Category Archives: Travel

That Time I was a Volcano Refugee

On my About Me page, I alluded to the possibility of writing about my experience traveling in Africa – to add an entertaining counterweight to my more analytical rants and musings on the events unfolding on the continent.

Early yesterday morning, the international arrivals terminal at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Nairobi, Kenya was gutted in a four-hour blazeFortunately, no one was injured, and measures are being put in place to resume full operations at the airport by this evening. Regardless, as JKIA is a hub for air transportation in the region, with some 16,000 passengers transiting dailyit is difficult to imagine that such transportation in East Africa will not be crippled until JKIA fully recovers – or until a regional alternative is sought out.

Those of you who travel frequently to the continent know that there are relatively few hubs where you can fly from one African country to another, or nonstop to the U.S. So here’s a story about my efforts to get to one of those hubs from JKIA and get home to the U.S. – while avoiding European airspace.

A few years ago, I presented a paper at a conference in Nairobi. My flight to DC via Amsterdam was scheduled to leave on Friday night, so I had planned a whole day of sightseeing and shopping all over the city before heading to the airport. The night before, my mother had warned me via email that my flights into and out of Amsterdam might be canceled due to the volcanic ash from Iceland.

On Friday, in the midst of playing with baby elephants and feeding giraffes, I overheard several American and European tourists lamenting the fact that the airlines were not able to determine when they could fly home. They spoke of delays not in terms of hours or days, but in terms of weeks. Rather than going shopping, which I had been looking forward to for weeks, I raced back to the hotel to see if I could get the conference organizers to book me another flight through Addis Ababa, Ethiopia or Johannesburg, South Africa – two of the few hubs for transcontinental air traffic in Africa.

With the amount of information available to us at the time on the projected spread of the ash, I was clearly more bent out of shape than the conference organizers about my prospects for getting stranded in Nairobi, where my options for returning to the US would be extremely limited. Knowing that I needed to be back at CNA by Tuesday morning for an Africa maritime security seminar for my project, I told the conference organizers that I didn’t care what needed to be done or how circuitous the route, but if I wasn’t back in DC by Monday night, I would lose my job. True or not, my flair for the dramatic paid off. With little time to spare before their flight to Addis departed, they packed me up and took me with them, promising that I would get flights home from there.

I had informed my boss and my project sponsor that it was quite possible that I would get stranded indefinitely somewhere in Africa, as most flights from Africa to the US go through Europe. My boss replied by mentioning some Eyjafjallajokull thing. I didn’t know what that was. I assumed he’d fallen on his keyboard and made a massive typo. My sponsor’s response – “Sorry to hear that. Can you write a quick turn around paper on the situation in Sudan?” So, in the midst of my last minute dash to the airport, I frantically typed out some poorly spelled, poorly worded key points on my Blackberry as the taxi swerved in and out of Nairobi rush hour traffic. And oh yes, my mother was also sending me frantic emails saying “You’re leaving Kenya for ETHIOPIA??? I don’t understand. There’s a State Department warning against traveling there close to the elections!!!”

Normally when I travel to new countries, I like to arrive well informed about my surroundings. I boarded an Ethiopian Airlines plane without a visa, without sufficient knowledge about traveling in the country as a single female, and concerned that I was affiliated with these conference organizers who came from a think tank whose activities had been severely repressed over the past few months as the Ethiopian government prepared to steal hold elections the next month. The last elections had been accompanied by violence, and although the U.S. and Ethiopia were on decent terms, I wasn’t mentally prepared to be around if the excrement hit the oscillating unit.

I arrived in Addis on Friday night and the conference organizers gave me a flight leaving Monday at 1am to Istanbul, and then on to New York, and then on to Dulles, arriving Monday night. Having received an email from my mother saying the cloud was moving south and east, I asked for an earlier flight, but to no avail. They gave me 2 days in a hotel near the airport, a $100 bill which was actually too old to use in Ethiopia, and pointed me in the direction of the visa office. The visa officials asked me how long I would be staying, and I said I didn’t know. At this point, I was really concerned that my flight from Addis would be canceled if the ash moved into Turkish airspace. To lighten the mood, I was about to make a joke about being a refugee in their country until I realized it was incredibly inappropriate. So I got a 6 week visa and prayed that I could get out of the city before the elections in May.

