You’re going the wrong way.

arrow signJust back from a great (if hectic) visit back to the States for a fabulous conference and some quality time with the fam in MN. Wonderful trip, but I am very happy to be home.

I don’t know about you, but jet lag is the least of my issues when doing the continental shuffle. You think I’d be used to it by now, but a zillion little things always trip me up when I get to one side or the other. I get in the wrong side of the car. I have to remember to say “zed” and not “zee” or vice versa and tweak other word choices so that people understand me. I spend an inordinately long time studying the pizza delivery menu, trying to remember which toppings they use where (oddly, SAfrican and American pizza toppings arepretty different). I lean in for a hug or a kiss on the cheek at inappropriate moments. But the thing that takes me probably the most time to reprogram are my default settings: do you default left or right? 

Don’t worry, this doesn’t seem to be a problem when driving – the steering wheel on the other side is a pretty good reminder. But it causes me problems for weeks on end when walking down the street,standing on a busy escalator, or most frustratingly, in the grocery store. My sister and I noticed the phenomenon of pedestrian rules of the road when we visited Ireland a million years ago. We kept dancing with people on narrow sidewalks, running into old grannies, having to dodge runners at the last minute. I guess I’d never realized how ingrained your left/right default settings are, even when on foot. And for some reason it’s harder to reset and pisses people off more than many things – I’ve definitely had obscenities shouted at me by little old ladies in walkers more than once in the UK, or had someone simply refuse to cede their side of the sidewalk and push me into the street here in SA. The trickiest bit is that the strength of the right/left default seems to be directly correlated to the propensity to queue. In otherwords, if you’re in a society that dutifully lines up behind that person who really isn’t in the checkout line, than odds are that you’ll experience more forceful opposition to giving in to right of way. What makes this tricky in SA is that some people are queuers, and some most decidedly aren’t. So some people stick rigidly to their side of the grocery store aisle, and others are weaving all over the place. As you can imagine, this makes it tough to navigate and pretty darn frustrating, especially behind an oversized shopping cart.

Rough life, huh? Oh the trials and tribulations of an international life 😉

Just another day at the airport

If you’ve never experienced the joy of trying to depart from an airport in the developing world, it goes a little something like this:

The process:

1)   Leave for airport. Two hours early for a flight? Not a chance. The ‘protocol’ team insists you leave 5+ hours early to get to the airport. While it does make some sense given the nutty traffic (that’s another whole story), it is still excessive. You finally track down the driver, negotiate it to a more reasonable 3 ½ hours, and arrive well over 2 hours before your flight is set to depart.

2)   Pay exit tax. It seems straightforward, but there is an unwritten hierarchy (read: who pays the biggest bribe) that makes your place at the front of the line irrelevant. Since you’re not planning on bribing anyone today, ‘handlers’ push in with stacks of passports from either side, pushing yours to the bottom. When the man (or woman? You can’t see their face behind the mirrored glass they stand behind) finally asks you a question, you can’t see or hear them given they are trying to talk to you through a tiny slot just big enough for your passport to slide through. Pay money, leave.

3)   Baggage screening. You walk past a (broken) x-ray machine to a table where a man opens your bag, dislodges everything you’ve neatly packed, checks out your bras, and closes it again. There is no indication of precisely what they are looking for,  but they make a mark in chalk to show that the bag has been searched (which is, I’m convinced, some kind of code to tell others whether there is anything worthwhile in the bag to steal).

4)   Passport check #1. You wander, slightly lost, to find the right place in the cordoned off area around the check-in counters to enter the maze. When you finally find the right place to enter, the man there checks your passport picture to make sure it is you, and sends you through the maze of aisles to the counter.

5)   Check-in (and passport check #2). The man at the counter greets you, takes your passport, checks your name off a list, hand writes a boarding pass, and sends you…somewhere over there for baggage (very unclear).

6)   Baggage check-in (or so you think, and passport check #3). You walk about 3 feet to a table, hand over your passport and boarding pass, and are waved on to somewhere else (again totally unclear).

7)   Baggage screening #2 (and passport check #4). After walking another 2 feet you see a table, where someone who does not look at all like they are working finally makes eye-contact, but only after you stare at him for several minutes and asking multiple times where you need to go. He checks your passport again and makes you open up your bag again to rummage through it…you’re only  about 15 feet from the first baggage screening, and there is nothing in the whole airport you could possibly buy to shove into your luggage. Satisfied (with what?) he sends you forward another 4 feet to the gatekeeper of the baggage check-in.

