Monday, March 22, 2010

March 14, 2010: Cooling Down in Gondar

Cooling Down in Gondar

It’s a cool March night, a few hundred feet above the Ethiopian town of Gondar with the friendly celestial bodies of Orion above and the earthly lights of Gondar below. Ethiopia refreshes today after the Sudan exhausted yesterday.

A view of Gondar from the hotel.  When we arrived at night all we could see were the lights of the small city below.  In the very distance but not visible is Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile.

Last night we slept in the Eastern plains of the Sudan. This is a peopled region. Except for a few small hills, it’s as flat and cultivated as far as the eye can see. We found those dry, desolate hills, a reservoir of snakes and scorpions we were told, about midway from Khartoum to the Ethiopian border. There was an Arab village a few hundred meters off the main road nestled between some rocky outcroppings. We stopped in the middle, and waited. We saw no one at first but within seconds a man emerged from a hut and we asked him if we could put up our tents and spend the night. A few moments later, we found ourselves surrounded by 5 elders. Within 10 minutes the women and children of the village followed. By the 15th minute there were 60 to 70 people where there were none before we stopped the cars. Their village was called Fao. One man said it means flower. Another called it a vegetable. The only plant life visible was some leafless thorn bush and some pretty gritty looking dried grass. We’d have to come back another day to understand how this village got its name.

Lorrie Fair and Eli Sinkus broke out the soccer ball. It’s a great ice breaker. Immediately the young people of the village were engaged. Lorrie wowed them with her skill. The boys eagerly joined in. The girls were a bit reluctant at first but warmed to the idea obviously enticed by the long haired female juggling a soccer ball. Meanwhile, the elders struggled with the idea of letting us stay. They wanted to know all about us. Collect the information. Notify everyone who needed to know. Arabs of eastern Sudan seemed more careful than the Nubians of the Nile who graciously and eagerly welcomed us. “No picture,” someone said when I tried to get a photo of the children playing football with Lorrie and Eli. He gesticulated vehemently. “No,no,no. Photo. Sudan. America.” The Sudanese are aware of their negative image abroad, but few seem to understand the why of it. Darfur is definitely a negative, but the average Sudani villager may not see that happy, smiling faces of children having fun with a soccer ball is a positive in contrast to the images of starving children, orphaned and made homeless by marauding government sponsored Janjaweed militia. Is it possible they never see what outsiders see? Many Germans argued that genocide can happen like that. Finally, the elders made a decision, “yes, you can stay.” “There,” one pointed, “here,” another said. They wanted us right in the middle of their huts. “They want to keep their eyes on us,” I suggested to the others. We moved to where they pointed near some broken down, low cost, pre-fab shelters. We started setting camp. A man with a child in his arms approached talking strongly. “Mish hem henna? (No tent here?)” I asked in crude Arabic to make sure I understood his message. “La,la,la.” (No,no,no). He pointed in the distance. He wanted us to move. That worked for us. We wanted permission to camp, but not inside the village. So we gladly moved.

This low-detailed and unimpressive photo is the only photo we got of our campsite in Fao.  We avoided photos given the concerns of the locals. You can barely see some of the houses of the villagers in the distance. I took this photo minutes before leaving the campsite for the Ethiopian border.

Camping near humans in the Sudan means camping near animals. Humans plus animals add up to a plethora of surface fecal matter and, even though the land may appear to be harsh and biologically unsupportive, fecal matter means a rich and varied insect world. Our lamps were surrounded by reckless flying insects of many species dive bombing into the brightness. Some shot right by our head lamps into the pasta. We grew accustomed to critters on our dinner plate. Spiders with 3 inch spans zipped over the campsite grounds. They had extended pinchers and they moved frantically. For good reason, too, because our instinct was to crush them. Our beloved Sudanese guide, Awad, admonished us. Killing these spiders is bad luck. We stopped our murderous behavior and even though Awad, whom I will speak of in more detail in a moment, was no longer with us, we maintained our anxious discipline.

