|Nilotic scene, a Roman mosaic unearthed half a mile from my medical office
You can take a boat up the White Nile from Khartoum, but there’s no guarantee you’ll make it all the way to Juba. At least there wasn’t in November 1979 when my ex and I were traveling in the Sudan. Our native informants in the capital were unanimous: any tub that didn’t run aground in some dry-season meander would likely be hijacked by pirates.
So we decided to brave a flight on Sudan Airways. It landed safely, belying its nickname of Inshallah Airways, and soon there we were down south in Juba, admiring a real-life Nilotic scene. No hippos, no crocs, just cattle wading decorously into the water, cattle dropping cow patties into the water, people wading in to wash, other people dropping people-patties into the water. Plenty of local color but deserving a Keep Your Distance sign.
At the time Juba was a village of some 100,000 souls living in mud huts, arranged in circular compounds where pit latrines would have been too high-tech. It was so hot that government office hours ran from 5 to 10 AM. Roads all rigorously dirt, with almost no cars on them since you couldn’t find gas even on the black market. Little to do most days except hike the three miles to the market, where we could gawk at the squatting sellers, buy peanuts, and, if we were lucky, get some lemons we could turn into lemonade if we managed to score bottled water and sugar back at the hotel. We were staying at the town’s second-best. It boasted electric fans, which were functional for exactly four hours each evening, and served up a few leathery tidbits of meat on an otherwise empty plate three times a day, with milky tea on the side. I lost 10 pounds in two weeks.
A large percentage of that vacation’s total calories were gobbled down in one evening, at a vast whisky-drenched party with live music, thrown by a government functionary whose name we’d been given at the Sudanese embassy in Rome by their token southerner. “Government” was something of a euphemism, North and South being already separate de facto if not yet de jure. I spent much of that bash bizarrely reminiscing with our host about our respective times at Harvard, and listening to his cockamamie scheme to make a million bucks by peddling ice cubes to the inhabitants of refrigerator-free Juba.
One day we heard a local guy playing a kind of lute, strung with the kind of strings you tie things with. It was irresistible, so at our next market foray Andrea headed off to hunt for the instrument-maker to buy one. I plunked myself down at a rickety wooden counter where I could quench my thirst while watching the vultures swoop, and exchange pleasantries with the broad jolly woman running the stand. Soon it was 11.00, later than our usual time to be out, and much hotter. I drank glass after glass of sweetened black tea, figuring boiling would have killed off the germs. The other customers were guzzling water, which the woman behind the counter ladled from huge jars, buried up to their necks in the ground to keep their contents cool. She turned out to be not Sudanese but Ugandan, one of the tens of thousands of loyalists of recently deposed dictator Idi Amin who had fled to southern Sudan driving their herds before them. Her Queen’s English would have passed as native in Cambridge, England, where she said she hoped to send her daughters to university one day.
The heat was cooking my brain. After I had knocked back tea number six, which left me thirstier than ever, my hostess looked me in the eye and said, “But wouldn’t you really rather have a lovely cup of nice cold water?” It was her impeccable British accent that got me. I said, “Yes! Yes!” and gulped down a giant tin cupful of liquid that smelled, looked, and tasted like it had come straight from the Nile. Coolth and hydration spread instantly through my body in a rush as good as any junkies get from heroin.
Moments later the euphoria faded and panic set in, as the names of all the water-bourne infectious diseases I’d been taught in medical school floated to the surface of my mind and I started counting down incubation periods. Hours waiting to be hit by staph dysentery, days for salmonella and cholera, two weeks for giardia and typhoid fever, four weeks for amebiasis, six weeks for hepatitis A, a year for Guinea worm disease…
Miraculously, I never got any of them.