Monday, 28 November 2011

Ethiopian Police - there goes another pre-conception

Hi there,

You may detect a jaunty air to my greeting above. That's because I am feeling pretty damned jaunty.

I have had phone calls from both Shmondi (remember him?) and from Sergeant Gezay of the Tigray State Police in Axum (the one Shmondi said was "very good"). Sgt Gezay has recovered my camera and arrested three "crime persons". The camera battery was flat, so he could not tell me whether my photos had been deleted or not. He said the thief would almost certainly have deleted everything to make it harder to identify the camera.

Once I had faxed my written instructions, he sent the camera by air to the Federal Police at the airport in Addis Ababa - where I had just arrived. It got here the same day at no cost to me, and I was told I could collect it from Commander Mengisteab at the airport.

It seems that Sergeant Gezay had worked tirelessly for a week to find my camera and bring the miscreants to justice. Tourism is very important to Axum, to Tigray and to Ethiopia. A crime against a visitor is therefore a crime against the town, the state and the whole country.

The thief and two receivers are now in custody. Knowing the quality of many African hotels, I don't envy anybody languishing in an Ethiopian prison awaiting trial. I don't envy the villains when they come out of prison either - and have to face the contempt of their neighbours. I am told that in parts of Africa thieves caught red-handed are often beaten on the spot by a vengeful mob - sometimes to death .

An added bonus of the episode is the example it will give to everybody in the small town of Axum - in particular that Sgt Gezay doesn't give up until he gets his man. A spasm of Catholic guilt had me thinking that I was partly to blame for these poor chaps' undoing by putting temptation in their way. I suppressed it fairly quickly. And they did it to themselves for nothing. Without the cables and software the camera is useless.

What would the chances be of a tourist ever seeing his camera again if it was stolen in England? What would be the chances of the police even bothering to investigate the crime?

And what was your mental image of the investigative powers and attitude of an Ethiopian policeman, and his desire to help a foreigner who had been stupid enough to get his camera stolen? Not much different from mine I would guess. So bang goes another pre-conception - of mine and I hope of yours.

The laconic members of airport security and the police sprang to attention at the mention of Commander Mengistaeb's name. I was greeted by him with great respect and good-humour, and quickly reunited with my camera.

Back at the hotel, with the battery charged, I was able to report (by text - verbal communication being somewhat difficult for all parties) to Shmondi and both the policemen cited above that not a single one of my photos had been deleted. Not only did they all respond quickly to tell me how delighted they were, but the police commander in Axum - Sgt Gezay's boss, whom I had never met - also sent a similar text message.

They were even more delighted when I told them that there were several photos in the camera memory taken after the theft - including some self-portraits of the idiots who stole it. Dubious-looking young men to be sure.

I said earlier that the story did not have a happy ending. I spoke too soon.

I know, I know, I still haven't told you properly about my travels in Ethiopia to date. If anybody is still reading my drivel, I crave your patience. It is all ready to post when I can overcome some IT issues. Where is my old colleague Jon Storer when I need him?

While I'm here, I want to tell you about my first impressions of Addis Ababa. But first let me give another quote from Marek. When four of us got into a taxi after dinner at the Sheraton, he said to the driver that he wanted to go to a night club, but that first he needed to go back to the hotel to "take a shit". Presumably to avoid raising expectations of a big tip, he went on to tell him that the meal was very cheap, and we had only gone to the Sheraton because we had been camping and "eating only shit". Back on the subject of night clubs he said he wanted one with nice women "not shit". It may not have done much for the driver's English vocabulary but it seemed to amuse him as much as us.

OK those first impressions: Addis is a big, big city. Obviously it has slum areas, but they are much less apparent than in Caracas, Rio, Buenos Aires or Lima. It feels much safer than any of them. The town is generally clean with many modern buildings including shopping centres which look better than those in many English provincial towns and cities. There seems to be a small development boom - giving an air of optimism. On top of that there is much amusement to be derived from the standard of driving, which is both entertaining and an art form.

And now for some second impressions. I went to the famous Mercato, the biggest of it's type in Africa. Lonely Planet gave it an enormous build-up emphasising its atmospheric nature and the exotic items to be found there. I am now able to report that it is a proper dump - with additional African dumpiness. The goods on sale were totally prosaic. Cheap clothes, cheap shoes, cheap hardware, cheap household stuff. Every stall has piles of cardboard boxes containing all the stock not on display. I saw one box marked "Made in Egypt" one marked "Made in India" all, and I mean all, the other boxes were marked - you guessed it ....

After a thorough and methodical grid-pattern search, I found no live animals for sale and no firearms, let alone Kalashnikovs. Where the hell do these travel writers get their information from? Do they plagiarise out-of-date stuff from other writers, who in turn plagiarise their predecessors? Or do they just make it all up? It is not for me to say.

On the way back, my pocket was picked. This only increased my jauntiness. My valuables were all safely zipped away, and the poor chap only got the dummy wallet I always carry when travelling. It contained 3 US dollars, 3 Ethiopian Birrs and some expired credit cards. About GBP1.60 in total. I had to admire the technique. No. 1 bloke backed into me, trod on my toe then took my hand and kissed it whilst pouring out apologies. Presumably during this piece of business, bloke No. 2 dipped in. Even though I realised what had happened almost immediately, the only person I would have recognised is bloke No. 1 who would of course have nothing on him - his accomplice, whom I would not have recognised, having melted away with his disappointing spoils.

Maybe my luck is changing.


Friday, 25 November 2011

Ethiopia - a long story

At last. Goodish internet access. Let me tell you something of what has been happening inside and outside my head since my last proper posting.