Still in shock, I was delivered to the hotel, which was an oasis of calm in a sea of construction chaos. I was given a lovely room with a flooded balcony adjacent to an abandoned building. Ordinarily, I would have been thrilled to explore a new city, but the hotel staff was not at all helpful in explaining to me what their city had to offer and how they could arrange for me to go sightseeing. Over the course of the next two days, I was glued to the TV and the internet awaiting the latest news on European airspace closures and plotting out scenarios of flying home through Dubai if Istanbul didn’t work out. Occasionally, I would have a panic attack that I would be indefinitely stranded in Addis. I left the hotel once – only to prevent an international incident that was almost brought on by non-functioning internet at the hotel the day before I was scheduled to depart.

During one of my interactions with the hotel staff, I met a random Sudanese businessman who consulted for Saudi companies investing all over Africa. Prior to our meeting, I had no idea the extent of Saudi investment on the continent. Over tea, he advised that I take a flight to Jeddah and head east to get back to the U.S. if Istanbul didn’t work out. That night, I got down on my knees and told God that if he got me home soon, I would do whatever He asked – even if it meant quitting my job and giving up all my worldly belongings. I am not a religious person, but I just wanted to go home.

Thanks to Turkey not closing the airspace over Istanbul even as the ash was closing in, I was able to land there in the morning and catch my flight to JFK in the afternoon. Upon arriving at JFK, I begged the people at the ticket counter to please give me not only an earlier flight to DC, but to also make me not fly in to Dulles. I knew that I was far too stressed and tired to bother to make it home to downtown DC if I didn’t fly into National. Heck, I was so relieved that the ordeal was over that I almost gave up at JFK. I arrived home on Monday night at 8pm, after 81 hours in transit from Nairobi to Addis Ababa to Istanbul to the United States. So if I quit my job and sell all my worldly belongings, you’ll know why.

The following Wednesday (the 21st), KLM notified me that my Nairobi to DC itinerary from the 16th had been cancelled and sent me a ticket to leave Nairobi on the 24th. Way to be on top of things, KLM.


What I (was NOT) doing in African Country B & Chad’s recent (alleged) coup attempt

On occasion, I write about my experience traveling in Africa – to add an entertaining counterweight to my more analytical rants and musings on the events unfolding on the continent. The following is about my current travel covering parts of Africa and Europe.

Dear Readers,

Earlier this week, I was in Chad (African Country B). And I’m gonna come right out and say it – I had little to no involvement in the apparent coup attempt  that may or may not have occurred in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena yesterday.

Although news is still emerging about this attempt to “destabilize the institutions of the republic,” here’s what we know:

So in sum, there’s still a lot we don’t know. As an external observer, there are two conclusions I’ve come to:

  1. If there was an opportune time to launch a coup in Chad, now’s the time. If there was a coup-plotter’s equivalent to the well-known poem “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” (from which the oft-quoted phrase “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” comes) this would be it. What I mean is, with 2,000 of his best assault forces currently deployed in northern Mali, Déby is more vulnerable than he would be if they were not over 1500 miles away. With the president publicly signaling that these forces may be withdrawn from northern Mali, the time to unseat him would be before these forces returned home. In March, Timan Erdimi, exiled leader of the Union of Forces of Resistance (UFR) threatened to renew its previous rebellion, apparently over discontent that peace talks had never taken place. (I must caveat, though, that at present I have no indication as to who might have been behind yesterday’s disturbances). Erdimi, who is also Déby’s nephew, was a member of the coalition that almost toppled Déby in February 2008 by sweeping west across the country in a matter of days, laying siege to the presidential palace for two days before retreating east. Déby was rescued by French intervention – the French military presence of 1,000 troops and associated support elements, which already existed at the time, continuing to provide a guarantor of regime stability to this day.
  2. Yesterday’s events could simply be a regime-manufactured part of the larger game Déby has been playing with the international community since Chad entered the fight in Mali several months ago. Chad is well aware that it was the only African country that was capable of rapidly deploying highly capable assault forces to halt the January 2013 Islamist offensive into southern Mali. However, it appears that the international community has not, in turn, demonstrated its gratitude. With Chad hundreds of millions of dollars in the red over its Mali deployment, it may behoove Déby to demonstrate how much he could really use that influx of cash so that he could afford to sustain Chadian troops in Mali for the benefit of regional & global security. (For great analysis on Déby’s great game with the international community, see Celeste Hicks and Alex Thurston).

