“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” – Helen Keller
“Get your hands off me!” I rip my right arm free. “Where are you taking me?”
No one answers.
“I’m not going any further until you tell me what I did wrong.”
Still no one responds and they couldn’t be less concerned with my questions.
I stop in the middle of the street. A donkey saunters by, too slowly, like it’s eavesdropping. I don’t want to make a scene, but hell, I need answers here.
“Who are you?”
My tactic doesn’t work and they lash out at me in Arabic.
I’ve clearly done something to upset them, but what?
The three men that are forcing me to go with them tighten their circle around me and I’m left with no choice but to keep moving. Their body language is abrasive and their tone is relentlessly hostile, and I’m just about to totally lose my cool – but this is Sudan and even though I’ve been here for a few days, it’s still very much a mystery to me. I have to play along.
They lead me across street and into the courtyard of Khartoum’s chaotic bus station. A high chain linked fence surrounds the whole property and I’m guided up a flight of steps and then down a long empty hallway. The rules of the real world are starting to feel farther and farther away with every step I take, and my stomach starts to churn as panic sets in.
I literally have no idea who these men are or where they are taking me and this is the last place I want to find myself in any kind of trouble.
Sudan is an Arab country located in the Nile Valley of North Africa and it’s always been a strange and wondrous place to me. When I started to vaguely map out my route across Africa, Sudan was the country that I knew the least about and was most nervous about crossing through. And even though I don’t usually put to much stock in what the U.S. Department of State has to say, I did take special notice to the official travel warning they placed on Sudan. If you asked me before I left for Africa which country would force me to hop on a flight and give up on my dream of traveling the world overland, I would have said Sudan. It’s also the most populous Muslim nation on earth, and although I have nothing but incredible things to say about the Muslims I’ve met all over the world, I wasn’t really sure what kind of reaction I would get here.
Sudan is probably best known for its ongoing twelve-year war in the Darfur region, which has been labeled by the United Nations as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and called “genocide”, by the United States government. In short, the conflict started in 2003 when rebel groups started fighting the government of Sudan, which they accused of oppressing Darfur’s non-Arab population. The government responded to the attacks by carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Darfur’s non-Arabs. The United Nations says as many as 300,000 people have died since 2003.
Sudan is one of the world’s poorest countries and its people suffer from poor humans rights, which include dealing with everything from ethnic cleansing to female genital mutilation and even slavery. When I was in South Africa a few years ago, I met a Sudanese man that told me he was sold into slavery (by, of all people, his parents) and then he forced to become a child solider before finally escaping the war and fleeing to South Africa to start a new life. I can still remember the detached look in his eyes when he recollected the horrors of his childhood.
My story is completely trivial by comparison, and I completely realize that, but for me being on a personal mission to cross Africa and then the rest of the world, this is still the safest route for me to take. I had hoped to cross Sudan in about ten days, and learn as much as I could about the Sudanese while moving quickly towards Egypt. The other option, which wasn’t even really an option because of the numerous dangers, would have been to cross South Sudan, Central African Republic, Chad and Libya.
The thing that really has me worried right now is that none of these men are wearing police uniforms – or anything that looks remotely official. And they just came up to me out of the blue while I was waiting to buy my bus ticket to Wadi Halfa. They aggressively forced me up and out of my seat and insisted that I follow them. They haven’t shown me anything indicating who they are or what they want. One of the men is heavyset and bouncer-like, another is older and balding, and the youngest one possesses an attitude that’s really starting to rub me the wrong way. All three are wearing worn-out khaki pants and ratty, button-down dress shirts.
At the end of the hallway we turn into a barren room. There’s a desk, a chair, and paint peeling off the walls. The room feels swollen and ready to burst; it must be about 120 degrees in here.
I’m instructed to sit in the single chair that’s in the middle of the room like they’ve seen way too many episodes of NYPD Blue.
As I take a seat, nervousness spikes within me, but then I realize: I’m getting use to this. I just crossed Kenya and Ethiopia during one of the most dangerous time to do so – and if I can handle that, then I should be able handle this. Even though I want to lash out and scream at these guys, the best thing to do at times like this is to remain calm and play dumb, and if all else fails mention most African’s favorite soccer team, Manchester United. I’ve found that that usually gets me out of trouble quicker than just about anything else.
One thing I know for a fact is that no one wants to deal with a smart-ass American and I learned this lesson the hard way when I lost my cool going through immigration at the Mozambique-Malawi boarder, which ended up costing me two hundred dollars, in the form of a bribe . . . but that’s another story for another time.
The three men ask for my passport, which thankfully I’m carrying in order to purchase my bus ticket (normally I don’t carry it with me when I’m just walking around.) I slide it across the desk, and watch them flip to the page where my Sudanese visa is printed. Ah, that visa. Laborious to acquire – I had to get someone from Sudan to write a letter sponsoring my stay in the country, and then send the letter and my passport to the Sudanese Embassy in Washington D.C. while I waited for weeks in Uganda. So as they study my passport, I’m expecting the worst.
Desperation creeps into my voice. “Can someone please tell me what I’m doing here?”
