So much for roots…off to DRC!

One of the things that I was looking forward to most about moving to Cape Town was the chance to finally put down some roots. This is not something I would have imagined myself saying a few years ago – I have always had itchy feet and while I imagined having a home someday, that someday always seemed far away. Not sure what it was – stress, age, circumstances, all of the above – but I was very excited about the idea of staying put for awhile when we moved here. And I managed not to travel for a bit…

It’s starting to seem a bit like I’ve put down those really shallow roots – they hold me in one place, but aren’t really all that solid yet and can easily get swept away. I’ve been trying to figure out how to do my job without traveling so much, but with little success so far. So I’ve also been thinking about what else I can do so I don’t have to travel so much – also haven’t gotten very far on that.

Maybe part of the problem isn’t so much the travel or even the work – I most always enjoy it once I get there. I think probably it’s more about the uncertainty. And the unpredictability. In the last month I’ve almost gone to about 3 different countries – Kyrgyzstan, Iraq, Georgia – and every one was a last minute, prepare-to-put-your -life-on -hold-and-be-ready-to-leave-in-two-days kind of assignment.  And none of them panned out, for various reasons (the organization I was on a bit with didn’t win the proposal, the proposal was postponed, etc). Makes it a little hard to plan your life when you’re never sure if you’ll be in the country the following week.

So now I think it looks like I’ll be heading to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)  with the IRC a week from today. They wanted me there sooner, but there is this whole pesky visa thing. And I was literally called about this job for the first time last night. Things move quickly! I’m never sure I’m actually going until I’m on the plane, but this one seems pretty solid. It should be an interesting assignment, writing a $142mm health proposal, and I’ve always wanted to visit DRC. But I am heartbroken to have to leave my little kitten – she’ll be so big when I get back in 3-4 weeks! Not to mention having to cancel classes I was planning to take, etc. Oh well, c’est la vie – at least for now.

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Roadtrips – US vs. South Africa

I am a huge fan of road trips. There is something so exciting about the prospect of a long drive, despite the obvious drawbacks of road travel. It’s far from the fastest way of getting anywhere, but even without the insufferable security screening, endless lines and baggage restriction induced panic, I would opt for a road trip any day. I love listening to music, staring out at the landscape and towns whizzing by, snack breaks, chatting, stretches of comfortable silence, and, of course, finally getting there.

I’ve road-tripped in a lot of places, and haven’t met one yet I didn’t like. I even relished the epic drives on potholed roads in Liberia. Somehow the repetitive soundtrack of Lionel Ritchie, Lucky Dube and West Africa’s greatest hits induced a trance-like effect that had me doing some of my best thinking on the road.

Nick and I just got back from driving his car back from Jo’burg to Cape Town, via Arniston. I’ve done quite a number of roadtrips over the years in South Africa, including the Jo’burg-Cape Town drive (about 16 hours) 5 or 6 times. There are quite a lot of differences between road-tripping in the US and South Africa – here are just a few:

  • While the main roads in South Africa have pretty major gas stations that have snacks, food, clean bathrooms, etc, if you venture even a short distance off these roads you’d better plan in advance! Even on stretches of major roads, the towns are sometimes far apart, meaning fuel stops are too. A major challenge for people with pea-sized bladders like me.
    • Even the major N-S route that crosses South Africa is a one-lane highway in many places. There are few super-highways in the middle of the country, unlike in the US, despite the fact that it is the major trucking route. This means there is a LOT of truck dodging and passing. Even on tight, windy mountain passes.
    • Passing is polite here. There is an unwritten rule that if a vehicle pulls over or somehow tries to make it easier for you to pass, you thank them by turning on your hazards. They respond by flicking their lights at you. If you don’t do this, you will incur the wrath of the driver (I’ve seen it firsthand – normally calm Nick yelling ‘you’re welcome, jerk!’ at cars that haven’t thanked him…)
    • There are hardly any billboards! I spend my time trying to read and pronounce the odd Afrikaans named towns and landmarks since those are the only reading material. It would be damn hard to play the alphabet game in some parts of the country!
    • Only pretty major towns have streetlights, so once the sun sets it is just DARK.
    • There is not nearly as much to buy. There are farmstalls along some roads that sell fresh naartjies (nectarines), pies (the meat ones, not the fruit ones) and preserves, you won’t find the same kind of roadside stuff shops you can in small town USA.

    Of course, some things are the same – speed traps in small towns, construction and lane closures, artery hardening burgers and chips as the main form of sustenance on the road, crappy radio stations, etc. I’m sure there are a lot more, so I’m going to plan another road trip to try and find out! Now if only I can stay awake long enough in the car to take note…

    Roadtrip Happiness Is…

    …the smell of damp, freshly cut grass and the smoke from far off velt fires rushing in through the vents

    …needing to dig out your sunglasses even though the weather forecast called for cold and rain

    …smoked beef Simba chips and Coke Light at the gas station

    …dancing madly and singing along to the cheesy tunes on the only radio station in the area

    …extremely random conversations about anything and everything

    …hearing rush-hour traffic reports for the cities you’ve escaped and seeing no other cars on the road for miles

    …the sun sinking slowly below the horizon to my right, the colors deepening and spreading across the sky, turning the landscape pink and gold

    …seeing a huge yellow moon rising in the navy sky over the horizon on the other side of the car, illuminating the fields and reflecting in the ponds and reservoirs

    …the feel of the fresh, cold air that hits just as the sun goes down

    …cute B&Bs in odd towns (with electric blankets and MNet!)

    …arriving at your destination ahead of schedule!

      I’m allergic to West Africa.

      Yep.  It’s true.  I’m allergic to West Africa, I fear.  Or maybe it’s IRC.  Or maybe just work in general.

