Bosman's Bush Telegraph - 2 November
Well, it looks like we are out of here so I thought I would send a last email before we set off. Hopefully the next mail you get will be sent from somewhere in the Middle East. We have enjoyed our stay in Khartoum which is actually a pretty nice city once you have figured out its sprawling suburbs and peculiar quirks. Just being in the arab world is an experience - these guys hardly seem to do any work! Fridays are holidays and most things close around 3pm on all other days after having opened at 9am. The banks are open for a record 4 hours a day from 8 to 12 each morning. Its virtually impossible to get anything done. On the up side though they do work on Saturdays and Sundays. Driving here is a nightmare! Everyone is completely irascible and irritated and they have very little respect for the rules of the road. Of course, we are used to this as road rules are completely ignored in East Africa but at least there, there are some unspoken rules that everyone understands. Here everyone just drives, shouts and gesticulates and there are any number of fender benders at every major intersection. Perhaps its the heat - temperatures soar way over 40 degrees each day and its supposed to be winter here! The Sudanese do make excellent hamburgers though - we have discovered the Lucky Meal which is a complete rip-off of Macdonalds, complete with the golden arches, which serves a pretty mean "foul burger" - I think they mean fowl burger (as in chicken). The irony and explanation is lost on the staff there!
Our stay in Khartoum has been very productive and we managed to get our visas for Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria in a couple of days. The Jordanians were by far the friendliest and we were ushered into the office of the ambassador who was completely charming and assured us that Jordan was a haven for tourists and completely safe. The visas for Jordan are free for South Africans and issued in an hour without the usual arab hassles. We are quite looking forward to getting there. The Saudi's, on the other hand, are a law unto themselves and a completely different kettle of fish. The Saudi embassy is a huge secured compound in central Khartoum and visa applications are processed through a series of windows on the street manned by an embassy official and a Sudanese soldier who controls the crowds and directs traffic. We were completely blown away by the number of Sudanese applying for visas to Saudi Arabia - there had to be at least 200 people standing in line waiting to have their applications processed. Some of them are headed for Mecca and others are hoping to get work permits or medical visas to ensure their entry into Saudi. We have heard from a number of Sudanese that there is an enormous Sudanese work force in Saudi (apparently the Saudi's don't do any manual labour and import all their workers from elsewhere - I am not sure whether this is true or just more Saudi bashing!). Our hearts sank when we saw the queues of people - with this many applications it would take years for our visa application to be considered. We dutifully filled in the application forms attaching our two photos, our marriage certificate (seems to be of enormous importance to the arabs) and details of our car and proceeded to the queue outside window 3 to wait amongst the throngs of caftan wearing, turban sporting masses. When the guard spotted us (the only white/non-arab people in the crowd - looking very nervous) he ushered us to the front of the queue and the official checked our documents. Everything was in order, he said but we needed to pay 3500 dinar for the visa which had to be paid into an account at the Saudi Sudan bank in town. He gave us a slip of paper with directions on it - fat lot of help that was as we still (believe it or not) cannot read arabic.
In desperation we caught a taxi down town and reached the bank just before closing. Once again there were hoards of people waiting to pay for the visas but yet again we were ushered to the front of the queue. We were starting to feel a bit bad about becoming repeat offenders in the whole queue jumping business and we were getting some dirty looks from the caftan brigade (some of whom had witnessed our being given special treatment at the embassy) but hey, we were not complaining - it gets a bit tiring standing about in this 40 degree heat and by this stage we were looking a bit wilted and hot under the collar. The money paid and receipt issued we returned to the embassy to find that the window was closed and they had stopped accepting applications for the day. In desperation we cornered the first red dish cloth wearing Saudi that we could find and explained that we could not wait until tomorrow to have our application considered. He looked down his roman nose at us and babbled something into his telephone. It was obviously decided that we looked pretty desperate (not to mention suffering from heat exhaustion) and we were directed into the compound to the reception area. The dish cloth brigade (and I mean that in the most PC, culturally sensitive way) were out in full force inside the walls of the embassy but, on the up side, at least they had air-conditioning. Our passports were sent upstairs and we settled down to wait. While we were sitting in the reception area they started bringing in the day's visa applications from the window offices. There were literally suitcases full of them! Hundreds! The applications were unceremoniously tipped onto the carpet of the reception hall and a clerk started sorting them. Of course, inevitably, some of the applications were separated from the passports and vice versa and it looked like a royal mess. We were just grateful that our passports were not among those being dealt with en masse. After about an hour's wait (during which I kept my eyes lowered and tried to look as demur as possible) an official swept down the stairs with our passports. "What is the relationship between zees Mrs Neville James and Mr Penelope Bosman?" he demanded in a thick arabic accent. Nev took the lead and tried to explain that Mr Neville James and Mrs Penelope Bosman were man and wife. "Where is zee proof?" he demanded. Nev showed him the attached marriage certificate and he nodded and swept up the stairs again. We settled back for another hour wait. The next enquiry was as to our religion and once the official was satisfied he disappeared again. Eventually, just before closing time, the dish cloth bedecked receptionist wanting to shoo us out of the office made some enquiries on our behalf. Our passports were returned to us sporting a very smart Saudi transit visa. We were thrilled - we had heard all sorts of horror stories about having to wait two weeks for visas and we had got ours in just over four hours. Fabulous news!
