“No problem,” said the station manager. “You will ride, free of charge.”
I blinked at him and then at Mo. “I told him about your lifestyle,” my Sudanese brother grinned. “He loves the concept. We have to be here tomorrow at seven in the morning.”
I warmly shook hands with Imam, the station manager. I’ve risen in love with Sudan, its people, its openness to welcoming foreigners (those who aren’t American or British), its food and its generosity. Being my 19th country in almost three years, I’ve never come across a people who are not only happy to help, but are really happy to help.
“It’s part of the Muslim culture,” Mo explained when I complained how people just won’t let me hitch hike and put me on a bus and tell me, No problem. No charge.
“Which is not what I want,” I told him. “I don’t want people to pay for me to get somewhere. I want to experience the trucks and cars, see which drivers will stop for me and create new friendships, new people to enter my ever growing circle of family love that I’ve felt along my travels.”
Mo shrugged. “It’s how we do.”
Besides, it was the wrong time of year for hitching. I mean, there’s hot, then there’s fucking hot.
And then there’s offensively hot.
Sudan? Sudan is fucking offensively hot.
The earth here is scorched by the sun, the heat bouncing back off the sand and road, paint jobs on cars are half-melted, the air is hot and the wind is hot. Yet, no one is grumpy.
“People here pull their beds out of their homes and sleep on the street in front of their house,” Mo mentioned.
And indeed, in the evenings, a cool desert breeze does blow, making the outside tolerable and even comfortable for sleep. Especially when the Milky Way is the last vision you see before you head off to slumberland. In fact, I had noticed when Tarik took me around town and we stopped by his friend’s place, that all doors are always open.
“Nobody locks their home here,” I noted.
“Nope,” Mo grinned. “It’s open house everywhere.”
And so, with my brain half-melted by the sun, I figured a train-ride might be the best way to go. But I’ve never hitched a ride on a train before. Then again, I’ve done a few things I’ve never done before in the last three years.
On Monday morning, after a week full of epic jam sessions with Mohammed (Mo), Mohammed (Mungi) and Mohammed [Rasheed (99.9% of Sudanese men are named Mohammed)], hanging out with artists and eating some amazing food it was time to head north.
I only had 15 days on my transit visa and I had spent six in Khartoum. I had just over a thousand kilometers to cover to reach Wadi Halfa, the town bordering Egypt.
Mungi had called his friends in the towns I’d be stopping in to arrange for me to be hosted. Mo had a guy in Atbara.
“His name is Omar,” he gave me his number. “He’ll take care of you.”
The outline was to take the train to Shendi, from Shendi hitch about an hour south to see the pyramids of Begarawiyah, pre-dating the famous Egyptian ones. And much smaller in size. From there, head north, another 150 K’s to Atbara and spend the night at Omar’s before heading west to the pyramids of Jebel Barkel (Jebel means ‘mountain’) on the outskirts of Kerima. Once those were checked, head up to Dongala for the night where Ahmed awaited me and then on to the final 400 K’s to Wadi Halfa.
The train was a little disappointing. I was hoping for a rickety ol’ classic train of the likes you could sit on the windowsill and dangle your legs over the desert sand, watching camels and donkeys trudging through the heat.
Sudan has Eurostar-styled bullet trains with air-conditioned carriages, plush seating, cooler drinking corners and toilets. It didn’t have curtains which I discovered might be quite a useful thing when sitting on the eastern side of the carriage with an early morning sun.
I whipped out my gamcha, an Indian fabric the Gypsy Queen had presented me with and covered myself and half the window with it while I utilised the time to catch up on some writing. I was placed in the locomotive where eight seats were reserved for staff and crew.
Three hours of chugging through the desert, past small settlements of clay houses and agriculture fields we reached Shendi. I approached a local and asked how I could reach Begarawiyah.
Turns out he’s a taxi driver but when I told him, “Groosh mafi,” no money, he pointed in the direction I needed. I cheerfully thanked him with, “Shukran,” and walked down the road.
Within minutes I was drenched in sweat.