8)   Baggage check-in?? (and passport check #5). The VERY unenthusiastic woman at the front of the line checks your passport (of course), takes note of your name and makes the obligatory Jennifer Lopez comment (she is apparently the most well-known Jennifer in the world, according to my research), and you wait. Finally she points to a counter with a grunt. You move forward 3 feet.

9)   Finally the baggage check-in (and passport check #6). You wait (impatiently) for someone to acknowledge that you are waiting in their line. There are literally 12 people behind the counter, some looking very busy and others ‘advising’. No one will make eye contact with you. The man in front of you has about 5 very large bags to check. One of the ‘advisors’ tells you to put your passport on the counter, but the woman working there indicates (through mumbles and gestures) that she’s too busy and you should take it back and wait. You do (remember, you’re still 2+ hours early and only have to cover about 20 more feet before the gate, so there is no rush). Finally a baggage guy stops flirting with the woman at the counter next to you, realizes you’ve been waiting awhile, and beckons you to come over there. You do. The woman behind the counter is annoyed. The counter you just left suddenly frees up and three more people rush up. You wait again. Finally the team of women check your passport, your hand-writen boarding pass, check your name off another list, and print you a proper boarding pass. (Just to paint the picture, this set of counters is DIRECTLY adjacent to the first set of counters where they hand wrote the boarding pass in the first place). Your bag gets its tag and is taken away on the conveyor belt.

10)  Getting out (and passport check #7). Now you have to find out where to exit the 15 foot-wide cordoned-off area. You walk around, can’t seem to figure out how to get out other than crawling under. Finally someone stops you to check your passport again and stamp it. They graciously allow you to leave.

11)  Health check. I am reminded that I  have to show the very tired, cranky looking people in booths next to the security check my yellow-fever vaccination card. They are not excited to have to work. They glare at me as I ask them if anyone wants to see it, look at the front page (which has only my name on it) and jam it back into my hands.

12)  Immigration (and passport check #8). There are four booths with passport officials sitting in there, two with signs that read that they are only for protocol passengers (VIPs). No one is waiting at those, but there is a line at the other two. You wait (having been shooed back to line after trying  to approach the woman – shame on you for interrupting her nap). When you finally get beckoned to the booth, the most important question the officer can ask you is what your address in the country you are leaving was. Does it really matter?? You’re trying to leave!

13)  Passport check #9. You stand in a (sort of) line waiting for the man at the front to look at your passport again. He takes it from you, looks at you, looks at the woman next to him, looks back at you, and says “ok”. Ok what? You think he might usher you through to the security screening, but it is so poorly designed that only one person at a time is allowed to go into the air-conditioned screening area. As you walk past the woman (who has done NOTHING) she asks you “what you are going to give me?”. Um, nothing.

14)  Hand luggage screening (and passport check #10). Your bags are pushed through the x-ray machine. No taking out your laptops here – the man isn’t even looking at the screen.  You walk through and it beeps. You look around but no one cares, so you just keep going. The man at the end takes your passport and examines it up and down, reading every piece of information carefully. He hands you the passport, holding on tightly to the end. Quickly before he too can ask you for a bribe, you thank him profusely and snatch it out of his hands.

15)  Phew, bathroom break. You make a quick dash to the bathroom, half expecting your passport to be checked again when you enter. You pile your bags against the door (no lock) and try not to touch anything. There is a woman in a reflective vest waiting for you when you leave the stall – a sure sign she thinks she is important. She rushes to the sink, turns on the tap, then waves her hands incessantly in front of the ineffective hand dryer showing you how to do it. You know what’s coming – the inevitable ‘what are you going to give me?’. You say nothing, and quickly exit.

16)  Boarding call? There are about 3 flights waiting to board at around the same time. They announce (if you can call it that) the first flight is boarding. You try and guess by the passengers who stand and rush the exit which flight it is. Everyone else seems to know. You deduce it’s not your flight but the one which leaves after yours. You sit down, only to get up again 5 minutes later as the rest of the passengers start towards the door – no one has announced anything, but you join the line. No passport or boarding card checks here, you just get on a bus hoping it’s going the right way.

17)  Baggage check and hand luggage screening #2. Wait, aren’t the bags already checked? All the bags are lined up on the tarmac – you have to identify yours for them to load it onto the baggage cart (and then hopefully onto the plane). You walk a few more feet and present your hand luggage for search again, and then yourself for a pat down.

