If you want to have a pleasant flight..

I wrote an email to Lufthansa asking to send me a new Miles&More card as i lost my old one. Within a week they replied saying that I need to write a formal letter with this request and send it either by fax or by post. A fax? When was the last time I used fax? A letter by post? in 2013? Customer service people sometimes really surprise me. And, you can guess three times, if I still want to have that Miles&More card..

But, talking about airlines, as a result of my many travels this year, ‘Best service 2013’ awards I would give to Easyjet in a category – ‘budget airlines’ and to Qatar Airways – in a category ‘the rest of the airlines’.

Easyjet does not make fuzz about hand baggage like Ryanair or Wizzair etc do. Easyjet gives people boarding pass with their seat number so there is no rush and competition among passengers who will sit where. Easyjet does not annoy you with millions of announcements during the flight about all the (im)possible things you can buy. And seats seem to be more comfortable and stewards more polite and discreet.

Qatar Airways is my benchmark of the best flight service particularly on long-haul Qatar airwaysflights where they pamper you like in a 5star hotel. If your flight is during the night you will also receive a very useful goodies’ bag to make your flight more comfortable – tooth brush and tooth paste, warm socks, ear-plugs and eye mask. Regarding food, they usually have 3 options – fish, meat and vegetarian – and it has always been delicious. And for the movie fans, be warned, you wont be bored because of the incredible choice they offer; the classics, the new releases, European movies and loads of Hollywood, Bollywood and Nollywood. For me as a jazz fan I could entertain myself with quite few new albums i had not had a chance to listen to before and relax with beautiful classics of Miles, Coltrane and Art Blakey. This is what should ‘a pleasant flight’ mean.

My second African adventure. Part 2: South Sudan

As soon as i saw that wide and long river stretching through sun-parched lands, I knew it’s White Nile and I have almost arrived. I was glued to plane’s window as we were getting nearer and neared to land in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, the newest country in the world. Already in plane just by looking at the city i could tell it is really hot down there. (Does heat have a color?) And, it looked big. Apparently, since 2005 the number of inhabitants of Juba has increased 2-3 times due to separation of Sudan and South Sudan, return of South Sudanese people back from North Sudan, growth of oil business, influx of Chinese aid and labor.  Since July 2011 when South Sudan gained independence lots of things have been done in order to set up a new administrative and political system. Both Sudan and South Sudan are also getting closer to final agreement on exploitation of massive oil resources (and sharing revenues, most importantly) and the exact border between both countries. However, one can easily tell – this country has a long and difficult road to walk.

On my arrival to the airport we were sent to the arrival room, which was very small and can not welcome all the travelers unless they forget about their ‘private space’ (just like on tube in London on Monday morning around 8am). In this room each traveler had to go to a desk in one corner to show passport, then to another desk in another corner to open and show content of hand luggage, and then to another corner to get your checked-in bag, which would be just thrown in the room through a ‘window’  from outside the building. All these three ‘checkpoints’ had to be visited in conditions like in tube at 8am in London. Plus, everyone in the same time is trying to visit those ‘checkpoints’ and it’s around +35C outside.  The only thing which made me a bit stressed was – not to miss my checked-in bag, but TV with Al Jazeera programme on helped me to kill waiting time.  When I happily got my bag, I needed to go again to another desk to open the luggage and show what’s in there. As a sign that it has been checked they draw a circle on the front of my bag with a white chalk. Just near the exit of this room i am asked again to show my passport AND my yellow fever certificate. As i have both these important documents with me, I am finally out of this room.

Juba just like any city in developing countries demonstrates that unbelievable co-habitation of luxury and poverty, modern buildings and bamboo huts. It’s a city of extreme contrasts either you look at architecture, roads, transport, food, accommodation or people.

One example of this surrealism and huge contrast between rich and poor was this Notos lounge (it has even its page on FB!) where i had a dinner one night. From the street the place does not stand out; it fits well into this ‘development in progress’ vibe. Before entering this restaurant nothing would indicate that it could be a special place and not normal to local standard. But as i entered this place, i saw perfect definition of ‘lounge’ with some smooth jazz in the background and cool stylish dark brown furniture mixed with local stylized wooden/ bamboo decorations. This could be easily a place somewhere in central London or any other European capital. Food was delicious and place is a great attraction to expats living in Juba. Only upper class South Sudanese would come here as the prices are maybe fine for Westerners, but certainly not for average Juba inhabitant. I felt quite embarrassed when the driver, who took me back to our compound after the dinner, asked how much i paid for the dinner. That was at least 8-10 times more than he would pay for his meal from a regular street-food seller.

