Oddity Log: Somewhere in October

It’s been an interesting old week. And I mean interesting in the British use of the word.

Technically, its week two of a new deployment, but since I spent the first week stuck in the capital reading and preparing for one donor meeting, I don’t really think that counts. In the end it turned out that the donor representative was a guy that I had met previously in Sudan, and upon meeting each other at 2pm in a coffee shop, we rapidly concluded that the meeting would have been much better scheduled for 7pm in a pub.

This week, I travelled to my ‘nearly’ field base. I say nearly because it’s the nearest current field base to an area that I am going to assess and try to set up another. But really, the first one is not actually functional. My assessment was delayed because there were no cars, then there was no money, and now it appears we’re not even sure whether the place I am going to work is actually safe for anyone to work in at all. Coupled with that the office has run out of every possible useful thing like paper, printer ink, wifi and oh, I already said money, right? So things are frustratingly slow.

It’s really bloody hot. I am really annoyed about this because when I was last home, I met up with a friend who I’ve only ever seen on deployments before. His reaction on seeing me was, ‘Wow! You look great! It’s so nice to see you in your normal clothes!’ When I jokingly asked if that meant I always looked like shit on deployments, he responded, ‘Well… yes.’ So after that, I tried extra hard to pack a wardrobe that walked that narrow line between ‘field-practical’ and ‘Banana Republic model’. But now, it’s so bloody hot that I want to discard any notion of clothes and sit naked, preferably in some kind of wind tunnel constructed from standing fans, in an homage to a Britney Spears video circa 2003.

Add to that I’ve been on my period and this week it’s been a particularly nasty little fucker. Every so often my reproductive system likes to remind me that my perceived control of my own body is an illusion and that in fact, she’s the boss, by smacking me about with a god-awful one. So I have been enjoying the delights of trying to rapidly, noiselessly sort myself out in the poorly soundproofed toilet attached to the WASH office, without the aid of toilet paper or a bin. Yes, I said next to a WASH office (cue face palm emoji). In fact, me and my manager brainstormed a wish list of things we needed for the office, and toilet paper only came in at number 6 because we are such dedicated humanitarians items for programme function come higher than items for personal hygiene… When I wasn’t running to the loo every two minutes, worried that the inordinate amount of sweat off my arse was in fact leakage, I was sat trying to be nice to people whilst feeling like the Highways Agency was building a new motorway bypass on my lower spine.

I got some bad news this week. A friend and old time flame of mine from some years back had passed away, and although I wasn’t very close to him anymore, it shocked me to think of someone so young and full of life ceasing to be. It made me think a lot about my life and what I’m doing…. would I really look back at this week and think, ‘yeah, I was rocking that shit, I was living my dream’? I feel like for the last month or so I have been treading a line close to a full on breakdown… or at least several prolonged biscuit binge eating sessions. I’m so near tipping over into hiding under duvet territory that I’m not sure how much yoga, meditation or ‘positivity themed’ memes are going to right me up again.

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Not the kind of positivity I was looking for, NHS. 

Alongside my 99 other problems, a boy adds one. There is a guy I like, who also likes me, but it’s just not happening. It might be the 6000 miles separating us. It might be the lack of internet connectivity to have a decent conversation and then again, it might be that he’s not actually bothered to ask me how I’m doing in my new post. The answer – in case you are wondering – is ‘not as well as I would be doing if you were actually bothered/interested/at the same stage as me in the relationship forming stakes’. So I am also dealing with my own disappointment that its auf wiedersehen to another eX-Factor hopeful, and hello to the temporary – possibly reproductive system driven – low state that comes with wondering whether you will ever actually have a meaningful relationship when you don’t stay in one location for more than three months.

It’s weeks like this, I’m reminded of the part in one of the Harry Potter’s where Ron claims, ‘One person can’t feel all that at once, they’d explode’, and Hermione quips, ‘Just because you’ve got the emotional range of a teaspoon doesn’t mean we all have’. In this scenario I like to think that Mr. eX-Factor is the emotional-intelligence-deficient teaspoon. I need to give myself a bit of credit, I haven’t exploded yet. To be honest I feel more like on the edge of melting into a sweaty puddle. And as for all of the other nagging stuff that tinkers with my brain when I’m trying to sleep on a mattress on the floor of my Funding Manager’s hotel room… I’m sure it will quieten when I get busy, and instead find another, completely unrelated circumstance in which to reappear, making me look like an utter lunatic. Oh, I do look forward to that day. Until then, I might have to keep a stock of biscuits nearby, just in case.

The Land Cruiser Effect

If you asked me to name my favourite thing about working in the humanitarian sector, I would be hard pushed to find just one thing. But if you asked me what ranks up there in the top five, I’m going to have to say the cars. No, I didn’t make a typo like the now infamous ‘bear hands’, it genuinely is cars.

