“La wen?” I asked the truck driver.
“Kasame,” he grinned.
When I saw him smile at me from the road I knew he’d stop.
After Omar had put me on a taxi and escorted me to the highway and left I met Hamdu who beckoned me to join him for some shai (tea).
He provided me a bag of peanuts and showed me how to mix it with the tea. He indicated his bicep to show that this was the stuff that created strength. In Addis Ababa I’d had coffee with butter. Now I was about to try tea with peanuts. To my surprise, it went great together and I felt rejuvenised.
“Shukran,” I shook hands with my new rafik (friend) and headed back to the road when not twenty minutes had passed and I stopped Awad and his dump truck. The main problem at this four-way junction was that the whole area was surrounded by cement factories and that’s where all the trucks were going.
Awad took me across the bridge over the Nile and indicated that the police at the check point would help me. I thanked him and headed over to the little outpost.
“Salam al-yekum,” I greeted the officers. “Kiff tam’am?”
“Tam’am,” they answered with a smile.
I explained in Arabic my ways and that I was looking for a ride to Meroe, to see the pyramids. They offered me a 50 pound note which I refused and managed to explain that I don’t do money.
“Don’t like it,” I said.
I whipped out Ol’ Red and played some tunes to their amusement. They offered me tea and some shade to rest. After a few hours a plainclothes police officer appeared.
“Mohammed,” he introduced himself.
We shook hands. He spoke some broken English but enough to understand.
“La wen?” he asked me.
“Ana ma’ashi Meroe,” I answered.
“Me too,” he said. “We go together.”
After about an hour a double-trailer loaded with cement bags pulled up.
“Bring your packs,” Mohammed said. “We take this truck.”
It was good to get out of the sun. The truck had tinted windows and plush seats.
“Why don’t you like money?” the officer asked me.
“If people are willing to kill for money, then it cannot be a good thing,” I said.
He nodded in agreement. We trucked along and after about three hours stopped outside his police station. It was smack bang in the middle of absolutely nothing.
“Come, we have coffee,” Mohammed took me over to Driss’s coffee shop. “Then, later, the police car is going to Meroe (pronounced, Mar-a-weh). You will go with it.”
Sweet! “Shukran,” I tapped my chest to indicate my heart-felt gratitude.
I was introduced to the joyful old man, Driss (don’t let the picture fool you), who has been in his hollow shack for 40 years. I noted the knife sheathed strapped to his bicep, hidden under his jellabiya.
“Many Europeans riding their bicycles and motorbikes stop here for coffee and tea,” Mohammed explained.
I brought out Ol’ Red and played a few songs as the guys around me whipped out their phones and videoed me. This was a first. I mean, I’ve been videoed before (no, not porn) but never to the extent of three cameras in my face.
Coffee was served and I was introduced to another Mohammed driving a truck.
“Dongola,” he said in question to where he was going.
“Ah, I’d like to reach Barkel, to see the pyramids,” I said. “Do you pass there?”
“No,” he said. “I take the other road.”
Damn it. There were two roads, one on each bank of the Nile. The western road goes through Karima where Barkel sits. The eastern one doesn’t.
“But you play nice music and I like your concept. I’ll take you.”
I couldn’t believe it! Ol’ Red had just scored us a ride. I shook hands with everybody, grabbed my gear and piled into Mohammed’s rickety old truck.
Since Kenya I’d been avoiding the trucks, taking as many cars as I could stop, taking trucks when I got desperate. But here in Sudan, everything was flat so any vehicle would do. Hell, I’d take a donkey and cart if it saved me not walking in this heat.
As we drove, Mohammed indicated two fingers on his shoulder. “Him colonel,” he was talking about the other Mohammed, the plainclothes officer.
“Cool,” I pretended to be impressed. I see everyone as a person – or at least, try to. Figures of authority don’t really impress me whether they’re generals or corporals.
We drove towards the sun and stopped in the middle of nowhere where other trucks had gathered. It was a roadside restaurant and dinner was ful in sesame oil and goats meat. We sat in two circles and ate from the same plate. It was my favourite way of eating, sharing from the same utensil rather than having an own plate.
After the guys prayed, I jammed some tunes while coffee was being served. Then Mohammed, having finished his beverage simply called out, “We go,” and headed off to the truck.
I quickly packed up Ol’ Red, shukraned everybody and chased after him. We drove into the night through the town of Karima, passing the cement truck that had taken me before. We stopped by a broken down truck – “My brother,” Mohammed said – before we continued on a bit and he dropped me by the pyramids.
I thanked him and plodded across the sand. I could see the outlines of the pyramids Jebel Barkel, the mountain that used to serve as the landmark for traders going between central Africa, Arabia and Egypt. I hiked to the lights of the town up ahead. But I passed an empty thatched shaded area where the posts that held the roof were palm tree trunks. It screamed out, ‘Hang a hammock here!’
So I did.
I climbed in and was about to doze off when I heard a car. I froze, the wind blew me side-to-side. The car drove past and stopped out of my sight. Suddenly floodlights illuminated the area. I was still in the shadows and as long as I didn’t move, I shouldn’t draw any attention to myself. From where I was I could see and count six men walking along what looked like a fence-line but there wasn’t a fence. A car rolled up behind them and stopped by a post. Then the men began to dig. The sign to Elbarkel said, Elbarkel Festival. Perhaps this was in preparation for it. As it was way too hot in the day to do anything but drink tea, I guess these guys work at night. I watched for a bit until I dozed off. I’m not sure how long I was out for but when I woke up I suddenly saw that the six men had multiplied into about a hundred, all chanting to Allah. And the lone car had turned into about fifteen.
Was this some sort of secret ceremony? Was a virgin being sacrificed? I was not in the mode for a rescue operation. I remained still, just the wind blowing me about and watched as the men all chanted in harmonious unison, “Allah wakbar,” repeatedly.
After about a half hour the men began to disperse into the various mini-buses, cars and tuk-tuks that were parked. Not a single vehicle found me out and as the last men disappeared I breathed a sigh of relief.
And hoped someone would turn off the stadium lights.