Next stop was the Syrian embassy where we applied for yet more visas. Unfortunately, our letter of recommendation from the SA embassy in Addis Ababa said we wanted to transit through Syria so all they were prepared to issue was a transit. At least its a small country. This time the forms had to be filled in in Arabic (which obviously precluded us from doing it) so we were at the mercy of the official. He questioned us on our professions (dealing only with Nev, I might add). When it came to my profession he seemed incapable of understanding that I was in fact an attorney. "A lawyer? A lawyer?" he kept asking. I've been down this particular road with every Tom Dick and sexist arab Harry so had to exercise superior patience and smile and nod. Eventually he got the point. Nev had to sign his visa application but I was not allowed to sign mine. "Wife's signature not important" he said. Very difficult to stomach even for a pseudo feminist such as myself. I cant wait for Saudi Arabia where I wont be able to drive and will have to cover my head to avoid being reported to the ominous sounding religious police! Very backwards - but what can you expect from a nation that's national garb is the dishcloth (once again I mean that in the most politically correct, culturally sensitive way!) Anyway, we have booked our passage on the Al Judi ferry which runs between Suakin (near Port Sudan) and Jedda and we are set to sail on Saturday. The ferry trip across the red sea is scheduled to take 11 hours so we should be in Saudi by Sunday from where we will spend two or three days in transit to Jordan. We are quite excited about getting there so that we can treat ourselves to a beer - we have been having a rather dry time here. No alcohol in Sudan unless you are in a position to pay US$80 for a case of bootleg beer and take your chances with the police. Absolutely no alcohol in Saudi - at the embassy they have an ominous sign which says "Death penalty to drug smugglers". Draconian stuff. I am not looking forward to it and we have been warned that the port officials are known to search every inch of your car and luggage of the forbidden pork and pornography so keep your fingers crossed that we don't have any hassles. We should be okay as we are not importing any booze, drugs, pork products or subversive material.
We left Khartoum yesterday and headed north to the Meroe Royal City which is one of Sudan's best known historical sites about 200 kilometres north of Khartoum. The Meroe Royal City and Pyramids were built around the 5th century BC and were first brought to the world's attention by the Greek writer Heroditus. Our arrival at Meroe was like something out of Hollywood (the English Patient or Indiana Jones). We pulled up just before sunset in the midst of a howling sandstorm which obscured the sun. We had no idea where the entrance to the pyramids were and had been told that we needed to find the german archaeologist, Dr Hinkel, who is stationed there. Just when we were wandering what to do next a young arab on a camel approached us (lets call him Abdullah for argument's sake). Abdullah abandoned his camel and hopped into the car directing us over a complicated set of sand tracks around the pyramids to Dr Hinkel's house. It was very cinematic! We did not have much time to check out the pyramids before dark and ended up camping right next to them in Dr Hinkel's compound. After sunset we were treated to the most amazing desert night skies - it was completely silent and the stars, moon and shooting stars were unbelievable. This morning we got up early so that we could catch the spectacular sunrise over the desert and ancient pyramids. It was well worth it as the light was gorgeous and the pyramids superb. Addullah pitched up with his camel around 6h30 and we were treated to an early morning camel ride around the pyramids before we set off back to Khartoum.
The Pyramids are well worth a visit if you are headed this way - unfortunately the experience is marred by the lengths that you have to go to to get permission to visit them (as you do for all the other historical sites and places of interest). You can't just pitch up. Like everything else in Sudan you need a permit which must be obtained in Khartoum - and let me tell you folks, it aint easy. You need to get the permit at the National Museum from some obscure museum official who is ferreted away in an office block behind the museum. You only discover this though once you have visited just about every government ministry who could possible deal with this type of thing (Tourism, Culture, Information as well as the Ministries for idiotic buggers and useless wastes of space which seem to be everywhere). The permit is advertised as being for free but when you get there they try to charge you 10 dollars for it. Nev put on his righteous, totally outraged act and we were given the permits for free. Which I might add, was nothing less than they advertised. If you are planning to use a video camera you also need a photo permit although we did not figure out where you get that one. Well, I guess that's Sudanese bureaucracy for you - its certainly a great job creation initiative. Anyway, that's all for now.
For you Capetonians out there check out this weekend's Weekend Argus, "Good Weekend" section (I don't know whether that is Saturday or Sunday) as there will be an article about our big adventure by a journalist called Binyavanga Wainaina who we met in Kenya (thanks Binj!).
lots of love
Penny and Neville