The minibus filled with hot desert air as we left the Sudanese border town of Galabat, bounding westwards towards Gedaref where we hoped we would be able to find an onward bus to the capital Khartoum, our next destination. We were in no real rush, but having been told at the border and the three army check points we had encountered shortly after leaving, that our visas had to be validated in Khartoum within 48 hours or arriving in the country, we thought it pertinent to get our paperwork in order as soon as we could.
We didn’t see a great deal of Gedaref save for the beautiful silhouettes of a dozen or so minarets reaching into the dusty sky, and of course the slightly less exciting bus station. We managed to track down a minibus heading to Khartoum that evening without any trouble, although it wouldn’t be leaving until sunset, so we passed the time watching people come and go, and marvelling at how beautiful the Arabic language sounded and how indecipherable it looked written down, as well as chatting to a few people who politely approached us wanting to practice their English.
The evening call to prayer filled the air with a cacophony of noise, and our fellow passengers slowly but purposely walked the short distance to the small prayer area of the bus station. Shortly after prayers the bus engine revved signalling that it was ready to leave, and once again we folded ourselves into the metal cocoon for the next part of our journey. The bus certainly wasn’t going to be winning any awards for style or comfort, but the scene through the window was exquisite, and as we pulled out of the bus station we watched in awe as the setting sun disappeared behind the sandy horizon, turning the sky an apocalyptic shade of orange.
As the residual heat of the day gave way to the chill of the desert night, our stomachs reminded us that the last thing we’d eaten had been in a different country, so it was with some relief that after a few hours heading North West, the bus pulled into an open-air restaurant in the middle of the desert, surrounded by nothing other than sand and the single strip of tarmac we’d been following. Enjoying the welcome change in temperature, we bought giant plates of beans and bread, a meal which was to become a staple during our time in Sudan, washed down with litres of deliciously sweet mint tea (a fair replacement for Ethiopian coffee which I was certainly going to miss!).
Around midnight, after almost six hours on the bus, we arrived in the sprawling city of Khartoum, and quickly realised that we had no idea where we were. There weren’t any bus stations on any of the sparse maps we had managed to acquire, and after a brief look around there were no discerning features in what was the definition of generic urban suburb. We asked around the near-empty bus station, and although the few people we spoke to were very friendly, the language barrier thwarted us, and we couldn’t figure out what was being said, or where we needed to go.
After an awkward half hour of hopeful smiles and wayward hand gestures, we managed to flag down a tuk-tuk driver who, after our best aeroplane impressions, agreed to take us to the airport – we weren’t trying to leave already, but with Khartoum’s airport being close to the middle of the city, and it being a large unmissable feature, we thought it would be a good place to start orientating ourselves, in the hope that would eventually find the youth hostel we were planning on staying at.
The first part of our plan went well as we zipped through the neat streets, which were surprisingly busy given the late hour. We made it to the airport without incident, unfortunately that’s where our luck began to run out; in theory Khartoum’s roads have a numbered grid system which should have made things easy to navigate, unfortunately the grid system is decades old and Khartoum’s rapid expansion has made the system effectively redundant, so we got lost again almost immediately, doing desperate circuits around the airport in the tuk-tuk asking in vain for directions from most of Khartoum’s night life!
Our tuk-tuk driver eventually got fed up doing laps of what is a quite sizable airport, so we had to come up with an alternative plan; Plan B presented itself in the form of a 24-hour pharmacy and an English-speaking Pharmacist who was able to confirm, by some sort of geographical miracle, that we were now within walking distance of where we needed to be - result! With renewed energy and a quick zig-zag through the back streets following the Pharmacist’s directions, we eventually found the hostel we had been looking for, a full 20 hours after leaving Gondar. It was now close to 2am, and despite our heavy bags, we practically skipped up to the door with the excitement of being able to lie down, only to find the door was bolted and closed…so very very closed. With no answer to our knocking, we considered our options: the angry looking razor wire made jumping the hostel wall an uninviting option, so that was out; next up we considered just sleeping on the street outside, the warm balmy night temperatures would have been perfect for it, but we put this on hold until we had exhausted our final option.
Around the corner from the hostel we had walked past a car garage guarded by two young soldiers who had been quietly sitting, chatting, and drinking tea. Game faces on, we approached them hopefully, and tried to explain our predicament and asked if we could sleep in their office for a couple of hours – our tired faces and limited Arabic didn’t seem to be doing the job, and the soldiers just shrugged their shoulders and continued to look at us quizzically – in fairness we must have looked ridiculous.
Our luck had seemingly run out, and it looked like we would be spending our first night in Sudan sleeping on the streets of Khartoum. If I was more of a religious person this might have been the time to send up a quiet prayer for guidance; instead I decided to employ the tried and tested combination of chronic optimism and the genuine belief that the universe has a way of ensuring that everything will work out in the end…
In this case the universe outdid itself and sent us a smiling Sudanese man named Aziz.
Aziz had seemingly appeared from nowhere, and the soldiers were now even more confused at what was going on, we didn’t have much of an idea either until Aziz extended his hand and introduced himself to us in smooth, cool English. No sooner had we shaken his hand, Aziz immediately looked at us and said as a statement more than a question:
“You guys need somewhere to stay, don’t you? I bet you’ve had a long journey, you’ll probably want some food too?”
Either Aziz was a mind reader, or our dishevelled appearance gave more of our story away then we realised. Relieved smiles broke out across our faces followed by immediate British awkwardness when Aziz told us that we could stay at his family home and pointed to the apartment block opposite the garage.
This is a story I’m confident many people who have travelled share, but the shear kindness and hospitality of Aziz took it to the next level, and we were both completely and utterly humbled; At 2am this man was prepared to take in two sweaty, dusty looking strangers, let them stay in his house where his wife and 11-month-old son were sleeping, and then proceed to not only give them beds to sleep in, but also provide them with home-made food, and an unconditional offer to stay at his place for as long as we wanted or needed to. It was more than either of us could ever had hoped for, and we couldn’t begin to thank Aziz enough for this selfless deed.
The kindness of Aziz made my heart swell, and my faith in humanity and trust in the kindness of strangers was well and truly validated. I am forever telling people that the world isn’t as bad a place as it is often made out to be. I am a firm believer that the vast majority of people are just like Aziz, and will do their bit to help you out if you find yourself in a tricky situation far from home, after all wouldn’t you? I certainly hope that I am able to reciprocate this incredible kindness one day.
As I drifted into a blissful sleep on a comfortable bed, stomach full of delicious homemade food and more sweet tea, I reflected on the previous 24 hours: Despite its fierce reputation in the world’s media, Sudan had surpassed all expectations, if this introduction of kindness and hospitality was a taster of what was to come, I was confident we were going to have the most incredible time in this exciting country.