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Ana hawajia mufallisa 17.I.2009 13:08
So, after my last post, in which the police unceremoniously packed me on a train and sent me back to Wadi Halfa where I'd started, I've followed the more traditional route down from northern Sudan to Ethiopia, in which I hope to be in two days' time. Because random blogs have helped me a lot in figuring out how to get through Sudan in the first place, I'll be including a lot of details that, while not necessarily interesting in and of themselves, will, Google willing, be helpful to others. I've now gone all the way from the Nile delta in Alexandria to the confluence of the White and Blue Niles, and the journey in between has been a fascinating one; above all, I've loved the Sudanese people, who have been the friendliest and most hospitable since those I've met in Iran - a welcome change from the money-obsessed 'friends' you meet on the streets in Egypt. And the most important phrase is the one in the title, translating roughly as 'I'm a broke-ass foreigner.' The form here is actually feminine, which I use in deference to Kasia of the Polish expedition, whose frequent, adamant and effective use of the phrase led to many a discount and have associated it with her forever in my mind.

So, I wound up in Wadi Halfa, staying once again the quite-decent Defentoad Hotel paying 7 pounds a night for a bed. I was there the same day as the next ferry from Egypt arrived, which meant that I would be roughly on the same path as several other foreigners - in my case, two Italians I met on the bus to Dongola, the nearest destination south along the Nile. The bus cost 60 Sudanese guineas - well, actually pounds, but I like calling them guineas because I feel like if I have enough of them I might get something exotic like a sovereign. Anyway, as I'm waiting for this bus, I see two guys in shorts (one in denim cutoffs!) and rather gut-revealing shirts and think: these have to be Italians. Sure enough, they were, and we were all seated on the cramped, rugged-looking bus down to Dongola. 'Seven hours or so,' we were told, but here we run on African time and the road was rough, straight through the desert with no pavement in sight - though there were signs that, like everywhere else in Africa, the Chinese are building a brand new artery, so the days of rough adventurous travel in Sudan will soon be over.

Fifteen hours later, and in considerable pain, we arrive in Dongola, a pleasant little town with not much going on that's great to get a feel for the pace of life in Sudan. Of course, God forbid they should actually let us off in the town - they put us off the bus in the ferry crossing (which the bus proceeds to use as well; why not let us take it to the other side?) and then we have to take a tuk tuk into town, which luckily only costs 2 pounds as all tuk tuk trips do. In Dongola we stayed at the Lord Hotel, the second in what would turn out to be a series of hotels, or rather lokandas, of decreasing quality. The guy there overcharged us quite badly too - in the morning, we noticed another hotel next door that quoted us about half the price. Dunya keda. Then, of course, we had to walk like a kilometre to get registered with the security services, something that every hotel in Sudan seemingly makes you do, and which makes sleeping in the desert almost the better option. The security service guys know they have some power and like to play with you too - asking why it'd be hard for them to immigrate to Canada, or if I'm a Muslim, or trying to tell me my visas only for a week; it's quite annoying, but God only knows what would happen if they denied a registration. Packed off on a train like in Abu Hamed, I suppose.

The next morning, I continued down the Nile to Karima, which had been one of my primary destinations in Sudan, since it has the country's only UNESCO World Heritage Site, Jebel Birkal. The minibus to Karima costs 15 pounds and leaves from across the Nile at the ferry dock and, oddly, you need police permission to use the ferry in the first place. At this point, I'd hit the asphalt roads, so the ride was smooth smooth sailing - so smooth I thought the minibus driver was going to kill us. In Karima, we stayed at the al-Nasr hotel, which wasn't great and had a really surly owner - any attempt to bargain the price down from 25 pounds for a four-bed room was met with what amounts to 'if you don't like it, get out,' but on the other hand I don't think there are really any other options. From Karima, I walked about 45 minutes to Jebel Birkal, which was quite lovely - there are two temples, one of Mut and one of Amun, and several well-preserved Meroitic pyramids that were quite nice to see. Unfortunately, our attempt to get in without a ticket was less than successful - the soldiers saw us walking towards the site and made s pay 20 pounds each, which is the same price as the Giza plateau; a bit ridiculous, I feel. Still, the site is really lovely, and it's definitely worth the trip out to Karima to visit it.

