Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Start of the Dry Season

The weather is changing here. Starting about two weeks ago we noticed we seem to be heading into the dry season. There are two seasons here in Southern Sudan: A wet season and a dry. Generally speaking, the wet season runs from March through October and is characterized by frequent rains - mostly late afternoon and late night thunderstorms - and moderate temperatures.
The dry season runs from the end of October through into March. I remember being out with friends at dinner last March 13th. It was a Sunday and we were out in downtown Juba. There had been a few threats of rain the previous days, but around 8pm the skies opened-up. A couple of my friends ran-out and stood in the downpour, so happy were they to be feeling rain again.
The other nice things about the rains is that they clear the skies of the dust. The dry season occurs because the weather pattern changes. Normally the weather is driven by warm, moist air heading east out of the Congo River basin towards South Sudan. But during the dry season the winds change bringing dry, dusty air south from the Sahara desert. As the dry season progresses the air becomes drier and drier and filled with a fine red dust that coats everything. You wipe your desk down when you arrive at work in the morning and by afternoon it's coated again. You cannot look across Juba and see the rocky hills on the southside of town, the disappear into a red-fog. But when the rains come the skies are suddenly cleansed of all the dust. I remember riding out to the airport shortly after the first rain and being so suprised and excited at being able to see the mountains again.
It's a very curious mix during the dry season. It's a little like winter because at night the temperatures get cold - by Juba standards, anyway. The last few nights it feels like it got down into the upper 60's, or downright chilly. But as the season progresses the temperatures during the day escalate. It gets up to around 100-farenheight every day, with clear, cloudless skies and an unforgiving sun. Last year I recall sitting at my desk, droplets of sweat dripping off me as I sat passively. Sitting at home on a Sunday afternoon last January or February, the temperature well over 100, the only relief from the overhead fans although my flatmate reckoned that these only made the room more like a convection over, until she finally said, "turn me over, I'm done on this side."
It's incredibly important during the dry season to keep drinking fluids. I find I need at least 2-liters of fluid a day and even consuming that, not to be crude folks, but I almost never peed, the fluid simply evaporated out of me. The process doesn't stop at night. You go to bed, temps still up near 100, and you sleep in a pool of sweat. Some of the first nights I would wake-up feeling hungover even though I could not recall having had a drink the night before (talk about being cheated!) and I realized it was because I sweated so severely during the night it was as if I had gotten severely drunk. I started having to take bottles of water to bed with me and waking-up during the night to drink.
The other noticable thing during the dry season, what is happening now, is how dry and brown all the plant-life becomes. The trees drop their leaves like autumn and so many plants turn brown and shrivel-up. Plants located along the roadways wear a crust of red-dust kicked-up by the passing cars. It's sort of sad, but then the reward is the great explosioin of plants and flowers that reappears in March when the rains returns. Surely we would never appreciate the Spring were it not for the winter.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

They fixed the WFP road!!