Though country is poor and economy is brand new, prices are just shocking here. Some of the things are even more expensive than in London. Just to give you few examples (I did not have much time (or need really) to do shopping): rent of a studio apartment is about 1500USD per month, rent of a 3-4 bedroom house  at least 6000-7000USD per month, glass of wine – 5USD, 1 litre of juice, pack of biscuits and half litre of yogurt – 10USD, a meal in restaurant 10-20USD.

It will be very interesting to see how South Sudan’s economy will develop. So far the main problem has been its almost total reliance on oil revenues preventing other industries to develop, attract investment and grow. For active, brave entrepreneurs though this is the right moment to develop non-oil business as because of history there wont be much competition except import (in supermarkets it was almost impossible to see anything produced in South Sudan), and there are lots of people willing to work (though, skills initially  may be an issue). From the other side, these new entrepreneurs – either foreigners or South Sudanese who have been living abroad – can be quick in establishing businesses and using the huge opportunities to get a slice from this country/ nation building process, but it will make a positive impact on country’s development ONLY if it is done in a sustainable manner (adequate prices and profit expectations, use of local human and physical resources as much as possible). If i were a businesswoman i would probably do something about solar energy; with so much sun this country could achieve total energy independence of households by having their own solar panels and producing all the energy they need for their own consumption. They said there are options to get solar panels in Juba but it has not become a popular energy solution so far. Possibly, the price as well as experience, knowledge is the reason.

Because of fragility of this new economy, stability of currency and currency market as such is also a very interesting thing. There are practically no chances to buy South Sudanese pounds abroad (as far as I know). Then, the small arrival room in airport does not offer currency exchange services either. Yet. Then, there are several options: to go to the bank, to the shop with dollars and get change in local currency, or to the black market. The difference is that the exchange rate can vary quite significantly using these three options, but equally a risk to get involved in fake currency exchange case can also be different. I did my currency exchange by shopping in supermarket (mostly products from USA, Egypt, Middle East), by paying in USD and receiving change in local currency.

The other day i talked to one of our drivers who in his childhood with his family ran away from the war-torn Sudan to Uganda as a refugee. I asked him how it was and he replied: “it was great! I got education for free.” Primary education is not for free in South Sudan, therefore for many children it becomes an unachievable dream. It is extremely sad that such a fundamental thing as primary education can be luxury and someone has to become refugee to feel privileged to get this primary education. This driver is certainly doing quite well in Juba, he has a good job and, i believe, he is gaining lots of additional immaterial benefits of this employment, like motivational environment to learn, grow, strive and achieve something in his life. He certainly has hope. I could see that.

Security is one of the biggest issues here. Recently curfew hours have been introduced by UN recommending its staff to avoid public places between 22pm and 6am. Robbery, car-jacking is a normal thing, and as economic situation is very poor, which worsened due to increasing inflation (it is about 40% comparing with 2011) and recent problems around oil extraction, foreigners are particularly an attractive target to get some cash.

In this respect i have to mention also that i was very much looking forward to make photos whilst in Juba, however after telling about this to my colleague, I was given written security reports on recent 4-5 cases when people have been arrested/detained because of making photos in public area.  Political instability (a country never can be stable when half the population is hungry, can it?) naturally leads the people in power to increase the control over what’s happening and what can potentially damage their position. I resisted at the beginning but still managed to take some whilst driving around the city.

I’m not a driver but i truly believe that in order to drive in Juba one has to be a really confident driver. I know very well what bad roads mean but this was quite special experience. As I said, there are lots of things to be done in Juba, including – getting some spades and doing something about those extreme pot holes; either evening them out or filling in with something (but not plastic rubbish, please).

Because of high risk of malaria and other diseases, i was taking anti-malarial pills (no weird dreams like last time) and sleeping under the mosquito net. For some reason i find mosquito nets funny, and at times it makes me feel like a bird in cage. So, i find here some slight discomfort with using them, but, because i got one very strange insect in my room which was the sort of a mix of spider and big beetle, and which was peeping non-stop during the night, this mosquito net for me was life-saving, i think. Though, to be honest, after a bit of hide and seek game, i killed him/her, ….which was in a way sad. Because, it just illustrates so well what i hate about humans: that we often fear/harm/ kill someone/something just because we don’t know who they are and without being sure how and if at all they can harm us. Maybe this spider+beetle thing was totally harmless to me, but i chose to kill, just in case… So stupid. But, well, regarding killing insects, i learned in Juba that you should never kill an insect on your skin but blow away first, because its entrails may actually be harmful to one’s skin.

