Yesterday the Expo site outside the Durban International Convention Centre was a chaos of small, interconnected construction sites. To enter required a hard hat.
This was news to the crowd of exhibitors that turned up, ready to assemble their stands and displays at the private fair that runs alongside the UNFCCC COP 17 negotiations. These things are opportunities for companies and organizations to show their work to the general public. You don’t need a special UNFCCC ID badge to get in.
I asked the man at the gate if he was serious. There was nothing about this in the detailed information provided by the UNFCCC Secretariat. The COP had yet to begin and already improvisation was the order of the day. I wondered if this was a sign about how the negotiations would go.
“You need one of these to enter,” he said, holding up a red construction helmet. “Fifty Rand. This is the last one.”
I looked around. Sure enough, everyone going in or out wore a helmet. Some -- probably the locals -- wore bike helmets. It was very unusual attire for a COP. Most looked like they’d never worn one before.
“You should have seen the line up earlier,” the helmet hawker said with a smile. “People stood in line for two hours waiting. We bought every hardhat in Durban. There are no more.” He mentioned again how he was holding the last one in his hands. (I later learned from UNEP colleagues that they had waited in the sun for two hours to get a helmet.)
My plan was to go inside the expo centre -- an array of tents and linked buildings in a vast parking lot -- to help the UNEP folks set up a display. But 50 Rand sounded like robbery.
Eventually, I met a young man on the street with a blue helmet under has arm. When I half-jokingly offered to buy it, he gave it to me, saying he had another. Helmet on I headed back into the expo area passed the guy at the gate who had managed to sell the last helmet for 50R. Or maybe he did better than that.
After some time searching amidst the construction debris, I found the UNEP exhibition site. But no one was there. Later I learned that UNEP’s material remains trapped in the netherworld of South African customs.
By Sunday the expo centre was more or less ready. The challenge was to get a two-metre wide monitor and a two-metre high stand from the back of a truck on Bram Fischer Road, across three lanes of traffic, through a narrow entranceway full of people, through security (think of the airport line, now think of the wide screen monitor, the stand and the trolley and imagine how we were going to get it passed the x-ray machines). As it turned out a member of the very efficient and very friendly UN Security staff directed us around the security checkpoint. From there we pushed and pulled the trolley up a ramp and over an elevated pedestrian bridget that crosses a main road, and down into the COP exhibition area (for which ID is needed to enter).
Stand and monitor were assembled. No hardhats were needed today. And I have a very unusual COP souvenir.