Time here has the languid flow of vacation, but is fletched with reminders that a vacation indeed it is not. When I asked about going out to see some of the city, like the dedicated try-to-engage traveler I try to be, my coworkers contradictively said “Of course, it’s ok to walk around in the day time” and “No, no, don’t go to the market; it’s too ‘crowded’…” or “No, there’s nothing like that around where you should go.” I’m not sure I should take that at full force, but it’s easy to see that life on the compound does not represent life in the city. Given the warnings of heightened crime, exigence to exercise extreme caution, and the fact I’d be venturing out alone, makes me disappointed and frustratingly hesitant.
It’s a foreign feeling to not only not have any plans or errands, but not to have the option to make plans or run errands. I’m not bored, but it’s frustrating to feel obligated to stay, more so because I know it’s isolating me from the reality of life here.
Sitting by the river, listening to the breeze, intermittently journaling or reading or watching the current, fools me into thinking I could be on vacation, but then I turn my head and see stately, but rail thin men and women washing their mopeds and scrubbing their clothes against rocks, letting their cows drink. There are children playing, too, but any thought of just enjoying the peace and solitude is untenable—and yet all of us in the camp do. It’s a discomfiting and infuriating paralysis to sit among other foreign, mostly white, aid and development workers, drinking cold beer and Fanta and bottled water, being served omelets and barbeque, staging photos of sunglasses in front of the river, all the while in plain sight of a few dozen half-naked black locals down in the river.
Perhaps part of what’s so disconcerting is that it is cool! It’s exciting to see the Nile (technically the White Nile here). It’s cool to sit under a mango tree and know that the bananas I’m eating are local; to feel the 106° heat and not melt under it because it’s so much drier than DC. It’s cool; but it makes me guiltily grateful for having the luxury of it being so novel.
I exchanged $100 for 3600 South Sudanese pounds when I arrived on Wednesday. Friday I was told the exchange was 4500 SSP. When dinner costs 150 SSP (appx $3.33), the surplus of our per diems alone could probably feed a family for months. I know that the people here in the compound are doing the best they can, professionally, to help, but it still feels so small. Too small. I sit tranquilly, but inside there is something straining to just jump down the hill with a bag of bananas, or invite them up for lunch, or to bathe behind a curtain, or to throw their laundry in with mine in the morning before I leave. Why not, right? Why not?
But all I do is feed the raggedy brown and black tabby who lies behind the post at what’s become my preferred table, coming over to mew at me until I pick the skin off of a chicken bone or let her lick the yogurt off my breakfast bowl.