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Published: April 21st 2009
5:45AM finds me at the Khartoum "land port", seeking out a bus company called Afras that I have been recommended. The price seems steep but I assume this is because it is better quality than anything I've taken so far. My permit for Kassala is supposed to be stamped by some official here, but they have clearly not yet come to work, and after a few discussions my permit remains unstamped but I am allowed onto the bus.
It is immediately clear that this is not that great a vehicle, with legroom that means I can only sit with my legs out in the aisle. However the aircon is blasting away merrily and the two fleeces that I have brought on board as something to rest my head on end up being employed as insulation against the cold. The journey passes with my MP3 on continually, idly watching a French film dubbed into English (though amusingly one of the characters has a strong Irish accent) with Arabic subtitles.
Proximity to Kassala is apparent when I see a few rock formations rising out of what has been an otherwise flat landscape since Khartoum. These Taka mountains remind me of the
Olgas in Australia, weird granite shapes that look as though they have been dropped here from somewhere with a totally different topography. I share a taxi from the bus station into the town with a local woman.
The hotels in Kassala all appear to be priced too high, and it's only after traipsing round several that I am able to wring a discount of just 10% out of one owner. Still, I have my own room and the bathroom - though not en suite - can only be accessed via a door to which I alone have the key. The TV, with sound that fades in and out, has a remarkable number of educational channels on satellite. I experience at least two power cuts per day during my stay.
Kassala is possibly even hotter than Khartoum, but without the benefit of the river breeze that can be found in the capital. I can't drink enough to keep my throat from permanently feeling parched. I see no other whities in town, though supposedly there's a generous sprinkling of UN and NGO bods, and am met with plenty of waves, hellos, and general interest. It's like the north again.
Though the town is scratty, it has some interesting features, notably its souqs. The whole centre appears to be one huge market, with sections for clothing, fruit and veg, meat (a nauseating smell in these temperatures), household goods, and anything else you might want to lay your hands on. I see several T-shirts bearing Barack Obama's mug, but none of El-Bashir, however I do see a taxi with a couple of Osama bin-Laden decals.
The souqs are also good locations to see members of the two main tribes in the region - the Beja and nomadic Rashaida. The Beja can be recognised by the waistcoats they like to wear over their thobes. Their other distinguishing feature is their curly hair, with many rocking Afros that indicate inspiration from Kool and the Gang rather than Craig David. Most men carry short wooden sticks, some intriguingly curved like boomerangs, but I don't know what they signify. Occasionally I see women with silver noserings dangling from behind their veils, supposedly indicating they are from the Rashaida tribe. There are plenty of DayGlo-coloured dresses but I don't know who they belong to.
I read that, on the outskirts of Kassala, there are
refugee camps containing everyone from Eritreans and Ethiopians driven from home by assorted conflicts in the last 20 years, to displaced Sudanese from Darfur and the south. I meet several Ethiopians who have come to Sudan to find work, one of whom - Gurmu - takes it upon himself to look after me for an afternoon.
Gurmu has a degree in Chemistry from the University of Addis Ababa but, with jobs being scarce and pay low at home, he came to Kassala 6 months ago. Initially working on a fruit farm, he is now employed on a construction site. He has already learned Arabic but aims to return home in September as he says that life in Sudan is too hard. As a Christian, he has been physically threatened, as well as offered large sums of money to convert. He assures me that Ethiopia is an equal opportunity country for men and women, Muslim and Christian alike (though he admits that Ethiopia's constitution only allows the top government positions to be taken by Christians). Clearly identifying me as the sex tourist that I'm not, he warns me against sleeping with random Ethiopian women due to the HIV risk.
Gurmu and his Bangladeshi friend Mohandas - a veteran of two years in Sudan - insist on taking me to Kassala's main "recreational park". I am not entirely sure what they mean by this until we reach it and I see a Ferris wheel, Waltzer and various other fairground rides looming. Fortunately there's a power cut, so none of these Chinese-made rides are running and I don't have to explain my phobia of such things. Instead, we sit on one of the well-groomed patches of grass, eating icecream and watching the many locals who have decided to spend their afternoon in these pleasant surroundings. Gurmu hopes to move to Italy or Canada at some point, to continue his studies. He writes me out a poem that he composed at university, about how money does not bring you happiness. I wonder how he can maintain his love of education when, as a graduate from the most prestigious university in Ethiopia, he has had to leave his country to earn $100 per month on a fruit farm in a place where people dislike him for his religious beliefs.
