Derailed plans, a lack of depth and books that keep on waiting

Posted: November 17, 2007 in Blog

I was six hours into my stay at the pub yesterday when I got a phone call at six p.m.

No, I don’t need to own up to any drinking problems. I was there for strictly professional reasons. (No, seriously, the Internet was down, or shaky, at most places around the city so I spent the day working in a pub that had functioning wireless Internet.)

But I was just packing up my bag to go to the gym and have an otherwise relaxing evening (‘Hey, maybe I’ll watch a movie,’ I thought. ‘No, I’ll dive into that great-looking book I just borrowed from a friend’) when my cell phone rang.

The call display showed it was one of my editors.

With all due respect to editors everywhere, that is never a good sign.

Editors don’t call to say hi; Editors call to ruin plans.

“Chris the Commonwealth secretary-general’s plane comes in at 9 tonight. Transport leaves Kampala at 7. Be there.”

Oh man. Secretary-general means I have to dress nice. Anyone who knows me, knows that I’m not exactly a suit and tie kinda guy. So, it being a day when I was catching up on writing and not attending any events, I had worn jeans, running shoes and casual shirt on Friday. This meant I had to get home, change, pack my bag full of all the normal accessories (tape recorder, extra tapes, extra batteries, notebooks, pens, back-up pens, camera, extra camera battery, Commonwealth meeting media accreditation, Monitor press pass and other photo I.D. since security is so tight, a book to read in case we have a long wait, etc.) and get back downtown in horrific traffic, all in 45 minutes.

Somehow, I did it, though I had to flag down the van so I could hop on as it drove away from the meeting spot.

It was already getting dark as we began leaving the city for the airport. Traffic has been horrendous these last few days, as the city slowly fills with Commonwealth delegates and security officials begin closing off major roads for convoys of dignitaries.

Last night was no different. We sat in traffic for what seemed like ages. I was tucked in a corner of the van with penlight clenched between my teeth as I jotted down questions and issues to raise with the secretary-general if I, by chance, got a moment to talk with him.

I looked up periodically, often finding us careening into oncoming traffic as our driver tried every tactic he could think of to get us out of the traffic jam. But don’t worry, he was leaning on the horn the whole time, which, apparently, repels oncoming traffic.

Feeling no desire to witness a constant progression of near-accidents, I kept my eyes mostly peeled to my notebook. What I don’t see can’t hurt me.

About 90 minutes after we left, we finally pulled into the airport. It has gone over a major, major, MAJOR overhaul in preparation for the Commonwealth meeting. Over the past four months, the airport seemed to be in a greater state of chaos each time I went there for a flight.

So as we pulled in last night I was curious to see how they’d managed to get it fully operational in time for the arrival of some 5,000 international dignitaries.

To their credit, and my surprise, they seem to have pulled it off. The new terminal is all lights and shiny surfaces. I had to stop for a minute and think about how this was, somehow, the same airport I arrived at in July when we crowded into a tiny arrivals’ area, slapping away the thousands of flies that feasted on their contained prey.

After some confusion with security, who hadn’t been told that there would be media present for the secretary-general’s arrival, we got through to the tarmac and waited with Uganda’s foreign affairs minister for the official greeting.

We walked out to his plane, and greeted him as he walked down the steps to the tarmac below. The secretary-general and foreign affairs minister exchanged pleasantries and chatted during the long walk back to the airport terminal.

As we walked, I realized that this was probably going to be the extent of the opportunity for us journalists. We had come out to essentially watch him walk from plane to terminal, and then we would probably be made scarce. It all seemed a bit ridiculous to not get some sort of comment from the secretary-general, so I walked up alongside him.

“Sir, would you have a moment to answer a few questions?”

He looked at me as though he had just stepped in dog poop and grumbled something.

Guess not.

But luckily my colleagues kept at him and he eventually consented to answering one question. Which he did. In very general terms. We asked the foreign affairs minister a couple questions as well before we had to go.

Commonwealth Secretary-General and Uganda Minister of Foreign Affairs

It was all a little disappointing, given how many worthwhile issues there are to discuss, but hopefully there will be opportunities for those questions as the conference unfolds.

After more delays– this time, the foreign affairs people realized they didn’t have enough vehicles for more VIPs arriving later on at night so they temporarily suggested we wait with our van for another couple hours to shuttle them back as well. That suggestion was, thankfully, abandoned after much protest on our part. And so we piled back in our van and began the drive back to Kampala.

I looked down at my notebook, and its one and a half pages of notes from the secretary-general’s arrival– most of which consisted of jotted notes about the state of the airport. The notes lacked substance. Usually I come out of interviews and events with pages and pages of notes. It may prove to be a sign of things to come: World leaders gathering here to discuss important issues (Pakistan will most likely be the most interesting one) and yet, in terms of information for public consumption, a lack of substance, of depth.

As we pulled into Kampala I suddenly became aware that it had been nearly 12 hours since I’d eaten. Seeing that we were passing a take-away restaurant that was open, I asked the driver to let me out. I had a quick meal before heading back into the night.

The city is normally bustling on a Friday night. But here it was, about 11:30 p.m., and the streets were dead. I looked for a boda-boda motorcycle to take me home, but had to walk a distance to find one, past spots where there are usually clusters of 10 or 12 waiting for customers.

The city atmosphere has become polarized. By day, the city is chaotic as traffic is diverted because of Chogm delegates. By night, it is empty as Ugandans go home as early as possible for fear of arrest by the thousands of police deployed to keep the city orderly.

Our motorcycle had a clear path as we drove home on empty roads. I asked the boda-boda driver how things had been since the meetings began.

“Bad, very bad,” he said. “There is no money. People are afraid to be out.”

I’d heard that from several boda-boda drivers, who said business had all but disappeared because people are staying home.

Nearly home myself, there was a sudden pop and hiss– the sound of a tire deflating. We pulled over and both got off the motorcycle to examine the damage. His back tire had been punctured. The driver shook his head. In normal times, replacing a tire would consume one day’s profit for a boda-boda driver. However, with Chogm, this was not normal times. And for someone who likely lives very much day-to-day, having to replace a tire was the last thing he needed.

I gave him a bit more than we’d agreed on to help him pay for the tire and flagged down a passing motorcycle to take me the rest of the way home.

Upon arriving, I crawled into bed with the book I’d been waiting all night to get into, but didn’t even finish the introduction before I fell asleep. The book was lying on my chest when I woke up early this morning to head into work and write the article.

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