My time in Sudan was drawing to a close yet it was during my final few days in the country that I had my most memorable experiences. It was a Thursday and despite our best efforts we had been unable to get our Ethiopian visa and make a b-line for the border that day as we had wanted. Thanks to the Islamic weekend, which runs across Friday and Saturday, we were now forced to wait until Sunday to pick up our visas. On the afternoon of Friday we hoped in a minibus and headed to a small Khartoum suburb on the North side of the Nile. Our bus rattled along dirt roads that got progressively dustier and bumpier for nearly an hour. I had no clue where my stop was, just that it was near The Souq, which is about as imprecise a landmark as one can give in the Arab world.
We had ventured so far in search of the weekly Nubian wrestling fixture, we had no address and no start time other than “around sunset”. Stumbling of the bus, I headed for the Tuk-Tuks and after a couple of attempts I managed to imitate wrestling well enough for one of the drivers to work out where I wanted to go. A few hundred meters down there track and we spotted it, a squared auditorium. Spectators crammed into a small stadium that carried a gladiatorial sort of pressure. All eyes on the center circle of sand. In this circle two men, each from different Nubian districts would grapple and throw until one hit the ground. After each fight, the winner was paraded around the stadium like a prized stallion, one hand held aloft by one of the officials, the other held out to the crowd. Some of the more enthusiastic crowd would push money into the hands of the victor. The amount received varied greatly on the quality and intensity of the bout, but it was clear that some of the men were earning a pretty decent keep. By the end of their victory lap money was crunched into their hand, the fighter often extremely tired due to the 30 degree heat that still held face of the city.
It was a brutish display and, at times surreal to think that this was taking place in the 21st century. But at the same time, I was engrossed, engrossed in a genuine survival of the fittest ordeal and this brilliant tradition. The wrestling ended and so I filtered into the streets, joining the stream of other fans and couldn’t help but draw similarities between this and what goes on up and down the country on terraces across the UK every Saturday of the football season. I thought to myself that the parallels and similarities were uncanny, there was something comforting and familiar about it all.
We whirled away the next few days in Khartoum, exploring the city on foot in a desperate attempt to save money. Our whole financial stupidity was a constant shadow over everything we did. Always trying to save on money, it was a shame, but I took a strong lesson away from it. One thing we did find money for was a taxi to a district of the city called Riyadh. It’s an area that we wouldn’t have bothered to visit had I not had a tip off from my brother. Before his world-fame and chart topping performance on the FBI’s most wanted list, Usama Bin Laden had spent about five years living in Sudan. He lived a pretty quiet life whilst here, though after a bit of digging I managed to get a rough location of his former compound. Excited by the prospect of seeing it I hopped in a taxi to the road on which I had been told it lay. Walking up and down the street in search of the building, you notice fast food restaurants, hardware stores and mobile phone shops. To think that Bin Laden might once have walked the very same footpath as this and bought from the supermarket as I was a strange sensation. It was a cross of the imagination and the reality, a collision of two powerful images. I spent over an hour walking up and down the street but couldn’t find the house and as i’m sure you can imagine asking complete strangers, in such conservative area if they knew where Bin Laden’s house was, wasn’t something I was keen on doing.
Sunday morning arrived and without hanging around we hailed a taxi and headed for the Ethiopian embassy. This was supposedly going to be an easy and bureaucracy-free process. $20, two passport photos and another form filled out with fake address and innocent hotel names. On a side note, I must confess and I know this is going to sound very sad, coming up with these tended to be something quite entertaining. You either go with something innocent and inconspicuous or play the high-stakes game, see how outrageous an address you can come up with. Since Sudan, I have settled on using “The Horizon Hotel”, 1 2 3, four street. As I mentioned, the visa is only $20, but the embassy wasn’t at all interested in accepting on accepting the equivalent in Sudanese pounds and so began another goose chase…
There are lots of money exchange offices in Khartoum, many of them are Western Union, a large international brand, yet despite them all showing exchange rates in their shop window, not a single one would sell us US dollars. We bolted from shop to shop, egged on by our desire to get onto the road out of Sudan, but nothing. Eventually we were approached by a pretty shifty looking man, in his broken English he asked if we wanted to buy some US dollars. We nodded and he motioned to us to follow us. We were lead to the corner of a nearby car-park, if we hadn’t had the light of day I would have sworn on it being some sort of mukhabarat sting. He pulled out a roll of $20 bills, demanded a far from reasonable rate and just like that, we were on our way. After picking up the visas we bought some tickets on a coach headed south. By this time, it was too late for us to make the border, instead we headed for the town of Gedarrif. Purely because it was the largest town in the area and thus we figured it would be the easiest place to find accommodation for the night.