I have been in Ethiopia for two and a half weeks. I have been to:

- Gonder, a mountain town with an illustrious royal past

- Debark, a dirty shanty town reeking of poverty (though not despair)

- the Simien mountains, where (in Marek's words) I froze my ass off, and whilst out walking uphill aiming for 4,400 metres above sea level (and failing) my pulse rate went way, way over the safe limit for a 60 year old man.

- Aksum, where my camera was stolen (lots more to tell you about that soon)

- Mekele, where I had to use a guide to be able to shop successfully for food, and where one of our party was approached in a shadowy bar by a young lady who strangely had remembered to put on her brassiere but absolutely nothing else. It was even stranger that the recipient of her invitation was also a young lady.

- Lalibela, a nice little town with 13 extraordinary churches carved by hand into the bedrock hundreds of years ago and still used. This is a place where I could consider living, and maybe I could change some lives if I had enough time left on the planet.

- and I'm now in Bahir Dar on the shores of Lake Tana - the source of the Blue Nile. Quite a clean modern town by African standards - apart from a couple of slum districts you can see worse in Greece, or even in the north of England.

I have stayed in hotels which Pierre describes with a degree of understatement as "merdique". And some a bit better, although I have still preferred to use my sleeping bag rather than the sheets - and wear rubber-soled shoes in the shower (the electrical wiring is a wonder and a joy to behold).
I have used "showers" which could make a grown man cry, and toilets which could put you off your breakfast.
And shivered all night in a tent at sub-zero temperatures, with an also-shivering and voluble Pole for company*.
I have camped on mountain plateaus and in road construction depots.
I have been delayed by a landslide.
I have bounced for hours on dirt roads until my fillings rattled.
I have swum in mountain rivers, and tried to wash myself under an ice-cold trickle of water deep in a wood, guarded by an armed scout, with his eyes politely averted.
And I have chatted with anybody and everybody who has even the smallest command of English - including a polite and friendly local lady on the hotel terrace. It was only when my travelling companions went off to bed that it became apparent that it was not my sparkling wit and tales of my grandchildren that she was interested in. Analysing this turn of events over breakfast the next day, we concluded that once everybody involved in either side of her industry already has AIDS, nobody has anything to lose, and things revert to normal. Apart from the death thing of course.

* one of Marek's morning greetings, his nose two inches from mine "What the fuck? Now I wake up, you see? Listen by the way. Now it gets better. The sun is coming. No, but last night I totally freeze my ass off. To be honest, it's totally fucked-up here. And this is it for example. Now I am getting up you know. So OK, it's OK" I was originally concerned that it would be my Joycean stream of consciousness which might give a strange flavour to these missives, but now I am sharing a tent with his spiritual heir - complete with a Polish accent.

Look, I'd love to tell you everything, but it would take almost as long to relate as it took to happen. You don't have time for it, so I'll stick to the things that stuck with me - and probably always will.

Ethiopia is the most indescribably beautiful country I have seen or imagined. I will now undertake the impossible by trying to describe it. You may need to exercise your imagination a bit and/or google the whole damned thing. Let me first sum it up by quoting something my youngest companion said to me as we looked out over the landscape: "Chrissie? Can you believe this is real life?" I couldn't.

This land is green and mountainous. That doesn't get us halfway there. This is Abyssinia, formed by unimaginably extraordinarily violent volcanic activity millions of years ago. Subsequent erosion has left great volcanic plugs rearing thousands of feet above the already crimped, scolloped and crenellated mountains, in shapes which could almost make you revise your views about intelligent design.
- "Yeah, yeah" I hear you think "Thousands of feet! Listen by the way. This is bullshit of course. To be honest you are totally fucked-up you know. And this is it."
- "No wait" I telepathically reply "I have marvelled at the Helaba and Heron Towers (google them), so I know exactly what 660 feet looks like and can extrapolate with some accuracy".

There are great slabs and spires and monoliths, so huge and regular you would think them designed and built by man - except that they are so damned big and there are no mobile phone masts on the roof.

Dotted around the mountains are wooden chalets which anyone familiar with the Alps might take for the holiday homes of very rich people. On closer inspection, they are basic agricultural buildings or the most rudimentary dwellings imaginable - with dirt floors and eucalyptus pole walls infilled with mud and dung. Perhaps the most quaint of those Alpine chalets started life not very differently, when the European mountains were similarly the habitat of poverty-stricken subsistence farmers scratching a living from the poor mountain soil. That was before the Alps became the playground of the rich of course. All Ethiopia needs now is snow.

I haven't even started on the rolling countryside, spilling down from the foothills and almost indistinguishable from English pastoral scenes from the days before the internal combustion engine spoilt everything. You know what I mean: haystacks, meadows, people actually in the fields doing stuff, cattle and horses grazing beneath spreading green trees. More of this later.

No I'm sorry. I really can't do it justice. Go ahead, just google it all. Or come over here and have a look. You'll need a bit of time though.

It's all, all too much. I haven't begun to tell you any of the things I promised in paragraph 1, sub-section 2 above. I will. And more.

Aby-bloody-ssinia. You couldn't make it up.


Thursday, 17 November 2011

Bad and good in Tigray

I know, I know, I haven't told you anything yet about the week or more I have already spent in Ethiopia and here I am sending you a contemporaneous report about what happened to me last night and this morning. I will fill in the gap when I can - there is some extraordinary stuff to report.

