My phone alarm was set for 2am, as Mr. Mohammed told me that the bus left for Wadi Halfa at 3. Thus began a very long day in the life of The Odyssey Expedition. Mr. Mohammed and I arrived at some dusty corner of Khartoum where the bus was due to stop and waited. And waited. A bus came at 3.30am, but I was told it was the wrong one. Just after 4am another bus came and this was, apparently, the right one. I thanked Mr. Mohammed profusely for his spectacular hospitality and patience with my short but rather eventful couple of nights here at the confluence of the Niles. Staying with Mr. Mohammed and his family marked a high point in what was otherwise a remarkably expensive and frustrating trip through this barren and unforgiving land.
I clambered on the bus and took my seat, assuming that, since it was 4am an’ all, the god-awful music being blasted out of the tinny speakers installed above every person’s head would come to an end sooner rather than later. It didn’t.
For those who have come late to this blog let me explain that I am a music Nazi. There are two types of music in the world: the stuff I love and the stuff I hate. And there is very little in between. Whenever I find myself subjected to the stuff I hate (which is pretty much anything from the 80s), it tends to put me in a bad mood for the rest of the day. When I find myself subjected to that godawful nasal drone of elongated consonants that are so popular in these parts, sung so out of key it makes Paris Hilton sound like an opera singer, sung by a man with the charisma of a bowl of cold porridge and played at ear-splitting volume at four in the morning, it tends to put me in a bad mood for the rest of my life.
You should understand something: to many Muslims this, this life, this planet, our home, is hell. Something not to be enjoyed in any way, shape or form. This world is merely a stepping stone to the next, and the worse time you have here, the more enjoyable the afterlife. Once you understand this fact, it all makes sense, the way that North Africans and Middle Easters seem to strive to make their lives as unpleasant as humanly possible: living in a bleak, inhospitable desert, eating the blandest food known to man, only listening to the musical equivalent of fingernails scraping down a chalkboard. All the great joys in life: sex, alcohol, drugs, dancing, rock n’ roll, great food, even a decent night’s sleep… all seemingly forbidden, all beauty to be covered and shunned, all earthly pleasures condemned. Content to live in a vile and violent never-ending hamster-wheel of dictators, tyrants, religious zealots and genocidal maniacs.
This couldn’t be any further removed from the way I see the world. I love this crazy planet and all the joys – great and small – contained within. I’m not here to muddle through until I die, I’ve got too many things to see and do. Sorry Sudan, but the sooner I get out of here the better, you’ve not sold yourself well. When there is so little to brag about (continued border skirmishes with South Sudan, the genocide in Darfur, falling out with all of its neighbours and having a wanted war-criminal as president is not the best of starts) I expected a little more in terms of people just being nice. But as the woman in the seat behind me woke me up every half-hour (yes I can sleep through deafening dins, it’s one of my superpowers) to complain about my broken chair automatically reclining ABOUT AN INCH back from perpendicular, I’ve lost my rag with the place.
Just leave me alone, Sudan? Can you do that? Please? I’m leaving tomorrow.
I spent the majority of the bus journey up through the featureless desert sitting on the dusty step next to the driver, watching the long flat road stretch to the horizon, all hope of getting any sleep beaten out of me.
We arrived in Wadi Halfa at around 3pm. I grabbed my backpack from under the bus and headed over to the hotel I stayed at when I was here in January 2010. My ability to remember this stuff is kinda freaky. Don’t forget – I got here from Durban in South Africa via Juba in South Sudan without a map. But all the memory skills in the world didn’t make the hotel any less full. I called Mazar Mahir, the brother of Khartoum’s über-fixer (and saviour of The Voyage Home) Midhat Mahir and resident of Wadi Halfa. I asked him what I should do. He said to wait for him and he’d be along in an hour or so. I grabbed some chicken n’ rice lunch with Danny and Jill, a British-Irish couple who had just valiantly spent 8 months driving a old Land-Rover around Africa down the west coast (brave!) from Morocco to South Africa and then up the eastern side of things to Sudan.
We shared war stories and battle scars. Afterwards I settled in at the café across the way from the pyramid-shaped hill that Alistair and I climbed when we were here last. In the event, Mazar didn’t show up, it was now 9pm and I had nowhere to stay. Getting a little worried since the night before the weekly ferry leaves for Egypt the hotels always fill up and as Sudan has no international ATMs my readies were running lower than a George Lucas’s post-1981 imagination, I was steeling myself for a chilly night under the stars (I *really* need to buy myself a coat in Egypt) when a guy turned up on a crazy motorbike accessorised with an even crazier sidecar. He smiled, pointed at the sidecar and told me to get in. I thought he was just being weird so I gave him the universal look of ‘are you being weird?’ and continued on walking. He followed me along and asked if I did not want to get into his sidecar why did I ring him?
‘Mazar?’ I asked.
‘Yes!’ He said, beaming, ‘get in!’
I’d never been in a motorcycle sidecar before, it was a rather bizarre experience. Mazar drove me to his place a few kilometres out of town. Damn it was cold. We arrived and drank tea. Mazar would sort out everything I needed to do tomorrow, including buying my ferry ticket and registering my presence with the police (you have to register within three days… I would be here for four. It’ll cost me $60, that’s on top of the $100 for the transit visa and the $GodKnows for getting picked up at the border last Sunday.). In terms of money spent for the amount of days here, Sudan has proved is the most expensive country in the world – costing more than my Interrail ticket that saw me visit over 45 countries of Europe in three weeks. Needless to say, when I get back home, the first thing I need to do is get a job – something that will be the subject of my next blog, Graham Hughes’s Development Hell http://www.dev-hell.com
Mazar kindly offered me a bed for the night and by 11pm I was sound asleep. Remarkably, it’s been just over a week and a half since I left Juba. In another week and a half I’ll be home.