Monthly Archives: June 2015

Kindness of Heart: Sun and the Sudan

A sixteen minute read

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“Someone who is pointing his finger to another person is not always aware that the four remaining fingers are pointing in his direction.” ~ Sudanese Proverb

Entering Sudan was unlike anywhere else on my trip. You are unable to simply cycle up to the border, given Egypt’s incesant control over internal security. Therefore, the option was to take an early morning bus ride through the desert to Abu Simbel, where after some confusion, it eventually drove onto a ferry and shunted down the Nile to the most chaotic border I have ever encountered. It was nuts. People pushing to get through security checkpoints on the Egyptian side. The bus was stuffed to the rafters with endless bags and boxes that they were transporting to Sudan, bicycles, fruits, ironing boards and everything inbetween. After the Ferry arrived we drove for a bit, unloaded the whole bus, went through security, loaded the bus and then 500 metres later unloaded the whole thing for the same ridiculous procedure and chaos at the Sudan border. No one seemed to know where to go. This border is newly open to land traffic. Until a fews months ago it was only a weekly Ferry from Aswan to Wadi Halfa. But I made it.

Finally arriving in Sudan and Wadi Halfa, the sun was going down on the dusty desert city. I was completely out of patience and time in this dusty down. Upon entering Sudan as a foreigner, one must register with the police and pay yet another fee. I did not care and decided to take care of it later. Wadi Halfa can best be described as the back-end of nowhere. As I pedalled around looking for supplies I ran into a nice Chinese man. Strange I thought. We got to talking as I revived some of my rusty Chinese skills. He worked at an electricity camp out in the desert. He and his colleagues invited me out to their company camp for the night and promised me delicious Chinese food. I was sold. I threw my bike in the back of their pickup and we were off through the desert on loose sand. I kept thinking, I have to bike back through this tomorrow. When we arrived they showed me to my ‘container’ where I would sleep. While we waited for dinner we played a quick round of ping-pong, no joke. The one guy was insanely good and took it very seriously. I guess thats what 10 years working in the desert with ping-pong as your only entertainment will get you. Dinner was completely Chinese and I ate like a monster.

“And the spirits of the desert are out riding, midnight driftin’ slow” ~ Matt Mays, Musician/Indio

The next morning they shipped me off after a simple Chinese breakfast and made sure I was stocked up on water. Dinging my bell twice I slid off through the sand with the heaviest bike since starting my trip. Over 10 litres of water and food for the next few days. Eventually finding my way back to the main road I charged towards Dongola over the next 3 days. Taking breaks whenever shade presented itself. May and June are the hottest months of the year in Sudan. This is saying a lot. Temperatures peaked at 53 degrees. By hiding in the shade there was a 15 degree difference. It was still hot. I learned quickly not to ride between about 11 and 4pm. The heat was simply too intense. I had cracked dry lips even with applying cream continuously and a bubbling sunburn on the back of my left leg.

On the first night I slept in the open desert with no settlements presenting themselves near sunset. This was a poor choice of camp spot. Even behind a huge rock the wind blew my tent all night like a hurricane and sand filled my tent. I got no sleep and rose early. The next day I rode hard through a terrible side wind and repeated the cycle of the previous day. Drink, ride, eat, drink, ride, eat. The scenery was actually pretty stunning though. This was turning into a proper adventure. That night a man gave me permission to sleep in his tea shack. With zero light pollution and clear skies, every night in Sudan there was an astoundingly beautiful showing of stars. I haven’t looked at such amazing stars since the Tibetan Plateau of China. It was always something to look forward to after boiling another pot of pasta for dinner. My meals simple, my days a little mundane, but this was adventure and survival at the most basic level. As I rode there was little other on my mind then one thing, water, unless I had just got water. Then, I was busy thinking how much I could drink and when.

After 400km I made it to the first ‘city’ after the border, Dongola. When I arrived looking at one shop for some food a man said, “Sit I will bring you something.” He brought me some bread and eggs with falafel, which would later become my breakfast staple. Seeing I was happy he said, “Would you like some cheese and olives?” “You have cheese and olives!?” I asked surprised. Turns out he was the owner of the shop next door and gave me some of what was probably the most expensive merchandise in his store. Fresh black olives and feta cheese in the desert. I was a happy, dirty man. When I tried to pay for the bread, eggs and falafel after finishing, I found he had already taken care of it. I went over to his little shop to thank him. He simply said, “You are my guest.” And handed me a cold sprite. I took a rest for a day, completed my annoying registration with the police and refuelled on supplies before I headed out into the desert. I packed extra water, knowing there would likely be no where to fill up along the way to Karima. I turned away from the life-giving River Nile and headed into the desert on my mission towards the Pyramids of Jebel Barkal.

