It wasn’t until the colours of Sudan hit me that I realised how oppressively drab the standard wear of Egypt was: men in brown or dark grey and women mostly in sober tones, often black. In Sudan the men wear white and the women exploded back into my eyes and heart! Oh the joy of such flowers again, red and hot pink and vivid green. Women appeared more elegant – taller, slighter – or maybe just less well fed. They seemed to glide around more gracefully, floating headscarves tied less tightly yet still never slipping down. I don’t know how they manage this; I was never able to pull off such a feat myself.
Later I realised that the Sudanese have evolved to be more graceful because of the heat. All the overanxious, impulsive or rushed ones couldn’t survive – you glide or you die!
* * *
The day after burying Monte, we dragged ourselves up after four hours’ sleep. Sampson was pale as death and beside himself with misery. Abu Simbel would’ve been stunning to see again in the early morning light, but we just wanted to be out of that place.
We drove straight down to the ferry port and did our exercises in the queue at 8am. The lorry driver behind us showed some surprise at reversed gender stereotypes as Sampson sobbed periodically while I did some slow motion Bruce Lee. It was Wednesday 7th February, the last but one day of our Egyptian visas – we’d been there 3 months – so we had 24 hours to cross the border.
We went back down to the truck to have brunch during the hour and a half crossing. It was weird to look out over the open water and smell the scent of river rather than sea.
Zola and I did 3 subjects while I refamiliarised myself with the contents of the purple documents folder, all ready to put on my Mandela skirt show at the border.
It was much less arduous exiting Egypt than entering, although the process still involved pointless piles of paperwork, superfluous flurries of stamps and an unnecessary amount of walking in circles in the heat. On the Egyptian side, we were held up by an intimidating security police chief in aviator shades and a leather jacket who seemed to be modelling himself a a heavy in a spy movie. You couldn’t deny he was impressively thorough – when we mentioned Wael the taxi driver finding us our apartment in Alexandria, he said he knew him and called to check out our story.
It took so long to win him over, we ended up sleeping in no man’s land.
We’ve often spent a night half way through a border crossing. It’s usually a safer and more peaceful option to park off in the waste land between secure posts rather than in the rowdy towns either side of them. Somehow the days following Monte’s death were like we spent a week suspended in that limbo.
It was the first night I was warm enough without a sleeping bag. The Sudan side immediately felt much hotter. I spent another tiresome day criss-crossing scorching tarmac, topped by sitting patiently in freezing aircon for two hours holding out for the extra document needed to confirm the truck had not been sold in Egypt to guarantee we would get our cash deposit back from the AA. It involved a lot of massaging of male egos and I can’t be bothered to tell the whole story.
Across West Africa, somehow the bribery is more honest; underpaid officials outright asking for money is corruption I can handle, even if we never acquiesced. The interaction offers leeway for humanity and even humour. I have less respect for the fake charges and chicanery of the semi-state-sanctioned fleecing of North Africa, too often magnified by macho powerplay.
After pushing through two days of gruelling border bullshit on top of the shock of Monte’s death and the strain of his burial, I was utterly exhausted; every muscle in my body was aching and every cell buzzing like an angry wasp. PEM was about to catch up and klap me.
When Big Reg stopped in the red black desert, I was lying down. Zola jumped out to let off steam and even Lucky seemed keen to go for a walk with Sampson.
“You should get out and see this” he said.
Didn’t he realise I would if I could?
Still, the silence was balm.
We ate our simplest meal: tuna, cabbage and rice, and fell into our mossie nets. I was woken by the wind buffeting the truck. The next day, my arms felt like lead, fall out from carrying the heavy documents folder around the last couple of days.
On the drive into the town of Wadi Halfa, Sampson said “If Monte’s death brings us closer together, it will not have been in vain.”
“I haven’t been very good at you being ill, have I.”
It was a statement, not a question.
After completing our alien registrations with a man napping on a bed inside the municipal office at 39˚C on Saturday morning, I stayed with Sampson in the cab because I didn’t want him to be alone. He drove and talked and cried and I managed 3 hours on that good straight road until l had to lay down.
At 3am, I woke feeling so ill, I was unable to get back to sleep. I was so disturbed by the intense level of pain at the nape of my neck, I nearly woke Sampson but didn’t because I knew how much he needed his rest. But if I was so much weaker after just a couple of hours’ minor brainshake, how was I going to cope on really bad roads?
I got up to walk but the flies that had descended at dusk seemed to be erupting in the heat wave.
