I perceived it from the very beginning in Wadi Halfa, while walking along its streets of sand in that very hot Saharan night. I looked around me and the hundreds of merchants that filled the whole place with life, coming and going in their immaculate gallabiyas, and they all seemed like brothers to me, acquaintances at least. Such a pleasant atmosphere, so familiar if you will, was hard to believe for a bordering town. It was only the beginning of two months of living every day with what probably is, (together with Tibetans of course!) the most wonderful people I have ever met.
The humble pride of being good
Humble and pride are qualities that ever rarely go hand in hand. The reality is that in general, one cancels automatically the other. However, when I found myself alone for a while, looking after our bicycles in Wadi Halfa's dock, a woman fully wrapped in her colorful tob approached me to prove me wrong. Her attire only allowed me to see her eyes on the one hand, and her hands and feet exquisitely decorated with henna on the other, but the enthusiastic and sweet tone in which she talked to me was enough to reveal the joyful spirit. She asked me in very good English with thick arabic accent:
- Where are you going to take those bicycles?
- Well, we are not taking them, we are cycling them - I smiled
- What do you mean cycling? here? In Sudan? until Khartoum? - I can't see her mouth but I know it is wide open out of surprise
- Of course, we came all the way from China cycling
– I smiled knowing that she has never ever heard of anything like this before
- From China??? by bicycle??? oh no, but that isn't possible!! .. how? when?.... ¿and Sudan? why did you come to Sudan?
- Well, it is just that I have been told several times by different persons that the Sudanese are very very nice people and I didn'twant to miss the opportunity to meet them, because I travel the world to meet people and learn from them....
She looks at me happily ( I can tell even behind so much wrap) and with great determination declares:
- Yes, it is true, we, the Sudanese, are very good people. Yes yes, very good people here in Sudan - She repeats. - They are going to treat you very well here. Look, here is my phone number and you can call me any time, at any hour for whatever you need.
Hearing a comment like this in any other part of the world would probably sound horribly pedantic and it would constitute the first suspicion of what being said isn't true at all. On the other hand, in places that are also famous for having very good people, the most probably thing is that no local would dare to say it open. However, the tone of the words she used to speak and the way, a mixture of joy, sincerity but overall, conviction, showed me that you can effectively be proud of something so simple as being nice, while not only not sounding arrogant saying it but not needing to keep it to yourself for fear of giving the wrong impression. In concrete words, this woman did no more than confirming beforehand what we would experience each and all days that we would spend in Sudan with the nicest people in the world. It was the first time out of so many others that followed, in which people recognizes proudly that selfless kindness is a strong quality they have.
Feeling like a blessing
I have already said it before, it is written in the Quoran: a guest is a blessing. In most of the world, whenever one is invited to a home, one feels welcome at the very least. In Sudan's Islam, however, one does not simply feel welcome, one feels like being a blessing. They are the Sudanese, who will stop the world and move a mountain to a side if it's necessary in order to treat you. But it is not treating you like in the shape of idolatry like it happens in some cultures, quite the opposite, it is the most wonderful of the gifts, Sudanese Muslims treat you making you part of their very life, their own family, and for family I am referring not only to relatives but the whole immediate circle of friends and neighbors.
Already on the second day after leaving Wadi Half, we found ourselves cycling a sand piste along the Nile, passing simple monolithic Nubian house made of adobe walls and no windows. Aside for the few houses, there was nothing but inhospitable desert all around us. It was only a few minutes past 10 a.m and the temperature was already reaching 50 C when we decided to find shelter under the date palms near the river. As soon as he saw us, a man called Hassan came over with a smile filled with curiosity to invite us to his home to drink tea with his family. The tea time extended to lunch time, and lunch extended to snack time followed by more tea, it all lead to dinner and we ended up staying for 3 days.
