Welcome to Sudan

December 2004

Unforgettable Sudan.

The first stop, of course, was the airport. Franci was right there to meet me, and that wasn’t a small thing. Few other women were allowed in that far, but her taraha was covering her hair, and she’d spoken some smooth Arabic to the guards.

On the way out of the country there were countless passport checks, but this way there was only one. Well, if you can count a forty-five minute wait as “one.” All the locals went straight on out, but we foreigners were directed away from the main queue to a tiny room nearby. It was no bigger than a small kitchen, but in it there was an Arabic-speaking television, one unused computer, two sizeable desks, and four or five important-looking officials. (Only the TV was doing anything useful.) I honestly couldn’t see what the hold-up was. My better half had to reawaken my patience with three words that became a refrain: Welcome to Sudan.

In the meantime, though, we got to watch some superlative Sudanese stamping. After spending many minutes examining the invisible fine print on my visa, the head official would pick up a large stamp, sponge it two or three times on the ink, lift it as high as his head, and slam it down into my passport. For just one hundred US dollars, we were entitled to three such demonstrations, with a fourth thrown in for free.

One thing I learnt as soon as we’d left the airport: Khartoum airport and Khartoum city are two very different beasts. The airport is slow, official, and hostile; the city is swarming, human, and very friendly.

For the next two weeks, my eyes were wide with adventure. Sudan was more different from New Zealand than difference itself.

The excitement began immediately, with the taxi that carried us from the airport to a friend’s place. Driving here was like a movie-style car chase, weaving between people and traffic, only in very slow motion. And apparently it was quite normal for one’s taxi door to swing chaotically open and shut. The first time I nearly fell out. I prayed that my luggage would stay in the boot till we arrived, because its door had a similar problem. Despite all this, I felt surprisingly safe. I began to realise: this is a rare experience, this is amazing, this is fun! It was time for the refrain: Welcome to Sudan.

During my first few days there, the school kids were having a short break, so Franci and the other teachers didn’t have to work. Four of us managed to arrange an overnight desert trip with a local driver. (I say “driver” instead of “tour guide” because I’m not sure “tourist” means much there; where we went they get a mere four hundred per year.) I’m sure our driver spoke Arabic to his two wives and six children, but his English was good enough to enlighten us with commentary.

Khartoum is a city on a river. The White Nile from the South meets the Blue Nile from Ethiopia, and the two form The Nile, which wanders on to Egypt. (Even most painters don’t realise it, but white and blue mix to form muddy-brown.) Despite the water, the whole city is red and brown, filled with a strange kind of stark, dusty beauty. I hardly knew what had hit me; still less would a Sudanese man coming to New Zealand realise what had hit him. When I got home, even I was knocked a bit: I discovered those super-green photographs in our touristy books are real after all. Creation is grand!

On our half-day journey into the desert there were three kinds of stops: for sightseeing, for eating, and for Coke. You can go to Australia, India, Brazil, Kenya or Sudan, but you can’t escape Coca-Cola.® I suppose the warring Darfur tribes don’t have Coke, but there sure was enough of it around Khartoum. It even tastes like our stuff. What’s weirdest, though, is the Coke logo in Arabic: it looks just like the English letters JESUS. American capitalists have done some good missionary work.

Another piece of globalism here was Toyota. Each and every taxi in Khartoum was a yellow 1980’s Toyota Corolla. Huge, late-model Land Cruisers were not rare either; the only difference is that in Khartoum, unlike Wellington, they actually make sense. Even in the city the roads can get pretty rough, and in the desert our 4WD was really cruising the land.

At our first few stops we were introduced to the nomads: the people whose home is the desert and whose tiny dwellings are made of canvas and sticks. We met the first family (or perhaps they met us?) near the woven tent that gave them shade. It made me wonder: their whole abode was smaller than my garden shed. Yet “their land” was much bigger than mine; this family could move anywhere they wanted at the drop of a hat, or the death of a goat. (The couple had three kids and two other kids. I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to discover which were goats and which were children.) I’m not sure if the nomads saw us as intruders or friends. They couldn’t speak a word of English, so we could communicate only by giving treats to their children. Welcome to Sudan, I thought.

In a sense I envied these people, living off the stark no-man’s land in a house they could pack into their bags. Everything they owned could be carried by them or by their boney donkey. They live the simple life, the stress-free life. But do I really envy them? There’s not much I’d miss, but I would miss my books. My books are worlds, dreams and hopes. I’d miss having The Book. The nomads had none: not books, not The Book; they didn’t even have the Koran. Perhaps it’s like this: they have small curses and small blessings, whereas we own some pretty big curses, but we also get big blessings. Small is beautiful, but for now we must be content with the beauty of big.

