What Was I Thinking? Rafting and a Bungee Jump …

Bungee jumping. I can honestly say the thought conjures up disastrous mental “what ifs…” What if I trip and fall of the edge of the platform? What if the the bungee is too long or I somehow get wrapped up in the cord? What if I just don’t do this? Taunted by friends that bungee jumping would be a good idea, I decided to put all these “what ifs” to bed and suck it up. Leaving from Kampala, Uganda and setting off for Jinja, I signed up for a day of rafting on the White Nile. The trip would ultimately lead me down 42 kilometers of the river, but not before I jumped off a 44 meter high platform (144 feet) to the Nile below. Here’s proof that I actually jumped. And yeah, I did yell. So would you.

With such an adrenaline high, the day fed off of the jump. Our Ugandan guide Jeffrey, well versed in California slang, led our group down a river filled with rapids. As he reminded us to “chillax,” we successfully ran everything from class 2 to class 5 rapids throughout the day. While we only avoided the largest class 6 rapids due to low water levels, the day, as Jeffery would’ve said, was swweeet.

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A Lesson on Darfur Insurance

I got a quick, and memorable, lesson in Sudan car insurance. Shiekan Insurance in Khartoum assesses car insurance with a base rate of 2% of the car value to determine the yearly premium for comprehensive coverage. Riot coverage is 0.5% of the car value. Radio coverage is 5% of the value you wish to insure your radio for. Each passenger is covered under the plan for 4 Sudan Pounds (SDG), or roughly $1.60 per year. The driver is covered for 15 SDG per year, or $6. All this, plus a tax on the policy of 10% is charged. (Tax in Sudan I never fully understood. Some places assess a 10% tax, while others charge 12% or 15%. I think it’s completely discretionary rate for the business that imposes it.)

However, if you want your car to be covered in Darfur, the premium carries an additional 3% of the car value. The sales guy casually tells me “it’s because of the war there.”

So, for a Mitsubishi Pajero (an SUV), the following is the breakdown and difference in insurance premium with and without Darfur coverage.

The value of the car is 175500. At 2%, plus three passengers and one driver, a radio that costs, lets say 500 SDG, and riot protection, the policy costs 4883.45 SDG per year. Translated to USD, that’s about $1953.38. With Darfur coverage, the rate becomes 10674.95 SDG, or roughly $4269.98…”because of the war there.”

Pool Party

We were told before arriving in Sudan that the only entertainment in Khartoum is parties hosted by German Club or American Club. Both are diplomatic-type affairs that are exclusive and in order to gain entrance, you must be on a list. Jason tried to get us connected before our trip, but with no luck. With no promising leads, we decided to work Friday, the equivalent of a Sunday in Muslim countries. With Jason pricing conditioner, he ran into an expat who turned out to have a bit of connections. Ivana said she felt bad for new people in the country, so made a few calls, and our names got on a list at the US Embassy Rec Site.

Our day instantly changed from a marathon tour of spending seven hours in consecutive supermarkets on a day-off, to grabbing swimsuits and setting off for a pool party. Christian, a Political Officer at the Embassy hosted the grill out, complete with burgers, beers, an intense game of pool basketball, and a late-night showing of Old School.

Alcohol’s attendance at the gathering was, while not the most interesting aspect, but well, the most educational? The complex has a walk-in cooler stocked with every type of alcohol imaginable. In a Muslim country that prohibits alcohol, this was shocking to see the level to which the rule is avoided. The cooler, painted beige like the surrounding buildings resembles a freight container. However, this shipping container has a keypad on the outside. Shipments are made constantly to the Embassy for office supplies, furniture, and whatever else the staff needs. The containers are never inspected, and so out of the thousands of deliveries the US Embassy gets, it’s apparently very easy to import one more container of “furniture.”

Diplomatic parties were once a huge ordeal. Up until New Years Eve of 2007, hundreds of people would come to parties thrown by Embassies in Khartoum, most notably by the US Embassy. That night, however, one lower-level diplomat was murdered along with the driver as they drove away from the party. Ivana witnessed the scene as she drove by the site just minutes after the shooting. Parties on a large scale stopped as a result as they became smaller and attendance more tightly controlled. The message had been sent.

Khartoum

Jason and I landed in the middle of the night into Khartoum on an overnight from Beirut. The flight originated in London, passing through Lebanon on its way south to Sudan. The flight was full when we got on, and when we landed in Beirut, the plane emptied leaving just over ten people onboard. There are no lights from the ground signaling any type of civilization until just five minutes to arrival in Khartoum. Out of nowhere, a city emerges in the middle of the desert with sprawling yellow lights.

