Thursday, 25 July 2013

Hiking in Flip Flops

By: Kirsten Junker-Andersen, 2nd Year MDP Student

Picture this, you have a long weekend to travel to a different town and, with a group of friends, you decide to go on a mokoro trip through the delta – admittedly one of most touristy activities that exists, but also something that simply cannot be missed. Essentially a mokoro is a dug-out canoe, steered by a person standing at the back with a long pole down the river through reeds and lilies, in a desperate attempt to see – but not be killed by – hippos and crocs.

After much research we were certain we had found the perfect trip, the description seemed idyllic and we felt more than prepared for our journey.  “A motorboat will take you to the mokoro launch point, from there you will navigate the delta in your mokoros until you reach an island where you will have lunch.  There will be opportunity for a walk around the island to escape the midday heat, after which you will return to the mokoro to complete your journey.”                                                                              

Perfect.  Floating in a boat steered by someone else, some lunch, perhaps a little walk – lots of quality tanning time throughout.  Living the dream. 

Our not so watertight, but beautiful, mode of transportation
I knew something was off the moment that we arrived for the trip when the owner of the facility looked at Dulce and I in our shorts and flip flops and said “you brought shoes and long pants for the hike right?”.  What? Hike?!  That sounded decisively more intense than a walk around the island but we assured her that we would be fine, no we did not bring anything different, and off we went on our boats.  The boat ride was as sublime as we had dreamed – and we did see hippos and survived – so by the time we reached the island we had nearly forgotten about the feeling of foreboding that we had earlier.  Then our guide announced that we would now be doing the hike, and that it would be 3 hours and asked if that was okay.  I think everyone thought this was kind of a joke and so while we were slightly wide-eyed nobody explicitly said no.  This was a mistake.

Our hike was, in fact, the entire 3 hours, and it definitely was not intended to allow us to escape the midday heat, as we were hiking through savannah and desert right during the heat of the day.  I am still unsure of the logic of this plan.  While we did have the opportunity to get shockingly close to some elephants, zebra, and some warthogs, by the time we reached the end we all collapsed to the ground in exhaustion sporting mild sunburns and extremely dirty and cut-up feet.  This was not what we had been prepared for.

Clearly there was little cover from the sun on this hike
Looking back on that experience I really see it as the perfect metaphor for my time here, or perhaps even for development in general.  People that go into this field often have extensive training – perhaps even master’s degrees – in the field, and years of experience that provide them with knowledge and an assurance that they understand what type of situation they are entering.  Despite this, no matter how many case-studies you have done, countries you have been to, or situations you have entered that are “just like this one” you can never be fully prepared or truly understand what you are getting into based on the story that you read on paper before you get there.  You can read the project description, the country profile, and ensure you get all the required vaccinations and preventative medications before you go, but all of that is truly irrelevant once you arrive.  Because “development” involves real people, and physical places, and actively engaging in something that is happening and changing regardless of whether you are there or not.  That’s the beautiful, but painful, part of trying to do this type of work.  It’s admitting that you aren’t fully prepared and that you never truly will be.  It’s kind of like hiking in flip flops - you’re still going to get there, the route just might be a little rougher along the way.   

The end result. Our feet may never be the same again.

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