The art of clay-making in Sudan, Fuhar, What to know more? Read my words in Africa Geographic.
Special thanks to the Mo’ crew of Khartoum for showing me this not-very-well known ancient art.
The art of clay-making in Sudan, Fuhar, What to know more? Read my words in Africa Geographic.
Special thanks to the Mo’ crew of Khartoum for showing me this not-very-well known ancient art.
Whilst travelling through Sudan, I came across this spiritual, Islamic experience – The Zikir Huliya
“Allah Wakbar,” the muezzin woke me up at sunrise.
The night had passed without incident, aside the mysterious ceremony, and I had enjoyed a restful sleep. I hopped outta the hammock, packed away everything and grabbed my camera to race across the desert to the Pyramids of Jebel Barkel.
Jebel Barkal served as a royal cemetery during the Meroitic Kingdom. Which might explain the cemetery at its base. That’s when my brain clicked. The ceremony I had witnessed from the shadows of my hammock during the night was a funeral.
The earliest burials here date back to the 3rd century BCE and the pyramids pre-date the infamous Egyptian ones.
Jebel means ‘mountain’ but at 98 meters, the sand and rock point looked more like a mound. It used to serve as a landmark for traders back in the day. At its baseת the historical city of Napata is located and in 2003, the mountain, together with the city were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The pyramids shone golden as the sun came up behind me. I raced across the desert sands to beat the sun as it would heat up to 30 degrees in no time and then I also had to race back to get my packs and hike it to the highway.
The road was only 200 meters away but in 30+ degrees it may as well be 200 kilometers away.
There are about 15 pyramids in the area which date back to 1450 BCE when the Egyptian Pharaoh, Thutmose III, extended his empire south and considered Jebel Barkel its southern limit. He had campaigned near the city of Napata which would become the capital of the independent Kingdom of Kush about 300 years later.
The ruins around Jebel Barkal include at least 13 temples and three palaces, discovered for the first time by European explorers in the 1820s. But it wasn’t until 1916 that scientific archaeological excavations revealed more. The larger temples, such as that of Amun, are considered sacred to the locals.
I snapped some photos and raced back to collect my gear. The sun, already heating this desert oven to its baking capacity, rose up fast behind the Nile. Hittin’ the road I managed a ride but the driver misunderstood and dropped me at the bus station in town.
I explained to the bus folk what I was trying to do. “Groosh mafi,” I said.
“No problem,” grinned the driver.
After an hour I was told to place my bags on the roof of the bus and presented with a seat.
I was not enjoying this. I wanted to hitch hike, to find that person that would stop with good intentions in their heart. I mean, yes, these folks had the most amazing kind-heartedness about them but they were missing my point.
Or I was missing the way to express it properly.
The bus took us through the desert for three hours until we hit Dongola where I called up Ahmed from some guys in a street-side restaurant. He explained to them where I could meet him and they escorted me a half-hour through the backstreets of Dongola.
They didn’t ask for money. They didn’t say they were too busy. They simply hung up the phone, told me to follow them and off we went. I thanked the guys and Ahmed directed me to get into his Hilux. He put me in a hotel by the airport and disappeared for the day.
“I have to go to Karma for work,” he explained. “It’s 60 kilometers away.”
“No worries, mate,” I said. I was tired, hot and couldn’t be bothered to do anything.
“I’ll come back in the evening and we catch up.”
I stayed in the room with the fan on full and spent the day showering and catching up on some photo editing. I was offered an omelette and dinner but Ahmed never returned. I guess he was out late and was just as knackered as I had been.
I figured in the morning he’d arrive and maybe he could take me to the highway.
Wadi Halfa was next on the map.
“We go?” Tarik asked.
“Aiwa,” I grinned and followed him out the gate.
Mohammed and Mohammed had gone off to work and Mohammed (yes, all three share the same name) had a full day with his family so Mohammed had organised for his neighbour, Tarik, who spoke as much English as I did Arabic, to show me around town.
