The fuck is that? I jolted awake in the middle of the night to the see six trucks parked at the checkpoint, but all engines remained silent. What sounded like a bear in heat was the snoring of one lone driver that was echoing around the vehicles.
I was tempted to chuck a rock over to scare him awake so he’d flip on his side, but that might be construed as a sign of aggression as demonstrated by the previous day’s rock-throwing saga. Eventually, his snoring subsided and I resumed sleep. I awoke early with the sound of the muezzin, went through the morning routines, thanked the police folk and headed off down the road.
The sun, a fast-rising yellow ball, accompanied the layer of dust that hung in the air. I wrapped my gamcha around my head for cooling, placed my hat on it to shade me and filled up water from the water barrel at the petrol station without worrying where it was sourced from.
After all, I was about to begin the long hitching to Khartoum, about 600 K’s north, through the Sudanese. The nearest city, Al Gedarif (150 Ks away) would turn me west and then north along the highway. As I hiked, I greeted the shepherds with their cows and camels and maintained the rhythm of my lumbered walk.
About an sweaty and very hot hour passed when Sami and Musa pulled up in a Landcruiser. They were heading to Gedarif and were happy to provide me with a lift. I squeezed into the back among optic fibers and a generator.
“We are technicians,” Musa explained. “Telecommunications.”
As we rode, I managed to explain about my penniless ways which they scratched their heads around but seemed to accept.
We drove on an empty road that reminded me of the pot-holed Nairobi-Mombasa highway. Gone were the smooth tarmacs of Ethiopia. We were back to zigging and zagging. The landscape didn’t change. It was dusty, dry, full of red acacia trees with nothing on them but their sharp thorns.
Then I noticed a few egrets.
Must be some water around.
Two minutes later we passed a reservoir crowded by cows and their herdsmen. Cold water was purchased at a small roadside shed\shop by Musa for everyone as I passed the three-hour journey by catching up on some Zs. When we reached the city that was covered by a dust cloud, Sami turned to me and indicated food. Although I really wanted to stick to the highway, I did need to eat and here it’d be quite the offence to refuse someone’s kind-heartedness.
“Aiwa, shukran,” I said. Yes, thank you.
We drove into the city limits. I noted the directions we were taking before we stopped about five kilometers in and I was presented with a bag of falafels, three hard-boiled eggs, three round breads and another bottle of cold water. I thanked Sami and Musa as I collected my packs. Sami gave me the directions to the highway and I headed off, greeting everyone with, “Salam al-yekum.”
I passed a couple of taxis lingering around when one fella called out, “You! Come here!”
I went over with a grin to shake hands with the guy. As soon as I greeted him in Arabic he laughed and hi-fived me.
“Aiwa, shukran,” I said.
May as well get some sugar in me for the hike ahead. I wasn’t sure if I was going to last walking on the highway. I was in dusty and hot desert lands.
Extremely hot desert lands. Some research might have been in favour, especially regarding the weather.
The sugar was served with mint and a touch of tea for flavour. I was pointed to the man who was, “Half Sudanese, half British,” the fella said. “You, him, brothers,” he indicated to his skin.
“We are all brothers,” I said, indicating to the entire circle that had gathered around.
The man nodded with a grin and I thanked the crowd and continued to hike down the road when a tuk-tuk pulled up.
“No money,” I said, signing it with my hands as the old man didn’t speak any English. Looking at me, he asked, “Majnun?” Crazy?
“Lah,” I laughed.
“Where you go?”
He pointed at his legs.
“Yeah, if I have too,” I said, trying to sign that I was hitch hiking. He shook his head and offered me a ride. “Shukran,” I hoped in.
It’d save me hiking the five Ks back to the highway. But the man, who kept indicating with his finger to his temple that I was, “Majnun!” decided to take me to the bus station.
“No, no, no!” I tried to explain how I don’t use buses.
“It’s OK,” he said, parking the tuk-tuk. “My friends. Come.”
I reluctantly followed him. I was done now. I’d be forced to take a bus just so as not to offend the old man who had a lot of heart. He introduced me to a ticket conductor who spoke English.
“My friend,” the old man said.
I shook hands with him and thanked him with a hearty shukran before following the conductor to the ticketing office.
“It’s 90 pounds to Khartoum,” said the guy behind the desk.
“Yeah, I don’t have money,” I said. “But if you’d like, I can play music on the bus in exchange for a ticket.”
Wouldn’t be the first time.
I was taken under the wing of someone who appeared to be official. He took me around and sat me in a shaded area. “Play.”
I played. A small crowd gathered and a few folk began to dance.
“Come,” the official said. He sat me in another shaded area. “Tea?”
“Aiwa, shukran,” I replied.
So I played some more. Sugar with some tea was presented and after, I was taken to the police station at the entry of the bus terminal.
I played. Then an officer sat next to me and showed me a picture on his phone. It was of myself with Nabil from the border.
“You know Nabil?” I grinned.
