I always had this idea of aid work as being a mad rush to an airport after a disaster strikes, but in my experience, there have always delays in actually being recruited, then getting flights and visas organised etc etc, so it’s not like I’ve ever shown up on Day 2. But the past couple of days, I’ve had a taste of what that’s like.
I found out on Wednesday that there was a meeting in Cote d’Ivoire on Monday that I should really participate in. I had expected that it would be later in the week. Of course I should have applied for a visa for Cote d’Ivoire as soon as I got to Senegal, but I hadn’t, so it was a mad rush to get an application in on Wednesday and hope that it would be approved in time for the flight the next day. I showed up for work on Thursday with a bag half packed at home, the rest of my clothes drying outside, not knowing whether I’d be getting on the flight to Abidjan in the afternoon. I found out at about 11am that it would take until 2pm to find out whether my visa had been processed. The flight was at 4pm. The day was getting on, and so I rushed home to finish packing and rushed back to the office. There was still time to wait, but suddenly there were forms to complete, and the discovery that the UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) flight had not been organised for me – I should know that I’m supposed to do that...
Many frantic unanswered calls and emails still left me unsure as to whether I’d have anywhere to stay in Abidjan (if I got there), or a seat on the UNHAS flight to Man the following morning. Finally, at 2:15pm, one of my colleagues rushed in to the office with my passport in hand. I packed up my computer and was in the car 5 minutes later, hoping that I could get to the airport by 3pm. The adrenaline continued to flow as I rushed to the check-in desk and there was a massive line. But then I figured, if all of these people are waiting to check-in, I’ll be fine. I spotted my sort-of-boss, whose BlackBerry was beeping – there wasn’t a seat left for me on the UNHAS flight.
We ran into our other colleague at the boarding gate, she also didn’t have a seat on the UNHAS flight, so we’d be spending the weekend in Abidjan, and getting the flight on Monday morning together. Barring the fact that this would mean missing half of the meeting I wanting to participate in, I wasn’t too fussed, as my colleague had worked in Abidjan (and Man) before and was excited to show me around. It only took 2.5 hours to get to Abidjan, which has a pretty damn swanky airport and the fastest immigration process I’ve ever experienced – no forms to fill out at all! What did take a long time was for my lone little bag to come around the conveyer belt, and even longer to present my baggage receipt to get through to the baggage x-ray queue, to get outside.
When we pulled up at the hotel we spotted a woman I’d worked with in Liberia, who’d come in for the meeting, and was settled in on the patio with a cold beer. It took about 5 minutes to dump my stuff, walk back down the 3 flights of stairs and have an icy cold Flag in my hands.
As I knew I didn’t have to get up too early to catch the UNHAS flight, I was a bit surprised when my phone woke me up at 8am. “There are plenty of seats available, get yourselves to the UN base airport as quickly as you can.” “What time is the flight?” I asked, desperately trying to sound awake. “45 minutes, but I’m sure we can hold it for a little longer than that.”
I sprung into action-Carly mode, banged on my colleagues door and told her that we had to go. Since she’s going to be based in Man, she had a lot more luggage than me, and since we had expected to stay for the weekend, she had also pulled lots of stuff out of the suitcases. I rushed back to my room and stuffed the few things I’d taken out of my bag back in. Two minutes later, I was done and went downstairs and managed to communicate that I needed my bill, her bill, and a man to help her with her luggage. I also managed to organise a taxi. En Français. And the minutes ticked by, and I waited, lamenting that in all this time that I’d been waiting I could have had time for a shower. 40 minutes after I received the phone call, we were finally on our way.
We were stopped at a checkpoint into the military base where the UNHAS flies from; only military or UN vehicles are allowed to enter. We groaned, as my colleague had quite a bit of luggage, that we didn’t fancy dragging through the dirt around a military base. But then, a text message arrived, the boss had organised a WFP car to pick us up, and 2 seconds later, there it was. As we drove through the military base we passed what appeared to be an inspection parade. This was particularly amusing as half of the ‘soldiers’ weren’t wearing uniforms, and some of those in uniform weren’t wearing shoes.
And on we drove, finally pulling up outside a pretty shabby building. Our other two colleagues were standing around. “Is everyone else on the plane?” I asked. “The plane isn’t here yet.” And so we waited, and waited and watched the luggage get loaded into a van and driven away. And then another van pulled up and in we piled. I was a bit shocked at the plane we pulled up to. At this time I thought that barring the fact that it had propellers on the side, and not the top, it could have passed for a helicopter, but looking at the photo, I realise it was slightly bigger than that. The boss turned to me and said, “they cancelled the flight yesterday because of bad weather, but the pilot said he’s going to try today and see how far we get.” This was not comforting. But in we climbed, into the smallest plane I’ve ever been in, and off we took, flying over the coast line and over the palm trees and into the clouds. Yes, it was a bit bumpy but nowhere near as bad as I’d expected. The co-pilot had given us earplugs (quite possibly the best earplugs of all time) and I managed to drift off, only occasionally awakened by a slight bump here and there (more often a result of my chin hitting my chest rather than turbulence).
An hour and a half later, we descended through the clouds and I was amazed at how lush and green and hilly Man appeared to be. We walked across the tarmac to the little waiting hut, passing the blue helmets facing outwards, guns across their chests. A Senegalese friend who’d been in Liberia was waiting to get on the return flight, so it was lovely to see him again, albeit briefly.
The drive into Man was easy, the roads are wonderful. My colleague who had worked here before was pointing out the signs of progress since the fighting stopped; the timber mill was operating, the street stalls were open, the pharmacy that was once called “X Pharmacy” was now called “X Pharmacy New Version.” There were generally just lots more people out and about, though we only passed one or two cars on the road into town.
And so now, I’m in the office, which has no internet (we have to come to WFP to use their connection). There’s a cow mooing somewhere behind the fence. The hotel we’re staying in has a deep pool – there’s no water in it. Then again, we were told that the rooms have only just had water connected because the hotel was finally able to pay the water bill with all the humanitarian workers staying there. Who knows, maybe in a couple of months, those still here might have a pool to play in.