The Kindness of Strangers: A Northern Sudan Travel Diary
Updated: Sep 8, 2020
I went into Sudan feeling incredibly low, but after only six days, this would completely change. I was never actually planning to go to Sudan at first, though I do not know why because it was always on my bucket list. I had read about and pined after it for a couple of years now. Anyhow, long story short, I went to Sudan, and I completely fell in love with the country. As much as I love parts of every place I have been to so far, I think I am completely in love with Sudan, and I am anxious already to go back.
Two months in, this was probably my lowest point so far. You would have figured spending 72 hours with my husband for our anniversary in Spain, would have invigorated me. But, saying goodbye to him again eviscerated me emotionally and I was just depressed again. I spent most of my last day alone in Spain crying somewhat discreetly at parks because I had to check out of our B&B, and my flight was unfortunately at night. And then, during the long transit from Barcelona to Dubai to Khartoum, I ran in and out of airport bathrooms crying frequently. I was just unable to regulate my emotions at all. You would have figured my eyes would have dried out, but more tears would just come naturally – the ones that make your face contort, and your chest hurt. The good thing with being emotional is that once you get on the plane, you go into auto-mode and pass out. I slept, despite a commotion of people around me on the Dubai flight.
When I got to Khartoum, I did not feel uncomfortable. The thing about travelling through a number of countries now is that you feel less scared with each next country about airports and things potentially going wrong. I feel that after two months now, I am less in a rush to get to the front of the crowd. I just let things flow, which is probably better because every time I get a bit aggressive something goes slightly wrong. You would think with so many emotions running through me that I would be more anxious. I remember telling Jon later that I completely blacked out mentally during my entire trip through the Barcelona airport to exit the country. I kind of just ran through the motions (that and I was having a bit of an internal anxiety attack about something else related to my upcoming Yemen leg). That’s how little I cared because I was so out of it emotionally and mentally. But, Sudan would test me over the next few days in a real positive way.
I left the country feeling nothing but an intensive love for its people, and fond memories of these really long, but exhilarating days discovering a little bit of the North and the desert. I really wished I had stayed longer, but I know now this is somewhere I definitely want to go back to.
Anyhow, getting back to the start of the story, I did focus and keep myself somewhat together for my arrival into Khartoum. We had to walk outside a little to a bus, and you could feel the heat and humidity from the rain and 39 degree weather instantly. The airport was small. When you get off the plane, you see a number of signs for residents and non-residents. Then off to the right side, there is an area for entry visas. I had coordinated a pre-approval LOA through a fixer from Real Sudan. I submitted the pre-approval and a form for non-Sudanese visitors to a collections officer, along with my passport and $100USD, and it took about 20 minutes to process. Mind you, they were processing maybe 5 to 6 other people at the same time - funnily enough, almost all Asians, so I think it went relatively quickly. When I went through the customs booth, a separate uniformed customs officer with everyone’s visa photos on his phone came to “check me off” with the officer in the booth. They looked at my photo, then at me, then proclaimed “Canada”, and gave me the hugest smiles and laughs. It was actually a bit endearing. This was my first introduction to how sweet Sudanese people are.
Waiting for baggage was a different beast. I got myself a cart quickly so the luggage guys would leave me alone. I waited probably an hour for my bag. It was actually amusing watching people take 4 to 7 huge pieces of luggage and big cardboard boxes. I did not even think the flight was that big since I did not have anyone sitting beside me, but the amount of baggage coming out of that flight was ridiculous. On top of that, there were rolling blackouts. So, every while or so, people would be pulling out their phones as flashlights, myself included, to keep looking for bags. I kept calm, but I worried I had paid too little attention in Barcelona, and my bag was lost somewhere back in the middle of nowhere. But, after literally an hour, my dirty-ass duffle bag surfaced to my joyous surprise.
By the time I left the airport, it was pouring rain. We still had to get my travel and photography permit and registration. This was in a separate office, so we drove there because of the rain. It took another 20 minutes. All in, I got to my hotel two hours later.
So, one of the first questions I received straight away was – why Sudan?
