Day 7 of my epic journey home from Juba began incredibly well. I called the Egyptian embassy and the nice lady told me that they were going to let me collect my passport with the visa in it this morning rather than this afternoon. I didn’t have to be told twice. Jumping in a taxi, by 10am I was triumphantly marching out of the Egyptian embassy, passport in hand. Even if the Sudan embassy decided to drag its heels and not give me my transit visa until tomorrow afternoon, I’d still easily hit my target of crossing from Wadi Halfa to Aswan in Egypt on Wednesday morning.
So it was with a sense of triumph that I arrived at the Sudanese embassy. I know now that that sense of triumph was greatly premature. After all, This Is Africa.
After filling out the required forms I handed in my passport together with all the other junk required of me. They had kept me waiting for quite some time, so by now it was approaching midday.
‘And the hundred dollar fee…?’
Crikey. $100 for a frikkin’ TRANSIT visa? No wonder Sudan gets less tourists than Chernobyl. Oh well, cheaper than flying. I suppose. I had over my emergency Franklin and am told to come back that afternoon. If the guy’s boss gives the approval…
What? Approval?? Since when? The guy shuts the window. Why leave it at that? A tense few hours are going to follow. What if I don’t get approval? My scheme comes undone. I won’t be home for Christmas. All my meticulous planning would have been for nowt. And Casey.. I made a promise, goddamnit.
I trudged to the minibuses going back to Kazanchis and clambered aboard. It was beginning to spit with rain and damn it was cold. Given the clear blue skies that greeted me from my slumbers this morning, I didn’t bring my jumper. I sat shivering on the bus thinking of other ways to get to Egypt… the only other viable option being a ship from Djibouti. Then my phone rang. It was the embassy. They wanted me to come back.
This could be a good sign. I hoped it was a good sign.
Not wanting to prolong the agony, I opted to take a taxi back to the embassy. I walked inside, went to the window and was promptly handed back my passport, photos and $100 bill.
‘The boss says you need a Letter of Invitation from Khartoum.’
I argued my case, but it was to no avail. I stepped outside the embassy and let loose the loudest expletive since Brian Blessed accidently slammed a supernova on his thumb.
Okay Graham, think think think…
I texted Casey and Dino and ask them to start looking for ships from Djibouti. Dino’s going on his honeymoon on Sunday, so he only had a little bit of time. He wrote to our friends at Dioryx Shipping to see if they were still doing the Djibouti > Jeddah > Suez run that I hitched a ride on three years ago.
The answer came back almost immediately: no they were not. Casey had about the same amount of luck: CMA-CGM, Maersk, MSC, PIL, Hamburg-Sud: nothin’. If anything I’d have to transfer in Jeddah, which, considering last time it took me 6 weeks to get a visa for Saudi, was completely out of the question.
It truly would be Sudan or bust.
I called my mum and got from her the number for Midhat, the tour operator in Khartoum who I had contacted back in September – the one who told me that getting a transit visa would be ‘straight forward.’ I rang Midhat and explained the situation, could he get me a Letter of Invitation for tomorrow…?
No chance. Being a Muslim country, Sudan’s weekend is Friday-Saturday, not Saturday-Sunday. It would be Sunday before Midhat could even put in the application (all Letters of Invitation must be approved by Sudan’s Ministry of Silly Walks) and then it ‘could take a few days’ to come through. This was not good. A fourth Christmas in a row spent not in Liverpool with my family and friends. I should also let you know that Casey and I haven’t even kissed yet, if that gives you some more of an inkling as to why I’m so desperate to get home as soon as humanly possible.
I could use a good kiss.
Midhat then told me something that stirred hope in my forlorn little ginger heart: he had a friend in the embassy. He’d make a call on my behalf.
I headed over to the Wabe Shebelle for what felt like the longest lunch of my life. Sadly, even the food was against me: the lamb was as chewy as an old boot. At 2pm I made my way back to the embassy at Midhat’s behest, with instructions to talk only to Mr Mohammed Al-Watiq and nobody else. I got within a hundred metres when it started to teem down with rain. I ran into an abandoned building (which turned out just to look abandoned) to take shelter, thinking it would go off in a short while. At 2.45pm I couldn’t wait any longer and did the 100m dash in Addis in the rain. Given the pavement was like a river and as broken as full of unexpected pitfalls as any African sidewalk you’d care to mention, I arrived back at the embassy in sopping wet shoes (my shoes fell apart 3 months ago, it’s only dental floss keeping them together) and shirt soaked through to the skin.
I asked to speak to Mr. Al-Watiq and was told to wait. So I waited.
At 5pm I was asked to the window. Mr. Al-Watiq (I think) came over, asked me some questions and then went away. One of the embassy girls popped up and asked me to write my name down on a piece of paper. I did so and was then asked to come back at 11am the next day.
Ah, but was that the end of my stress?
I jumped the minibus back to Kazanchis and logged-on at the local internet joint. I double-checked all the shipping timetables, but there really is *nothing* going from Djibouti to Europe these days.
Then my phone rang. It was Midhat.
Are you in your own car?
Then you have to fly. Fly to Khartoum and take the bus up to Wadi Halfa.
No, You don’t understand: I can’t fly.
They won’t issue you with a visa.
Sorry, so if I buy a car in Addis, I can drive it to Khartoum, but if I want to take the bus I’m not welcome?
That is correct. They think you might write bad things about Sudan on the internet.
*Graham thinks damn right I’ll write bad things… IF they don’t issue me with this visa!*
Midhat, you’ve been to my website, check my blog. I’ve written nothing bad about Sudan at all.*
I’m sorry, then you have to get a Letter of Invitation…
After I hung up, I put my head in my hands and started to think. THINK. Like when I was a kid, playing all of those LucasArts adventure games… there’s always a solution… always a way… you just have to THINK.
Then it came to me. Midhat is a tour agent, right? My remit is to take public transport where available. In this instance, it is not available. I said I’d get back to the UK without flying. Okay, I’ve made it this far without taking private transport over major distances but the reason for the ‘no private transport’ rule is that Guinness can’t be seen condoning or even acknowledging road races – it’s one thing risking your own life to set a GWR, it’s quite another to put others (hapless pedestrians for instance) in harm’s way. The thinking is that if I’m using private transport I might be tempted to pay the driver a bung to break the speed limit (the irony here being that when I was in Nigeria I was desperately trying to bribe the driver to slow the f— down). In this instance it really doesn’t matter whether I take public or private transport – it’s not going to speed things up at all, I’ll have a day spare to get to Wadi Halfa either way.
So then. Last roll of the dice. Can Midhat send a driver to the border to pick me up, make sure I don’t take any pictures/videos/girl’s virginity that I shouldn’t, take me to Khartoum on Sunday… and I’ll get the bus to Wadi Halfa the following Tuesday?
I called Midhat and put the proposition to him. He said he’d pass it on to Mr. Al-Watiq.
Exhausted, physically and mentally, I trudged back to Tadi’s place in wet socks. I missed the opening of that coffee joint.
*this may not be strictly true