Sunday, September 24, 2006

Surprised in Sudan . . . "Salaam a leykum"

For me, the trip to Sudan was always going to be difficult. Our problems started before we left. We couldn't get a tourist visa. I threw up in the Sudanese embassy. (Note to self: Do not eat a donut that tastes like it has been deep fried in motor oil before visiting an embassy official.) Then the visa we did get was only for 7 days- barely enough time to get through the Sudan into Egypt.

I didn't expect to have a good time in Sudan and, in fact, anticipated problems. Why? A few reasons - not in order of importance:

(1) Alcohol is illegal.
(2) Ongoing genocide in Darfur, despite peace agreement.
(3) Ongoing strife in the South, despite peace agreement.
(4) Australian government travel warning updated just before we left - 'Do not go to Sudan unless you are completely insane'.
(5) Alcohol is illegal.

However, unlike the UN peacekeepers, the Sudanese government had allowed us to enter Sudan. So, Phil and I (operating under a fragile peace agreement regarding the Sudanese portion of our trip) finally left Addis and made for the Ethiopian/Sudanese border via Gonder.

It took us a few days to get to the border town of Metemma on the Ethiopian side. We spent as little time there as possible. Metemma is essentially a village that has turned itself into a large brothel providing alcohol and other services to Sudanese crossing the border for the day to experience a more relaxed lifestyle.

We crossed the border on 13 September - giving us until 20 September to travel up to Wadi Halfa in the north and cross the border into Egypt. I thought this might be tricky given that Sudan is the largest country in Africa. Sudan is about 1/4 the size of the US, 1/5 the side of Europe and 1/3 the size of Australia. But we worked out that the distance through the north to the Egyptian border could be covered in a week - as long as nothing went wrong.

The first thing that struck us about Sudan was the kindness of the people we met. The Sudanese people are probably the most hospitable people we have met in Africa (excluding Ghana of course) and the most unlikely to attempt to earn some easy cash from unsuspecting tourists. When we arrived in Khartoum our scooter taxi driver, who spoke no English and couldn't understand our feeble attempts at Arabic, dropped us off at his friend's office. His friend, a computer technician, spoke a little English and insisted on driving us through the early afternoon heat (40+ degrees) for half an hour to our hotel. When we tried to offer him some money he just said "why?", smiled and left us in shock. We found that this kind of behaviour was typical in Sudan. Everyone one genuinely wanted to help us.

Many people we met were troubled about the image of Sudanese people in other countries. "How do you feel about Sudan?" or "what do people think of Sudan?" were frequent questions. We found that generally they were well informed about the problems in Sudan despite issues of government censorship and concerned about the future of the country as well as their own future. We lost count of the number of people asking us how they could immigrate to Australia.

As a result of the general friendliness of the people, travelling through the country was a surprisingly pleasant and easy experience. Although the ease of travel is definitely hindered by the constant need for a foreigner to report at every police stop – of which there were many especially between the Ethiopian border and Khartoum – and provide your name, nationality, passport number and profession. Luckily, the other people on the bus didn't seem to be annoyed by the frequent stops and we didn't have any problems at the police stops except for my slight panic when Phil announced his nationality as "Australian" and a policeman looked at him in confusion and said "Israeli?" Israelis aren't exactly welcome in Sudan. Still, I may have seemed like a bit of a lunatic yelling "No! He's Australian! Australian!!"

The administrative demands on the tourist in Sudan are definitely over the top. In addition to reporting at police stops, you are required to register your presence in Sudan within three days of arrival and you have to get a permit to take photos – without one you could be arrested. Sudan even has 'Tourist Police' in addition to the regular police.

Thankfully, we managed to get all the papers we needed in Khartoum and still had time for some tourist activities, so we went off to see the 'whirling' dervishes in the ritual called 'dhkir', which is central to Sufi practices. The dervishes form a circle and as their chanting increases in intensity, they start to turn in circles in the centre of the circle. Apparently the dhikr creates a state of ecstatic abandon in which the participant can communicate directly with God.