The two of them pay for everything during our afternoon together. I really
must learn to improve the effectiveness of my "I'm offended by you not allowing me to contribute" face.
I also meet a local man who studied pharmacy in Mumbai and Madurai. He informs me that Craig David's popularity in Sudan originated with his music but then progressed to his hair, due to its (at the time) style and CD's African looks. He says that "Seven Days" is his favourite song and I choose not to reveal that I know as much about Sudanese hip hop as I do about UK garage.
My camera is a highly suspicious object here. My photography generally has a minimal human element anyway, but even when I am taking shots of harmless subjects such as the mountains I am told "No, khawaja, no". Two boys in the town ask me to take a photo of them, but then an older man comes by shaking his head and wagging his finger. Conversely, several groups of men ask me to take their photos and seem to derive an enormous amount of pleasure from seeing themselves captured on the LCD. I can understand why people might not want pictures taken of themselves without permission, but I'm
not sure why shots of inanimate objects or willing subjects should cause such concern. It's unclear if the objectors have a point or are merely interfering busybodies, but I keep my photo taking to a minimum. On a related topic, I had been told that security in Kassala was tight and that I would constantly have to produce my Kassala permit, however I am not asked for it even once.
A famous site in Kassala is the Khatmiyah mosque at the base of the Taka mountains. It's dedicated to a dead Sufi holy man, whose tomb is located there too. There is an open dome above the tomb but, supposedly, if it rains then the tomb remains dry. I have read that the site is peaceful and welcoming but my two visits there give quite the opposite impression.
My first visit happens to coincide with prayer time on a Friday evening. I sit away from the mosque, watching the mountains through the hazy air, and am soon approached by a young man who speaks good English and assures me that he is my friend - always a warning sign. Within the space of a few sentences, we are
onto the subject of religion. I mentally decide to be Christian today, and it becomes clear that he is on a mission to convert. After repeatedly pressing me to agree to study Islam with him, which I gently rebuff, he eventually asks if I am happy to die a Christian. When I say yes, he pointedly turns his back on me and returns to the prayer area.
On my second visit, at about the same time two days later, I am followed around the lower bouldered levels of the mountains behind the mosque by a group of children who continually demand various of my possessions as gifts, from my money to my watch to my camera. When I later descend to ground level, I am pelted with stones from above.
Khartoum had frustrated me with its Post Office that never opened, but Kassala - a town of over half a million people - exceeds that by not having a Post Office at all (as per the owner of my hotel). I resign myself to lugging my cruddy postcards into another country before I can actually send them off to their soon-to-be-disappointed recipients.
With the main bus station
here a few kilometres out of town, I ask my hotel guy for information regarding buses from here to Gedaref and thence the border with Ethiopia. In fact I ask him three times, and am told i) there is only one per day, at 3PM, ii) there are many all through the day, and iii) there is only per day, at 8AM. Though I am inclined to believe option ii) as Gedaref is on the main route to Khartoum, I decide to hedge by going for option iii). This is at least partially accurate and, after declining multiple offers of swords and men's aftershave at the bus station, I board a bus to Gedaref. Dull but possibly useful info
i. A taxi from downtown Khartoum to the bus station should cost about SP10, but as a foreigner you'll be lucky to get it below SP15.
ii. You have to pay a SP1.5 terminal tax on entry to the bus station.
iii. My bus from Khartoum to Kassala was with the bus company Afras. It had an intended departure time of 7AM (I think), took 7 hours 20 minutes, and cost SP49.
iv. A taxi from Kassala bus station to
the centre of town should cost SP10. I say this because I shared with a local woman, and we both paid SP5.
v. I stayed at the El Nada hotel, paying SP45 for a room with double bed, fan, AC (which didn't work that well), TV, and my own (but not en suite) bathroom.
vi. I did not have to register in Kassala, though the hotel took copies of the information and visa pages of my passport.
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