A month in the capital of sand
From an aesthetics point of view, sincerely speaking, Khartoum is not the most attractive city in the world. In terms of architecture it is a city built half-way, in fact there is no single building that seems to be fully finished. The skyline reveals a mass of buildings with brick walls without finishes, unfinished concrete structures, walls without paint and rundown public buildings among hundreds of sharp minarets from the many mosques in town. The exceptions are, like it happens in many countries that are run by tyrants stuck in power, the monumental buildings of the military, the police, the government houses, embassy and a hotel here and there. In urban planning terms, the city is also definitely incomplete. Beyond the main paved arteries, it is all streets of sand and sidewalks are absent even right downtown.
The colors of Kerma don't exist here, the yellow and brown hues of the sand dominate the color palette. In the end, the capital city of Sudan is not more than an enlarged version of any other Saharan village that we have passed along the way. Khartoum means "elephant trunk" in Arabic and it is named after the shape the Nile takes where it meets with its two most important tributaries, the White Nile, coming all the way from Lake Victoria in Uganda, and the Blue Nile coming from Lake Tana in Ethiopia. The promenade along the river is not developed and it is not attractive like in any city in Egypt, but it is a very relevant place along the course of this great river.
Located on the southern edge of the Sahara, the city is almost permanently covered in sand all year round and the air is so full of it that the sky always look murky. The strong whistle of the powerful Saharan winds are the background melody that accompanies the call to pray from the loud speakers of the mosques. With days of up to 50 C degrees, the furious wind does nothing but worsening the overall feeling of the heat. Everything burns in Khartoum. If I take the frame of my bicycle in the middle of the day, I can't hold it for more than a few seconds because it burns, same for the fences, the chairs and any other metallic object that has been exposed to the rigor of the sun even if it has only been for a few minutes. The sand is a constant problem, that is why when the night sets in legions of workers come out to the avenues to sweep it. If they were not there, Khartoum would have been long buried. Storms often strike the city, but not the rain ones, it almost never rains here, but the sand ones. THe Sahara spits tons of it in just a few minutes. They manifest in the shape of gigantic brown walls that show in the horizon out of the blue. It seems as though the clouds have fallen from the sky to scratch themselves against the ground. A gentle breeze quickly evolves into a raging wind and in a matter of seconds the city goes completely dark, you cannot see more than a few feet in front of you. When the gales passes, a halo of particles stays in the air beofre finally falling completely and letting the city go back to normality.
Khartoum has its people, but it has something else, and it is not a minor things for those like us who do not live in a place where one can enjoy determined pleasures. Khartoum has the most delicious mango juices I have tasted in the whole world. I have indulged myself with the juices of Brasil, Colombia, South East Asia, but friends, I have never ever drunk such delicious juice as the Sudanese. On the other hand, none of this would have any meaning if they cost what they cost in any country away from the tropics. In Khartoum, a 1 liter jar of mango juice costs the equivalent to 1.20 usd. The mangos are so sweet that they do not even have to add sugar to it. Day after day, night after night we have drunk tens of liters of mango juice if every day was the last day of our lives. A month in Khartoum might sound excessive, but between its people and its mango juices we could have definitely stayed even longer.
It was hard to leave Khartoum, not only because we got deeply attached to our new Sudanese family and the mango juices, but because the brutal heat, now well into the Sudanese summer, made it feel more like going on a sleigh ride to Greenland rather than pursuing the insane idea of crossing the Sahel by bicycle. The Sahel is historically one of the most punished places in the world. It is the strip of land that runs from the Atlantic ocean to the horn of Africa where the transition between the Sahara desert and the tropical countries of sub-Saharan Africa occurs. The droughts, the tribal conflicts, the fights for grazing land, the clandestine guerrilas, have caused and still cause famines, violence, displacements and more human suffering than any of us could even begin to imagine. Even though the 600 km from Khartoum until the Ethiopian border pass through one of the most gentle parts of this cursed region, the geographical, ethnic and social change is visible. People's skin turns way darker, there is much less development, even much more material poverty and cattle is noticeably thin and thirsty.
After a full month of resting, getting back into shape becomes incredibly difficult. These are asphyxiating days in which the sun and the heat keep harassing us without mercy, as though they did not want us to forget them. The landscape has lost all appeal, it is completely flat, colorless, desaturated, no vegetation. There is not even sand anymore, it is all mostly brown dust now, and finding a decent tree under which lay down until the infernal hours of the afternoon have passed, seems nothing but pure good luck.
