Wednesday, May 23, 2007

allah wa akbar and the train to hell...


the train from/to hell...

train from/to hell, part 2...

the nubian desert...

second class passengers...

pray time on board the ship from/to hell...

Hello my friends,

The traveling has been hot and heavy for the past while. A little too quick for my taste. (even though I'm theoretically control the pace). So, I find myself in Cairo now relaxing after the rigours of traveling the Sudanese outback.

The train from Khartoum to Wadi Halfa really was a physical and logistical nightmare. The debacle started right away. After the stampede (I don’t know why people rush because each passenger has a ticket), I was unceremoniously yanked from my 3rd class seat. Apparently they sold it previously to another passenger. A blessing in disguise, I thought, when they plunked me in padded seat in a 2nd class compartment as a replacement.

From there, the train slowly chugged out of Khartoum. As it turned out, ”slowly chugging” was its only speed. It didn’t matter though. We were soon out of Khartoum and into the bleak landscape of the nubian desert to one side and the occasional rendezvous with the Nile river to the other side of the train.

I shared the compartment with a really nice family: Mahmoud, his wife and 5 kids. The smallest kid was pretty nasty. He’d wail away every time he wanted sometime. Very annoying. I wanted to club him one right over the head. But, for the most part, his parents did the corporal punishment for me. From my observation face and wrist slapping of children was a quite common occurrence. Anyways, Mahmoud was a junior high teacher in Khartoum. He was taking his family to Cairo for a holiday. For hours they plied me with drinks. In return I entertained them with my 10 word Arabic vocabulary. All the while we watched the desert dust pilfer into the compartment.

The fun did not last however. When we arrived in Atbara, the train stopped and I decided to get out for a breath of fresh air and escape the stifling heat in the train. In the meantime, unbeknownst to me, the compartment was being usurped by a contingent of women. I barely got back when I saw my backpack being tossed into the hallway by an unscrupulous male relative of one of the ladies.

There I was, at the cusp of nightfall, an honourary sindeega for god’s sake being forced to sit on someone’s water cooler with no where to go.

To complicate matters at the Atbara a swack of new passengers (paying and non-paying) including an American guy named Matt (non-paying) climbed on board. The train packed to the rafters now.

I thought I had a brilliant idea when I thought of staying in the dining car. It turned out to be a good idea. I mean there were empty seats and lots of room to bed down for the night. The only problem was the dust pilfering through the windows. Waiters would come by every 15 minutes to wipe off the micro-sand dunes that would form on the tables. The idyllic situation would of course come to a crashing halt. Along came Mustafa, the Nazi dining car owner. Mustafa was the big man on campus who apparently paid a million Sudanese dinars for the exclusive rights of dishing out the slop, he called food, to unsuspecting passengers. Unfortunately, he thought he owned the entire car. He sussed out our plan (Matt American, also homeless, joined me for “dinner”). Let’s just say I was nursing my bottle of coke for a long long time. He became enraged. The fury was palpable. He kicked us out. I was homeless again.

I tried to return to my water cooler seat only to find it hijacked by an old lady. No matter. The way was blocked by 2 rather obese women who had packed it in for the night and were blissfully asleep on the narrow hall way floor.

Long story short, it was a helluva sleepless night. Taking turns with a nice koran-toting man, I spent the night either standing in the aisle or sitting on a wooden crate.

Next day, the obese women somehow got off the floor after their comfortable slumber, thus making room for the homeless. I was lucky enough to be able to share a seat on a cardboard box the rest of the way to Wadi halfa.

After a restful night in Wadi Halfa, sleeping under the stars, we climbed aboard the venerable SS Sagalnaam. From Wadi Halfa, it was a 16 hr. overnight “cruise” along the entire length of Lake Nasser, the largest man made lake in the world, to the Aswan high dam. I had the luxury of a second class ticket. No, there isn’t a third class. This meant sitting on a barely padded bench in the mid deck. What it really meant was another sleepless night. Only this time there was A/C in the cattle section I shared with 200 other folks.

Looking back now, those were the best of times (on the entire African trip). The living conditions were horrendous. But I shared them with so many nice people, despite various Nazi-like figures. There was Mahmoud and his family. They were also kicked out of dining car. That was the last I saw of them (just kidding). Really, they traveled first class on the boat. Good on them. There was Ahamed, who I met while buying my train ticket in Khartoum. Lucky bastard. He got to keep his third class seat on the train. Better third class than no class I always say. He learned a lot of his English while working for chevron in the oil fields. Retired now, he was moving back to his beloved village of Abri in the north of Sudan, because he thought khartoum was “fucked up”. By the way, he also worked for Talisman Energy of Calgary, Alberta before the “fucking” americans forced it out of Sudan. He was “fucking” hilarious. Then thanks to Ahmed and his family for buying me drinks on the boat. They also gave me a whole chicken to eat. They, too, laughed at my arabic. Plus, there was a boat load of other great people I shared these unbearable 4 days with.

Crossroads…

I’ve been thinking seriously of finishing this particular journey. Like my friend wasta said, it’s been only 7 months. But it’s been 7 months through Africa. I’m a wee bit tired. I’ve been thinking of going home. Getting a mundane job. Finding a proper woman. Settling down and producing some offspring. Any objections out there? Words of wisdom?

I went to the American University in Cairo to leaf through some of their lonely planet guidebooks hoping to spark my imagination. Nothing. The logical place to go next is perhaps Yemen or to Asia. To Iran. Perhaps re-visit Pakistan (the AUC was missing the LP Pakistan). Or, visit the “stans”, even though I feel totally unprepared (language-wise) to go there. To tell you the truth, language has not stopped me in the past from going somewhere.

But then, I met this Korean girl from Seoul last night. She bought a ticket to Bangkok (from Cairo) the other day for $340 USD (tax incl.). Damn that’s a good price.

Perhaps, if I spent sometime resting by the Red Sea, I might have a change of heart.

6 comments:

qtlibrarian said...

I object! proper women, come on!

Wasta said...

Where will you find a 'proper' woman in Calgary? You could try Thailand but some of them really are not proper women but men!

Great account of a train journey from hell! I thought I had done some bad ones but apparently not-- that's way worse than my 18 hours on a wooden seat from Mandalay. At least I had a seat.

Dammit, I was aiming to arrive in Cairo in mid-July, but you will be long gone. How about Iran? I've also thought about that as a destination-- before Dubya bombs it back to the stone age.

Steve H. said...

Damn, that sure sounds like ... fun? I'd be the guy flying overhead in first class...

What about visiting North Africa? Or even travelling down the west side of the continent?

Iran? Nuclear ambitions and crazy leader - might get bombed by 'mrcans or Israel. Pakistan? Taliban/al Qaeda central these days - very unstable. Yemen? Might be okay, but they like to kidnap foreigners.

The Stans would be very interesting, and SE Asia sounds cool.

Always a job here when you decide to come home. You can meet the new, improved (and hot) videographer...

dean said...

Al, seven months of strenuous, exhausting backpacking is something to be proud of. 8 or 9 months would be even better! This is your third big trip right? At least you know that you can always go again. Maybe you should settle down somewhere for a few weeks (or longer), stop being so homeless for a while.

It's your decision to make, but I know exactly how you feel. I often regret coming home from my Asia trip and skipping out on Indonesia last minute.

Good luck finding the right answer my friend.

Gina said...

Offspring??? Did you learn nothing sharing that compartment with 5 kids?

What about Paris? We'll be there in four weeks.

Mr Spanky said...

You can always come out to California to recharge your batteries. There's a frosty one in the fridge with your name on it. Keep on trekkin'