I knew Sudan was full of archaeological history of course - in some ways rivalling or even exceeding Egypt in all that it offers because it has hundreds of pyramids and tombs – approximately 260 pyramids to be not so exact. I also knew that Sudanese people were notorious for being friendly and kind, eager to share their rich culture and hospitality. Of course, for my own selfish reasons, I knew Sudan (this is to the North only, as South Sudan is its own country with many more problems) is yet another misjudged country despite being perfectly safe. I knew that while it is not the most travelled country out there, it is still considerably well trodden now by the adventurous and curious. Though looking back now on my week, the only times I ever encountered other tourists were at the airport and my last day in Khartoum at this Sufi dancing ritual. I had all the Northern sites to myself the entire week.
Sudan has gone through decades of civil war, with the separation of the South, and with ongoing conflict still in some regions like Darfur. It is not the South however. Though I know of trips available to the South, I need to read more before I would venture there. Many people in the North noted it is not safe to travel there still because of the internal conflict. So, whether I get there in this lifetime based on how I feel when this is all said and done, we will have to see. I may never do a lone trip again; or, I may want to do a lone trip every year for the rest of my life. I just do not know what headspace I will be in after I manage to get home.
If you all read back to the beginning, this trip is not some goal to get every stamp in my passport. I have specifically picked all the countries I am going to for very nuanced learning and connective purposes. When I am done, I will have travelled to 10 countries; 10 very meaningful countries that I know will hold a special place in my mind, heart and spirit for the rest of the life I choose to live (should I choose to live it). If anything, these places maybe will have helped me to live. If I think about it, there would actually be 12, but travelling to Spain was not considered as part of the journey, because I was spending time with Jon more so than for travel motivations. And the 12th country would be Greece (I have been there already in an old life), and that is to spend time working with an NGO, all connected to the fabric of this journey and its meaning to me, not to actually travel.
I woke up to my first real day in Khartoum to a view overlooking a sprawl of colourful buildings, set against the background of the Blue and White Nile rivers - the confluence meets in the middle in the city. It was cloudy, but the scenery was so vivid, I felt a slight bit of momentum again amidst all my ever-present feelings of depression. I spent the day exploring the city, but found it to be just the teeniest bit lacklustre at first after the chaotic energy and rhythm of Mali. It could have been the cloudy atmosphere or the slight drizzle of rain; after all, this was my first experience of rain pretty much since the one day in Syria. Several historical sites and museums within the city were undergoing restoration or protection after the last ‘movement’. I visited the few sites I could -the National Museum, the Great Mosque, a fortified gunboat, and the burial tomb of Imam Mahdi, and then spent some time waddling through a lot of mud and puddles in the Omdurman market area. Once again I had to concentrate really hard on walking because the streets were either flooded or very muddy from a few days of rain. I was coming in at the very end of the rainy season, and unlike Mali, I actually was experiencing rain. The good thing is that if it were sunny, the temperature would have increased dramatically. It was actually quite mild this first day and would remain continually mild until pretty much my last day.
Sudan is the land of the black peoples. It has 19 major ethnic groups, around 500 subgroups, and 100 plus languages. They all have their own little nuances and different roots – Arab, African, Nubian, etc. For instance, I met one tribe -Hassanir once we were in the desert, and the men had “T’s” marked against their face. Other tribes would have different markings, but this is generational. The younger generation do not mark their faces as often anymore. Sudan is interesting because it has slight African undertones, contrasted with major Middle Eastern overtones with emphasis from Egypt and Jordan because of the archaeological aspect. Sudan has surprised me so far, even for its first day.
I mean, from even a food perspective, I half expected to eat fava bean stew (ful) a lot because I had read from some travel blogs that Sudanese cuisine is just not that interesting. But, breakfast reminded me of my breakfasts in Syria and Iraq – there were dips, cheeses, breads, and dates. And then for lunch, I had the most delicious, citrusy grilled Nile fish. Later onwards, I ate these incredibly spiced dishes – aubergine mash, a potato and meat hash - geema, and this injera-like bread called kisra with a bean stew. The local food was just amazing – full of flavours, spices and heart.
