An armed Sudanese policeman at the Sudan-Ethiopia border.
Locals run beside us along the banks of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia.
Pyramids tall and short encirle a natural amphitheatre in the Sudanese desert and the Meroe Royal City
Whitewater in the chocolate-brown Blue Nile in Ethiopia's Black Gorge.
Sudanese men sailing/pushing a felucca along the Nile River.
Les in his folding K2 kayak in northern Sudan close to the sixth cataract.
Kids in Egypt play with the ancient pyramids of Giza as a backdrop.
The reservoir was the leg of the journey I had been most concerned about. The Sudan was my responsibility and southern Blue Nile State was reputedly the most dangerous part of it. From Damazine north, we were in Government-controlled areas and relatively close to a road going to Khartoum. Reaching the dam was one of the big milestones of the trip and I would have been overjoyed had it not been for my uncertainty about our permits and visas.
The only place to land was a filthy inlet cleared of reeds and weeds between rows of fishermen's rowing boats. Our kayaks glided through the fish guts, gasoline and human excrement that floated on the surface. It was the first sign of human pollution we had seen on the river and it stunk.
More than fifty curious men crammed around on the bank to see the khawajas. There was a chorus of wisecracks and laughter as they stood tip toeing, scrambling over each other's shoulders to get the best view. Holding my breath, I pulled my leg out of my kayak and winced as I inserted it into the least filthy section of river I could find and climbed onto the bank. I didn't know it then, but that short moment in the polluted water would come back to haunt me.
Without a chance to pull our kayaks from the scum, a young man in a uniform with a broad, flat face, so black he was blue, pushed through the crowds. Neglecting the usual handshaking, he held his palms upright. "Where are your papers?"
I seized the plastic envelope from my boat and held them out to him. He pushed them aside. "You must come with me."
It was the first aggression we'd seen in Sudan from the border and it caught me off guard. Les and I shared a look. Drained from the hot and laborious days and poor sleeps on the reservoir, the last thing we needed was a policeman with an attitude.
Les offered to stay with the kayaks so I stumbled behind the soldier through the market flanking the river. It was dark and the stalls had closed, with just a few vendors left milling around. Everyone stopped cold when they saw me.
A massive soldier with his arms folded stood at the entrance of a green canvas tent, frowning at me. He had a large crescent-shaped tribal marking scarred into his forehead and he looked mean.
I held out my hand to shake his and he stepped back. His frown doubled in intensity, causing thick wrinkles to distort his crescent scar. He nodded at my wad of papers. This was our moment of reckoning. Huddling over his desk under the faint light he studied the papers, and the more he read, the more his face screwed up. He abruptly flipped back and forth over the pages.
"You and your friend must come to the main station," he ordered.
"My friend and I are both very tired and we have our boats and all of our gear by the river. Can we sleep here tonight and come to the station in the morning?" I asked.
"No, you must come now," he demanded slamming his bent index finger into the desk. "We will help to move your things."
There was no arguing with the man, and no chance we would be resting any time soon.
I was marched back to the bank surrounded by four soldiers. Les sat beside the kayaks he had dragged from the river, with his head buried in his hands, fielding a bombardment of questions in pidgin English.
"Sorry to leave you here for so long Jick. We have to get our things and go to the ‘main station' with these guys."
"That's probably a good thing. I've got a bad feeling about this place. These Sudanese aren't polite like they were on the reservoir, they've been fighting over money and that kid just asked me for tobacco."
Those same quarrelling, smoking Sudanese were soon rounded up by the dogmatic soldier and ordered to lug our things. Gathering our most valuable possessions, Les and I grasped an end of our kayaks and joined the parade that treaded through the night. At the main station fortress we were ordered into the small mud-brick gatehouse and sat, slumped over, waiting as we watched the fan slowly rotating, doing little to keep the room cool. My eyelids felt like lead and every muscle in my body ached. I was too exhausted to worry. We gave each other supportive yet worried glances. We were too exhausted to talk.
Sitting incarcerated with authorities in the hot room reminded me of a story I had heard in Khartoum. Many of the Sudanese, even those with University degrees, believe in Black Magic. Earlier that year, reports had spread of Nigerian witchdoctors in Khartoum, shaking men's hands. For every man whose hand they shook, his penis would disappear. Poof, gone. The threat was taken seriously and the police were in such hysteria that they were arresting suspects.
One of the other teaching volunteers, a Caribbean Englishman, was at the market on an idle Tuesday afternoon when he was suddenly surrounded by a horde of police officers. In a fury, they manhandled him into a police van and jostled him into a dirt-floored cell. They had presumed he must be Nigerian given he was black and spoke no Arabic. He was held for quite some time and was understandably shaken by the ordeal. I double-checked his fridge and can confirm that there was no jar of pickled penises.
We hadn't been arrested for pinching penises, but it felt like we were dealing with the same irrational policemen.
Crescent-head burst into the room after a couple of hours. "You must follow now. General Saddiq has come from the mosque to see you." He gasped for breath as he spoke. We followed him across a large field in single file. "General Saddiq is number three. He is very important man."
We were ushered into a spotless office where a verse from the Koran hung in a cheap plastic frame. The men saluted one another before Crescent-head gingerly left the room.
"Take a seat," said the General with controlled authority.
"We're sorry to pull you from the mosque so late in the evening," I said.
"It is not a problem, I had finished my prayers. We have to sort this out tonight."
I stood up and placed the stack of permits on his desk.
"Where have you come from?" he asked, picking up the papers.
"Ethiopia," I answered.
"How did you get from Ethiopia to Damazine?"
"You paddled?" he put down the papers and stared at us. "Where did you paddle from?"
"From Lake Tana. Down the Blue Nile."
"You paddled from Lake Tana down the Blue Nile and across the Reservoir to Damazine?"
"This cannot be done. Everybody knows this is impossible."
"Not impossible, but very difficult."
Shaking his head, he picked up the papers again. I looked at Les and then down at myself. We were unshaven and unwashed for more than two weeks, looking particularly filthy next to General Saddiq who was immaculately groomed in a pristine jelabea. I wondered whether our appearance added to our authenticity or made us look like a couple of rogues dragged in from the street.
General Saddiq sat at his desk scrutinising the papers. The longer he studied, the more nervous I became, especially about Les's expired visa. Without speaking, he pulled a pen from his drawer and began to write. The room was silent except for the movement of the General's ballpoint scribbling across the page.
© Copyright 2012 Mark Tanner
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