While we set up camp about 200 meters from the village, children gathered to watch. Then someone drove up in a clean white Peugot sedan got out and walked towards us. “I am the secret man,” he said in his poorly polished English. He was a handsome fellow called Alladeen. He wore the islamic cap and the usual white galibeya, a priest like cloth that is somewhat akin to a long sleeve white cotton button down shirt, so long it falls to your feet. I think he meant “security” instead of secret, but his awkward English gave us a chuckle and we didn’t correct him. He wanted to know everything about us. “Is there a concern?” we asked. “Maybe. Could be. Maybe someone comes.” “You mean to steal something or to bother us?” “Yes, maybe, but no problem. Don’t worry.” His self-contradicting words were not that surprising. It was a common experience. It either resulted from the difficulty of expressing oneself in a foreign language, or the confusing tactic of introducing an issue that wasn’t an issue just to get the conversation started, or both. In reality I think he was, at the request of local citizens, trying to figure out who the hell we were. The “Secret Man” stayed for a while talking to Lorrie, mostly. We invited him for dinner. He declined, pointing to his belly, and said he was full.

Typical campsite. This photo was taken just before sunset about 10 days earlier not in the Nubian Desert not far from Wadi Halfa in the North. 

Did the Secret Man really need to worry about us? Would we be bothered? Would anyone try to steal our camping items? We put most things away that night because of his concerns. A few things were left available to would-be thieves. A table. Two chairs. A wash basin or two filled with soapy, greasy suds. We weren’t really worried, though, because the Sudani people were unusually honest. I wondered if the Secret Man’s warnings had less to do with real concerns and more to do with making us feel a little uncomfortable about the idea of staying in the village. We went to bed early with the intention of getting up early and hitting the road. The Secret Man came back at 10 PM to check on us once more. “Kulu tamam?” “Kulu tamam,” we replied. Everything is fine. We said goodnight and he drove back to the village. He had done his duty.

We camped close to roads. We couldn’t have avoided them. The village of Fao, belying our initial impression of few people and nothing happening, was heavily populated and very busy, even at night. People passed by constantly. Trucks drove past every few minutes on their way to a nearby rock quarry. The long neck digger was working late into the night. Men, young and old, walked by, either for an evening stroll, or just to check us out. Boys on donkey carts, men on motorcycles, men on bicycles....there was a near constant flow of people coming and going to the village. If the heat didn’t keep us awake, the frequent movement of people would. About 30 minutes after getting into our tents, a man drove up to the site on a motorcycle. I thought about the Secret Man’s warning. The intruder walked up next to the car and began talking. “Hello, hello. My wife told me that visitors are here. She said they told you to move away from the village. Come to my house. You are all welcome.” No one said anything at first. Maybe he’d go away. “Hello. Hello,” he persisted. He was looking into the car. Maria and I were in the tent on top of the car. “Hello,” I said. He didn’t look up. He continued to stare into the car and didn’t turn towards my voice. Something was odd. “Thank you for coming,” I said. “We’re all asleep now. No problem. Don’t worry about us.” “No, you must come to my house. Sudani are good people. The others should not tell you to go away.” “Don’t worry,” I said. “Yes, the Sudani and good people. It’s not a problem.” “No you must come. We can drink some wine.” It was apparent he’d been drinking something.

There’s a drink called “aragi” that is illegally produced in the Sudan where alcohol is forbidden. It’s made from dates and they call it a wine but it’s really a spirit, not unlike vodka. Call it “desert moonshine.” I tasted it once at the behest of our Sudanese driver, Tariq, on a previous visit. Tariq could get drunk faster than anyone I’ve ever met. Within five minutes of stopping our car, he’d be slurring his words. By the 15th to 20th minute, he’d curl up on the seat of the car and start snoring. Awad, who was the guide on our first trip to the Sudan, would roll his eyes, a bit in disgust, maybe some concern, but with a little understanding too.

Awad, a remarkable man who deserves a word or two, was a one-time hard drinking, knuckle scarred seaman in Greece, Italy, and wherever work called his attention. He speaks a half dozen languages including German, Greek, Italian and English. He left the Sudan when he was 17 years old. He got involved in business dealings on the side like running cars from northern Europe to the South to make a small profit. In one venture, Awad gave his friend of seven years, a, Nigerian business man, 10,000 Euros to buy used clothing in Europe that would be resold for a handsome profit in Nigeria. When the two business partners got to Nigeria, Awad’s friend, a Yoruba guy, bolted in the middle of the night with the profits and all of Awad’s investment. Awad followed him to his home in central Yoruba land but the guy had just left the house. The police were already on the conman’s tail for other misdeeds and arrived to find Awad talking to the thief’s mother. They arrested him for just being there. Awad was broke, having given all of his money to his cheating friend, and it took him two days to convince the police chief to let him go. The chief only wanted a personal stipend as a thank you for the release and would have let Awad go immediately had he been able to pay the bribe. Corruption is part of everyday life in Nigeria and it’s considered business as usual. Awad was broke having spent his last 50 Euros chasing his fleeing business partner so he lingered until the police chief showed him mercy. The thief’s mother gave Awad enough money to get back to Lagos where he just happened to befriend a few muslim guys from the States. They heard his story of woe, took pity on him, funded his return ticket home to Italy and Awad made it back to his apartment in Milan. The Yoruba conman disappeared though Awad heard rumors years later that he was in a jail in Pakistan. Maybe his luck ran out.