Meanwhile: yesterday I arrived in Aksum. It's in Tigray on the border of Eritrea. Sounds scary, no? Well, the war is long over and this is just another scruffy little African town with its best days centuries behind it. I say that as though everybody knows what a scruffy little African town is. Maybe you do and maybe you don't, but I do now and if you want me to fill in the details you'll probably have to wait until I get back. Meanwhile please accept that this is one of them. As well as half-finished buildings - partly occupied and already in need of considerable maintenance - dirt roads, tin roofs, tuc-tucs, Hi Luxes, camels and donkeys carting firewood, this particular one has old churches, ruins, antiquities etc. etc. Groan. Am I a philistine, or is there a limit to the quantity of dead stones that a normal human being can work up any enthusiasm for? I really didn't come here to tick off the "must-dos" listed by Lonely Planet. I want to know how people live.

After a not-at-all-bad Ethiopian dinner with some of our companions, Marek and I went out in search of a cosy bar for another beer or two, or three. It was a long job uncovering any wheat anongst the considerable chaff, but at last we found one. I went to pay for the drinks - and my camera was gone.

Wait for it . . .

Wait for it . . .


Stuff the camera. There were four hundred photos I had taken over the previous five weeks, some of them pretty damned good, stored on the memory card. It was no consolation that it had little value without the cables and charger - it was gone. I ran up and down the street hustling hustlers and yelling at wide-eyed boys selling (or more correctly failing miserably to sell) chewing gum and cigarettes. Soon everybody within five blocks knew the story, and my proffered reward increased from two weeks' average wage to a figure which had a growing crowd forming around me. Everybody seemed to be genuinely empathising with my distress (by the way, there is no happy ending) and questioning each other animatedly about what they had seen, or knew, or thought, or thought somebody else thought. Lots of reassuring hands reached out to console me and a barrage of helpful suggestions threatened to stifle me.

I shuffled back to Marek with my brain windmilling and found him chatting to a couple of local students. They already knew my story and reassured me with the news that they had been instrumental in a Dutch tourist recovering his camera in a similar situation. There was nothing more to be done that night, but they promised to come to my hotel at 6.30 the following morning to do something or other. The rest of the evening is a blur.

At 6.30 I stepped out of the front door just as they slouched up in their hoodies, on time to the second. These are students remember, and it was 6.30 a.m. They went straight into action, first quizzing the hotel receptionist then every vagrant, street kid, tuc-tuc driver, cleaner, delivery man and shopkeeper on the streets as we headed for the police station. Everyone they spoke to was evidently shocked, bursting with sympathy, and begging me not to worry. Again, a small crowd formed wherever we stopped and many of the people held their hands to their mouths in sympathy and distress.

The community police station was indistinguishable from a farmyard, complete with livestock. The official on duty was bare-legged and dressed in a blanket, but he brought out a dusty exercise book and, with intense concentration and the tip of his tongue protruding, slowly wrote down everything my attendants said. Occasionally he paused, looked up at me and shook his head.

We returned to the hotel, repeating our interrogations of anybody and everybody - with the now familiar response. A street kid who had sold me a packet of tissues the night before seemed close to tears. Back at base, a heated conversation took place with the anxious receptionist and soon all the hotel staff were pressed around her, all talking at once in Amharic. The hubbub ended when a proud-looking young man in the smart uniform of the Tigray police entered the room. One of my new friends (Shmondi Grmay believe it or not) whispered to me that this guy was good, really good.

Off we all went again pouncing on every passer-by with increased vigour. This seemed to be the crime of the decade, in a place where not so long ago young men were slaughtering each other with AK47s and worse. It seemed strange to think that a generation earlier these fresh-faced and straightforward boys would themselves have been engaged in the carnage. Inevitably it emerged during the day that Shmondi's own father had died in the war. His mother died later in a medical accident. Jesus Christ - and I was feeling sorry for myself.

Eventually the constable felt he was sufficiently briefed to go away and ruminate over his findings in the equivalent of an upstairs flat in Baker St, pausing briefly to exchange mobile phone numbers with me.

Shmondi and his partner were not satisfied, and we continued to scour the whole town talking to everyone we met. He assured me that he knew every chancer and low-life in Aksum and that my offered reward would far exceed the street value of a stolen camera.

When we ran out of people to talk to, they led me to their college on the edge of town. It looked more like an industrial complex, but it was fairly modern and by African standards well-maintained. Our route took us through grain fields, past new community housing complexes and a part-finished ring road being funded by (you guessed it) the Chinese, and up to the principal's office. He wore a neatly-pressed dark blue suit with an open-necked white shirt and a magnificent white straw hat. His dignified but affectionate demeanour towards the boys seemed to confirm what they had told me: that they were the top-scoring students in their respective faculties of tourism management and construction engineering.

He expressed deep and genuine regret that such an occurence should have taken place in his community, and we agreed that there are a few bad people everywhere. I didn't give voice to a fleeting thought that it didn't seem to apply in Sudan, or that there might after all be something to be said for Sharia law.

He invited me to address all his students, assuring me that between them they knew everybody in town and by the end of the day the whole of Aksum would know what had happened. So I went from classroom to workshop, to lecture theatre addressing students of construction, IT, design, engineering, tourism, textiles and a host of other disciplines I have forgotten. Although all the courses were conducted in English, Shmondi had to repeat everything I said in a mixture of Amharic and the heavily-accented English which the students seemed to understand better than mine. Perhaps they regard my English as heavily-accented. All those bright looking and eager kids gave me their rapt open-mouthed attention and more than once a round of applause - presumably indicating sympathy rather than gratitude for an entertaining diversion from their studies.

Five hours had passed since we started our enterprise, so I invited the boys to have breakfast with me. Pausing only for some serious face to face stuff with a youth whose appearance lived up to Shmondi's description of him as the town's most notorious receiver of stolen goods, we went to a cafe where I was the only westerner - possibly the first ever to judge by its appearance and clientele. I told the boys to order whatever they liked, and they did with gusto. As we ate and the other customers received their food, they called across to us a greeting which translates as: "Let us now eat together". The bill for all three of us came to less than two quid.

