As I passed through security at Addis Ababa International it suddenly dawned on me how weird some of my trips were…how weird I was, actually. I mean, normal people save their money and take trips to places they look forward to visiting: destinations meant for fun, places that when they get there, they enjoy themselves so much they don’t want to leave! And here I am, traveling to places that scare the beejezus out of me; places not that I can’t wait to get to, but rather places I can’t wait to get out of! North Korea, Venezuela, Libya…these were all “no-go” destinations that the State Department and friends and family sternly advise not to go to, yet for some reason I felt the need to visit, and in a bizarre way was even more attracted to these types of danger zones.
Today I’d be heading to another one on the black list: South Sudan. The world’s youngest nation, established in 2011, this poor country failed before it even got started. There’s an ongoing civil war in South Sudan, as well as famine and a whole bunch of awful stuff. And here I am just poppin’ in for visit. What a weirdo.
Just like Libya, my plan for South Sudan was to get in and out, as quickly as I could. But unlike Libya, I was unsuccessful in finding a fixer, or guide, to care for me here. The closest I came was contact with the Crown Hotel there, whose general manager hooked me up with the property manager, who told me she’d arrange for airport transfers and a tour. The conversation was done via WhatsApp and I think much was lost in translation. Nevertheless, I was ready to drop in to this collapsed nation and get the hell out the next morning.
I was shocked to see three or four gringos and a couple Asians on my flight into Juba; what were they going to South Sudan for? Were there actually other crazy mofos like me out there? I felt relieved, but at the same time a little disappointed that I wasn’t the only gringo to brave South Sudan. I thought I was special! But I soon came to find out that these folks were all aide workers and humanitarians. I felt a little guilty I was coming to this extremely rife-stricken nation just to fool around and “check it off the list,” while other folks were traveling here to actually make a real difference.
It got real as soon as we landed at Juba International and I saw the fleet of World Food Program planes. These were giant cargo aircraft used to fly over areas of famine and literally drop food out of the sky. Less than a week ago I watched a piece on 60 Minutes about this very program—today I was seeing it with my own eyes. Incredible.
But what was more insane was the airport itself. Housed under Bedouin-like tents and tarps, I witnessed people’s feet fall through the floors, which were merely pieces of plywood sitting on top of frames of cinderblock. The makeshift airport was extremely crowded for such a small area. Everyone was so close together, it felt more like a dance floor at a club; without the music and dancing of course.
The immigration and passport control was just a shipping container with windows. And there was no conveyor belt for baggage pick up. I simply gave my luggage tag to a guy with a badge and he brought me my bag from who knows where. Next it was over to a table where a customs agent opened by bag to inspect the contents and then sent me on my way. Thankfully I spotted the driver from the hotel immediately and we were outta there.
Looking back, it was a fun experience to have gone through, but at the time, the whole thing was stressful for a few reasons: the main one being, you just don’t know what to expect. Governments like South Sudan’s are just so primitive and downright shady. They simply don’t have “tourists” here, so I stood out like a sore thumb. In fact, even getting the visa was a challenge—I had to present an official “letter of invitation” to even enter the country. So a million things could’ve gone wrong upon arrival. I could have been refused entry, been shaken down for a bribe, or simply had my money taken—I had a wad of cash tucked away in a zippered pocket of my backpack—it would have been so easy for any of those officers to take it from me. And what could I have done? I doubt there was a “customer service” desk at this airport.
I wanted to take pictures of this airport so badly; it was straight out of a 1980s Bruce Willis movie! I knew I’d have a tough time explaining just how primitive and chaotic this whole scene was and nothing I would say or write could justly paint an accurate picture; but not only were photos not allowed in the airport, but photography anywhere in the country was outlawed! How crazy is that?! I’m not just talking about snapping pics of military, police and government buildings—which is against the law in many countries—but taking photos in public altogether is against the law and carries severe punishment. You can be fined, jailed and worse.
Later in my trip, a source told me that she witnessed a Canadian man run into his hotel while being chased by the police for taking photos. The officers followed him into the hotel and beat him right there in the lobby, before hauling him away. Absolutely nuts! Even in North Korea you are allowed to take photos! I knew I was going to have a tough time abiding by this law. I’d sneak photos wherever I could, including at the airport: I hit record on my phone as a pretended to be on a call so I could capture some footage. Stupid I know, but I had to. I just had to.
It was a quick three-minute ride to The Crown Hotel, which was less than a half-mile away from airport. I was surprised at how beautiful the property was; it was a tall, modern and clean building. I’d been conversing online with one of the employees there for the past two months; Zufan helped me with my letter of invitation and had set me up with a driver/tour. I dropped my bags in the room and it was off to see South Sudan.
My driver was a Ugandan named Geoffrey. For the next six hours, we cruised all around Juba and a few neighboring towns. I’m afraid I don’t have anything to0 awe inspiring or exciting to report. It was definitely a neat town, but there was nothing remarkable to see, nor did anything crazy happen. I was actually surprised at the lack of military and police presence. In Mali, I’d seen heavily armed soldiers manning the corner of just about every other block. This was far from the case in Juba, however, I did see a ton of UN SUVs and trucks at every turn.
There was a lot I wanted to photograph and whenever I’d pass a picture-worthy scene, I’d do my best to snap a mental picture. It killed me not to be able to document everything on my camera.
