Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Nothing Comes Easy Part 3

After a night of rest, we met the new driver, Jackson, at our hotel's front door around 7 AM. During price negotiations, he admitted to us that his previous chauffeuring record included only driving to the Sudanese border and never actually crossing it. Yet, he was still very excited to take the job, noting that the roads were supposed to be much smoother on the other side. Like the Land Rover, the price was too good to refuse. So despite his lack of a stellar resume, we hired the eager driver to bring us to Juba and back, safely.

Our new steed was a dusty, mid-90's Toyota station wagon, which had probably spent its glory days carting around some family in an East Asian metropolis and now living out its retirement years ferrying foreigners around the bush in East Africa. 20 minutes into our ride, its years of wear and tear became painfully evident by the absence of any shock absorption on the right rear tire. The crushing sound of the car body bouncing against the tire at the end of each pothole that we failed to dodge became so alarming to Bjorn and Margriet that they forced Jackson to pull the station wagon to the side of the road. On examination, the gap between the tire and the fender was dramatically reduced, but Jackson reassured us, "Actually, it's normal. No problem. We go." So we went.
Once across the border, the color of the road changes from red to white. Hills border the landscape, which at times looks like a burnt wasteland. The fields flanking the highway are painted black from recent fires, a strange resonance with the early maps of European explorers who kept the interior of the continent dark on paper until they witnessed it with their own eyes. As buses and lorries passed our timid Toyota, Jackson would use his 6th sense developed as a taxi-man to inch our vehicle along the road until the fog of dust settled again. Besides having to adapt to driving in the clouds, Jackson also had to learn how to drive on the opposite side of the road. And he had a few other unexpected discoveries: the Sudanese roads are actually not that much better than Uganda's, foreign drivers pay a hefty price for the privilege of operating in South Sudan, and the drive from Gulu to Juba is about 8 hours long, not 5. As if these epistemological crises weren't enough for him, Sophie kept his speed and fancy maneuvering in constant check from the back seat.

To keep his spirits in balance, however, Jackson had his music, 3 cassette tapes, which he would play individually on-loop for hours at a time. His collection included a nondescript reggae tape, contemporary African pop music, and Dolly Parton.

As we passed further into South Sudan, its recent past became more evident. Skeletons of military vehicles arched out of the ground near the roadside. As "Just because I'm a woman" squeaked through the raspy car speakers, we came across this shell of a tank moored in the ground.
By night, we met our Dutch anthropology student host, Rens, at the cheapest hotel in Juba, which still cost $30 a night and didn't guarantee running water. With little resources of its own, a heavy presence of foreign NGOs and the UN, along with a dramatic influx of the world's press and celebrities like George Clooney and President Carter , it's easy to understand how Juba's prices could be insanely high for the region. The town was crawling with journalists too. In cafes at night, tables would be full of foreigners, notebooks tucked in their shirt pockets, and cameras strapped to their sides. The referendum, however, was going so smoothly that they had hardly anything to write home. Aspiring to move on to Tunisia, a rookie British journalist evoked the motto, "You go where the story is."

With the world's eye on South Sudan, photographs were highly restricted. My fellow travelers and I tried to wear our badge of tourism with pride, but without press credentials, we had to be careful taking pictures. Nothing too sensitive. When we visited the national monument for Dr. John Garang, the soldiers guarding it immediately scoffed at the idea if even asking to take a photo. Sophie tried to inquire if someone could provide information about the life of the revolutionary or the symbolism behind his monument, but she was shot down, "Only someone from the SPLM office can give you information." The man who led the country to freedom has been memorialized in an outdoor coffin of tile, decorated with framed, oversize photos of himself, surrounded by red and yellow plastic flowers, and topped with a blowup beach-ball globe whose brightly colored nations are labeled in Arabic.

Across the street from the gates of the memorial, we explored a collection of shanties intermixed with market stalls selling all varieties of tobacco products and various sizes and shapes of dried fish. Our expedition through the dirt alley ways led us to a lively little green hookah house, where men, young and old, were gathering around water pipes and amusing themselves with Ethiopian music videos and Michael Jackson blaring from the neighboring shack. They welcomed us each to lounge in a plastic chair next to them. After introductions and declarations of nationality, one young Dinka asked me, "Did you vote?" A bit confused, I responded, "Yes, I vote." He grabbed my hands and scanned my finger tips. "No, you didn't." Then he stretched out his right index finger, stained darker at the end. "I voted."

Through our anthropologist host, we were introduced to many different circles within Juba's social scene. During the long years of civil war, large numbers of South Sudanese children were shipped abroad to be raised in safe and stable environments. Many of them went to the United States, Europe, Australia, and Cuba. While Rens was occupied with his research during the day, his friend Garung, a 6 foot-7 inches tall Dinka with a very thick Australian accent, guided us throughout the city. The first stop on his tour was a traditional Sudanese restaurant. It's probably no surprise that the cuisine is like a hybrid of Egyptian and Ethiopian, wonderfully flavored pastes and sauces that are gathered up in a spongy bread. The menu is a collection of bowls with trinkets and labels. After a dish is chosen, its charm is attached to a block of wood with a nail sticking out of it, and then sent off to the chef.

On the last day of the referendum, we celebrated "Freedom Fever" at the De'Havana Lounge in the center of town. A number of the South Sudanese expatriates returning from abroad have formed a community echoing the Western art, culture, and intellectualism they left behind. After the last votes for the budding nation's independence were cast, we sat in the crowded Cuban-themed bar watching a documentary film about "Transformative Autonomy." Afterward, we danced. The man rocking his head back and forth next to me was a friend of Rens who I had met earlier that day. He had just returned from 9 years of studying in Havana, and now working for an American consulting firm in his native land.
Dangling from his neck was a dog tag with an engraved image. I caught site of the miniature military portrait, and inquired who it was. "It's my father." "Where is he now?" "He died for this." We clinked our bottles, nodded our heads, and moved into the merry making crowd.

The day after the referendum, the SPLM held a celebration event in the capital's culture center. On the back wall of the main stage was written "Festival for the Dawn of Freedom" in red and blue tape. Local music and dance groups praised the peaceful process of separation through rhythmic tones and movements of their heritage. Members from the audience were encouraged to come on stage and put money in the pockets of the performers. A number of the interactive performances inspired the crowd to carryout mass hand waving or a horizontal pulling apart of the arms, symbolic gestures of separation.

The referendum is over, and though the votes haven't been officially tallied yet, independence day is expected to be held in July. Echoing the years of war, the world was back again to observe the South Sudanese. This time, however, the photos could only show the people celebrating their peace.

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