There are approximately 36 million people in North Sudan, with 10 million in Khartoum. Khartoum is a bustling city, divided into three sections: Khartoum (central – the political part of the city), Khartoum North (the industrial part of the city, and Omdurman (the National capital). The traffic was chaotic, but nothing surprising to me anymore. I do not know what it was, but there was just something subtle and modest about the city. Once again, it could have just been because it was a cloudy day. I was also maybe missing all the scooter bikes and the blaring rhythmic music. There are people on bikes, but over here, there are definitely greater numbers of white cars, and white mini-buses. There are some smaller ‘skyscrapers’ – of Chinese-invested oil companies. I ask about production and economy beyond Chinese investment. I am told that there is not really anything that Sudan can call its own after the decades of conflict collapsed its economy -invoked sanctions, etc. Cotton production used to be a big thing; now in Khartoum they have some small medical-equipment related factories, textiles, and automobile parts. There are vast gold resources yet to be fully capitalized, likely by China.
For the most part, it is an agricultural based economy even though the economy is on the decline. In the North, the people are reliant on the Nile River and rains, and this plays a lot in their lifestyle and culture. You see goats and camels everywhere, and plots of produce even growing out in the desert. Dates from palm trees are cultivated quite vastly in the desert. Some camels are raised for racing. We visit a camel market later in the desert, and I am told a well-bred camel can cost the same as a Land Cruiser. Females also tend to be the faster racers. Camels are otherwise used for meat and dairy.
That being said, a lot people are educated. I am told that Sudanese people love learning. My guide himself is an inspector of Antiquities, and is pursuing a PhD. The Sudanese love learning English, and enjoy foreigners, as they see this as an opportunity to practice what they have learned; or even, swap English learning for Arabic teaching opportunities. Over six days, I happily learned a couple new Arabic phrases. I am told that the education system is still primarily Arabic-based, but after the revolutions, there is a greater push for English curriculum. It is sometimes harder for children in the desert to go to school because of the long distances between villages that have schools, and those that do not. These children will take after their parents and adopt the farming lifestyle. I do ask about children. At one point a lot of children equated to wealth, so families would have 10 to 12 children. Now, it is more common to have 1 to 4. Like most of Africa, polygamy exists.
North Sudan is predominantly Muslim – 40 percent Sufi. There was a clearer Christian and Muslim divide before the separation of the South. Eastern, north and western regions of Sudan are all majority Muslim. However, I am told there are a lot of Christians in Khartoum. A lot of men wear a cap –taqiyah- and traditional clothing – this long white gown. Women are mostly dressed in black, but this is contrasted with brightly coloured hijabs. As we go into the desert, I see less of the black, but generally women will wear robs called tobs.
I am told repeatedly that I do not have to wear a hijab, but I feel slightly uncomfortable as every woman is wearing one. So, I wear a shawl loosely around my neck, and keep it close for those really uncomfortable moments where I want to cover my head. Most of the Mosques are in the Ottoman style, very similar to what I saw in Syria. I love the architecture, and as much I love the African mud mosques and Persian architecture, Ottoman architecture is by far my favourite.
I love observing people and behaviours, as I change to each new country. Sudanese people, perhaps more so than any country I have been to so far, smile so genuinely. Their whole face seems to light up widely whenever they laugh or smile. Once again, everyone greets everyone regardless if they know each other. I watch in the morning and afternoon as people group together to have tea near the Nile or in the market place – whether young and old. In the evenings, people congregate near the river to have chai to chat for hours – something related to spending time with your ‘habibi’ (my dear, my love). People just love being together – and I am going to sound like a broken record but, this sense of community and connection is just so lost to myself, and all the people I know, back at home. I tried talking about this with Jon when we were together in Spain, but the sense I got from him is that our friends are not wired to be this way. Nobody really has relationships like on “Friends”. I am somewhat not convinced. I think it exists. I am not blaming anyone; I blame myself really. But, you know, broken record.