Anyway, that’s my take on things. I’m headed to African Country C tomorrow, and it’s already shaping up to be quite an eventful week.

What I did in African Country A (Niger)

On occasion, I write about my experience traveling in Africa – to add an entertaining counterweight to my more analytical rants and musings on the events unfolding on the continent. The following is about my current travel covering parts of Africa and Europe.

Dear Readers,

The jig is up! I’ve moved on from African Country A, which I wrote a bit about last week, so I can now tell you that I was in Niger. I got to do several cool things while I was there.

Niger River at Sunset

Niger River at Sunset

First, I got to be a fly on the wall during meetings with representatives of the youth movement, NGOs, and the media. There, I was privy to Nigerien civil society perspectives on the country’s trajectory, including the proactive measures President Mahamadou Issoufou had taken to mitigate spillover from instability in Libya and Mali, the country’s youth bulge and why youth engagement is so critical, fears over the spread of violent extremism from northern Nigeria into Maradi and Zinder, and instances of complicity in narcotrafficking among segments of the Nigerien political class.

Later in the week, I had the opportunity to observe a simulation of a hostage rescue by the Nigerien gendarmes.

Gendarmes prepare for hostage rescue simulation

Gendarmes prepare for hostage rescue simulation

During the simulation, I wandered into the structure where the “terrorists” were holding the “hostages,” not entirely aware that a full-scale assault was imminent. In the video that I took (which I’ve decided not to post here), you see the gendarmes entering, shooting two blanks, and the camera (held by me) diving instinctively towards the ground. What is not seen or heard in the video is my soft and slightly panicked whimpering. Later on, I got to see how the unit apprehended some of the terrorists who escaped the initial operation, searched their vehicle, and had an evidence collection unit process the scene. Since I don’t have a law enforcement background and the United States doesn’t have an equivalent to gendarmerie, it was pretty cool to see how the simulation played out from start to finish.

Gendarmerie stops fleeing terrorists during simulation

Gendarmerie stops fleeing terrorists during simulation

I insisted on visiting the Musée National du Niger, and although most of the pavilions were closed at the time, I did get to preview a forthcoming exhibit on the traditional dress of Niger’s Hausa, Songhai, and Tuareg populations. I also visited the Grande Mosquée de Niamey, which was very beautiful and offered a great view of part of the city from the minaret.

Grande Mosquée de Niamey

(Part of the) Grande Mosquée de Niamey

On my last night in Niamey, I was the guest speaker at the English Language Club at the U.S. Embassy’s American Cultural Center. I opened the session by talking about my identity as a first-generation American and then opened the session up to questions from the Nigerien audience. And let me tell you – these people gave me a run for my money! They asked me questions that covered topics from the patriotism and ethnic identity among other first generation Americans to gay rights to gun control to the politics of the climate change discourse in the United States. At the end, one of the participants asked me what I thought of Niamey and if I would return. “I’ve found Niamey quite charming, and YES I must return and experience more of the country.” I responded. “I’ve only just scratched the surface!” 

First 24 hours in African Country A (and adventures re-learning French)

On occasion, I write about my experience traveling in Africa – to add an entertaining counterweight to my more analytical rants and musings on the events unfolding on the continent. The following is about my current travel covering parts of Africa and Europe. Just to be safe, I won’t mention where I am until head to the next country on my itinerary, but hopefully that doesn’t dissuade you from reading on:

I’ve started my one month long, six country tour that will have me in African Country A, France, African Country B, Germany, African Country C, and African Country D before I head back to the States in mid-May. Since this is my first time in Country A, I’ve naturally been inclined to seek out some sort of familiarity to the city I’m in based on where I’ve traveled before. The city is dusty, hot, conservative, pleasant, refined. It makes me think that this city would be the outcome if Yaoundé, Cameroon and Tamale, Ghana had a lovechild.

Upon arrival, I could tell that the immigration officer who stamped my passport  suspected that I was an International Woman of Mystery based on the assortment of seemingly random visas and passport stamps. He looks up and asks “Qu’est-ce que votre profession – exactement?” I fumble for the words for ‘one who researches national security’ since my default foreign language is, and will always be, Portuguese. That’s what comes from studying abroad in a Lusophone country rather than a Francophone one.