As I was staying across the road from the Blue Nile, we crossed the busy tarmac and walked through the farming fields to the banks of the longest river in the world (and the longest north-flowing one). We then popped into some small shops that sold wood chips for charcoal and small clay vases. From here we hopped back across the road and watched a local weave nylon roped over a metal frame that would eventually become a bed before we sat in the shade of a tea stall and drank some tea.
Tarik disappeared for about an hour leaving me to sit and chat with some locals. When he came back, we headed off to the old part of town. Khartoum, which mean’s ‘Elephant’s Trunk’ due to how the Nile winds around the city, is basically three large towns combined: Khartoum Town, Khartoum Bahir and Omdurman, where Governor-General Gordon lost his head to Mahdi’s rebels (he wanted the Brit alive but his soldiers got into a frenzy).
It’s here that the White Nile (sourced from Uganda’s Lake Nalubela) and the Blue Nile (sourced from Ehtiopia’s Lake Tana) meet and become The Nile, flowing north all the way through the Sudanese and Egyptian saharas (Arab word for ‘desert’) until it meets the Mediterranean Sea. It’s the only north-flowing river in Africa.
The city skyline is dotted with minarets and mosques are as abundant as the bridges that criss-cross the river.
We had lunch in a small street-side restaurant – fried fish with shati – a spicy sauce. We then had tea before we retired back to Mungi’s pad with Tarik’s brother, Nader, where I jammed some tunes while they rolled some Bob Marleys.
A few hours later, as the sun dropped, Tarik and I headed out on a tuk-tuk to the markets. He lead me around between the spice stalls and the baskets full of wares. Pet stores selling birds of exotic colours. Pigeons the size of eagles. Chicken chicks dyed with unnatural colours.
Nothing sadder than seeing birds in cages. What’s the point of having wings if you can’t fly?
We walked back towards the river. Tarik had purchased us a bottle of water each, and as we walked down the stairs under one of the many bridges of the city, he pointed out the pile of rubbish.
“Very bad,” he said.
I agreed and was happy to see that he was aware of the situation.
Until he added his empty plastic bottle to the pile.
We walked back home along the Nile where I shukraned him for the day and caught up with Mohammed, Mohammed and Mohammed. After dinner, we began an impromptu jam session that lasted into the late hours of the early morning.
I’m really getting hooked on the vibe here.
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…”
“Come on, let me help you,” Abdu offered from the bajaj.
“I don’t have money,” I explained.
“Not a problem.”
I hopped in, thankful not to have to walk the hills of Gondar to reach the road to Metema, the border town to Sudan some 200 Ks away. It’d be hot soon and I wanted to take advantage of the morning coolness to hike out of the city.
I had been misdirected for two kilometers so I was a bit pissed off as I began hiking back towards AG Hotel when Abdu had pulled over and decided to help me without pay.
He too was misled and drove us about ten kilometers in the wrong direction. Eventually, the right directions were obtained and he dropped me on the road that would take me to Azezo, about 12 Ks out of Gondar. From there, I’d connect to the road that would be a straight run to the border.
With a start like this to the day, I was in high spirits and hiked down the road. I flagged down a Landcruiser.
I recognised the upholstery in the single-cabin.
No fuckin’ way.
“Abdusalam!” I cheered, recognising the passenger from my direct ride to Gondar the previous day. He was alone and just around but glad to see me as I was him.
Sometimes, it’s not about whether you get a ride or not. If you get to bump into the people that have helped you (and boy, did Abdusalam’s ride ever help me), it’s enough to put that spring in your step.
Even if you are carrying 30 kilos in 30 degrees.
I continued to hike down when Telega stopped for me.
“I can take you 3 kilometres,” he offered.
Better than walking. Besides, an uphill appeared on the horizon and I wasn’t up for it. He dropped me off and I managed to get a lift in a 1976 Landcrusier.
“This baby’s a classic!” I exclaimed.