18)   Finally on the plane…

Seriously. I’m sadly not exaggerating AT ALL – this is what I went through to get home this past week from a work assignment. And in an airport not much bigger than my house. Really, it isn’t much different from anywhere in the developing world- although perhaps this was a BIT more over the top than usual (I did hear a number of other passengers joking about the ridiculous number of times they’d been asked for their passport, so I wasn’t the only one laughing). As much as I hate airports worldwide, experiences like these definitely make me think more fondly of airports in the US and Europe – there is something to be said about the relative order of airports in nations that believe in queuing…

…everything works out


It’s been a strange few weeks.

I rushed off to Liberia at the last minute for an urgent assignment. Then…nothing. It seems to always be a case of hurry up and wait here. The request for proposals I was meant to be working on wasn’t released until the end of my 2nd week here. While I had plenty to do, it certainly wasn’t the emergency that they had led me to believe. Oh well!

It was surreal being back. I’ve been gone just about 1½ years, and I was amazed at how little had changed. Yet so much had changed. After having come and gone from here so many times over the last 5 years, it feels a bit like coming home. And in this case, IRC was the crazy family you sometimes wish you weren’t related to, but love just the same.

I left Liberia in a haze of frustration and exhaustion. My two years here were…well, let’s just say challenging. Although I’d had some good times, I was ready to never set foot in the place again for a variety of reasons. So it was a pleasant surprise when I walked into the IRC office that first morning. So many familiar, smiling faces greeted me, and plenty of new ones as well. In many ways I felt like I was welcomed back as part of the team as if I’d only been gone on R&R for a few weeks. It was nice to be back in a country where I know how things work, or rather where I know how they don’t work. it makes things so much easier.

I gorged myself on Lebanese food while I was here – I ate so much moutabal that I nearly turned into a giant eggplant myself. I think I managed to get my fill, though, so I can survive awhile back in SA where Lebanese food doesn’t seem to exist. I also had plenty tuna sashimi salad from Royal sushi…yum. Who knew the stuff my sushi dreams were made of would be found in Monrovia?? And sundowners and drinks on the beach are pretty idyllic here – I’ve yet to find the same sort of unpretentious, chilled out beach spots in Cape Town. It was great catching up with old friends and meeting new ones – fun colleagues, feisty little Liberian kitties at my apartment building, random friends of friends to chat to over drinks. I had forgotten how easy in some ways it is to live in an expat community like Liberia – everyone is constantly coming in and out, and everyone ‘gets’ what you do, so you quite easily find common ground to bond over. I found myself feeling quite proud of my life choices, though – I got more than one jealous comments about my house and Cape Town and just getting out of the madness of development for awhile.

Some things seem to be inching forward in the country – new buildings going up, banks opening and ATMs, roads being repaired in town – and others seem to have gone in reverse – the roads up country and UN drive, ATMs that don’t work, driving skills, corruption. So I guess if you do the math the place is the same. It’s a bit like the seasons here – you build, repair, make progress during the dry season, and much of the work that you’ve done is washed away or damaged in the heavy rains. But it was good to see the signs of progress and stability.

I’ve ended up being here for nearly a month in all. More than enough time in my book! But who knows, I may have the chance to go back sooner than I think. And at the end, I’m pretty happy to have come back – I needed to exorcise some demons and remember why I actually liked working in Liberia. The best thing a friend told me on this trip about Liberia sums up the place to a tee – ‘In Liberia nothing works, but everything works out’.


On the road again

So, I’m on the road again. After MUCH hemming and hawing, IRC finally gave me the go ahead this afternoon at 2pm to leave. On a flight at 7pm. Talk about last minute.

I’ll be back in my old stomping grounds, Liberia, which I’m simultaneously looking forward to and dreading. My last few months there were less than plesant, and I won’t have Nick there to keep me sane – but I did have some good times, and I hope I won’t be there long enough for the place to really get under my skin. Plus I get to see some good friends and former colleagues, which is nice.

Of course, timing couldn’t have been worse. When I originally agreed to the assignment a month ago I told them I had to be back by the 1st to move. Unfortunately everything was delayed, so now poor Nick has to move into our new house (!) by himself. I packed as much as humanly possible, but feel really badly. I’m super bummed I’m not going to be around!

Anyways, it’s time for flight #2 of 3. The lovely midnight flight from joburg to nairobi. OR Tambo is the place to be this time of night…Here’s to hoping my window seat isn’t comandeered, that I win the armrest war and that I can actually get some sleep.