World is small. In another evening whilst having a drink with my colleagues I met this guy Giorgio, from Italy, Sicily who back in 1987 was working in Latvia, in a town of my district (Liepupe) in an environmental project. How surprising! I’m pleased when people say they know where Latvia is (often they dont know 😦 ). But to meet in Juba someone who has been in Latvia and has visited not only Riga, but a town from my area, it is simply out of this world. And then, after having few more drinks, Giorgio came over to me again and said that while he was there he had a romance with a young arts student Anda. They were trying to maintain long distance relationship after he returned to Italy and were sending love letters by post to each other for a year… How romantic the age of no-FB must have been, don’t you agree?

Huhh, but talking about personal relationships whilst in the field, I learn again from personal stories how big and difficult compromises people make when choosing this kind of work. Some leave whole family back at home, but, because they may be the only ones bringing in money and it is more than what they could earn back home, they choose to do this humanitarian work which is rewarding, but also extremely stressful, demanding and lonely. Some don’t have families or partners waiting back home; they meet someone in the field, but as these are often not long-term posts, then they also often split; and then they meet someone else…or dont..

After-feelings:

When I come back from a country where people have so little, i feel i probably need much less than i usually would think i need. That ‘ buy buy buy’  mantra i see/ hear/ feel here everywhere and all the time is mind-blowing.

I appreciate more that i have a running water in my house which i can drink and that energy  is available whenever i need it not only in certain hours of the day; i don’t live behind fences and i can feel relatively safe.

At times we are afraid of poverty and poor people. Yes, poverty is linked to various social problems including safety, but i think, the greater the inequality, the more difficult it becomes for these two extremes actually to interact, communicate.

And, in conclusion, one last story: when i was waiting for my transit flight from Nairobi to London, I was sitting in the cafe, having a tea and doing some work, and, as you can imagine, at some point i needed to go to the toilet. I had my suitcase, hand luggage including two laptops and camera with me and obviously i could not go with all of that to the toilet. So, there was a man sitting at my table and after giving a bit of an unobtrusive look, i decided to ask him if he would mind looking after my bags whilst i go to the toilet. He said – well, tell me the value of things you got so that i know what price to ask for them. Well, i took it as a joke, smiled and ran to the toilet having my most essential things with me, of course. When i got back, he asked me if i really did all i needed to do, because i was so quick! And then he continued – you did not fully trust in me, did you? You tried to run back as quickly as possible just in case i would decide to run away with your bags? I nodded. I’ m not good at lying. Yes, it is all about trust. And, though there are so many situations in life which teach us not to trust, still, at the end of the day, we need to overcome that fear and trust. Sometimes, if somebody is expected to be not trusted, he or she will be. Trust empowers.

my second African adventure. Part 1: Kenya

I knew I will be going back. And here I was – choosing one of hundred or so movies I could watch while flying to Kenya. Flight from London to Nairobi via Doha was about 14 hours long and quite tiring therefore on my arrival at 7am in the morning all I could think of was having a good sleep. However, of course, my excitement about being in Africa again was too great to keep me asleep for too long.

On the day of my arrival Kenyan government issued a flood warning regarding possible flash-floods in some parts of Kenya. When traveling around Nairobi one could notice clearly that rain has been very generous here transforming some of the roads into mud. This inconvenience on the roads though is nothing comparing to challenges the farmers and villages in critical areas of this country are facing due to these rains.

Official reason of this trip was work; I am visiting our country office in Nairobi in order to review/improve  the operational policies and procedures. Last year when I went to Kenya we even did not have an office as we were building the programme and team there from scratch. Now, it was amazing to meet the 15+ team and a pool of 20+ great locally recruited trainers who deliver training to aid workers in Nairobi as well as in less secure areas like Garissa and Dadaab (the biggest refugee camp in the world). During the last year we have trained around 1000 aid workers in Kenya! Imagine! This is why I love my job and the humanitarian/ development sector. If I know that to some people outcome of my work directly or less directly can be a life-changing experience, it becomes the energy I am running on.

Despite the busy schedule, I managed to have some spare time there to explore Nairobi and its surroundings.

I am not usually a ‚museum‘ person when visiting new places, but I was told that Nairobi National Museum is probably one of the best in Africa; I cant compare as I have not been to others, but this one is indeed worth to check out if you are interested in learning about history of Kenyan people, pre and post colonial times, independence movement, life-style, nature and art. I could not avoid also a Snake Park which was just nearby; I was worried about having nightmares the following night, but nothing like that; it’s safe! 🙂

Then, if you have not visited Masai market, you have not visited Nairobi. If and when you do it, though, you have to bear in mind important things: the best is to go with a local who can help you to get a better price – it’s all about bargaining; you certainly should not go there with valuable assets as it is a heaven for pick-pocketers; try to find out before about average prices of things you would be interested to buy – it will help in bargaining; be brave enough to leave the place even if you really want something but the price you are offered is too high – sellers may catch you at a car park and give the item away for the price you offered. I liked a handmade beautiful wooden vase and managed to get it for 10% of the initially offered price. Crazy but overall interesting and at times nerves-tickling experience. I was less successful in bargaining with a taxi driver who i asked to take me to a restaurant the other night not far from my hotel; I paid him twice as much as the normal price, but well.. I don’t enjoy bargaining.

