The worst floods in 100 years were ravaging the Sudan as we were trying to leave Egypt. After waiting 3 weeks for the waters to recede, we were finally able to board a boat from Aswan to Wadi Halfa.
After 3 glorious days steaming down Lake Naser, we arrive only to hear there is a local meningitis outbreak. We can’t get off the boat without first passing through a room where each of us will get a shot.
Imagine a rusty metal bowl with sides about 4″ high that could hold maybe a 1/2 gallon of liquid. Inside this bowl are two dozen needles all with their tips in some light green colored ‘vaccine’.
I freak out. No way they are sticking me with one of those needles. 300+ people on this boat and they all just line up and, one after another, hold out their arms and get poked.
I rummage through my backpack and pull out my crumpled up vaccination booklet with lots of stamps in it – none for meningitis.
The guys look at it, hand it back without reading a single page and say I can’t get into the Sudan without getting stuck. I hand one of them $3 USD and say this is for me, my brother and this guy Phoenix we met on the boat who was heading back to Tanzania.
They let us through.
I am alive today because of 3 $1 bills…
Bird in Hand by Lee Perry is sung in (I think) Amharic and talks about Haile Selassie, the ruler of Ethiopia who’s name roughly translates into ‘The Power of the Trinity.’
So I’m listening to that song on constant repeat as we get onto this train from Wadi Halfa to Khartoum. It’s a 3 day ride and the train is PACKED!
This is the first train in days (if not weeks) as our boat is the first one from Egypt since the floods closed off access to the Sudan from the north.
Over a million people lost access to fresh water in the capital alone and additional storms to the north caused extensive and long-lasting flooding. When we arrived, much of the country is in termoil. At the time, the largest refugee camp in the world is just outside Khartoum with over 1 million people in it.
I find a train car that is (relatively) clear. All it has in it are these HUGE bundles of stuff piled high – but no passengers. Score!
I throw my backpack on top of one of the bundles, proceed to sit on another and listen to my headphones. My brother follows my lead, throws his pack on another and squeezes in bewtween two of the more comfortable ones. Phoenix does not. He climbs up onto the roof of the same car and waits.
By the time the train takes off, so many people have walked through the car and not stopped, I actually get curious as to why no one is in here with us.
Too late… I realize the error of my ways.
In walk maybe a dozen of the tallest darkest men I have ever seen. I was fascinated with their coloring because their skin had an almost shimmery blue sheen to it. They were both regal and terrifying at the same time. But I couldn’t help but smile. These were truly people to be celebrated and I was glad they were going to be joining us for three days 🙂
They all had swords and looked like warriors from a classic colonial movie about scary Africans. They were thin, all muscle and each one has a collection of ornate ornamental (?) weapons strapped to them.
They seem highly amused by us. They don’t sit next to us but occupy the rest of the car – also by sitting atop the bundles.
I go back to listening. What else can I do? 🤷🏾♂️
One of them taps me with a long stick and gestures to my headphones. Just so happens, I am still listening to that same song. Maybe I was singing the words out loud. Who knows.
I smile and say something in Arabic like: “Would you like to hear this song? It’s Reggae.”
He listens. He starts to sing the words. Everyone falls silent. I rewind the tape. He listens some more. He lets his buddies listen.
We become friends.
Later I find out that these were some of the warlords of the Sudan – feared by all. Everyone on the train, Phoenix included, thought they would beat us up (or worse) and take our stuff.
Instead, at one point the train stops and one of them grabs me and pulls me out into the desert. I have never experienced heat like this and had been visually suffering all day and through the night. We walk maybe 100 yeards away from the train. He starts digging. Up flows water. He shows me how to drink through a cloth. I am sated. We smile at each other. He tells me how water is all around us if only you know where to look.
We return to the train.
Life is better with friends.
Our plan was to make it to Tanzania. How opportune that we ran into a Tanzanian on his way home.
We check in with the the USA embassy in Khartoum and inform them that we are heading south to Uganda and then Tanzania. They suggest we find an alternative route as there is a civil war going on in the south.
Ha! We are young and dumb and think we can avoid any problems. We thank them for their advice and proceed to make plans.
We head to this market where we hear we can find transportation. Everyone is looking at us like we are simply insane, but, if we really want to go south, we should check in with the Sudanese military as they are running supply convoys down there.
That’s strange, we think. Hmm… maybe this is for real. As we are figuring out how to even convince the military to let us ride with them, one of the transport people let’s us know that a convoy has just returned. 50% of the people who tried to go south had been killed and they had lost all of their weapons. The ones who made it back had to walk much of the way.
Ok. South is not an option.
We can’t go East because Ethiopia was Russia-aligned and they may think we were spies. The only other option is to go West and then down into the Central African Republic.
Normally, there is quite a brisk business between Nyala and Khartoum, but because of the floods, very few people are heading out that way. Which leaves us only two options: walk the 600+ miles or get real lucky and find a ride. We get lucky.
Our truck had fewer people but just as much stuff. For 9 days we ventured. It was a glorious time. We would drive for a few miles, get stuck, dig ourselves out, rest, pray, drive a bit further – and then sleep.
It was during one of these evening moments having recovered from my first really bad bout of Malaria and while the Muslims among us were praying to the East… that I looked out over the sand and brush at the setting sun and was struck by the most amazing feeling. I was ‘Home™’. For the first time in my entire life I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I felt grounded. I felt at peace.
I kneeled down and bowed my head to the sun in a gesture of thanks. Thank you for warming all of us on this planet and nurturing us with your light. For once I truly believed that everything was possible.