February 12, 2012

Sudan: Everybody’s got something to hide ‘cept for me and my donkey

Like in Cairo, the streets here are disproportionately filled with the
same type of car. In this region of Sudan, there are three forms of
transportation that make up 90% of the private vehicles on the road.
The first is the Toyota Hilux, a white pickup truck with orange and
yellow stripes along each side. I don’t know if these models are
actually from the 1980s or if they have just been casting the same
1980s design for the last 30 years, but they all look like something
from Footloose. The Toyota Hilux can be rigged up in a number of ways:
I’ve seen it loaded with crops, filled with people sitting in the bed,
and tricked out with benches and a cover for use as a professional
minibus. (Apparently it’s mildly inappropriate for strange men and
women to sit together, so men take one side and women take the other –
but I’ve seen exceptions.) The Hilux is mainly used on back roads and
out in the desert, generally for farm work. The second vehicle, more
for family use, is the Kia Vista. It’s a small, roundish sedan from
the 2000s available in many metallic colors – green, silver, pink,
blue – and generally filled with all the family’s children. The Vista
is not as common in the village as the Hilux, but Dongola is
absolutely filled with them. It’s also trendy to attach window decals
all over. These tend to be the kind that you get from gumball vending
machines in the US, with winking smiley faces and flags and hip
slogans, except that none of them make sense. The car owned by the
house katty-corner to us has “YOU CAN SEE ME” stuck underneath a hand
in an OK sign. Looney Tunes characters – in full color or in outline –
are incredibly popular.

But the main method of transport around here is (duh duh duh) the donkey.

That’s right.

The donkey.

I bet most people reading this have never seen a donkey up close. Let
me tell you a midrash (a Jewish explanatory tale) about the creation
of the donkey. So, God is handing out features to all the animals in
Eden, right? And he has a few sets of hoofed legs. “The skinny ones go
to the cow,” he says, “because they need all their fat up top. And the
muscular ones go to the horse, so they can run beautifully. And the
short ones go to the goat, so they can scrabble across rocks. And… I
guess I have these kinda knobbly guys left. Donkey, I guess.”
And God is handing out tails: “This long and elegant one goes to the
horse… the prehensile striped one to the lemur… the waggly one to the
dog… and hey, here’s one that’s a combination of a cat and a horse, I
guess donkey can have it.”
And God is handing out noises: “The hyena has to scare people away at
night, so I’ll give them a cackle. The cat needs a bunch of noises, to
signal happiness and contentment and displeasure. And I have this one,
a combination of an asthma attack, a choke, and someone standing on
your toe… donkey’s all that’s left.”
And when Adam was called to review all his animals, he figured the donkey was enough like a horse that he could ride it. Except that its
back was slightly too wide to ride comfortably, so he had to sit
sidesaddle, and when it walked it bounced too much, and when it ran it
didn’t bounce enough. And God had forgotten to tell Adam that he had
had too much stubbornness left over after creation and he just dumped
it all on the donkey. “Aw, man,” said Adam. “AUUUUUgghhuuUUUUUggghh,”
said the donkey.
I hope I have fully conveyed that the donkey is the most awkward,
weird, annoying animal ever. Every night a donkey across the street
(whom we’ve named Bernie) has some sort of fit that sounds like an
asthmatic kid on a roller coaster. It’s awkward to see someone riding
a donkey, because they have to sit not-quite-sidesaddle, but just kind
of hanging off. The donkeys come in two colors: a nice silver coat
that hides the dirt, and a white coat that shows the dirt. When
donkeys aren’t being ridden directly, they are used to pull
two-wheeled carts. These can be loaded up with produce or boxes or
used to seat up to eight people. They go very slowly and have a wide
turning radius, so it’s annoying to get stuck behind them on the road.
They also park at odd angles, taking up valuable pedestrian space.

Our inspector grew up on a farm in the Nuba mountains, and he told us
a story about his childhood: one day, he was asked to go out with the
donkey cart to fetch something. Halfway through, the donkey just
stopped. He yelled and pleaded and hit and it just refused. So he sat
down and started to cry. I don’t know how much this impacted his
decision to become a geologist, but it sounds like a good enough
reason to say, “I’m choosing a career with no donkeys in it.”

I actually got to pet a donkey today, and they have one thing going
for them: incredibly soft ears. However, seeing the ears makes me
think of the scary part in the Disney version of Pinocchio. So there.
All bad.

There are also camels, but these aren’t used for human transport.
People often walk alongside camels loaded with crops, or lead them
while riding a donkey. Apparently there are nomads out in the desert,
but they drive Hiluxes rather than ride camels; I’ve heard that they
still raise camels, though, and often transport them in the bed of the

Between private and public transport are hired cars, used exclusively
by tourists (yup! There are tourists in Sudan); this is a big
Mitsubishi pickup truck, also with yellow and orange stripes. I have
often stated that it’s a Western misconception that one needs a big
car made specifically for off-roading in order to go off-road. I’ve
seen Peruvian bus drivers make turns on dirt roads you wouldn’t
believe, and we certainly went off-road at the pyramids in an old
taxi. While the locals seem to have no trouble crossing the desert in
a Hilux, tourists with hired drivers prefer the souped-up Mitsubishis
with raised wheels and tinted windows. Some excavation teams use these.

