After a peaceful yet sandy night sleeping in the shadows of two thousand year old pyramids in the Nubian desert, I had to make some hard decisions. I’ve got three days now to get to Wadi Halfa. And I need to do that without any hiccups. Given that my bike has a tendency to overheat and the sand is going to be challenging as a solo rider hoping that if I do get stuck or fall repeatedly that guardian angels will be there to help me. And nothing could interfere with the government of Sudan’s mandate that I exit the country within the seven days of entering.
What’s it all mean? I hate to do it but I’ve got to be prudent and smart. Though in some people’s minds embarking and continuing this journey wasn’t very prudent nor smart to begin with, so why change now? I’d rather not get into a battle with the Sudan immigration nor customs police. Plus, I don’t want Doc to overheat in the desert and be stuck without water. What should I do?
Take the train. I confirm that temperatures reached 50º today. I’m thinking it’s a smart move to ride in a shaded railway car to Wadi Halfa. Or maybe not?
I alerted my friend Moez who confirmed I could get a seat in first class on the slow train to Wadi Halfa. Now first class sounds very comfy and a bit extravagant, doesn’t it? Not so. The difference between first class and second class merely merely a cabin with six seats vs a cabin with eight seats. I needed to secure passage in the cargo car, too. Doc would be tied down for the 24-hour trip through the desert. I stocked with 9 liters of water, some biscuits and a huge duffel bag that I could stow away my helmet, riding suit and boots.
The desert is lonely yet lively. Sleeping yet alive. And desolate yet inviting.
The train leaves tomorrow (Sunday) morning at 8:30am. I show up the day before (Saturday) to pick up my ticket and load Doc onto the train. It’s a bit frightening. But the bike loads first. A platform full of cardboard boxes wrapped in twine, mattresses, hose, household items, chairs, tables, there’s even a refrigerator. I’m a bit nervous. And i flip the cargo chief a handful of Sudanese pounds and tell him not to load anything on top of my bike nor lean anything on it in the cargo car. Moez has words with him and ensures me that all will be okay. I woulda believed him because next I’m told that my confirmed first-class ticket is not confirmed any longer. But don’t worry. I’ve got passage — in 2nd class.
Arriving the next morning I board what will become that train ride I will always regret. It’s madness. My tax gets me to the loading platform amidst a chaotic scene where people are running everywhere and trying to shove into a few train cars. It’s a scene out of a Charlie Chaplin or Marx Brothers movie. The taxi guy leaves and I’m standing with a huge duffel bag, two Ortlieb dry bags, my Camelback Backpack and, ready for the 50º (122º C) ride inside this train. 9 liters of water. Where am I supposed to go?
A few seconds later in classic Sudanese style the taxi driver is back and he’s found someone to help me find my cabin and carry my things. When I get to the cabin which is about 8 feet by about 5 feet, there are already seven guys, six Egyptians and one Sudanese. Now me. But it’s packed with luggage under the seats, on the overhead shelves, and under their feet. We cram everything in and in classic sardine style I find a seat on the bench and scrunch my body together and wait.
What happens for the next is a blur and likely the most uncomfortable 40 hours I’ve ever put myself through. Beyond that there’s no room in our tiny cabin, the train doesn’t leave on time. But because of the shabby condition of the tracks the train can’t go much faster than about 40 kph (25mph); most of the time moving much slower. Plus, it often broke down in the middle of nowhere where hours passed by and people in droves exited the train to escape the madness. It made four or five scheduled stops at stations along the way and these were always delayed as more people loaded and unloaded. I tried to locate the car my bike was stored, but this proved to be difficult. At times the train would rock back and forth in a heaving and jerking motion that I thought would have Doc doing the same. I prayed all would be okay.
Crowds jam the platform and try to squeeze through the doors as it’s a run for any possible real estate where they can cram their goods.
