I almost can’t believe it. I read and re-read the message posted online, yet after further research, it seems to be true. The car ferry between Sudan and Egypt, crossing Lake Nasser, is no longer. The road is now open. Finally, excited overlanders are saying, finally that logistical nightmare is over. A wave of melancholy engulfs me and I let out a barely perceptible sigh. I tell Chris and he just looks at me and gives me a sad smile. “It’s probably a good thing” he says “the easier it is to travel…the more people will do it.”
The Wadi Halfa to Aswan ferry. That damn ferry. The one that gifted us what is, over 5 years later, still one of the most remarkable travel experience Chris and I have ever had.
The overlanding revolution is gaining momentum. Within a matter of just a few months, the Panama Canal crossing has been made immensely easier with the addition of a vehicle ferry, we’ve managed to cross China unguided and now this, the only true hassle of a trans-African crossing, is a thing of the past. Driving around the world has become easier, and although there’s a part of me which thinks it’s a pity, a much bigger part knows that ‘adventure’ can be had from the moment you take off out of your driveway. There’s still plenty to discover, challenges to accept and remote corners of our incredibly beautiful planet to explore. It doesn’t all have to be on tarmac, if you don’t want it to be.
But now I regress to 2009, the year Chris and I joined our nomadic paths and started travelling together. The last year we both spent in Africa. Back then we were travelling on Matilda, Chris’ beloved Landy, at a time when we neither had websites nor blog sites. We sent letters home to our loved ones instead.
This is one of my most memorable.
Wadi Halfa, Sudan, December 2009
Our desert crossing continues for almost 2 weeks, we have a ferry booked in Wadi Halfa on the 25th November. This is normally plenty of time to cover the distance. However, it proves to be just enough time for us! No sooner do we drive off in the morning that we find another “perfect campsite”. A couple of times we don’t even manage to drive at all and stay in one spot for a few days. Glorious sunsets and sunrises are our only companions, bar the odd Bedouin and camel. By now, both are looking decidedly more presentable than we are…luckily, out here, we offend no-one with our bodily smells. Afternoon hikes to nearby dunes and rocky hills work on our appetites, and every evening we try to find the highest spot around to enjoy yet another breathtaking Sudanese sunset. Just one more, we say, just one more and then we’ll move on…
After a fortnight of voluntary and blissful isolation, our food box is beginning to look slightly anorexic.
“OK, what shall we cook tonight?” Chris asks jovially one evening while I take stock.
“Well…our options are: instant mash potato with surprise sauce, 2 minute noodles with surprise sauce or rice with guess what? Yey! Surprise sauce!”
“I’ll take the rice!” Chris exclaims, trying to sound enthusiastic
“Hmm happy you said that, ‘cos we don’t actually have any noodles or instant mash left!”
Approximately an hour later, long after the sun has descended, I am straining to see my plate and left slightly aghast.
“What’s up?” Chris asks.
“Is your dinner moving by any chance?” I ask, hoping to be suffering from hallucinations…
“Hang on let me grab a torch” Chris reaches above his head and grabs an industrial size head lamp meant to light up entire stadiums. To my complete and utter disgust, I realize I am not going mad after all.
“WEEVILS!!!!” We utter in horrified unison!! Dinner goes flying out the door faster than you can say GROOOOOOOOOSE!
I wonder if it’s possible to brush your tonsils clean. I sure as hell tried. The nausea still haunts me as I climb up to bed, still a tad hungry.
“I think it’s time we reconnected with the real world again. How about driving straight to Wadi Halfa tomorrow? Our ferry is in 2 days anyway” Chris consoles me as he rummages through the remains of our food supply. He comes up with nothing.
“Yes please, first stop…falafel roll!” I exclaim excitedly.
Ok…just one last sunset…promise.
By lunchtime next day we are standing in front of a falafel store in the middle of dusty Wadi-Halfa, our last port of call in Sudan. A young kid knows where we can find Mazar, the guy we’ve been emailing for a few months and who has organized our ferry tickets. We have our money and paperwork ready and are preparing ourselves for the adventure the Lake Nasser crossing promises to be. Our excitement is premature.
“I’m sorry but the Egyptian Government has cancelled the vehicle ferry for 2 weeks in a row, you won’t be able to leave until the 9th of December” are Mazar’s first words upon greeting us. Chris and I look at each other in bewildered horror. For an hour we try and find a solution, but everything Mazar comes up with is not an option. Sure, we could go to Egypt on the passenger ferry, but what good is that if Matilda is stuck in another country? We visit the police headquarters to ask for permission to cross into Egypt by land, but are refused. We beg, we plead, we (I) even shed a tear…but nada. A road actually exists, but only for military vehicles. There’s nothing to be done yet we still rack our brains.