Some interesting things I saw that I was not able to photograph: a goat chilling inside a burnt out car (literally in the driver’s seat), a billboard for South Supreme Airways, and people bathing in the Nile.
We stopped at two different markets—one was a food market and the second a general merchandise market. Both were more rudimentary than many markets I’ve seen in Africa, but cleaner than the average, which is always nice. (The markets in Ivory Coast were absolutely filthy and disgusting. I imagined this was what hell is like. It was genuinely hard to stomach).
We stopped for lunch at a really cool riverside restaurant and hotel called Da Vinci Lodge. This shaded stone patio overlooking the Nile was a nice break from the heat and poverty that lay just 1,000 feet away. I quickly realized this was the main place where visitors stayed and ate, and I tried to discern the different accents as I walked past tables eavesdropping. It looked and sounded like there were people from every continent eating lunch at this joint. I ordered the local beer and curry chicken. Geoffrey had goat. Midway through our meal a monkey walked right past us and over to a door, which he opened and entered, as if he was an employee there. I loved it and wish I would’ve been quick enough with my camera so capture him. You could take pictures at the lodge—it was private property—so I captured a few moments on my phone while I could.
After lunch Geoffrey took me to the port, which was nothing but a dirt lot next to the riverbank. On our way out, I noticed a radio station and I just had to stop. For those who don’t know me personally, I’ve been a radio DJ since the age of 15…it’s my other passion besides travel, and I get a huge thrill out of visiting radio stations in foreign countries. The more bizarre the country, the more fun it is to see the radio station(s) there, so spotting a station in South Sudan was a major score! Luckily some of the staff was outside and Geoffrey made the introductions and we all chatted for a while. It was Sunday, so the building was closed, but they graciously invited me to stop in on the morning show the next day. How awesome is that!
Geoffrey now knew my desire to see radio stations, and how cool of him to spot another radio tower minutes later, and head in that direction to see if we’d have any luck. And we did! I was soon touring the studios of 88.4 Cities FM. I conversed with a couple of the staff members there and even planted the seed about my syndicated Sunday Night Slow Jams show. It would be so dope to be on the radio in South Sudan!
Other stops that day included a small cluster of souvenir stands, where I was lucky enough to find a South Sudan patch for my jacket. We stopped at grocery and general goods store, which was actually very nice for the area; and our last stop was some sort of indoor and outdoor social club. I’m still not sure if I understood what the place was all about, but it had a nightclub and a big concrete patio and bars and snacks outside. My description sounds a lot nicer than the place was. It was pretty dumpy, but apparently the “place to be” in Juba. Again, another time I was disappointed I couldn’t take out my phone and take pictures. My explanation of this club will never do it justice.
I did manage to snap just a couple photos from the car when we were driving, but it was apparent that made Geoffrey nervous. If I was seen taking pictures by the authorities, it could have gotten not just me, but Geoffrey in trouble too. But man, seeing a heard of long-horn bulls cruising through a busy intersection—I couldn’t resist filming that!
By the time Geoffrey dropped me back at the hotel I was pooped. I was hot, stinky and tired. It didn’t take me long to fall asleep, and I was glad to be back in the comfort of my nice hotel. I had survived South Sudan.
But wait a minute…who am I to take the easy road? The day wasn’t over. I’d invited Zufan for dinner to thank her for all of her assistance over the past few months. From the invitation letter, to finding a tour company who’d drive me around (remember, there are no “tourists” in South Sudan), to replying to all my questions and concerns about the current situation and volatility in town; Zufan really went above and beyond for me.
She wasn’t allowed to dine at her own hotel (against policy), so instead we’d eat at The Tulip Hotel down the street. Zufan and a driver scooped me up around 8:45PM and we headed to The Tulip for a nice meal. Zufan was from Ethiopia and was excited I had just been to her home before coming to South Sudan. I thought it was interesting she’d come to such a dangerous place just to work at a hotel. We exchanged stories while eating and I enjoyed my first Tusker beer.
Before we could finish the meal, Zufan told me we ought to get going soon. At first I didn’t understand what the rush was. Was I that bad of company? But I soon realized it was because South Sudan is not a country you want to be out in after dark. The danger increases every passing minute once the sun is down. Sure enough, we were stopped by a militia checkpoint not even a quarter of a mile into our journey back to The Crown. I was super nervous, but we got through it okay. Luckily the driver was friends with one of the gun wielding young men who inspected our car. He looked inside the van, chatted a bit with the driver, and we were off. The streets were dark as death and I was relieved the moment we arrived back at my hotel. I couldn’t imagine driving around at night in Juba, even with a guide. It’s just something you don’t do. Take a walk outside after dark? Out of the question.
Buh bye now
I slept okay and enjoyed a nice breakfast buffet at the Crown before being shuttled off to the airport. I got in, but could I get out? Luckily, yes; no problems leaving. I was in company of more aide workers and even a gringo with a big camera who I assumed was press. I chatted it up with a young man who was a pilot for MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship), an organization that provided flights for missionary and humanitarian workers. We sat on the broken chairs under the tent and watched more people’s feet fall through the broken plywood floors of the makeshift terminal. I was happy to have seen South Sudan and checked this one off the list, without incident.
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