The officer grinned back, showing the picture around to the others. Now I was in. An honourary guest of the police as I was taken around, told to sit and play throughout the entire terminal. The conductor that had taken me around had disappeared but I found him and asked, “So can I get on a bus or should I walk to the highway? It’s getting late.”
“Just wait. Few minutes,” he grinned. “You make us very happy here. We will help. Just wait.”
So I played a bit more and waited until a man who looked like a car salesman from the 80s showed up and I was told to follow him.
“Come,” he said. “Leave your bags.” The conductor that had adopted me reassured me that they were now,
I followed the car salesman onto a bus.
Finally, we’re getting somewhere.
“Stay,” he commanded me to stand by the driver as he turned to the passengers and gave a speech.
From his tone and the few words I understood in Arabic I suddenly realised he was asking for people to chip in for a bus ticket.
Shit. This is not what I wanted.
I don’t want people to pay for my ride. I want it to come from the heart. To come from a place that is pure goodness. As far as I’ve experienced, anyone willing to take on a hitch hiker, to stop and help a complete stranger by the side of the road, has a lot of goodness in them. That’s the people I want to meet. That’s the people who I have been meeting. But this was like busking. I’ve never busked.
How the hell was I gonna get outta this one?
The man had finished his speech and began to collect some coins and notes. He turned to me and pointed to the stairs. I hopped off the bus.
“Come,” and I followed him.
Onto the next bus.
Shit. He’s doing the rounds.
Then it hit me.
We’re doing the rounds!
For the next hour I was presented like an exotic animal on each bus in the terminal. The advantage of it was that every bus had air conditioning so for a few minutes I got to experience life from the Popsicle side. Eight buses later I was directed to get on a purple bus with a ticket in my hand.
I wasn’t aware how the seating arrangement worked. Numbers in Arabic are in Arabic and look nothing like the numeral system used int he majority of the world. So I sat in an empty row trying to comprehend what had just happened. I said ‘no’ to the bus station but was taken here anyway. I played music and now I’m on a bus to Khartoum because people cared. The level of generosity and goodwill made me feel like I was in some Christmas movie.
I was snapped out of my thoughts by two ladies in burkas hovering around me, indicating their tickets had seating numbers on it. The conductor took my ticket and showed me to the back where I was sat next to Shahib.
“I play tenor-sax,” he said, recognising my guitar case (everybody had made signs that it was a violin), producing a laminated card stating that he was a member of the Sudanese Music Association.
If it wasn’t enough that The Universe had provided me with so much kindness and generosity and the right people at the right time in the right fuckin’ hot places, now I was sat next to a fellow musician on the six-hour ride to Khartoum.
I was giddy. I was high and I hadn’t even taken anything. The energy of Sudan, its welcoming committee, even that crazy rock-throwing lady, everything – is nothing of the likes that I’ve experienced. As the bus pulled out to the gate I was asked to debark.
Shit, perhaps I was daydreaming.
I was pointed to my luggage sitting by the bus.
“Shu?” I said to the guy.
“Customs. Check luggage,” he said.
The cops I had played for showed up and began to tell the guy to leave me be. That there was no need to check my bags. He was forcefully convinced and I was placed back on the bus.
I shook my head.
I told charaded it to Shahib who laughed. We pulled out of the station and for the next six hours I endured the zig and the zagging, clerics on the TV screen preaching and a lot of Sudanese music which involves sax, violins, uds and electric guitar. When we broke by the side of the road, Shahib invited me for some tea.
Or sugar with some tea and mint.
He let me call Mo so I could keep him posted as he was picking me up from the bus station. About 50 Ks before Khartoum the driver swerved either to miss something or he had fallen asleep. Whatever the cause, the swerving was violent enough to get everybody screaming, like bad turbulence. One passenger sat opposite me stormed down the bus and chastised the driver.
This is why I’d rather hitch hike. It’s so much safer than bus drivers under the gun to keep to their timetables. Forgetting that the lives of 50 people are right behind them.
On the outskirts of Khartoum we stopped at a police checkpoint.
I ducked down into my seat cause I knew I’d be picked for scrutiny. I didn’t want to be the cause to hold up the already running late bus. But the soldier saw me, snapped his fingers at me and signed me to follow him.
I hate having fingers snapped at me. I used to work as a waiter and whenever customers snapped their fingers, I’d rip into them. It’s an old method of getting one’s attention and quite popular in Africa.
But I refuse to answer to anyone whistling or snapping at me as has been the case throughout my travels.
I grabbed my passport and headed down into the pre-heated oven of the desert. I pointed out my visas, most importantly my Egyptian one to prove that I was just travelling through and was returned to my seat. An hour and a half later we finally arrived into the sand-filled streets of Khartoum, the Nile River snaking through it. Mo was a welcoming sight at the bus station.
“Welcome to Sudan, brother,” he grinned. “How was your journey?”
I smiled broadly, “Well…”