One of the many things which I have had to become an expert on here in Sudan is the handling of flights for our personnel into, out of and around Sudan. Just as people who a century ago would have known the schedule of the railroads in their local town, think of the references to the coming and goings of trains in Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street, I have had to become expert on the schedules of planes arriving and departing Juba. If I hear of a visitor arriving, say, on Uganda Airways, I automatically think, “ok, arrive around 11am.”
One of the most important means of travel within Sudan are the flights operated by the World Food Program of the UN, or WFP. WFP operates flights all over Sudan, connecting many places which no commercial airline would ever consider serving and yet which often house sizable numbers of aid workers. WFP allows personnel with NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) to fly upon their planes allowing easy access to most parts of the country. For anyone who questions the value of the UN, please know that the UN does actually provide some very valuable services, believe it or not.
The WFP offices in Juba are located on what used to be a miserable road out near the airport. It’s actually much better than when their offices were located down near the Nile River. Oh! how I hated driving on that horrible road with its monumentally deep ruts and muddy lanes. The road to the new location was just awful, which means typical.
When you first turned onto the road where the new offices are there was a small lake you had to cross. This mud-bog began life as a simple depression which simply grew and grew during the rainy season until it spanned the road and was about 20-feet long. But, because I drove to the offices so often, sometimes several times in one day, I knew that there was actually a land bridge cutting across the lake at a 45-degree angle which if you were lucky enough to know about would allow you to cross without getting too far bogged down into the mud. This was actually a good thing to know since I discovered an earlier time when the front wheels of the Toyota pick-up truck I drive got stuck down in a ditch that the four-wheel drive function on my car doesn’t work.
Beyond that the WFP road, which like nearly all roads here is dirt, was just a maze of deep potholes and uncomfortable bumps. But after not having had to drive there for about a week, I had yesterday to drop-off a paper at the WFP offices and I was stunned when I turned the corner to find that the authorities, and I’m not really sure exactly who is doing road-work, had resurfaced the road with a fresh layer of stony-dirt and graded the whole thing nice and smooth. It was so wonderful to drive upon, I was giggling like a kid in a candy shop! It’s so great when something good like that happens, especially related to driving in Juba.
Driving in Juba takes special care and diligence. I do have a Sudanese driver’s license, the getting of which is a story of its own. About five or six years ago they say you could almost literally count the number of cars in Juba on your hand. Now the narrow streets are choked with cars, nearly all of which are driven by people convinced they need to go first. Add to the mix of regular cars and lorries (“trucks” for those of you not forced to live amongst British English speakers) are large numbers of motorcycles (nicknamed boda-bodas) and various assorted other wheeled vehicles which you may find crowding the streets.
Driving around town is a death-defying experience, literally. I read in one of the local newspapers that, on average, three people a day die in auto-accidents in Juba. I think that number must be low. Driving is a constant mix of trying to avoid the vehicle in front of you being driven in an unpredictable manner while at the same time not being rear-ended by either the car or boda-boda following about three inches off your rear bumper.
The other thing you need to watch for are cars deciding that the vehicle in front of them is simply not going fast enough (never mind if you are driving on a street crowded with school-children or other pedestrians) and taking the opportunity to pass anytime, anywhere. Most of the roads around town are only two lanes but this business of passing can turn two-lane roads into three and four lane roads. The same is true whenever traffic must slow down or come to a halt for some reason. Rather than remain in a single line, which would have the advantage of allowing all of the traffic to flow past the obstruction quickly, in Sudan all driver’s first instincts are to break ranks and try and cram their way towards the front of the line thereby creating a huge bottleneck. The situation can be likened to trying to pass fluid through a funnel: pour in just enough and the fluid flows freely, try and pour in too much and the funnel quickly backs-up and gets full. Sigh. On the other hand, I have also succumbed to the freedom of random passing so often that I am no one to write critically about it.
Of course, all the while you are trying to make your way through traffic the boda-bodas, who make their living carrying people and goods upon their backseats, are snaking through traffic often at a high rate of speed and with a complete seeming disregard to human life. Anyone who has driven here can recount horror stories of trying to make turns (with turn-signals engaged!) while bodas are approaching from the same side either oblivious or unconcerned with your maneuvers. I have myself ridden a few times on the backs of bodas. It’s one of those things I only do when the shock and horror of my last ride upon a boda wears-off. I actually considered purchasing a boda not long after I first arrived, until I was advised that there is an entire wing in the Juba Hospital full of boda accident victims.
Driving in Juba at night takes scariness to an entirely new level. Never mind the fact that there is little in the way of street lighting (though there are actually now a lot of solar-powered streetlights on some main roads which is a big help) or that there is a fine layer of dust which extends above the ground about thirty-feet making the act of driving like being in a rust colored fog, or the fact that about one third of the vehicles on the roads in the evening will not (or can not, because they don’t work) use their lights, for me the scariest part of driving at night are the people who simply pop-out from behind obstructions to walk across the road directly in-front of on-coming traffic. Not to be rude, but very dark black people who in-turn are dressed in dark clothing and who pop-out from behind parked cars or other such things about five feet in-front of you scare the heck out of me. I have almost hit so many pedestrians to the point that now I rarely drive after dark unless it cannot be avoided.
Driving in Juba is so scary that a visiting friend that was left gasping for breath after we nearly struck yet another darkly dressed pedestrian who had stepped out from behind a parked car directly in front of our vehicle suggested we develop a video-game called “Juba Town” where the object was to drive around a simulated version of Juba at night without hitting or killing anyone. We think we’ll make a bunch of money off that idea.