Traveling, Part Two
by John Malone
After retiring, I went back and added up the total number of times I had visited Sudan on official World Bank business. I was amazed to find that I had actually been there twenty-two times. Some funny things happened on those occasions.
I remember one time when I was the “advance man” for a visit by World Bank President Robert S. McNamara, the former US Defense Secretary, in 1972, just after the cease-fire in the war with the rebels in Southern Sudan. McNamara brought his wife along as well as a large entourage of headquarters officials. The McNamaras were lodged in Sudanese President Nimeiry’s official guest house while the rest of us stayed in hotels.
On the morning when we were all scheduled to fly down to Juba, the southern rebels’ capital, in a chartered Sudan Airways 707, I went to the guest house from my hotel room at daybreak to welcome the Sudanese cabinet ministers who were going to escort Mr. and Mrs. McNamara. The McNamaras were still in their bedroom upstairs when the high-powered Sudanese delegation arrived at the guest house, so I welcomed them, ushered them into the lounge and served coffee, explaining that their guests would be down momentarily.
As we sat there sipping our coffee and making polite conversation, a steady, rhythmic thumping noise became audible through the ceiling above us, obviously coming from the McNamaras’ bedroom. Broad white grins spread across the black faces of our Sudanese hosts as they exchanged knowing looks and nods with each other. I said nothing, letting them go on admiring my boss’s imagined sexual prowess. But I knew they were mistaken: Robert McNamara, a fitness fanatic, could not enjoy his usual morning run while traveling in the capital cities of Africa. Instead, he and his wife started each day by jumping ropes in their bedroom.
I traveled for two more weeks with McNamara on that trip, showing him around my two World Bank “parishes,” Sudan and Somalia. I lost fifteen pounds trying to keep up with him. We never got to finish a single meal. McNamara, always fidgety and anxious to get on with the work, hated what he called “ceremonial eating” and would get up before dessert or coffee and rush off to his next appointment. The rest of us, hearing the scrape of his chair as he pushed back from the table, would dash to the cars as fast as we could. We would then finish our meal by eating McNamara’s dust while we tried to keep up with his speeding Mercedes limo and motorcycle police escort as they careened through the crowded African streets, running over the occasional careless dog.
McNamara clearly admired the grit and determination to survive of the people during our visit to drought-ridden, hardscrabble Somalia. On board his chartered jet, flying back to Nairobi at the end of the two weeks, McNamara turned to me.
"John, wouldn’t it be great if we could take all these poor starving Somalis and just move them over to Sudan with all its undeveloped land and water resources?”
I felt a chill as I suddenly recalled McNamara’s naïve Viet Nam body count. He liked to think big.
After saying goodbye to McNamara in Nairobi as he and his entourage went on to conquer world poverty in other African countries, I headed downtown to the Long Bar at the New Stanley Hotel for a long-awaited booze-up, surrounded by the ghosts of Ernest Hemingway, Robert Ruark and other deceased literati who had fondly mentioned the New Stanley and its Long Bar in their books and articles.
After retirement, as our five children grew up, moved away from home and started families of their own, our travels took on a different form: the pursuit of our grandchildren, fiercely competing with their other grandparents for face time. Periodically, their career needs would move our children and their precious charges, sometimes closer to us, sometimes farther away.
Sometimes we would gain a temporary geographic advantage over the “in-laws,” only to lose it again with the children’s next move. Sometimes all four grandparents would arrive for a visit simultaneously, overwhelming the grandchildren with love and presents. After the visit, we would all go our own ways, saying things like, “Don’t you think X and Y have aged a lot?” or “Did you notice how much weight poor Z has put on?”