Phil also went to visit the supposedly well known camel market. Or at least he tried to do so, but after about 4 hours in the heat on several different buses and taxis he only managed to find a haggard camel whose owner offered him a camel ride. Despsite the disappointment, he at least managed to make a few friends through the experience who were trying to help a hopelessly lost 'khawaja'. 'Khawaja' is the Sudanese term for foreigner and with the 'k' is almost silent and sounds a bit like a very friendly 'how are ya?'

I didn't get called 'khwaja' much at all. With an ankle length skirt, long sleeved loose top and a head scarf, even I thought I looked Sudanese. Unfortunately, my modest outfit did not put off a group of Malaysian tourists staying at our hotel who had decided I was a prostitute and knocked on our hotel room twice when Phil was out to find out if they could 'join me' in bed. I declined their proposition and later, bumping into a few of them in the lobby, gave them a good telling off and received a few sheepish apologies. Hopefully they will think twice before doing that again.

After a few days in Khartoum it was time to head north. Our plan was to catch a bus to Atbara so we could stop on the way and visit the remains of the Meroitic temples of Naqa and Musawwarat es-Sufra and also visit the pyramids at Meroe. Sadly, misunderstandings due to our still shabby grasp of basic Arabic meant that we missed Naqa and the pyramids.

From Atbara we picked up the train that was going to take us to Wadi Halfa and from Wadi Halfa the plan was to get a ferry to Aswan in Egypt.

It was an overnight train journey but there are no 'sleeper' carriages so a first class ticket gets you one seat in a compartment seating six. Second class compartments seat eight. They separate men and women, even if you are married, so Phil and I were in different compartments. This was not really a bad thing as, after one night on the train, we had both managed to make friends with our fellow travellers.

I had a particularly good time talking to one young girl who told me that next year she was going to marry her uncle's son. She said he was 'ok' but didn't really want to marry him. When I told her that in Australia you aren't allowed to marry your cousin she decided that Australia was a wonderful place and said she would like to move there. We were chatting about the man she did like (as opposed to the one she was engaged to) when the train stopped fairly suddenly. There was some commotion and my new friend suddenly said to me, with more than a hint of alarm- "There is a problem! We must get off the train!"

As a train crisis veteran (New York, September 11: stuck in subway under the Wall Street station), you may think that I would have remained calm. I did not. After keeping my cool in New York in September 2001, I felt quite panicked in Sudan five years later. Passengers were streaming off the train and there was some hysteria in the air (besides my own) as babies were passed out of windows to passegers already outside. Assuming (correctly) that Phil would not share my sense of urgency, I went to his compartment and attempted to instil a sense of fear into him. I failed.

However, I did manage to instil in him a sense of horror that unless he left the train immediately I would continue screeching "Pheeel! Pheeeel! We have to get OFF THE TRAIN NOW!" for all eternity. As a man who values his sanity he decided to leave the train.

Once off, we discovered what the problem was - the train was on fire.

I could only state the obvious. "The train is on fire." "We are in the middle of the desert." "This is ridiculous."

Then, later a bit more helpfully . . . "Do we have enough water?"

As the fire was slowly being extinguished with the plentiful supply of sand as far as the eye could see, we found out that it was the engine that was burning. We were told that we would be stuck until a replacement engine was sent which could take anywhere between one to two more nights. This was not good news as our visas expired the at the end following day by which time we were supposed to be on board a ferry for Egypt. However, there wasn't anything we could do to improve our situation so, like the other passengers, we attempted to go to sleep in the sand.

We woke about six hours later to the sound of a new engine coming to rescue us. We were very lucky they managed to get the engine to the train in hours rather than days and with the new engine they got us to Wadi Halfa by noon on Wednesday 20 September. About 18 hours late but still in time to get the ferry to Egypt (leaving at 5pm) before our visas expired. We even had time to shower, or more accurately pour a bucket of water over our heads.

