When starting to plan this big overlanding adventure of the African continent, it felt like the only real hot potato would be Sudan. I almost jokingly suggested to my travel friend that we had to pass through Sudan since I only wanted to travel by land from Cairo to Cape town, not really thinking it would be feasible. While doing my research and looking into other people’s records of travelling the same classic route, it turned out that passing through Sudan was not only feasible but really quite a normal thing to do (for these type of travellers). Sudan, it was being reported, is a hyper friendly country with welcoming people and much respect for foreigners. In opposition to the globally bad rep and the recent commotion after the revolution (ousting a dictator), this was great news! After coughing up a slightly disproportional $150 for the visa, we sat out from the lush oasis of Aswan in Egypt to enter an eternity of desert views and excruciating heat. Would the friendliness compensate for the cruel climate?
Well. If you read my last blog post about the pleasant surprise you get when expecting the worst, I now did the opposite mistake of expecting a lot and ending up with a slight ”meh”-feeling of Sudan. Travelling as a woman through certain male dominated countries, especially conservative ones like Sudan has some pros and some cons. People were no doubt mainly friendly, and there is not much of hustling or rip offs while buying bus tickets or negotiating about hotel room prices. Sudan is a better developed country than the ones me and BB went through in West Africa, so buses are comfy, roads are well paved and hitch hiking easy. It is though, not a budget destination due to the low influx of foreign money, lack of foreign aid and decades of sanctions and dictatorship (with two long lasting civil wars in the west and to the south). All this has apparently deterred tourists, travellers and aid workers alike to pass through Sudan, only managing to attract the more adventurous ones willing to take the risk of finding out what all this has done to the country themselves.
Things are slowly changing though after the recent coup, and visa rules have eased up a bit even for bums like us. The lack of outsiders travelling through Sudan makes it hard to find affordable accommodation which doesn’t resemble an El Salvadorian prison cell. The country has definitely gone through some rough times and haven’t really had the time or money to invest in things like clean up programs or preservation of neither the environment nor the historical sights. 3 millennia old pyramids have been picked apart due to the locals needing stones to build their houses. Colonialism stole their most valuable possessions. War made homeless orphans peddling tissues on the streets of Khartoum. Corruption fed a very few and left the masses to fend for themselves under the roasting hot desert skies. While the inhabitants of Khartoum seem to be relatively well off, you don’t have to go far to experience real inequalities I can’t put to words in this short blog post. Though peace treaties are being signed, the dictator have been ousted and certain discriminating laws against women have been revoked, progress is slow. While travelling through the north eastern part of the country, from the Egyptian to the Ethiopian border during a week and a half, it was hard to wrap my head around what I actually experienced. I believe Sudan is moving in the right direction, and any traveller who is brave or lucky enough to make it to the stunning Darfur region or the southern Nuba mountains will be greatly rewarded with Mother Nature’s finest. However, this was not accessible to us at this time, so we chose to roast away under a merciless sun while watching pyramids, having big plates of spicy fish and chasing the breeze at the locals’ favourite boat cafés along the mighty Nile river. In truth, Sudan is more normal than abnormal, and give it a decade to sort out the political commotion of the last year, it could turn into a fast evolving economy, politically stable, attracting adventurous tourists and travellers in search of the ancient history being the foundation of our civilisations.
So what about the famed friendliness of the Sudanese people?
There are a few countries where guidebooks and travel blogs lists “the people” as the main attraction. After visiting Iran, which has some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes, magnificent ancient civilisation and fantastic food, it was still the people I met and stayed with there that gave me the warmest memories. Being in a different situation in Sudan though, since I did not do couchsurfing but chose to stay in guest houses and hotels, while travelling together with BB, we were to have a different experience. In such a male dominated social environment it is hard not to be noticed as two white women. This is sometimes a blessing and other times a curse. The few times we found ourselves among women they smiled friendly, with a look of sympathy towards our awkward and obvious standing out. Most men were nice and offered us help (needed or not), while on many occasions we were also simply pointed at, laughed at and mocked in a universal language of gestures we could not misinterpret. On some occasions we were ignored and often we were seated at the back of the bus, on the most uncomfortable seats, after a confusing discussion on where on the social ladder we ranked. Often there was also a reserved suspicion in their voices and on other occasions they just couldn’t stop staring. All this is of course a completely normal experience when travelling off the most beaten tracks of any country and something I have gotten used to, but it also made me wonder about how everyone else had such a great impression of Sudan. Maybe it was me expecting too much before arriving, or maybe it was just harder as a couple of women to reach under the skin of the mainly men dominated culture. Was it perhaps the travel bloggers I had read who had been expecting nothing and therefore having overwhelmingly positive experiences, or because of the fact that I did not travel solo that I missed out on the renowned Sudanese friendliness. When I left the country I mostly felt that it had been quite an ordinary experience, neither particularly weird nor particularly great, maybe because of my own fault, maybe just due to the circumstances.