Anyways, on the first day, I am randomly introduced to this sweet couple in Khartoum. They invite me to eat lunch with them at this Sudanese grilled fish restaurant – Samakna – packed full of locals. There is a great vibe and energy – almost Middle Eastern meets tiki bar. First rule of thumb – “we don’t eat with forks, spoon; what’s this knife for?” “We eat with our hands”. The girl was so sweet. I do not think she could ever know that I am a germaphobe, but because I was gingerly trying to use the bread as much as possible to scrape the fish, she started de-boning the entire fish for me. It was really sweet. She kept on smiling and laughing at me, telling me to “eat sister”. At the very end, she asked me if I was happy. I said “yes”, and she said “she was happy too; I met a sister today”. I felt like bawling in my head; it was so sweet. It was just a really nice exchange, because I think they wanted to practice their English, and teach me a few Arabic phrases too in exchange. I am picking up words, but I do find the intonations challenging sometimes to get right, especially words emphasized with “r’s”. Anyhow, whatever I had read about Sudanese people was completely true; they are so sweet, and I came to that conclusion already just based on the first day. I am wagering by the end of this trip, I may want to adopt a family to bring home. We exchanged numbers, and I sent them photos from our lunch earlier today. As I leave Khartoum tomorrow, they said next time for me to stay with them if I visited.
Khartoum feels really safe. I walked alone with no problem as a lone, female traveller. Everyone has been really friendly so far, and there was less of the intense stare, probably because more and more tourists have been coming through over the past few years. It’s different here than in the last three countries I just went to. In speaking about the recent demonstrations, protests (i.e. the revolution, the blue profile), of course it was portrayed differently than what it was. I am told that even while the protests were occurring, tourists were still coming through and there were no problems. North Sudan is safe, and basically everyone just wants to help you if you are lost or need something, or even if you want to hitchhike your whole way across the country. So, anyhow, at this point, I am excited now to see Karima, Meroe, etc, and I am little bit sad that my time here is short.
The next day, we leave for Karima. It is a 400 km drive crossing the Bayuda or Upper Nubia desert; and this is the first time I have to pull out photocopies of my passport for checkpoints. I note there are not as many of course like Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan. The roads are good once you leave Khartoum. Heading out of Omdurman, the traffic just barely moves especially as you approach Libya market (named as such, since a lot of products come from Libya). There are 18 states in North Sudan, and I will have visited just 3 of them – North state, Khartoum state and the River Nile state. None of these states have borders however.
The geo-landscape is very interesting and totally unexpected– rolling dunes, rocky inter-planetary landscapes, with the odd green everywhere -acacia trees and other odd plants and flowers. In some villages, I see lots of colourful teal and pink houses. I am told that people paint their houses bright because of the sparse colour from a landscape that does not receive as much rain. Passing by all these villages, you see houses with windows and doors clearly open. The villages are really safe, and people will run in and out of each others’ houses. There is no need for police because there is no crime.
Once we reach closer to Karima, there are plots of palm trees everywhere. Palm trees themselves are an industry – for dates, alcohol, and flour. I am excited for Karima because I will get to hike Jebel El Barkl, a small holy mountain that overlooks tombs and pyramids. Discovery is occurring in Sudan all the time. There are currently more than 40 archaeological missions ongoing. Noting again that there are over 260 pyramids in Sudan, these pyramids are not large like those in Egypt. They are small to mid-sized pyramids, and unlike Egypt they use underground versus above ground burials. But, complexes like those I visit in Meroe, Naga and Jebel El Barkl for example are so fascinatingly different from Egypt – in the inscriptions, design, and architecture.
On the way to Karima, we stop for chai and engage in conversation with locals. I ask the same question I asked in Mali. What makes Sudanese people happy? And I also ask a version of what makes them tick. The responses are interesting. The resounding answers really are that Sudanese people are simple. They love to learn. For example, instead of having just a coffee in the morning, they have to read the newspaper in print with their coffee and chai. News is consumed from print, and not so much from the Internet or radio. There are 25 publications. I ask whether they are reliable, and the answer is yes.