If you don’t have much spare time in Nairobi, but want to get a bit of safari flavor, you should visit Giraffe centre and Elephant orphanage. Our Kenya office recently adopted (staff is giving regular donation to this orphanage) an orphan elephant Barsilinga whose mother was killed when he was only 2 weeks old. This orphanage then looks after elephants like our Basilinga until they are old enough to survive in the wild and live an independent life. This orphanage also had one blind rhino, who normally would have died; unfortunately that rhino will stay in this orphanage until he dies because he would not be able to survive. Quite touching and emotional visit.

And, now, ladies, let me introduce you to Kazuri – a bead factory which makes absoultely fantastic bead jewelry and whose mission is to give employment opportunities to disadvantaged women of Kenyan society. Currently employing more than 400 women (mostly single mothers) this is an excellent example of social enterprise and fair trade. We had a stroll around the factory and then I just could not leave the shop. You will see me wearing some nice bead jewelry and you will know where it comes from.

I don’t know how many of my blog readers know the movie „Out of Africa“, but just not far from Kazuri there is a Karen Blixen museum who was the author of the book on the basis of which the movie was produced and where the movie itself was filmed. Amazing and sad story. But, equally, it resonated to some extent with my own subconscious attraction to this continent.

In terms of food, this week has been less African, unfortunately, and more international (should we again blame globalization?). Yes, I had one day ndengu for my lunch (thanks to Bob who is every day coming to our office and selling home-made food), and another day – spinach and cheese wrap, or irio (mashed potatoes and peas) and sukuma wiki (mixed green veggies) but then I also had Ethiopian food and coffee (!!) at Habesha, excellent folded pizza at Que Pasa, pakistani food when visiting my colleague (try Carrot halwa – it is so delicious!), and chocolate brownies at my hotel at incredible size and price. Because of this food experience (I’m a fruit and veggie person normally) I was glad my room was on the 5th floor so I could have some exercise walking upstairs rather than using a lift.

My next destination is Juba in South Sudan, the newest country in the world. It is not possible anymore to obtain visa on arrival, however the process through the South Sudanese embassy in Nairobi was pretty straight forward and allows you to get visa in 3 working days. Though, this is the only country so far I know which in its visa application form asks what the color of my eyes is. As I did receive visa, I guess, ‚brown‘ was the right answer.:)

P.s. Practical things:

  1. electrical sockets are like in UK, therefore make sure you have adapters if you use European electrical equipment;
  2. bargain, bargain, bargain and take a local with you;
  3. use only bottled water;
  4. for EU citizens visa on arrival costs 50USD;
  5. if you can, try Qatar Airways; so far certainly the best airlines I have experienced in terms of services;
  6. try to find one taxi driver who would take you always around and therefore give a much better price if you use him multiple times;

Days 14 – 16: let’s have some rest – Masai Mara Safari tour

After a night being spent going to the airport, taking a very early flight from Khartoum to Nairobi (3.45am!!!) and enjoying a glass of wine or two actually (I missed wine while in Sudan) and having no sleep at all, straight after the landing in the airport I was picked up for going to the Masai Mara safari tour. Needless to say, I felt very very tired, but even the journey to the Masai Mara national park, which took us about 5 hours, managed to keep me awake as it was so interesting to see a different face of Kenya with little villages on our way, beautiful landscapes and local people.

We were a group of 6 people of which three were working for the World Bank. Huhh.. For those who know what I think about the ‘(un)holy trinity’ – WB, IMF and WTO, will easily guess what I could have felt, but well, to look at it from the positive side – luckily, those were not IMF guys. J But, already in the first 20 minutes of our conversation we managed to get into a quite passionate discussion about politics and international development which had to be cut off in order to avoid getting into an argument and spoil the beautiful day. Later on when having a dinner with some more wine in our camp we actually could reach an agreement on hypocrisy, double standards and unfairness which is widely practiced by these organizations. Moreover, we even ended up praising Chavez for his strong political beliefs and progress which is achieved in South America through socialist policies.

What is typical among the touristic places here in Kenya is to offer Western rather than local food as if trying to comfort us as much as possible. However, we felt that spaghetti with Bolognese sauce is not really what we would expect to have in safari camp in Kenya. Moreover, when a Canadian tourist asked in the breakfast if they had a peanut butter, I was really shocked to hear that yes, they did. Isn’t that bazaar?