Alex, the driver, was pleased at my excitement. He was only going halfway to Azezo but decided to take me all the way.
“Amasegnalehu!” I shook his hand, hopped out and began to follow the road that would eventually take me to the border.
The opening to the hike was an uphill climb. My eyes followed the mini-buses that passed me and saw where the road wrapped around. I also saw the shortcut and, seeing that there were no potential rides, I took it. Huffing and puffing the shortcut took me back to the Mushroom Farm Eco Lodge in Livingstonia, Malawi. I took the shortcuts instead of the entire curve of the road with all my gear and almost fell off the mountain.
And this one was only about 20 meters in distance. But the incline and the heat… sheesh! I mean, it wasn’t yet too hot and I was grateful to finally get into a rhythm.
The only vehicles to come up behind me were buses. Not a single car.
I might be screwed here.
Which I immediately followed up with,
Hey! No getting’ screwed! Think positive. Something’ll come up. It might take some time, but it’ll happen. You know it, I know it. We both know it therefore it is known and there’s no way around it.
I started the downhill hike and came across a small house with a car parked outside. A group of people were about to enter the building when they saw me. The main guy, who spoke English, stopped me.
“Where are you going?”
“By foot?” he seemed shock.
“Well, until I get a lift, yeah. I’ve got legs, may as well use them.”
“What is your religion?” he asked. “Are you Christian?”
Here we go. “No.”
“Nope. No religion.”
This seemed to piss him off a bit as he stepped into my personal space. “You don’t believe in Jesus Christ as your lord and saviour? Jesus Christ who died for our sins?”
“I didn’t commit any sins,” I began but my words were falling on deaf ears. The guy was in preacher mode.
“Jesus Christ who will protect you through the power of prayer? Pray with me.”
“No and I’d appreciate you not forcing your beliefs upon me. Jesus Christ wouldn’t want that.”
He blinked. “Then let me pray for you.”
“If it’ll make your day, go for it.” I was about to walk off when he began to pray out loud.
Oh, he meant pray for me now.
“May the blood of Jesus cover you,” he began.
May the blood of Jesus cover me? What the fuck was that? Why would I want to be covered in anyone’s blood? And if he prayed this for everyone in his flock, how much blood would be left for JC? Where does he get his blood donations from?
The guy’s voice rose to an almighty screech which had his little congregation in a worked up frenzy and he ended by yelling into my face, “By the power of Jesus Christ!”
His hand went up and came down – stopping just short of my forehead. I would not have been happy had he made contact. He then spun around and walked off. No goodbyes, no see you soon, red baboon. Just walked off as though he had performed the world’s greatest miracle.
Yes, his intentions were kind enough but he was just some evangelical priest that saw an opportunity to freak his flock into a deeper belief of the same bullshit we’ve been spoon-fed for the last 5,000 years.
How is it that we can easily recognise that Harry Porter is fantasy yet people will believe the stories of the Bible and fight to the death anyone who doesn’t?
I continued down the hill when my blood pressure suddenly dropped.
I froze, letting the wave pass.
The fuck is that?
Maybe JC was taking a blood collection and I was paying for it.
All of a sudden I felt weak even though I’d enjoyed a hearty breakfast. I spied a shady spot, dropped my packs and crouched down to regulate my breathing.
Was it the heat? Was it the walking with 30 kilos, just two kilos shy of half my body weight?
I sipped on some water and figured I’d take a break.
Did the guy bless me or curse me? Fuckin’ aye.
The wave passed, I peed and felt better. I decided to wait and see if I could get a ride. The first truck that passed flew by. Two mini-buses also attempted to take to the sky.
The next truck didn’t stop either so I slowly picked up my gear, stood momentarily to make sure I wasn’t about to pass out and headed off. I hiked what seemed at least 6 Ks before a Landcruiser full of civil engineers took me 50 Ks to Chigala. As I began to hike through the town a voice called out to me.
I turned, greeting the smiling face of a young man who invited me for coffee.