The shade provides the only space in which breathing is possible during the long, slow and abrasive day where time seems to stand still. The thick adobe walls of the houses keep them relatively fresh in comparison, but the heat is still very intense inside them. Relatives, friends, neighbors of the very few houses around come and go; women wearing their multicolored tobs contrasting with the mute colors of the adobe; men go around in their gallabiyas and turbans, so white that under the sun they are blinding.
The concept of privacy does not exist as we know it in the west, they are all one family and being alone and independent is a tragedy. The house are open to everyone at any time. Material possessions are minimal, austerity is total but it is not poverty. It is a very simple life but one with dignity. They only have the very essentials for life and a few extras; a roof, food and a strong community of relatives, friends and neighbors that are always there to help one one another. Several generations may live under the same roof. Hassan's mother in law is dumb but smiles out of pure joy for having us there. Her broad smile highlights the furrows that run along her cheeks from the eyes to the chin, typical of her Nubian tribe. They were cut in her face with a knife at 5, like all other girls with the aim of embellish them. This practice has almost completely disappeared these days but most women above 50 have these characteristic scars that are visually so shocking.
In the meanwhile, I sit in the shade in the house's courtyard, experiencing the descent into hell that bring the first hours of the afternoon. I sit in complete awe looking at the famous Saharan ants, running around like crazy going from the sun to the shade. They are real, like in the documentaries, I just could not believe my eyes, these ants' bodies are covered in a pure silver-like shield, they are so bright and reflective that I seem to see myself reflected in their tiny bodies. They are like minute bullets of silver moving around the sand, it is the shield that they have developed to avoid getting fried under this tyrannical sun. Hassan looks at me looking at them with the curiosity of a child and smiles kindly at me.
I take the opportunity to ask him what happened to his foot because I saw him limping and it is wrapped in a black cloth and swollen like a balloon. He told me that yesterday he got stung again by a scorpion when going to the pee at night. He adds in a grumpy tone: - these little shits, they are everywhere, they are evil. Watch out at night, never sleep on the floor and check your sandals thoroughly in the morning!. They are used to them around here, but Hassan was lucky this time, he was stung in the sole of his foot, it only causes him unbearable pain and he will probably limp for a week or two, but thanks to the thick layer of skin that grew on his sole after a lifetime of walking barefoot on harsh terrain, the venom didn't reach the blood vessels and his life is not at risk. A few inches higher and he would have had to travel 2 hours at best to reach a rural clinic that might or might not have the antidote. The pain doesn't stop him from living though. When the temperature finally drops below 55 C (130 F) we are off to the Nile for a swim. He assures me that there are no crocodiles at this time, even though I had already plunged into the water before he said it. That did not stop him from swimming underwater when I didn't notice it and grab my ankles by surprise to give me a nice scary memory. By the end of the day, when the criminal sun begins its descent, we climbed a rocky hill behind his house to enjoy the immensity of the Sahara while we wait for the long-awaited night. Unlike the Egyptian Sahara, the strong winds here fill the air with sand particles and the sun disappears much earlier hidden behind a murky horizon.
Once the nightmare of the day is already gone, the nights at 40 C feel fresh. With the darkness, comes the only 4 hours of electricity of the day. People finally come out of their homes permanently. The women prepare the tea followed by dinner, while the men bring out the stretchers made of steel pipes and tightened threads, to lye down and socialize. These people do know about sleeping, the stretchers might not have a mattress but we all sleep outside watching a splendorous dark sky filled with billions and billions of stars. The telly is a luxury that lasts for as long the electricity goes on, they all arrange themselves around it to briefly connect with a world that is so foreign to them. Me, I wait for the time when it finally goes off so I can remain happily disconnected from that world that I do not miss one bit. I prefer the stars to shine on my telly, and that the gentle breeze becomes the soundtrack that will break the deafening silence to finally fall asleep dreaming that these magnificent Saharan nights will never end.
Of course it took quite an effort to leave, because Hassan, his family and all the neighbors insisted us to stay for the whole week, or month and even the whole year. The amount of time is irrelevant. We are their guests, we are their blessing.