The same Canadian girl, probably about 25 years old, was visiting Africa, the same like me, for the very first time and admitted how big culture shock she felt by being here. She seemed to be over-romantizing Africa thus creating this great distance between her expectations, illusions and reality. After this tour she will be going to climb up the Kilimanjaro (!). She has not been training for it and has not been climbing before but thinks she can do it and it will boost her confidence. We all wished her best of luck but deep inside I felt a bit worried about her. She might be a bit too naive for this challenge, especially as she is planning to do it completely alone… Many people at some point in their lives do such things..

While travelling you are asked hundreds of times from where you are from and who you are. Here in Africa I started to use a reference to London and UK more often than usually as I realized that Latvia is not known to many people. They would not be able to guess the continent. With one of the WB guys who was originally from Kazakhstan we were discussing this identity issue and to my surprise he was completely lost who he is. As he is ethnically actually Ukrainian, being raised in Ukraine but in a Russian culture and now living in Kazakhstan, he could not answer really who he is. Russian? Ukrainian? Kazak? This then automatically reminded me of our old and sensitive problem of non-citizens and massive Russian speaking population in Latvia, who are direct victims of Soviet poli-technologies and are not able to sort out their identity crisis.

During this three day safari trip we had an afternoon game ride (this is how they call rides in the park to see animals) on the first day, then a 10 hours long ride in the second day with a lunch under the acacia tree and with an astonishing landscape in front of us, a visit to Masai village in the evening and then one more early morning game ride (6:15 – 8:30) on the third day before breakfast and return to Nairobi. All these rides were simply fantastic. We saw many buffalos, giraffes, zebras, lions, elephants, topi, impalas, gazelles, Secretary birds, tiger, chita, monkeys, hippos, lizards, crocodiles, baboons, jackals, antelopes, etc. Safari was awakening our internal primitive hunter’s instincts and we really became very enthusiastic about trying to notice new animals or birds. The difference is that instead of guns we have photo cameras and shoot as many photos as possible. After these three days I have about 1000 photos with animals and this magnificent nature.

This park of complete wildlife made me feel like you can’t get closer to nature than this. Yes, we were not allowed (well, with very few exceptions) to get out of the car because it might be really dangerous. Though animals understand that there are people in the cars, they do not attack cars, but they would attack people if they would be just standing in front of them. But, despite that, it anyway felt that the wild nature was all around us. So called Paradise plains were breathtaking. Infinite beauty and freedom.

Adventure would not be a real adventure without adventure. Though most of the time we would be driving on the roads, sometimes when we needed to get closer to some animals or simply follow them so that we can see them, we would just cross the meadow and go where we need. Generally soil is enough dry and hard, so it is safe to drive this way, however, this may not be helpful when you don’t notice a pothole like it happened with us and our van got stuck in. With a help of another van and our pushing we managed to get our van out of the pothole. Our driver was excellent. Not only his driving was great, but he was also a very knowledgeable guide. I think, I have a childhood trauma of having had constant problems with cars or roads when visiting my grandparents which meant often using muddy or snowed in roads or just simply having often technical problems with a car. So, I often got scared of very damaged, bumpy roads or deep potholes or speeding up especially when the driver would get a message from other drivers about animals we need to see. Sometimes it really felt like I am taking part in a rally. But driver would just look at me, smile and say – don’t worry. We asked him also what has been his most spectacular experience during his 12 years of working as a guide. His answer was – seeing a piton swallowing gazelle. Wow. I really wanted to see a snake, but we didn’t.

It was interesting that in the park we also saw some rangers who are controlling those who are coming and hunting the animals. Obviously, this is an old and also very profitable illegal business; therefore authorities try to eliminate that, though I am not sure how successful they are.

One evening we had a good chat with a waitress in the camp’s café and as a local she was explaining us their survival strategy. Apparently these wild animals may be met anywhere also outside the park, therefore they should know how to behave when meeting them. Funnily enough, but she said that she would prefer to meet a lion rather than an elephant as it might be extremely dangerous, aggressive and fast. I would never have thought that elephant can really do much harm to people. They are too massive, but apparently, it’s quite opposite.

At one place we saw a smoke and we were wondering from where it comes and if the grass is burning or what. Then we learnt from our Ecuadorian friend that Indians would believe that when it is very dry, they would make fire and get smoke, because they would believe that smoke creates clouds and clouds then produce rain. This is how they would get more rain. Our driver said that it is probably not a case here and the fire/ smoke most likely is just an accident. 🙂

But, just imagine – this huge Masai Mara park (it is actually merged with Serengeti park in Tanzania) is all for wild animals. Humans cant do anything here except come and see the animals. And I would wonder what has happened in Europe? Is it really so that we didn’t and we don’t have wild animals? Or have we been just so greedy that we have pushed all the animals in miniature reserves or parks or zoos? Here seems like people definitely appreciate the nature more than elsewhere. As for the Masai tribe, they don’t eat any vegetables and greens, because they believe that the Nature is God and you don’t eat your God.