I muscle my way out of baggage claim and customs only to find no placard with my name on it held by any of my in-country points of contact. After about 10 minutes, the same immigration officer walks by and asks why I haven’t been picked up. I respond that I’m “hoping for” (vs “waiting for”) a driver from my hotel. Damn you French verbs. He disappears and a woman comes over asking me if I’m Anna. (I go by Anne or Anna when I travel, since most people simply ignore or can’t be bothered with pronouncing Lesley). She apologizes for not finding me earlier, saying “Anna! Nous cherchions une blanche!” (We were looking for a white woman.) We share a laugh as she escorts me to the hotel shuttle.

After checking in, the bellhop helps me up to my room with the luggage, but first we have a showdown with the elevator. As it turns out, the door militantly closes on occupants if they do not enter or leave the elevator in a timely fashion. I watch in terror as the door assaults an unsuspecting European guest. An African guest asks me “Avez-vous peur de notre pays?” (Are you afraid of our country?) I respond “Non, mais j’ai peur de l’ascenseur!” (No, but I’m afraid of the elevator!) Once we’re all safely packed in the elevator, the man asks where I’m from and what I’m doing there. I quickly realize that my usual cover story when I’m abroad – that I’m Trinidadian and I’m traveling as a tourist – doesn’t hold up at all in this place. I dislike having to explain what I do since I always get that ‘are you sure you’re not a spy’ side-glance. I manage to deflect his questions, which is easy enough b/c this dude loves talking about himself and the fact that he’s here to visit his former classmate who’s now the president.

The following day, I started my meetings and peeked in on a conference on regional security where I learned about interoperability between the local military and law enforcement in French. I don’t speak military French, so I was pretty thrilled to be able to understand what was going on. Later on, I asked to visit the museum, where I got a preview of an exhibit on the traditional dress of Country A’s various ethnic groups. By night I enjoyed brochettes de viande that were quite good, mostly because meat actually has flavor outside the U.S. And now it’s time for bed, since I have a long day of tagging along on meetings with civil society ahead of me. Also, the power keeps going out.

And then the dude said “I want to have a happy new year” (Part II)

On occasion, I write about my experience traveling in Africa – to add an entertaining counterweight to my more analytical rants and musings on the events unfolding on the continent. The following (Part II) is about the conclusion of a trip I took with a friend several years ago. It is intentionally vague about what countries we visited:


During one of our stays with friends, Emma had fallen in love with their beautiful 4 foot tall metal silhouette of an African woman carrying water with a cattle horn as her dress. She managed to find a less expensive replica in the next city we visited, and insisted on buying it. I thought she was insane, since we were only 2/3 done with our trip and were constantly on the move. In defiance, I purchased a gorgeous hand-carved mahogany chair (No, not one of those silly ones with safari animals on it) in the next city. I was not going to be the only one of us with incredibly inconvenient, fragile, and cumbersome cargo.

By the grace of God, Emma’s horn statue and my carved chair made it – undamaged, through multiple flight legs – to our final destination on the continent, where we proceeded to prepare them to be checked baggage on our long journeys home. All the skirts, pants, t-shirts, etc that we’d been wearing for the past 3 weeks created a protective patchwork between our artwork and the layers of brown paper and tape that we’d purchased at the grocery. When we’d finished, our elaborately wrapped packages were impenetrable.

So we arrive at the airport and put the damn things through the x-ray machine at the entrance… but the security guard says he can’t see through all the packaging and we have to take everything apart. Not being the brightest crayon in the box, I completely fail to see what’s going on, so I stand up there, questioning how an x-ray machine could be unable to penetrate layers of paper, tape, and well, undergarments. The situation devolves into me arguing that the security guard is being illogical, and this diminutive guard insisting that we have to unpack the statue and the chair right there at the entrance to this airport. We reach an impasse, and I retreat to a corner to cool off while Emma tries her hand at resolving this conflict. After the haggling and the drama of the previous 3 weeks, I was done being pushed around.

A few minutes later, the guard comes back, smiling, and tells me everything’s okay. I ask Emma what happened, but she hustles us past the entrance and won’t speak of it until we’ve checked in for our flight, checked our precious cargo, and passed through another round of security.

Me: Why did that dude end up letting us go?

Emma: I gave him ten bucks.

Me: You did WHAT?!? (I’m against paying someone off purely based on our status as foreigners.)

Emma: Yeah, he said he ‘wanted to have a happy new year’ and I wanted to make our flight, so we went in the corner away from the cameras and I gave him ten bucks.

And there was I thinking my logic had worn down this guy’s resolve. Lesson learned, my friends.

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