I don’t so much wake up as have the sleep evaporated from me. Morning in the Sudan drifts warm into the room. My bed sags forlornly, too worn to squeal in protest as I climb out of my sleeping bag; packing it and my toiletries into my backpack in minutes. I’m getting good at moving. I’ve been moving for almost two months now. It’s easier to be efficient today, since today is a moving day. Yesterday was not. It was an exploring day. For fifty mornings, those are the only days I have known. Moving days and exploring days. Traveling fast and light is efficient, but can keep you a permanent stranger – someone around long enough to see, but never to understand.

Short hops. Fifty days of short hops. How different the world has become in that time.

I’d explored this town, Atbara, yesterday. Like a ghost, unable to communicate – a stranger to the hoarse Arab conversations in the markets. Ordered dinner with my hands and face. Then become lost again. Like so much of Sudan, the streets of Atbara keep their secrets to themselves. Today is moving day though. The bus to Abu Hamed leaves from the warm dust not a block from here. Abu Hamed is the only route to Wadi Halfa. As Wadi Halfa is the only route to Egypt. Short hops. Fifty days of short hops. How different the world has become in that time. How different am I, too. More different to anything, I am beginning to realise, than I am alike.

Backpack on back. Keys left on the front desk in the room where the once-white paint flakes from the dry walls. Smile at the youth behind his tired managers’ desk. “Shukran”, I thank him – quick to leave before he replies. I was a novelty to him yesterday. Not from ‘Amreeka’, as he had asked. Expected. I am a South African – Janoob Afreekya. I’m not sure he believed me at the time, giving me a smile that suggested I must be mistaken. Until I gave him my passport to enter into the guest register. For all my strangerness, that little green book defends the outer limits of my realm. I have a home somewhere. A place I can return to. I am not from Amreeka.

Outside, the bus is comfortable. Seats covered in the dry red velvet that you might see on old furniture. I find a seat early, repeating “Abu Hamed” like a simpleton. Abu Hamed. Shukran. Smile. I look down from the window seat at the man packing the luggage bay underneath me. He is arguing in Arabic with two gentlemen who are trying to get him to load boxes of fire extinguishers onto the bus. I imagine an explanation for his refusal, an exercise in futility. In the end he pushes the cargo into the hold anyway. I wonder how a box of fire extinguishers came to be here in the first place – just another question I will never have an answer to.

My only links to understanding, to existing as more than a ghost made flesh, is my handful of Arabic.

The bus growls, grips the scuttling gravel and pushes out into the desert beyond the final struggling borders of Atbara. There is a video on, but I can’t understand it. My neighbor smiles and hands me some cake. “Shukran”, I reply and I submit to the strangerness of my place in this world. My only links to understanding, to existing as more than a ghost made flesh, is my handful of Arabic. Words like ‘Shukran’ and ‘Abu Hamed’. Simple talismans that help me connect briefly. Be accepted into a hotel, onto a bus. Never into a life, and with very little control.

I’m lost to watching the desert unwind through the darkened glass of the bus, when it crunches to a stop at an army roadblock. The soldiers are looking for anyone unusual. The man who climbs aboard, and I, agree that I am a rather strange sight. Something to be taken to the a camoflaged tent pitched in the rock and sand nearby. It whispers that it has been there for some time. Frayed and dust-marked canvas hanging in the dry heat. Protected by the shade within, a soldier with a slightly neater uniform sits behind a rough-looking steel desk. He seems to agree with my escort that I am unusual. I wonder how they moved a steel desk hours into the desert.

None of the soldiers can speak a word of English, but the bus driver has come along to translate. Sort of:

“Where?” he asks.

I’m not really sure what he is asking, but try to appear helpful. It would actually be impossible to ask for clarification, but officials love to know you are making an effort. So I do.

“Abu Hamed”, I offer. It’s where I’m going.

“Atbara?” I’ve come from there.

“Amreeka?” asks the man in the neater uniform hopefully.

“Janoob Afreekya”, I reply. He seems disappointed.

He seems to agree with my escort that I am unusual. I wonder how they moved a steel desk hours into the desert.

I show him my passport, trying to be helpful. Defending myself. He scrutinises the pages until he finds my Sudanese visa. Satisfied, he plucks a scrappy piece of paper and a sad-looking pen from the steel desk. He records some numbers from my passport and returns the paper scrap and scrappy pen to the steel desk. He smiles and nods his thanks for our administrative dance. I return the smile. Shukran.

I can’t comprehend what manner of system this paper, pencil and steel desk forms a part of. But I don’t ask any questions. I can’t. All I can do is shukran. And pity the soul that receives thousands of paper scraps for filing in Khartoum.

When I finally make Abu Hamed, there are no buses at the station. No connections onward to Wadi Halfa. A man who was on my bus takes charge of me. I know this because he points at me a good deal and gestures for me to follow him as he asks questions in the market. Something about Wadi Halfa. I just smile and tag along dependently. I’m glad of the help. Shukran. Shukran. Shukran.

As luck would have it there are no vehicles departing for Wadi halfa this evening. But there is a man who speaks some English at the Atbara hotel, a mud brick construction lying lazily on the edge of the town . He explains in halting English that there will be a truck to Wadi Halfa later. “Seven or eight”, he says “then we drive in the night”. Shukran.

