If it’s a new place, he’ll get there

Globetrotter John Rheinberger adds South Sudan to his passport

Submitted photo
John Rheiberger holds up a copy of the Stillwater Gazette outside his hotel in Juba, South Sudan during a visit to the new African nation.

The newest country in the world, South Sudan, came into being in July 2011, and world-traveler John Rheinberger just returned from his latest adventure there.

Rheinberger first passed through the country, then a part of Sudan, during a trip he calls “From Cape to Cairo” in 1979. Now that it’s officially been named a country, he went back.

The idea came to Rheinberger as he waited for a flight to Ethiopia and saw a flight to Juba, the capitol city of South Sudan, come across the screen. He decided to wait to go to the new nation until this year.

In August, Rheinberger decided it was time to go and half the battle was getting the proper papers to enter the South Sudan’s capitol city. He began calling about tourist visas and due to the newness of the country, a lot of people didn’t know how to get one.

“Traditionally in Africa, you can get visas at the airport but the question was do I buy a ticket only to find out that I can’t enter the country because I didn’t have a visa or do I take a $2,000 chance in a dice roll,” he said.

Rheinberger rolled the dice and upon investigation, learned you had to be invited into the country, like UN members are. The second way to get in was having a pseudo-invitation hotel reservation.

“I had called a lot of places, but hadn’t received a reply anywhere,” Rheinberger said. “Then I decided, ‘Why don’t I try this one’ and luckily they (the hotel) responded to my e-mail.”

After getting the hotel reservation and including an airport pickup in his price, Rheinberger managed to get a flight. It was delayed due to mechanical error though, which made him nervous because his reservation was only valid for so long and if he didn’t get into the country by that date, he would be out of luck.

“I’d set it up so that this was the moment that my visa would be valid,” he said.             Thankfully a new plane arrived in time and Rheinberger got to Juba.

“There wasn’t a lot there because it’s a newer country and it’s very poor,” Rheinberger said. “It’s not as poor as Chad. Their infrastructure is pretty bad though and the Juba Bridge near my hotel has failed twice now.”

Despite South Sudan’s poverty, Rheinberger said that Juba is probably the safest place of the 10 states included in the country at this time because of a civil war in nine of the country’s 10 states. He noticed water trucks pumping water from the Nile to bring to people.

Rheinberger added that most residents are Christian, speak English and there were many immigrants in the country. He added that the country reminded him of Montana in the spring with all the hills.

Rheinberger also encountered some cultural differences during his stay. How individuals identify with the country was very interesting to Rheinberger.

“Their first loyalty is to their tribe,” he said. “Most Americans would think people would be loyal to their country or their state but the identity is tied-in with their tribe. I ran into a man of the Luo tribe and he said Obama had a connection of some sort to them so he was very proud of the American presidential tie.”

The African attitude Rheinberger said is very laid-back and slow. When you say 10 it means 11 as he encountered when he had called for a taxi.

“I called the driver’s phone and found out that he was at home washing clothes, when I told him I had said meet me at 10 he said ‘It’s Africa, I thought it was 11 a.m. to pick up.’ ”

The driver then sent along his cousin, Rheinberger added.

“There’s a trust you build with people, a risk if you will,” he said. “If this guy hadn’t picked me up I wouldn’t have gotten my ticket out.”

Rheinberger said that Africa was the most difficult place to travel although it’s improved over the years on his various trips. He likened traveling in Africa to wanting to go to Madison from Minnesota and having to go through a variety of other states before reaching your final destination.

“South Sudan wasn’t really a highlight and I don’t know if I’d have that same attraction to the country if I hadn’t passed through it earlier,” he said. “But it’s interesting that 30-odd years later it’s become another country when it was just a dead-end stop in 1979.”

One thing’s certain for Rheinberger. No matter the place or the difficulties he might encounter, if it’s a new country, he’ll get there.