Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Juba, Part 1

A month ago, Sarah and I found ourselves in the unenviable position of needing to visit Juba (municipal motto: "Coming soon: a real city!") - the capital of South Sudan (national motto, with thanks to Danie Hauer: "There's no way of knowing!" which is the most correct answer to almost any question a person might ask about the new country). It is noteworthy that it has taken me a month to even touch this topic; I want to remember as little of it as possible, so think of this entry more as an act of catharsis on my part than anything else.

Juba is a city of readily apparent contradictions. Along the river Nile lies a long expanse of private compounds, each hiding an upscale hotel behind its gates. Of course, describing a hotel in Juba as "upscale" is a bit inaccurate. Nearly every upscale Juba hotel is a grossed collection of prefabricated boxes with individual air conditioning units whirring away and the promise of a bed, satellite television, and a hot shower within. A more appropriate term for this kind of hotel is "expensive" or maybe "exorbitantly expensive", with prices for a room for one person starting $150. The reason that the term expensive is not applied, however, is because in Juba this is the starting point for the price of a hotel room, and the constant presence of innumerable foreign NGOs ensures that these hotels are fully booked.

Immediately inland from these hotels lie fields of shanties built of sticks, cardboard, and tarp - each inspiring the observer to marvel at how a family could fit themselves inside, but somehow they do (as to the exact method? There's no way of knowing). No matter how many times one stumbles upon these shanty towns immediately juxtaposed against an image of prosperity, it never fails to darken the spirits at least a little. In Juba, I found myself wondering how these families felt about life in Juba as compared to life in he refugee camps from which they likely came, and I realized I couldnt conceive of an appropriate response.

Sarah and I found the prospect of spending two-thirds of our monthly income on a two night hotel stay daunting. By a fluke of chance, we happened upon the phone number for a Catholic retreat center that offered the very reasonable rate of $50 for a double room - the caveat being that it offered neither conditioned air, nor television of any kind, nor hot showers (though the kind sister who took our reservation assured me that the bathroom and shower were self-contained in the room). After I had made the booking, I asked where exactly in Juba the retreat center was located and was told to call before I arrived for precise directions.

The morning we were set to depart Nimule for Juba I did just that, and while the answer I got wasn't exact, it was a start: "go to the Aquana factory and call me from there." Despite the fact that I had no idea what the Aquana factory was nor where it was located nor how the word Aquana was spelled, I felt confident that once we got to Juba somebody would be able to get us there. That confidence began to dissolve in the Juba bus park as I asked one motorcycle taxi after another if he could take us to the Aquana factory and was greeted with blank stares and shrugged shoulders (where's the Aquana factory? There's no way of knowing). When finally a driver gave us a confident nod that he knew where the Aquana factory was, I put Sarah on the back of his bike, found one of the clueless drivers, ordered him to follow the non-clueless driver, then squeezed myself and the suitcase that held clothing for Sarah and I for an eight day trip to Ethiopia onto the back of his bike. This arrangement pushed me up against the driver in a manner that is as physically intimate as I have ever been with another man.

At the Aquana factory a short, plain woman ambled up to us and told us to follow her, which we did - on foot, around puddles and along stretches of road turned to heavy reddish mud, with one of us carrying an enormous suitcase. We walked alongside one of those heart-crushing shanty fields, across from which was a walled compound with a small gate, which we went through and found ourselves in the surprisingly verdant courtyard of the Friendship Guest House. The woman, who I took for a nun, sat us down and got us each a cold bottle of water.

For the first time in my life, I actually experienced something I've long espoused: in an unknown, uncertain, and potentially unfriendly environment, the demonstration of Catholic kindness and hospitality hits the soul with incomparable resonance. Despite my own wishes otherwise, I'll probably have to go back to Juba someday, and when I do I'll take solace in knowing that I can stay with the Catholics.

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