At night, the muscles are so sore that despite the exhaustion it is hard to fall asleep. We take a beating every day and for the very first time we start feeling the urge to leave this weather behind. Poverty becomes noticeable, what it used to be mud houses now they are isolated huts in the middle of nowhere. People are mostly uneducated and with greater physical deterioration. Children are filthy, their teeth are brown from early in life, deformed, they have different kinds of fungus in their skin and other physical problems. It doesn't look like a happy place anymore.
We tried to move forward during the early evening hours like we had done before in the Sahara, but it doesn't feel so safe here anymore, there is more night traffic and people are not so extremely open as they used to be. In the last night before reaching Qadarif, only 5 km before reaching a house where we had been invited to stay, all of a sudden a gentle breeze started blowing and, exactly like I had experienced in Khartoum before, the breeze turned into an extraordinarily strong hurricane of sand in a matter of seconds. Unlike the sandstorm in the city, in the middle of the road at night everythingvwas pitch black. We were now battling against gale winds filled with soil and dust piercing through the eyes, the eyers while it became literally impossible to stay on the bicycle without falling. As soon as we were able to get off them, the wind snatched them away and throwing them to the ground. We were trapped in this pitch-balck inferno unable to see anything, not knowing what way to go. I jus couldn't figure out where the hell it came from. We managed to leave the road and found shelter in a village. 15 minutes later, the sandstorms passed and it all went back to normal as if nothing had ocurred. It took us 6 painful days to reach Qadarif. 400 km that had not been for the already unbearable heat, the sandstorm, the headwind and our lack fo physical training they would have been much easier. Fortunately, we had family waiting in Qadarif. Muaz, Ahmed's uncle, waited for our arrival with open arms. Together with his family, neighbors and friends they spoiled us like their own family. He even gives me a beautiful gallabiya and a taqía as a present that I do not hesitate to wear with pride. I am starting to feel almost like a Sudanese, and I am happy!
They served us the usual dishes of the Sudanese cuisine, which doesn't offer a lot of variety but it's still quite good. Fuul is the omnipresent dish in every meal, it is the what most people in rural regions eat 2 or 3 times a day, every day. It consists of giant brown faba beans served in oil, with chopped onions and if you are lucky diced tomatoes and shredded cheese. It is delicious and rich in fiber and proteins and considering it is the dish that we ate every day 49 out of the 51 days we spent in Sudan, it doesn't make you tired as fast as one would imagine. There are no fork, knives or spoons; all meals are eaten using bread to pick up the food in case of solid pieces or to absorb the saucy parts with it. One thing is clear let me tell you, a diet based on fuul is like feeding yourself on dynamite. Every morning is like celebrating Chinese new year in China (very loud fireworks), if you know what I mean...Sometimes the effect is such, that I could ascertain that it helps giving the bicycle the thrust you need on a slow morning riding uphill. You understand, right? :). Fuul is some times served with falafel, other times with egg, meat, lamb or kurrasa. Sweet pasta is almost always the desert of choice, this is actually spaghetti that once boiled it is mixed with suger. Contrary to what one might think it is quite delicious.
This is the last Sudanese city, 165 km before the Ethiopian border, more than a city it is small town, almost a village, with barely no asphalt roads and more huts than brick houses. Here, already far from the northern areas of the country, the Arab root starts mixing with the tribes of sub-Saharan Africa. It is visually very clear the difference between the Sudanese of Arab descent and the black Sudanese, many of which have stayed in Sudan after South Sudan gained its independence.
Before leaving Qadarif, Muaz asks me like a true uncle:
- Do you have enough money to reach the border?
- Yes, we have 50 pounds left (roughly 5 usd) – I reply
- But that is not enough! Here, take another 50 – He says
- no, no, no, Thank you Muaz! But really, we don't need it, we have more than enough to reach the border – I said
- I insist, it is not enough, take it please.
We pass by the last hut villages, everything around becomes poorer but the Sudanese joy and the smile never cease. Is it that they are born and die with them? - I wonder. They do not have dolls, robots, legos, PlayStations or Xboxes but the kids are always happy, radiant, they laugh their assess off running around the alleys of their villages rolling an old motorcycle's tire. It fills me with joy just to look at them running like this.
The end of Sudan is near, the end of Sudan is near, we reached Galabat, the border. The world, all the world around us is about to change radically, even when we don't know it yet. All this universe of hospitality, joy, smiles, so kind, so affectionate, that it made us feel at home every single day of our journey will change and I know it will not be easy to accept the change. It will happen with the mere act of crossing a line, the line that we will cross to enter in Ethiopia.