It was only the imminence of their own lectures that persuaded the boys to leave me to my own devices, and I am certain that their efforts on my behalf will not cease soon. When I offered them the equivalent of ten pounds for a good ten man-hours' work, their jaws literally dropped and they were evidently embarrassed to take it. I felt ashamed.

Right. I've lost my camera. I've had an experience a tourist couldn't buy. I've had a VIP tour of a fascinating educational establishment. I've met two really good kids whose happy confidence in their futures I hope to Christ is not going to be disappointed. I've eaten real local food in a real workman's cafe. I am briefly the most famous man in town. I've missed out on seeing some old stuff I really couldn't give a toss about. I've spoken more to Africans in the last few hours than in the previous five weeks. I've at last begun to realise my ambition to see how the people live (see above). On balance I would call that a result.

Chin up, the sun is shining here.


Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Sensory overload and escape from Khartoum.

After a spine-jarring ride on unmade roads, through a landscape I will try to describe later, I'm now somewhere else in Ethiopia. A town (Aksum) with reasonably modern facilities including an internet cafe with equipment which, though slow, just about works. Add sticking keys, two-fingered typing and hopelessly slow speeds and you may appreciate my frustration. Even so there is so much going on outside the door of this scruffy, dusty and hot little room that it is therapeutic to withdraw into the private world of my own head for a while.

Let me give you some more random impressions from the unstoppable tidal wave of experiences and emotions constantly sweeping me off my metaphorical feet:

- The news that one of my companions had access to her own blog blocked by the Sudanese authorities. How do they do that? Why?
- My experience of buying minced beef in Khartoum to feed my little band when we reached our next desert encampment. There was none on display, but after a competent pantomime of somebody using a mincer and smiling smugly at the end result (I like to think I am getting quite good at communicating in this way - as well as providing endless mirth for my interlocutors), the butcher invited me backstage and treated me to a display of professional butchery. This involved half a cow on a hook, a razor sharp knife, great muscular effort, grunts of exertion and enormous skill. I've never had that experience in Sainsburys.
- in Khartoum, modern office blocks in landscaped grounds front onto dirt roads, with dilapidated hovels all around.
- A Sudanese family which one of us had run into on the Egypt to Sudan ferry, invited us to celebrate Eid with them and sleep over at their house. A party of twelve virtual strangers. Thankfully the man with the goat did not turn up, so we were spared the sight of the traditional slaughter. How many English hostesses would be able to improvise a first-class Christmas dinner for 16 people if the turkey hadn't arrived?. It was not unlike Christmas - a lot of dozing in front of the TV and occasionally breaking away for breath of fresh air outside. But, obviously, without the sweet sherry or ginger wine.
- our very Sudanese hostess, who I had assumed (there goes another one) was unsophisticated and little-travelled, divulged in passing that she has a daughter in Tooting and another in Cork - and two fully paid-up Irish grandchildren. Both daughters are doctors.
- I think I had a bit of an adventure on our last night in Khartoum. In the evening I walked down to the river Nile hoping for a bit of a cool breeze. When I got there I was unable to get near the river for elaborate security fencing. Realising I was lost, I looked at the GPS app on my iPhone to find where I was. The little blue dot showed my exact location, but unfortunately the map would not download so all I had was a grey screen and a blue dot. As I stood there with my face illuminated by the glow of the screen, I became aware of sudden aggressive shouting nearby. Turning my head to look across the road, I saw more security fencing, one of those lift-up barriers, sentry boxes, and pop-up bollards - and a man in uniform with one of those nasty little short barrelled guns slung over his shoulder and pointed at me. The immoderate shouting continued and the absence of another soul within sight suggested I might be the focus of his attention. Trying my best not to look like a western intelligence agent, I feigned nonchalance and pretended I hadn't noticed anything untoward. My head-down ignoring skills, so well honed in Egypt, came into their own. I strolled away from the scene for several blocks, and at the first opportunity I ducked into a bustling street market. There was a strange prickling in the back of my neck, as I braced myself for the screeching of tyres from an unmarked car full of unshaven sinister men, scattering market stalls and leaning out of the windows firing bullets in my direction. Nothing of the sort happened of course, and I arrived back at my hotel dry-mouthed and craving a beer more than ever. What was it all about? You tell me. I wonder who is more paranoid, me or them.
- I can't help wondering why the beloved leaders of these authoritarian and virtually-closed countries are so anxious about the designs of foreign powers. One would have thought that the events of recent months might have demonstrated that if there is a threat it comes from within their own borders. Between immigration, police registration, permits to travel and exit procedures, I now have eight separate Sudaneses stamps in my passport.
- As the time approached to cross the border into Ethiopia, I have been reflecting upon a couple of important questions. Surely to God, the very best place on earth to find a beer is in a desert. Why is it then that Sudan of all places is dry? And why can't you get an ice-cream? In the case of beer it is because of the 1400 year-old teachings of an illiterate dreamer. I say this with no disrespect. Holy Scripture records that the prophet (peace be upon him) could neither read nor write and that his revelati0ns came through dreams. In the case of ice-cream it is because of the frequent power failures causing freezers to defrost.

I have much, much more to say (and I will). But the sun (to adapt more immortal words - this time those of Eric Clapton, or possibly Jack Bruce or Ginger Baker) is about to close its tired eyes and so am I. What's more I can barely see the keyboard any more.

This is a hell of an experience. Oh my God.


Monday, 14 November 2011

We would like apologise for the the delay to your service

I'm in a pretty extraordinary frontier town in the Ethiopian mountains (of which more later - if I survive). Bloody lucky to find this primitive internet access, but not enough of a masochist to try to enter the bare minimum.