Fuck, it’s hot. I’ll melt if I continue. I’ll be the first hitch hiker to die of stupidity and dehydration and sunstroke and heatstroke and sunburn. Although, I did notice that in Sudan you don’t really burn. You roast slowly but you don’t burn.
I reached an intersection and a billboard created some shade where I set up shop. A tuk-tuk driver pulled over. I explained my ways in Arabic.
“Come,” he said.
Alright. See the pyramids and head off to Atbara. Great day had by all.
The tuk-tuker took me down the main road but suddenly turned off onto a dirt track that lead to a forested area. My sixth sense kicked into high gear and I prepared myself for anything. We past a building that had broken windows but when I saw the cars parked on the other side I realised it was a barracks of sorts.
We parked and I followed the driver, lead to a shady spot by some clay water jugs which I drank from.
“Wait here,” he said.
In this heat, I wasn’t moving unless absolutely necessary. The tuk-tuk driver returned a few minutes later with a uniformed man.
“This my son,” he said, “his name is Mohammed. He tell me you are groosh mafi.”
“Aiwa,” I grinned. “Ana aziff muzika,” I said. I play music. “Don’t like money so I try not to use it.”
He looked me over and then spoke to his kid, handing him a 50 Sudanese pound note.
“My son will take you to the bus station and purchase for you a ticket to Atbara. Welcome to Sudan.” And with that the uniformed man walked off.
Guess no pyramids today then. I waited for Mohammed to bring the tuk-tuk round and we rode off through town to the bus station. A ticket was purchased, I thanked the driver and I sat, slumped in my seat.
I’m never gonna get to hitch hike in this country.
I mean, the generosity and the people’s willingness to help is at a level I’ve never before experienced. I’ve been offered money for bus tickets plenty of time but I’ve been able to explain that I don’t need it. I hitch rides.
Here? It’s near impossible to get out of their want to just put me on a bus.
We sped through the desert without a hitch (see what I did there?) and when I hit Atbara 150 kilometres later I contacted Mo’s friend, Omar via some people I met at the station. My Arabic was better than his English so he explained to them to explain to me to get on a tuk-tuk.
Over the phone he explained to the driver how to reach his neck of the woods, a barber salon where I whipped out Ol’ Red and played to the delight of the customers. I was offered some tea with my sugar and within the hour we headed off to Omar’s family home where I showered and took a rest for an hour before we headed out to catch the sun set with his friend, Omar, who,
“Speaks English profession.”
Which I took to mean that he spoke English.
While we waited for Omar to arrive, an ice cream vendor stopped beside us. I had been given ice cream in Omdurman. Just iced water with flavour which is what I thought this was. But when he pulled up a waffled cone I knew this could mean trouble.
One thing you don’t eat in desert heat is ice cream from a street vendor who relies on ice blocks for refrigeration. Having come from the restaurant industry in my previous life I was taught that the two most dangerous foods are rice and ice cream.
And now I had no choice but to have this one.
Talk about taking one for the team.
Omar arrived and we cruised around town in his car listening to the likes of Chris Brown.
“You like him?” he asked.
I fuckin’ hate Chris Brown. I hate Justin Beiber. I despise that crowd of so-called ‘musicians’.
“Not really a fan,” I said.
He played him anyway. We reached the shores of the Nile to watch the sun set before Omar dropped us off at a local hole-in-the-wall restaurant where I had Quware (pronounced: ‘Ku-war-eh), a meat soup made of goats intestines and bone marrow.
The soup was nice but the insides of animals are not my thing. I stuck to the char-grilled goats meat and salads, all chowed down with fluffy round bread (not pita bread. Pita is a Lebanese thing). We then went and had some tea at Mama Hamdi’s, a well known spot for the brewed beverage opposite a large mosque.
Omar returned and took us out to have some dessert – fried banana mixed with honey and cheese called, muhbaza. It was delicious although I was quite stuffed. He dropped us home and I had a peaceful night.
Tomorrow I was going to hitch hike, be what may.