At the end of the trip we had to fill in an evaluation form and we got into a discussion about the food. We had quite conflicting views on what can be expected on a safari tour in a different country and continent. Somebody complained about having just sandwiches for one of our lunches. But I said – listen, in London this is exactly what people most of the times eat for lunch – a sandwich!

During this trip several times we had a chance to visit souvenir shops which I started to dislike at the end because of the pressure you feel from the sellers to buy something. I bought few things but did not really got in to bargaining as I just took it partially as a charity. I also managed to buy the most expensive post card I have ever bought and though initially I thought I would send it to my mum, I think, I will keep it to myself for memory. 1.40GBP for a postcard: about 5 times more expensive than an average postcard in London.

I definitely would recommend you to use this company (Jocky Tours) as it might be a real challenge to decide with which tour operator to go on tour. When you would start googling, you would find tens and hundreds of different companies with different prices. I got confused very quickly, but then I just simply risked and booked with them and fortunately, I have no regrets. However, I should admit, it was quite bazaar when we found out that our group of 6 people have been paying different prices for this tour (from 280 to 480 USD). The reason is that you may book your tour through different companies, but at the end of the day they form the groups by adding people from different companies if one company does not get enough bookings.

Day 13: working in Darfur from different perspective

Work in Darfur is not easy and simple. It might be an attractive place to adventurous humanitarians who enjoy high levels of adrenaline, challenges and facing difficult situations. But, looking from another side – it may be a very lonely, stressful time and place to be. Usually those are unaccompanied positions therefore people go there leaving their families and loved ones at home. Every two months or so you are able to go on your R&R (extra leave to your annual leave) for 1-2 weeks which might be your home but maybe not. Depends on the distance, expenses etc. Moreover, while staying in Darfur, due to high insecurity, there are great restrictions on movement especially to the international staff, therefore often the only movement one has is – ‘home – office – home’. To make things worse, your accommodation might be in the same building as the office, just on another floor, which may mean that you even don’t leave a building during the day. You may be lucky if the accommodation is in a good quality, but sometimes living conditions might not be very comfortable or of high standard. If you need to do shopping, you would go with a car; a driver would drive you to the market during the daytime or in the morning and will not allow you to walk around much. Your weekends might be spent in the company of internet (though, sometimes it may be quite slow or not available), TV or books, because your national colleagues would be with their families, while you would not have other friends or international colleagues (depends on the size of your office and organization).  Socialization and networking among international staff is difficult. Every gathering, especially among international staff and outside working hours, can be treated by police with suspicion, which can create troubles to the NGO you work for. Therefore, people avoid meeting in larger groups to escape potential problems. So, for 2 months you may be working from 9 to 5 or longer and then rest of the time spend in your flat on your own except very short visits to the market.

So, just think about it – what on personal level motivates you to do this?

For some, it is this professional recognition they gain from this work. Helping others, altruism, making a difference and change may be often the drivers to do this. Also, an extraordinary experience like working and living in Darfur for some time might improve ones employability later on and provide good future career prospects.

However, for many humanitarian workers, especially from African countries, this is a simple survival. First of all, for those who have managed to get a decent education and experience, working for NGOs in developing countries is one of the few ways how to grow professionally while also earning reasonable salary. Moreover, the concept of extended families means that whoever manages to get a good enough job should help to his/her family which goes beyond parents, siblings, grandparents, children, partners and aunts. More than half of the salary earned by the aid worker might be sent to the members of one’s extended family which is considered to be as a duty and responsibility, not just as a voluntary act. In result of this, one may be away from his own family, children for months and years, living in these hard conditions in order to feed his family and help to get better. One, while completing his duty and not being able to save much for himself , in the same time may become a stranger to his own family and lose the bond. One may not see how his children grow, make the first steps, read the first word, learn a song or how to cycle. Just because there are no equally good job opportunities in ones’ own country, he/she is paying this price.

Days 11 – 13: whiteness, stuffed crocodiles and goodbye to Sudan

Before coming here I read in the Lonely Planet guide that Sudanese people are probably the most hospitable people in the world, therefore it might even be the cheapest country for travelers as they can knock on the door (especially outside Khartoum) and can expect receiving accommodation and food  without paying anything. They say, Sudanese people consider foreigners as guests and treat them as a God’s blessing. And, indeed, during my stay here I have experienced very welcoming, hospitable attitude and willingness to help as much as they can. It is amazing to see that despite not so excellent economic and social conditions they have not lost the human’s face. Also, it might sound strange, but in general i felt here safer than in Nairobi. Something here is different. Maybe it is culture and their mentality.