My cabin mates were friendly enough. They offered me bread and cheese and while only two of them spoke any English we managed to have dozens of conversations and joke-telling sessions. There was no place nor room to sleep. But one of the Egyptian guys kept dozing off during the day, night and about the whole time. Only the weight of his heavy head kept flopping up and down on my shoulder. There was no place to move, until one of the other guys got up, I quickly moved to take his seat while the head that rested on my shoulder crashed down on the guy next to me before bouncing on the seat. Finally he woke up.
I’d spend nearly forty hours with my cabin mates, often vying for valuable seat space or when someone gets up the chance to set your head down, if only for a couple minutes.
They’d try to connect on the cell phones and sometimes it’d work. THen they’d play games, share videos and exchanges files via Bluetooth with me.
We’d do anything to keep out of the sun or to find some sort of solace in the shade. A thermoter pegged temperatures at 50ºC (122ºF) inside that cabin. Part of me was happy I wasn’t battling the sand for three days in this heat, the other part of me just wanted to be out there and out of the train — riding my spirit high.
In the narrow alley way the ran the length of the train sat and slept dozens of people on the floor. Getting up to stretch one’s legs or take a woke was an exercise and test of balance and patience. At one point along the journey the water was running through me and I couldn’t wait for a stop so I made my way to the bathroom passing sleeping people, nursing babies, and crying kids. The stench of body odor was enough to make me nauseous. Outside the bathroom there were about 5 Muslim woman blocking the door while a stack of cardboard boxes teetered behind them. I needed to piss. I did my best but couldn’t manage and accidentally stepped on one of the woman and by the look on her face causing her great pain. I didn’t know the world for “sorry” in Arabic so I just used Spanish. Don’t ask me way but it came out. The bathroom was a stinky ugly rusted bucket the smelled of urine, feces and looked as if things were growing on the walls and floor. The hole in the floor that served as the toilet provided a great view of the tracks and railroad ties that zipped by — rather slowly – confirming once again were going nowhere fast.
The saving grace was stopping along the way. At least I could change the scenery and stretch the legs, but I’d always worry I might lose my seat in the train. Thankfully the Egyptians kept tabs on me and my things.
Bulletin board post at one of the stops along he way.
Along the path I knew a major milestone would be Atbara, though not even halfway along the route, I just expected the station Atbara to come up any minute. The train kept stopping and I kept asking “Atbara?” It became a joke and soon all the guys in my cabin would ask “Atbara?” any time the train would stop — and it stopped often — sometimes just for the hell of it — or often as either the train or tracks ahead would need repair for going on or the engine needed a piston changed. The first night on the train was a nightmare. In fact the whole ride was a nightmare. Packed in that little cabin our small group quickly became friends. The comfort of the quarters forced us. They would start showing me joke video clips on their cell phones and often posed for my camera — as the only thing I could do to keep my mind off the fact I was frozen in a seated position with nowhere else to go for almost two days. Sure, I got off the train when I could.
I wanted Atbara to come so badly. It finally did. In the wistful black of a desert night. Ahhh, Atbara.
Some places we stopped there was no platform, no station. Just a cropping of cobbled homes and warn tracks. They’d come to our window trying to sell something.
On the right is the perennial sleeper. At least now his head is held up by the side and not on my shoulder or falling into my lap. Normally when the train was running there’d be four sitting on this bench. And four on the bench opposite from where this shot is taken. It was no place for the claustrophobic.
At each scheduled stop (there were five or six in forty hours) everyone would rush to the water source — a pump that brought water directly from the Nile — the source of life here in Nubia and the fertile Egyptian valley we were headed for.
The ubiquitous donkey, some packages of USA aid products and another dusty Sudanese/Nubian town along the Nile.
A young guy dressed in a long white robe and sporting a Muslim hat invited me into his cabin which with two less people seemed like a room at the Ritz. He kept asking me questions in Arabic which were difficult to translate by those who barely spoke English. But he played me prayers in song from the Koran and using Bluetooth sent me one to my phone, while I reciprocated and gave him some Dylan and Knopfler.
