Finally aboard the long awaited ferry to Sudan. The ferry is incredible...and by incredible, I mean it's the most crowded, disorganized, jumble of a mess I've ever been a part of. Hundreds of suitcases, appliances, rugs, furniture, and boxes jammed onto a barge...and people shoved in whatever crevasses were left. We have heard horror stories of how miserable the ferry is, but I love every minute!
The actual ferry ride is 17 hours down the Nile (exiting Egypt and entering Sudan) but we have to board 8 hours in advance to claim a semi-decent spot. Everyone rushes onto the barge, pushing and shoving to get their families and belongings aboard. A mosh pit. As expected, we are the only foreigners on board. We have second class tickets which place us in a giant room with dozens of other families. After a few elbows to the face, the 7 of us secure two benches facing each other like booths in a restaurant. We have a little square of the room to ourselves...our home for the next 25 hours.
One meal is served on the ferry, which reminds me of prison food. Slop on a metal tray. It actually tastes good, but the cafeteria is a mad house. People passing trays above our heads, strangers grabbing food off our plates; chicken bones everywhere, tea spilling on everyone. Most unsanitary eating environment ever.
The bathrooms, as you can imagine, are hideously disgusting.
At night, families sleep wherever they can find space. Kids tuck into nooks. Teenage boys make beds in the lifeboats. Others sleep atop of piles of luggage. I stay up late chatting to my new group of friends, 30 guys hanging out on the ferry rooftop. We play cards, take photos, and attempt to teach each other English and Arabic, although that's a complete failure. They know no English, and I know no Arabic. So we merely mimic the sounds of words without understanding their meaning. Hilarious.
After a few hours of unrestful sleep on a metal bench, I climb up to the roof again to watch the sunrise. I am surrounded by other passengers, all coated in a layer of dirt, grime, and day-old B.O. Yum. But, we are in Sudan, and the morning light exposes the vast desert ahead. Everyone stares at the sun, so enormous and powerfully bright.
Our adventure has only begun. Our days are spent driving, driving, driving through the Sahara. Rolling sand dunes, camels walking for miles, giant sunsets. Sudan is a huge country in landmass, so the distance is a challenge in itself. We pass little sun-kissed towns with mud huts and children riding on donkeys. The men wear long white sheet robes (called galabeyas) and little white hats. Women wear colorful flowing dresses. It surpasses 100 degrees almost every day!
Sudan is one of the least explored countries in Africa, and not many Americans have ever ventured past its borders (as you may have figured given the trouble we had receiving visas). I like driving on the open road, so as you can imagine, I drive a lot. There are numerous checkpoints along the highway with armed guards. At first, I'm nervous at the checkpoints, unsure whether to hand over my passport or pay bribes. But as with everything on this trip, I grow to embrace and enjoy uncomfortable situations. We try to make the guards laugh, play dumb, offer food, and in one situation, let the guard kiss me in exchange for easy passing :)
We camp in the wild, finding rare hideaways in the open desert. We BBQ chicken or cook pasta and sleep in the rooftop tents. The sun wakes us up in the morning. When I start sweating, I know it's time to get up. Although there's always a mixture of bug spray, suntan lotion, and sweat on my skin, I'm not nearly as gross as I thought I'd be. Baby wipes are the greatest invention ever.
Sudan has pyramids just like Egypt but instead of 3 large pyramids, they have 200 small ones. We drive to the Sudanese pyramids and camp under the stars. The night sky in the Sahara is unbelievable. I've never seen the milky way so bright. The stars are magnificent, and I pull my first all-nighter since college, counting shooting stars and dreaming up my own constellations. I literally watch the universe revolve in a semi-circle above my head. Totally worth a night of no sleep.
Back on planet earth, there is a lot of political unrest. The U.S. Embassies in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Lebanon, and almost all Islamic countries have been raided in the past week. We hear news of the death of U.S. Ambassador to Libya and as we are approaching Khartoum, the capital city, I'm very nervous. Remember that Americans are banned in Sudan, and our hopes to driving through under the radar have vanished. As if on cue, protestors start marching toward the U.S. Embassy just as we arrive to Khartoum. Ugh! What timing! We decide that if anyone asks our nationality, we are proud Australians.
Five minutes in the city, and we're questioned:
Random Sudanese man: You? Where you from?
RSM: oooo Australia! Where in Australia?
Me: Sydney (I've never been to Australia and this is the first city that comes to mind)
RSM: My daughter lives in Sydney! Where in the city??
...are you kidding me?
Me: Um. By the Opera House? Hahaha. I change the subject very quickly.
Our "Aussie-wannabe" plan is a bust as we often have to show our passports. Plus, we greatly underestimate the geographical knowledge of the Sudanese. Our cars' Virginia license plates are often recognized. Thankfully, we have underestimated the kindness of the Sudanese as well. Anyone who discovers our true nationality only shows concern for our safety. Checkpoint guards safely guide us out of the city.
WCL celebrates two years of business in Sudan. To mark the occasion, I race a camel with our car. The camel wins. Haha. Those things can move! On a serious note, I give away new t-shirts to children that we meet along our drive. One boy had recently fled from South Sudan with his father and is living on the streets (pictured below). It's wonderful to see the smile this t-shirt brings to his face.
By the time we drive through Sudan, I've been in Arab countries for almost 6 weeks. My Arabic is actually pretty impressive. I know all the numbers, how to introduce myself, ask for food, and say thank you. My favorite expression is "tamam" which means "everything is good." I like to say "cool tamam" which means "everything is coolio" :)
On our last day, we meet a man who, in true Sudanese fashion, invites us to his house for tea. Our troop of 7 people stumbles into his home and meets his wife, children, brother, and neighbor. (Photo on right). With no advanced notice or preparation, his wife prepares dinner and dessert. They offer us showers, which we gladly accept. They give us souvenirs of Sudanese flags and stickers, refrigerate our water bottles, fill our jerry can with water AND wash our cars. We thank them, wave goodbye, and drive off. Such generosity, and they want nothing in return. Human kindness is overflowing...
All my Sudanese love,
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