The oval shape of a window frames my first views of southern Sudan. Like a kid, I press my forehead against the glass, maneuvering constantly to catch what disappears beyond the edges. As the plane descends, a thread of fire bisects my view from top to bottom. On the arid plains below, flames extend to the horizon, leaving charred ground in their wake. For a moment, the oval window looks like a moon cookie, split evenly between parched soil and singed earth. The view is ominous, fire raging across these expansive plains with no clear end in sight. The landscape seems appropriate for the circumstances.
As the plane door lowers, a rush of sweltering air lays waste to our temperate cabin. The sound of churning propellers and decelerating engines pervades the air. I wrestle madly to dislodge my overstuffed camera backpack from overhead storage. The pack is perhaps the most gratifying thing I own, allowing me to stealthily board planes with some 20 kg of fragile gear that, if the weight were known, would mandate checking. In an era when airlines provide significantly less for significantly more, I revel in small victories.
After wrangling two carry-on bags and three duty-free bottles of Johnny Walker, I head for the door. I reach for glasses to reduce the intensity of a midday sun. The rays warm my face and at once, Sudan is all around me. The smell of dust and soil hangs densely in the air. A stifling, dry heat envelops me and my shirt begins to cling. From the top of the stairs I see a jagged mountain, softened by distance and dust, looming over the far edge of Juba town. It is one of a few exceptions to an otherwise flat landscape. Men in varied camouflage and sunglasses mill about near the airport’s only entrance.
Customs is a melee. I step to the counter and a man behind it points to a battered piece of paper attached to a clipboard in even worse shape. The sheet is the official record of who enters southern Sudan through its sole international airport. As a pen is not provided, I scrounge for my own. I hastily scrawl my information in boxes too small to adequately contain it. Before it’s checked against my passport and travel permit, both are stamped and returned to me. Surprised by the brevity, I leaf through pages to confirm my passage. I briefly recall Palestinian police in Gaza who wait at the end of Erez Crossing with pen and paper. “Welcome to Balestine,” they’d say with a smile. “Blease write your name and bassbort number here.”*
I think now what I thought then. When international arrival is formalized in your own handwriting, tread lightly. Weak states are often hotbeds of corruption and lawlessness.
Luggage arrives quickly and through a window in the side of the airport wall. Men work diligently to unload the bags to impatient travelers. The crowd surges forward irrationally, with few realizing that a tight crowd prohibits anyone from moving their bags out of the area. I hang back and watch for my bags over shoulders. At once, the crowd jeers, “oohhhhhhhh,” and collective laughter erupts. Wanting in, I frantically search of the source of their entertainment. I’m quickly disappointed, however, when I spot my hiking pack, torn asunder, with wires and clothes dangling everywhere. “Oh shit,” I say, prompting another round of laughs from this sardonic group. As I move to collect the entrails, a baggage handler taps me on the back. “Here,” he says, handing me two tee shirts and several pairs of underwear.
Always a gracious entrance.
Jehan and Robert, the ACTED driver, meet me at the airport. Despite their previous concerns, the protests were a wash. The streets of Juba are calmer and more orderly than expected. I am too focused on Jehan to observe much out the windows. I’ve not seen her for nearly two months, and it feels good.
*The Arabic alphabet does not contain the letter P. While many proficient English speakers have overcome the challenge, others have not. The P sound is replaced with a B. For a year in Palestine, I answered to Beter.