We stopped for the night about a hundred kilometres north of Khartoum, just under the Nubian Pyramids. They sure were something. Or something else, to save confusion with the larger but less steep Egyptian Pyramids. Some of the Nubian structures had seventy-degree sides, and were still twenty or thirty metres up. They were stair-like constructions made of large, perhaps two-hundred kilogram, bricks. Apparently they were sacred enough that we weren’t supposed to climb them, but not enough that our guide remembered to tell us this before we tried.

Much like the Egyptian ones, the pyramids here were tombs of kings, built around 300 BC (some of the Egyptian pyramids are as old as 2500 BC). Much later, around 1820 AD, the infamous Giuseppe “Mafia” Ferlini gave the pyramids rather bold haircuts; many of them are now more rubble than structure. And apparently he only found one little cache of gold.

The best thing about the Nubian versus the Egyptian pyramids is that they were ninety-nine percent tourist-free. So was our camping site. No Asians with busy cameras, no Americans with busy mouths, and no Departments of Conservation with busy donation boxes. It was nothing like camping in New Zealand; there we were under the stars on the sand, with pyramids and dunes all around us. Sleeping bags would have been unthinkable, and rain wasn’t even in a corner of the sky.

Somehow the local peddlers still managed to find us. I didn’t even have to think it before one of the others said it: Welcome to Sudan. There they were, at the crack of dawn, even before we’d had breakfast. (Here in the desert, “crack of dawn” is not a metaphor. In some of the Northern, remoter parts of Africa, you can actually hear a faint but distint crack as the sun appears above the horizon. Helo-spectologists are unsure what causes this, but the Nubians believe it is the whip of the divine Camel Owner spurring on his camel, which is the sun.) We didn’t spend up large on trinkets, but I think they still did pretty well out of us. I bought a dangerously sharp knife at which, surprisingly, the New Zealand customs officials didn’t even flinch. What I wonder is where and how they use the money in the desert; I guess someone exchanges it at the nearest town, or perhaps trades with someone heading for Khartoum.

So head there we did. One of the highlights on the trip back was stopping at a market: a huge, diverse collection of stalls and shops, with much the same purpose as a mall in the West. Only this was far better. Things were earthy and real, nothing plastic or glitzy about them. You could buy almost anything: fruit, grains, shoes, fabric, clothing, trinkets, gold, and even cellphones.

The amount of gold at the Khartoum markets was breathtaking. At one market there was an entire block of stalls selling pure gold. Millions of twenty-four carat creations, sold by the gram. It wasn’t cheap, but I’m guessing you’d make a fair profit if you bought some and sold it here. Then again, our jewellers mark their items up no end: fifty-percent-off sales are common here, whereas in Khartoum prices are probably far more steady. The Sudanese women dress in beautiful colours, and they love their gold. With gold, weight makes right. Some of the poorer women, when they go out, will wear all the gold they own, trying to prove their worth. Still, it’s hardly worse than our fashions.

All this time it was very hot. Insanely hot! Not just a little bit warm; I’m talking a solid, draining, inescapable Heat that words can’t convey. During the day it was commonly 43 degrees (that’s 110 degrees for those who were schooled in the unmetricated country).

After the trip the teachers put me straight on the front lines. I was to help out at the school, in the pre-school class, or “the nursery,” as the American teachers were fond of calling it. (I kept thinking of a place where you breed young trees.)

It’s no secret that I love children, but it sure is tough to run around with four-year-olds in forty degrees. The school started early, about seven-thirty, and finished not long after noon. Relatively speaking, I felt absolutely drained the whole day. Murphy and his Laws must have an Arab counterpart, for as soon as it was time to go home, I was as chirpy as ever. Welcome to Sudan.

One thing I didn’t exactly learn, but had reinforced: kids are the same everywhere. You toss them up, you sing with them, you play games, and despite Original Sin, they love you for it. It doesn’t matter much what language they speak, or whether there’s dust instead of grass under their feet. It doesn’t even matter how hot it is.

When I got back and told all my comfortable Kiwi friends about the heat, almost every one said, “But it’s a dry heat, right? At least it’s better than a humid one.” Granted, bad is better than worse, but I’d honestly rather have good. I’m sure “bad” would take a solid twelve months to get used to.

At this point I really must stop in my red, dusty tracks: Why am I being so negative? I raved about my two weeks in Sudan, and I plan to for the rest of my life. I loved it. I’d think about moving there next month if it weren’t for the heat. Well, and maybe friends and family and church. Oh, and our wedding. And perhaps the green, and the mountain snow, and clear rivers, and Masterton sunsets. But seriously, Sudan was wonderful, and any bad points were outweighed by the beauty of Africa and the Arab friendliness.

