Follow the Nile and You Shall Bellydance!
by Zaina Brown
posted January 11, 2018
Trip date: October 9-23, 2017
Africa is my big travel love, and I’m always happy to get some Sahara between my toes, but Sudan was never on my to do list of countries. I knew getting the visa was difficult, which is not surprising for a country with a wanted war criminal for president. Slap the merciless climate on top of that, and Sudan was something of a blank space on my mental map of Africa. Then, a good friend of mine announced he was setting up camp in the Sudanese capital Khartoum for a few months for his new UN gig. It was now or never for me and Sudan.
As a citizen of Finland living in, but not a resident in, Thailand, I was low on options as for attaining that visa. I certainly wasn’t mailing my passport to a random European country and letting it sit at a Sudanese consulate while they contemplate my eligibility. Big hotels and tour companies surely arrange visas for their customers, but you have to shell hundreds if not thousands for their services. Luckily, there is one Sudanese consulate which issues tourist visas for basically anyone who asks – that is in Aswan, Egypt’s southernmost city. Being so near the Sudanese border, the logical way to Khartoum was overland. Besides, there were many points of interest along the way. So I flew into Cairo, hung out with friends for a few weeks, and hopped on a train from Cairo to Aswan. I only hoped the desert heat wouldn’t do me in before I reached the Sudanese capital.
I applied for the visa at the Sudanese consulate in Aswan on Monday, and they said it would be ready on Thursday. No, TOMORROW. No, Thursday. No, Sunday. I left the consulate very confused.
But, they kept their final word, and I received my visa on Sunday, well in time to catch the boat to Sudan which only departed once or twice a week. It sailed down on the Nile and Lake Nasser, reaching the Sudanese town of Wadi Halfa in about twenty-four hours. Being the odd solo female traveler paid off: as expected, I had the two-bed first class cabin all to myself. They couldn’t put a man in there with me, and local women hardly traveled alone.
While sailing smoothly across the border in the privacy of a cabin was great, without the unloading and reloading a crowded vehicle while attracting a motherload of attention that comes with crossing the border by bus, it’s important to understand the meaning of first class by local standards. The sheets are not changed very often, nor is the cabin all that clean, and the shared toilets down the hall are what they are. What you get, however, is a bed to sleep in, electricity outlets to charge your gadgets in, plus a meal of foul from the cafeteria when you want it. There are beverages on sale aboard, but I brought along my own snacks and drinks.
At 5:30am, a very loud az’an made sure nobody missed their morning prayer.
I fell back asleep but not for long: at the godless hour of 6:30am, an immigration guy knocked on the door to ask for my passport.
As the boat arrived in Wadi Halfa around noon, I was invited for a friendly chat with the immigration officer who completed my paperwork.
“What do you have in Abri?” he asked, when I explained my overall itinerary. A long-lost lover? A treasure buried in the sand?
Whatever answer he was looking for, my “I think there are some Nubian villages” wasn’t it. He had expected me to go to Khartoum directly. I told him that if I only wanted to go to Khartoum, I would have flown in and not bothered with a boat and a bus. This, he could understand.
But he wasn’t going to let me go without asking the most pressing question on the mind of every Sudanese who was to encounter me from here on.
"Why did you come alone? Most people come with a boyfriend or a friend or…"
Instead of saying my HUSBAND – but thanks for leading with that boyfriend remark – is busy working, and when he’s on vacation we will travel somewhere else together, I gave him my stock answer.
"Who’s gonna come with me?"
Most of the time that wrapped up the topic, even if it failed to explain the inexplicable. Since all other female travelers managed to bring someone with them, it had to mean I refused to bring any of my numerous friends who wanted to tag along, and ran away from my man to be here stubbornly, ridiculously, by myself.
It’s worth remembering that for many people in the world, the only logical reasons for travel are seeing a family member, making some important purchase, or seeking medical treatment. On one of my bus rides from town to town, I sat next to a lone South Sudanese girl, who was quick to explain she was going to see a doctor in our destination.
