Just Plane Scary
The first real-life observation that I was somewhere that isn’t your standard vacation destination was the airline. I consider myself a pretty seasoned traveler, but even I hadn’t heard of Tarco Airlines. They were on the EU’s list of banned airlines, but I don’t think that bothered me as much as they fact that I couldn’t book with them online: in 2018??? So inconvenient. Luckily, I had a very competent and capable tour guide in Khartoum who paid for and arranged my flights in and out of Sudan via the local Tarco offices, sending me confirmation tickets via email and getting over that hurdle. But now, the most important one: actually making it to Khartoum on this beat-up bird, which I was slightly suspect of.
I’d actually be flying on a 737 Yemeni based Queen Bilqus airliner, leased by Tarco, which didn’t add to my comfort (I mean, when you have to borrow a plane from Yemen…). The inside has been ravaged, with duck tape holding the stuffing inside some of the seats, the cover on my left armrest dislodged and barely hanging on, and some sort of red spatter above my head on the ceiling. I didn’t even want to know what that was. This was probably the dirtiest plane I’d ever flown on and I just prayed to God that the unseen parts that made this thing fly were better taken care of than the cabin interior.
I breathed a sigh of relief once we were airborne and was happy that the rather large man in the middle seat was able to sneak off into the first class cabin to give me a little elbowroom. I’d been smashed up against the dirty window until he took the liberty of upgrading himself. I’d usually be jealous and harbor a bit of animosity for anyone who cheated the system like this, but I was just happy to have the room, and I knew this guy wasn’t being handed any hot towels or ice cream sundaes up front.
Hot Diggity Dog
Out of all the photos that I posted on Facebook during this trip, the snap of my in-flight meal got the most reaction, and for good reason: The tray featuring a greasy hot dog over a scrambled egg accompanied by five French fries that looked like they were a week old was something I pictured might be served in a Bangladeshi prison on a Friday. My Facebook friends were quick to correct my caption: there were only four fries—one long one was bent in half giving off an optical illusion that there was an extra fry. And why I actually ate that hot dog, I cannot tell you.
To be fair, another tray did accompany the dog-egg-fries plate; this one actually had a commercially wrapped croissant with a Nutella knock-off, a small piece of cake and a dinner roll. While I skeptically nibbled my dog, the lady in the colorful abaya next to me split her bread in half, broke her wiener in three pieces and used every last fry to assemble some sort of weird hot dog and French fry sandwich. It looked like she’d done this before.
But at the end of the day, I’ll take a dirty plane and a disgusting meal in exchange for a safe flight, and just over two hours later we were touching down in Khartoum with what felt like a flawless landing and almost no turbulence the entire ride. Fair deal if you ask me.
It’s Who You Know
I’m going to pump up my tour guide and hotel (one in the same) a few times during this article, and here’s the part where I will disclose that I am not being paid to write these compliments nor did I receive any discount, or anything at all, in exchange for these mentions. I only wholeheartedly rave about my lodging or tour guides when they are exceptionally good, and such was the case with George and his Acropole Hotel and tour outfit. The first reason being, my driver was waiting for me as soon as I stepped into the airport building, before immigration, which is almost unheard of. Usually you have to go through customs and immigration solo, and then you’re lucky if you can find your guy waiting for you in the arrival concourse among the sea of dozens of other greeters. So I was taken aback when I saw a man with a sign with my name on it almost immediately after stepping off the plane. Wow! I handed him my passport and he took care of the rest, in some sort of “V.I.P. diplomat method,” bypassing the entire line and meeting straight with authorities behind the desk to process my visa on arrival. Minutes later we were in the van and off the hotel. I was off to a roaring start!
The Acropole looked more like a hostel than a hotel. The old and simple building had a staircase that winded around its sides and climbed up five floors. I met the infamous “George” on the second floor, where he welcomed me with a handshake and a glass of cold mango juice. I later told George that I’d be the first to buy his book when he writes one. The seventy-something white-haired Greek looked like he could play the grandfather in a Werther’s candy commercial and how shocked was I to find out he was actually born in Sudan. His parents had owned the hotel and I soon met the rest of his family—his sister at reception and his brothers working in the office, along side a giant, antique steel safe where they kept their money and their guests’ passports. My room was basic, but clean, and featured access to the terrace looking over the street. The hotel was straight out of a movie—somewhere Liam Neeson would check in before rescuing someone who’d been kidnapped…or a room like you’d see on any Locked Up Abroad episode. But besides lacking luxury, it was just fine. It featured WiFi, English TV, a hot shower and a mini-fridge with free sodas and waters. But I wouldn’t have much time to enjoy it just yet. I had less than 48 hours in Sudan, so there wouldn’t be much hanging out. 15 minutes later I was cruising down the street in what looked like a miniature version of the Mystery Machine (Scooby Doo reference). It was time to see Khartoum.
