“I’ll just be here a few days”
It was sat on a Lithuanian guy’s sofa in Vilnius whilst hitch-hiking to Latvia that I first heard about couch-surfing, a website providing a formal framework for what I was doing by chance at that exact moment. I noted it, signed up, and subsequently more-or-less forgot about it.
Four years later, sat (rather more uncomfortably) on the ferry from Egypt to Sudan, I meet an American girl traveling with a Belgian guy whom she had met via the site several weeks previously. She extolled its virtues, suggesting I should use it in Khartoum; her new-found travel companion being testament to its merits. I hesitated over the likelihood of finding users registered in Sudan, but in an internet café in Dongola—itself, surprising and improbable in existence—I discovered that the community in Sudan’s capital seemed both rather large and active.
Fast-forward a few days and I find myself sitting in the air-conditioned lobby of Afra mall, waiting for an Italian ex-patriate who has offered me a bed for the night. Having spent the afternoon walking around the dusty streets of Khartoum with over twenty kilos on my back and the mercury rising over 40°, I am dirty and sweaty, feeling rather out of place.
I climb into the front-seat of an NGO pick-up truck and am whisked through the streets of al-Amarat to a house my host shares with several Eritrean refugees. As we sit on the terrace, the call to prayer sounds from a nearby mosque, interrupted by the deafening sound of aircraft landing at the nearby Khartoum airport. The evening air is hot as I struggle to remember peoples’ names and which international organisations they work for. Unlike other countries in which I have traveled on this trip, the question in Khartoum is not “where are you traveling?” but rather “which organisation are you with?” — travellers are few here, but certainly not unheard of. (In the coming week, I would meet a couple of others, vying for the same bed.)
I had initially thought I would spend just a few days in the city, enough time to be around for the elections before moving on. Talking about the elections, the group says that nobody knows how things will pan-out. Regarding my visit during this period, the advice is to stay in Khartoum, or better still, leave the country. I am unwilling to do the latter; doing so would forfeit my visa (for which I had dearly paid) without having seen anything of Sudan. I was told that NGOs were calling their staff around the country to return to the capital during this period. Others were sending people back to their respective countries for fear of what may happen. Embassies advised stocking-up on food & water, with the possibility of disruption in the streets.
As people left that night, I was asked if I would be around for a birthday party in a few days’ time. “I should still be here”, I replied, imagining it to be the period around the end of my sojourn in the city. This answer seems ridiculous now, thirteen weeks on, still in Khartoum. The question “so how long are you sticking around for?” became a running joke. “Blame it on the elections.”
These people that I initially struggled to place, I now count amongst my very good friends. There are people who bid me bon voyage in April, who’s farewell parties I have since attended, bidding them adieu. Vive Sudan.