Published: July 21st 2009July 14th 2009
I've been in Arab countries long enough to know that their time is not always quite the same as Western time. Egyptian time can be even less reliable than general Arab time. An Egyptian ten minutes may not be 600 seconds, it is only a vague indication that something may be happening at some point in the future (an sha allah caveated) can last a very long while. So I'm really not too surprised that the ten minutes that we had to wait to pick our bikes up from the ferry has now bled into a four hour sit down.
At 1130 we were told that the barge with our vehicles on was almost at the port. The ferry from Aswan is too packed with people and hand luggage to carry vehicles, so they have to follow behind on a seperate barge, which also carries all the other heavy imports into Sudan. Our bike was wedged safely in between a pair of fridges, behind Andrew and Angela's Rover, which was seperated from Alex's Toyota by several tonnes of cement.
We caught a taxi to the port, only to be told that we would have to wait another half hour.
Then another half hour. And then....guess? While we sat, several of the friends we had met on the boat came over to speak to us. Well, generally they wanted to speak to Andrew, who seems to have some kind of amazing magnetism despite not being able to speak a word of Arabic. Angela told us this happened, but I didn't quite believe it. Could be a useful person to have around! We met the Sudanese guy who processed our passports and gave us a brief interview, which including one question that I am sure cannot have been on the official sheet. 'Is it true that men and women who are not married can be together in Britain?' 'Of course,' I replied, as he threw out his followup, 'and they do everything together?' 'Of course we do, we live to....' Then I realised, as Hannah and Angela sort of snorted either side of me, 'everything,' may have been a little more loaded than I naively first thought. It all got a bit Hugh Grant after that, as I tripped over each word I tried to say, and each sentence had a good go at strangling me.
We also ran into
a guy who I had forgotten, but who definitely hadn't forgotten me, or rather he hadn't forgotten Hannah. 'Where is the little woman?' I said that my wife had stayed at the hotel, to which he made very sad faces. 'Ohhh, I am a very sad man, beautiful eyes, soooo sweet, I just want to eat her.' I think I'll take that as a compliment, even if it is a little freaky. I did tell him that he must not eat my wife, just before he told Angela that he wanted to take her eyes home with him, or failing that she must have a child so he could marry it. Tammy Wynette said that it's hard being a woman - well she should have tried being a woman in the Middle East if she wanted to know half of it.
The waiting continued. Andrew, Angela and I sat around chatting and staring, while Alex paced like a caged bear. His trips were not about waiting around, he liked to get from A to B in the shortest possible time, and this waiting was not on his schedule. Hannah had bad heat sickness first thing in the morning, thanks
to one of the sweatiest nights imaginable, so she had stayed in our nightmare of a hotel.
I have roughed it in some pretty terrible places, but Wadi Halfa has to come pretty high on the 'places I never want to go to again,' list. We had booked into the hotel that we had been recommended as best. The name escapes me, 'dakifta,' or something similar. If that really was the best, I struggle to imagine the worst. The manager was one of the rudest people I have ever met. Hannah normally moans at me for being too nice to people who are thoroughly horrible to us, but I could barely bring myself to speak to him after 24 hours. The cells, sorry, rooms, were flea ridden and dirty, with free cockroaches, no locks and metal door frames that were falling off of the walls. There was no water, and toilets with huge ecosystems crawling out of them. To top it off, the fans all stopped at midnight, and didn't get turned on again until morning. The concrete walls had absorbed the fifty degree heat all day, turning the little cell into an oven. We all lay in pools
of our own sweat all night, barely breathing, just trying to think cold thoughts and somehow bring our body temperature down. When I woke for the last time, I could have wrung my sleeping bag liner out. Han took it badly, and was sick, Angela wasn't sick, but felt hugely dehydrated. In the morning, Andrew and I went out to make a makeshft electrolyte drink for our wives.
We bought bottles of water from the cafe we had eaten fantastic fish at the night before, and tipped liberal amounts of salt and sugar in both. The girl who was looking after the cafe for her father wouldn't even accept payment for the bowl of sugar and half a pot of salt we had used. Just one of the first people in Sudan who would show us so much open generosity. We waved her goodbye, said good morning to the beautiful lady who sat making tea, just as she had been the night before, and probably just as she would be that night, and each night after that. The ryhthmic and hypnotic way she poured, all in her own time, and all so gracefuly had transfixed us while we ate
our tea. She greeted each person who passed with the same unguarded and genuine smile, which after the crocodile grins of Egypt, buoyed me for the rest of the day.
After the drink, Hannah was better, but still not up for going to go sit in the sun, so I went to pick up the bike on my own, it didn't take two of us after all.
Two o clock rolled around, and we were still sat on plastic chairs waiting for a barge that we were beginning to think had got lost at lake, if such a thing can happen. Alex kept running back and forth in between our seats and the door, badgering anyone even vaguely offical to see when the boat was arriving, or looking out of the window to see its arrival.
He looked out for the twentieth time in twenty minutes, and rapidly gestured to us, 'look, look, see, boat is here, Angeela, I see you car! No see mine though, maybe it fall into lake.' We all looked, and sure enough, the boat had materialised. But it was going the wrong way. We spoke to the fixer who was going to expedite our carnets, and he hurried off to find out the story. When he came back, the look on his face said it all. 'Sorry, the boat is going to a different part of the port. Maybe you wait for 3 hours, while they unload cargo there, then it come here.' 3 Egyptian hours!? We could be there until tomorrow! Except for the ebullience and sheer forcefulness of Alex we would have been. On hearing the bad news he stormed off to sort it. Despite only having basic English, and no Arabic beyond the shouted, 'ma fee mushkila,' he did indeed sort us out entirely. He arranged for us to get onto the bus taking people to unload the cargo, and then made sure that our vehicles were coming off before anything else. In a twist of bad fate, his was the last of our vehicles that could come off, after Andrew navigated down the slippery ramps with panache, and I followed down with the bike. The deck was around a metre off of the surface of the dock, which was barely longer than two car lengths itself, so the ramps had to come down steeply. Not a problem for a Land Rover, or a CG, but a bit more difficult for a Toyota Townmate with limited ground clearance. the deckhands navigated around the problem with ease though, simply wedging rocks under the wheels as he moved to give him more clearance.
Three vehicles off, we were ready to go. Customs was a brief affair, we only had the carnets left to sort, which we processed within minutes, thanks to the fixer's connections. Seems steep to pay for those connections, but we were bored of queues and wanted to get out and into Sudan.
By four o clock, we had left our flea pit, and we were on the road. As we left Wadi Halfa, a police checkpoint stopped us. The policeman behind the wheel of the solitary squad car was ony too happy to get a chance to use his megaphone, and him and Alex had a shouted conversation. 'Let me through, I am Russian.' 'No, we are the police.' 'Hello!' 'Hello!' 'Welcome!' When they had got bored of shouting at each other, the policeman gave us a cursory passport check. As we pulled away, he asked over his loud hailer, 'what you bike?' I replied that it was a Honda 125. 'I am thinking you will have lots of difficulties,' he smiled as we rode into the setting sun. I think he may have been right.