The next day, I set my sites on Sudan's other major historical treasure: Meroë, the old capital of the eponymous Meroitic empire. This is located near the village of Bajrawiyya, along the Atbara-to-Shendi highway, so I figured I'd grab a bus to Atbara in the morning ('8 o'clock', they told me) and then make my way south. Sadly, this proved to be much more of a mission than I'd intended. First of all, the bus wasn't a nice, big, air-conditioned one like the one to Khartoum, but rather a simple minibus, necessary because instead of taking the nice, flat, asphalt road we took some random shortcut through the desert and later one through some farmers' fields - the whole thing took about 4 hours, having left at nine, and cost a ridiculous 30 punds; the transport costs in Sudan are the main reason I'm mufallis. Of course, it didn't drop me at the bus station in Atbara like they said it would; the driver was too lazy to wait in line for a few ferries across the Nile, so he simply sent us all off to fend for ourselves. On the other side, I also discovered there were no buses from Atbara to Shendi, at least not on the Friday I was there - rather, they ran from Damar, to which I needed to take a local bus from Damar Station, to which I needed to take a tuk tuk. Fortunately, Sudanese people were extremely helpful all along the way, and I got onto the bus to Shendi (9 pounds) with a request to be let off at Bajrawiyya - al-hamdu li-llah.

I'm glad I went to all this trouble because it really was worth it - the site at Meroë is amazing and definitely the jewel in Sudan's tourism crown; I pity those who decide to skip it. Though the pyramids aren't all well-preserved, and some of them are quite clumsily reconstructed, the appeal of the site is its sheer size - about 30 pyramids, many of which you can explore, are lined in a crescent along the vast, dune-filled site. And since Sudan hasn't that many tourists, I had the site all to myself for about two hours, having a lunch in the pyramids' shadow, exploring every last far-flung one, climbing the dunes for beautiful views of the structures and the desert beyond. There's something I absolutely love about being alone at archaeological sites, a sense of exploration, or perhaps of discovery, or perhaps simply of being alone with a timelessness that's difficult to describe in words; whatever it is, I love the feeling. Technically, entry to the site costs 20 pounds, but after I loudly proclaimed that 'ana hawajia mufallis', mostly to get rid of the idiots trying to sell me 'handmade' instruments and tiny pyramids, the woman relented and let me in for half-price. After two leisurely and magnificent hours spent exploring the site, I decided to head on southwards towards Shendi and Khartoum.

Unfortunately, Meroë was the one place where the people I met weren't friendly at all. Tourism is slowly starting to take hold, and the camel-owning touts here are just as annoying and persistent as the ones in Egypt, constantly shouting at you and refusing to leave you alone. A camel, in my opinion, is a more primitive equivalent of a taxi - a mode of transportation no local would ever use, and simultaneously one that seems to rob its owner of every shred of respect for other human beings. Taxi drivers and their various ancillary species are, quite simply, some of the worst people I've met in my life, and this holds true across cultures and countries, be it in generally honest Iran or scam-plagued Egypt or orderly Israel. I absolutely hate them, and avoid them when possible. Also here, I fell for another interesting scam - I'd left my big bag in the ticket office, but the woman who runs it had left at 5PM and it was now getting close to six; the office, consequently was locked. The guy there says to me I can get my bag back at 7 in the morning, which is clearly not an option - all right, he says, he'll break the lock, but such a nice lock is clearly worth 20 pounds. I see that I have no option but to play the game so I come back with one pounds, my problem at the moment being a lack of Sudanese currency on a bank-free Friday. Finally we settle on one American dollar, at which point he brings out a saw that clearly does fuck-all and gets to work on the lock. 'It'll take a while,' says he, 'please, sit here in this room,' and when you're in the room and not looking for ten seconds, you come out and the lock is magically gone and the door open, he obviously having had the key all along. What a motherfucker - it really is just like Egypt here, and a jarring reminder of what the tourism industry does to people's treatment of strangers. I imagine ten years ago these same men would've been helping me however they could just like every other Sudanese I've met.

Getting from Bajrawiyya to Shendi is a bit of a chore, there having been no buses passing in the half-hour I waited at the roadside. Luckily, a man in one of the many, many trucks heading down this highway to Khartoum picked me up, and I was on my slow way southward; he dropped me off at the truck stop in Shendi, from where I had to (sigh) take a taxi into town. We settled on six pounds (I bet the real price is three), at which point he took me to a European-style hotel I simply could not afford, so then we settled on the next option, the lokanda, which was the worst I've stayed at in all Sudan. He also tried to insist that the two-minute ride from the hotel to the lokanda cost an extra three pounds, which was ridiculous. After three minutes of arguing, I simply did what I always do in those situations, and left him the six pounds without saying another word. After this, another trip to the security offices awaited me, as well as dinner in the souq which was the best fuul I've had in a long, long time.