Meanwhile please mind the gap. Normal service will be restored as soon as possible. I've got a lot to record.

Your patience is much appreciated.


Friday, 11 November 2011

Cock up in Khartoum

As a result of a typical African cock-up, our plans to see the best-vaunted attractions of Khartoum - the old souk, and a display of whirling dervishes - did not work out entirely as we had hoped. We engaged a guide to take us there in his minibus, complete with luminous green nylon shag-pile roof lining.

Soon after we set off we arrived at the Mahdi's tomb, which we had not asked to see, and which was in any event closed. We reinforced our request to go the souk, and soon found ourselves in a sprawling retail area, where one can buy refrigerators, air conditioners, car parts, buckets, plastic chairs and just about everything we neither wanted to buy or even look at. We re-reinforced our earlier requests but became aware that we were now stuck fast in gridlocked traffic where we remained for best part of an hour. The start time for the whirling dervishes was steadily approaching, so we communicated our desire to abort the souk trip, and go straight to the dervish display.

Once free, and around two hours after we left our hotel, our hero set off with new determination. (Oh look, there goes the Mahdi's tomb again). We were dropped off at a dusty cemetery on the outskirts of town, and we hurried in the direction our guide had indicated, because the show was due to start. We were slightly mystified that there was no ticket office or seating. We were slightly disappointed that the show seemed to consist of two scruffy old men, one in sunglasses, banging drum and wailing in what appeared to be a car park. As it dawned on us that we might be in the wrong place, a crowd of white-robed men began to form a circle and grew rapidly. Then a procession of outlandishly-dressed men, young and old, broke into the arena and began to dance and chant, to the insistent rhythm of drums. The crowd swelled and the pace of the dancers became faster and faster. Their eyes began to roll, the jumping and whirling began, and more and more people broke into the circle and joined the dance - their costumes even wilder than the original performers. One dreadlocked devotee with the demeanour of an Old Testament king appeared to be wearing only a leopard-skin car seat cover. Somewhere in the middle of it all, we were drawn into the rhythmic chanting and the bowing shuffling dance of the worshippers - and we completely missed the stage show taking place at that moment in another part of town.

An old man put his magnificent walnut of a face, wreathed in joyful smiles, 3 inches from my own and chanted at the top of his voice "Allah, Allah, Allah" and, for my benefit, "God, God, God".

The upshot was that we saw, chanted and swayed with a horde of devout Muslims in a state of holy ecstasy - instead of going to a tourist show. I didn't come all this way in a rattling truck for tourist shows. And I saved the $10 admittance charge to boot. And frankly when you've seen one souk it's not a tragedy if you miss one or two.

I think the Sudanese authorities might need a little help organising their tourist industry. I have two suggestions:
1. try to make it a little easier for tourists to get into the country in the first place by making it slightly less than virtually impossible to get visas;
2. once they've got there, try to make sure that state-accredited tourist guides have some inkling of roughly where the two main visitor attractions in the capital city are located.

One little detail of the traffic jam may be of some interest. As I sat in the stationary traffic, I became aware that a surly youth was staring at me, and that his stare was full of bale. You get it sometimes in dodgy areas of London. It became impossible to ignore him, so eventually I tried to placate him with a weak smile and a thumbs' up. He immediately broke into a wide beaming grin rushed to get an accomplice, and together they smiled and waved at me until it became embarrassing - for me but clearly not for them.

I've been thinking about those dervishes, and I envy their faith, their constant reassurance and consolation, and their evident joy. I have felt this before, but I remain mystified by the certainties of both theists and atheists.
- Do I believe in God? Absolutely.
- What is it? God only knows.
- Where can I find it? God only knows that too.
- Can I tell myself or anybody else one single tiny thing about it? Of course not, we are talking here about the frigging supreme being and creator of the unimaginably vast universe, stretching to infinity and beyond.
- Does organised religion give me any insights? Absolutely not - the whole issue is far, far beyond anybody's comprehension.
- Does it care anything about me, one particle of a sort of parasitic virus destroying one infinitesimally tiny part of its infinity? I already said I don't know one single tiny thing about it.
You may add:
- Surely it's obvious it doesn't exist? Stop kidding yourself you can even begin to know one single tiny thing about it, you insignificant speck of virus from a minuscule corner of the back end of nowhere - you don't even know the questions to ask, and can't even guess at the answers, even if your insignificant pin-prick of self-consciousness could begin to handle them.
- You don't seem to think very highly of our species. Do you love your kids? Shall we just drop this now. My head always starts to spin when I am discussing matters I know nothing about.

Sorry about the rambling. Maybe I am spending too much time on my own.


Wednesday, 9 November 2011

More roads, and Khartoum at last.

Before I get going, I promised in my last post to say more about the huge artics plying the roads of Sudan. These roads are not bad at all. They are mostly dead straight and were largely funded by China in return for secure access to natural resources, and presumably to facilitate their own need to move those resources around. Apart from Artics and Hi-Luxes, another common vehicle is a Chinese coach travelling from site to industrial site. These sites, whatever, they are, are back off the road with big industrial buildings and chinese signs at the entrances. The world is changing fast.

You don`t need to know any of that. I just wanted to show off that I have been reading a guidebook. It may not even be true. The only reason I mention it is that the quality of the roads are not the reason for the frequently overturned huge lorries. We have been seeing one or two wrecks a day, sometimes completely burned out. In one case we came on the scene very soon after the incident. On this occasion the load was live goats. The crew was busy cutting the throats of the most severely injured animals. No doubt a mercy killing, but I wonder wonder how it would square with the painstakingly humane principles of Halal slaughter, and what would happen to the meat.