I could do with some sugar after that blood pressure drop so I pulled up a stool. In the shack his friends were gathered around. I whipped out Ol’ Red and strummed a few tunes. A shadow was cast at the entrance to the shop and when I raised my head about 50 elementary students where blocking the sun.
“Woah,” I grinned, surprised by the unexpected crowd.
I posed for photos and shook hands with everybody, thanking them for the coffee and the company. The guy who had invited me turned out to be a 17-year-old kid. Ethiopia’s the first country I’ve come by where the youth have been so open and welcoming, not seeing me as a walking ATM, appreciating my lifestyle choice and really having their heads screwed on the right way.
I hiked passed tiny villages, alongside large cows, grinning and smiling at everyone. I was in such a good mood even though the sun was baking and I was drenched in sweat.
I felt great, mate.
A car came up behind me and I turned to flag down an ambulance.
“Quick, quick,” the driver said. “Just get in.”
Is he on a call? Nice of him to stop but come on, get some priorities here.
I squeezed myself in and he took me 4 K’s down the road to where a family were waiting by the road. It didn’t seem like the call was urgent so I was glad I hadn’t contributed to anyone’s demise.
I asked the driver if he had some water as I was running low and he gave me a full 2-litre bottle.
Hope that wasn’t intended for the patient.
I continued to hike at least another 6 K’s before a Hilux pulled up. They were heading 50 K’s. I hopped in and although English wasn’t a mutual language, I managed to crack them up with my attempt at Amharic. I was offered water and Kofti, a mix bag of nuts and seeds.
I was dropped in Sequna, their final stop. I smiled and greeted the locals as I began to hike up the hill when a mini-bus pulled over.
“No money,” I said after telling the driver I was headed to Metema, about 80 Ks away.
“No problem,” he said, gesturing me to get on board. The conductor broke into a broad grin.
“No problem,” he also said.
I hopped into the crowded ride, said ‘Salama’ to the blank stares and off we went. For the next 50 Ks we didn’t encounter a single other vehicle except for the trucks coming in from Sudan, easily recognisable from the black plates with Arabic letters and numbers.
It got me wondering why there were no trucks heading towards Sudan from Ethiopia. Seemed to be a one-way trade.
And putting a damper on my hitching.
As we drove along, the driver, the only one who spoke English, asked about my method of travel. I explained my no money philosophy which he accepted with a smile and bought me a bottle of water.
About ten Ks shy of this ride’s final stop we pulled up to a checkpoint.
“Please come with me,” smiled a local wearing a florescent road-safety vest.
“Who are you?” I asked without budging.
“I’m customs and immigration official. Please, follow me.”
“Show me some ID,” I said without moving.
He stared at me and then broke into a smile as he pulled out his wallet. “You can read Amharic?”
If this guy was really customs, his ID would have English on it. “Yeah, I can read Amharic.”
He produced a laminated card that had his name and, in English, Customs Official Officer.
I grinned. “Alright, let’s go party.”
They checked my passport and bag. “The driver told me you have been footing it.”
“Yeah, no cars around here.”
“It is not good in this weather conditions,” he pointed up. “Very hot.”
“No, it’s fuckin’ hot.” He laughed as he let me get back on the bus and we continued to a tiny town where the driver said,
“I’ll pay for you to reach Metema.”
I couldn’t believe it.
I whipped out Ol’ Red and immediately a small crowd gathered around me as I ripped into Johnny Cash’s, Folsom Prison Blues. The crowd were jumping and happy and we took off in good spirits.
“30 kilometers,” the driver said, indicating the distance to the border town. I was given some bread which I shared with the rest of the mini-bus and was finally dropped at the bus station in Metema.
“Amasegnalehu,” I thanked the driver.
I couldn’t believe that I had made it. And I couldn’t believe how The Universe had placed these amazingly kind-hearted people in my path today. Every day but today especially as the extreme heat could have easily taken me out. And with the lack of cars on the road, it seemed that I might have reached the border town sometime next week.