We stumbled through the immigration procedures confused but content with the knowledge that no matter how many wrong doors we opened we couldn't stuff up so badly that we would miss the ferry. The process was sped up somewhat when I was informed that, as a woman, I didn't have to stand in line. I was able to go straight to the front of long lines for stamps and forms etc with both my passport and Phil's. Nice to know that being a woman in Sudan has at least one perk.

Finally on the ferry we selected good spots on deck so we could sleep under the stars and said goodbye to Sudan as the boat motored for Egypt.

So, Sudan was certainly not what I had anticipated. The people were unexpectedly nice and the problems that we encountered were completely unrelated to a terrorist attack or arrest for alleged espionage- two of the several scenarios I had tortured myself with before the visit.

Phil loved it and was upset that we could only stay for seven days. He is already talking about the next trip . . .

We have been in Aswan for a few days now and we are heading north along the Nile to Luxor tomorrow. Next entry in about two weeks. Phil has posted all the photos from Ethiopia and will put up the photos from Sudan [and the south of Egypt] soon. Click here for the latest.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Update: Speeding through Sudan

As promised, this is a quick update to let you know that we got a transit visa to Sudan. We have to be in and out of the country within a week so by the time you read this we are probably already in Egypt.

I’ll post the next entry in a few weeks.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Northern Ethiopia . . . “You are an Ethiopian”

Growing up in Australia I associated Ethiopia with images of living skeletons on World Vision’s TV fund raising advertisements and the mid-80’s hit songs: 'We are the World' and 'Do they know it’s Christmas?' As a result, the expectation was that Ethiopia would be, in the words of the latter, “a world of dread and fear, where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears . . . where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow”.

So, it was somewhat of a surprise to visit northern Ethiopia, an area hard hit by famine in the 80s, and find wide, fast flowing rivers, pouring rain, green grass, crops and healthy livestock. That's not to say that Ethiopia's problems are over. There is a lot of on-going aid work here (which some claim is part of the problem), including food distribution. But in case there is anyone else out there who has been overly influenced by 80s pop music; I thought I should mention that the Christmas bells that ring in Ethiopia are not the “clanging chimes of doom.”

If anyone knows when it’s Christmas – it is an Ethiopian. There are several differing estimates of the percentage of Christians vs Muslims in Ethiopia, but it is generally accepted that the majority of Ethiopians are Christian. And Ethiopian Christians, particularly the Orthodox Christians, are some of the most religious you are likely to come across.

Northern Ethiopia is famous for, among other things, its ‘rock-hewn’ churches. These are churches that have been chiseled by hand out of huge chunks of rock. Our first stop in northern Ethiopia was a small town called Lalibela, home of several rock-hewn churches. We were shown around by our guide, Abeje, whose approach was to explain the history of the churches, the paintings on the walls and other decorations in the form of a Q&A session. “That is a picture of the Angel Gabriel. You know the story of Gabriel?” “And over here is a painting of a cock crowing. What did Peter do before the cock crowed?”

Phil, immersed in his quest for the perfect photo, wasn’t much help and it seemed that my answers (except perhaps on the Adam/Eve/Garden/Serpent/Apple story) were not quite to Abeje’s satisfaction as he soon asked suspiciously, “What religion are you?”

“Christian”, I responded feebly with the knowledge that I have seldom entered a church for reasons unrelated to a wedding, christening or funeral.

“Orthodox?” he asked with a mixture of skepticism and hope.

“No, just Christian.”

To which Abeje’s response was a look that I would have perhaps expected if I had admitted to drinking the blood of young children.

Eventually, Abeje got over the disappointment of leading ungodly tourists through several churches and we all managed to get through the day.

After Lalibela we visited more rock-hewn churches in the Tigray area on the way to Axum. Some of the Tigray churches could only be reached by hours of hiking that included scrambling up a cliff faces in what appeared to be an attempt to turn inaccessibility into an art form.

Even getting to the towns that were near these rock-hewn churches in the north was hard work, requiring several consecutive days on buses that only stopped once for food and perhaps for "urine" (as one bus driver enthusiastically announced). Luckily the scenery is spectacular enough to distract your attention for hours on end, despite the fact that the rolling hills of the north are dotted with rusty tanks - I assume left over from Ethiopia’s war with Eritrea.

