Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Middle of nowhere

I arrived in Conakry, Guinea, from Freetown, Sierra Leone early one November afternoon in 2002. I was on a work trip for an international organization. It took mere minutes to successfully traverse the notoriously strict yet enterprising immigration and customs. For one, I hand no luggage, and was carrying only a small backpack. When asked what I was carrying into the country, I pointed at my backpack and said “Sous-vĂȘtements –Underwear-?), which caused the robust ladies a robust chuckle my way and a “tax”-free exit from the gauntlet.

I was met at the arrival hall by our driver, and we immediately began a journey that would take us to the town of Kissidougou, about 10 hours from Conakry on a nominally paved road. We had about 9 hours before sundown, the start of the curfew for driving into Kissidougou town. This hour deficit introduced an added incentive for the driver’s gusto on the streets out of Conakry, and the road through Mamou towards Kissi.

The over-used tape player churned the over-played cassette and the speakers crackled with rapid-beat, singsong music of a famous Ghanaian singer as our driver maniacally sped along both lanes and the blind-curves of the road snaking up and down the hillsides. His quiet lip-synching along with the music would be interrupted with rapidfire commentary as he intermittently would swerve onto the oncoming traffic lane at full speed while pointing at a pothole the size of a pond, or worse yet, a poured block of cement, covering our lane.

“Wartime checkpoint, no good for the axel of the car, hehehe...”

Instead of slowing down, he would honk once or so before overtaking, and at times overrunning, lumbering minivans with 20 passengers inside and a dozen on top.

“Sleepy time slow taxi...They go faster if they walk alongside....”

He double-honked when reaching the hapless, meandering dog or cow, “ Move now, or be stew later...”, and laid a steady horn for walking and cycling villagers with large parcels balanced on their heads “The road is no bazaar mama...”. Magically, they would get out of the way as we passed, only to re-emerge from the tall grass that flanked the windy road.

We only slowed down for the occasional rope stretched across the road, with a soldier, or otherwise camouflaged gun-toter, holding one end, lounging under a shade and dark pilot sunglasses. Driver would sit up straight and tip his imaginary hat with two fingers.

“Easy we go...no trouble we with the NGO car.”

While the road-blocker’s companion would extract ‘tolls’ from the overloaded minivans and local transports, he would wave the foreigners by in their air-conditioned SUVs .

As hours rolled on alongside the scenery, with the repeat of the same 7 songs and the almost identical anecdotes dotting the constant harrowing driving style, I started to concentrate beyond the road and passing of the circular mud huts and occasional villager in a daily chore.

By the time darkness fell, all that was visible was the orange scatter plot of distant bonfires that accompanied the scent of burning firewood coming through the windows. By then, the Ghanaian songs’ innumerable replays had turned into a mantra, and the drive had become a vague multisensory experience of getting deeper and deeper into some unknown world. My only connection to the here and now was the basic but overwhelming need to relieve myself, which we had postponed in order to reach our destination before curfew.

“Plenty of bush for the business when we reach...”

By the time I was about to succumb to an embarrassing personal spillage moment, we suddenly turned off the main road into the creek-bed serving as a long driveway at the end of which a walled compound appeared with dim light bulbs demarcating the metallic doors. A dog barked on the other side, as the driver pulled the parking break, honked three times and opened the car door.

“Welcome to the compound in the nighttime Guinea....”

I was overjoyed to leave the SUV, step into the darkness around the wall and answer nature’s call at likely the exact coordinates of the middle of nowhere.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Amman Views -1

Outside the office window in the distance, on the “largest flag pole in the world” a majestic Jordanian flag lazes in the breeze over one of King Abdullah’s Palaces, intermittently obscuring one of the Amman hills in the background.

A streetlight post is swaying just as lazily underneath this 3rd floor window, overlooking the unkempt field of dirt and debris that stretches for a city block. This is where they sell the sheep for Eid-al-fitr, which means that this derelict looking patch of land is quite by design. Later in the week, a family of gypsies will have pitched a tent in the field to witness the occasional herd of suburban sheep grazing past.

We are located on the outskirts of downtown Amman, on the way to Hashmi-Shmali, which is a more modest northern suburb, as compared to Maghdoon, where my hotel is located, alongside large homes and apartment buildings, with BMWs and shiny SUVs buzzing about.

The office itself has no central heating, and upon entry, you notice the building’s inherent heat dissipation and coolness retention properties. What passes for a great boon during summertime is cause for shivering dismay at this time of year. I am introduced to our local staff on the first floor, huddled around a gas heater with arms stretched down and hands cupped like satellite around the heater to intercept the heat waves.

They have the gleam and lightness of proud new-hires, and the warmth and openness their culture affords new guests (who come invited). I feel an immediate connection. The Iraqis, the Jordanians, the Palestinians, all keen to say hello to the HQ emissary. As soon as my name is mentioned, a layer of formality is lifted; they probably have cousins or siblings with the same name. Are you Arabic, they ask and my answer doesn’t deter the kindnesses. Iran? I love Googoosh. (the 70s singer/youth symbol of Iran) says one. Another claims the Persian cuisine as his favorite.

We step into the conference room, newly appointed with freshly painted walls, an easel and Whiteboard at the ready in the corner, and tables and chairs arranged in a rectangle so all can see each other. With informal chatter out of the way, we spend a few minutes in formal introductions. Self introductions provide some information about people’s backgrounds, and some insight into who they perceive themselves to be (by what they choose to divulge). One has a PhD in Religious studies, another was raised in Ramallah. Someone has worked in the UN, another is here because of the children.

I divulge that I have been with the organization for 7 years. What does that say about me?

Left to ourselves, we could continue sharing and comparing our cultures and personal stories, but the westerners are keen on the schedule of training. I, along with Admin staff, leave the team to their at times harrowing discourse on the subject of torture and rehabilitation.