Behind the Rope

January 10, 2016 – The start date on the Ethiopian visas we’d already applied for and brought from home was approaching, meaning the time had come to leave Sudan.

We had mixed feelings. We were looking forward to a new country and the next stage of our journey but sorry to leave Sudan where we’d had such a good time.

We took a last look around Omdurman Souk (market) near Khartoum:

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And we were lucky enough to see Sufis – adherents to a sort of mystical branch of Islam – gather to dance and pray outside the tomb of their leader, Sheikh Hamed al-Nil. The worshippers march across a cemetery to the front of the tomb, chanting, clapping and drumming. The chanting and drumming becomes more frenzied and the whirling dervishes dance and twirl. The idea is that through the hypnotic music and dancing, the dervish’s heart can communicate directly with God. It is a powerful sight.

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Of course, because this is Sudan we’re talking about, on the way back from Omdurman a friendly local found the right bus for us in a confusing crush of people and vehicles, helpfully elbowed several people out of the way and pushed me on board in the wrestling match that ensued when the door slid open – and paid for our fare.

And then it was time to pack up and move on.

After one last stop for tea and a photo-op, of course.

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We took a minibus from Gedaref to Gallabat. I’ve learned so much random geography in these past few weeks. Gallabat is the frontier town bordering Ethiopia so it boasts the usual border-town-assortment of scams and scammers; money changers; idle looking soldiers; and people who seem to spend the day in a continual flux between two countries, roaming back and forth in no man’s land.

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We ran the gauntlet, starting the moment we stepped off the bus. A tout who tried hard to send us in the wrong direction to what was very obviously a fake customs and immigration office where we knew ‘officers’ waited to shake us down. Several persistent money changers out after the rest of our Sudanese pounds at rip-off rates. A man masquerading as some kind of border-crossing assistant who insisted he had valuable ‘information’ for us. We managed to locate the actual customs office no thanks to the real officers who do nothing to deflect all the fraudsters.

An immigration officer quickly stamped us out of Sudan – leaving the country seems to be the one instance in which we’re processed quickly and painlessly. I love crossing by foot from one country to the next. There is no better way to arrive in a new land: disembarking a plane in a generic airport just isn’t the same. This was a pretty casual border, marked by a concrete hut painted with the Sudanese flag. A few uniformed guards waved us past and we ran ahead of the money changers who could no longer follow us.

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We joined the stream of migrants crossing no man’s land – and then ducking under the rope strung across the road that separates two countries, we strolled into Ethiopia.

It was like walking into a different world. Or at least, into a nightclub. Beer! Loud, happy, exotic music! Girls, out in the streets, and in short sleeves and skirts! Beer! Men holding hands with women instead of other men! And beer. The extent of Sudan’s restrained austerity really hit us.

We waited interminably for a minibus to fill up – that is, to reach or even better, exceed, capacity – so we could leave for Gondar.

Careening high into the mountains in the cramped and sweaty bus, we watched from the front seat as one country rapidly blurred into the next. After wandering in the scrubby deserts of Sudan the lush green mountains, trees, pretty little farms and colorful villages of Ethiopia were literally a breath of fresh air.

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Arriving in Gondar we saw familiar looking teastalls and little streetside eateries jostling for space on the crumbling pavement next to bars and cafes. There was the occasional shack looking very suspiciously like a brothel, and the obligatory guys fighting in the street. We found ourselves a room at a popular hotel – with soap, toilet paper, clean sheets, actual pillows instead of what feels like a sack stuffed with rags, private bathroom, and a hot shower – all for just 14 USD – the luxury! Actually just the fact that a ‘popular hotel’ even existed felt rather extravagant.

But there are tourists here and Ethiopia is ready for them (and they’ve got the heavily armed guards out in force to prove it). The question is if we are ready for Ethiopia, after the peace and quiet and wild nights out drinking tea in Sudan.

Let me drink this beer and get back to you.


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