I’ve just completed the immigration formalities at the border at Metema / Gallabat. The whole process cost me 3 passport photos and 2 photocopies of my passport, the unofficial currency on which Sudanese bureaucracy operates. After walking across the bridge into Sudan, I was sent to passport control to have my visa stamped and fill out a long form. The form required such critical data as blood type, parents names, religion and tribe (optional). It required one passport photo. After passport control, it was off to customs, where my bag was inspected and I was asked to explain some of the contents: a mean-looking game skinning knife from Kenya (for peeling fruit!), a bag of hundreds of unlabeled capsules (doxycyclene for malaria!), all those stamps in my passport (long vacation!). Then finally on to “security”. I fielded another barrage of questions, provided signatures, 2 more passport photos and another photocopy, and… I was done! I’ll be required to register again within 3 days at the Aliens Registration Office in Khartoum. I can’t wait.
Now, I’m sitting in a tea shack in Gallabat, waiting for the bus to Gedaref to fill up with passengers. I’m beginning to wonder if it ever will - 4 hours have passed and I’ve noticed hardly anything happening at all. Gallabat is certainly not a busy place.
- Truck drivers of each region of Africa seem to have their own style of decorating their vehicles. Gallabat is full of big old blue Bedford trucks covered with colorful painted designs - eyes, slogans, faces - and big plumes of ostrich feathers in place of hood ornaments. Some of the wheels also have Ben Hur / Mad Max style steel spikes bolted on (most of the tuk-tuks also have these)!
- Sudan seems to be considerably more expensive than the rest of east Africa. The 150km bus ride to Gedaref is costing me 10SD ($5.00) and a light meal of fuul and bread cost me 5SD ($2.50).
- The currency: Sudan appears to be back on a new version of the Sudanese Pound - the 2nd currency switch-up in the last decade. This makes things a little confusing. 100 Dinars = 1,000 old Pounds = 1 new Pound. Prices are still variously quoted in any of the 3 currencies, so the answer to “how much?” can be easily misunderstood.
As it turned out, I was able to go all the way to Khartoum in one overnight 1,200km+ session. The ride to Gedaref was an easy 3 hours on sealed roads (recently completed by a Chinese company, this used to be a 10-hour journey). At the Gedaref station, a guy my age on his way home to southern Darfur came to my aid when he saw me having trouble with the taxi drivers. He helped me get a seat on a night bus to Khartoum and register (again) with the police in Gedaref.
Before the bus left, I sat down to chat over tea with an older Sudanese man. His English was excellent and he translated for some of his friends who joined us later. We talked about Saudi Arabia (“They aren’t real Muslims!”), Ethiopia (or Asubia as its called in Arabic) and American politics. His friend said, “I’ve never seen a khawaja [foreigner] with such a long mustache before, is it a tradition for you?” They were also very curious about my tooth and crown tattoo. I tried to tell them that it doesn’t mean anything but they simply couldn’t accept that answer.
The ride to Khartoum was reasonably comfortable. Before the sun went down I was able to see some small villages and long stretches of countryside as we rolled by. We drove past watering holes surrounded by herds of cattle, small complexes of mud-brick homes enclosed by fences made from flattened oil barrels, and caravans of camels carrying bundles of goods led by white-robed men.
I’m not usually able to sleep on the bus, but I never even got the chance to try this time because of the constant security checkpoints. At least once an hour we would pull over. Sometimes the stop would require no more than some questions and a passport check for the lone khawaja (me), but a few times I was marched off to a small office where I was questioned by a friendly soldier who wrote my details into a ledger. My backpack was lightly searched twice. Never before have I been subjected to this level of scrutiny in the name of security!