or perhaps pilot's shoulder) view as we touched down in Juba.
Juba is hot. Much hotter than Yei. It's also dirtier, with plastic bottles and cans everywhere, barbed-wire compounds, and the occasional enormous villa, or modern-looking gas station. Supposedly it's one of the world's most expensive cities, which seems crazy until you consider the fact that it's landlocked, full of 'rich' foreigners, and has been until recently the center for any number of battles. Can't say I blame people for wanting to an extra Sudanese pound or two (or a few hundred), but wow.
To get to the Shalom Hotel, just a few minutes from our office, you clatter along a rutted, dusty road, lined with a constant stream of bottles and cans, the odd piece of livestock, and hand-painted signs screaming things like "TRADITIONAL DOCTOR HE CURES OVER 70 DISEASE! HIV/AIDS, MALARIA, DEMENTIA, WOMEN WHO CANNOT PRODUCE, MAN WHO CANNOT PLEASE HIS WIFE" and more. The hotel is basic, as I mentioned, run by a family of Ethiopians, one of whom has perhaps the most perfect gheri-curl I've seen- I think his head might explode from all the product in it if someone lit a cigarette within a few meters. On the plus side, the rooms have blessedly cool air-conditioning, WiFi access (very slow, but functional), and surprisingly good food in the restaurant, including very authentic Ethiopian dishes with freshly-baked injera bread. Given the name of the place, I can't help but wonder if the family has some sort of connection to Ethiopian Jewry, although this seems unlikely, as Sudan isn't the most hospitable to Jews. I guess the south is different, but still. As always, I have to wonder about why anyone would want to leave a more developed, nicer place like Ethiopia to come here and open a restaurant and hotel, but one needs only look at the room rates and the prices on the menu to understand; I'm sure they're making money hand-over-fist around here.
It looks like I'll be in Juba through Tuesday, and then.... back to Yei. Apparently a large group of refugees has just crossed the border from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and the UN is setting up a camp very close to Yei. The plan is to go there and speak with some of them, writing stories (which I'll hope to publish on this page). Things could change again, of course, but for now, that's the plan. I'll try to get some photos posted soon, and as always, welcome your thoughts in the comment section below...