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DRC beers

Ok, enough about work – time for the important stuff.

I was surprised on my first night here that there were so many beers on the menu that I haven’t tried before – Mutzig, Skol, Primus, Tembo, Turbo King, Legend, Castel..and of course there is the ubiquitous Heineken (barely worth a mention). At our hotel, which thinks it’s pretty posh, they serve us our beers in wine glasses. My favorite was eating at an outside ‘restaurant’ (there are vendors all around selling chicken, goat, beer, peanuts, etc. and they’ll bring them to you at your plastic table and chairs crammed in on the sidewalks and over the covered-sewers) and seeing all the buildings around brightly painted like different beer labels – very fun. I know, it seems like I’ve been partying a lot, but really we’ve been working hard! We just managed to fit a beer tour into our busy schedule – it was a priority.

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So far my life in Kinshasa has consisted of a) work, b) expensive dinners, c) cockroaches, and d) traffic.

I hit the ground running in terms of work – I arrived in Friday afternoon and went straight to the office (fun, considering I was broiling hot in the sweater and jeans I’d worn to keep warm on the airplane.) We’re working on writing a proposal to USAID for a very large health grant, so several staff from NY and other country programs have come in to help, but none of them arrived until Sunday. So all of the sudden I found myself leading an initial brainstorming meeting with the Health technical team here Saturday – I wasn’t quite prepared for that! It’s been pretty fast paced since then. We are working in partnership with some other organizations on the proposal, so we spent much of the week meeting with their proposal team and writing up inputs for the first draft.

Kinshasa is an insanely expensive city. I thought Liberia or Cote d’Ivoire were expensive, but they’re not even close. I guess it’s a UN Mission/price ratio – the more UN forces you have on the ground, the more expensive things are! I’m sure it’s in part the places we’re going, but dinner and a drink routinely costs at least $30, even for a pizza or pasta. There are some nice restaurants, though – Taj, a really good Indian restaurant, is up on the 8th floor of a building (which you have to get to by riding a very dodgy elevator) and has a great view of the city. In addition to the high cost, you have to bank on at least 2 hours minimum for every meal – tiring when you’ve just spent a gazillion hours in the office.

In the 10 days I’ve been here I’ve stayed in 3 different hotels. I thought I’d be able to move in before everyone else got here and no one would be able to see how much stuff I’d brought (I’m a founding member of over-packers anonymous), but no luck. The first place seemed fine to me (except maybe for the slanted floors in the shower that successfully directed the water away from the drain), but our Admin guy wasn’t happy that they didn’t have a back-up generator so I moved after one night. The next place seemed more posh – right on the main Boulevard and decked out with bordello-red curtains and bedspread – but unfortunately had a major cockroach problem. EW. At first I thought it was just one or two of the little tiny ones. I should have known better. Where there is one there are millions. I spent two nights in the room spraying Doom like a fiend and stomping on the little buggers, but they were fearless. I came back to my brightly-lit room to see one just hanging out on my bed. Yuck. I am pretty sure they were living under the wooden bed frame. Needless to say I slept with the light on – it was a good thing I was exhausted or I never would have gotten any sleep. I changed rooms finally and was lucky that the ground floor room seemed to be roach free, but my colleagues weren’t as lucky. We moved hotels the third time a few days ago – now we’re in this super posh hotel (ok, not actually posh by anything other than DRC standards). Unfortunately, every time I repack in a hurry my bags seem to multiply, so now I had about 11 it felt like…at least I wasn’t the only one. My room is great other than the chain-smoking South Africans in the next room, but hey, they’re not cockroaches.

Traffic is insane here in Kinshasa. We’re probably a 2 minute drive from the office with no traffic, but some days it has taken us over 30. There is one bottleneck in particular just outside the UN compound, about 5 car lengths from our office, where we routinely get stuck. I was told of one day when the staff were coming back to the office and got stuck there for so long they decided to walk to the office. The car they were in apparently only made it in the gates 2 hours later. Ugh. The worst is that it is totally unpredictable. Midday is usually bad, but you never know how bad. And you’d think that Saturday at 11 wouldn’t be the worst traffic time, but we did get stuck for about 30 minutes at one intersection the other night…

So, so far I’m enjoying the work and the people here a lot, and have seen a little bit of the city. I would LOVE to be able to explore the rest of the country, especially the area around Lake Kivu on the border with Rwanda and Burundi, but doesn’t look like I’m going to be venturing too far beyond the hotel and office on this trip. I guess that’s the exotic life of a consultant!