By Marta Sobczak
Sudan is and always will be special for me. Visiting this country has changed my life forever and roused my thirst of traveling.
Combining the cultures of tribal, black Africa with the Muslim world, Sudan is a place like no other. I love it and I am sure you will too. Check out my insider tips for travelers and come with me on a real adventure.
Understand and respect
You have to remember to respect the local customs and obey the rules. Sudan is a Muslim country, therefore you should always cover your arms, décolletage, and legs. This rule also concerns men.
Although there is no need for women to wear a scarf, you may want to cover your hair for your own benefit. You probably attract too much attention anyway.
Avoid touching people of the opposite sex, not even in a casual way. As it usually does not take place on the street, it may be understood wrong.
While traveling with friends or colleagues of the opposite sex ALWAYS introduce them as your spouse or sibling. I can assure you that otherwise you will be denied a room.
Women in this situation can be offended and disrespected. As an Arabic language speaker, I’ve already been in situations where people were smiling at me and calling me names at the same time; believing I do not understand a word.
As you can imagine, a white woman, called in Sudan khawageya, is not an everyday guest. If you are particularly
sensitive to rude comments on a very primitive level, try to go out only with a male companion. Nothing will happen to you as nobody wants to shame himself or his family in front of their neighbors. However, people’s talking can really get on your nerves at times.
Remember that you eat ONLY with your right hand. The left one is used exclusively at the toilet — note that you will not find toilet paper there, but instead of it a jug with water to clean yourself.
In Sudan, most of the meals are served on one huge plate for everyone to sit around and eat together. I guess I do not have to mention that you eat only from the place in front of you and do not peak food from all around the plate. Women and men usually eat separately.
Pay with the Right Hand Too
Don’t forget to pay using your right hand as well. Most Sudanese people are rather forgiving with foreigners but I’ve witnessed a situation where the shop owner went totally crazy when given money with the left hand.
While traveling long distances by bus, take some warm clothes with you. Air conditioning is a very luxurious feature to show off with, therefore local bus drivers do not let the temperature rise above 16 degrees C.
The good news is that during the trip you will be surely offered free snacks and drinks (which are super sweet!) while watching class B movies about mutant snakes invading America or extremely loud TV concerts of local stars.
Eating in Sudan
There are many things you should definitely try while visiting Sudan and you most probably will — the variety of food in this country is not really big, especially outside the capital.
You cannot avoid tasting foul — mashed broad beans served with onion and egg, eaten with a flat bread used as a replacement of cutlery. It is one of the national dishes.
There is also kisra- a flat, sour pancake served with moloukheya- a sticky green sauce made out of a local vegetable.
Staying in Sudanese households you may be offered aseeda- a corn porridge which looks like a great, gray jelly. Maybe I was not lucky enough to try the best one but I still consider it a food for the brave and curious.
Sudanese people eat meat rather rarely. Eaten mostly in stews it is served with another kind of bread called gurrasa. The most common meats in Sudan are chicken and goat.
You have to try the freshly pressed juices which are served ice-cold! You are going to be surprised by the sweetness of the grapefruits and the most wonderful guava milkshakes.
A must try is definitely the coffee with cardamom and ginger served on the streets by Ethiopian women as well as a sweet tea with mint, carefully brewed for hours.
As a dessert, I can highly recommend the one and only tahina belaban- a local halvah served with natural yogurt.
For doughnut lovers, there is also a Sudanese version called zalabia- you can get it fresh and warm whenever you want. Extraordinary street food fans may try a real rarity- a roasted locust.
Don’t spend more than necessary
Don’t bother to attempt exchanging your money in the bank. It does not sound good — but the black market is the place to be if you have some foreign currency.
You can be paid even up to ten times more. The best is to ask a hotel owner or preferably someone you know and can trust. Try two different sources to make sure nobody is cheating you.
If you stay in one place for a while, it is advisable to ask your Sudanese neighbors to do your shopping for you and pay them a little. It is certainly more affordable than being ripped off EACH TIME you go to the market.
Go local! Do not travel by taxi within the city but rather use a amjad– a minibus. The only thing you have to do is to wave at them from the sidewalk as there are no bus stops in Sudan.
This way you pay as much as everyone else. Whenever you want to leave the minibus, make a hissing noise (you will know the sound after your first ride) and the driver will stop. If you have to take a taxi always agree with the driver on a price before getting in- do not be afraid to bargain.
Travel in Sudan
Sudan is certainly not a touristy place but there are still places worth visiting. While staying in Khartoum do not miss the chance to see Nuba wrestling taking place on every Friday afternoon.
Other parts of the city offer just as much exciting attractions. Also on Fridays, at dusk, you can witness Sufi dervish performing their weekly prayer in Omdurman.
Wearing traditional green clothes. They spin around for hours and worship God in a sort of trance. The prayer is followed by singing, dancing, drumming and burning incenses.
If you are a fan of handicrafts and tribal art you should not miss the chance to visit Omdurman market. If you know where to look, you can find some unique stuff.
In case you master the art of bargaining — there is a good chance to get things quite cheap. Take your time and stay positive. It takes a few cups of tea to get a good price.
Don’t spend much time in the capital, though. The real Sudan can be found only outside the city. People there are kinder, life is simple and the nature is just outstanding.
I recommend staying for a while in one of the rural villages- for example with Nubians around the third cataract of the Nile. People there know the neighbor so well, that they claim to recognize each other’s footprints in the sand.
Live their Life for a While
If you have a chance, live their life for a while. Bring water from the well, cook in a clay stove, go fishing, take long walks, enjoy evenings with stars and no electricity.
Being in Nubia you cant miss out the pyramids. 400 km north from Khartoum in the small town of Karima you find Sudanese pyramids as wonderful as those in Giza. Climb Jabal Barkal- the small mountain on the suburbs to admire the pyramids as well as the ruins of the ancient Amun temple.
Make sure you visit the seaside. Suakin is a perfect place to be if you want to enjoy the water. Locals do not really get the appeal of chilling on the beach. Surely you will get some privacy there. Do not forget to check out the old city ruins and snack an absolutely delicious fish!
Nothing compares though with Kassala. Climb the rocky, egg-like mountains to find a hidden café with walls covered with colorful tribal patterns away from people’s sight. Play with local children and let them show you the monkeys living in the caves.
But most of all visit the old mosque which looks just like a sand castle- the most beautiful temple I’ve ever seen.
Although Sudan is a Muslim country, it’s easy to find traces of local witchcraft and shamanism. Sudanese people believe that some women are endowed with the healing power called zar.
It is a common practice to ask for a healer’s help because of difficulties with conceiving a child or mental diseases.
If you know where to look and how to ask- you may be lucky enough to witness one of the healing ceremonies.
It took me a while to attend one of them. In fact, the old woman thought I am the one to be healed. She burned some incense, drunk a huge sip from a very suspiciously looking bottle and spit all of it on me.
I had to take a mouthful myself and, unfortunately, swallow it.
The woman started to smack herself with a huge, leather whip murmuring Nubian spells in a sort of trance. She claimed it doesn’t hurt because it’s a good magic. Everyone panicked though when we’ve heard the prayer calling from the mosque. Witchcraft is prohibited in Islam.
Someone once told me that Africa is addictive. Once visited, it will attract and lure you your whole life. He was right.
I came back not so long ago and already cannot wait to go there again.
Marta Sobczak recently took up ‘The Tandem Ramble,” where she and her boyfriend took a tandem bicycle journey from Germany through France, the UK, Ireland, Iceland, back to Ireland; and through Wales, England and France back to Germany (more than 8000 km). Find out more at their website.