Colors of Kerma
Kerma is a relatively big town that is equally frozen in time like the villages we passed along the Nile. Like any good desert town, its streets of sand are deserted during the day, but behind the colorful walls of its houses, life even if at very slow pace, goes on normally. Amjid, a Nubian man that we had met at Hassan's house days before, was waiting for us in Kerma to make us part of the celebration of his cousin's wedding. Like I said before, the Sudanese make you part of their family and immediately after our arrival we were welcomed as such. Once again, relatives, friends and neighbors that go from house to house to socialize stop by to say hi. With an enormous joy and bright broad smile, they exclaim while extending their hand:
Both parties repeat it no less than three times while the hands remain shaken and the left hands are posed affectionately over the other shoulder. It can be seen in every encounter of people, on the streets, in the mosques, in the houses. Women, on the other hand, they hold each other tight and kindly kiss several times on both cheeks.
The slow pace of these Saharan villages and towns captivates me. Coming from a society that only worries about running and running and running to who knows where to pursue who knows what, being in these slow-paced towns reminds me that it is better to stop rather than passing by quickly, that it is better to enjoy observing one thing alone rather than ten at the same time, savoring the slowness that allows us to appreciate what the haste takes away from us. Feeling the reality of the face to face encounters instead of the social fiction behind a computer screen. I come from a world that is supposedly hyper-connected but those connections are ever so empty of any profound meaning, and while I walk these streets of sand and colorful houses I know already that after I leave I will be yearning for this disconnection from the world I come from that wants to keep us all running.
The colors of Kerma are not a mere finish of the exterior walls of the houses, they are also worn in the tobsof the Nubian women, they fill the streets with color when a row of houses has not been painted yet.
They are also in those pure and spontaneous smiles that are drawn on the faces of the kids, that have fun with things so simple as making a worn-out motorcycle wheel roll without falling.
Or climbing the trees standing by the door of their houses.
As a finishing touch, the Nubian weddings make of a night a squandering of colors, of joy, of music. Celebrations that are hard to find somewhere else, the Nubian weddings last for 2,3,4,5 days in Sudan. Apart from family and friends, all of their acquaintances assist. There is not even a single drop of alcohol present in the party and yet the partying goes on with happiness, laughter and enjoyment. Men and women sweat the night away dancing traditional music like there is no tomorrow. Only by looking all around me, I am filled with energy and joy, it is contagious and it invites me to participate and dance with them and absorb their colors to keep them within me for the rest of my life.
We reached the mausoleum of Koica in one of the hottest days of the Sahara. Built by Sheikh Idris of Saudi Arabia in 1779, it was here, in the Sudanese Sahara where he decided to come to die. The result is this beautiful structure made of mud that it stands still not precisely for having had the greatest care but for how well built it was. Even though it is open to some Islamic events, in the villages where it is, there is only one single man living together with his wife, Mr.Abdallah, whom after 30 years of working in Dubai as a cop, he decided to come back to his native village where nobody lives anymore, and spend his time looking after the mausoleum and showing it to the very few visits. Even in the most remote places of Sudan there are wonderful people, Abdallah, a true gentleman, opened the building for us and invited us to spend the blistering day of 57 C (134F) inside a big abandoned house that used to be a hotel in times of the British colony. He let us rest there for as long as we wished and obviously asked us to stay for several days. He brought us tea and cookies served on an exquisite silver tray with beautiful cups and teaspoons, twice during the day.
At first sight, the Sahara and its villages seem completely empty, but even the places that seem more deserted there are people living. Khandaq is one of those places, located several kilometers inland from the main road to Khartoum, this old city enjoys a privileged place by the shore of the Nile. A police station of no more than 4 bored-to-death officers and about a 100 inhabitants scattered around the ruins, live in what is left of this solitary village that serves as a window to the ancient world.