Last word on the topic of the roads: there are places marked on the map which are not reflected in any sign of habitation or, at best, a truck stop with one ramshackle building. I guess communities flourish briefly in the desert and then die, and the flimsy building materials are recycled.

Back to the action: the police instruction not to wild camp on the way to Khartoum meant a long gruelling drive and a late arrival at our emergency campsite - the car park of the grandly-named Nile sailing club. It will not surprise you to learn that this is a sailing club on the Nile. It may surprise you to know that amongst the few vessels there, there was none in which I would willingly have taken to the water, but there were (însert synonym) squat toilets and a cold shower. A surprisingly welcome sight to exhausted hard-bitten and dirty desert travellers.

The dusty car park was busy and full of exhaust fumes until the small hours, and our tents were pitched amongst the cars. For once I was thankful for Sudan's alcohol ban.

After a few days in the empty desert, I had forgotten about the precautions one needs to take in a humid city, so during the night I made the acquaintance of a restless zinging mosquito. Just one. You wouldn't really begrudge them one bite - they've got a living to make, same as everybody. But why can't they do the job properly in one go and take the rest of the night off? Instead they spend hours engaged in a series of little snacks, biting you over and over again in the most awkward places possible. I think it's their idea of fun. Bastards.

Next morning I opened the tent zip a crack and squeezed myself out leaving the bare minimum of space around me, carefully zipped it back up, went to the truck and collected my can of insecticide. Returning to insect Death Row, and with a manic cackle, I visited instant revenge upon any creature remaining in the tent - who may have been congratulating itself upon a profitable night.

I think it was Woody Allen who said: "The Jews invented guilt but the Catholics raised it to an art form". Somebody else said: "Once a catholic, always a catholic". I'm not sure who it was. Possibly God. (Blessed be his name).

It is still difficult for me to come to terms with the fact that I have taken the life of a tiny fellow creature, and deprived its doubtless large and loving family of a father or mother. Until the itching starts again - whereupon I think I may in time be able to come to terms with my actions.

I will now have to find a pharmacist to buy antihistasmine. The people here use Western names for most drugs, but their pronunciation is very different. I have a strategy to deal with this. I will take some of my fellow-travellers, all with different accents, so that the possibly terrified chemist will have 6 chances of getting my drift. I envisage it going thus:
- I will pronounce it correctly and my multi-national colleagues will repeat my request in their various accents as follows:
- (Fhonch): Ondy-east-amih
- (Ummerrkun): Annie-hiz-dermin
- ( Strine): Innie-hiss-tim-in?
- (Cherman): You vill provide Antihistamine vizzout furzzer delay.
- (Polleesh): Anti-heess-termin-bullshit.

Thanks for your attention.


Saturday, 5 November 2011

The road to Khartoum

What ho!

I have discovered that our Nubian guide is not a luxury. It is very difficult to get through the frequent roadblocks without a government- accredited guide who can speak Arabic and organise all the necessary permits just to move around. We were planning to wild camp again on our way to Khartoum, but the police forbade it. Being dumb foreigners we would simply have ignored this arbitrary display of power, but Nazzar's job would have been in jeopardy, so we made the long slog direct to Khartoum.

The roads are marvellously entertaining. They have been built with Chinese money, and one sees a lot of Chinese writing outside industrial installations and on numerous shuttle buses - going heaven knows where.

There are two other types of very visible vehicles:

- articulated lorries comprising (get this): a 10 wheel tractor unit; a 12 wheel semi-trailer, and behind that: a 20 wheel trailer. That makes 42 wheels. I counted them to make sure. That's some rig, and it must take considerable skill to drive and manoeuvre them. Evidently that skill is sometimes lacking and we have seen at least three of these juggernauts overturned (of which more below).

- the workhorse of Africa: the Toyota Hi-Lux pickup. You see them everywhere, they rarely go wrong and when they do they are easy to fix. Even at a great age and after years of abuse and lack of maintenance they seem to start first time and keep going. They are often carrying unfeasible numbers of passengers hanging on any way they can: to the pickup or to each other. Often the passengers are sitting on top of a teetering load. When springs break, as they must with the potholed roads and these enormous loads, they simply continue jolting and banging until they reach somebody who can weld them - the work of a few minutes. They are virtually indestructible, and if I buy one now it will probably outlive me.



Tuesday, 1 November 2011

TINA - this is not Africa.


On a whim we diverted to the Red Sea. Tom had found a diving resort – a small beachside campsite with hot showers, flush toilets and little cabins, clean and comfortable, to which we could upgrade for a small additional charge. It was definitely not Europe, but it wasn’t really Africa either. Be that as it may, we all needed a brief respite to steel ourselves for the next stages of our mission.

The complex, Dutch-owned but Sudanese-run, has cleanish toilets and warmish showers. It generates all its own electricity from windmills and photo-voltaic panels. The hot desert directly adjoins the sea, and so a stiff sea-breeze rarely fails. Nor does the sun.

On the way there we stopped to have a look at Suakin (once again please note that we didn't "do" it, we are now hardcore travellers, sunburnt, filthy, with resolute expressions and a far-away look in our eyes) where as so often we were the only visitors - possibly for days or weeks. This is Sudan's historic seaport built entirely of coral and comprising self-confident architecture from two millennia, with narrow winding streets and spacious squares. It's wealth was built on slavery - you've probably heard that about every seaside town in half of the world, but this time it is true. Unfortunately when the modern deep-water container port of Port Sudan was developed a few decades ago the Sudanese government started smashing it all to bits - for what reason it is unclear. Presumably someone advised them to stop, because instead of a nice cleared site for concrete apartment blocks with stinking toilets it now looks like the aftermath of the carpet bombing of Frankfurt - and they are trying to put it all back together again.

When we got to the photo-voltaic thingy, we were the only residents. However, some lunchtime visitors arrived - a group of quite affluent Sudanese. Our guide explained that this was the first stage in the process of an arranged marriage. Before long the happy couple were paddling in the sea and found the courage to hold hands under the watchful eyes of two sets of parents and two grandmothers. A bit different to my first date, and possibly yours.

Apparently this was an opportunity for the suitor to demonstrate both his affluence and his graciousness. This was achieved by massively over-ordering food and distributing the considerable surplus to a bunch of scruffy foreigners clearly in need of a good meal. Actually that's just what we were.

The women were beautifully dressed in the colourful saris worn by those who can afford them. The fathers were decked out in clean white djellabiahs and those little caps which seem to have been crotcheted by someone's grandmother. The putative bride was fashionably dressed in Western style, complete with Gucci sunglasses, and had that curvaceous plumpness which we were told is highly admired in these parts. Her (almost certainly, to my eyes) future husband had on a worn T-shirt with a silly English slogan, cut-off jeans and flip-flops. Maybe it's a fashion thing - I was never much good at appreciating that kind of thing. In any event it seemed clear that a deal was being struck.

We plunged back into the baking desert and, punctuated by another night of wild camping, we were the only visitors to more ruins. You may like to look them up sometime, my descriptive powers cannot do them justice. They are:

- the royal city of Meroe. This fabulously wealthy place was destroyed 1,800 years ago, and there is no trace of it, apart from 66 pyramids (66!) and a lot of sand. Many of the pyramids were dynamited by an Italian in search of treasure. Bastard.

- the Naqa temples. Whoa, dude! To get there we had a long off-r0ad drive, sitting up at the roof-hatches with the wind (and sand) in our hair - those of us who have any worth talking about. Rounding a dune we saw an air-conditioned modern charabanc, with it's company name in bold Arabic script, up to it's axles in soft sand and surrounded by a large group of excitable locals. The driver was looking a bit sheepish, and nobody seemed to be talking to him. Naturally we did the heroic thing, and were plied with many cans of beer. Beer, I hear you ask. In a country where mere possession results in 40 lashes. A cursory glance revealed it to be non-alcoholic. I guess it's the thought that counts.

We have all (all the men that is) started to grow moustaches:

- partly as a hommage to the universal practice of our host country. It seems that not wearing a moustache, which never happens, marks you out as gay. Wearing a frock and no jockeys is OK though. Being gay is a capital offence. Fortunately there are no gay people in Sudan - apparently;

- partly to observe the Australian tradition of growing an ironic moustache for the full month of November. This longstanding tradition dates back a good two years - quite a time in the history of Australia.



More Sudan

I am having to post these entries in batches. I am writing them as I go along, but it is only when (rarely) I find a reliable internet connection that I can make new entries. This may be the last for a few more days.

I said I wouldn’t mention the sunrise again, but the other day I awoke before dawn with my mind whirring to try and process the sensory overload. I sat facing east across the river as the sun, the same one worshipped by successive dynasties of Pharoahs, rose. It climbed lazily once again over the horizon to face another new day, just as it has done for billions of years, and it gradually calmed my racing thoughts to a dawdle. The show never palls and it is difficult to resist the conditioned reflex to applaud and call for an encore. Of course it provides an encore every day, and will continue to do long after the brief flowering of our species is only evident from our fossilised remains.

My tent has two skylights of mosquito netting through which I can see the stars. My chronic insomnia is less of a burden when I can gaze at the night sky and try to take in the huge distances within our own galaxy and the years it takes for the light to reach us from even neighbouring stars. I try not to think about the distance of the visible galaxies for fear of a giddying sensation akin to vertigo. At night one is blissfully alone – a heady draught for a city dweller. Even insects cannot turn a profit here, and have decided to make their lives elsewhere.

On another yesterday, as we were travelling through an otherwise empty landscape, a vast ramshackle encampment appeared alongside the road. It took us several minutes to pass. The hundreds or thousands of rudimentary dwellings were constructed of random waste materials and the population, exclusively men, were engaged in focused activity – hardly glancing at us let alone giving the waves to which we have become so accustomed. Apparently they are gold prospectors. It would be interesting to find out how they organize themselves commercially to avoid murderous conflict and to provide the living necessary to keep them in that barren place. From the many amputees I saw, it must be dangerous work.

That night we set up camp beside the road, and received an unexpected visitor after dark. An armed man in uniform. Fortunately we have a Nubian guide with us for the duration of our travels through Sudan. He is essential for navigation, to organize the permits necessary to travel on the roads, and to negotiate roadblocks and other encounters with the military. By chance we had stopped opposite a hidden army base set well back from the road. I think they must regard all westerners as potential intelligence agents until proved otherwise – a fear which would have been readily stilled by a mere glance at our motley crew. There ensued a heated discussion, aggressive to western ears which gradually descended to a calmer tone, and ended with both parties smiling, clapping each other on the shoulders and exchanging affable farewells. Or so it seemed to me.

The following day we passed a convoy of 61 army lorries. Michelle counted them. They were packed with smiling waving black soldiers – maybe 50 to a truck. It is hard to imagine their lives. If privileged westerners are accommodated in something akin to Venezuelan prisons, what must their lives be like? These young men must never know what they may be ordered to do, when and to whom, or what other people may try to do to them – or even who the enemy will be tomorrow.

One night our local guide advised that our proposed camp site was unsafe because of recent bandit activity, so we drove on to the next significant settlement. He negotiated rooms in yet another South American-style penal establishment for less than the price of a take-away coffee in London. When we arrived, the chatelain refused us entry – apparently because our presence might be disruptive to the migrant workers who were his long-term residents. We found another khazi for the night and went out for dinner. The nearest restaurant had a tin roof, open sides, a dirt floor and plastic chairs. Beth, a former Peace Corps volunteer has reasonable Arabic, and knows something about Ethiopian food – for the restaurant was of that ilk. Instead of our usual diet of beans with oil and cheese we were served a dish which would not have been out of place in a British Indian restaurant – a spicy chicken curry accompanied by something very like rotis. The owner joined us at the table and watched with amusement as we ate. The staff and other diners lapsed into delighted laughter when we noticed chips being cooked and ordered a portion to accompany the meal. Chips – a luxury I haven’t seen since leaving Chiswick a lifetime ago.

Later, seated at an open-air tea stall, we slowly attracted a large part of the male populace looking at us in wonder, nudging each other and occasionally lapsing into good-natured laughter. The preparation of mint tea begins by half-filling the glass with sugar. When we communicated that we didn’t want sugar the stallholder almost gasped, then went about his work shaking his head bemusedly. It was as though an Arab entered an English teashop, ordered a pot of tea and requested that it be made without tea. We wondered how we must appear to them and came up with a scenario roughly as follows: a group of visibly rich Arabs in djellabiahs arrive in an English pub, chattering animatedly in an incomprehensible language, their lady companions wearing nothing above the waist, an outlandish vehicle visible outside with number plates and livery in Arabic script parked at a right angle to the kerb and completely blocking the pavement and half of the High Street. Using sign language and loud chunks of Arabic they order gin and tonics all round and then communicate that they should contain no gin. The landlord, spotting his opportunity, asks for £15 a drink. They hand over £20 notes and tell him to keep the change. Wouldn’t you call your friends and tell them to get round there quickly?

As we drank our sugarless tea, a goat pushed his way through the clientele, musing upon various concerns of his own - to the consternation of nobody but us.

Travelling through Sudan

The sky is enormous. That's a cliché of course, but things generally become clichés simply because they are true. I suppose it's basic physics that if you stand on a flat plain stretching to the horizon in every direction, the greater part of your field of vision will comprise sky. Cloudless, broken only by a blazing sun and with the ground radiating back a blast of heat.

I have endless pictures of sunrises and sunsets but I really only need keep one of each. Sunset especially is always pretty much the same. A shimmering ball, at first too bright to look at but gradually dimming and reddening, slipping down towards and below the horizon - and then giving forth, if I may borrow the immortal words of Bryan Ferry, one last sigh of farewell.

I don't think I have ever been to Norfolk, but if I may adapt the immortal words of Noel Coward, my last word on the subject is: "very flat, Africa."

One morning with a long day's drive ahead of us, we arose before dawn and got a local to take us by boat to a ruined temple. "Another one?" you may say. "Yes, but." I reply, and go on to explain as follows. The tide of Pharaonic civilisation has long since receded from this remote part of Sudan. We were miles and miles from the nearest tourist and this site is rarely visited. The village elders congregated, knobkerries in hand, to marvel at us - rare creatures from a distant planet. Especially in this location, we already feel too outlandish to be called tourists. Someone once said: "Tourists don't really know where they have been. Travellers don't really know where they are going." Good that, innit?

Another Venezuelan prison. That probably already gives you enough information to assign the appropriate Marek rating. Here's a little puzzle for you: try to forget the [synonym required] conditions and figure out how 3 felons, having abandoned all hope on entering here, can arrange themselves upon 3 rope-strung cots configured in a U-shape so that nobody's feet adjoin anyone else's face. Simple enough. But if you have 3 cantankerous old men, at the end of a long gruelling hot day, trying to solve it simultaneously and vocalising their thought processes, it can take a while - or two. Marek cheered up slightly when the electricity eventually came on and he upped his rating to major shit.

Next morning, out in the street, we got eggs for breakfast. This unprecedented feat was achieved by mimicking, with sound effects, a hen laying one. It says something for the communication skills of our audience that we were not directed to the nearest long-drop squat toilet. Even thinking about such a facility nearly negated my appetite for any kind of breakfast.

Another night we camped in a dust bowl next to the river. I don't need to name the river, there is only one - supporting a narrow strip of humanity. I amused myself, but I think no-one else, by asking our Nubian guide (of whom more later) what the name was of the river beside which we had stopped. There was a delay and I could sense his mind racing as he thought how best to answer politely without embarrassing me or displaying his bewilderment that anybody could be so dense. How I laughed as I explained. He smiled politely.

The male members of a nearby village turned out in force to goggle at us: wild-eyed, unshaven, hair and clothes thick with dust. Us I mean. Scrabbling bad- temperedly in the powdery dirt to erect our tents - suddenly more complicated that a Rubik cube. A disheveled group of people most of whom, me included, a few short weeks ago would have sub-consciously considered ourselves the superiors of these elegantly robed and be-turbanned dark-skinned people, who ritually wash themselves five times a day before prayers. One of them, a boy of perhaps 15 in a spotlessly clean white robe and turban, was quite simply the most strikingly beautiful human being I have ever seen (with the one exception of my dear wife who I might say was often encouraged in her youth to consider a career in modelling). He didn't seem to realise it.

Later, tents erected (sort of - you try and get a tent peg to grip when the ground is just thick dust) we swam in the river. Why is it that little boys who normally keep a respectful distance feel entitled to mob us once water becomes involved? Like a can of brown slippery tadpoles.

The nearby wadi was baked into a regularly-fissured expanse of mud, baked nearly as hard as marble chippings, shiny, and unbreakable without a hammer. This explains why the mud-brick houses work. I found that the mud needed to be completely immersed in water for a long time, with regular rubbing, for even the very outer layer to begin to soften. So even if it rains, which it never does, the solidified mud bricks would be virtually unaffected.

Yours very truly, and heading South,