Posted onSeptember 17, 2009 by Shahla & Peter Nygaard
Freshly showered and wearing my last clean scraps of clothing, I walk into the chill-out room at the home of our host in Addis Ababa. Several friendly faces turn, and after meeting everyone, I sit down amidst matresses and pillows. The one woman in the room besides myself puffs on her sheesha, decides it is time for fresh tobacco and sets about the process of cleaning and reloading the water pipe. I notice several bottles of coke and water as well as a few bundles of leaves which the company is slowly consuming. Our host passes me one such bundle, too big to fit both my hands around it and says, "start chewing." This is chat, an integral part of the Ethiopian way of life and an ideal way to see the social side of Addis. It is a mild narcotic and not only legal, but sold everywhere in Ethiopia.
I am extremely glad that my husband Peter is able and willing to share the chat because as novices to the trade we will be feeling it in our jaws for a week to come. After four hours of chewing, our jaws already ache and we feel as though we have just drunk several cups of coffee. It is time for beer. A couple of beers and some lively conversation later, we go to bed only to rise early the next morning and begin the hunt for the Sudanese visa. We arrive at the embassy with what we think might just be enough time to get our applications in before closing. But upon entering we realize we have no idea what is going on. The one man who seems to be in charge keeps wandering off when he is not agressively swamped by people asking questions, and everytime we ask for the application forms so we can start filling them out, we are told, "yes, wait, wait." There is a line of people who have already filled their forms out and this line is moving slowly but constantly growing with people that seem to pop out of nowhere. Again we ask for forms to fill out and again are told, "yes, wait, wait, wait." The clock is ticking and we begin to lose all hope of getting anything done today. And suddenly as if in some kind of bad dream, we are filling forms out with five minutes left on the clock, answering questions about our blood types and our mothers' names. The line has all but disappeared and we run up to the little window and hand in our forms to a man who doesn't seem to realize how much power he has over our lives. But he is all business. He staples several seemingly random pieces of paper together, makes some notes and makes me wonder if he is moving so agonizingly slowly so that at two o'clock sharp he can slam the window shut and laugh in our distraught faces. No – he hands us a piece of paper and says, "go pay." We are directed to another window around another building and run full tilt up to the window. The man behind the cashier's desk does not seem to care that it is now undeniably after two. He takes our payment of sixty-one US dollars each and shoots us a smile. We dart back to the first window and hand in the receipt. The man looks at it and then at us. "Tomorrow, three o'clock," he says and turns away with the air of someone who doesn't even work there. My head is spinning a little but we manage to make it outside the gates and back into Ethiopia.
We have been in Ethiopia for a couple of days now and realize that three o'clock tomorrow actually means nine o'clock, as the local clock operates using the first hour of daylight or seven o'clock as the first hour of the day or one o'clock. I think to myself that this actually makes a lot of sense and the rest of the world just likes to complicate things by making one o'clock arrive in the middle of the night. We show up the next morning at nine. We enter the gates and ask about our passports. "Yes, wait, wait," we are told. We are in no hurry and sit and enjoy the morning sunshine in the courtyard. Soon, a man comes up to us holding our passports. They are stamped, signed and ready to go. I look up from my passport to thank the man but find that he has disappeared as mysteriously as he appeared. We leave the Sudanese embassy for the last time and enter the strangely normal air of Ethiopia once more. It is still early in the day – only three fifteen local time, so we head over to a small cultural market and take in the sights. There is coffee parafernalia galore, which I suppose is fitting for the birth place of coffee, as well as small clay pots and ashtrays, spices, local cheese, cotton and silk scarves, jewelery and woven baskets. The market is a few kilometres away from our host's house but it's still quite early and we decide to walk it. En route, Peter spots a cafe and we stop in for some fresh juice. I ask the waiter for a mix and what he brings is a mix of no less than six different kinds of juice, including mango, papaya, guava and avocado. Thoroughly refreshed, we resume the trek and have to dodge a couple of men urinating into the gutter, but with such bad aim, that they keep managing to spray the sidewalk sending showers in every direction. Peter notices a man defacating in the gutter and thankfully diverts my attention elsewhere. We wind our way through streets punctuated on every corner by people suffering from leprosy, polio, elephantism and several diseases I cannot name. Finally we make it to our destination. At four o'clock the next morning, we hail a cab as it drives by. We have been told that we would have to arrive at the bus station at four-thirty in the morning if we want to get tickets for Metema, so we do and the bus is scheduled to leave at five-thirty. Unfortunately, this is Africa and the bus doesn't leave until seven. I have become quite accustomed to sleeping in uncomfortable places so I am able to get a bit of sleep on the bus, but when I wake up and realize how much incredible scenery I am missing, I make it a point to stay awake. We come to a massive gorge, where the bus crosses the blue Nile, and the road deteriorates massively. It takes the better part of an hour to cross the gorge but I don't mind as the scenery is breathtaking. In the evening we pull into Bahir Dar, a half way rest stop. We will stop here for the night and resume driving tomorrow morning. When hunger strikes we find a restaurant and I ask the waitress behind the counter, "what kind of food do you have?" "We have meat," she says. We have eaten a lot of meat lately so I ask her what kind of vegetables she can offer us. She shakes her head, "it is Sunday," she says. "No vegetables, only meat." "Of course," I think to myself, "this is Ethiopia," and order myself some meat. On the bus the next day we are taken through landscape that reminds us of the Sahel in West Africa and we feel the heat that we so desperately tried to escape. It is quite the contrast from the cool lush green on the plateau of the Great Rift Valley. I notice some goats in the back of the bus as well as several chickens sliding around on the floor. One skids under the seat we are sitting on while another crows his heart out in the back. Any hotter and we'd all be eating roast chicken. We arrive finally at the border town of Metema and head straight across the border.