But time and again I’ve proven to myself that as long as I think positively, that’s what I’ll project and that’s exactly what I’ll attract. It’s something I changed in myself the day I decided to go nomadic. And my second travel buddy, Baz, had been preaching that very ideal from day one.
I was still 3 K’s shy of the actual border crossing, shaking off the hustlers I hit the town, greeting everyone, overtaking donkeys lugging water tanks. I wasn’t sure if the border was a 24-hour one so I was still at risk of not being able to cross today.
A young Rasta pulled over in a bajaj.
“Come on, no money. It’s OK.”
What was going on? Maybe that evangelical’s prayer was working its magic. Maybe The Universe itself was having a great day and just felt like really giving me a boost. Whatever the reason, I was riding a cloud.
Sure the guy ended up claiming that Michael Jackson, Beyonce and Justin Beiber are all Illuminates (although, what really shocked me was that he put Beiber and MJ in the same sentence). But the way this day was going, I couldn’t help but wonder how Sudan was going to welcome me.
At the crossing my bags were searched by Ethiopian customs officials.
“You are very lucky,” said one. “The border closes in 55 minutes.”
I raised an eyebrow. When they asked me to play them a song I said, “If I had more time but the Sudanese border will close soon too.” They nodded in agreement and I was stamped out and let into Sudan, the third Muslim country I’d be visiting but the first one in Africa and my first Arab country.
I was instantly adopted by a dodgy hustler who I politely told to leave me alone, crossed the bridge over the dry river bed and hit customs.
“410 pounds registration,” said the large, bald-headed official.
“What?” I whated. “But when I got my visa they said there wouldn’t be any hidden costs.”
“410 pounds,” the guard said sternly.
Shit. “Can’t I just register in Khartoum,” like it used to be, “I can get some cash there.”
“No!” he pounded his fist. “You must register here.”
Fuck. “Can I use your phone to call my friend in Khartoum?”
I had met Mo in Nairobi via the Gypsy Queen. Recently he had returned to Sudan after completing his studies in Kenya. Mo’s a gentle soul and kind-hearted and when I called him up for help he said,
“Give me a few minutes.”
After a few minutes he called back. “I sent some money over the phone so they should be able to complete the process and I’ll see you here in Khartoum.”
What a life-saver. After the stamping and the registration sticker stuck to a page in my passport, I made my way out where a hustler was waiting for me.
“Bus to Khartoum, 145, bed for the night, 20. Customs here.”
“I just came from customs.”
“Yes, but they must check your luggage.”
I pulled into the compound where a lone soldier lay on a bed in the courtyard. He sighed and reluctantly rose which is perhaps why he just felt my packs for a second and said,
“Welcome Sudan,” and walked off to collapse in his bed.
Gotta love his work ethics.
I hiked out of Galabat, the border town and greeted two men coming my way with, “Salam al yekum.”
“Al yekum ya salam,” they greeted back.
I kept hiking and on the opposite side of the road a woman was coming down the hill towards the town.
“Salam,” I greeted her.
She picked up a rock and threw it at my legs.
What the fuck? I kept walking and could hear a rock land near me every few steps. I turned back to give her my infamous death stare but it was so bright I couldn’t be arsed to take off my sunnies.
Maybe that’s why she continued to chuck rocks at me.
I reached a checkpoint where I saw a soldier and a police officer chillin’.
“You guys mind if I pitch a tent?” I asked after the formal greetings and hand shaking.
The soldier indicated that the shack across the way would suffice my needs. The police officer wasn’t as assisting.
“Take hotel,” he pointed back towards town.
“No money,” I said. You’re bloody registration scam sucked me dry.
The soldier indicated to the shack, the cop to the town. I was torn between the two until I just walked off to the soldier’s way. The cop yelled out,
I stopped and turned around. “Nope.”
“Nope.” I waited for the magic question,
The cop and soldier broke into a smile and nodded their, ‘OK’. It pissed me off that my nationality was the key to smiles here. Americans aren’t favoured and neither are the British, but Aussies are loved everywhere.