When she heard I was in Sudan just to see places and how people lived, it didn’t seem to make much sense to her. Tourism, even shoestring budget travel, always comes from a place of privilege. It means you have energy and resources to spend beyond your family’s daily existence and wellbeing.
Add to that the fact that a woman who travels alone is perceived as vulnerable, being out in the world without the protection of (male) family members. Either she’s doing it because she has no choice…or because she’s, you know, easygoing. Yes. A local woman on a bus alone just might be promiscuous. A foreign woman, now that’s a wild card, her character is anyone’s guess. Exactly what the assumption is depends on the viewer’s amount of exposure to all things foreign, education level, the width of their worldview.
There are measures we solo female travelers can take to offset this bias, in Sudan or any other conservative country. The first and foremost is to look respectable in the eyes of locals. The question is not ‘Can I wear a T-shirt?’ but rather ‘Should I?’ When in doubt, think ‘Are any local women wearing T-shirts?’, and model yourself not after the one exception, but the vast majority. If nearly every woman covers their hair and no one wears pants, you should probably cover your arms and legs, and wear loose enough clothing to leave your feminine curves undefined. A head scarf in Sudan is not mandatory, but if your long locks are flowing freely in the wind, it may not be appreciated.
I once managed to rouse a scandal at a Somaliland market by wearing a baggy pair of pants, which in the minds of locals amounted to crossdressing. Ever since that mortifying incident, I’ve made sure to have some fool-proof clothing in my bag before arriving in obscure desert towns.
For Sudan, I packed two Vietnamese hoodies with extra depth in the hood – great for vampires like me always hiding from the sun, not to mention keeping most of my hair out of sight. I also brought a long skirt and two pairs of Thailand tourist pants, which I never wear in Thailand. To test the waters, I first wore my hybrid pants which begin at the waist as a skirt, before changing their mind and wrapping around the ankles and sealing at the hem. They turned out to be the perfect outfit for Sudan. I could sit carefree on the bus and in public places, and in any position the fabric draped between my legs like a big bag. And, this lovechild of a clothing article never invoked confused stares on the streets.
Next, I whipped out the other pair of loose pants, confident by now it wouldn’t cause a commotion. The long, wide skirt didn’t make it out into daylight until Khartoum – northern Sudan was quite windy.
Another attire option would be a long, straight tricot skirt and a pair of leggings. Easy to sit on the floor cross-legged, and even as the wind blows, the skirt clings to the leggings enough to keep it from flying away.
As for local women, I saw some black ‘abayas, and long, colorful, narrow dresses often topped with a tob, a wrap-around cloth similar to the West African melhafa. There must be something pragmatic about wrapping yourself in a single piece of fabric, made evident by its popularity in various desert nations, but it is not an attire for beginners. I’ve tried wearing a melhafa a time or two, but simply couldn’t move without it falling apart. Looking at Sudanese women in their tob, they don’t take many steps without yanking or rearranging the cloth. For them, it’s second nature. I for one need my clothes to stay on without any effort from my part!
Conservative attire, check. The other part of the respect puzzle is how we interact with the world. Do I have to give the time of day for random men trying to chat me up on the streets? Even if they are just being friendly and curious, I live by the principle that l don’t owe conversation to strangers on the street, anywhere.
"Hey! Hey! KHAWAGIA (foreign chick)! Come here!" was my soundtrack in the town centers of Karima and Shendi.
Now, they may give the same attention to a foreign man, if with less zeal. But would they try to stop a local woman passing them by on the street, for any other reason that she dropped something? I highly doubt it. And therein lies the line I don’t cross.
A friendly exchange with a shopkeeper, a taxi driver, a fellow passenger in public transport, those are within reason.
Entering Sudan through Egypt, it took me a while to comprehend that even though Arabic chatter still surrounded me, I had crossed the border between Arabia and Africa. I scoffed at the first few attempts by men to shake hands with me – that would never fly in Egypt. An old Nubian lady ASKED me to take a photo of her in Abri, which I found remarkable. I protested the seating arrangement in the minibus, where I was offered a middle seat between two men, unheard of in true Arab lands. There is just no reason to squeeze a woman between two men. I asked for the window and got it.