They love to joke and laugh, and as mentioned previously everyone literally seems to have a smile that lights up a room. Spare time is about family, though with the collapsing economy, there is not so much time in life anymore. If people are not working or are with family, they enjoy something as simple as having chai and conversation by the river. I do notice that the people love music, and many people enjoy just randomly singing out loud. Sudanese people are proud of being Sudanese. The people I talk to identify to their Nubian versus Arab roots, but there are both Arab rooted and Nubian rooted tribes scattered across the country. Regardless, all Sudanese consider themselves a great civilization; they are very patriotic that way. They are unapologetically themselves, and that is just rare given how fake Western society can be sometimes.
But, of course the people face many difficulties just to survive. Access to education is not always easy especially for those trying to even just survive harsh desert life. Female rights remain an issue. And of course there are health problems related to cholera and malaria because of the harsh environment. I ask about the divide between the North and the South. There is no animosity. Many South Sudanese live in other areas in the North, East and West. People live together in peace. The hope is that with the new civilian government, unity will be brought back between the North and the South even though the South is its own country now. People like the new government, and the freedoms and liberties they have been afforded. “Freedom, peace and justice” is the slogan of the new government. The people hope still for more visible change. Even talking with some young people near Meroe – the first question that came up was what a foreigner thought about the protests in Sudan last year. I stay impartial of course since I am not a subject matter expert, but I do note that civil liberties and voice is important especially where progression and just even survival is concerned.
I am told once again that survival is hard because of the economic collapse. The average person earns $40-50 a month. Out in the desert, you see long lineups for fuel at gas stations – fuel shortages are common. Electricity blackouts and of course, water shortages are also common. On the way back to Khartoum, I see these crowded-looking make-shift camps where villages had to re-locate their lives because the Nile had flooded their homes in rainy season. People make due and are happy with very little. They find happiness in what they know as life, in each other, little things like singing, and just being with each other. It is just so pure.
The road trip so far was interesting but I was anxious to get to Karima. Hiking Jebel El Barkl was definitely something special – since I ended up going up twice for sunset and sunrise. Driving up to Karima there was an intense sandstorm that overtook the entire area, resulting in an electricity blackout actually for a few hours. The sky from all angles was swirling in this brown mist. We tried to get close to the pyramids on ground, but all I could feel was sand spitting at my face, so we have to run for cover until the storm died down. Luckily there was still time to hike up the mountain. But, as we were approaching the top, it started to rain heavily. I was told that this area hardly receives rain, so I guess I had brought a blessing to the area. The next day, I would see kids happily swimming in heavily flooded areas, and animals scattering to newly developed water holes.
Jebel El Barkl is not a long hike. From the side slightly facing away from the city, you can access a “trail” that leads you to the top with minor ‘rock-climbing’. Once you get to the top, the views are spectacular looking over the pyramid, tomb and temple complexes in the area, Karima, and the river surrounded by palm trees. During sunset, the wind was insane, and everywhere I tried to take a picture, I had to quickly take two steps back for fear of falling over.
But, the next day I woke up at 4AM, and gingerly tried to find my way to the top again using a flashlight, and the conditions were perfectly calm. I admit I got a bit lost, but I kept moving and climbing where I could, and finally reached the top barely before sunrise. It just felt spiritual being at the top. I cannot possibly describe it well because it is one of those euphoric moments where you hear silence and you just take in every bit of beauty that hits your senses.
The entire area around Karima is actually quite stunning and I wish I had more time to explore, because there are so many canyons and valleys. It is just a place that deserved at least two days. This trip felt really long and rushed as I tried to get from place to place before dark. I could never really just stop to take things in. Even with the sunrise climb, because I got lost, I took up so much time that I had only a few moments to take everything in before climbing down to get to the next place.
During this next day, I would visit a few more spectacular historical places – El Kuru, Meroe, Naga and Musawarat – different complexes with pyramids and tombs, ruins, and temples with inscriptions telling fascinating stories of the past. You definitely are taken on a journey back in time. Along the way, I also passed Atbara, an industrial city, and the city actually where the last revolution started and expanded to Khartoum.
