The country of Sudan has never graced my travel “bucket list,” not once. In fact, if I had to list all countries that I still would like to visit in numerical order, Sudan would likely have been in the bottom five percent. So why on earth did I spend a week there?
When I went online shopping for an overland trip that covered all the highlights I wanted to visit in Ethiopia, I found one that offered a “side trip” of sorts, looping through Sudan. I could add it on for not much more money, and since I was using Frequent Flyer miles, airfare would not be any different. So why not see what was there?
Now, as I sit here in Addis Ababa, having just completed the 30 day trip, I look back on all the phenomenal sites I have seen since I left DFW on New Years Eve, and Sudan definitely stands out as a highlight. I have much to share, but I will start with the many contrasts of the capital city of Khartoum.
After three flights from Dallas to Istanbul by way of Houston, then on to Khartoum Airport, I arrived in the middle of the night. I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit to being just a little scared out of my wits. Sudan is a “cardless destination” for us western citizens. ATMs only accept local Sudanese cards, and credit cards are not accepted. So on different parts of my body, in my backpack, and my luggage was hidden more cash than I want to think about. I had applied for “visa on arrival,” so I had to pay for my Sudanese visa fees, pay my “fixer” who would meet me at the airport and escort me through the process, then bring me to my hotel, all to be paid in cash. Then there was the “kitty” payment for both the Sudan loop and the Ethiopia loop (a portion of the tour cost which must be paid in local currency, such as camping fees, restaurants, attraction admission, etc.) I also had a month’s worth of spending money, and an “Emergency fund,” all hidden away on my person. I don’t know if I could have been more nervous had I been wearing a suicide vest.
But upon arrival, the young, kind, neatly dressed, well educated, interesting young man, Wileete, who met me at my flight in the middle of the night, put me at ease. We talked constantly while waiting on my Visa to be processed and my luggage to arrive. I learned more in that hour on Sudanese relations with the US than what little research I’d had time to do during the busy Christmas holiday. I am ashamed to admit, I didn’t even realize at the time that Sudan was under US sanctions. Wileete told me he had tried 13 times to apply for a Visa to come to the US, and he wasn’t going to give up. It makes me sad to think that Sudan is now one of the latest victims of trump’s “travel ban” expansion, so Wileete has got a quite a wait in front of him.
Moustaffa, the front desk supervisor was equally kind, even going so far as to walk me down the street and wait with me while I got my Sudan SIM chip working in my phone. He told me I was safe to walk down any street in Khartoum. “We are Muslim here, and we believe God will punish is if we do wrong. So no harm will come to you in Sudan. But when you get to Ethiopia, watch out for those Christians!” (I have to say after now having spent 30 days in both countries, my “spidey senses” would agree with his assessment.)
Khartoum was an experience in contrasts, as continually, things were not as they first appeared. While the country is in Africa, it feels much more like the Middle East. The ink-black faces seemed so menacing and foreboding. But all one had to do was crack a smile, and instantly, their faces lit up with a beaming smile in return, with an enthusiastic “Salam!” Arabic greeting.
Most men wore the traditional long white flowing robes that remained spotless…almost “blue-white” they were so clean. Yet they managed to stay clean while walking through the filthiest streets I can recall seeing, lined with garbage. I’ve never seen cleaner clothed people, or conversely, a city with more litter.
Infrastructure offered up contrasts as well, as I would check Google Maps to see what looked to be a main thoroughfare through the city, only to arrive and find it was a narrow dirt path. And as one of the largest exporting oil countries with 70 to 90% of their exports being in oil, petrol lines were so long, they wound around in a labyrinth. And stranger still, our white faces got us cuts in line.
Having arrived a couple of days early to acclimate to the time change before the tour began, I met a couple of my fellow travelers before the official start date. We organized a day tour with a taxi to take us to see the sights of Khartoum. We would be with our driver from 8:30am until 6pm, for a cost of 3,000 Sudanese Pounds, split three ways, the equivalent of twenty bucks each for a full day tour. Here are the scenes from that day tour:
Next up, the official tour leaves the capital city of Khartoum, and begins a loop around Sudan.