I slept only an hour or so the night before I was due to travel from Gondar, Ethiopia into Sudan. I’m not entirely sure what it was – as I lay half-naked on top of my bed, in a seedy hotel with dirty walls, being dive-bombed by mosquito’s as I waited for my alarm to ring at 4am, I think the overwhelming emotion I felt was one of nervousness.
You could say that Sudan suffers from a negative perception in the international community. It is imagined to be ‘ravaged by war’, as travel warnings blare large and ominous across information websites, and many friends of mine sent special ‘keep safe’ messages in a way they had not when I was entering Malawi or Tanzania, Kenya or Ethiopia.
On the other hand, I’d heard from various sources, not least Khalid, the Pakistani photographer I met in Nairobi, that the Sudanese would greet me with nothing but open arms and warm smiles. In saying that, as I had experienced to a certain degree in my attempts in getting a visa, I was warned that the bureaucratic processes (such as, for examples, crossing the border) was fraught with difficulties. As is always the case, I was more than happy to see it for myself, so as to draw my own conclusions, in an attempt to understand and learn rather than judge and romanticise.
Nevertheless – as I stumbled bleary-eyed onto my minibus at 5am in Gondar (my 4th 4am wake-up in 6 days, not that I was counting), there was an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach.
That feeling had only increased by 9am, as the minibus stuttered to the border. I had been told that the journey from the border to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan and my first stop, was about 8 hours – I was keen to get there before nightfall. It wasn’t going to happen.
I was herded across no-mans land to the crumbling Sudanese immigration offices, just as the heat of the day was building. The process was slow – my passport was examined closely, not only the Sudanese visa I’d acquired in Nairobi but all my other pages too (I’d heard they don’t appreciate Israeli stamps).
Eventually I was waved through, past customs and towards what was called a ‘security building.’ I had no idea what that entailed. I slipped in sideways, awkwardly, trying not to snag my backpack on the door, catching the laughter of what sounded like several men inside. Sure enough, about 10 men, either in suits or camouflaged army gear, were stood in a circle around a table, quite clearly digging into their breakfast. It all lay on one massive plate, where a variety of dips and spreads were scattered, forcibly dunked into by ripped pieces of bread that the men held. It was a communal, sociable type of meal quite similar to the Ethiopian injera plates. They spoke and laughed with their mouths full. My shuffling prompted a turning of heads. One of the men motioned me to put down my bags and beckoned me over: “breakfast,” he smiled, mouth full. I gladly obliged, as a doughy bread roll was handed over to me – I ripped off a corner of bread, and proceeded to sweep through the dips and sauces on the plate, before adding a chunk of meat. They watched me eagerly, giving me the thumbs up and plenty of smiles.
After the plate was wiped spotless, one of the men in army green and black sat down behind a desk before asking for my passport and visa. He examined it as carefully as the others, jotting some notes down in Arabic, before sending me on my way, smiling broadly. It was a strangely endearing moment, and my satisfied stomach had swept away any nerves that had been simmering all morning.
I then had to catch another minibus to Gedaraf, about 3 hours away. By this point, the stifling heat had risen almost unbearably, and there was no chance of any air-con. I sat stuffy, uncomfortable, but couldn’t help but grin inanely at the bare landscape around me. It was, simply put, immense. Flat, hot, dusty, dry plains, stretching past the horizon, sparse foliage, hazy, lazy air that sat plump, all colours merged into one: dirty yellow grass, muddy dust floor, dry green bushes, ancient walled settlements as if from Biblical times. Horse-drawn carriages and herds of livestock, all driven by white-robed men, paid us no attention.
At Gedaraf I changed buses, eager to reach Khartoum. Everyone was very helpful in the process, making sure I reached the right place at the right time, with minimal English but lots of smiles and hand gestures instead. By this point, I had completely forgotten any notion of nerves, as I returned the smiles and hand gestures as vigorously as they were afforded to me.
On the bus, I met Dr Mohammed who had earned his Masters and PhD in Media and Islamic Studies in Malaysia. He was now a professor at a university near Khartoum. “I miss Malaysia. A lot of my friends are there. Perhaps I will go back – it is stable, and the quality of life is good.” He talked to me about the youth in Sudan and their eagerness to learn: “things will change when they are in power. They are not happy with the current system. Things will change.” He was extraordinarily good-natured man, with an aged, wise face and kind eyes. He mused about Sudanese culture, and the state of the country as it was: “Look at all this space,” he gestured out the window. “No one should be hungry. All this should be irrigated.”
I met Omar, 27, who was a student. He was badly buck-teethed, displaying a goofy grin, and intensely curious, asking a lot of questions about studying overseas. He spoke of the importance of Africans working in their home countries and helping there, but was similarly adamant about the benefits of learning from other cultures through overseas study.
We careened into Khartoum just as darkness fell, but I did not mind so much this time. My day had been full of good food and good conversation – what else could you want from life?! A lovely man named Jeremiah helped me find my couchsurfing host, who was named Ahmed, and Mervyn, a Dutch traveller who was also staying with Ahmed. My stay in Sudan had begun with a wonderfully fulfilling first day, and, as it turned out, was only going to get better.