Adventures in No Man's Land

4.30am is a dreadful time for an alarm to go off.  The temptation to roll over and pull the scratchy blanket up over my head was tangible, and it would have been my usual Pavlovian response to the incessant beep if it wasn’t for the fact that today was the day I had been waiting for.  Today was the day I would be going to Sudan.  With this realisation seeping into my waking consciousness, I practically jumped out of bed and grabbed my already packed rucksack excitedly prepared the night before.

We had worked hard for our Sudanese Transit Visas, and although the strict entry dates had meant we had had to keep ourselves amused in Ethiopia for the past four weeks (hardly a struggle!) today was the day we would hopefully be able to cross the border and realise a dream I had had since I had learnt about the mysterious man in the photograph.

 Stop! You've just entered Sudan...

Stop! You've just entered Sudan...

We knew that today’s journey was going to be a lengthy one; not only did we need to cross a potentially tricky international border, but we also knew that in order to get our visas fully validated we would need to get to Khartoum which was over 750km away from where we currently were, we weren’t even sure if it was going to be possible, but if nothing is ventured, then nothing is gained, so with bleary eyes we headed out into the dark streets to look for the first of many of today’s transport types.

Getting two grown men and a couple of rucksacks into the back of a tuk-tuk is a bit of a squeeze, but with the respective spatial awareness and calculating abilities of a couple of geography and maths teachers we managed it, and the convivial proximity did at least take the edge off the morning’s chill as we raced through the empty streets towards Gondar’s bus station.

In a bid to make friendly conversation we made the mistake of telling our driver that we were heading for Metema, the town on the Ethiopian side of the border, and sure enough after a crafty phone call on his part, we arrived at the bus station to find there was already a ‘friend’ there to meet us, offer to carry our bags, and show us onto their bus.  Unfortunately, this particular bus wasn’t leaving for hours and was considerably more expensive than the one a couple of spaces down.  Opting for the quicker, more cost-effective bus, we retrieved our bags from the roof of the first, and almost caused a fist fight in the process with the tuk-tuk driver finding himself on the end of a few strongly spoken words of Amharic from his associate, we doubted he would be seeing much of his commission.

 The humble Tuk-Tuk: Limited on space, but perfect for whizzing around Ethiopian towns...

The humble Tuk-Tuk: Limited on space, but perfect for whizzing around Ethiopian towns...

All this commotion meant that we were a little later leaving Gondar than planned, but when we did the going was good, and the vomiting man beside me made me feel almost nostalgic as it dawned on me that if all went well this would be our final bus journey in Ethiopia, for the time being at least.

After a calm four hours cruising on smooth roads being chased by the rising sun, we came to an abrupt stop at a bus station on the outskirts of Metema.  Stepping off the bus, we were immediately set upon by various brokers wanting to exchange cash, help us secure a visa, or offer the services of the various prostitutes available in the town.  Through the crowd a slick looking man in a white tracksuit and sporting some hefty finger jewellery casually rode up on his tuk-tuk and politely asked if we needed a cheap ride to the border; seeing this as an opportunity to get away from the throng and saving us from a sweaty walk, we grabbed our bags and jumped in behind our new friend who floored the ancient machine leaving a cloud of orange dust in our wake as we sped towards the border.

The single dirt road to the border crossing was typical of settlements which straddle borders; hastily erected shacks, with little effort to style or function gave off an air of grime, transiency, and lawlessness; the road was lined with bars, brothels, and a random assortment of shops selling nothing particularly useful, this was a place people travelled through, not to.  With one hand keeping the throttle fully open, our new friend reached over his shoulder, offered us a bejewelled hand and introduced himself as…let’s call him Steve.  Steve, like everyone else in town, was a keen businessman and wanted to sell us some Sudanese currency, but as we had a bit of time on our hands we decided to play the long game and scope out the situation for ourselves before making any hasty decisions.  Steve dropped us off at the Ethiopian check point at the border and pointed to a shady tree indicating where he would be if we wanted “the best rates in town”.  Glad to be able to stretch our legs we asked the sleepy soldiers guarding the frontier for the best place to change money legally, they looked perplexed, but pointed in the direction of a small concrete building which turned out to be the bank, a worthwhile option to at least check before doing business with Steve and associates.

 There is something beautiful about the simplicity of rural Sudanese towns...

There is something beautiful about the simplicity of rural Sudanese towns...