As with private vehicles, there are three types of public transport.
First, the taxis. They are all Hyundai Ataz, a car that looks
strikingly similar to the Kia Vista, all painted green. I have not
been in a taxi yet, but I doubt they exceed the quality I experienced
in Cairo (fuzzy dashboard cover included). The taxi drivers are
particularly fond of window decals.

Second, there are the large inter-city buses. Drivers in Sudan usually
go very slowly, which makes up for their overall lack of skill; the
buses are the sole exception, as they speed along at over 100 km/h,
leaving trails of dust to blind anyone following too closely. The
buses are European-style (puppy-dog mirrors instead of elbow mirrors),
but – once again – covered in window decals. We stopped for gas once,
and I was able to observe a bus up close that was covered in Tweety
Bird and tribal design stickers. I’ve heard the buses are quite
comfortable, offering tea and a little cake at least once per journey;
they stop at little shacks in the desert for toilet breaks, which are
only appropriate for men to take. Apparently the Dongola-Khartoum bus
stops in a town with a “not terribly disgusting” women’s toilet. Good
thing I’m not taking the bus.

Third, there are moto-rickshaws. These are absolutely everywhere. The
driver sits in front with a scooter-style steering wheel, and the back
takes up to three passengers; however, the driver may compromise and
take a fourth in the front. They have no doors or windows on the sides
(only on the back, so they can put stickers on them). Today I was the
fourth, and rode about three kilometers half hanging out the side,
clinging on for dear life. They are also by far the most tricked out
of all vehicles here, with decals out the wazoo, foot straps and
handlebars hanging off the sides, tassels everywhere, and – best of
all – some have spikes coming out of each wheel. That’s right: spikes
coming out of each wheel. Clearly there is some late-night rickshaw
drag racing we are not privy to as tourists.

What do we drive, you ask? Well, to accommodate all of us, fourteen
workers, and the equipment, we have two white Land Rovers. The Land
Rover, I’m told, is a “good British car” invented just for this
purpose. I mean driving on uneven and rough terrain, not administering
colonies (although at one point these activities were one and the
same). They were bought new in England but couldn’t be shipped to
Sudan due to the embargo on shipping new cars that can be used for
military purposes, so they were dismantled, fitted an old chassis that
can support a tank, and rebuilt from the ground up: hence, no longer
new Land Rovers. The interior is a car stripped to its bare minimum:
instead of air conditioning, a lever opens a flap to the outside, and
I believe the interiors can be hosed out. They have enormous tires
that still burst quite frequently, and so I have learned to change a
tire here. It’s easier than I expected, but really annoying when you’re smack in the middle of the desert with no shade.

Speaking of the desert, I haven’t mentioned yet that people often get
around in humanity’s oldest way – on foot. I was once on a beach in Crete
when a Pakistani man started chatting up our gang. I asked how he came
to Greece, and he said that he had walked. “You walked?” I asked
incredulously. “Yes,” he said, “I walked to Turkey and then I took a
boat.” That was one of those  moments of incredible realization for
me. When people want things badly enough (in this case, to get out of
Pakistan), they just do it. Walk to Turkey? Sure. There was a big
debate in December about African illegal immigrants to Israel, mostly
from Sudan. How did they get to Israel? They walked. Across the big
desert. Compare that to my recent situation, when I was about 800
meters from the car, across a big plain of sand, and thought I was
going to pass out 300 meters in. Or walking back from the toilet bush
to the site, which is a short 200m, but I found that it’s so hot and
desolate that if I don’t keep my eyes on the site the entire time, I
end up going the wrong way, or in a circle, and when I get there I
take a long sip of water. There are also mirages, which are an awesome
trick of the light in which the sand ahead appears to be a
constantly-receding pool of water, reflecting anything behind it: a
lone palm becomes a beautiful grove.

People walk like this every day.

I am so spoiled by a civilization with cars.

We were driving home one day when we came across a hitchhiker. It’s
quite common and safe to hitchhike here, at least for men (women have
less need to go long distances without accompaniment), and we stopped
and offered him a ride. He looked in the backseat and saw it was full,
looked in the back of the car and saw it was almost full, and asked
where we were going. Here we are, in the middle of the desert, with
only one set of tracks, at least 2 km from anything green, and he
wants to know where we’re going? We all pointed to the tracks ahead.
He shook his head – no, I’m going the other way. I’ll wait for another
car. Since then, we’ve actually seen more people walking across the
desert, the best being two women in a pink and an orange tobe, with
all the extra cloth fanning out behind them.

Now a short update: we have excavated 83 burials, and only have two
more to go! However, this doesn’t mean I’ll get to come home early, as
we still have to process and pack all the bones, and then help finish
up all the other work. This means that I’ll probably be helping Ruth
count beads into the next millennium. I can’t believe how many there
are. One burial I excavated had 268 beads just from a necklace. If
anybody wants to do an experiment, buy some seed beads from Michael’s
and string 268 together. Then tell me how long it is, as we’re anxious
to see! (These are too delicate to restring.) I also found a big, chunky bead carved from red carnelian and a lip plug made of wood or
ivory. The best, though, is to find beads in situ around the wrists or
ankles, so you can imagine how the string would have looked. It’s
lovely to be reminded that these are real people we’re digging up,
individuals who wore beautiful jewelry into the grave.


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