These days that concept needs repeating: “Arab friendliness” is far from a contradiction. The Sudanese, if they were nothing else, were friendly. We think we Kiwis are easy-going and easy to get along with, but what I saw here really expanded my mind.

You walk down the street and feel it immediately: Welcome to Sudan. You enter a shop and they’ll go out of their way to help you, and not just to get your money. I had to buy a Sudanese SIM card for my cellphone, and the young man we first talked to didn’t have one, but he walked us ten minutes down the road to a place that had them, got one for us, walked us all the way back, made us sit down, and then topped it all off by buying us each a nice glass of Khartoum lemonade. Talk about service.

When Franci was engaged in the evenings (with something else, not to someone else), I would walk round our block and see what I could see. Khartoum night life was incredible: even till eleven and twelve o’clock, the young men would hang out, just talking and laughing, at the local cafés and bars. But these are no ordinary bars. This is Sudan, non-alcoholic Muslim country, so we’re talking Juice Bars. You could tell, too: here was a chatty, green-light district that felt safe, not seedy.

The guys would wave at me and call “Hallo hwaja!” (“Gidday white stranger!”) Some would pretend to be shy when I returned with my attempt at an Arabic greeting. Others would begin a conversation by showing off their three phrases of broken English. I made more than one friend this way.

We certainly have a lot to learn about neighbourliness. Part of our problem, I believe, is our love of steel cages on wheels. Sure, there are plenty even in Khartoum, but thousands more people walk. Walking can be a ticket to making friends, to meeting neighbours, and to acting out the Good Samaritan (we had the chance to do all of these a number of times, even in the few days I was there). Apart from hitch-hiking, which is becoming increasingly dangerous, it’s pretty hard to make new friends while driving. Then again, it’s not that cars have no place; but in a city, and if you want serious community, it’s a pretty small place.

Seeing I’m preaching already: Which city would you choose, Auckland or Khartoum? I know where I’d rather be. I know where I’d sooner let my fiancée walk at night. And I know where I’d be more likely to meet and help strangers. Here we are, living in the wake of One who said to love our neighbour, but even in little Masterton, we don’t say hello to the people next door more than once a month.

Another big part of the problem is things, or at least how we use them (though I’m not sure the two can be separated). I’m thinking especially of watches and televisions. These thoughts are not exactly my own; I gleaned them from books and am filling in the blanks.

In Khartoum, watches and clocks hardly featured, and I noticed the effects of this almost straight away. At first it was frustrating, because the bank took three times as long to process anything. But after a few days you realise that you’re not rushing everywhere, and that you’ve hardly been thinking about time at all. The fourth dimension was not a tight-rope but a slack-line, and to walk it felt bouncy and exhilarating. The sceptic might say this was because I was on “holiday,” but I noticed that most everyone strolled on the slack-line.

Just like back home, even some of the poorer Sudanese families have TV, but the broadcasts available are quite different to ours. They have propaganda of their own, but boxed Western shallowness is not as widely available. People are forced to do other things, like drinking juice with friends till midnight. I’m not one to suggest killing your TV or smashing your watch, but I believe we need to think seriously about the impact they have in our life and culture.

Speaking of juice bars reminds me: Khartoum fruit juice is far and away the best in the world. Most groups of shops would have two or three fruit juice stalls. One of the most popular was called Tweety Juice. Weird name, but hey, Welcome to Sudan. I can’t prove it, but I’m guessing they minced up little chirping sparrows and threw them in for extra protein.

Though the juice cost less than you’d pay for Just Juice back home, it was not cheap, but it was spectacular. An order went something like this: ask for a strawberry-banana mix, then watch. They’ll grab some fresh strawberries from the shelf above, throw them in a blender with a bit of ice, add a banana or two, shake in a dash of sugar, wait about sixty seconds, and there you have it. Rich and fresh. Thicker than the thickest milkshake.

I can just imagine their juice being advertised for the New Zealand market: A ruggedly handsome guy jumps in his truck and calls to his friend, “Catch you at Tweety’s for a cold one, mate!” Then a scene of the two of them sitting around a table with their mugs full of thick fruit pulp. Finally the slogan in a deep voice: “Tweety’s. A man’s juice.”

All in all, my trip was a brilliant Overseas Experience. We Kiwis are fond of our OEs: our stints to Australia, or Europe, or maybe America. But since I’ve been back, I’m recommending that people go somewhere completely different. Somewhere strange, somewhere Third World, somewhere you haven’t seen on TV or in the tourist magazines. Your eyes will be opened, and your ears will hear. Even if you go to give, you will receive in abundance. You will come back A Wiser Being.

Go, book the next flight to Khartoum, and hear it for yourself: Welcome to Sudan.