Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Slice of Sudan

We slowly motored our way through electric koolaid blue milky water, followed by a small red sailing dhow, her white cotton sail, full in the light breeze. The water became lighter in color, even more surreal as buildings crumbled along the entrance of the port. We were entering what resembled a movie set, real life to those that made Port Suakin, Sudan, Africa their home.

The streets were paved in a fine brown dust, the same that licked our rigging, lines and mast, painting them a dirty shade of brown. Here the dirt lingered, scattered only by the hooves of excited goats and transport donkey carts. It clung to the old men's white robes, their hems brown from walking the streets and too little water to wash with.

Their weathered brown skin soaked up the fierce African sun, the color of roasted coffee beans and their dark eyes held stories we would never know. Plastic bags of every color clung to the few bushes that survived in this arid land like tattered flags, reminding us what would be left when we had all gone. A few women swirled by wrapped in colorful thin cloth from head to toe. They seemed unnaturally bright in a world of dust and a landscape of brown, black, and white.

We are still on a grand adventure and here I feel as if I am watching a movie. Strong men young and old walk through town armed with 3 foot long swords in their belts. They wear short vests over their white robes, full of pockets. Goats wander through town freely and donkeys bray in the background. Paint peels off large wooden doors while men sitting sidelong steer donkey carts through streets pulling water barrels, baby lambs, and other goods.

We are welcomed to town by a group of young and old men at the local tea shop. Beckoning us to join them we confer and slip into the corner bench, painted the same unnaturally vivid sky blue color as the plastic foot stools they bring us to place our drinks upon. We settle into our seats attempting to look comfortable, hoping to hide how utterly out of place we feel. The four young men sitting beside us have impossibly white teeth. After we have ordered a Turkish coffee for Gar and tea (shai) for me one of the young men is brave enough to practice his English. We smile and try to understand each other.

Within minutes an older man, lighter skinned with a thin black mustache shouts loudly to us, stopping the conversation were having, "Hey listen to me," he demands. "Baby finished?" He asks. "We're still practicing," Gar replies, with a smile, that does not get one returned. Here in Sudan, a woman's worth is determined by how many children she can have. Already in Islamic societies women have little value, now I really have none here. We "listen to him" a bit more and answer a few more questions hoping to return to the pleasant interaction we were having before he interrupted. He wants us to buy his "friend's fine sword with genuine silver."

An old man in a tattered, patched robe with a face that has seen ten thousand suns steps forward and removes his sword out of its patchwork leather scabbard. He hands it to Gar to appraise it. Heavy in his hands we see a symbol of the moon inscribed on one side at the base of the blade and a star on the other. The hilt is wrapped in intricate silver waves. If we ever wanted to buy a sword this is it. But who knows what blood it has spilled. We compliment the sword and return it to its disappointed owner. Our interrogator tires of us and thankfully walks out into the dusty street.

The guys next to us linger over their empty glasses. Sipping sweet mint tea and thick coffee, we explain we are from the United States and sing Obama's praises and our obvious dislike of Bush. It is only smart to reply in this manner but our words are genuine. I am mostly quiet as the guys just want to talk with Gar. After more attempts at conversation and many hand shakes and smiles I ask to take their photo with Gar. They are thrilled, some of the rare few who are willing to oblige a photo. I am surprised; they also would like one with me as well. The guys smile approvingly while peering at the screen on the camera, even the cook comes out for a view.

Everyone is smiling. When we ask to pay for our drinks, they wave us away. In this dusty poor place, we are again surprised and touched by the welcoming kindness of strangers.

We wander around a few booths of vegetables in the market. All of the produce coated in a thin layer of dust and try to pick the freshest ones: carrots, green peppers, chili peppers, limes, tomatoes, oranges, bananas, onions, potatoes. Leaving the vegetable booths we pass the meat market. Late in the day there is half a goat still on the rack and black flies buzz disturbed by our passing. A pudgy man speaks Arabic to us and beckons us to his barred window, offering a very red cut of the meat or possibly liver. It is hard to tell. We smile and shake our heads no.

Completing the circle, arriving again at the entrance of the market we meet a man standing beside a donkey-less cart. He has a curly bushy afro and a huge wide smile with spaces between all of his teeth. He is a brilliant salesman, grabbing bread while flashing his sparkling eyes and a winning smile. Of course we want 15 puff breads shaped like small frisbees.

Our three days in Port Suakin are spent on boat projects, returning to the market for freshies and my failed attempts at getting some brilliant photographs. There are very few times I wish I was a man but here I do. In many ways it would be much easier. Most of these people do not want their photo taken and when asked their smiles turn into a scowl. I am not good at sneaking photos and have stopped asking and put my camera away, choosing instead to keep my memories in my mind rather than on paper. It is a hard decision.

We spent a day in Port Sudan and visited a few specialty shops searching for cheese with little success. We ate lunch at the Palace Hotel an oasis for ex-pats and a source of cheap internet. There we saw voting observers from the EU. Sudan was suppose to be having their first free election to vote on the separation of north Sudan from south, making the south a new country. Sadly, it seems there is much corruption and the opposition party has pulled out claiming it will be an unfair vote. Hopefully this will not upset the peace agreement that has been in place for the last 5 years.

Our last day, we wander through the ruins of the crumbling buildings in the old city, stop for cups of shai at our favorite tea shop, and drink in the grit that is in this outpost in Sudan, Africa.

Three days after leaving Port Suakin, a thunderstorm sits upon us and the rains come, carrying the dust from our rigging onto the decks and bringing with them rough seas and strong winds. We are stuck in Sanganeb reef, staring at the water that tosses us uncomfortably at anchor.

It is amazing how quickly everything can change. Just two days ago, we were free diving off the point. Schools of hundreds of yellow-lipped sweetlips swarmed us. Twenty-three big eyed trevally swam directly at us in procession coming in for a closer look. With their toothy mouths agape, giant marbled grouper peered at us suspiciously from below reminding me of old men. Pink and orange anthias rise and fall around us like confetti. A ball of small jackfish surrounded Gar and moments later a huge school of hundreds of barracuda passed by. Blue fusiliers flickered in and out of the deep appearing and disappearing like an illusion.

We decided to abandon our hopes of scuba diving and visiting Jacques Cousteau's research station at nearby Shab Rumi, as the wind is fresh, blowing at 18-20 knots and the weather reports suggest it will be building within the next few days. We don't want to get caught out in the exposed reefs in 30 or so knots of wind. Here the dramatic change in weather greatly influences comfort level and fun factor and thus our choices, so we set off to Marsa Fijab for the night. Sadly, on the way our faithful resin-head squid lure got munched off by something big yesterday. The two hundred pound stainless lead did nothing against this creature's sharp teeth. We pulled the hand line in, the end looking like an exploded piece of wire, wildly unraveled.

It is 09:50 and we're motor sailing close-hauled, hoping to arrive at our next anchorage, Taila Island before the wind and swell threaten to stop us in our tracks. We are trailing two smaller squid lures and slightly bucking the swell. The water is a sparkling shade of dark blue and the sky is overcast and bright white. Thankfully the wind is clocking to the north east while it builds. We can see mainland Sudan; the hills roll by, beige with dust. We will likely settle into Taila if the winds blow strongly from the north as forecasted and hope to have some new adventures there.

No comments: