(Editor’s note: Over the last two months, Meghan Thom has posted about her recent trip across North Africa. A student at the School of Oriental and African Studies, Ms. Thom resides in London. Previous posts: Part I, Part II, Part III)
On our second day travelling in the north, we were treated to some real Sudanese hospitality. My boyfriend got to chatting with a colonel in the Sudanese army on the bus who surreptitiously showed us his identity card, not wanting to the other passengers to see, and keeping a hand over his padlocked briefcase. Next to him was a more animated character—Ali, the youngest of five siblings who had just spent three months in the desert searching for gold. Ali invited us to his home for tea and a rest in the village just before Karima.
I don’t know what your mother would think if she hadn’t seen you for three months and you turned up with a couple of strangers, but Ali’s mother seemed overjoyed, and rushed to make tea.
We ended up staying for two nights at Ali’s, sleeping in his brother’s house. Ali’s immediate family seemed to take up half the village, each with his own self-built compound type containing a house, outdoor toilet, bathing area, and kitchen. His extended family spanned out to the next village, including his father’s second wife’s house.
We spent a bizarre amount of time watching television, everything from the film “Babel” to a show about policing in Jamaica. We also drank a lot of tea, and ate bread with ful, eggs, halva, sweet spaghetti, and jam for every meal.
That afternoon, once it was cooler, we went to Jebel Barkal, the site of a Nubian temple. After walking around the ruins, we started climbing up. In flip-flops and impractically baggy trousers, and having not eaten properly for a few days, I couldn’t take climbing up the hot sand and told Ali and my boyfriend to go without me. At the bottom, I was met by police who asked if I spoke Arabic and who the people on the hill were. I said no and that it was my husband and they left me alone.
Frustrated and with newfound determination, I climbed up another part of the hill, which had a few more rocks for support. This time, with Ali’s help, I made it. The views of the Nile and the date trees lining it were amazing. We sat and watched the birds flying overhead. Afterwards, I removed my flip-flops to slide down the now-much cooler sand as the sun set and we looked out over another set of pyramids, which made the laborious climb up well worth it.
In the evening, we went to the market in Karima. Being the last night of Ramadan, it was packed. I was looking for a tobe, the dress worn by many Sudanese woman, which is essentially a very long piece of fabric wrapped several times around the body, arms, and over the head. Ali’s sister, a mother of three beautiful children, whose husband works in Saudi Arabia most of the year, helped me choose. At night, we slept outside on beds without sheets, looking up at the stars.
The next day was Eid, the big feast at the end of Ramadan, which is on par with Christmas for Christians. We spent much of the day visiting various people in the village, eating sweets, admiring newborn babies, and drinking tea. In the afternoon, we walked down to the Nile and around Ali’s father’s land, which is covered in date trees. Ali picked a few and handed them to us to eat. It was lovely.
In the evening, I clumsily put on my new tobe, tying it to my dress to hold it up. Ali’s family were very complimentary but insisted that if I was to look properly Sudanese, I would need henna. So, we headed over to another relative’s house where Ali’s sister and I were taken to a separate room with two other women, which was decked out in pink frilly bed sheets and curtains—much like the bus, actually. The lady of the house drew elaborate designs freehand across my hands and forearms. While we waited for it to dry, the babies cried and were fed, the women chatted, and I was largely (happily) ignored.
In the morning, we left to head back to Khartoum. What an adventure.
Travel Advice for Egypt and Sudan
Its easy to get a one-month travel visa for Egypt for many people: just hand over $15 US at the airport. Make sure you have the right notes, though, as they don’t give change.
For Sudan, it seems to be much more difficult: I tried without luck in the U.K., France, and Germany. In Cairo, it was fairly straightforward (if expensive), but we had to get a letter of non-introduction from the British embassy. My boyfriend got this and photocopied it, giving me the original, which worked fine for both of us.
In Egypt, malaria doesn’t seem to be an issue, while in Sudan, anti-malarials were highly recommended, so we both took them. We slept without a net most nights however, and the people in Khartoum said they don’t take anything.
Registering at the Aliens Building in Khartoum
This was a mission, and the location of the building according to the guidebook definitely seems to be wrong. If you are working in Sudan or staying at a hotel, this should be done for you. In the end, we asked a Sudanese guy at the British Council to write down the address in Arabic and we showed it to an amjad (a bus taxi) driver who took us there. It was surprisingly quick and cost 100 Sudanese pounds each, which wasn’t too bad, although I don’t know how it compares to the fine you would get if you didn’t register. A man in the building helped us through the whole process and in the end asked us for 100 Sudanese pounds for his work. We gave him 10 and walked away, which seemed to be all right.
Crossing the border
There is no land crossing between Egypt and Sudan, so the only way to cross is by air or the ferry between Wadi Halfa and Aswan, which runs once a week in either direction.
Money and credit cards
You cannot use credit or debit cards or travellers cheques in Sudan because of sanctions, so you need to bring enough money for your entire trip in cash; USD, Euros and GBP can all be exchanged easily at banks and currency exchanges, as well as illegally with men on the street or shop owners who give a much better rate. Be careful, obviously. We did manage to book flights with Egypt Air online using debit cards while in Khartoum, though. Bear in mind that Sudan is surprisingly expensive in comparison to Egypt.
You generally get very little hassle in Sudan compared with Egypt, but it is still a good idea to be respectful. Women don’t need to cover their hair but it is wise to cover your arms and legs, if only to protect them from the sun. Bare forearms weren’t a problem.
We pretended to be married and I wore a ring. This generally led to questions about whether we have children, followed by sympathetic noises because we didn’t, and requests to God that we would in time. I don’t think it would have been a big problem if we hadn’t said we were married, but it did make things easier.
There seemed to be a lot more variety regarding food in Egypt, while in Sudan it was pretty much ful, eggs, falafel, and bread, which gets a bit monotonous.
In general people were friendly, helpful and warm in both countries but in Egypt you do get a lot more hassle, which makes sense given the dependence on tourism
Bear in mind that while Egypt is set up for tourists in many ways, Sudan is far from it. It’s a big country with little infrastructure so it can take a long time to get around and people aren’t used to catering to the needs of tourists. Well worth a visit if you can make it though!