Chapter 9 - Hibiscus


It’s hot. My shirt would be soaking if it wasn’t for the sun. It sucks up every bit of moisture. My lips are chapped, my mouth sticky. We wait in the shade, our bags keeping our spot in the line outside the border offices. Next to me a donkey licks a dripping tap, and I share his disappointment knowing the sandiness of the water that never quenches.

The doors to the passport office opens, and all order is instantly lost. People push, shove, pull, and block, shouting in Arabic. Jordan is big. He blocks one side of the queue and I squeeze in and slip our passports under the less than bullet proof glass. In the background I hear Robs fighting with one of the locals. Neither one knows what the other is saying.

We fill in piles of useless documents, and hand the paper waste to the police. I’m first through and remember the young Swede we’d met the day before telling us to get on the boat early and book shade under one of the lifeboats on the upper deck. So I climb on the first Land Rover that’s leaving. An elderly man grabs my bag and stows it under his legs, allowing me to sit on a small piece of floor.

We rumble down the sand road, cliffs worn smooth staring at us on either side. Lake Nubia, as the Sudanese call it, looks out of place cradled in the desert’s arms. I jump off the landie, and returning the favour, carry the old man’s bags onto the boat.

At the door we hand in our passports and are given a single meal ticket in return. I walk past the expensive cabins below deck, past countless boxes and bags, through the eating area. I walk past a beautifully dark family sitting on the stairs. The four daughters, all at different ages, look exactly like the mother. A time warp. They all smile at me. Their teeth are very white.

Next door a goods ferry is being loaded. The crew sit against the coughing engine room waving instructions to the horde of porters below. One man pulls out a broken chair from a pile of junk and leans it against the railing. He doesn’t sit.

I find my shade. The cold metal of the upper deck, like ice on my neck, pinches my breath. Down below, clear water laps and lulls. I hop over the railing, bypassing the stairs, onto the poorly lit bottom deck. The smell of something boiling hangs stiff and heavy in the air. I push past people with large bags shuffling towards me, and head for the light of the doorway. The policeman grabs my arm and pulls me back. “No outside. Once give passport, no leave boat!”

I push back inside, slipstreaming a fat man with neck rolls and a giant sweat patch down his back. I branch off into the bathroom, a small stinking cubicle. I stick my head out the tight circular window, remembering my childhood days of climbing through burglar guards. Will my shoulders fit?

I strip down, hanging my clothes on a high tap away from the wet floor. I wonder whether to lose my underpants. Nudity in Arab countries is a punishable offence, so I keep them on and slide through the window. Lowering myself down I slip into the water. Bliss! Unwillingly I pull myself back up the copper pipes.

A swagger of wet footprints follow me past the passport police as I return to my shade. Looking out I see Robbie and Jordan hanging on the side of a rusty turquoise Land Rover. Their border passage obviously wasn’t as swift as mine.

A man selling burgundy hibiscus juice on the dock fills countless plastic bottles, “One shilling, one shilling”. Whistling, I put up two fingers and throw down a five shilling note which zigzags through the air. Two bottles are tossed up, followed by my change. The syrupy tea is sweet and I dilute it with water.

Midday turns to afternoon. Afternoon to evening. The heat subsides and people move out of the shade and begin to spread out mats and cloths to sit on. People from below decks join friends outside.

As the last of the sun sets, military lines are drawn and a man leads the neat rows in prayer. “Allahu akbar” is chanted in melancholy unison. The throaty Arabic, the smooth transition from raised hands to faces flat on the floor, is strangely haunting and beautiful.

Next to us a North Sudanese accuses a South Sudanese of fleeing his country and abandoning his people. He denies it adamantly, and talks of his quest for education and desire to become a medical doctor at the University of Alexandria.

Later he shows us pictures of his four year old son back in South Sudan. Nothing of the mother. Evening comes and I decide to save my single meal ticket for tomorrow’s breakfast. Everyone spreads out, and my bag is commandeered as a pillow. Dodging someone’s feet, I lie down and cherish the chill of the wind as the boat moves swiftly across the empty water.

In the morning I wake early and walk around the boat. Sleeping bodies leave only enough space for a small footpath, and I thread my way, carefully dodging the sprawling limbs. The boat wakes quickly. Men play cards, settling scores from last night’s game. Others sit and read the Koran or share tea and oven bread. Others, more devout, face the sun and pray. Soon they are joined by everyone. The golden silence is interrupted by a demanding speaker summoning all to pray. The military lines are redrawn.

Taking our food tokens we head down for breakfast, trusting it’ll be good after passing on last night’s chicken. It isn’t. The boiled eggs are rubbery; the pickled vegetables aren’t too tantalising either. At least the tea is hot, but it burns my tongue making everything rough.

I return my eating tray to the busy kitchen. A friendly conversation with the chef results in free bread, jam and tea. The sweetness of it takes away the sour pickle taste. On the top deck we share it. Everyone breaks off pieces of bread, dips them in jam and washes it down with tea.

We continue our conversations of religion, politics and education. We pass the famous golden temple carved into a cliff face and a Zambian man joins us, then a Congolese man speaking French to the bikers we met at the passport office. A young Egyptian boy asks to join us on our travels. We say yes, if his mom lets him. We give him our sunglasses and he takes a photo with us on his dad’s phone. Loois, one of the French bikers, gives me the book he’s reading, saying he’ll be home soon. Once I’m finished I must leave it at a backpackers or pass it on to someone.