The city itself is poor. Infrastructure is lacking with dirt roads running through the city center. Main roads are paved but pass by buildings halted in mid-construction. Apparently there are no regulations so landowners start the framework of large concrete structures and then leave the building to sit for years. Ivana, a UNICEF worker who we met, explained that it had to do something with taxation and also in order to claim the land as owned, developers initiate projects before any intention of completing it.

Red dirt is everywhere. Blown in by sandstorms and dust storms, the city was hazy with dust everyday we were in town at some point during the day. The red hue of sand covers buildings, cars, and creates mounds that spill into paved roads. This, along with the poor disrepair of buildings, creates the feeling of a somewhat abandoned town at times and the desert’s attempt to reclaim the city.

Not to mention, it’s staggeringly hot in Khartoum. As we walked out to the pool at the Al Salam Rotana to collect some prices, the bartender (of “mocktails”) erased the 37 degrees Celsius temperature from the pool posting and wrote “47.” 47 is nearly 117 degrees Fahrenheit. The chalk as he wrote it almost looked to disappear instantly; the bright white of the writing almost instantly evaporated into a shaded number that looked like it had been there for days.

People are incredibly friendly and always giving a smile. There’s no hostility at all and it was easy for me to forget that I was in such a contentious country. But 2.5 million refugees are still without a home and the president, Bashir, has been indicted by The Hague for war crimes. You would never know by the smiles of the people. If it weren’t for the hundreds of UN and aid organization vehicles roaming around town, Khartoum’s recent history and conflict could fall from thought.

Last days in Egypt

I departed Cairo after a last minute, last-ditch effort of sightseeing. The Egyptian museum was the first stop, housing ancient Egyptian sarcophagi, artifacts and mummies. The museum felt like something out of an Indiana Jones movie – built in 1902, the museum is filled with wooden display cases, which give the feel of an archeological dig storeroom rather than a proper museum. High ceilings and stacks of artifacts give it an incredibly unique feel. The iconic death mask of King Tutankhamun is what I came to see. It absolutely didn’t disappoint. Everything about the mask was astonishing; standing before it as it is displayed in the middle of a room, at the foot of his two innermost sarcophagi was quite incredible. Everything was perfectly crafted and no gold was spared. Along with the four gilded shrines just outside this room that originally held his body, it emphasized the importance of the afterlife to the Egyptians and the amount of care and production that went into its preparation.

On my way out of town, I stopped to see the Al-Azhar Mosque. Built in AD 970, the mosque stands as one of Cairo’s oldest and most important as its prestige as an educational center. Accepting an invitation to climb one of the minarets by the groundskeeper, I found myself overlooking and unparalleled view of Cairo from a very special vantage point.

I’m sad to leave Cairo behind – over the course of the week, I was able to build memorable relationships: Faisal, my taxi driver, Raya the Canadian former World Cup ski racer and René and Anja, who imparted what it meant to be a German in a foreign country and enlightened me through many conversations. All of them are to be missed.

The Great Pyramids of Giza

Accepting an invitation the night before to join two new friends, Raya and Silviu, the three of us ventured toward one of the Wonders of the World. The approach to the pyramids is not what you would expect – driving through the busy streets of Cairo, it took only 15 minutes before the top of them rose up above the crowded skyline. As we turned left and down an access road through Giza, they even disappeared out of sight behind slum tenements. As cliché as it may sound, the three of us settled on riding camels to the pyramids. I myself was overjoyed to finally get to ride a camel; lackadaisical little creatures, they would groan every time they were forced to lie down (as ordered by our child guide) to let us swing our legs over. It was decided that Raya’s camel had a flatulence issue and tended to groan more than the others, therefore, she and her noisy companion took up the rear for a good portion of the trip.

If the city consumed the pyramids before, they know dominated the landscape. The desert became endless in front of us and wrapped itself around the iconic structures. Silviu kept commenting, “I’m in Egypt, on a camel, in the desert and staring at the Pyramids!” I can say with certainty that this was a shared comment of awe.

We stopped many times, taking in views of the three major pyramids and relentlessly snapping pictures. Our guide raced ahead and collected chunks of alabaster, the stone that once covered the pyramids in giant slabs and which made them shine. As I held my stone in my hand, it sparkled in the sunlight and I could only imagine what an incredible sight it must’ve been nearly six centuries ago.

The three of us finished our tour and returned our camels after taking in a breathtaking view of the Sphinx. We drove back into the city and wandered through Al Azhar park and enjoyed dinner overlooking Cairo as the sun set over the city. The sun eclipsed the Citadel on a bluff across the way as children played in fountains around the park. We dined on shawarma, hummus, tehini and disgustingly sweet deserts, reveling in our experience.