At 5pm we accept our fate with huge sighs…we are stuck in Wadi Halfa for 16 days, like it or not. We are not even too worried about the fact we only have 50USD left, as I said before in previous letters, you’ll always be fine in Sudan. Mazar is ultra apologetic: “I am so sorry, please you are my guests. You can stay at my house until you leave. If you need money just ask me, ok? But please, feel like you are at home.”
It’s a great offer and one which we accept gratefully, right now we are in dire need of showers and lifeless edibles. The older English overlanders we met in Mazar’s office do not even consider staying in Wadi Halfa; they’ve spent just a day here and are already bored stiff. They’ll take the passenger ferry to Aswan today and Mazar will load their car on the next ferry. We would never consider this; Matilda contains all our worldly possessions. Besides, she’s our home and third member of our travelling party. No-one ever gets left behind.
We drive to Mazar’s house and park outside his gates. Houses here are more like open air compounds; only the kitchen and family bedrooms have roofs; the rest is open to the elements. We are warmly welcomed by Mazar’s family. Mum, grandma, brother Mihad and sisters Muna and Lubna are all living in a single house. Within an hour we are sharing a huge meal of stewed beans (ful), falafels, goat cheese and black olives. There is no fuss; a huge platter is planted on the floor and everyone sits cross legged around it. Hands, and beans fly about in a scene reminiscent of hyenas feasting on a carcass. Chris and I smile at each other and dig in before it’s all gone. We seem to be a big hit with grandma. Apparently most tourists who stay overnight tend to keep to themselves.
The ‘shower’ is a small concrete enclosure, furnished with a massive water urn and metal pouring cups. Muna assures me that if I can hold off until about 3pm tomorrow afternoon it’ll be so hot the cold shower will be a welcome relief. She is right. Mazar’s family is very attentive; they are gracious hosts and feed us well. After a few days, mum takes me aside and lays down the law: we are to feel completely at home. If we are hungry we can go into the kitchen and cook some ful, if we are thirsty we make ourselves tea or coffee. She seems adamant and I think I understand why. Guests are so much easier to cope with when they are independent! Moreover, the week end is approaching and everyone’s readying for big Hajj celebrations. This is the reason why our ferry was cancelled, “Hajj” is the time of year when Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, or celebrate at home if they cannot afford to travel.
One morning, as we are sitting in the courtyard typing away on our respective laptops I notice the girls running around like headless chooks. All the contents of the kitchen have been brought outside and everyone is busy washing and drying. I decide to score extra grandma-brownie-points and lend a hand.
“Better go see if there are any female-duties I can do” I explain to Chris, somewhat expecting to be turned away at the wash basin.
Muna tells me that the extended family is coming up from Khartoum tomorrow and preparations for the big feasts are in full swing. I offer to help and before I know it I’ve washed 357 glasses, coffee cups and tea pots. I don’t mind, really, even when I see Chris lazily sharing cups of chai with the men. The scene has such an Italian flair to it! After lunch I am handed a bowl of spiced minced meat and a tray-full of hollowed out peppers and aubergine. No translation necessary: stuff mince in veggies. Done! The girls are surprised at my speed, but they don’t realize how many cannelloni I’ve filled with ricotta and spinach in my life. Once accomplished, I notice mum is straining her back kneading an impossibly huge ball of dough. I pitch in, until 42 loaves of bread later we collapse knackered into huge floor cushions. Mum does not speak a word of English and my Nubian is a little rusty, yet our language gap is no hindrance where food preparation is concerned. She shows me her badly swollen arthritic knees and I rub them in sympathy. Being a woman is hard work in this world, no matter what nationality you are. This could be a scene in any Italian, Greek, Argentinean, Chinese or Russian household. Mums will cook for their families until they drop dead.
We swiftly adapt to our new Nubian family life…
We awake to the loud chatter and ululations of arriving family early next morning. After our first cup of coffee we decide to go in the house and meet everyone. We are sleeping in Matilda, even though outdoor beds were laid out the moment we arrived. The family is big, REALLY big, and retreating to our humble abode of an evening is our way of finding some aloneness here.
I am keen to help out now; I can imagine Mum is a little stressed. The ‘family’ consists of multiple brothers, sisters-in-law, aunties, uncles, nephews, nieces and sheep. That’s right…sheep. Three of them.
“For Hajj we have to slaughter 1 sheep a day for 3 consecutive days, in honor of Abraham’s sacrifice to Allah” Mazar explains “And then we will feast like kings!” (Islam and Christianity share the same prophets, except for Mohammad of course).