And an afternoon spent drinking tea in small, hot, handle-less glasses that should be impossible to pick up, but aren’t. Eating tiny yellow and black bananas and listening to the men assembled in the shade. They are discussing the news, I suspect, and handing around a pamphlet in Arabic that someone has brought along. A few yards behind the circulating pamphlet, a donkey is rolling in the dust with something approaching a look of donkey-glee on its face.

they are arguing about the direction of Mecca to what appears to be a few degrees of precision

I chuckle, and a man in the talking circle laughs at me laughing at the donkey. I laugh at the absurdity of being laughed at, laughing at a donkey in Abu Hamed. If you had told me that I would one day find myself here I’d have thought you ten shades of mad. Between donkey, pamphlet and the slowly encroaching evening, a stranger, more disconnected experience would be difficult to imagine. My strangerness connected to Sudan with little more than my passport and shukran.

With the onset of night, passing traffic at the hotel is an Arabic Fawlty towers. Two men tug a carpet in opposite directions as the muezzin wails. It seems that they are arguing about the direction of Mecca to what appears to be a few degrees of precision. A wild-eyed man in an unusually dirty gown approaches me and declares something loudly in Arabic. He is Proselytizing or begging, but I can’t tell which. Neither my passport, nor a shukran you seems useful. I put on my confused face until he leaves.

The hotel in Abu Hamed. A terrible souvenir snap taken by an exhausted self late in the night.

Night falls and the hotel guests mingle with an assortment of just-arrived locals in pulling up plastic chairs to form a semicircle in the dirt outside. The immaculately white-gowned audience waits as an enthusiastic teenager carries a tiny television out into the dust. He paces to and fro with the aerial as the signal shifts, leaving it tenuously hanging from the ceiling – the spot the audience liked best. We spend an hour watching a soap operas in Arabic –whose plot I cannot even begin to guess – until someone eventually changes the channel to Al Jazeera. The news lights up the watching faces and conversation becomes muted. There appears to have been another bombing in Baghdad. Then there is a story about Iraq more generally. Pictures of troops from Amreeka.

I begin to feel a little uncomfortable. My strangerness stirs. I recall the youth behind the desk this morning. He thought I was from Amreeka. As did the man in the neater uniform, behind his steel desk in the desert. I feel judged as the news continues in the language I cannot speak. It pours uninterrupted onto the sand outside the hotel, the faces watching.

My passport is silent in my backpack. Shukran will not help. It’s insufficient. I have too few words to explain that I am not from Amreeka. I am from Janoob Afreekya. My strangerness has become tangled in this place, and I have no way of drawing it back.

Categories: Africa, Cape to Cairo, Sudan, Travel
  • Oh wow, interesting post here. Great writing, too :) You got the best of both worlds here – being an American in weird places can make you like a rockstar… other times, it can make you want to call yourself Canadian.

  • “I don’t so much wake up as have the sleep evaporated from me.” I could have stopped reading here and been happy. It’s a wonderful sentence. But, of course, I really enjoyed the rest of this tale. Being in a place you did not intend to be in and watching how things work while waiting for your exit, only having a handful of words to use as tools; these are the situations that only happen when venturing out into the world. It felt like being there (sorry for the cliche, but it’s true!)and being grounded at home for the present time, an escape was needed. Thank you for writing this.

  • really enjoyed reading this post, strangerness in sudan must be such an incredible experience.

    it is funny that such a small green book can be the key to your identity, and that the way you look can be such a false indicator of nationality.

    i also remember the disappointment on people’s faces in south america when i told them i was south african too. like they just had no idea how to categorize me, or predict my behaviour and attitude.

    also loved the vivid descriptions of sudanese life, the donkey in rolling around the sand would have cracked me up too!

  • @Brooke – Absolutely. It was strange to feel, for a second, what it must be like. I had expected a lot more flack traveling in Africa being from South Africa than I ever saw. But for the most part, nobody even checked where I was from unless I volunteered it.

    @Marie – Travel nostalgia is so bittersweet. Every time i go back to my journey notes and write out scenes, I find myself intensely wistful by the end of it.

    @Jenna – What you say about passports is all-too-true. I had originally written the story to make a wholly different point, then realised by the end that the most obvious message really was exactly that. That little green book was essentially my only guarantee of identity in the places I was traveling. In many instances, people would have simply not believed my account of who I was without it.

  • Great post Richard! Interesting how they assumed you were American. I wonder what they were hoping for, whether it was just being friendly and making conversation, or if they were having politically motivated anti-American thoughts…

  • @Russ – I don’t think that anyone bore any ill will. It was more just a deep sense of awkwardness. They are not Iraqi insurgents and I am not an American soldier stationed in the country. Yet there is still a strange cultural pressure that we should fit into boxes that have nothing at all to do with us. Sitting there in that small town in the middle of the desert, those roles couldn’t be further from us, except that the television brought them pouring in.

  • I’m so happy you stumbled upon my blog so I could find yours! You’re a tremendous travel writer. Will be following. Love the coined term ‘strangerness.’

  • im guessing this is your personal narrative (its my job as your stalker to know these things :)
    i REALLY like it. id say its my favorite post so far.
    im delighted to see a very normal, not particularly extravagant photo. unless the non extravagance is smybolic. which i suspect it is. damn you!
    excited to see ur police story :)

  • Excellent my friend. There is a book in you and it should not stay there! Reflective colour from beginning to end.

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