There, we were received by Abdullah, a man that invited us to his house and treated us as guests of honor. These people of the desert never stop amazing me with their warmth, their simplicity and overall the peace and joy that they seem to have inside. They have little or no material possessions but in my opinion they have it all. You can see it in their eyes that they don't need more than what they already have. While enjoying a wonderful dinner under the stars in Abdullah's home together with a couple of neighbors, listening to the fantastic stories of life in the Sahara, the nights in the desert still are one of my most favorite moments, those that make all the efforts of the day worthwhile.
Even though they invited us to stay for the night in their beautiful home made of white walls of mud we opted to sleep on the stretchers that the chief of the police had set for us right by the shore of the Nile, under a tree where the breeze coming from the river kept us fresh in these hot Saharan nights. The big reward came at dawn when after opening our eyes we found a river washed in golden colors, at the time when two locals passed slowly throwing fishing nets to fish from their rudimentary wooden boat.
Before leaving, the chief of police invited us to stay longer, he had fished a huge fish from the Nile and wanted to cook it for us. He even took me to the shore to show it to me.The mattresses that they had given us for our stretchers were so badly infested with millions of bed bugs that by the time I woke up I had a massive rash, possibly hundreds of bites all over my body, I could not stop scratching myself compulsively until making my skin bleed and I didn't know it would go on for 3 days after. We preferred to decline the kind offer and continue our way before sleeping one more night on those mattresses filled with little monsters
The stoic life of the desert dwellers
Once the road to Khartoum steers away from the course of the Nile, the last 3oo km become really inhospitable. There are no villages where to find shelter, the heat in May is so brutal that it feels like being pressed between the irons of a dry cleaner. And the wind, that fucking wind that have us chewing sand miserably and prevents us from moving forward, never stops. It is impossible to think that anybody can live in these conditions. These are days in which we are suffering so much the harshness of this desert that I find it hard to believe that anybody can live here at all. My thoughts kept coming and going while we were battling the insane wind when I saw a solitary man walking with his camel in this immense and inhospitable ocean of sand. I see him moving forward in the middle of nowhere and I just can't understand it, what can a person be doing here? where is he coming from? Where the hell is he going to?. The dialects here are so incomprehensible that I can barely communicate, so I couldn't ask him anything, but I kept thinking about these men, carrying on their lives in these harsh lands. Amazingly, there are people living here, it is incredible but it is possible.
A few kilometers laterI spotted a herd of camels far away, the heat and the wind were such that I could barely hold the camera with my hand, it burnt, and a few buttons were jammed possibly due to the dilation of the metal body. There did not seem to be anyone around until from the middle of nowhere two men showed up, wrapped in their gallabiyas and turbans, arranging their camels, undertaking their daily tasks with the same ease I walk around a city in spring time. They wouldn't speak a word in English but they didn't mind me walking with them for a while.
They carrying them along a long and hard stretch until reaching the well from where their camels drink.
Life in the biggest desert in the world can't be simple. Along the road, a young woman waits for transportation for her and her kids standing under the sun. He asks me for a little water for the youngest one. She walked with them for 3 km to reach the road past the mid-morning when the temperature was well over 50 C. Despite having already little water for myself, I stopped to give her whatever the kids needed. After all, it had been a long time since nobody had passed us and the mere thought of them waiting by the side of the road under this murdering sun without any protection and no water made me sick.
At sunset, another man passes next to me riding his camel, we were close to his village of mud houses. He looked at me on my bicycle and stops, he wants a photo on his camel. Lucky for him, he met a photographer on a bicycle. The sun, already on its final descent, was washing the whole desert in golden colors and casting never-ending shadows of the man and his ride. It was one of the last days of this very long journey across the Sahara desert, I am left with memorable images and memories. What the Sudanese Sahara doesn't have in natural beauty it has it they ever so wonderful people that inhabit it. They are so nice that they seem as extra-planetary as the heat around here. Hospitality and warmth at their best.