One interesting thing I've noticed about the Middle East is that the common definition of 'walkable' is much, much shorter than what I would consider reasonable. For example, my hotel manager told me that it was impossible to walk and shoved me in a tuk tuk, when of course it turned out to be about a 10-minute walk along the railroad tracks, and in fact a walk across the whole town would take no more than a half hour; I had the same experience in Atbara going to the Damar station. The problem is you have no way of knowing in advance whether something is genuinely far or not - the culture here is that if you have money, you take a taxi, and if you're a hawajia of course you can spare the two pounds - and for a backpacker this is really frustrating. For the record, in Shendi, the lokanda is definitely in walking distance from both the security office are souq, though the hotel is such a piece of crap that I wish I'd simply slept in the desert at the pyramids; alas.

The next morning, I caught a bus to the capital, which leaves from Souq al-Sha'b and to which you actually need to take a taxi or tuk tuk. Here, I finally got a proper, comfortable air-conditioned bus, and a toffee and a pop to boot, which once again reminded me that Sudan really straddles the line between the Arab World and Africa, manifesting signs of both and making it impossible to say in which it really belongs. It's a member of the Arab League, but the pace of life and relaxed attitude to scheduling are definitely African, as are the love of dance and music, and the brightly coloured (and sometimes tight) clothes that you don't really see elsewhere in the Arab speaking world. On the other hand, the strict devotion to Islam among Muslims is very much in line with the rest of the Middle East, as is the stifling bureaucracy and many other aspects of the culture; this really is where North meets South, as it were, a truly transitional culture that I've very much enjoyed experienceing - the caveat being that I speak here of Arabic-dominated Northern Sudan, and not of the tragic Darfur or South Sudan regions.

Another very African aspect of Sudan is its division into tribes - one of the first questions you can ask someone is shenu jinsak - what's your tribe? - and they will almost always answer. Whether they are Arabic speakers or not at home, they will be Dongolawi, or Nuri, or from anyone one of a dozen other tribes. For me, this works out great, as this is the first country that seems able to deal with the concept of dual nationality. In Canada, we take this for granted - everyone and their mother has a second passport and dual citizenship - but in travelling, you sort of have to be one or the other, and for most Middle Easterners I'm Polish because my blood is and that's it. In Cairo, I met a man who lived in Egypt but was Turkish; when I asked him when he came over from Turkey, he said his great-grandparents had many decades ago - but he'll still never really be Egyptian. In Sudan, however, I simply say that my nationality is Canadian, but my jins is Polish - Bulandawi - and everybody understands what's going on; it really is nice not to have to constantly explain.

So, finally, I arrive in the capital, Khartoum - the bus drops me at the north-ish Bahri station, from which the taxi driver claims it will be 10 pounds to the city centre, when of course there's a minibus for fifty piastres. And it's here that I receive a complete stroke of luck - out of the post office window Jerry, an English guy I'd met in Karima, spots me out the window and comes rushing over. We get to talking, and it turns out they're staying with Ismene (of Sophocles fame), a Greek girl working at the UN here in Khartoum, and now I'm staying there too! It's an amazing stroke of luck, because I was totally lost in the city with no real idea what I was doing. We spent the day walking around Khartoum not photographing things, because the security here is obsessed with not letting you take photos, and you get yelled at when you get your camera out at every building or mosque, which I think is ridiculous. Nevertheless, we went to the White Nile bridge to see the confluence of the Niles, thus completing my path along the unified portion of that great river; from here on, I follow the Blue Nile to its source in Ethiopia. However, the White Nile, seen looking southwards, was incredible - the widest I've ever seen the Nile and looking every bit like a sea stretching onward to the horizon, with tiny little islands dotting the water every now and then; it is an absolutely beautiful place to watch the sunset. Tomorrow, I head to the Ethiopian consulate, in the hopes of making it to Gonder in time for Timkat, the festival of the Epiphany for the Orthodox church there which is supposed to be incredible - it's going to be a very hectic attempt, but insha'allah it will be possible. Meanwhile, my adventures in the Sudan are nearly over, but I'm very glad I came to this amazing country, through which it is so easily to travel (bureaucracy notwithstanding) and whose people have been so helpful to me. It's also shown me - and hopefully Ethiopia will confirm this - that I'm ready for a trip through Africa, and one day I'll head down to Cape Town as Jerry and his friend Pete are doing, though not this year. Meanwhile, photos and posts will be few and far between with Ethiopia's terrible internet connections, but I'll do what I can to stay in touch. Now, for the first time in months, I leave the Islamic world for a Christian country; ma'a as-salaama.

Khartoum, Sudan Sd

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