The coach ride was several more hours of low quality yet enthusiastic Sudanese talent shows, despite my experience I didn’t find them any more bearable. Eventually we pulled into a dusty, moonlight frontier town. Getting off the bus I was aware that we had very little money, the plan was to find the cheapest possible Lokanda, skip a meal or two and in theory we would have enough money to make it to the mystical land of the ATM, Ethiopia. Well that didn’t go to plan, we asked in three Lokandas, all of them were to expensive and short on sympathy for two ill-prepared backpackers. We were running out of ideas and it was getting late, people were shutting up shop, turning out the little light that the town did have. I noticed the minaret of a mosque a few streets over, it was blasting the evening call to prayer. Having read Rory Stewart’s excellent book The Places In Between last summer, which chronicles his walk across Afghanistan where he relied solely on the hospitality of complete strangers for accommodation, I figured it was worth a try. I was going to ask to sleep in the mosque.
Approaching the mosque, I felt quite intimidated, they are the holiest of buildings, embassies of one of the world’s most conservative religions. I felt an intruder, lost and expecting an unwelcome. I caught the eye of a man who had just finished praying, presumably on his way home and offered my hand to draw him closer. I greeted him “Salam Alaykum”, he responded warmly and then I asked if he knew where the Imam was. He was obviously skeptical, why did I need to speak to the Imam and so, in my very basic Arabic I tried to explain the predicament. Whilst we talked a few other men gathered around, they where headed into prayers. One, his name Mohammed took ownership of the situation and told me to sit down, he would come out and help me once he had prayed. After what seemed like a painfully long time of me awkwardly sitting outside the mosque, trying to mind my own business, Mohammed returned. Again I explained my predicament, and he pondered for a few moments. I have no clue what he was thinking, perhaps should I help these idiots? How can I help them? It could have been anything. After those moments he gestured “follow me”. He led us at some pace away from the town center, the light worsened and I was walking almost blind for a short while until my night vision started to kick in. I’d though he was taking us to his home and offering us a bed for the night, but in fact we arrived at a police station. Offered a seat, I spent about half an hour killing cockroaches as they jumped onto my bag whilst he conferred with the few policemen on duty.
As they locked up, we were directed to jump in the back of a pick-up truck and driven out perhaps a kilometer to what appeared to be a barracks. Waved in by two heavily armed guards we were led into an office and greeted by a rather portly man whom I assumed to be the local police chief. He took our passports, offered us some water and again asked us to take a seat. By this point it must have been nearly two hours since I had first approached the mosque, I was getting awfully tired and really struggling to get enthused about the small talk. Again the minutes passed and we were being talked about extensively. Normally I’d listen in, try to catch the drift of what they were talking about, but the long day had left me out on my feet. I had no interest in what they were saying, I just wanted to sleep. Finally we were told they had a place for us to stay, the optimist inside me longed for a bed, or at least a mattress but that wasn’t to be the case.
We were led into the courtyard, a young recruit pulled up a few prayer mats next to a wall and that was it. We were sleeping alfresco. That night was long and sleepless. Dogs barked constantly and some of the recruits insisted on keeping their radio on extremely loud until the very early hours of the morning, but worst of all the mosquitoes were up for a fight. I ended up unzipping my sleeping bad in the middle of the night because the heat was intense and I could helplessly feel the mosquitoes having a frenzy.
The sound of several dozen cadets being put through their early morning paces was one of the more surreal things I have been awoken by, I lay in my sleeping bag almost traumatised by what had been one of the worst night’s sleep of my life. Yet, as sunlight started to flood the courtyard I felt a real sense of accomplishment, what we had done had been ridiculous. It was a real adventure into the unknown and after all that had been the premise of the trip. My anguish turned into a sort of pride, looking back my only thought is what a night, what an experience it was.
The portly chief insisted on buying us some Shai before we left and so after that and allowing a few of the curious cadets to look at our British passports we were on our way. Trudging through town like Chaucer, sticking out with vigor in search of the bus station.
The two hour bus ride to the border was stunning, the dusty flat-lands transformed into hilly meadows. The colors brightened with such enthusiasm it was as though someone was fiddling with the landscapes setting’s on Photoshop. We walked across the border that morning, within the space of about 200 meters you witnessed the change from Arabia to Africa, it is as if you were strolling between continents.