Saturday, 16 March 2013

15 March – transferring between cultures and climates

After a very emotional couple of weeks of parties and partings, I finally left Sudan yesterday on a 6.30am flight. I was driven to the airport by Griselda’s driver and was immediately pounced on by a porter who helped me carry my large amount of luggage into the airport building.  He asked where I was going and then delivered me to the correct window.  I checked in my luggage, including my viola and then sat in the very drab waiting area.  Various staff came at intervals to ensure I got to the right departure gate.  The departures lounge is old and shabby with no duty free area although there is a small cafe. 

What Sudan lacks in modern efficiency and comfort they certainly make up in individual care.  As I have found travelling elsewhere in Sudan, although all signs are in Arabic and people speak little English, there is almost always plenty of help available.  I do think they are missing a trick not having shops at the airport though, as it would be a great place to catch travellers who want to buy Sudanese gifts for relatives at home while waiting for their flights. 
I had booked a window seat on the plane and was very glad I did, as I kept bursting into tears each time I thought about my new Sudanese friends, left behind in Sudan.  I was able to turn away and look out of the window so at least I was saved from making a complete spectacle of myself.

I transferred planes at Amman.  The airport is newly built and very modern.  After Ed Damer and Atbara, and even after Khartoum Airport, it seemed like a different world.  However, the duty free prices were also in a different world and all thoughts of buying small gifts for my grandchildren were quickly dashed. The announcements were made in very good English as well as Arabic, which felt very strange too.
Then I took my second plane onward to London.  In spite of travelling at the most civilised time of day (leaving Amman at midday and arriving in the mid-afternoon UK time) it was the emptiest plane I have ever taken.  Most of the rear seats were vacant and even towards the front where I was sitting, I had an empty seat next to me.

Once I arrived at Heathrow I went to reclaim my luggage, only to find that my viola had been lost.  I went to report it.  The member of staff handed me a form to fill in, checked my luggage receipts for the number, and told me that she would check with Khartoum and Amman immediately.  When found, it would be put on the next flight to Heathrow and I could expect a phone call at 3pm tomorrow.  She asked for an address so it could be delivered to me.  She was very apologetic for the inconvenience, which (as I pointed out to her) was not her fault at all.  In the event, the phone call came at 8.30am today to tell me that my viola had been found at Amman.  What efficiency!  The word ‘inshallah’ (God willing) was not mentioned once in the whole conversation!  A timeframe was given without me having to ask.  What a contrast with Sudan where even the English teachers struggle with telling the time and the chances of getting a definite time for any event are very slim.
As I had no winter clothing with me, I had asked my daughter-in-law Amelia to come to the airport to fetch me bringing winter clothes.  I knew that she would be a couple of hours late as she was on a course during the day, so I settled down with my mobile in the warmly heated airport and called various friends to tell them that I was back.  It was fantastic to have my Blackberry fully functioning after so many months in which it has refused to provide any internet features at all. 

Amelia arrived with a bag of my own winter clothes and warm boots.  Then we took my luggage on the Underground to their new flat, which I hadn’t seen before.  It was raining slightly and the temperature was about 10oC, which felt very cold indeed to me.  Everything looked so grey and drab after the bright sun of Sudan.  Even our fellow passengers' winter clothing was dark and dull.  It all looked very bleak.  Roll on the spring and summer which are so necessary here!
The flat is above a shop in Hammersmith, close to a parish church which I used to attend years ago.  It will be nice to see people there again after so long.  It feels so strange to have limitless hot and cold water and heating.  I soaked in a hot bath, which felt luxurious after my cold water showers in Sudan, and after the rather grim journey through London. 
Griselda has very kindly offered me her flat in London as a base, so I will be moving there in a few days and will be able to leave my son and his wife in peace.

What next? I don’t know.  I need to plan my next phase and will spend the next few weeks looking at what I am going to do.  ‘Inshallah’ it will be something similar to what I did in Sudan.  This is the last post in this blog, as I move on to a new phase.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

9 March – El Carava

Last Tuesday, my Sudanese band held a goodbye ‘celebration’ for me.  We had a lovely time, playing together in between speeches from various members of the band, with whispered translations from Hisham (the regular violinist) who’s English turned out to be a lot better than I had previously realised.  It is extraordinary that Hisham and I, have been playing together for several months, been very friendly, but used only the musical language!  At the end of the evening I was presented with a framed certificate.  Somebody videoed the whole occasion and I am hoping to be able to upload it on this blog once I have a copy.