Chai (tea) seller would stumble over the people draped all over the floor outside our cabin and poke his head in, “Chai?” And he’d hand out small juice sized glasses full of tea flavored with a mint leaf. He had six or seven glasses. And he used these glasses, the same ones, for all forty hours selling small cups of tea. When we stopped other sellers stepped on or walked up by our window offering everything from bread, Muslim robes, jeans, spices and more. Free enterprise, I thought, but what a hard sell.
In our cabin we all played the shifting game. That is moving our bodies within the confine of small narrow and tightly vertical space. We tried not to borrow someone else’s space, but inevitably we needed the stretch, no matter what the other thought. This is the language of traveling in close quarters. We’re living on top of each other. Like it or not.
It was hot. Day and night. I needed sleep. I managed to sneak a seat next to the wall. At least I could try leaning my head against the wall and try. It didn’t work. But I might’ve dozed in and out for a ten minute period here and there. I was so uncomfortable and losing my patience. But I couldn’t do anything. I kept my eyes closed hoping that my friends wouldn’t disturb me and I could hang onto the corner seat as long as possible. Hours later I felt compelled to give it up.
The sun glared through the window and we all tried to shade ourselves. We didn’t want to block the breeze either. I was offered more bread and cheese. I shared my water — which is funny — at each of the stops passengers would like up at a pump that brought water straight from the Nile. I was offered this water on many occasions and turning it down puzzled my friends. I tried to explain that this western digestive system wouldn’t react too well. But I don’t think this idea was translatable. I’d just rub my belly and then put a finger in my mouth mimicking a gag reflex. Even this didn’t seem to be understood. Oh well. I had my purified water.
While walking the platform at one stop I noticed there were more than a dozen people on the roof of the train. They were riding through the heat of the desert atop the train. While they had much more room than I, the heat and the sun must be killing them. Then again, they’re used to this, all of this, they live here.
I’d do my best to secure the seat next to the wall so I could lean my head against it. I’d put in my earbuds and just crank up my iPod hoping that the nightmare would soon end.
Try to take a walk down this hall to get to the bathroom or simply to get off the train at a scheduled or unscheduled stop. Madness I tell you. Madness.
It seemed with every stop more people crowded the narrow alley way outside our cabin. At one point a guy slowly weaseled his way into the cabin. No there were nine people. But my large Egyptian friend had words and the guy disappeared only to reappear by poking his head in the cabin now and then. We were all headed to the same place: Wadi Halfa and then Aswan, Egypt. I knew I’d be in Egypt and eventually make it to Cairo to pick up a tire, but these guys all had set destinations and plans. One to Luxor, another to the Red Sea. Two guys were headed to Cairo while another would make it to Alexandria. They’d be traveling for days like this. I couldn’t wait to get back on my motorcycle.
That’s where the difference between freely traveling by bike and traveling at the whim of mass transit separates the adventurers from the travelers. If this train ride taught me anything is that I don’t want to travel any other way. I imagined what air travel must be like outside the major hubs. Busses? It’s a living hell. There’s no freedom and the whole forty hours I had no idea what was going on. I did know one thing: the ferry in Wadi Halfa wouldn’t leave until this train arrived.
When the train would stop in the middle of nowhere we’d have to wait hours sometimes. People would get off the train and and just lie down and sleep on the sand.
At 9:48pm two nights later (Tuesday) we arrived in Wadi Halfa. The ferry would leave the following afternoon.
Nearly every hotel — and that’s using the term liberally — was booked. I’d been told earlier to just camp out in the desert and to avoid the Wadi Halfa hotels. But my camping gear was on the train and nothing would come off the train until the next morning. So stuck in this tiny and wacky town I needed a room. One of my Egyptian friends, the guy who spoke some English, befriended me and we found a poor excuse of a room and through down our things before grabbing some boiled goat meat, rice and a soft drink. If there was one time I needed a cold beer, this was it. But I’m in Sudan. Keep dreaming.
Ahhhh. My fave. Boiled goat meat, potatoes, hot sauce and a nice fresh veggie salad. Welcome to Wadi Halfa.
My Wadi Halfa executive suite. I made it. And I’ll have my Sudanese visa stamped tomorrow and be on that boat to Egypt. In seven days. No more. No less.