Awad at the dinner table one night when Eli showed us his family tradition of making buck teeth out of watermelon rine. Awad found it so funny he laughed without restraint.

Awad lived a fairly adventurous, if not intemperate life, and maybe would still be doing so if it wasn’t for 911. He was still living in Italy at the time, making good money, with a car, apartment and a girlfriend. Shortly after 911 Awad, though far from devout, was at the mosque in Milan when the Italian police raided and arrested everyone inside. After 3 months in jail they had nothing on Awad and were forced to release him on bail. He still had to return to court to face the judge for charges that amounted to nothing more than being in a mosque where there may have been a terrorist. Again, Awad found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Awad had spent his life savings, 50,000 Euros, on the lawyer. Once his mouthpiece got Awad out on bail, he advised him to get out of Italy because the Italian authorities were determined to incarcerate him even if he did nothing. Forthwith, Awad escaped to Switzerland, leaving car, apartment, all his possessions and girlfriend behind, went to the Sudanese embassy and told them he had lost his passport. They gave him travel documents permitting him to return home to the Sudan after living 23 years abroad. Both of his parents had passed away during his absence and Sudan had turned towards fundamentalist islam. Under the influence of new friends, Awad became a devote muslim who prays 5 times a day. He is also a teetotaller. He didn’t approve of Tariq’s drinking, but he understood it.

So, to return to the story of the village of Fao, I declined the offer from the gregarious and hospitable drunk Sudanese citizen of the village who aggressively insisted on our relocation to his house in the village. I imagined the Secret Man showing up at the man’s house while we toasted our new friendship with a fresh bottle of aragi. After I repeated the word “impossible” about 5 or 6 times, our would-be host finally gave up and returned to the village sans “hawaya,” the Sudanese term for white foreigners. I did appreciate the intention of the offer; however, at that point our goal was to get whatever sleep remained possible that hot and windy night, while the long necked multi-jointed crane tore away at the mountain and people kept zipping noisily by our campsite.

There was a wind that night. It came in swirling gusts. It might have refreshed if it wasn’t such a hot wind. It felt like someone was flashing a hair dryer in my face. It took my breath away. Even with all tent flaps open sleeping in the heat proved to be difficult. We just lay there waiting for sleep to come but the heat had our attention and wouldn’t let go. Eli checked the weather report earlier. It would be about 45 celsius, or about 113 fahrenheit. When we were in the Nubian desert in the North the heat would cool at about 1 AM. Sometimes it would cool enough a blanket was needed to stay warm. The eastern Sudan wasn’t desert but it seemed harsher. About 4 AM the heat subsided and we were no longer sweating. We got a few hours sleep. It was still warm enough that our sheets, soaked with our own body moisture, dried before we woke.

We were up before the sunrise could rewarm our tents, struck camp and were on our way to find the nearest chai lady for some morning brew and maybe a little “esh” (bread) possibly with some “ful” (beans). Indeed we did find a place a few miles down the road but instead of beans there were lentils. Hot spicy lentils, a little bread and hot chai turned out to be a very enjoyable breakfast after a night’s camping next to the village of Fao.