The youngest and most aggressive of the group flips though the rest of my passport and asks for my Sudanese registration. It’s not enough to have a visa to enter Sudan – once you enter the country, you are required to register your passport with the Aliens Department within 3 days of arrival. Luckily I know this from my chance encounter with that other traveler I bumped into at the Ethiopian Immigration office last week, so I politely flip to the page where my registration is.
As sweat begins to run off my face, I start to sense that I could be in some serious trouble, so I ask again, “What am I doing here?”
After a long pause an answer finally comes.
“Camera, we see.”
Ahhhhh! I should have known. I’d heard that taking photos or film inside Sudan could be a problem, but until now, I’d seen nothing of it in person, never been yelled at – so I assumed the rules had lapsed a little.
Instead, I’ve been taking risks. Big ones. And this is my wake-up call.
Here’s the right way to do it. Any traveler that wants to take photographs in Sudan must obtain a photography permit from the Government of Sudan – which I haven’t done. In fact, my too-late-in-the-day research tells me, Sudan has very strict rules about taking pictures and you always need a permit to do so. They do award permits to people like me, but I’d have to go through registration to get it.
The permit tells you where you can and cannot take pictures. Even with the right permissions, photographing military areas, bridges, train stations, broadcasting infrastructure, slum areas or other defaming objects is strictly forbidden. People have been arrested for taking pictures where the Blue and While Nile meet in Khartoum, which is actually one of the places I was filming last night (and I was doing so from a bridge no less).
Okay. This is bad.
I pass my camera over so all three of men can inspect it; thankfully, it’s just my point and shoot camera, small enough to fit into my pocket. (There was no way I was lugging my big DSLR camera and tripod through the streets today – it’s just way to hot outside for all that mess.)
I watch them turn my camera over and over like a child with a Rubik’s Cube, like it’s the first time they’ve ever seen one – and I think back to what probably got me here. While I was waiting to buy my bus ticket today I had some time to kill, so I filmed some shots of me walking through the streets of Khartoum for the next episode I’m filming. My stomach churns. I should have known that I was doing something wrong by the look on every ones faces when they saw me set my camera up: anxious, faintly appalled. I mean, people in Africa usually stare at me when I’m walking through the streets for any number of reasons (my size, color, tattoo, beard, long hair, baggy shorts, take your pick) but it went to a whole new level today when I set my camera down, then ran back 50 yards so I could record myself slowly walking past it. No – they weren’t just staring at me. They were quietly freaking out.
Ugh. Why am I only seeing all this now?
I’m told to turn on my camera and show the three men all the photos and video I have taken while in Sudan. After I flip through the entire catalogue of images, they surprisingly return the camera to me. It’s starting to feel like they know they made a mistake. I was almost certain they were going to confiscate my camera and then insist on a bribe just so I could be released – but of course, that could still happen. In fact, it’s feeling very likely.
So while I have my camera in my pocket, I have to make a quick decision. I don’t want to have my camera confiscated, and I don’t want to get myself arrested, but I captured some extraordinary scenes here, and the photos I took just yesterday are very dear to me. And its not just the photos that I want to keep, it’s the memory, since I don’t collect souvenirs; these photos are all I have and the traveler in me really wants to be able to look back and remember moments like this…
About 300 Muslim men in long white robes were standing in the courtyard of the mosque around a solitary man that was beating a calfskin drum as the sun was setting. Imagine if you will a non-Muslim westerner in shorts and a t-shirt at a mosque in Sudan during prayer time with their camera out, but what followed was truly amazing. One of the elder men in the circle saw what I was doing and he invited me into their circle and then insisted that I not only take some photos of them, but that I join them in the photos. As I was posing with a huge smile on my face and my arms around the shoulders of a group of Muslim men, it was one of the moments in life that you never want to forget, one of those moments when the Universe seems to stop and say, “Hey, I know some days can be hard, but keeping doing what your doing and don’t ever forget that your always surrounded by my love.”
…but this is suddenly far more urgent than just retaining my photos, far more serious. It’s about staying out of some serious trouble in one of the most dangerous countries I’ve ever visited. I can’t un-take those photos. I just have to get out of here in one piece.
So while no one is looking I casually sneak my hand into my pocket and open the compartment door where the memory card is located; I slip the memory card out and into my pocket then close the door like nothing ever happened. The heavyset bouncer type guy turns his head and looks me funny and asks to see the camera again, but just before I pass it over, he insists that I delete all the footage that’s on the memory card. Well, since there is no memory card in the camera anymore, it’s easy to make it look like I have deleted all the footage, so I pretend to push a few buttons and – presto, empty camera. I proudly hand it over and show him the blank LCD screen and then just as he looks down at it, the words, no memory card start flashing across it.
My heart stops for a second, and I pray that he can’t read English.
…which thankfully he can’t. He seems satisfied that I have in fact deleted everything. I’ve got away with it.
After sitting in silence for thirty sweat-filled minutes, the men finally mutter something to each other in Arabic and then look over at me. One of the men stands up and motions to the door, which I assume means that I am free to go. Just like that. I’m shocked. I actually can’t believe it.
And before they have a chance to reconsider, I turn and walk out, as fast as my trembling legs will carry me.