Sampson drove till he found a wonderful spot for us to park off and rest by the Nile, next to some shady trees. But when we got out, the clouds of midges were insanely thick. I kept choking while doing T’ai Chi despite wrapping two layers of cloth around my face. Sampson only managed to escape bombardment by diving in the river. How on earth were Andrew and Dee coping on their bikes?
A local pulled up in a boat and demonstrated how to do it by dipping his scarf in water before wrapping it round his head. Aha!
We couldn’t relax outside and there was no point sitting indoors being cooked, so we drove on. Our West African mantra ‘There’s no such thing as paradise without falling coconuts’ had been amended to ‘There’s no such thing as paradise without choking flies’.
We stopped somewhere just past Abri. It was 32˚C at 11pm. I was awake at 3am again but for only 2 hours not 3. My period started, only 3 weeks since the last one – more perimenopausal madness or did the shock of Monte’s death bring it on early? Either way, it was an energy-sapping extra burden I could do without.
In the morning, two little boys on a donkey came trotting up to investigate, circled the truck and went away without disturbing us. Later they came back to take another look. They were delighted when I spoke to them, but too scared to come in and see, just ventured half way up the steps. It was refreshingly different from Egypt.
In the distance, a woman was gathering wood by knocking dead branches out of trees with a long pole, a small girl of about 4 by her side. She came to greet, striding towards us unhesitatingly. A striking woman in her late 50s or 60s, she was lithe and strong, wearing a shift dress and a light wrap loosely round her head and shoulders. Her complete assuredness was markedly different from women on the street in Egypt. Was this a characteristic of Sudan or just her? She had an extraordinary light about her, burning, vital.
She beamed her welcome into our faces, asking our origins and destination in a flow of language she was positive Zola could understand. Him standing mute and unresponsive as usual in both sunglasses and a buff didn’t help. I had to fetch the family photo from our road block kit to explain to her that my son was as clueless as I was about what she was saying. There are 114 languages native to Sudan apart from the official tongues of Arabic and English.
She made eating motions, whether to invite us to lunch with her or asking for food I didn’t know, but when we couldn’t make ourselves understood, she just offered me her hand in a wonderful firm handshake of peers. I felt utterly humbled by her humanness and dignity. There was total acceptance, no front, no power dynamic – just mutual respect and recognition, live and let live. I longed to ask her about her life and its lessons. She had obviously made complete peace with it and I wanted to know how.
* * *
Dongola was bigger than anticipated. Sampson found a carwash and was amazed at the availability of industrial strength foam and water pressure. It seemed bizarre that Cape Town was in deep drought and here in Sudan there was water to spare.
Zola and I sat inside doing school with all the windows shut in 38˚C heat while Sampson helped the team scrub off the layers of fly-matted cooking oil, using a wire brush on the end of our drill.
By now Sampson had one exchange fluently in Arabic that seemed to cover almost all eventualities: “Tamam? Tamam. Mashallah? Mafi Mushkila.”
Translation: “Alright? Alright. All good? No problem.”
We drove south of town looking for somewhere quiet to rest.
I couldn’t face putting the stove on before 8pm.
On Tuesday 13th, it was 24˚C, with a stiff wind much preferable to thick flies. Sampson and I set out to walk to the river, past strapping young men doing back-breaking work with short-handled hoes and donkeys and camels eating a breakfast pile of greens. We followed the lines of irrigation channels, with dams looking like tiny guillotines, to a pump house when suddenly my energy just drained away. My legs went so I had to sit. It had been 15 minutes. I knew I’d done too much but not how much too much.
With the wind rising and the dust thickening, I slowly made it back but had to lie down in the truck the rest of the day. It only reached a relatively cool 32˚C. Dad did Tech and Natural Science with Zola, in between cooking me potato cakes for lunch and editing the Red Sea diving video. I only managed to edit two paragraphs of the blog. My bleeding was heavy but I had no idea why my arms were aching so much. I was needing the cinnamon jar to ease my neck pain. Google informed me that the brain stem is a classic ‘tender point’ for Fibromyalgia sufferers – was I developing this as well now?
For the first time in 20 years I didn’t remember it was Valentine’s Day in time to write a poem for my husband. No matter; in the midst of grief, it didn’t feel appropriate anyway. We still didn’t have a good enough internet connection to risk trying to tell Ruby about Monte without being cut off part way through.
The next day while Sampson was stretching, we watched a white baby donkey skid and fall over while capering about with his mother. I felt equally wobbly doing T’ai Chi. A while later local farmer Aboud came to find the runaways. He told Sampson there was a haboob brewing, a violent dust or sandstorm. Here’s an example of one in Khartoum in 2017.