It turned out the bank was nothing more than four walls, a sleeping man, and a giant safe presumably full of cash.  The man wasn’t happy that we had woken him from his slumber, and when we asked to buy some Sudanese Pounds, he sighed and pointed to Steve who was stood behind us grinning and wielding an almighty wedge of notes like something out of a cartoon.

It was time for some maths (I knew there was a reason for travelling with a maths teacher).  The official exchange rate from Ethiopian Birr to Sudanese Pounds was 3.5 Birr for every 1 Sudanese Pound.  Steve’s price was an excellent 2.7 Birr for each Sudanese pound, so we didn’t hang around and changed all of our remaining Ethiopian money deciding to use our unexpected profit for a slap-up lunch.  Steve wasn’t done yet, and his eyes lit up when we asked about changing US dollars for Sudanese Pounds; in a heartbeat he quickly offered us 11 Sudanese Pounds per dollar almost double the official rate!  This seemed too good to be true, and I was immediately suspicious.  I didn’t understand what Steve could be getting out of this deal and began to assume the notes were fake, or old or something along those lines.  Sensing our suspicions, Steve tried to allay our fears by letting us into the secret of his business plan:

Steve deals in electronics.  Once a week he crosses the border into Sudan where his contacts sell him a variety of electronic equipment from laptops to MP3 players and everything in between, which he then brings back into Ethiopia to sell for a profit – he needs US dollars to buy the goods in Sudan, and as we were painfully aware after our experiences in Addis Ababa, trying to get hold of US dollars in Ethiopia is a real chore, so it was well worth his while paying over the odds for them as and when he has the opportunity.

It was a convincing story and it certainly went some of the way to explain why we were getting such a good deal, but I remained slightly sceptical, and if true, didn’t really want to be supporting a dodgy electronics trade, so I only changed a small amount of my hard-won US dollars, getting in return enough shiny Sudanese notes to hopefully get us to Khartoum.  Everyone was happy, and so on Steve’s recommendation we thought we would celebrate with what we were assured was the best street food in town.  The run-down shack with the broken plastic chairs certainly won’t be winning any design awards, but the food was genuinely the best I had had for the duration of my time in Ethiopia – his business practices might be dubious but Steve’s food selection was exceptional, plus it turns out that knowing the local head gangster is useful when it comes to getting through the customs check on the Ethiopian side of the border.  We waved our new friend goodbye promising to let any other faranjis we saw heading his way know about his money changing services so, if you do find yourself in Metema and need to find Steve, send me an email and I’ll tell you his real name and where to find him!

 Communal water containers - a common sight after crossing the border...

Communal water containers - a common sight after crossing the border...

We headed into the small concrete immigration building and got our no fuss exit stamp from a couple of chirpy Ethiopian soldiers and then walked out, over a bridge fording a dry river bed denoting the official border, and into no-mans land, the most exciting part of any border crossing.

It was hot in the midday sun, so the shade of the Sudanese immigration building a few hundred meters away was a welcome respite.  I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but things couldn’t have been friendlier and more straight forward.  As soon as we ducked into the simple building Sudanese officials greeted us warmly, and helped us to complete the complicated Arabic forms.  There were no other people crossing the border with us, so we had their undivided attention meaning our documents were checked, photocopied and checked again in record time, before we were ushered to the adjoining building where the process was repeated.  After thirty minutes of hassle free administration and a friendly interview with a portly soldier, a guard walked us to the waiting bus where we were introduced to the driver who shook our hands and offered us two tickets to the neighbouring town where we could get a bus to Khartoum – brilliant!

 Ever wanted to buy orange juice from Messi or Ronaldo?  You can in Sudan!

Ever wanted to buy orange juice from Messi or Ronaldo?  You can in Sudan!

It’s always fascinating to observe how things change when you cross a border.  Often a border is just an arbitrary line drawn in the sand, but the differences between the two countries you are transiting through are almost always evident and here was no different; the landscape in Sudan seemed drier somehow, and it certainly felt hotter.  Gone were the shorts and football shirts of Ethiopia, now replaced by trousers and collared shirts, or the more traditional long flowing jellabiyas.  Orthodox Crucifixes had been switched out for skullcaps and prayer mats, and the hustle and bustle which seemed to surround us wherever we went in Ethiopia had disappeared.  Sudan was very different, but it was also very exciting.  I was keen to get on the move and fully throw myself into this new adventure, but that relied on our minibus leaving which was something which didn’t seem like it was going to happen any time soon – turns out something things do transcend borders after all.

© Andy Browning 2018