THE SUDAN — “Cowardly, lying, effeminate brutes, these Arabs and Sudanese! I wish they had one neck and someone would squeeze it! Oh! I am sick of these people.”
Charles Gordon’s letters home were often dyspeptic. Charged by the Egyptian Khedive some 130 years ago with ending the slave trade in Sudan, the English adventurer and Governor-General of Sudan found not only his mission but the people and their climate impossible. He suffered from a weak liver and persistent diarrhea, and complained endlessly of frustrations with local officials, Arab tribal leaders, and his own aides and native troops — to say nothing of the Africans, for whose poor souls Gordon labored. Many of the slaves regarded the Englishman’s promises of liberation with bewilderment and even ambivalence, ultimately leading him to dismiss them as “a hopeless, hopeless, hopeless lot indeed.”
Gordon’s letters, however, can be misleading. To those who worked alongside him, he could be an annoying perfectionist. But more often than not he was gracious and soft-spoken, ministering to those who became ill and patiently instructing those who mucked things up. His grumblings home notwithstanding, I suspect Gordon perversely enjoyed the trials of the Third World. Certainly he preferred the untamed savannas and desert to the relative comforts of Khartoum, where he chafed under his administrative duties. An 1883 report from the nettlesome Anti-Slavery Society was conspicuously silent on Gordon’s governance, noting simply that, “He spent most of his time traveling.” Gordon himself, during one of his periods of exile in Khartoum, wrote, “Since the lonely camel rides are at an end, I have no nice thoughts.”
Having spent a fair amount of time in Third World hellholes, I can appreciate where Gordon was coming from. There’s really no joy like barrelling down a Thai highway on the roof of a bus in the early morning, passing elephant herders and Buddhists clanging their begging bowls, feeling the cool damp from the mist on one’s face. Or sweltering in a stalled Haitian taxi, smelling the sickly sweet smoke of burning rubbish and — inevitably in Haiti — flaming tires. Or holding on for dear life in the bed of a pick-up truck as it slips and bounces over the Sahara, the whirling sand stinging a sunburned face and arms.
In this day and this world, travel usually has little allure. It’s become little more than a nuisance, remarkable only for whether a plane landed ahead or (more likely) behind schedule, or whether the meal was atrocious or merely edible. Sadly, “getting there” is no longer part of the adventure, and a trip doesn’t really start until one lands.
NOT SO WITH THIRD WORLD airline travel. While it hasn’t escaped certain transportation modernizations, it’s still fortunately a far cry from sterile. Sure, there are inconveniences, but mostly they’re of a charming and darkly humorous sort — an Ethiopian Airways flight running out of meals, for example, or the ubiquitous Moslem prayer before taking off and the grateful applause upon landing.
There is a very good reason for this latter ritual in Sudan. I found myself traversing the country for much of the summer in an old Antonov, its past lives revealed by the fading decals under the wings. There was the seal of some United Nations relief agency, and another from the Sudanese air force. Three more told of long-shuttered attempts at civilian aviation. The propellers sputtered to a start and coughed oil. The blocks were removed and, like an old mule, the plane sighed as it plodded down the runway. Many of the seat rows weren’t bolted down, so take-off resulted in a domino effect, with one group of passengers tumbling back onto another.
This — and the stench of unburned fuel and my unshowered fellow passengers –was reason for a cigar, and I fished around for a pack of matches. (My lighter had been requisitioned at the gate under the guise of security and no doubt brought the guard a few dinars. Americans, after all, do not go to Sudan to hijack planes.)
I’d taken only a few puffs when what passed for the steward crept up to me. He pointed to the sign above and shook his finger. “No smoking,” he said. Before I could stub it out, however, he stopped me with a pat on the hand and motioned toward the front of the plane. Not sure that I’d understood him correctly, I made my way hesitantly toward the cockpit door and knocked.
I was greeted by a fog of smoke so thick it’s a wonder the pilots could see anything at all. Tinny Arabic music blared from a small boom box, and on the floor sat the navigator, cross-legged, boiling tea. Now this is my idea of an airliner! I thought happily, and over the course of the next hour had a delightful chat with the Armenian pilot. “I am the last Soviet fighter pilot,” he declared at one point. When it came time to land, he merely told me to brace myself in the doorway.
THE FIRST STEP IN UNDERTAKING anything in Sudan is realizing that nothing happens on time. The favorite Sudanese expression is “Inchalla bukra mafi mushkala” — “God willing, tomorrow, no problem” — and this is particularly apt when it comes to travel. Airlines routinely publish departure times of 6 or 7 a.m., but there’s no assurance they will leave then or ever.
One Sunday in late August, my colleagues and I needed to return to Khartoum from the dusty Saharan town of Al-Fashir in the remote western region of North Darfur. Multiple calls to the various domestic and cargo airlines over the previous days, however, turned up that the only flights were on Saturdays and Mondays (at 6 a.m., of course). With the help of a contact who had access to a helicopter, we arranged to fly back Sunday — only to learn that morning that he had left without us the previous evening. Cursing our bad luck back in our guest house, we suddenly heard the drone of an airplane taking off. We raced to the airport.
There had, in fact, been several flights to Khartoum that morning, the ticketing agent explained. Indeed, there was a plane bound for the capital right now, he said, and pointed through the broken window panes at a plane that hurtled down the runway. We stood in dejected silence, watching as it took off. Ah well, he sighed, feeling our consternation. “No more plane.”
Is there no other flight to Khartoum today, perhaps even on a cargo plane? His eyes brightened. “Ah, yes! MidAir leaves in 10 minutes!” But I thought there were no flights to Khartoum on Sunday? I naively asked. “Yes, there are no flights today.” But you say a plane leaves in 10 minutes? “Ahhh,” he said, grasping the conundrum. “Change of schedule.”
The plane, of course, did not leave in 10 minutes, and after all the internal travel forms had been filled out, we were ushered to a tall porter wearing a mish-mash of uniforms who would check our luggage. The conveyor belt wasn’t conveying, and a team of natives simply crawled into the machine to drag the sagging boxes and bags through. With a great frown, however, he pointed to a large camel bag I bought as a souvenir.
“That bag is for camel,” he said matter-of-factly. Yes, it is a bag for camel, I said. But I hope to bring it onto the plane. He pondered this for a moment, finally giving a befuddled nod. “And where is your camel?” He asked it with such earnest innocence — as if boarding the camel could be solved in its own Sudanese way — that the ticketing agent and I both laughed.
“This is the place of stop thinking,” the agent said, and smiled apologetically. What he didn’t know was that, despite my exasperation, inwardly I felt only thanks. As Gordon himself wrote, “There is some deep and wonderful design in all these trying obstacles.”