A few hours later we reached Gallabat on the Sudanese-Ethiopian border. The Sudanese were, as usual, officious and present in great numbers. In the Sudan, foreign travelers like us who are obviously not Sudanese and not-Islamic do not need to search for offices or officials even though Sudani offices are often unmarked and the officials are often un-uniformed. Including Sudan’s international borders, we were stopped by officials at every regional border (approximately 8 times) who checked our travel documents. If someone wanted to see our papers he’d wave us to a stop. At first it was quite disconcerting because some guy, seemed like any guy, dressed casually, sometimes sloppy, sometimes with food on his shirt or with oil on his fingers, would wave us down, demand our passports and walk off with them. We had no idea who he was or what he was doing. Awad reassured us it was okay and after a couple of stops by these guys we got used to the unnerving process. When we reached the border at Gallabat, once again we were stopped, this time by a guy sitting on the doorway of a shack, who extended his hand palm down, dropping his fingers meaning “stop.” He then guided us with a wave to somewhere behind the shack. The passport checkout point was located in an unmarked run down one story building located behind unmarked shacks. We drove around the latter to get to the former, where someone stamped our passports. I mention all these details just to give an idea of how different things can be, but, in reality, after two months traveling in Islamic countries we were used to the process and completely untroubled by it all. We then drove to customs through a break in a wire fence and wound our way through a collection of trucks that were either waiting to get out of the Sudan or just arriving from Ethiopia. There were at least a dozen, blue-uniformed men waiting to cheerfully serve us. We jabbered with them as we waited for them to shuffle our papers from one desk to another. Hands got raised, stamps came down on paper, there were more smiles. Papers were stapled then moved from one desk to another, all within a distance of 10 meters or so. There was a request for money. There was always a request for money. We paid it and two officers followed us to our vehicles. They checked our engine and chassis numbers against the numbers on the Carnet Du Passage, the vehicle’s “passport,” and smiled. “Kulu tamam.” All is good. Off to immigration.

We drove 50 more meters to immigration, a building surrounded by people, presumably Ethiopian who were trying to get into the Sudan. Inside the walls were lined with more waiting people, almost all women, who looked like they had been there a long time. There were no smiles. No one was talking. Some had their chins on their hands and elbows on knees. Some tried resting their heads against the walls, some rested on each other. They were the faces of the exhausted. Whatever their situation, we wouldn’t find out. We hoped that it wasn’t a foreboding sign of a long wait to come. We had no way of knowing how indigenous peoples of neighboring countries were being treated. We were certain we were being treated differently, though not necessarily better. There were always different lines, different signs, and when officials saw coming they’d wave us in different directions. At every Islamic country, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Sudan border officials dipped into our pockets for just about any sum they wanted. Rarely did an individual request exceed $100 but when all requests were added up it cost up to $250 to get into a country and sometimes $50 to $100 to get out. The process was also complex and often required a good fraction of the day. It was so complex that there were “handlers” needed to guide us through the process. At the end, we would not only have our pockets picked by the government bureaucracies, but also but the handlers themselves who expected good size tips for their services. Getting out of an Islamic country was also a lengthy, detailed process, but not quite as long as upon entering and the fees, though usually significant, were less. Besides tips there were other requests of a different nature. I remember the nice looking, affable guy from customs in Aswan Egypt who said in his broken English, “Ok, now, all bags there.” He pointed to the x-ray machine at the side of the road. “Everything?” I asked. “Everything.” Then I opened up the back which was full of boxes and bags,containing food, spare parts, clothes, water, books, etc, and pointed. “Ok. You help me. No x-ray.” I put $20 into his hand. “Mabsoot?” I asked. Happy? He had a big smile. “Don’t tell anyone,” he said emphatically. Then turned his eye towards the other Kickabout vehicle. “That’s for them, too,” I said. He looked momentarily disappointed. “Habibi (lover,literally), don’t worry.” He smiled widely. We both drove on to the next office.

Anyway, at the Sudani immigration office there were was a big, mean, ugly looking guy behind a barred barrier. He looked like he was in jail but he had a uniform on. He stuck his hand through a gap in the iron barrier and wiggled his fingers. “Passports?” we asked. He nodded without a smile. We tried to loosen him up with some salutations. No dice. He just grunted. We gave him all five passports. He did his paper stamping dance. Ten minutes later he handed them back, then looked away. We stood there, a bit stunned. No fee request? We looked at each other. “Halas (finished)?” I asked, somewhat loudly to get his attention since he was already on to new business. “Halas.” He grunted, as before, and waved us out the door.

Amazingly getting out of the Sudan cost us only10 dollars, a customs fee, which was the least we paid leaving any islamic country. We were going to get out of the Sudan for only $10.00. Wow! We felt a bit ecstatic, almost disoriented, like we got away with something.

We drove our vehicles up the 45 degree dirt embankment to reach the tarmac, passed a final checkpoint, and entered Ethiopia. We had left the Sudan.