There is no sign welcoming us to Sudan, just a bridge over a small river and a long line of immigration checkpoints on the Sudanese side. In the first, which is officially called "Immigration" we are told we need to pay for our registration. Although neither of us really understand the point of it, we are informed that it is necessary and must pay a hundred and thirty-one Sudanese pounds (SP) each. This brings our total cost for entering Sudan up to about one hundred and twenty US dollars each. The second stop is "Customs" where the police officers don't seem worried about checking our bags. They look at our passports and feed us some biscuits. The third and final stop is "Security" where we again show our passports and this time give our thumb prints as well. Finally we are out and get into the only bus leaving town. It is a comfortable minibus by African standards and it takes us to Gedaref for fifteen SP. Along the way, there are several police checkpoints and we have our particulars written down at three separate stops. After a couple of hours and two flat tires, we arrive in the cricket infested town of Gedaref. We find a restaurant and are happy to see that we can get some salad. The fact that there are crickets crawling all over it is not really important to us and we eat while dodging the insects flying through the air and occasionally ricocheting off our heads. We continue on to find a hotel room with only a couple of crickets in it and attempt unsucessfully to sleep in the stifling heat. In the early morning we hop on a bus to Khartoum for twenty-five SP and sleep most of the way. When we arrive, it is the middle if the day, and extremely hot. In fact, it is so hot in Khartoum that we spend much of our time moving from one juice bar to the next. On one such day we find ourselves in Omdurman, just outside the centre of Khartoum. There is a large souk or market here and we walk through its streets in awe of the quantities of rubber shoes available. There are also several shops with handicrafts for sale and I admire the crocodile skin purses that still have the head attached. This could be a lot of fun trying to get through customs, I think. By this time the electricity has gone out and the air inside the shop is stifling. We walk on in search of yet another juice bar.
Back in the central area of Khartoum, we walk down a street dominated by buildings under construction, and find a man selling fruit at a stall on the side of the road. He fills a couple of bags for us and while we are calculating how much we owe him, he says, "no money, it is a gift." He asks us where we are from and I say "Canada." "I am from Sudan," he says with a smile, "and my name is Ozo." We thank him profusely and move on, reflecting on the general kindness towards strangers that the Sudanese people show. Although we have had one pick pocket attempt, our overall impression is not tainted. It is time to move on and we get on a bus to Dongola for forty SP each. I enjoy gazing out at the barren desert landscape and out of the sand and rock appears a small town. As we get off the bus, the desert heat hits us and we immediately find a place serving cold drinks. There is a pick up truck leaving to the next town north of here and we get in the back. Forty SP, a short ferry ride across the Nile and several sand sinkholes later, we arrive in Abri near midnight. Abri seems out of place in the desert and yet it has all the things that another village might have. We find shops, bakeries, restaurants, teahouses, even a hotel. After waiting a whole day and befriending a shopkeeper, we get a bed at the local hotel. We sleep on beds in the courtyard and feel incredibly small, sandwiched between the desert and the universe. The sky never has clouds in it anymore and the night cools to a comfortable temperature. We sleep well and in the morning we get on a desert bus to Wadi Halfa for twenty SP. It is basically a converted lorry with seats welded to the bed and the sides left largely open for doors and windows. The bus is almost empty but there are several people sitting on the roof. This is a good thing and a bad thing for me. Although I am now forced to dodge the showers spraying down from people spitting off the roof, at least I am free to find the least offensive spot on the bus. We leave Abri at ten in the morning and after weaving a path through the desert hills and on to and off of a tiny patch of tarmac in the middle of nowhere, we arrive in Wadi Halfa at four in the afternoon. I touch the skin around my eyes – the only part of my face that was not covered for the journey – and realize that there is a thick layer of dirt and dust covering my skin. We check into a hotel and head straight for the shower. This consists of a bucket of Nile water and my own soap, but at this point, just about anything will do. The ferry into Egypt doesn't leave for a couple of days so we spend our time resting, reading and climbing to the top of a couple of nearby hills to check out the scenery and the sunset over Lake Nasser.
Ferry day rolls around and the little town of Wadi Halfa expands to accomodate the hundreds of people that have arrived from or are leaving to Egypt. We go to the port, tickets in hand (eighty-seven SP), and are directed through a long line of confusing officials saying, "go over there with your passports and then go over there. No, go back to the gate and pay the port tax and then go over there and get a sticker." Somehow, we manage to make it through and we find ourselves boarding a boat. We have second class tickets and are ushered into an air-conditioned room with padded benches. It is still early in the afternoon so we go up to the roof and watch the last Sudanese town disappear in the distance. We watch our first Egyptian sunset and marvel as the milky way appears overhead. Abu Simbel glides past and as though welcoming us to Egypt, there is a spectacular light show, passing the shadowy images of heiroglyphs over the great stone statues. East Africa was good to us, but we have been looking forward to Egypt and I retire to the second class room and lie down on a bench with a smile on my face. In the morning the Egyptian immigration officials board the ferry from a smaller boat and stamp us in. We crawl into the port and wait for the officials to tell us we can get off the boat. This takes an agonizing amount of time, but finally we walk out and through some more immigration checkpoints. Egypt, the land of the pharoahs awaits…