Saturday, 8 October 2011

A day on the Ethiopia-Sudan border... and Kharthoum

Dealing with Sudan customs
Al-Grammah grasps my hand and asks where I’m from.  "Australia', I say. "Aussie, Aussie, oy, oy, oy", he says, startlingly....
I’m seated on a stool, in a dark mud-alley behind the customs house of the Ethiopian side of the border with Sudan.  My passport’s at the bottom of a pile in the immigration house, a hundred yards yonder, been there about an hour and Gordie’s in the line there, we’ve waited an hour already, and there’s nothing much else to do, so I’ve gone back to find the local black market currency seller, to get some Sudanese pounds, which I’ve done in the shack next door, and now I’m having a coffee.
Al Grammah’s going the other way, he’s done the Sudanese side and tells me cheerfully that it takes “many hours” on the Sudanese side.  Great. 
Scene of activity at the border post

Grammah’s a government guy, with his mate Assad, beside me, and they’ve been on tour with an Ethiopian song and dance troupe showing the Sudanese their culture.  How’d it go, I ask.  Great, he says, they loved it.  I show him the pics of the group we’d seen in Addis at the Yod Abyssinia, which he knows and we agree they’re babes. [photo of the Addis babes here]
He asks why we’re in old cars. Can’t we afford new ones?  “Old guys, old cars”,  I say.  Old women too?  “No, young ones!” says Assad.  He tells me the proper price to pay for coffee, three birr.  And here we’ve been paying 10 all along. Oh well, we spread the wealth….

After my third coffee, the polite number to have at one sitting in Ethiopia – and that’s easy, it’s wonderful highlands coffee, rich, dark and flavoured with cardamom  -- I wander back to my passport in its pile, and it’s time, now, just two hours later, to face the scrutiny of the immigration official, who fingerprints me and takes photos and iris scans. This is technology provided by the Americans to combat the free travel of terrorists.  Thing is, while we’re being processed, locals, variously veiled, are ambling across the border, driving their donkeys, unchecked.
Clearly, terrorists are going to try to sneak by as old white guys in classic cars and not have the wit to  dress up as local villagers…
On the Sudanese side we fly through immigration, then on to the customs, which is a couple of guys in a shed watching TV who tell us that it’s their breakfast break.  It’s 11:00.  A nanny goat wanders in and settles her full udder on the floor.
Half an hour goes by, undisturbed save for the buzz of flies and the gentle munching of the nanny chewing her cud. Then they’re ready and signal us next door for processing, which takes another age, and we have to pay a processing fee.  OK, where do we do that?  Well, the guy that does that is on “lunch break”.  It’s 12:00 and he’ll be back at 1:30. 
We let ourselves have a bit of a tactical hissy fit, and they relent to phone their boss, who wanders in all swaggery and smiles, gun on his belt, natty blue suit and directs us to follow him, over the goat, round the pile of rubbish, past the wrecked car, through a decrepit room with a rusting but made-up bed, and into his little office round the back.  Payments made, we think we’re through, but no, we have to go back to the original guys, who we now imagine must be on their “afternoon tea” break, but amazingly are still there, and proceed to go through the whole procedure all over again, which takes so long that those of us not directly involved with carnets-de-passage, and car-related documents, wander a bit north to find some food, which we do in a lean-to hut: pita bread and chicken on the coals.
And after this, still not finished, as we now had to do “security”, in a mud hut 200 yards north, unsignposted, just a local lad leading us to a nondescript, tatty, shed, where all details are taken all over again and then we’re off.  No, we’re not!  We get stopped a hundred yards further to pay a road tax.
I’ve held off writing about the travails of border crossings so far, as they’re all a hassle and it’s just part of travel, but this one really took the cake.   Gordon’s done countless crossings in London-Sydney and Peking-Paris rallies, and I’ve done my share; none have been this bizarre or insanely bureaucratic.
Finally, in Sudan.
We cross not only into a new country, we cross also into a new countryside.  No cows, donkeys and goats on the road, no countless people walking, walking everywhere, no green, no mountains.
Ethiopia had surprised us pleasantly. We’d both imagined dry land and starving people.  It was green, mountainous, high and beautiful.
Sudan, we’d imagined as desert with guys in white robes. And that’s what it is.  So far.
We’re off to the North tomorrow.
Right now we’re in the capital, Khartoum.  This is, without doubt, the grimmest, dirtiest, dustiest, most run-down capital city in the world.   Mind, I haven’t seen Lima.  But it’s right up there for decrepitude.
Last evening, the day of daily prayer, we went to the local Sufi ceremony outside a mosque in central Khartoum.  Thousands of men, in white robes, some in Hamas-green, gyrating to rhythmic beats of musicians on hand drums, a fleeting flute insinuating itself, the sound mesmeric, the dancers happy, smiling, working themselves into trances.  Like Woodstock, really.  Save for the sex, drugs and rock and roll.  And the women.  They’re not allowed to dance, work up spiritual ecstasy. They can only stand to one side, in a mélange of coloured scarves, swaying to the beat, but cut off from participation.  And that’s Sufi Islam the moderate sect.  Still, if all Islam were like the Sufis, there’d be no issues with Islam.  We were safe, not noticed really.