Life in Laos through the lens of a diplomatic wife raising twin toddlers.
Kass really was the middle of no where. Viewed from a distance, the town just looked like part of the dry savannah landscape we had traveled over, a few straw-roofed huts and brick walls in view. When our driver announced that we had arrived, I asked, “Where? Kass? Really?” Once in town, we drove passed brick-walled compounds of Kass residents and clusters of IDP domed mud or stick huts topped with UNICEF relief plastic rain tarps before reaching our office/guest house – a walled-in concrete house with four rooms, sand courtyard, outdoor kitchen and bathrooms. In the mid-day sun, the parched white walls glared and heat rose from the concrete floors. The room for our office had some equipment scattered about covered in plastic as if thrown in hastily just for storage but not for function. Dust choked our nostrils and throats as we unloaded the trucks, assembled our desks, arranged our office equipment, got the generator to work, and finally turned on the ceiling fans, which immediately disturbed the family of pigeons living in the false corrugated tin ceiling (my husband curses those pigeons until this day, but more on that later).
By the next day, the office was completely functional, with faxes, landline, email, satellite phones, and VHF radios plugged in and working. Our ‘home’ became more livable, too, with beds, mosquito nets, a dining table, and food in the kitchen. That night, we even managed to cozy up and watched a DVD with pop-corn and coke.
Our tasks for the following days was to meet and talk to the other agencies doing work in and around Kass, and to survey the IDP settlements around town. I call them settlements and not camps because Kass was a unique situation compared to the other IDP camps in South Darfur which were mostly settled in a government designated area completely barren and far away from any settled towns or villages. Kass, however, started out as a small town with a population of about 30,000 people. But within a year of the start of conflict in the surrounding region, the total Kass population grew to more than 100,000. And the influx of IDP’s did not settle into a discreet camp. They settled wherever they could throughout the town, in any open space available which were often times right outside of another person’s house or business. It was a strange mix of citizens who had been living in Kass all their lives, and all the IDP’s escaping violence and sleeping on the town’s doorsteps. This posed a logistical nightmare to humanitarian agencies who (ourselves included) had a difficult time registering and confirming legitimate beneficiaries of aid. There were some false IDP registrations by citizens who wanted in on the aid supplies. I’ll expand more on this when I start talking about our specific projects.
That afternoon, we were also pleased to hear that two of the new staff who we hired while in Nyala were expected to arrive soon, a much needed translation support to get more things done for the house and office. In the mean time, while I tried to orient the housekeeper to our way of life, my husband interviewed security guards. Security was the first priority given to us by our boss. Apparently, we needed 24 hour guard coverage even though I never really knew what they were supposed to do (they are un-armed in the event of a violent attack) except to open the gate for our trucks, screen visitors, drink tea, and sleep. Our driver would even relax and drink tea with them since we preferred to drive ourselves around town – maintaining a sense (whether false or foolish) of independence was key to our mental adjustment to life here.
Our first few days were hectic, but pleasant and peaceful. We sat outside at night and gazed at the amazing amount of stars, listening to sounds of Kass – singing and yelping with some occassional distant (hopefully celebratory) gunshots. While we tried to sleep, we couldn’t decide at first what was more annoying, the dogs, the roosters or the donkeys (all of which are very quiet during the day), but we quickly came to really hate the pigeons over our heads on the corrugated tin roof the following morning.
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What strange sounds and settings have kept you up at night in far away places?