Thankfully in Sudan, it’s not hard to get what you want. People are nice and accommodating. Helpfulness is weaved into their DNA. When asked directly, a Sudanese person is simply unable to leave you hanging. I shamelessly asked proprietors of hotels I deemed too pricey to point me out to cheaper ones, even leaving my bag with them while I searched, and assigned a random person off the street to negotiate a taxi fare out of town for me. They will do all this and more without raising an eyebrow.
Helpful when asked, yes. But when a motorbike whizzing by on a dirt road collided with my shopping bags, and my foil-wrapped chicken and bottles of water and bread scattered on the ground, none of the dozen men sitting in cafes within meters got off their butts to assist.
In a land where foreign currency is always changed in the black market, money changers weren’t difficult to find. Everyone wants Euros and dollars. And, negotiating prices in hotels was never easier.
"How much is the room?"
"150 pounds (around seven US dollars).”
"But in Karima I stayed in a hotel for 100, and it was much better than this…can you make it 100?"
I was even more amazed how well this name-your-price approach worked at the number one tourist sight: the exquisite Meroe pyramids! True, I showed up in a beat up local taxi carrying nothing but a dusty little purse – the experience may be different in a nice SUV or with expensive camera gear visible.
"I thought it was 50."
At least they could name a price. I was truly astounded by the disorganization at Nuri pyramids near Karima.
“Where’s the ticket? Where’s the ticket?!” the local police greeted me as soon as I stepped off the bus.
I don’t know, where IS the ticket? You want me to sell it to myself?
Once a consensus was reached that indeed, a ticket transaction was in order, they had me follow a guy to the pyramid site. There, he sat me down on one of those string beds that are widely used as benches in Sudan. Sitting on beds next to men felt awkward to me every time. The money collecting guy (to call him a ticket guy would be a stretch, I never received an actual ticket) showed up, and took a seat, too. The two men stared at me, made attempts to communicate in Sudanese Arabic, flipped through my passport page by page like it was a fascinating picture book, and finally asked for money. The only problem was, they weren’t telling me how much this ‘ticket’ cost.
Now, I wasn’t about to start any guessing games, so I simply stared back and commented on the weirdness of it all in English, for my own sanity’s sake. They pondered out loud how much I should pay, concluding 50 was an okay price for me. I quickly handed a 50-pound bill over and proceeded to the site, only to be followed around by a random young policeman who ignored my requests to be left alone and took pictures of me with his phone despite my objections.
While situations like this can be stressful as they unfold, in the case of Sudan, none of this is coming from a malicious place. Guys aren’t out to exploit or mistreat you – they simply have zero to little experience dealing with foreigners, especially independent travelers. They certainly can’t put themselves in the position of a woman who is there alone, surrounded by staring men. They themselves have probably never gone sightseeing, and thus have no point of reference for that whole ticket selling thing.
The flip side of rarely visited sites with no fence around them is that if you go there during off hours, you truly get the place to yourself, without any entry fees or questions. To see the pyramids at Jebel Barkal, I left the hotel in the town center of Karima at 5:30am. For forty-five minutes, I walked in complete darkness, cutting through sandy residential roads with the help of my phone GPS. I could barely see where I was stepping, and as a few dogs awoke and barked at me, I wondered if the whole thing was a bad idea.
It was still dark as I arrived, but the dawn soon revealed the magnificent sight around me. It was just me and the pyramids, in perfect peace. I couldn’t have asked for more.
In the town of Shendi, I settled for a run-down apartment for 150 a night. It was a single room with a dirty shared bathroom down the hall. With no clean sheets or clean anything, it was a major step down in quality from what I had found thus far, but since I was staying for two nights, I didn’t want to splurge on the only real hotel in town at a much higher rate. Later in the evening I discovered a communal balcony which ran behind my window, and was accessible from the hall. The torn-up curtain didn’t exactly cover the entire window. Great – anyone on the balcony could peek into my room. I jammed the curtain behind the window frame. It would keep it covered so long as nobody yanked the curtain from the other side.