I was met with a terrible side wind. There was nothing to protect me from the wind and the sun scorched the pure desert for miles upon miles. Making slow progress and with nowhere to hide from the sun, I was going through my water fast. In this type of situation you need to keep making decisions. If you don’t act, then terrible things can happen very quickly. I soon realized my speed and water were not going to match up with making it to Karima. It was decision time. I pedalled along getting hammered by the wind and hadn’t seen another vehicle in quite some time. When a large truck approached I hopped off my bike and waved him down. The driver happily greeted me with a toothless grin and heaved my bike in the back. We chugged along for the next while and I grew more happy with my decision to hitch a ride as the empty miles poured on. I simply wouldn’t have made it. I also learned a valuable lesson about the unforgiving nature of the desert and how dangerous it can be. We munched on juicy watermelon in the truck and stopped for obligatory prayers along the way. He let me off outside Karima and I waved a joyful thank you as I searched for a place to sleep.

The following day I was met with an unreal tailwind and flew south with relative ease. Along the way I explored the Pyramids of Jebel Barkal. These amazing ancient structures sit completely undisturbed by tourists. After gawking and exploring for a while, onwards I went. There are only a few roads in Sudan and very few towns with supplies. At a junction headed towards the capital Khartoum I stopped and drank down another glass bottle of Pepsi to energize myself. While I was stopped I asked a man for directions just to be sure it was the right way. When I first saw him he had tears in his eyes, which I thought at first was just from blowing sand. After showing me the way, he handed me the piece of paper he was holding. It was a medical diagnosis in English. It spoke of an inoperable cerebral cyst. He had obviously just received this news through the mail after going for tests far away. I didn’t know what to say. He didn’t want anything. We simply looked at each other for a while in silence. I slowly said goodbye and felt terrible for a long while afterwards. What could I have done to help him? Could anything have been done? Would he accept my help?

I stopped that night at a road side tea stand and repair shop. I pitched my tent and cooked my dinner while the family looked on with laughing eyes. It was a comfortable evening with a nice breeze. I woke early and continued on towards Khartoum. It was in my sights now. Distances between shops were long but I was making quick progress. On my final day towards Khartoum the wind changed directions and picked up drastically. By 10am it was a full blown sandstorm. I was trapped. I was getting whipped with painful sand and couldn’t find a place to hide and wait it out. I was dirty, tired and running low on water. Decision time yet again. It wasn’t safe to keep riding as visibility was very low with the sun blocked out by the blowing sand. The buses and transport trucks were barelling along still. Each time they passed it was like getting hit by a brick wall. I had to close my eyes and get off the road or be blown over.

The last 100km of desert to Khartoum was simply out of reach and not worth the risk. I was getting a bit worried until a nice man stopped with his wife and baby to pick me up. I thanked them profusely for their kindness. His name was Adam Mergy and he had excellent English. We exchanged many questions about our respective countries along the way. I even helped him push his truck out of the sand when we got stuck. We discussed Sudanese customs, Darfur and shared some fun stories. He dropped me off in Khartoum in time for me to find the only youth hostel. I pitched my tent at the hostel and had my first shower in over a week. My clothes were crusted with dirt and grime. I don’t think I have ever been so happy to reach civilization on this trip. I only later felt bad about the smell I must have brought with me into Adam’s truck.

“The issue in Darfur is complex, but like many matters in Sudan, it is not as complex as Khartoum would want the west to believe” ~ Dave Edgers, What is the What

After leaving Khartoum I was bound for the Ethiopian border. What I encountered was a thin road and some terribly dangerous traffic. Buses cruised at lightning speed and blared horns from behind as I dodged for my life off into dusty gravel. It was quite unnerving. My days were punctuated with tiny acts of kindness, a break here and a laugh there. I watched trains of camels walking by and donkeys pulling heavily loaded cart. Mostly, I was tired and pushing the long road to Ethiopia. The landscape relatively flat and full of annoying thorn trees. I rode carefully scanning the road so as to not puncture my tire on one of those two inch suckers. The wind had now begun blowing from the south and was regularly in my face. As I approached Ethiopia the landscape slowly got more fertile. However, the plastic bag trees became more frequent. In the desert if you throw a plastic bag it will eventually snag on a low tree or bush, revealing one of humanities most ugly of contributions to the world.