I’ve always been a fan of cars; in fact, I come from good, car-obsessed stock, with a father who consults What Car for spiritual guidance more often than a religious text, and an uncle who renovates classic cars. Not every girl is so lucky to receive a Volkswagen Beetle calendar for their 14th birthday, a gift that I genuinely treasured. I would spend evenings reading through my dad’s old car magazines, and I still cannot resist the pull of a Top Gear re-run. When I was 17, I started dating a guy who had a very old Land Rover, and one day he let me drive it. I remember the pedals being huge, (‘so that you can feel them through your wellington boots,’ he assured me), the steering being stiff and the gear box a crazy revelation of sticks and levers that seemed totally unnecessary in any other car. I think that was the day that I fell in love… not with him, but with 4X4s.

And then came humanitarianism. Sure, when I was working on short term projects, arriving at the airport and climbing into the back of a UN branded Toyota Landcruiser seemed a little bit over the top for a trundle to a hotel in downtown Nairobi, but I was in heaven. I am convinced that a Toyota Land Cruiser is my spirit animal. Ready for anything, slightly uncomfortable, but capable of some very interesting things when handled properly, it’s like we were two items made to the same design specification.

When you work in the field, cars become a big part of your life, and as such, many aid workers will also share similar tales of their love for a particular brand of all-terrain vehicle. In Lisa Smirl’s book, ‘Spaces of Aid’, the SUV is one of the key spaces in which an aid worker operates, becoming not just a means to an end of delivering humanitarian assistance, but an ‘active, constitutive part of aid relations.’ And it’s true: In Jordan, my three hour daily commute meant my car became my office (complete with coffee in Bodum travel press – you know you have one); in Sierra Leone, my bumpy cross district trips with my team became our opportunity to bond and become close friends; and in Madagascar, our cross country travels became our karaoke and disco sessions.

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Don’t worry, baby, you’ll always be beautiful to me. Credit: Toyota

Another thing I love is driving. As with many things I love doing, I’m not particularly good at it – possibly a touch too girl racer – but I give it an enthusiastic go. One of the most disappointing things about working in the sector is that you don’t often get to drive. This is mainly because NGOs do not trust you with their most expensive assets, which is pure torture for a girl like me, looking at a yard full of beautiful, shiny, kindred spirit Toyotas and being unable to jump into one and drive it sideways along the steepest embankment I can find. Perhaps ‘The Management’ has a point though; on one rare mission where I was able to drive, I forgot that the rest of the world drives differently to us Brits and nearly pulled out headlong into oncoming traffic. I told you that driving was possibly not my specialist skill. Once – just once – I got to drive a beauty of a Toyota 4×4 across Djibouti. It was my first time driving overseas, first time driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, first time driving off-road and my first time with a Land Cruiser. Yeah that’s right, I said with, it’s a beautiful moment in my head, I’m romanticising it! My colleague – at first incredulous that I even wanted to drive, then claiming that as a man, the car was an extension of his body and therefore it was his right to drive it – eventually caved in and coached me through the experience. I remember him saying, ‘so, you know now, like you feel that the end of the car is sliding?’ I nodded. ‘Mmm, that’s when you’re going too fast,’ he noted. I did later get bonus points for driving behind a rogue goat, rather than in front of it.

The problem with being the passenger is placing your life into someone else’s hands. This can be problematic in a range of circumstances, for example, when you are picked up from the airport and your driver sends text messages on his mobile phone for the entire duration of a one hour motorway journey. Or when your driver is taking you to a remote community at approximately 2,800m altitude up a one track, crash barrier-less, sandy road which doesn’t appear to be quite wide enough for your vehicle. Or when the road ahead appears to be a cliff face, but your driver shoves the car into low range and essentially makes it rock climb to the top. Actually, those last two experiences were awesome, however, the fact remains that road accidents are the biggest killers of humanitarian workers on a year to year basis. In many places, vehicle standards and even basic safety practices are woefully lacking, and many is the time that you will find yourself in a car without seatbelts. As much as bumping around in a 4X4 is fun, humanitarian work is risky enough as it is not to take basic safety precautions when travelling in cars. The one space you don’t want that magnificent metal box becoming is an interim coffin.

Sadly, in my latest deployment, the ubiquitous Uber seems to have replaced the company fleet. I suppose that this is a good thing – cheaper, more economical, provides an income to a wider pool of individuals – but I still pine for my spiritual, combustion-engined counterpart. I had been saving up for a house deposit, but after this post, come and meet me in the ‘classic 4X4s’ section of What Car Magazine.