Though there are so many things which are purely local, globalization and especialy media and consumerism has made already its footprints in Sudan. Shopping malls with Western style shops and goods try to make this place like any other place around the world which at times looks like an imitation and artificial development. It’s based on imported concepts rather than local culture and traditions. I am very surprised about the popularity of English Premiere League here in Sudan (and well, also in Kenya) which becomes often a topic for discussions among people (dont know why, but most of the people are supporting Manchester United here). In every restuarant there will be at least one TV showing football games, either live or recorded. I wonder if this is this uncut bond with England as a heritage of colonial times..

Whiteness. Khartoum will stay in my memory as the city of white. White galabi (long dress worn by men), white trousers and shirts (for those less conservative), white cars, whilte buildings and even white donkeys. In order to adapt to the local culture and to fit into it most of the days I also tried to be as white as possible. I asked the Sudanese isnt white actually an impractical color? Apparently for them, no. any color if it is dirty does not look good. The real practical reason why they prefer white clothes, white cars, white buildings etc, is that white color reflects the sun and therefore the object does not get that hot as it is in case of black color for example. However, i should note here, that it is culturally accepted to wear loose clothes and tight tops should be avoided, unless, as i was told, i am ready to receive offers to get married. 🙂 Funnily enough, but white cars in the market also cost more because of the higher demand. Regarding cars as such, you may feel surprised to see so many very new cars, but apparently one can not import the car which is older than 3 years. I am not sure, whose interests such a law is defending, but interesting.

I have always been curious about the ban to drink alcohol; do people really never try or drink in Muslim societies? to my great surprise, i was told that some centuries ago alcohol actually has been part of Sudanese culture, however it is now more like a government policy rather than religion or culture which forbids Muslims to drink. Nowadays, if Sudanese police find you using alcohol, you may be beaten up therefore fear is great. You cant neither buy alcohol in Sudfan nor bring it in the country from elsewhere. The only option is to be in good friends with diplomats, but here I will stop this story.

Sudanese drink coffee and tea. This is what they do, when they go out. One evening we like hundreds of local Sudanese were going to the riverside of Nile to just sit on the chairs and drink some strong traditional Sudanese coffee, test some local nuts and seeds and talk about culture, politics and Africa. Coffee being served by mobile ‘coffee shops’ is a very good refreshment despite the +30C even in the late evening. several kilometres along the Nile which is flowing through the city people would be sitting in smaller or bigger groups and enjoying the evening. My immediate first thought was that this is their alternative to TV. I dont know many of them would have TVs at home, but i guess this phenomenon is possible because of (still) relatively weak Western media influence and cult in society. I might be wrong, but i think, for Sudanese people contacts with family, friends and other people in general is extremely important part of their lives. They are very open, social and ready to engage with other people. While enjoying the night by the river Nile we somehow got into this deep discussion about democracy. Can it be taught? But then how so many proponents of democracy can appear in oppressed societies? Is it a culture? a certain level of wisdom and maturity of ones mind? Nevertheless, we agreed that education can be the true empowerment. A freedom of ones ability to decide upon its destiny and future means ability to take responsibility of ones own life and its path. Without education one may not be able to realize that he has choices. In Sudan, education seems to be a luxury as it is relatively expensive and depends on ability to go to the private school in order to be accepted to the University.

For a foreigner not knowing local Arabic language might become a problem. One of the nights we went for a dinner at one Egyptian caffee and it took as quite a long time to understand what they are offering (menu was in Arabic) and what are the prices. Also, today when i was going to some souvenir shops, i was going there with my Sudanese colleague who could help me to interact with sellers and discuss the price (you would never see the set prices) of the items i was interested in. I was quite surprised when i was offered to buy a stuffed crocodile. Though it was cute, i said – thanks, no. Why one would buy a stuffed crocodile? later on i am told that it is for showing the power and status. Instead of stuffed animals i bought some wood decorations, jewellry made of camel bone and ebonite and some other local materials. To strengthen the thesis about the hospitability and generosity of Sudanese people, i should emphasize here that half of the things i got from the souvenir shop were actually given to me as gifts.

during this stay in Sudan, i have missed several holidays: as you may know, on Sunday people work here in Sudan, so i was working too though formally it is my holiday. On Monday, which was a public holiday in UK, i was working as i am in Sudan. On Wednesday there was a public holiday in Kenya, and again, i was in Sudan not in Kenya and missed that too. So, as a little compensation, i am taking a day off on Friday so i can go on little safari tour as i am tonight saying goodbye to Sudan and returning to Kenya.

