I’ve done much of the world. Five continents, 32 countries, too many cities: Algiers, Prague, Tunis, Hong Kong, Marrakesh. At one point it all seemed so alluring. Firenze. Distant places to explore. Buenos Aires. Different lands to understand. Shanghai. New cultures that would shock and awe. Baghdad.
How quickly the unsettling patterns emerge. Once you peel back the surface – look beyond the different tongues and tones and tastes – the once-exotic is revealed to be plainly mundane. People are people, are people are people are people. The needs are the same. The wants share a certain longing. You hold up hope and keep searching for a deeper difference only to have a plotting world frustrate romantic efforts.
Alan Morehead, writing fifty years ago of Sudan a century prior, writes that “it was not impossible that they believed themselves to be happy, or at any rate involved in an existence which was inevitable and eternal, and which they did not want to change. Only the barest echoes of other things reached them from the outside world—of the slavers coming up the Nile from Egypt and the Arab caravans from Zanzibar.” Today this life is nearly impossible. We are able to know too much of the world to ever be content.
A Cinnabon just opened in Tripoli. We, with our civilization, have made things a terrible bore. The same restaurants, the same brands, the same perspective. Hopes and dreams and fears are constant. When we can live our entire lives without being singed by a violent flame we are bound to lose touch with mortality. The distant siren of an emergency vehicle serves as a reminder: each of us pretends to know what we’re doing. Then we die. We repeat this in every city. In Dubai, dissatisfied teens huff spray paint from paper bags. Like they do in Detroit. And Dresden.
When life is without difficulty, when our needs are easily fulfilled, things get hard. If living presents no obstacles we have to create our own. The air at the peak of Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ is thin and draining. Tumble down a few levels and your head clears. Your eyes can focus on the bold waypoints of FOOD, WATER, SHELTER. You let them guide you on, discarding higher concerns. Basic needs are wonderfully explicable. Achieving self-possession slightly less so. Simpler to focus on the needs, deny their easy satisfaction in a civilized world. Time to really travel, to the last true border at the edge of humanity.
The text popped up on my phone over dinner, apropos of nada: “Want to go to Sudan?”
She saw the text. I made no effort to hide it. She was impressed. Is that why I do the things I do? Disregard. It pleases me that my life has come to this. That answering the stock “What do you do?” is an ordeal. That folks who have known me for a long while ask, “But seriously- what do you do?”
I usually don’t have a good answer. If I did, it would be along the lines of “everything I can,” but that seems too cheeky and clever for the answer’s own good. One observer advised I answer that I am a “pleasure-seeking, mountain-climbing, protector of the realm” and leave it at that. I am tempted to take her advice.
“Yes.” I texted, asking nothing more. I am perhaps too confident that information will come when I need it. The friend who texted works with Team Rubicon, a veteran-based disaster response and humanitarian aid organizations. Team Rubicon has a simple premise: send guys who have been to tough places, loved it, and survived it, back to tough places for the good of the people in need. We are used to doing more with less, living in “austere” conditions, and navigating “fluid” situations. And we always want a mission we can believe in. I had expressed my interest in participating in their operations before. Then, the timing wasn’t right. Now, degree in hand and without hard plans for the following month, I jumped at the chance. Within two days I had my assignment: Medic Team Leader for operations in the Upper Nile Region of South Sudan.
It came just in time, too. I was getting a deep itch, the type that can only be remedied through risk. With every passing day the urge to volunteer for a deployment to Afghanistan grew like an addiction demanding satisfaction. It wouldn’t rest, not until fed. Iraq was no more and I don’t want to miss my OEF window. War only presents itself on occasion, and rarely with the degree of flexibility to flow in and out of conflict areas in yearly whims. Sudan is as close as I can come without signing my name on the dotted line again, without going once more into that breach.
I write this from Schiphol. We are headed to Nairobi where my team will spend the night at an NGO compound, the organization beneath which our operations are subsumed. Then it is on to Juba and from there up to the Gendrassa and Batil refugee camps near the fresh border between Sudan and South Sudan. Juba, Khartoum, Khordofan. Distant places to explore. Different lands to understand. New cultures that will shock and awe.
Time to tumble down to consequence.