El Kuru is a complex of over a hundred pyramids. There is really only one standing, while the rest have all fallen apart due to nature. But, there are some interesting underground rooms with paintings to tell fabulous stories of royalty and Gods. During the drive to the Pyramids of Meroe, we passed through white desert. Once again the landscape was just breathtaking. There were various small mountain ranges in the desert, white sand, and spots of green everywhere where acacia trees stood, or areas were being cultivated. Every once in awhile, I would see small sand cyclones again, but none evolved into the same storm as the day prior. I loved seeing these little water hole or oasis areas. Camels just walked around and grazed the grass like goats.
Over these long travels, I would hear of more stories or experience for myself the sheer kindness of Sudanese people and just the purity of the country. For instance, on the road, you see many hitchhikers. There are no safety problems on the roads here, and people are happy to take others on their way especially since walking the desert is extremely long and harsh.
I ended my day at Meroe pyramids, which are just indescribable. They are set against a vast landscape of rolling dunes, and at sunset, the entire area just sparkles. You sit there, and you feel so alive just taking it all in, knowing you are taken back to this spectacular place in time. All the pyramids kind of sit on a path leading across all these dunes, and you feel so small against it all.
I ended up meeting this incredibly kind family that just wanted to introduce themselves. The daughter gave me a necklace, and the son gave me a bracelet just to welcome me and thank me for coming to their country. They linked arms with me and we walked together, and then took a bunch of pictures together. They invited me over for chai, but I unfortunately had to leave for my next place. Thinking back to even my lunch in Khartoum, the kindness and generosity here is just unthinkable. I have never experienced something like this in just a span of a week. Thinking about it, there has not been one person who has not smiled at or greeted me openly. Out in the desert, life and survival is difficult, but the sheer kindness to open up your doors to a stranger – that just speaks volumes of how kind Sudanese people are. I am told that if a Sudanese person respects you, he or she will slaughter a goat for you (and make a coffee for you too if in the East). I was told tonight that if I went for that tea, a goat certainly would have been slaughtered. I wish I had more time. I am so frustrated with my planning.
In my final days, I visited two hidden places in the valleys of the North: Naga – this incredibly well-restored temple and Musawarat, ruins that have had archaeologists wondering whether it was a castle, a military training base for elephants, or a school based on the inscriptions, and different features of each of the rooms. Driving through the valley was just magnificent. You feel once again so small against these looming mountain ranges, and miles of sand and spotted trees.
Anyhow, I just have to say that Sudan is such a pure country, with so much to see and experience and I barely scraped the tip of it. I have a melting spot for this country right now and I am so regretful that my time here was so short. I know I have to come back because I want to visit the east and west as well. The distances were so long, and days so short, that I wished the trip was divided up a little, but I did not know this of course until I came in with so many expectations of places I wanted to visit. But, this is how it is with travelling – you discover places you love, and you know in your heart that one day you will have to come back if you love a place that much. This is kind of a special thing, because if I say I want to come back somewhere, it means there is definitely something in me that has sparked back to life - and Sudan brought that spark out of me. I want to live to continue seeing and experiencing places like Sudan.
For me, the journey has continued to unravel into more experiential self-learning. I never knew that I would feel so emotional about a place, but as the plane was taking off out of Khartoum I started to cry. I felt really emotional in the plane staring down at the roads, and at the exact journey I just made north, but not all the way. I did not want to leave. I felt an emotional connection to a place I was just starting to get to know, and that had somehow, with all it has to offer, brought me out of an incredibly tough spot after Spain. The experiences there made me feel stronger. For me, Sudan had it all. It had the familial bonds of Iraq, the community ties of Syria, the spirituality of Mali, and for me, the resonating themes of kindness and trust. I feel I could have learned even more if I just stayed a few more days. I joked around the idea of living as a nomad in the desert with two goats, 1 camel and just sheer freedom. It would teach me survival and strength for sure, and maybe to appreciate life just that much more.
As much as I love Iraq, Syria and Mali, my full heart, mind and spirit is connected with Sudan now. But, as always, I have to keep this journey going. I will be disconnected for a while as I head deep into the deserts of Chad. I hope my momentum keeps up. It was nice to get out of that depressive episode for a little while. But, it is experiences like this that challenge your mental well-being, and make you remember all that is good about life.