We had a little farewell dinner tonight with Latvian, Pakistani and Kenyan food. As international organization with international staff we should have international dinners. And food is always something which easily unite people. All but one Latvian pancakes were gone…

…feels like this week in Sudan was a kind of a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience. i dont know if i will return here again, but i know this is only the first trip to Africa, and no way the last one.

Days 9 – 10: donkeys, heat and Eritrean wedding

Flight from Nairobi to Khartoum takes about 3 hours of which about 80% is flying over Sudan’s teritory. Sudan is huge and as far as I know there are very weak or nonexistent road connections between different areas. In most of the cases the only travel possible is by air.

During my flight i met a man working for the World Food Programme who gave me a very useful induction on life in Sudan especially from the perspective of the humanitarian workers. Conditions they live, challenges, working and living with your collegues almost24/7, being away from home, family and loved ones, stressful work, insecurity, different food or actually lack of food, illnesses – all this becomes a part of their work and life. And then there is this important question – what makes people to do this, why to leave their comfort zone.. Though, in case of Sudan majority of humanitarian workers would actually be nationals, for whom this might be one of the few choices of employment.

My first impressions about Sudan by far exceeded my expectations. Before landing in this early evening i saw an endless area of lights and highways. Khartoum with its low architecture is spread across quite a large area and by consisting of kind of 3 cities it is a home for about 4-5 million people. It’s huge. The airport is practically in the middle of the city and therefore very convenient to access the city. When we were taking the Africa road on my way to the flat, i felt i could be in any European city. Of course, the next day I would realize that these are only bits and pieces of ‘development’ here and there, but it was still impressive to see how it is striving to develop. By now i have seen even greater contrasts than in Kenya: posh cars, rikshaws and donkeys are common types of transportation on the road and big residential buildings and shopping malls are next to the houses of very basic construction. There is a huge influx of investment from China, Turkey and Egypt which helps Sudan to develop its infrastructure, solve some of the unemployment problems (though, China prefers to send in their own people to implement their aid projects) and improve a bit the level of living.

Well, but the weather.. Mamma mia. On average it is between +32 to 40C during the day. As i spend most of the day in the office, i dont feel the heat so directly, though obviously it is only thanks to air conditioners in almost every single room, otherwise ability to work can be really affected.I am struggling to get used to having an air conditioner on during the night and mostly because of the noise. but it’s getting better. for this reason as well as casual power cuts, you can see generators everywhere. Office without generator here can create quite  a big ‘disaster’.

And, when it comes to food, it gets even more challenging than in Kenya: seems like here people eat meat even more (i will remind you again – i am vegetarian) and they eat food with the right hand (help, i am left-handed and i keep forgetting that it matters which hand i use!). Though our office lunch luckily has been completely vegetarian so far (beans, bread, salad) so no complaints. But i am happy to find here more sweeeeeets. Yesterday we bought some Middle East sweets. dont know the names, but those which look like rolls of hair 🙂 mmmmm

But, yesterday completely out of blue sky came this opportunity to attend the Eritrean wedding. I felt kind of uncomfortable at the beginning as it to me would be a very family/close ones-focused event. However, this last event of this wedding celebration (apparently here according to tradition wedding has a series of different events over a period of time) is open to the communities from which the both families come from so anyone is welcome. At first we were given a food and drink and then we found a seat near to the central place in this huge decorated tent with a gold color throne for the bride and the groom. Eritrean women were wearing traditional clothes and had their hands and feet decorated with henna. Apparently henna paintings symbolized wealth and money. This wedding showed me a very pragmatic approach to the marriage. Family of groom had to pay to the family of bride and this money was recounted in front of everyone. i was wondering – but what about love? Groom during this ceremony looked quite bored and disinterested so we were even guessing if this is maybe an arranged wedding. However, as i learnt afterwards, organizing a wedding is really expensive and people may be spending a lot of money for this day even though they live in generally poor conditions. Here wedding is beyond just a ‘contract’  or ‘union’ betweent the two. it is about both extended families and their mutual acceptance of each other. In this event three of us – foreigners – became almost as a part of a ‘show’ as they at times where making photos of us more than of the couple. But i guess, it really must have felt equally special and interesting for them to have us around as for us taking part in this event.

Today i also learnt that due to bad weather (rain and storms) and some technical difficulties i will not be able to travel to Darfur visiting one of our field offices. Shame. Getting closer to what we are delivering and to whom would definitely give me a better understanding about the humanitarian work and all the complexities around. But, i will have then more time to spend with the staff here in Khartoum and, as we have been joking today, maybe attending few more weddings. 🙂 tonight we are going around to see if there is one we can check out 🙂