The sheep are segregated to an enclosed part of the huge yard awaiting their ultimate sacrifice. This is one time when I must not let my sensitivity show; after all I am a guest in their house. Mid afternoon, busily braiding sheep intestine with Mazar’s aunty, my feelings towards the slaughtering of animals within ear-shot becomes apparent. Everyone laughs as I pretend to shove one of the sheep in the shower block to save her from her fate. The only one not laughing is Lubna, herself a vegetarian.
“Vegetarian? In Sudan? How do you manage that?” I ask in total surprise.
“It’s not easy but my family is very respectful. My father made me watch while he slaughtered a sheep when I was a child. I cannot even stand the smell of meat now” she explains. Fair enough, poor kid, yet I wonder how she will ever find a husband in a country like Sudan when unwilling to cook meat. The days pass in a haze of fleeing sheep, barbequed intestine-braids and mountains of bread. I politely refuse meat on the third day; the smell around the compound has become overpowering. Every morning there’s a new sheepskin hanging over the fence, complete with hollowed hoofs and dripping blood.
I haven’t seen much of Chris recently. The hours until midday are taken up with food preparations, and Hajj-meals are mono-sex affairs. We haven’t shared dinner together in days. The family eats together when it’s just us, but the moment there is a guest the sexes segregate. Surprisingly, men play a big role in the cooking as well. Brothers and uncles are forever coming into the kitchen to stir pots, taste sauces and give unsolicited suggestions about adding more spices. Soon enough they are shooed out by Mum wielding a huge wooden spoon. When all is ready the men are supplied with trays of glorious food to carry into the local ‘square’, where the male-members of a dozen families assemble with their respective platters.
The women gather at one of the houses and enjoy their meals amidst lots of girlie-chat. Seems women all over the world are similar too. Unsurprisingly, I appear to be the object of much curiosity and Muna does a great job as a translator. They are really just interested in one thing: sex. More precisely: how on earth do Chris and I manage intense cuddles inside a Land Rover? I choke on a falafel the first time this question is directed at me, yet I soon lose all inhibitions. Not unlike a game of charades I use my hands to try and explain all the different positions still possible in such a limited space. The women are laughing hysterically and hiding their embarrassed faces behind their veils. They’re embarrassed? Geez, what should I say? Bet they wish they hadn’t asked now! After a half hour conversation I can see the women are not convinced. They do not consider how Sudanese women are generally twice my size and Chris lacks the obligatory huge belly all local men seem to possess. I’m really hoping a lesson of show-and-tell won’t be necessary, but luckily I am saved further embarrassment when a different question is fired my way. Now they want to know how many boyfriends I’ve had! Hmmm…can we go back to the first question?
Jokes aside, I find the “girls” to be extremely open minded about the whole subject. When I ask whether they think I am a ‘bad’ person for having pre-marital sex, they all shake their heads and send big smiles my way, emphasizing how they understand our cultural differences. They do ask me however, why I don’t particularly want to get married. This is a tough one to explain; you see, people here don’t get divorced, and the women are looked after financially by men from the day they get married till the day they die. Marriage is such a sought-after arrangement by young ladies in Muslim countries that the idea that one may not “want” to get married is as perplexing as not “wanting” to have children.
I try my best to elaborate: “In my country if I get married, it is not a guarantee of security or companionship. My husband can still leave me, whether we have children or not. Women must also provide their own financial support. Once that security is gone; the “need” for marriage is obsolete.”
Personally, I would actually prefer to wake up next to the same man for 40 years because I want to, not because a marriage certificate tells me that I should; I find that a much more romantic ideal. Lifelong love should not be dictated by a signature on a piece of paper. It’s either there, or it’s not. I loathe the notion that should feelings for a partner dissipate in time, one feels obligation to stay. I couldn’t possibly persist with a love-less relationship and would hope my partner thinks the same.
But now I’ve lost them completely, or maybe they are just shaking their heads in disagreement. It is not directed at me, I’m told, but at the ‘marriages’ in our countries. They tell me they feel sorry for the women of the western world.
It is amazing how many sides a coin can really have.
I am looking forward to Tuesday! The Hajj will be over and I am hoping life at the Mazar Compound will return to its usual lazy, relaxed self. But I am wrong. As I walk sleepy-head into the house one morning all is eerily quiet. Where is everybody? Oh goodie, time to myself! I check the ful pot and see there are still plenty of leftovers for breakfast. Just as I start preparing a tray for my man, Muna runs in the house shouting my name.
“Hey good morning!” I greet “Where is everyone?”
“The men have gone back to work and we are all next door at aunty’s place preparing!” She answers excitedly.
