The flight to get me from capital to project may be up there as one of the worst in my life. First was navigating the horrible nightmare that was checking-in onto the internal UNHAS flight and being told repeatedly and unsympathetically that my 25kg bag was “trop lourde” for the flight! Apparently this almighty load coupled with my body weight could jepordise the stability of the entire flight. Yes, the total bastards actually made me stand on massive electronic scales in the departure lounge that flashed my actual weight up in bright red digital numbers for the whole boarding queue to gawp over.
Abject humiliation. In my defence, my whole family are known to have very heavy bones. I briefly considered jettisoning a kilo or two of cheese, or given the level of stress that I was experiencing, possibly just eating the damn stuff, before realising that the sum total would still be the same if I did that.
Happily guardian angels do still exist, and an unlikely one presented itself in the form of a diminutive grey-haired French nun (26 years and counting on mission in CAR) who blessedly interceded on my behalf and somehow coaxed and cajoled the scowling girl behind the desk into letting me through; excess baggage, heavy bones and all. As it turns out the 15-seater flight was half empty anyway, so I had the benefit of a spare seat next to me which was just as well – owing to strong winds the pilot was forced to fly at a considerably lower altitude than normal, which made for a hot stuffy cabin, a turbulent six hours in the air, and at least one profoundly nauseous and deeply unhappy passenger.
I say at least one, because the guy in front of me was clearly fine. He kept turning round and sympathetically enquiring how I was doing, and at one point tried offering me the contents of a disintegrating packet of biscuits, that may have once been custard creams, assuring me that they would settle my stomach. My already frail grasp of French utterly deserted me at this point and all I could do was feebly shake my head and mime throwing up. He seemed to understand, or at least didn’t try to offer me them again, a small mercy for which I was very grateful.
At 3pm we finally bounced down onto the red, gravelly airstrip that serves Zemio, and the plane’s engines were turned off. I staggered out of the cabin, wanting to kiss the soil, utterly relieved to be stationary at last, and vowing to heavily sedate myself before ever going near a small aircraft again in the future. After a few minutes of stertorous yogic breathing, some semblance of normality began to return to my belaboured innards and I was able to actually look around and appreciate what an extraordinarily stunning corner of CAR I had been assigned too.
In the absence of the roar of the plane’s engines, the air was thick with the sounds of a million industrious insects coming from the dense jungle all around me, it’s vivid varied greens contrasting sumptuously against the rich red of the exposed soil and dirt road. A mango tree was the only shade to be had, and the ground underneath it was littered with overripe fruit, their split skins spilling their sticky orange contents out to the delight of the local butterfly population who fluttered and clustered around them in their dozens.
A few minutes admiration of this gave way to mild anxiety as I realised that I couldn’t see an MSF personage or car to meet me, but no sooner had that thought crossed my mind when a white Land Cruiser rolled over a crest in the road, tattered MSF flag jauntily displayed, and Zoe, the project’s LogAdmin, stepped out with the cheery and very British greeting of “Alright mate!”
Well I certainly was now!
And happily that feeling continues. The team here is small – seven expats only, all contentedly coexisting in a compound smack dab in the centre of Zemio village. Two separate red brick houses and a large round straw roofed tukul that serves as dining and social area combined are surrounded with the same lush vegetation and beautiful red soil that I will probably get used to soon, but still at the moment astound me with their colourfulness. We even have our very own papaya trees and a mango tree the size of a substantial oak outside the main house which provides us with a free dessert daily!
The village is a sprawling affair of some 5-6,000 people, which rubs shoulders with the now longstanding camp of some 4,000 displaced Congolese refugees a little to the west. The hospital we support is about 600m up the dirt road from where we live, but handily the offices are in the same compound (well mostly handy, given that our curfew is dawn ‘til early dusk, but such proximity can lead to a unfortunate tendency to sit in front of the computers staring obsessively at data sheets and medical reports ‘til unhealthily late in the evenings. A habit I will try to avoid!).
There’s a small but lively night market until 9 each evening right in front of our compound gates which we can attend en masse occasionally for special occasions. Speaking of which it was my birthday the day after my arrival here! Given that I spent my birthday last year running around in a very busy hospital after a mass casualty incident in South Sudan, it was a pleasant change this year to spend it ambling slowly around my new hospital greeting all my new staff, (some more than once – my memory for faces and names is still sadly dismal) and slowly acquainting myself with the people and places that I will spend the next several months working with.
The staff seems friendly, the place is beautiful, and first impressions are great. Rather than the night market though for the evening I opted to crack into the ham and other assorted goodies with the team – Nile beer isn’t a traditional accompaniment to a cheese platter, but on this occasion it served very, very well.
So far, I totally love it here.
Which is just as well, because I’m certainly not getting on another one of those wretched small planes again for as long as I can possibly avoid it….