The boys spent a couple of hours pouring waste veg oil into the Jojo tank to settle ahead of filtering. Both of them were suffering constant streaming eyes and noses and fits of coughing because of all the particulates in the air. Indoors, I wasn’t having any of this hyper hayfeverish response, and managed a shower for the first time in days.
Thankfully, that meant I was dressed respectfully when Aboud unexpectedly returned bearing gifts of bread and bunches of rocket. After a fragrant lunch, I sadly realised I was not well enough to walk back through the intensifying wind with him to visit. He took Sampson to show him his land and explain how the irrigation worked and how he harvests his animal feed crop.
Our phones were no longer being tapped and I could access the Al Jazeera website again but not the Daily Maverick? On 14th Feb, stuck offline and unable to load Twitter, I heard about President Zuma’s resignation from my Mom in India via Whatsapp.
We were eating dahl Zola had made for supper when three guys arrived on motorbikes. When they dawdled for longer than the usual “Tamam?” “Tamam”, we realised it was a security check and got the docs out. They didn’t speak any English but were very patient with us. Finally I gathered they were concerned about Zola: “Araby?” They couldn’t understand our adoption papers, so another guy was sent for. After he checked our passports, he enquired “Your son or cabin boy?”
They were much more relaxed than the Egyptian police apparatus and far more concerned about the possibility that Zola was being trafficked than us being a military threat. I was very glad they came to check up.
That night I found my pomegranate difficult to eat because my arms and hands were so achey after writing one long email to Ruby’s school.
After Zola’s public speaking practice lesson, I dreamt I was at school being similarly tested. I was in the last group but, cheated of time, found myself in the bathroom, scrabbling for small bits of paper and pens to write on, being frustrated by people getting in the way and ink running out. I knew I could succeed if I could get a chance to finish, even if I could just get down the prompt words while I remembered – but they were disappearing. When I woke, I could only recall that the final paragraph was about being at my Nanny’s house and how cigarette smoke smelled comforting when fresh like toast, but made you feel sick once it went stale. When I opened my eyes there was a thick vapour pouring in the window and I felt dreadfully ill. The haboob had descended on us.
I felt deeply fluey and my chest was burning – I hadn’t got away with it after all, my sluggish immune system was just slower to react than the boys’. For the first time I was scared I might get so ill, I’d have to abandon the trip; I couldn’t fall into a severe state in the deep Sahara with the threat of malaria or typhoid so present and without any clinics nearby. Quietly I cried at the thought of what Ruby would have to go through if I didn’t make it.
Sampson was outwardly sympathetic, but inwardly withdrawing; he wasn’t looking me in the face. I was realising that his way of coping was to pretend it’s not happening. I couldn’t do T’ai Chi; it took all morning to work up to having a wash. I couldn’t sit up or think or do Maths, just managed to go through one Geography lesson on the bed.
The Chief popped by with farmer Aboud, the infinitely hospitable, who brought aubergines and dates. The latter were tough as tree bark, you could snap them into splinters, but nonetheless, when chewed, they tasted like Thorntons Original Toffee from my childhood. Delicious! I’m sorry I never got to take a pic of Aboud himself.
Enimie’s Instagram feed was full of the spectacularly colourful dishes she’d been plied with by various Sudanese hosts. My difficult-to-translate extreme sensitivities mean I can no longer risk eating in someone’s home or risk offending such generous hosts by refusing their food.
We were watching Stranger Things; series 2 was getting increasingly exciting as worlds collide. Will’s battle with The Upside Down was looking more and more like my life – the threat of getting sucked back down into the sticky underside, so difficult to pull your way out of, although no one else around you can see it. His terror of the sudden descent of the shadow monster was like my fear of being taken down by any pathogen now I didn’t have any buffer left.
Especially as the ominous floating bits in the air were exactly what we had here in the aftermath of the haboob. Clouds of dust particles were covering every surface several times a day, despite constant wiping and brushing and sweeping – table, bed, floor, laptop – lungs.
Once again, it was the Senegalese stash of moringa powder that saved me.
Managing to wash my smalls at long last felt like a triumph, though Hub had to bring them in off the line during the howling sand storm, bless him.
That Friday night, as we enjoyed a Stranger Things marathon, watching the final three episodes back to back, we realised it was raining. In Sudan?? The cloudburst was brief and the heavy drops didn’t settle. Just left a weird smell like stale cigarettes in the dust.