After a long journey, including a 12 hour layover at the Istanbul airport where we were stuck because of snow; my Uncle David and I arrived for a few days in Khartoum, Sudan. It is my 11th different trip to Africa. Jet lag was unusually pretty bad. Plus, I was really unlucky and somehow got really bad food poisoning from something I ate in Istanbul. Not the best way to start out an African trip. However, we trudged ahead anyway and saw what this ancient capital had to offer.
We stayed at the old favorite of Khartoum, the Acropole Hotel, which is run by a Greek family. They were responsible for sponsoring us for a visa and taking care of all pain in the ass bureaucratic issues from inside the Sudan. They also met our plane upon arrival and escorted us through all the crap at the airport that can be time consuming and confusing. As some of you may know, Sudan is one of the hardest and most expensive visas in the world to get for Americans and I assume for most western nationalities. The hoops to jump through are numerous and it can be a very expensive process. Without the hotel, we couldn’t have gotten the visas.
The hotel itself, which is extremely popular with journalists and travelers, was built in the 50’s and is the kind of place you’d think a Khartoum hotel would be like. Cement stairs, pale walls and pictures of Sudan’s glorious past and ancient relics. It also had all types of cool old maps of Africa. You know they were old because the Congo’s were still called Zaire and Burkina Faso was still known as Upper Volta. The relatively extortionate price of $173 a night included breakfast, which we slept through both days, but they also offered dinner and lunch if you wanted to eat in the hotel. We declined and ate at local restaurants at the recommendations of the brothers who run the hotel. They were very helpful and the restaurants were pretty good.
The two main places we ate at were Papacosta, around the corner from our hotel, which had all kinds of different food. We ordered a pizza that was pretty good, although I only had three little bites of one slice because of my food poisoning, I had zero appetite. If you know me this is very rare, but so is losing 8 pounds in one day from being sick!
Next, we had a great dinner at a Khartoum local family favorite called Amwaj (above). It was a typical Middle Eastern/African style place with communal dining and many choices where you pay ahead of time at a cash register and get a ticket for what you want. I ordered a double burger kind of thing that looked good. At that point, I hadn’t eaten anything of substance in 36 hours so I was pretty hungry and was curious if I could keep it down. I did and the burger was excellent. It also came with some fresh guava juice. They don’t have alcohol in the Sudan, at least that’s easy to get. Afterwards, we went next door to Steers and Debonairs Pizza, which is a normal African chain of fast food, for a Fanta. Yes, as you can see, the nights are crazy in the Sudan!
The city of Khartoum itself is OK. It is a typical Sahelian city. On the surface it reminds me of Niamey, Niger or N’Djamena, Chad but as you look closer, Khartoum is much more cosmopolitan than those cities and many African cities to be honest. It has lots of stuff, so to speak. It has some higher end areas with normal stores and a bunch of restaurants, deli’s, bakeries, etc. Again, this may not sound like much but if you’re thinking that, then you clearly haven’t been to Chad or Niger!
Khartoum also has some tall and modern buildings. Most are banks. Most are Islamic banks that you see all over North Africa and the Middle East. Many are the known banks where warlords, diplomats and arms dealers keep their distressed funds with no issues. Kind of like the Swiss banks of Africa and the Middle East. There is also a cool hotel building (below) which is kind of the centerpiece of the city and located right on the Nile River although not a very nice part of it.
Khartoum also has many other traits of African cities with rampant street markets and colorful people. Khartoum, the capital of the Sudan, which is soon to be divided into South Sudan and Sudan is very orderly and you feel very safe. All the deserved negative press the country receives because of human rights violations; the fact that the President is charged with genocide by the International War Crimes Tribunal; that it seems to be in general disarray, especially in Darfur and the South, is non-existent to the naked eye here in Khartoum. It all seems shockingly normal and safe. Although, we were not allowed to take pictures. Well not really…
In the Sudan you have to pay extra for a permit to take photos. This is exceptionally annoying but relatively common in Arab and some African countries. We did that and as we received our permit, I asked the hotel guy who gave me the permit, “So this permit allows us to take pictures around Khartoum?” He replied, ‘Ehhh, I wouldn’t…you don’t want any trouble.” We’re like OK, what the hell does that mean? Can we or can’t we? Anyway, we were a little apprehensive and there were tons of military uniformed guys in the street so we snuck a few pictures but really didn’t take too many just to avoid being hassled by the authorities. In truth there isn’t a ton to photograph anyway in the city so it was fine but strange nonetheless.
Some of you may also be wondering if I saw or heard anything about the independence of the South or any comparisons between Khartoum and Juba in South Sudan. They are completely different in all ways possibly, especially infrastructure as most roads in Khartoum are paved plus they have bridges and it looks like a relatively put together city. Juba looks like a town that doesn’t know what they’re doing and that’s being run by clueless NGO’s and the UN. Nobody talked about the South in Khartoum, there were no signsor billboards, nothing in the local papers or anything. It was as if the vote or independence never happened. I thought it was interesting.
So we are about to rest up a little before our 5am flight to Ethiopia, if I can sleep because of the jet lag but I am very excited for Ethiopia. Hopefully we can get Somalia visas tomorrow in Addis Ababa. Apparently it is a Muslim holiday tomorrow so the visa office is closed…who knows? We will do our best to get them. If not, then we will head up north to Axum and Lalibela. Either way it will be really interesting and hopefully stomach issue free!