The desert in Sudan was peaceful. The town of Wadi Halfi was unusual. The ferry ride from Wadi Halfi to Aswan was just annoying.
In most every guidebook that I’ve read on the trip, there is a section that talks about travel considerations for women. Frankly, I’ve been amazed at how many solo females travelers I’ve met on this trip. They have a level of travel courage for which I have the utmost respect.
In all the various crime stories I’ve heard so far on the trip, I’ve yet to hear a bad, sexual assault story, thank God, but I’m still in awe of the woman I’ve met tromping around the world by themselves. I have glanced through those sections in the guidebooks, but the warnings have never really registered with me.
Until I got to the Muslim countries in northern Africa that is. Until then, I’d really never traveled with women in parts of the world where those warnings apply. I’d seen women get hit on or whistled at (my guys other than me even), but had all been pretty tame until this part of the world.
Of the twenty of us on the overland truck, about half of us slept up on the deck of the ferry and the other half paid extra to get cabins. After going through the exit procedures at the dock in Wadi Halfa, we got into buses to go to the ferry (the lakes levels are way, way down and the dock is about a half mile from the original one), got on the boat and immediately went up to the top deck to mark out our sleeping territory.
One of the overland truck drivers had warmed us that it can get quite crowded up on deck. He told us one time that he almost had to elbow his way to get enough room to lie down and sleep. Luckily for us, one of the benefits to traveling in the middle of the summer heat was that the ferry wasn’t completely packed, so there was enough room to spread out a rug we were carrying to mark out a spot for five us to sleep. The other five spread our a rug around the corner.
I did get to see something on the ferry that I’d never seen before – a Muslim woman praying. I was up near the bridge on the shady side of the ferry reading a book and listening to my iPod, when two woman walked up, spread out a rug, and one of them got down and started praying. I’d seen hundreds of men praying before at various calls to prayer during the day – in fact, in just a couple more hours, when the sun went down, there was a big prayer session on the top deck – but I’d never before seen a woman praying. I think for the most part, the woman pray in private, while the men go to the mosque for their daily prayers. One of the many things I will have to research before writing the tome.
The other thing I unfortunately got to witness was a bunch of young, rude Muslim guys that thought nothing of standing a few feet away from us and taking pictures of the girls with us on their cell phones. Click. Show your buddy standing next to you. Click again. Over the hours until the sun went down, this probably happened a half a dozen times.
Worse was the expression on their faces. They weren’t just taking pictures of ‘strange’ or ‘unique’ things. These weren’t just innocent tourist pictures. Though our female friends were quite conservatively dressed, as you should be in this part of the world out of respect for their culture, these guys were taking pictures of the ‘Western sluts.’
I simply have no doubt of this. After doing a bit of reading on how woman are thought of in this part of the world and talking to scores of female travelers, I’m completely convinced that is how a lot of these younger guys look at every western woman. I’ve heard a number of stories of guys walking up to western woman and just flat asking for sex. One of the girls on the trip had a guy tell her that she had nice breasts – and he was the guy checking her into the hotel she was staying at! A couple of the girls on the truck took the train from Khartoum to Wadi Halfa and one got groped on the train – just a flat, walk-up right to her, boob grab. Then he smiled at them, as if that was a perfectly acceptable way to say hello.
Not my style to condemn an entire culture, but a lot of these guys make drunken frat guys on Spring Break look like polite gentlemen.
We huddled up on the ship and made a decision about our sleeping arrangements. Our group was sleeping in a passage area, so we needed to leave an aisle down the middle. One of the girls was going to sleep on one side up against a wall, with a guy sleeping on her outside, on the passageway side. The other girl was going to sleep up against the railing, with another guy sleeping between her and the aisle. Basically, we were worried that if they slept somewhere that was exposed at all, they might get groped.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t organized my sleeping arrangements nearly as well. There wasn’t any more room on the rug, so I had to fold up my lightweight sleeping bag in half and put it under me, from ass to shoulders, to try to cushion a bit against the steel floor. I took off my sandals and used them as a pillow.
Not the best night’s sleep I’ve ever gotten.
We got to Aswan at 9:30 a.m. We had all been told that the Egyptian immigration agents were not the most efficient in the world. That was a gross understatement.
After experiencing their level of government efficiency and organization, it is not shocking that Israel kicked their asses in four wars last century. I think France might even be able to best them.
When we arrived, a small boat pulled up and four guys with gloves and masks over their mouths got onto our ship. They were there to check everyone’s passports for entry visas and also do a temperature check (in your ear) to make sure you didn’t have swine flu. They also handed out a small form you had to fill out regarding your health: any recent fevers? Coughing? Recent hospitalization? And so on.
Small sidenote. One of the girls on our truck got malaria in Ethiopia. Then at the end of the desert trip, she suffered from a bout of heat stroke. She had to go to the hospital in Wadi Halfa to be able to get enough fluids in her to get on the boat. On the boat, the ship’s doctor personally oversaw giving her an IV in her cabin. They let her in. Makes you wonder why they even bothered with all this.
Four hours later, everyone’s passport had been stamped and everyone’s temperature had been taken. Time to get off the boat and go through customs, right?
Not so fast, my friend. It seems that one of the locals hadn’t picked his passport back up from the immigration agents. So there was one guy on the boat that didn’t have his passport on him. For some inexplicable reason, they wouldn’t let anyone off the boat until they found him.
Just to make sure I beat this point to death, we still had to go through customs. In fact, before we finally exited the dock area, we all had to show our passports five more times to different people. Five times. Now, I understand it might be a big deal that you’ve got someone’s passport on you and that person shouldn’t be entering your country, but you know when you’d be able to figure that out, if you let everyone off the boat? About 3 minutes later, when the guy realized he didn’t have his passport at the first checkpoint.
But no, we all got to wait around on the boat until they found him. It took an hour for us to even realize this was all going on, until our local fixer that was on the ship with us talked to an official to figure out what was going on. During that hour, there wasn’t a single announcement made over the loudspeaker for this person to come pick up his passport. Apparently they just wandered around the boat and asked the 400-500 people if they’d seen Mohammed.
Yep. Mohammed. Because that is a pretty unique name in this part of the world. Then someone finally got on the loudspeaker and made an announcement that Mohammed needed to come pick up his passport.
Another hour went by before he did.
He must have been a former high-ranking military commander.