One day while idly having a drink in the shade two men rolled up in their Toyota Helix and started asking me about my trip. After a quick discussion they invited me for lunch. I agreed, always feeling hungry. However, it was a bit of a distance down the road and too far for me to follow safely. We threw my bike in the back and sped off. After sometime we turned off the main road and headed through the sand and a maze of straw and stick huts. Children waved happily and I got to see some pretty interesting ‘back road’. Eventually coming to a clearing and a few homes we got out of the truck.

What I stepped into was an unbelievable feast. A daily occurrence I was told. These twelve men all worked together at a nearby factory and had a lady hired to cook their daily lunch. Most of the men had already eaten when we arrived and were kicked back with some sugary tea. The wonderful lady brought us out a fresh tray of food. I have to say the best food I had the entire time I was in Sudan. Real Sudanese food. Amazing spicy goat, juicy pieces of beef, with fresh baked bread, veggies and some sort of raw meat with cheese that I steered clear of. At the end of the meal came obligatory sweet tea and something I had never tried before. Fresh milk mixed with sprite. A surprisingly good combination. They all laughed as I tried to figure it out. After we washed up and they dropped me back at the main road. I continued on full as could be and happier than ever.

On my final days as I broke towards Ethiopia I was welcomed to sleep almost anywhere. I never felt threatened or in the least or like anyone would give me trouble. I camped in places I would have never dreamed of in other countries. No one hassled me and people generally left me to my own devices or shared a bit of conversation. I remember talking with a man who was displaced from DARFUR and the bleak future life holds for his family in Sudan. I also discussed with a village teacher the difficult realities he faces on a day-to-day basis and the broken system that Sudan operates under. Along the way I recall one man telling me, “There are 150 villages along this part of the Nile, but only 10 schools and only 2 secondary schools.” There is great work to be done in Sudan to emphasize the need for education and childhood development to governments as well as parents.

People generally sleep outside on string beds under the night sky. Temperatures still hovering around 35 degrees at night, a welcome breeze is all you could hope for. On my last days in Sudan I camped on the side of the road, beside a broken old house, next to a gas station, on the floor of a nice man’s house named Wafi and actually in a bed at a Hospital research centre for tropical diseases that I was offered. I finally made it to Galabat and the border of Ethiopia on a never-ending road that started show signs of getting hilly. I had made it. After some ridiculous bureaucracy and a final egg and falafel sandwich I crossed out of Sudan and into Ethiopia. Things were immediately different.

As difficult as Sudan was, it would have not been possible without the kindness of the people. Sudan is a very hard country to live in. Intense weather, pounding heat, failing infrastructure and rolling blackouts make it one of the poorest places I have ever been. However, the people are what made it unforgettable and at all possible. What I have shared here is only but a snippet of the kindness and hospitality. I was given so much free food, tea, places to sleep and nice conversation. No one asked me for money. It may well be the most welcoming place I have been on the whole trip or ever travelled to. This is coming from a people who probably had the least to give and shared more than anywhere else. Almost everyone I met outside Khartoum said with a big smile, ‘Welcome, welcome to Sudan.’ They are an amazingly proud people, with a lot to share the world. Of course there is still conflict and unrest in some parts of Sudan, however, the vast majority of people are intensely welcoming and caring. They are the definition of what true Islam teaches. We can learn a lot from these kind people. We hoard our wealth in the west and hide behind fake smiles. To be truly without monetary riches, but full of inner wealth should be the ultimate goal of humanity. Sudan, I am without any more words.

**I would like to thank all of the recent donations from the schools back home that have tirelessly continued to fundraise towards the goal of building a school for the kids in Verdara, India. Thank you to the dedication and support of staff and students at St. Joseph School Toledo, Holy Name of Mary Almonte, St. John Elementary and St. John Catholic High School in Perth. Amazing stuff. We are almost there! To donate or continue tracking our progress CLICK HERE.

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