December 22, 2011

Sudan: Why you don’t need to visit Khartoum

1.      There is nothing to do in Khartoum. Khartoum (which is pronounced
with the ch in challah, not the k in king) has one museum, which I’ve
heard takes a good half-hour to see. There are some European-style
cafes and restaurants, visited by the expat community (who appear to
be mostly German, Indian, Egyptian, and Chinese). But really, there is
nothing to do, and less to see. There are tea ladies wearing colorful
tobes (which is kind of like a cotton sari) who sell tiny glass cups
of ginger tea on the side of the street. We had hibiscus tea (shai)
with ginger (zinzibel), sugar (zukr), and a number of other
unidentified spices, which was delicious – but between your tea and
your dinner? Nothing.
2.      There is nothing to buy in Khartoum. Nobody I know has ever bought
anything unnecessary, whimsical, or gifty in Khartoum, because there
are no good shops, and the shops sell nothing nice. Apparently the
ladies with the best tobes buy them in London. I heard from our
friendly government inspector that China sends the cheapest and most
defective products to Africa because the Africans have no other
options, which is the saddest economic fact I’ve ever heard. The
chairs have one short leg and the plastic buckets have sharp edges;
all the tools are slightly dented or haphazardly assembled. It really
sucks to have these things as your only option.
3.      If there were anything to do, you wouldn’t be able to get there. I
arrived in Khartoum with the other archaeologists at about 3 am. We
were collected by the dig directors and taken not to the hotel, but to
the home of another archaeologist, Claude, who was already out in the
field. Unfortunately, he also had a night watchman (or gefiya) who had
decided to put a padlock on the front door, which was the only one for
which we had a key. After an hour of ringing the bell and banging on
the door, we finally reached the wayward archaeologist; it turned out
he didn’t have the gefiya’s number, but he knew someone who did, and
he would call them. Eventually we were let in and discovered that the
house was stocked with tea and breakfast and Pepsi (bebsi), and the
directors told us that we had the day off, and we should take a look
around and try to see the National Museum, but remember to get our
bearings first so we could direct the taxi driver back. The next
morning (day, really) we woke up after 1 and had a long, slow
breakfast. We eventually decided to go out to what looked like the
main street and figure out where we were. But: in Khartoum, there are
no street names. I mean, I’m sure some of the streets have names, but
they sure as hell aren’t written on handy signs at the corners, and
nobody you ask knows what they are. Not in Arabic, not in English, not
in Chinese. Houses rarely have numbers. And this is a big city.
The centers of a bunch of mining companies are here, and some
pharmaceuticals, and there are at least a few million people in the
metro area. And the houses don’t have numbers and the streets don’t have names. So we walked down the
street, remembering landmarks by taking photos, stopping for tea,
testing out the fruit in shops (good fruit, but left in the sun too
long), and getting acquainted with the place. 4:30 rolls around, and
we still have absolutely no idea where we are. The roads so far have
been dirt, and we finally reached a paved street, but next to it is
this enormous ditch, because there are monsoons in the summer and
everybody figures it’s too much work to fill in the ditch year after
year. We thought the Nile might be to the right, so maybe we should
head that way and orient ourselves from the direction of the water,
and walked another 10 minutes. No sign of the Nile. We turn back.
There was a cute restaurant on the corner where we had turned, so we
decided to go in and have a bite. The ordering system was a bit
chaotic, but the menu had some English and I ended up with a delicious
beef shwarma in a laffa. Afterwards we decided that we would just go
to the house and hang out and forget the museum. Just then I got a
text from Anna saying that George, the owner of her hotel (where
everybody else was staying), knew were this Claude dude lived and
could send a taxi. An hour later, we were en route to a lovely juice
bar (as in Egypt, no alcohol, but they are much stricter here). The
catch was that we had to pay the taxi by the hour since George had
told him directions when he left, and nobody else would be able to
find the house. It only ended up being £20 for four hours though.
4.      Everything you own will be covered in dust. Most roads are made of
dirt. The ones actually tarred have big piles of dirt at the sides.
Cars have no air conditioning, so the windows are always open. There
is no escape.

Notes:
The currency here is SDG, or Sudanese pounds. If I want to say British
pounds, I’ll use the £. There are 5 SDG to the £, which sounds like
it’s strong except that it’s something called a fixed internal
currency, which I would describe in detail if I only had wikipedia
available. The internet is dastardly slow here.
I will try to write smaller, more frequent “cultural articles”,
because if I were to write what we do every day, it would get very
boring for you to read. Dig, dig, avoid getting dust in eyes, move
rocks. I also would prefer not to give exact details of who’s here,
since things can always be sensitive with governments and important
institutions.
My address: as you may have inferred from #3 above, I don’t have one.
Our village is called Kasura and is near Dongola. You can
google the latter to get weather reports (sunny and hot) and even find
me on a map (hopefully). If you do, please let me know where I am,
because I have absolutely no idea. The internet loads too slowly to do
any real research. Also, please send me any interesting news articles
or blog posts or things you find online, but cut and paste the text
into the email, otherwise it will never load.
Until later, stay dusty.

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