Monday, October 31, 2011

"Our Destination: Freedom"

I arrived at the Istanbul airport at 4:30 in the morning. Hazy, I set my two ginormous bags through the screener and confronted my first hurdle. I should back up and say that my luggage this time around was less than traditional. I was carrying a 20kg flack jacket with ceramic plates, a large blue ballistic helmet, and a VHF hand-held radio and charger. Since these items are technically military equipment I had been given an “end user certificate” (really a letter with a lot of stamps on it) to provide in case of trouble with airport authorities. In Istanbul they pulled me aside over concern for….the radio. That’s right, flack jacket, of course you’d be carrying that through an airport. But a nice walkie talkie? Must be dangerous. After some wrangling I removed the battery form the walkie and proceeded to my gate.

My gate was populated entirely by old women and men dressed in off-white robes and headscarves. A few more western dressed folks gathered towards the front. Since there was nowhere to sit, I shoved myself up against a wall in the middle of the “white” crowd that was bound for Mecca later in the day. You could say I looked more than a little out of place. When my flight was called I got into line with a lot of men. Men and literally two other women. Myself and an Indian woman were the only ones uncovered.

I wandered onto the plane only to find my seat (the window in a section of three) taken. Unable to communicate efficiently in Arabic, the stewards had to move around five or so people until my seat was opened up and I nervously passed through the gentlemen I had forced to move. Before I left, people had spent so much time warning me of “aggressive Arab men” and how I should expect to be treated poorly that I braced myself for an unpleasant ride sandwiched against the side of the plane. My Libyan seat-mates could not have proven those people and me more wrong. And I should say, my Libyan friends and colleagues have continued to do so throughout my time here.

As we got set to take off, the young man next to me tried to strike up a conversation in very limited English. Through pantomiming and his father’s assistance we exchanged names, origins, and basic details. They expressed their frustration over the continued fighting in Libya and said they thought it made life worse than under Gaddafi. Since these two were businessmen I got the sense they may have been given some extra space from the now former dictator. They said that once they landed in Benghazi they would head to their home in Adjadabya about two hours to the west. Intermixed in all of this was how happy they were to welcome me to their country.

As the plane began to descend into Benghazi air space I was suddenly snapped out of a daze I was not aware I had sunk into. We flew over a small farm that had been burned out, now filled with spent rockets and weaponry. My trip to this point had seemed so normal and pleasant. I had left a loud, disjointed, and often dysfunctional (no offense my beloved Kenya) developing country for the sleek efficient curves and services of Istanbul. We touched down in Benghazi and I was jolted back into remembering where I was headed.

The plane taxied and we walked down a ladder onto the tarmac. In front of me was a large sign that proclaimed “our destination: Freedom.” Everything else was in Arabic. We took a bus a few hundred feet away to the airport door and walked into our visa lines. Someone from my organization was waiting up front, so after the oil executive was taken through I got to jump the queue myself. We walked downstairs to a single carousel. And then we waited. And waited. And waited while authorities checked our bags for contraband like alcohol. To my great relief my bags arrived and we set off for the office, after grabbing water and a tissue from a “revolutionary” Kleenex box with the words Feb17 written all over it.

Revolutionary flags were flying everywhere on the way to the office. With the exception of one or two buildings with burn marks or the occasional giant hole the city looked completely unaffected by war. Signs about freedom, revolution, and unity peppered the dry landscape, broken up by palm trees and sand colored buildings. 15 minutes of driving on well paved and marked roads and I was delivered to the office...err house AND office.

To be continued...

Benghazi Bound

As most of you know by now, I am doing a short-term contract with a refugee resettlement organization in Libya until the end of the year. In the usual development world last-minute fashion I didn’t have my ticket or official travel authorization until five hours before heading out for my new adventure. After packing like a maniac I set out from Nairobi to Benghazi with 40 kgs of luggage (80 pounds) and my travel guitar. I was blessed with a routing that gave me a 22 hour layover in Istanbul to explore.

I arrived in Istanbul around 10:30 in the morning and had arranged for a taxi to take me to my hotel in the old city first thing. It was a gray day of spitting rain leaving a cold layer of wet on everything, myself included. Undeterred I dropped my things at the hotel, checked my email and then set off meandering the narrow stone streets and storefronts. As my first order of business I stopped for warm shawarma and rice and a Turkish coffee before setting off to the sites. Even with the weather there was a line to get in everywhere. I saw the Ayasofya Church turned Mosque turned Museum; the blue mosque; tombs of former rulers; Basilica Cistern; the grand Bazaar; and wandered the Sultanahmet District. I topped my first set of wandering off with apple tea and a baklava sampler.

After a short drying out period and nap, I headed back out in the rain and found a nice restaurant carved into one of the steep hills descending towards the port. I set myself up by the window with a warming glass of red wine, my book, and a delicious meal. As the sun set and the streets filled with tourists heading to late dinners and bars, I headed back to the hotel, crawled into bed and attempted to sleep…of course waking every hour to make sure I had not missed my 4am departure.

I won’t say much more about Istanbul except I would really love to go back and explore some more. It is a beautiful city full of diverse rich history, good food, and great public transit. Plus they have some pretty wonderful leather makers…and scarves. We all know how I feel about scarves. There is such wonderful shopping to be done and I simply could not partake since I was already overloaded with bags and on my way to a new country…

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Year in Four Paragraphs

Well folks it’s been a pretty crazy year. The fact that it’s been a year is pretty crazy. To make up for my horrible blogging record here’s a summary of what you would have read starting in January when I stopped communicating:

I’ve had a stressful, busy, and incredibly exciting year. In 12 short months I’ve been in Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, Tanzania, Djibouti, Egypt, Israel, the United States, Turkey, and now Libya (more on that later). I’ve monitored an election; witnessed a social network and political movement form organically; trained lawyers, politicians, and youth activists; met with the speaker of the Somali Parliament and spoke with the new Somali Prime Minister. I raced camels; swam in the ocean; played with elephants; was licked by a giraffe; volunteered with disabled children and on other Rotary projects; played guitar at a few bars; attended 4 weddings in 2 different countries; mourned the loss of a great man and former candidate; snorkeled; shot clay pigeons; moved 4 times; completed all my coursework; wrote approximately 350 pages worth of papers; and met some wonderful people. Not so much sleeping.

I’ve learned an immense amount and had a wonderful if not always easy time. I’ve learned to love what’s to love about Kenya and miss what I miss about my home and wonderful country of the United Sates of America. And now to begin a new year of adventure and growth…

I arrived three days ago in Benghazi, Libya to start my next phase of fun and will do my best to improve my blogging for a bit. Yell at me if I don’t. Thanks for all your support, messages, friendship (be it from afar or up close), and good times this past year. Look forward to more of the same and better…