Crossing into Sudan

When I was in Addis Ababa applying for a Sudanese transit visa, I wasn’t sure if I’d get one, since I wasn’t transiting to Egypt as most tourists do. A tourist visa, which costs the same and also takes only 24 hours to process, required a bit more paperwork, and since I wasn’t spending more than 2 weeks in Sudan I didn’t need the 2 month tourist visa. I said I was transiting to Tunisia, since I don’t need a visa to go there, but I still needed a letter from the Tunisian embassy in Addis explaining why I didnt have a Tunisian visa in my passport.

A Nuban wrestling match

A Nuban wrestling match

The rest of my travels in Ethiopia after Addis brought me slowly closer to Sudan, in every respect. I started meeting Sudanese people, eating Sudanese food, and the temperature rose gradually. On my bus nearing the border, I tried to relieve myself from the styfling heat of the back seat by opening a window, but it only felt like I had unleashed 10 hot blowdryers on my face. I regretted not having more time in Ethiopia, but looked forward to returning to a more familiar, English/Arabic speaking place that didn’t have ‘faranji’ screaming, rock-throwing kids (faranji means foreigner, and look out for village children in the Ethiopian countryside who get a kick out of throwing rocks at us!). Still the women were warm, welcoming, colorful and beautiful, and immitated some Somali and Ethiopian trends of facial tattoos and henna-dipped fingers.

a Sufi dervish gathering at Oumdourman cemetery

a Sufi dervish gathering at Oumdourman cemetery

Crossing the land border at Metama/Galabat was a breeze, especially since I met 2 Sudanese men on the way who took it upon themselves to make me their ‘guest’ for all travel, accommodation, food and drinks, especially beers since they warned me it’d be the last cold beers I could have before entering Sudan. It only took 2 buses to reach Khartoum, where the temperature was still above 40°c after sunset. Some things hadn´t changed at all, like the dirt-matted, unreadable paper notes worth fractions of a euro – I managed to rip a 50 Sudanese pound note in half just after managing to exchange a 100 Ethiopian birr note I taped back together at the border.

selling hats

selling hats

The music changed drastically, but I heard that even the conservative Sudanese enjoy the up-beat dancy sounds of Ethiopian music, and better yet, the music videos of the shoulder flapping, torso-jerking, scandalously dressed men and women who make it. Ethiopians were obsessed with Arsenal, the football logo and players plastered on most buses and alot of clothing; in Sudan, the buses were colourfully carpeted, sometimes on the outside too, and Arabic script became the focal art work of any ads or logos. Anglicizing Arabic is always a problem, since there’s no standardized transliteration, so Al Qadarif is the same place as Gedaref, which I was lucky enough to figure out and change buses in the right location.

traditional Sudanese lunch

traditional Sudanese lunch

The roads were better, but the strange cross-traffic didn’t subside. Donkey carriages, cows, sheeps, goats, people, children, cats and rickshaws still seem to jump out onto the road exactly when you need to pass. I thought that Ethiopians had a wide range of skin colour, but the Sudanese people include faces ranging from pale, fair Arab to purply-black South Sudanese.

Couchsurfing in Khartoum was a luxury vacation in itself – I had washed sheets, on a king sized bed, in a room with air conditioning, in an apartment with constant electricity and water. For some reason, rough traveling always makes you crave a real, hot shower, but in Khartoum I would have killed for a cold shower but the water only runs warm, maybe cooling a few degrees only in the early morning hours. There was a lot of water in Khartoum, a place where 3 Niles meet, the Blue and the White Nile flowing into what looks like an Elephant trunk. Still it was dry season, and the dead animals on the side of the road could have died from a car accident or thirst, but it was impossible to tell since all that was left of them were some shriveled hides and hooves. On my little roadtrip to the Meroe pyramids, I saw more exploded tires on the side of the road than I saw cars with tires, but somehow I managed to get there and back without any accident.

at the pyramids in Meroe Royal cemetery, aka Al Ahram near Bajrawiya

at the pyramids in Meroe Royal cemetery, aka Al Ahram near Bajrawiya

An important note to any traveler going to Sudan: Somehow I had met Sudanese people and travelers who had come from Sudan without ever realizing that Sudan is a closed economy. This means there are atm’s, but none that dispense money from international accounts. You cannot get money in (or out – it wasnt possible to exchange it except at the Ethiopian land border) so bring loads of cash. Also know that once you have USD or whatever currency, the exchange rate is more than double that of the official rate. You are also meant to register within 3 days of arriving in the country, which is another fee and passport stamp, but I didn’t do it since I had a transit visa. I managed to get out that way. I also traveled without a travel permit (which is supposedly required to any foreigner traveling outside of Khartoum) to the pyramids, but that maybe worked only because I went with public transport. From Khartoum you take a bus to Shendi and change for a bus to Atbara, or you take a bus directly to Atbara, but you jump out 30 km after Shendi at a place referred to as Bajrawiya. I didnt really see a village there, and people dont know what ‘Al Ahram’ (‘pyramids’) might be, and Meroe is also the same pronounciation of Merowe, a town 3 hours further north of Atbara (dont end up there by accident!). But you can actually see the pyramids from the road, so just ask to jump out there and then walk the half km across an open desert until you see alot of boys on camels come running at you, and then you’ll know youre in the right place!

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