Axum is the old capital of the Axumite kingdom - which from 4th century BC to 1st century AD, included Somalia, Eritria, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Yemen and parts of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. There are several tombs, palaces and 'stelae' - huge obelisks that they erected to mark graves (one of which was recently returned by the Italians after being looted from Axum by Mussolini in 1937). Axum also claims to be the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant.

Other than the ancient sights, Axum was much like any other town in Ethiopia. Like the others, it contained an inordinate number of shoe-shiners per capita. Ethiopians are obsessed with the quality and cleanliness of footwear. Perhaps it is the Italian influence?

Children not enterprising enough to set themselves up as shoe shiners followed us around Axum with makeshift drums and tambourines, clapping and singing. At first this was a welcome change from the cry of 'one Bir!' and 'give me money' but we soon realized that the children’s scam was to serenade you so loudly and for so long that you will pay them to go away.

Phil had to put up with these hassles on a much more regular basis than I did. In Ethiopia, if I am not walking with Phil and I keep my mouth shut, people assume that I am Ethiopian. In fact, one thing that has been consistent throughout our time in Ethiopia – north or south - is the absolute insistence of some Ethiopians that I am an Ethiopian.

People here generally take one look at me and speak to me in Amharic on the assumption that I know what they are talking about. I have even offended people by starting a conversation in English when I am “obviously Ethiopian”.

When this first happened I launched into a detailed description of my background “My father is from Ghana, West Africa. My mother is from Australia. I was born in Australia . . . blah blah blah.” This soon devolved into “Father-Ghana. Mother-Australia” or, a personal favourite that I picked up in Kenya and which seems to be generally understood in Africa: “vanilla-chocolate” or the Ethiopian equivalent "macchiato".

Light skin seems to be much prized in Ethiopia – perhaps more so than in the rest of Africa, if you use as your measure the number of advertisements for Fair and Lovely, a “skin lightening” cream’. Fair and Lovely, according to the ads can lighten your skin so that any difficulties you have getting a job and/or a boyfriend will be miraculously removed as your skin pales. While the western world tans some Africans 'lighten'.

Despite being mistaken for an Ethiopian, I haven’t (unfortunately for Phil) picked up the ability to be as agreeable as most Ethiopians. Ethiopians would have to be the most eager-to-please people we have ever met and ‘yes’ is generally answer to any question . . .

Phil: So there is no bus from Axum to Gonder?
Local: Yes
Phil: Yes, there is a bus?
Local: Yes
Phil: Where is the bus station?
Local: Yes
Phil: This bus here, is it to Gonder or Shire?
Local: Yes

Trouble finding the right bus in Ethiopia is not helped by the fact that Ethiopia has its own time based on 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness starting at 6am and 6pm respectively eg. our 7am is 1.00 o’clock Ethiopian time. While the Ethiopian clock took a bit of getting used to, I was quick to embrace the Ethiopian calendar, currently in 1998 putting me back in my 20s. I will be using this calendar exclusively forthwith.

Despite the general feeling of confusion which didn’t often leave us, we made it around the tourist loop in the north of Ethiopia back to Addis Ababa via Bahir Dar, where the main attractions were monasteries and the Blue Nile waterfall.

We are now back in Addis waiting for our Sudanese visas – notoriously difficult to obtain. After several “discussions” about whether we should (Phil) or should not (me) go to Sudan we reached a compromise and (if we get the visas) we have decided to travel straight through the north of Sudan to Egypt. Phil thinks Sudan will be one of the best African countries we visit. But Phil also thinks that “now would be a great time to visit Lebanon” so one has to question his sanity.

I'll post a brief update in a few days when we know whether the Sudanese government will let us in.

In the meantime, Phil managed to upload the rest of his photos from Kenya and the photos from Uganda including the gorillas. He is now in the process of loading some of his photos from Ethiopia. The connection isn’t great but he has managed to post some. Click on the 'Cape to Cairo Photos' link for the latest.