A Warm Welcome in Sudan

We arrive in Sudan in a cloud of dust. It takes 16 hours door-to-door from Gondar to Khartoum – a long journey, but we are just glad to make it in one day. The bus travels through hundreds of kilometres of bleak desert with very little development, but with plentiful plastic bags and petrol stations scattered along the road. A few hours before Khartoum, the development begins. Shops, buildings, and more petrol stations line the highway, repeatedly fooling us that Khartoum is near. Finally, the lights grow brighter and the traffic more congested. After an exhausting journey, we arrive in Khartoum after dark.

Confronted by taxi drivers at the bus station, we struggle to communicate to them where we want to go: a little-known hotel recommended to us by a fellow traveler. We must be quite a spectacle, as a woman from our bus comes to the rescue. “Are you from the Amazing Race?” she asks with a warm smile, in well-spoken English. “I was sure you were from the Amazing Race!” and she organizes a taxi for us.

Khartoum city itself is a surprise: a bustling metropolitan city with expressways, modern buildings, and gleaming storefronts. A city where the Blue Nile and White Nile rivers meet, made up of three cities – Khartoum (central), Omdurman (the old Mahdist capital), and Bahri (Khartoum North) – each separated by a branch of the Nile.

The next surprise is the Rosa Park Hotel: US$20 buys us a clean comfortable room with king-sized bed, air-conditioning, crisp cotton bedsheets, plush towels, a shower with a door (a rarity in our travels!), satellite television, and wireless internet. It’s money well-spent, as we spend most of our time in this room over the coming week, hiding from the 45 degree heat of the hottest month of the year.

The next morning, we venture downstairs. In the lobby, we are met by the daytime receptionist Ahmed, who stops us and says, “Come join us for breakfast.” The offer throws us completely off guard, but we obediently follow him to the small dining area out back. A huge communal plate of macaroni and vegetables is served, which we share with about ten other men who work in the hotel. We cannot exchange many words with our fellow diners as they do not speak much English, but their constant smiles and gestures towards the food make us feel completely welcome.

Our bellies full, we step outside into the heat. Across the street, a busy souq (market) extends several blocks towards a newly constructed shopping mall (not yet open) and a mosque, both massive. We walk past various shops and stalls selling flip-flops, galabiya robes, dates and nuts, soaps, and perfumes. Several people smile shyly at us, and numerous people call “hello!” or “welcome!” or “where you from!”

A busy cafeteria with a fresh juice stand catches our eye, and we poke our heads inside. The owner comes over and shakes our hands heartily and introduces himself as Ibrahim. “How much is grapefruit/mango/orange juice?” we ask. He tells us the prices, but then says “Can I offer you two juices without money?” “Um… okay!” we respond, and both select grapefruit juice. While it is being prepared, Ibrahim gives us a tour of his café. “Come see man making fitteer, and you can take pictures!” he says. We watch a young man skillfully making a thin pastry, filling it with minced meat and vegetables, baking it for a few minutes in a hot oven, and topping it with grated cheese and carrots. Our juice is soon ready, and we try to pay for it. “No money, no money!” Ibrahim insists. We accept the gift, and vow to ourselves to come back another day as paying customers.

Our second day in Sudan is not as pleasant. In addition to the already-expensive visa (US$100 per person for 14 days), all visitors travelling in Sudan must also register as “aliens” within 3 days of entering the country and obtain travel and photo permits to move outside of Khartoum. Our 3 days are ticking, so we decide to brave the “aliens” process. Ahmed puts us in a taxi to the “Ministry of Alien Affairs” (which apparently has changed locations three times since our guidebook was written). Upon arrival, we find that no information is provided and everything is written solely in Arabic. People direct us here and there: a man fills out our forms (10 pounds), a man photocopies our passports and visas (2 pounds), a fixer is assigned to us (15 pounds), he obtains two stamps from a counter (20 pounds), he brings us to another counter (396 pounds), he gives our forms to a lady at another counter (50 pounds… which we think is a bribe to speed up the process). Nothing is in English, except for various numbers (amounts to pay) that are shouted to us along the way. Forty-five minutes and nearly 500 pounds (US$100) later, there is an ugly sticker in our passports. Truly a process to make one feel like an alien!

The experiences of our first two days in Sudan set the tone for our visit. The Sudanese are known for their hospitality, but the fact that we have heard about this still does not prepare us for the warmth and generosity that we encounter at every step. The kindness of Sudan’s people even makes up for the horribly expensive and mysterious bureaucratic processes that Sudan’s government puts us through. So we smile, obey the requirements, and try to travel through the country with the grace of a Sudanese.

View over Khartoum city (taken through a window of the Corinthia Hotel, as we did not yet have a photo permit)

Enjoying fitteer, back at Ibrahim’s café as a paying customer