Sunday, May 27, 2007

pyramid power...

back row: the red pyramid in darshur (south of cairo). front row (l to r): cop, akira kurosawa, cop and camel.

pyramid haiku.

pyramids are sharp.
dead pharaohs live forever.
just a stack of rocks.

ed. note.

1. hope i can leave for alexandria soon.

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.


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.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

haven't seen a pharmaceutical factory, yet...

salaam aliekum my friends,

I've been in Khartoum for the a few days now. it's been just roasting hot outside with temperatures between 40 to 46 C. that's really hot. i've never experienced such intense solar radiation. there's not much that the uninitiated can do during the day except to keep outside or inside activities to a bare minimum. for me, that's walking slowly to and from the local shop for multiple bottles of life giving water. cool clear water. i'm not kidding. once you're in the throes of dehydration you are toast. i certainly picked the wrong time of year to visit sudan.

i do go out at night. the area i'm staying in is called souq al-arabi (the arab market). each and every night the streets are lined with vendors plying their wares (undergarments to bottled parfume). it's pretty chaotic. alot of shouting and thousands of shoppers. i've noticed a couple of things. khartoum, well this part at least, is a dump and most sudanese are pretty tall. i'm surprised more have not followed in the footsteps of manute bol (nba player extraordinaire).

so far the people have been pretty friendly. when i'm walking about people shout out SINDEEGA (sp)!!. that's a term of endearment assigned to each and every chinese national working in sudan. supposedly, there's 5 million brothers and sisters who drew the short straws and call sudan home. surprisingly, there isn't a chinatown in khartoum, and the laundry biz is not dominated by the chinese (yet). i've only seen a few chinese in town. apparently, a bulk of them are working the oil fields down in the South.

i've unabashedly used my unofficial sindeega status a few times already. to hell with being a canadian in these parts, eh. the police don't hassle me and soldiers shake my hand. i was trying to buy some laundry soap last night (ok, it's my heritage). a guy was trying to help me out because of my poor command of the arabic language (i used the right word, that being "become" when asking for the cost of something). sometimes people are so shocked that i can utter a few words of their language that they are in a state of de-nile (get that joke, ha!). my helper asked me whether i understood english or not. that's hilarious because i had been speaking english with him for at least a minute. he asked where i was from. china (of course). well, the chinese are very supportive of sudan. they (the chinese) are great people. uh huh... blah, blah, blah... look buddy, once the motherland wants payback it's lights out for sudan if you can't fork over the oil.

the "d" word...

it's amazing the conversations i have on buses. i figure talking with the normal folks is like taking the pulse of the nation. you know, getting to down to the nitty gritty. well, i made my first sudanese friend, asser, on the air conditioned bus from gederaf (see map) to khartoum (see map). asser's a really nice guy. when the steward put on the feature movie (a really bad d-grade hollywood flick about some american dude blowing up stuff), asser turned his head.

are you ok, i asked.

"i don't watch american movies"

"why not?"

"american movies always makes us look very bad"

"you know it's a story and not real?"

no answer.

the conversation some how turns to the subject of the D word (i'll just say it's in the west of sudan). according to asser, the "problem " in the D region is exaggerated by the western media. sudanese people are beautiful. i agreed (well, most of them are). if he sees any foreign troops in sudan, he wouldn't hesitate running up to them and slitting their throats with a dagger (the latter comment was done with great animation). there is a silver lining though. tourists are ok (thank Allah). that includes american tourists. i digress. the only way foreign forces can "take" sudan is if they killed all the sudanese people because each and everyone will fight till their last breaths.

he was really working himself into a lather by now. i was flabbergasted. yet, i couldn't resist asking him what he thought about george bush. surprisingly, he calmly replied that if he ever stepped on sudanese soil he'd call him a tosser and give him the one fingered salute (i.e. the worst thing a sudanese could give dubya). asser demonstrated the latter gesture by slowly lifting the middle finger of his right hand. well, at least dubya won't need the aid of a translator in that case. he went on to complete his thought by saying after the hand gesture he would have to, on the spot, disembowel dubya. ok...

i think i fell asleep after that. a/c has that effect on me.

by the way, asser said "death to america" as i faded. he tried to teach me the arabic translation but i can't remember what it was.

ed. notes.

1. no corresponding artsie photo this week. i'm required to purchase a photography permit at some horrendous price. i can't take pix of men/women in uniform. because the po-leece and armed forces are ubiquitous, i can't take a whole lotta pix in any case. therefore, in lieu, this week i have to type a million words to explain myself in place of the pix.

2. monday will be my first attempt at escaping the mirage called khartoum. i managed to get a ticket for 3 class (i.e. the cattle class) on the world's slowest train. no a/c. no diner car. sleeping sitting up. i'm going to treat it like a big picnic at bowness park. in 36 to 50 hours, theoretically, i should arrive at wadi halfa, a frontier town on the southern tip of lake nasser. there i take a 16 hr. cruise up the lake (i.e. the nile dammed) to aswan, egypt.

3. they ain't got beer here, but someone did offer me hashish though. go figure...

4. update: there was a break in the heat spell today. the sun was blocked by a massive sandstorm. there is a god. Allah.

5. it took me 5 hrs. yesterday to purchase the train/boat tix. today, it took me 5 hrs. to be registered as a foreign alien. for the latter, it was 44 USD to tell them i'm an alien...

6. i'm hiding in this internet cafe b/c they have great a/c.

Friday, May 04, 2007

top ten things overheard in an ethiopian conversation... what big spots you have...

10. "you"
9. "fasil, look at that japanese farangi. if he lost anymore weight, he'd be an honourary habeshi (ethiopian).
8. "a farangi is a star trek character. NOT. haha."
7. "if there is a "special" jacked up price for farangi, i've got some extra arid land in the danikil depression you might be interested in buying. haha."
6. "bob marley has left shashemane..."
5. "learn how to play a Wurlitzer and you'll have the world by the tail, my friend."
4. "that girl is flatter than injera..."
3. "are you carrying a kalashnikov or are you just happy to see me?"
2. "would you like some injera to go along with your injera?" (ed. note: i'm not kidding.)
1. "two"

ed. notes:

1. i ate an entire 13 in. deep dish pizza tonite hoping to disguise the emaciated look. ok, it was deep dish as it gets in ethiopia. pretty thin on the ham, cheese, and sauce. crust was thick though.

2. spent the "weekend" in harrar (N9 18.793 E42 7.849) dodging obnoxious guides. old town was interesting. and, what about them hyaenas (see above), eh. 15 cm from my big mouth. there seems to be a recurring theme in this trip abroad. first, charging elephants. second, getting really friendly with gorillas. now, it's snacking hyaenas.

3. just got my sudanese visa. now only if i can find some transport out of addis. suffice to say, i'll be switching countries soon.