12 November 2007

day 13 :: present tense

We’re sitting in the waiting room for the UN Humanitarian Air Service flight. It’s less of a waiting room than a cage, really, a tin roof with sides open to the air save for the wire mesh that makes up the walls. The normal crowd is represented: an American with his huge backpack and guitar, a few Nepalis from the UN mission, a scruffy white South African with a beard and aviator sunglasses, Sudanese wearing light blue lanyards of all the UN agencies and sometimes a logo-ed khaki vest, an older white man of indeterminate origin who looks like one of those type-cast actors who play the bad guy in every movie, Kenyans greeting each other warmly, two nuns all in white with royal blue along the edges of their robes, and me, a white American girl breaking the NGO-woman norm by wearing a skirt instead of the khakis or the flowing linen trousers.

The South African goes out to smoke. Someone has a yellow oil jug tagged with a checked baggage tag that reads “Juba.” Nearly everyone has a brown envelope or two, A4-sized, carrying papers or broken bits of electronic equipment for replacement, because sending with a person is the most reliable form of mail. I have five envelopes for Juba alone, four more for Nairobi, and two to mail in the US. The most precious one contains the power cord for the wireless router. I am to give it to someone in Nairobi who will buy another, or two, or have this one fixed.

People fidget, but they don’t complain about waiting. Only a few people talk. Our luggage goes off in a pickup, unweighed. The passengers are few for the size of the plane, so they allow my overweight bags and the three that my colleague brought.

A tiny cream-colored flower blows onto the keyboard of my laptop. They smell good, these flowers. There were carpets of them fallen under the trees at my tented camp.

All the white guys wear hiking boots, and a few of the African men. Most of them wear dress shoes. Everyone is in a button-down shirt except the nuns and the Nepalis in their striped polos and the man with the Lion King t-shirt under his IOM vest. I’m in the coolest clothing I own, thin cotton skirt and shirt, for my last full day in Sudan. Tomorrow I’ll wear the heaviest clothing I own, hoping to keep my bags under the baggage allowance for the flight to Nairobi. It won’t work. They will be overweight whatever I do.

I could be wrong about the Nepalis. They could be from Bangladesh, or Pakistan. I don’t know what it is that makes my instinct think they are Nepali.

The plane is waiting. Our luggage is lined up next to it, ready to be thrown in as soon as we identify our ownership of the bags. We’re still sitting in our waiting cage.

I have a Pack Lunch from the hotel. It is a cardboard box and it says right on it, very clearly, “Pack Lunch.” It contains (I checked) a roll with some sort of meat paste, a slice of pound cake, two green apples, a bottle of water, and two boiled eggs, one of which broke and we had to throw it away. There’s also something foil-wrapped, but I haven’t investigated that yet.

On the plane, I sit next to the young bearded South African, who turns out to be Italian. Whatever. Something white. He was sitting on the aisle because he wanted some space, next to the only empty window seat in the plane. Bet he regrets that now, doesn’t he? He has to share his space with me, the window hog. Oddly, I notice when he signs the register, we have almost identical first names, if you remove my last vowel and replace it with a different vowel and the letter S.

We are early into Juba and no one is there to pick us up. We sit in the puffy chairs in the arrival lounge, fake leather sticking to our sweat, and munch on the Pack Lunch. I take the pound cake. My colleague takes the sandwich and later, in the car, the foil-wrapped chicken.

On the way to the office, we drive over a little stretch of pavement. It’s so quiet, driving on smooth pavement instead of bumpy dirt. Nothing clatters around.

I have a feeling the reverse culture shock is going to be severe.

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