      I’d only been there in Abidjan a few days when I started feeling all achy and feverish.  Signs I should have been familiar with, but had banished to the back of my mind.  After a night of excruciating pain and high fever, I came to the conclusion that the infections I’d been having continuously in Liberia in the months before I left had returned.  Of course, since I left Liberia I’d been the picture of good health – well, other than self-inflicted klutz-factor related injuries, of course.  So I hadn’t come prepared with my usual traveling pharmacy for self-medication.

      Luckily I’m here working on a Health proposal, so my colleagues are an MD and an RN – both had plenty of cipro and ibuprofen to get me started, so I’m on the road to recovery.  I do love the abandon with which us development folk both self-diagnose and self-medicate.  I’m always a bit wary, but after you’ve gone to one incompetent doctor too many it really hits home that medicine in most parts of the world really is an art and not a science.  And I certainly know myself better than anyone else, so my guess is as good as theirs most of the time.  Why pay to confirm what you’re 99% sure of, especially when you don’t need a prescription to get the drugs and the pharmacy anyways, and you have your own non-practising MDs to help you with dosage? Not to mention I would be incapable of explaining my symptoms in French.

      (Mom, don’t worry – I will go to a doctor if it gets worse!   Don’t you love it that moms still worry even when you’re 31?)

      Abidjan again

      It feels odd. It was almost exactly a year ago that I was here in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire with IRC for a conference. Now I’m back helping their Health team out with a proposal for a couple of weeks.

      It’s great to be back – the team here is very welcoming and friendly, but I am totally LOST. I haven’t spoken French since I was here last, and it was pretty poor then!  I am really struggling with the basics – I somehow managed to skip the whole intro French stuff back in the day when I started learning, so I am particularly bad at things like greetings and pleasantries – it probably makes me look unfriendly, but I honestly don’t know what to say when people greet me!

      It’s interesting being back with IRC West Africa, seeing so many familiar faces and hearing the gossip of what’s going on in the region and beyond.  In many ways it feels like nothing has changed at all.  But it’s cool to be back as a consultant, working specifically on one project rather than being swamped by a million things at once.

      The trip here was long – suffice it to say I ate way too much odd airplane foods at weird times of the night and slept in such a way my neck may never be the same again.  The best thing about the trip was that on my first leg (CPT-Dubai) we flew in an Emirates 777.  It had an awesome lighting system, and when the food service was over and it was time for the passengers to go to sleep the ‘sky’ lit up blue with little pinpricks of starlight!  Very pretty.

      US Roadtrip Revisited

      For the last three months, Nick and I have been roadtripping around the US, visiting friends, family and generally exploring the country. For those of you who were keeping up with the roadtrip on my blog, you’ll know that I did a terrible job posting regularly.  I jotted down detailed notes and reflections on each of our stops, but I was just so tired most evenings that I didn’t quite get around to writing them up!

      The map above shows the route we took – heading West from MN in early June and circling around (with a few detours), ending up back in MN in August. The question we were asked most often was where our favorite places were.  I generally loved the Pacific Northwest, especially the drive on Highway 101 down the coast from Washington to Northern California.  Seattle is always one of my favorite cities to explore, and we spent a few days doing just that.  But my favorite place we visited was Lafayette, Louisiana.  I had always wanted to visit cajun country, and Lafayette is its heart.  We stayed in a great B&B, which also happens to double as one of the best live music venues in town, so we stayed up late listening to zydeco and watching people of all ages dance. There was even a guest appearance by Marc Broussard!

      Nick didn’t have a favorite place necessarily, but he did think that Portland was probably the most his kind of place. He also really liked New York, mainly for its novelty – really, is there anywhere else like it in the world?! Though I think he was probably also swayed by the fact that he was introduced to beer pong here for the first time 🙂 His favorite part of the trip was the camping in general – we stayed in national parks, private campsites, and of course Kampgrounds of America. He was amazed at how  each one is so different – some having organized movie and ice cream nights, some with central campfire areas, some with pools and even hot tubs – seriously posh.

      Looking back at the trip, it was pretty darn amazing.  What a diverse set of experiences.  We seriously could have spent a few more months driving around – I still only felt like we were doing a sampler tour, since there were a million places we didn’t get to go or things we didn’t see.  But still, it was pretty great. I guess that means we’ll just have to plan more US trips in the future.

      So now we’re back in MN, and starting to think about getting back to the ‘real world’ – sprucing up CVs, starting the job search, getting ready for the move to SA.  We head out August 24th – let the next adventure begin!

      Oshkosh II

      Since the crew arrived rather late yesterday (and it was raining), we didn’t head to the airshow until this morning. All the guys were up super early, having just come over from SA and still jet lagged. Nick and I got a bit slower start, but managed to make it to the show in time for him to see Richard Branson, the Virgin Galactic plane the White Knight ‘Eve’, and one of his idols, Burt Rutan. (Until I finally saw that spelled I thought his name was Bertrude Tan – I thought it was a bit odd!)

      Since we’re going to be here for a few days, we paced ourselves. We mainly sat near the flight line and watched the show – the Airbus A380, tons of awesome aerobatics, the old Warbirds (planes from the various wars). The aerobatics was pretty insane – the pilots go screaming into the air, stall, do some ‘spins’ (Pete explained to me that they’re really not in control when the fall out of the sky so it’s a little misleading to call them spins). My neck got a little sore from looking at the sky, but it was pretty cool. I think my fav was the Beechcraft 18 – it’s an old 1940’s plane that did a really pretty aerobatics routine to some very monumental music. A few other of the hot-shot guys had whole musical routines and so many product placements it was a bit ridiculous! There was also some really neat formation flying and aerobatics. Everyone is afraid I’ll get bored – and maybe I will after a few days! But I have my book and my chair, and can entertain myself anywhere!