The Sardine Tin
The next day I went on a much anticipated trip to a village in the north of River Nile State called El Carava.  I haven’t managed to find it on a map.  Like most habitable places in Sudan it is next to the Nile, but in a much rockier, hillier area than any I have been to before.  Sumaya, the teacher who had invited me, and her mother met me in Atbara and we took a very crowded bus which also contained numerous sacks and containers of provisions.  We sat on sacks of flour, large barrels of petrol and many other essentials.  This gave quite a flavour of how remote El Carava would be, which was confirmed when Sumaya told me that there are no shops apart from a pharmacy.  The journey took three hours in which we felt like sardines in a tin (the bare metal of the roof and sides also gave this impression).  Some passengers had to sit on the roof.  In spite of the discomfort of being unable to move, everyone was very cheerful, even the children.  The vast majority of passengers were members of the same tribe and were making the journey to attend the funeral of a young relative who had died of cancer.  I can only assume that she can’t have been a very close relative, they were such a happy bunch of people! The bus driver was a cousin of Sumaya’s.

We arrived and walked the remaining distance along the barely operational railway track, which is also used as the main street.  Traffic consists of the occasional boy or man on a donkey, or people walking.  The original intention had been to stay at the family home.  However it had been left empty for quite some time and it was decided that we would stay with cousins instead. 

The extended family owns quite a lot of farmland beside the Nile.  The household of Sumaya's cousins consists of a very old lady, two middle aged women and a live-in servant.  As far as I could tell there are no men in the household, but I may be wrong.  I have found many times that Islamic segregation of men and women in River Nile State is often so strict that you would never know that both sexes lived in the same house.  The village has no electricity and relies on individual private generators. The family’s generator is only used for a couple of hours after dark. 
On our first day, Sumaya took me down to the river.  On our way she introduced me to a local type of insect repellent – a crown of leaves which she swears works very effectively (pictured).  She also explained various local medicinal herbs, including a useful twig which makes an excellent toothbrush complete with toothpaste!

I slept very badly, partly due to the large number of rather noisy sleepers sleeping right next to me, but also because I had a very bad cold.  The next morning Sumaya, her mother and I walked to their own home, taking in another part of the village (pictured with the mosque in the foreground).  We tried unsuccessfully to buy some fish, although we were given some corn on the cob instead. 
Sumaya’s childhood home is a very impressive house on a hill with fantastic views.  It looks like an Arab style castle, hanging above the Nile in a way very reminiscent of castles along the Rhine.  We cooked a simple meal on charcoal.  It was fascinating to watch Sumaya’s minimalist approach due to the scarcity of charcoal.  I was expecting to cook the corn still in its leaves to preserve the moisture, but was told that this would use too much heat.  Instead we striped the corn and had it rather burnt and dry.
We walked back to the cousins’ house across the hillside.  On our way Sumaya pointed out a very ancient graveyard, barely visible among the stones.  It has been investigated by archaeologists, who found pottery buried with the dead.  Frustratingly, Sumaya was unable to tell me anything more about the site.

Sumaya decided we should return to Atbara in a more luxurious fashion the next day.  A local taxi driver took us across the desert  to the nearest road, half an hour’s drive across a moonscape of dark rocks (see picture).  We came to a small shelter next to the completely empty road.  Sumaya had hoped that we could flag down a bus.  However, there was a car parked there, and the driver was having a drink at the zeer (pottery water pots).  We were very lucky that he was wanting to take passengers.  As promised by Sumaya, the journey was far more comfortable and also a bit quicker.  The cost was S£30 (UK £6) each, compared to S£15 in the sardine tin. 

It was certainly an interesting trip, if an uncomfortable one.  It really made me appreciate the home comforts of Ed Damer, where Kate and I have been able to adjust the arrangements to suit our western tastes (sleeping privately for example).  Here we have reliable electricity, piped water (even if it is muddy and only works for a limited time a day), a large market and very cheap, fast and frequent public transport to Atbara where I can go to church and play in the band. 
What El Carava has, which Ed Damer lacks, are the spectacular views and amazing contrasts between the black rock desert and the beautiful riverside farms.  Sumaya has a brother who lives in London and visits with his family each year.  His wife has suggested that El Carava would be a wonderful tourist resort.  The river has sandy beaches and cataracts close by.  Unfortunately it wasn’t possible for me to visit these, but clearly they would be a draw.