Saad was my driver for today: a dark, smaller framed man in his 50s. He did his best to explain things in his limited English. Our first stop was the national museum. It was recommended by so many, but I detest museums and rushed through it in about 15 minutes while Saad waited in the parking lot. I probably sound terribly uncultured, but most museums—especially African museums—just don’t do it for me. Endless displays of old pieces of pottery, baskets and stones…I know they are meaningful to most, but I’d rather see “real life” in progress and not old stuff behind glass cases. #SorryNotSorry.
Guess What Day it is?
On with the tour, Saad drove us 30 minutes outside of town to visit the camel and cattle market. I love animals, so I appreciated this stop so much. Tons and tons of camels, held inside rudimentary-constructed fences, waiting to be sold off and shipped away on big trucks. I jumped out of the car for selfies as the camels turned their necks and gave silent stares trying to figure out what the hell I was doing.
Bad Service, Great Atmosphere
We headed back into to town, crossing the Nile for the second time and ended up at a restaurant located on the banks of the river. How many times have I read about this river, or see it come up on Jeopardy!, and now here I am, having a meal in front of this famous river…wow! The service was excruciatingly bad at the Grand Nile Café, but the pizza was good and the grapefruit juice (which I waited an hour for) was cold, pulpy and just fantastic. I was about to pass out from dehydration and sucked the juice down so fast, not bothering to check if the ice was made from purified water and not tap. I braced myself for the rumbles over the next 24 hours, but luckily, they didn’t come. After lunch I perused the supermarket next door, marveling at all the different brands and the American sodas with Arabic text. The power flickered on and off as I strolled the aisles looking for treats. I settled on an orange Kit-Kat (why don’t we have these at home???) and then wandered back outside to look at an old fort that was next to the supermarket.
This Little Piggy Went to Market
We then headed to the main market, which is always a favorite activity of mine. My only disappointment was not being able to take many photos. As with most Muslim majority countries, people (especially the women) do not like to be in photos; in fact it’s taboo to photograph women you don’t know and they freak out even if they’re in the background of your selfie. A store owner started yelling at me for taking a selfie near his shop and Saad had to calm him down as I looked ahead and tried not to make eye contact. There was so much to see and the sunset was providing such a gloriously golden hue—I was so bummed I couldn’t capture more images. Towards the end of our walk through the market the crowd got as thick as a Mardi Gras parade. Everyone was so close to each other and I tried my best to keep up with Saad, who was smaller than me and more aggressive at navigating through the sea of Sudanese shoppers.
I enjoyed the all the sounds of the market: the vendors calling out their specials and the customers haggling back, but I thought it was strange I didn’t hear any music. In fact, throughout all of my time in Sudan, I don’t remember hearing any music at all. I wonder why.
Next, we stopped by a pottery plant. This place was unreal. You could see pottery being made from beginning to end: from little mini-lakes of mud where workers were stomping to make the clay, to the guys molding the mud on top of spinning disks, to the huge, roaring kiln-fires. The pottery yard was a special place.
We stopped by a second market on the way back, an area featuring clothes and jewelry. It too, was happening, and I enjoyed seeing all the gold in the windows and stacks and stacks of my favorite little caps. I’d never seen more white robes and skullcaps in my life than here in Khartoum and this market looked like the place to get them. I found it interesting how the robes varied depending on region. In West Africa, the robes varied in color: purple, yellow, green, maroon. Here they were mostly all white and I’d say well over half the men were dressed in them.