Seeing as it was hot, the wind was hot, and my balls were hot, I figured my hammock would better suit my needs. As I strung it up in the flimsy shack, Nabil, a plainclothes policeman stood watching me. I tested the hammock to see if the shack could take my weight.
Before it was about to collapse I undid the hammock and followed Nabil’s indication to the four metal posts outside. They were close together and one was bent at the bottom so I tied to the other two that took my weight.
“It’s OK?” I pointed to my guitar case. “I can play music?”
“No problem,” Nabil grinned.
I took out Ol’ Red and headed over to where the soldier and cop were. I saw that the soldier was praying so I waited until he finished. The cop, Sabre, offered me a seat. Nabil sat beside me and even before I began to play he was doing a photo shoot, Sabre acting as photographer.
“Bob Marley?” Sabre requested.
I broke into No Woman, No Cry.
Phones were whipped out and I was videoed. Nabil and Mustafar, another cop, broke into dance while I jammed out some country styled covers for the next two hours with Abdul singing a Sudanese song to Wonderwall chords.
“You can sing, man!” I jived as he grinned.
I was offered a can of coke and then food arrived. I was invited to eat from the same bowl as the cops.
“Is ful (fava bean),” said Sabre.
It’s boiled for long hours in a specifically designed pot called, Qidra. It’s then served drowned in sesame oil and cheese.
I chowed down and then played a few soft tunes. Hiking in the sun for about 10 Ks and playing guitar for the third time that day, I was about to collapse. Mustafar told me to follow him. He pulled a bed out from the guard station and set up a mattress and sheets and a pillow.
“We all sleep outside. Too hot.”
I packed up my hammock and Ol’ Red and brought everything over to be stashed in the station before I fell on the bed and the just-right-temperature of the wind blew me up to cloud nine.
Fuck me, what a day. I grinned at The Universe, falling asleep counting stars.
“You can only get a visa into Ethiopia by flying in,” the woman at the Ethiopian embassy shot my hopes down. “Unless you are a Kenyan resident.”
“Really?” I questioned her. “There’s no way to cross the border overland?”
“You can only get a visa into Ethiopia by flying in,” she repeated robotically.
“What if I get a volunteer position at an NGO?”
“You can only get a visa into Ethiopia by flying in.”
“But I’m going around the world without flying,” I stressed.
“You can only get a visa into Ethiopia by flying in.”
“Could I –”
“You can only get a visa into Ethiopia by flying in.” Her patience was running thin.
“What if I –”
“You can only get a visa into Ethiopia by flying in.” She looked me dead in the eye.
“You can only get a visa into Ethiopia by –”
“By flying in,” I finished off for her as I stood up. “Yes, I believe you may have mentioned it. Thank you for your time. Have a great day.”
I walked out and realised that this was my first obstacle and a serious challenge in the two years I’ve been hitch hiking.
Now to figure out how to get to the Middle East without going through countries that weren’t projecting an inviting feel. Let’s see, what are my options…
The email didn’t go through with gmail explaining how due to technical difficulties and blah-blah-blah the message was not delivered.
And also, a sign.
I knew that South Sudan, the recent addition to the planet’s independent nations, and Sudan had signed a peace agreement. But I also knew that the borders were closed between the two countries. Still, I googled the question ‘Are the borders open between South Sudan and Sudan?’
Lo and behold some articles came up on the BBC’s website. ‘Sudan agrees to open 10 border crossings with South Sudan for trade and tourism.’
Tourism. Well, hellooooooo Nelly.
I checked to see if there was an embassy in town for South Sudan.
The next day I headed over and spoke with a more patient woman who explained that the visa would be valid from the day of submission.
Shit. “I’ll only be in South Sudan from about September.” I think. “Can I get a visa in Uganda?”
“Yes, not a problem,” she said.
Sweet candy pie it was all working out. Everything does eventually.