“Preparing for what?” I ask, but maybe I don’t want to know!
“Did Mazar not tell you? There will be a wedding next week-end; the whole village is coming and everyone is busy. Will you come next door after breakfast?” She asks expectedly. We’ve become real buddies and I know she’s enjoying showing me the ropes of Nubian life in Sudan.
“Yes of course, what are we making?” I ask “Anything with sheep intestine?”
“Oh no, you’ll see, you’ll looooove this one!” She answers as she runs back out the door.
Half an hour later Chris and I are sitting cross legged on the floor sharing food from various bowls, for once it’s just the two of us. We haven’t used cutlery in over a week and are enjoying the extra sensory it provides. No cold metal on your teeth, just juicy food and messy fingers. What I do love today is the fact that the only digits I have to compete with belong to my beloved.
When I leave Chris to his daily book-writing and venture next door I am met at the gate by a score of kids happily stuffing their mouth with biscuits. I then notice the soft baking aroma and I hurriedly walk in its general direction. The scene is incredible. About 100 women are organized in the massive yard in orderly bundles of three, sitting around a small table. Along the back wall are huge gas ovens manned by overweight, smiling Nubian women and all around me are bed-spreads completely covered in biscuits. Muna notices me and comes over while I wave my hand around greeting all the ladies.
“Want to be a biscuit cutter?” she asks.
“As long as I can be a biscuit taster too!” I reply.
“Of course! Come, try one” she says, handing me two extremely yummy vanilla and coconut ones.
“We need to bake 5000 today!” she exclaims, glad to have two more hands.
The women work in shifts of 15 minutes, so everyone gets a turn at every job and the cutters don’t develop carpel-tunnel on the first day. My stint at the ovens only lasts about 3 minutes. Grandma dobs me in.
“Hey Laura, Grandma says you are eating more than you are baking?!!” Muna playfully scorns me. Damn Grandma…thought she was on my side!
The rest of the week, leading up to the wedding, is again spent amongst wonderful women. I am enjoying this experience immensely and cannot help but feel a tinge of sadness at our upcoming departure.
The wedding lasts for 3 days in a flurry of food, some sort of weird square dance and lots of gorge-induced siestas. I spend most nights perusing the wedding guests in search of a suitable husband for Muna: she’s 27 years old, eager to get married and have children. She can chat to boys, but only under supervision. Should a boy be interested in her, his parents must first approach her parents and make a suitable ‘offer’ of marriage. This usually includes jewellery, money and a few camels. She seems happy with that arrangement, as the choice is ultimately hers to make, no matter how impressed her family is with the ‘offer’.
“You don’t wish you could get to know a man first?” I ask her one late evening, while having a mid-night cup of chai in the kitchen.
“Oh no, what’s the point? Do you have really know you partner? I just care that he is from a good family, is kind and has a beautiful smile. A smile can tell a lot about a man.” She replies.
She’s not so wrong. I remember the first thing that struck me about Chris…his beautiful smile.
The following morning, as we are lazily recounting the events of the past few days, Mazar walks in and informs us that the ferry has finally arrived. We are leaving. I throw a glance at Muna and Mum and they nod. We must be happy, they ask, and I think they are pleased when I make a sad fish-face.
Late on our last night, after all have retired, we spring Matilda into life and drive a half hour out of town. We want to sleep in the desert just once more…and take some time to reflect on the serendipity of the ferry cancellation.
Next morning we are all packed and ready to go, having a very long day ahead of us. We must drive to the docks at 9am yet no-one actually knows what time we will load the car and board the ferry. “Inshallah” we are told “sometime between now and sunset”. Fab.
Our goodbyes are drawn out and very emotional, Mum and Grandma are crying unashamedly and Muna just won’t let go.
”You come back here when you and Chris get married ok? We will make big celebrations for you!” she promises “You can even bake your own biscuits!”
Mum gives me a strong, firm hug and whispers something in my ear. As usual I turn to Muna.
“She said you are like a daughter to her now” she translates. My throat is so lumpy I can’t even respond.
We drive off slowly, air-kisses flying in all directions. I am now extremely grateful the ferry was cancelled; this has been one of the most unforgettable experiences in my entire life.
We drive to the dock and are met by half a dozen foreign vehicles, all have arrived from different directions to catch the ferry. Most have bush camped just outside Wadi Halfa for a night or two and I am secretly glad they did not invade Mazar’s house and ‘our’ family. We introduce ourselves and look at the pontoon: it is still full of automobiles from the southbound trip. Chris puts his arm around me and gives me an encouraging smile.
I think it’s gonna be a long wait.
We love you and miss you all so much. We are well, please don’t worry.