It was the close to the beginning of my trip and I hadn’t had a full night’s sleep in over four days. I soon hit a wall and dozed off in Saad’s van, waking only after we stopped at an Orthodox church. I was so tired at this point, but I took the tour of the two churches, trying my best to pretend I was interested. Normally I would be, but I just needed sleep. After the churches I asked Saad if we could go back. I think he had more planned and I was sorry to be a party pooper. I’d have a very long day tomorrow and another red-eye, so I needed a long overdue recharge.
I awoke the next morning before 5AM, because that’s what happens when you go to sleep at eight. The modest breakfast buffet at the Acropole featured Nutella, so I knew all would be okay. By 7:15 I was off in a Toyota 4-Runner with today’s guide and driver, Jamal. We’d have a four-hour drive to the pyramids, so there’d be no sleeping in today. George armed me with some print-outs covering info on the day’s attractions, copies of my passports to hand over at the road-side checkpoints, attraction admission tickets (aka $20 bills) and even a packed lunch for me and Jamal. This is why I say George has this all figured out. He really knows how to take care of his clients. He’s got his system down.
On the Grind
On the way out of town we stopped to see sesame oil being made. This was one of the highlights. I was offered a cap full and of the oil and took it down like it was a shot of tequila, and then I was shown how it’s made. You can’t make this up: a camel is leashed and blindfolded, then walks in a circle for hours, attached to a mechanism weighted with rocks that continually grinds sesame seeds until all the oil is extracted. This poor camel actually thinks he is going somewhere…unbelievable!
It was a long ride, but worth it when we pulled up to those Nubian pyramids of Meroë, pointing up to the sky and surrounded by those beautiful red sand dunes. There were maybe only seven or eight other tourists on the property and I had free reign to walk everywhere and even inside the pyramids. These are the scenes dreams are made of and I constantly battled over capturing every little thing on my iPhone and just taking the beauty in for myself. I finally succumbed to the offer for a camel ride and boy was that a thrill.
After the pyramids of Meroë, we must have driven off road for an hour. We raced through the sand, barreled over scrub, passed herds of sheep and through the occasional village. We were really in the middle of nowhere and I was impressed that Jamal knew where we were going. We finally came to an ancient structure called Lion’s Temple, which stood grand and tall in the middle of the scrub, with no other signs of life for miles except for this crazy well.
Well, Well, Well
Near the Lion’s Temple, perched upon a small hill, existed one of the most interesting water wells I have even seen. The locals used donkeys tied to ropes to pull up giant bags of water from the 85-meter deep well. The ropes were attached to giant sacks made of animal skin (I think), and ran through a metal pulley system that was attached to a wooden frame, sitting above the well’s opening. The villagers would lower the bag, then somehow coerce a donkey (who was attached to the rope) to run down the hill, lifting the heavy bag of water up and out of the well. Once the water had made it out, a man would carry the giant bag to a stone reservoir. The whole thing just amazed me and made me give thanks to our comfortable life back home. Here were men, women and children doing backbreaking work in the sun, all day, just for un-purified water! How lucky I am and shame on me for ever complaining about slow WiFi or a broken ice cream machine at McDonald’s.
We spent the next hour continuing our off-road adventure to see more ruins. Huge blocks, grand pillars and ancient inscriptions and drawings left me with my mouth wide open. I was the only tourist at these sites at the moment and having them all to myself was surreal. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how these were built so long ago, without machinery or electricity.
The drive back home was long and bumpy and my rump hurt from sitting so long. I reminded myself what a p*ssy I was to be complaining about a long car ride, when I just witnessed women working all day in the sun with a donkey to provide brown water to their family.
The sun set on the outskirts of Khartoum, where we passed our sesame oil making camel friend and soon rolled into the busy city. I enjoyed a nice dinner at the hotel and settled my bill with George’s brother before a quick 90-minute power nap to rest for my overnight flight to Eritrea. My driver took me to the airport, checking me in and getting me through immigration like a V.I.P. again. We said goodbye and I took a seat next to white-robed men and abaya-sporting women who were headed to Asmara with me on our beloved Tarco Airways. I can hardly wait to see what we’re served onboard tonight.
The Nick of Time
The timing on this visit was impeccable. I left Sudan on December 18th, and turbulent, mass protests to remove the president erupted on the 19th; the very next day. Dozens of people died. It was a mess. And still is. Let’s hope things work out for Sudan. But the timing…wow.
And now…the REST of the (Insta) Story:This entry was posted in Africa