A loud knock on the window, followed by a man’s hand pushing it open and a pair of eyes looking at me, gave me a near heart attack. Good thing I was fully dressed. This ‘building manager’ (or random busybody, how would I know) insisted I keep the window open because of some AC related issue. I gave his lecture, which I barely understood, about ten seconds before jamming the curtain back and closing the window.
Did he just come to check out the foreign girl?
Not before long, there was a knock on the door, and the guy who had the rented the place to me appeared to explain the same AC story. He let himself in to demonstrate how the window should be kept open. I told him there was no way in hell I was sleeping like that. Not for safety, the window had bars, but the idea of people seeing into my room while I was sleeping almost gave me hives. Furthermore, I couldn’t believe the concept of a woman needing privacy in her room had to be explained.
I told, or rather yelled, at him that the window was staying shut, and I didn’t want to see ANY MEN in my room anymore. I hoped he got the gist that that included him. For a while I wondered if renting an apartment had been a stupid idea, and if it was even safe. And why were they renting them by the night? Maybe this place was geared towards illicit lovers and not overland travelers.
“I know you love staying at these cheap places but I think you’re taking it too far,” my husband said as I shot him a series of expletive-laden messages. “Tomorrow, please go stay at a real hotel.”
He was right, but since the disturbances ended there, I didn’t bother moving the following day. While the October heat wasn’t exactly deadly, it was intense enough for me to avoid hauling myself and a bag from one location to another without a truly compelling reason. The afternoon hours were better spent indoors. Besides, it was the last night before I arrived in the capital, where a nice, clean apartment awaited me.
In Khartoum, English was suddenly not an anomaly. Amjads (tiny minivans used as taxis) and rikshaw drivers stepped up their game, asking for inflated foreigner rates for short distances. In the Amarat neighborhood, foreigners congregated in the predictable places: cafes with Western style offerings, and the sleek Afra mall down on Africa Road. The expat bubble was filled with alcohol, which was imported in diplomatic shipments, smuggled over the Ethiopian border, or brewed in the privacy of homes. The UN and NGO crowd threw rooftop parties, perfect for Khartoum climate, mixing and mingling with educated, upper class Sudanese.
“I thought Sudan would be boring, but actually I’m really enjoying it,” was a testimony I heard throughout the week from the foreign Khartoum residents.
I for one relaxed to the point I went out at night in a T-shirt. After six weeks in Egypt and Sudan combined, it felt like an act of rebellion, or perhaps amnesia.
Venturing out of the center and into Omdurman and Bahri (North Khartoum), I was quickly returned to the real world. After taking my seat to watch the weekly Nuba wrestling match at a Bahri stadium, I realized I was the only woman among the crowd of a couple of hundred men.
Maybe this is an all male event, and women aren’t supposed to come? Not that they would ever tell me to leave.
Close to the starting time, four foreigners including women arrived, breaking the spell. As the wrestling began, a handful of local women joined as well. At this point, all eyes were on the rink. I was fascinated to see the usually so mellow Sudanese show their feisty side, even more so when a fight broke out in the audience.
Several times during that week in Khartoum I momentarily forgot which country I was in – the difference between the mud brick villages and donkey carts along the Nile, and the capital with its high-rising buildings, was that drastic. I had plenty of love for both.
One thing that united both worlds was the open disdain towards the regime. The president Omar al-Bashir was charged with crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in 2009, but he continues to rule the country with an iron fist, pocket the wealth while the nation struggles to survive, and travel around Africa under the protection of his dictator buddies. The human rights situation is ugly: there’s genocide in Darfur, war with South Sudan, persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, annihilation of political dissidents. In recent years, student protesters have been gunned down in cold blood, and locals tell of young men being rounded up, detained, and tortured. While I waited for my visa, the US announced it was lifting the decades-old sanctions against Sudan. Hopes for an improved economy, and some relief from poverty, are tremendously high – but without regime change, I’m afraid the Sudanese population won’t be able to reach their full potential, and the freedom and prosperity they so deserve will remain a dream.
Jebel Barkal in early morning light
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