As much as we enjoyed, indeed, we were ecstatic, over much of our experience in the Sudan, the ponderous, uncomfortable and repetitive experiences with officials, the suffocating heat, the constant haze of dust in the air that blots out the sun as it rises and falls in Khartoum and in eastern Sudan weighed on us. There is a sense that this is a world under heavy scrutiny and control. The few women who publicly show themselves rarely smile. Indeed you can’t see the faces of many of them anyway because they are covered. They are like ghosts, spirits of the dead, who walk about the living, mute, expressionless, passive and non-interactive. The only exception were the Nubian women. Not all, but many, would smile and engage us. At first, I found it so odd I was concerned. “Should I give them a hush, warn them of their indiscretion to prevent any repercussion?” I wondered. Perhaps the Nubian woman, like Nubia itself, never fully embraced the suffocating premises of Islam. I’ve talked about this in another though unreleased blog, “Getting to Wadi Halfa,” so I won’t repeat the details here. Suffice it so say that Nubia’s resistance to Islam has hundreds of years of history to it. It was also interesting that in two trips to Nubia I received four proposals of marriage from Nubian women. They were strange, out of the blue and impromptu, but the recurrence of the experience brought a sense of seriousness to what seemed whimsical, jocular insanity. In a world where a woman feels restrained, repressed and controlled, she would do anything to escape, even offer herself in marriage, quite randomly to a passing tourist who is as different from her as night is from day. The first time it happened, I thought it a cute and flattering joke. However, after multiple events I realize that when these women see tourists passing through their world appearing to be totally free to do whatever they want to do, they feel hope that maybe it could possibly be like that for them. It as a desperate request for help by one who feels trapped, confined, and impoverished by her circumstance. The frequent chants from the mosque remind the traveler that the people of Islam are constantly encouraged to follow the word of Allah, but those encouragements extend beyond the theological. In an Islamist state where a violation of islamic law by a woman can lead to banishment, disfigurement or even death, the effect on behavior is palpable and the net result is the near complete dehumanization of the woman, at least in public. Ruthless is the word that comes to mind. As they treat the people of Darfur, so the Sudani government and Islamic fundamentalists are willing to treat humans, dehumanize them, to further their own ends. Even genocide is an option in a society where the interests of privileged individuals is permitted under the law, a law where the racial biases of Arabs and the sexual whims of Islamic men are intertwined in complex ways with the highly interpretable tenants of their religion. In such circumstances, anything is possible, because evil has no limits when it is permitted by the word of Allah, their God. Yet, in spite of the fact that they are obviously in a controlled, even watched environment, the people of Sudan are the country’s saving grace. It may surprise the reader to hear that we felt safe and welcome. When we were asked to not camp in the middle of the Fao village, we didn’t take this as a break in the consistent pattern of warmth and hospitality we had been shown. It was an anomalous situation and we took it as such. After all, the elders did agree for us to stay and the drunk insisted we stay in his house. It was only one man who voiced a concern and he only wanted us to move away from the center of the village.

 When we crossed the border to enter Ethiopia there was an instant sense of a more relaxed and comfortable people. Most obvious was the presence of women everywhere in numbers equal to, sometimes exceeding men. Their faces were exposed, full of expression, and they walked freely about the roadside. Some women were holding hands with other women. Some with men. Some, actually many, were smiling, apparently enjoying the world they lived in. It was obvious that the women took it for granted that they could express themselves as they pleased. As we reached the higher elevations, we found the villages and towns filled with people, both men and women, strolling in the cool air of the late afternoon and early evening. It was a liberating feeling and reassuring to see.

Three school girls and a tea lady in Gondar.  They asked me to take the photo after Maria and I stopped for some chai at the owner's (woman on left) roadside shop.

So after climbing the Ethiopian escarpment that forms the border with the Sudan, we found a hotel in Gonder, the home of the emperors of Ethiopia. The hotel, called Goha, sits on a bluff a few hundred feet above the city, and the city sits almost 7000 feet about sea level. The emperors abandoned and partially ruined castles lie below. We will visit them the tomorrow. It’s a long way from the stifling heat of the Sudan. It’s a long way from the stifling authority of the Sudanese Islamic government. The cool air is clear and we can see the stars again as we did in the deserts of northern Sudan. It’s a refreshing moment that got me reflecting on our last 24 hours in the Sudan and what we left behind when we crossed the Sudanese border into Ethiopia.

March 2010