Sunday, December 12, 2010

Khartoum : My first foreign assignment

It was barely dawn when I left home on way to the Sudanese capital Khartoum. The name of the war torn African nation Sudan itself may scares many. But I was excited to be on my first foreign trip. I believe every place has something unique to offer. More so if it is off beat. While we were stamped without any query at immigration, one of my colleagues had to face a few question. Seeing the final destination as Sudan, the immigration officer called his boss who asked him why to Sudan. The moment he said that we are from ONGC and on official visit, he was cleared without any further question.

The Emirates flight to Dubai was late by about half an hour. It left us with very little time at the famed Dubai Inttl Airport. We rushed to catch the connecting flight to Khartoum. It was a six hours flight. The 3 ½ hours time difference meant it was still late afternoon when we had arrived at the Khartoum inttl. airport. The airport with only basic facilities required about 1 hour to clear immigration. There were few foreigners in the flight, mostly Chinese. All foreigners, including us, are part of consortium called GNPOC (Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company), lead by Chinese Petroleum (CNPC) and Petronas of Malyasia. ONGC Videsh is 25% stake holder in the consortium. It is the lure of black hold which has made these nations to risk operating in Sudan after US and its allies exited the country.

Mr. Khalid, our PRO was waiting for us to receive at the airport. We were led outside to the parking area. The taxis operating appeared disorganized. They were clamoring for the customers like our bus and tempos do. Even in such a place majority of the taxis are Toyota Corolla. Even though the currency is not stable and freely tradable, the valuation of Sudanese Pound (now Guild) is about 19 Indian Rupees. It is the power of black gold.

On Sudan:
The ethnic strife in Sudan is between the oil rich but underdeveloped South and developed North. Most of the trouble is in the north which is controlled by warlord. North Sudan, including Khartoum is fairly safe. Khartoum is the seat of power and hence seen occasional attempts by rebels to take over. The locals from north are fairer and generally Muslims while those from South are darker and are Christians. So you can easily understand which part of the world is supporting whom. The country is currently under UN supervised ceasefire. It is going for a referendum on January, 2011 on whether to divide the country into North and South. If I recall correctly the date of reckoning is 8th January, 2011.

On Khartoum:
The locality we stayed put is fairly up market. Roads are fairly wide and traffic appreciably disciplined. The Indian made Bajaj autos (three wheelers) are found to be a major and popular mode of local transport. Many LML and Hamara Bajaj were also seen on the roads. India is making good business with Sudan. In fact we were told by one of the local that there are historical examples of trade with India were also found.

The stay had been very hectic with mostly stayed put late in office to finish the job for which we were deputed there. Still we found time to explore few things around the city. The Khartoum city is divided into 3 parts – Khartoum South, Khartoum North and Omdurman. We had explored Khartoum south and Omdurman. The city boasts of confluence of the White Nile and the Blue Nile. The two Niles meets right in the heart of the city and then flows from this point into Egypt as the great river Nile. One morning we went to see the confluence. The areas around the Niles are having a fair green cover. But the city in general is generally devoid of greenery. The Nile Avenue on the bank of the river houses almost all government buildings including the palace of the King. We went there once more in the evening to see the sunset. Cruises are available on paper. We also saw few boats parked on the river. But could not found from where they can be booked even after taking to the people on the boat. The main problem we had was the fear of taking photographs. We always asked before doing so. It is a country under military rule. If police arrest you even for taking a photo, you are done.

The next visit was to the local market at Omdurman in search of gold. Gold in Khartoum is generally 21Ct. and price was also compatible to India where it is generally 22Ct. Thus we left this for Dubai. We were in the market in the night. I had some kind of fear stalking me as we were clearly the odd man out in the entire market. Nevertheless it was an unforgettable experience.

Another morning we went to the desert beyond Omdurman. On the way we saw the Libiya market. It is said that goods smuggled from Libiya were sold here while Libiya were under sanction. But now a day most of goods sold comes from China. All China maal. Then we had crossed the local animal market. The guest house staff goes to this market to buy goats to ensure that they are getting only mutton. Finally we had reached the desert after travelling for about an hour. Local call it Dar-e-Sallem. Navigating though road less terrain, the driver took us a village named Nifasa. The soil colour was kind orange and red mixture. It was a dreadful landscape. The first that will come to your mind is as to how people can survive here. See the photographs. It in fact was a very large village with sizeable population. We had stopped at an open place which appeared to be a playground. Our Honda CRV was already a cynosure in that landscape. Few locals gathered around us. The driver introduced us as Hindi, which is how they probably refer to as Indians. We had few good moments shaking hands and taking photographs with friendly locals. We even played football with young boys. The suddenly someone appeared in the scene and started raising question about taking photos. Sensing trouble we all got into the car. The driver had some conversation with the self styled leader and then he drove us back.

One evening we landed accidentally at the museum. It happened to be the World Tourism Day. The ministry was organizing some function. It was a nice coincidence. We got to see few performances of local dances and photographed ourselves with them. The museum had few statues brought from the pyramids of Merowe.

Beyond Khartoum:
There are two places which one can visit. The first one is Pyramids of Merowe. These part bordering Egypt has some of the pyramids though inspired by the ones at Egypt, has their own style. Not being a tourist country, these are still fairly untouched. One need permit to visit them. We got the permits, but unfortunately could not visit them because of paucity of time. The place is about 150 km from Khartoum and so would require one full day.
The second one is the Jabel Awliya dam built on the White Nile. We went to the dam located some 80 km from city. The dam holding back the powerful While Nile on one side was worth a site. We spent some time watching local fisherman catching fish on the dam. Unfortunately, photography was not allowed.

The Yellow Fever scare:
We knew that yellow fever vaccination is required for visiting certain African countries including Sudan. But input from colleagues who had visited earlier said it was not mandatory. Further the procedure for getting vaccinated in Delhi is cumbersome. So went there without vaccination. One fine day, we were told that without the vaccination card, we will not be issued boarding card at airport. Shocked. Office arranged vaccination for us. We were taken to the local vaccination center. We waited in queue with local and finally got vaccinated for yellow fever and meningitis. It was one of the unforgettable moments. So be sure to get yourself vaccinated before you leave for Africa. The list includes Egypt as well.

Meeting Abdul:
Abdul was the tall lanky Sudanese guy in my engineering college hostel at Gujarat. Abdel Rehman El-Rasheid was senior to me by couple of years. Towering around 6 ½ feet, he had to innovate to make himself comfortable in the barely six feet hostel bed. Barely a few days before my departure, I found him on facebook. This was a reunion after 18 years. He works with Sudan Airways. When we finally met each other, we turned nostalgic. We talked about old classmates. The world has really become smaller. We were separated before the mobile and email days. But we were able to find many of them through net. He even came to the airport to see me off. I will always remember this meeting with Abdul.

Sleepless at Dubai:
On return we reached Dubai around mid night. The flight to Delhi was early in the morning. For 3 hours so late in the night we just kept hopping from shop to shop in the Dubai Duty Free. By the time the boarding call came, we were almost exhausted. Boarding flight back home after almost two weeks was as exciting as onward trip. I missed my family as it was long trip after a long time. I knew they would be waiting eagerly for me to arrive.  Soon sleep overpowered me only to be awaken at Delhi.


shanky said...

i got something new from your blog but i have a Question what is the history of sudan?? y people are scares by its name???

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