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.


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