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The Mobile Lawyer -- One Lap, No Jetlag: notes on a bus, again

Saturday, August 15, 2009

notes on a bus, again

Various thoughts while trying to remember how to write, since it's been so long.  Let's talk about Sudan for a bit and knock some of my notes out.

    Sudan was the first fully Islamic state I have visited – Sharia law is in effect there. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharia.  It was also the first police state I've been to.  You have no doubt read about the problems there – foremost of those the situation in Darfur, but also the independence movement in South Sudan, which might make headlines in a year or so, even in the U.S.  It's pretty much impossible to get to Darfur these days, and I wouldn't have wanted to go anyway.  No one in Sudan wants to talk about it either, so you get my thoughts and observations on other topics from this interesting country.

    Before I get to the full Sudan story, I have to tell yet another bus ride story, this time the two bus rides from Gondor, Ethiopia to Khartoum, Sudan.  At the time, I was still on the Oasis Overland truck.  Pretty much everyone on the truck was fed up with Ethiopia and wanted to get out of there as soon as possible.  Sean, an Australian/Irish guy (damn, I wish I could carry two passports) and I decided to hop off the overland truck a couple days early in Gondor and head over to Sudan on our own quickly.  Sean is a big guy – probably 6'2'' or so and maybe 225 pounds.

    We got up around 4:30 a.m. and headed over to the bus station.  We ended up on a medium sized bus to the border with a capacity of probably sixty people or so.  They managed to fit about ninety people on board.  The first four hours of the ride weren't so bad.  The last couple hours were fairly horrible. 

    Sean and I were in the last row of the bus.  Good for safety.  Bad for bounciness of the ride.  Sean was in the back right corner and right in front of him and me was the back stairwell of the bus.  They managed to fit five people in the back row of the bus.  During the last couple hours, I had three different people sitting immediately next to me (as people entered and exited).  All three stunk. 

Don't get me wrong – at this point on the trip, I stink also.  I have frighteningly gotten fairly used to showing just a couple times a week.  And if it's a cold shower, I pretty much just shampoo my hair and give up on cleaning the rest of me.  That being said, I feel fairly confident that I have never, and will never, stink as much as any of these three. 

    Did I mention that one of the particular things that is completely different in Africa than in the U.S. or Europe is that there is no sense of personal space?  At all.  I think of all the things that I've heard from travelers in Africa – this is the one that confounds and bothers westerners the most. 

At one point in the last couple hours, Sean (who was horribly uncomfortable and cramped up the entire way) had a guy sitting on his knees.  Sean's legs were slightly sticking out into the stairwell and a guy just decided to use his legs as a chair.  Or a stool.  Tough to tell.  Sean just looked over at me and shrugged.  It wasn't like we had any room to move anywhere.  Hell – he barely had room to shrug.  Like I said, he's a big guy.  And these buses are not good for big people.

One of my favorite images of the entire trip happened on the last few hours of this particular bus ride.  The bus stopped by the side of the road to drop some people off and pick more up – strangely, there always seemed to be more people getting on than off – African buses work in a different space/time continuum. 

An older guy ambled onto the bus.  Sean and I guessed that he was about sixty years old, by his appearance, which meant he was probably forty.  That obviously wasn't the highlight.

He was carrying a live chicken in his left hand.  He was carrying an AK-47 in his right hand.

Come on – that's awesome.  Africa, baby.

Another strange thing about African buses, at least the ones that you pay for once you get on (unlike the occasional nice ones where you buy a ticket):  sometimes people don't want to pay.  I've never seen this anywhere else.  It never happened in chicken buses in Central America.  I've never see it in inner-city public transport in South America.  But this bus ride was probably the 8th or 9th time I've seen it in Africa.

A guy – always a guy, of course – gets on the bus.  The ticket/collection guy comes by and asks for his money.  The passenger, now seated, shrugs his shoulders in the "I ain't paying" way.  By the way, this obviously is all happening in languages I have no comprehension of, so take my translations with a grain of salt.  Ticket guy starts yelling at the passenger.  Every time the passenger responded the same way – silence and more shrugs. 

That never works.  The ticket guy starts yelling more and pulling on the guy to evict him from his seat.  Then comes the return fire from the passenger.  I tend to think the passenger is saying something like "not 60 from here – only 20" or something of the like, but who the hell knows.  Most times in the end, the passenger hands some money over and its over.  Of course, I have no idea if they managed to get some sort of deal in the process.

That wasn't how this argument ended.  The passenger never forked over the money and the ticket guy pulled him off the bus.  As he was throwing him out the door, the passenger reached back and grabbed the ticket guy's jeans.  "That's it motherfucker – its ON!"  Again, just my translation, but I'm pretty sure on this one.

And so started the fistfight.  Briefly next to the bus, but then ranging back and forth behind the bus.  At some point, the dozens of people standing there broke it up.  It was hard to tell who got the better of it – we didn't see the passenger – but the ticket guy had a pretty nice little scrape on the side of his face.  And then the bus moved on.  No big deal.

Sean's comment?  "I've seen 3-4 fights in Africa.  These guys have no idea how to fight."  I trusted him.  Sean looks like he knows how to fight.  And he is Australian and Irish.  That's good enough for me.

We got to the border.  Did the border formalities on the Ethiopian side.  On the Sudan side, we had to do the usual immigration stamping in.  Then we had to go to the local police station and sign some register.  No apparent reason – it wasn't like they had a computer to input it into to track us – just the first glimpse that we were in a police state.

Then we got on the Sudanese bus.  The first mode of transport I had taken in about two months that left without being full.  Not even close to full.  It was a full-sized bus and there were probably only thirty people on board.  I had two seats all to myself.

And it was air-conditioned.  Air conditioning.  Mmmmmmm. 

Sean and I both tried to remember the last time that we had been blessed with air conditioning.  Ethiopia?  Nope.  Kenya?  No.  Uganda.  Tanzania.  Zambia.  Namibia.  Nope on all fronts.  It was South Africa.  Four months ago.

The bus took off.  Well, we didn't make too much progress, the first police check was about 10 minutes later.  The bus stopped and a guy got on board and checked everyone's ID.  This was the first of seven such stops on the way to Khartoum.

The fifth such check was a personal highlight.  The guy came onto the bus.  Checked everyone's ID.  Got all the way back to Sean and I sitting in the last two rows.  I handed him my passport.  He said something and pointed to my small backpack, obviously wanting to look in it.  I opened it up and showed him that I wasn't smuggling in liquor, or dirty magazines, or U.S. imperialist propaganda documents.  He pulled out my copy of Crime and Punishment and proceeded to slowly flip through it.

You never know what I might be hiding in there.

I would have given it to him – he seemed quite interested – but I have promised myself (and ya'll) that I will finish it before I get to St. Petersburg.  A possible détente moment in U.S.-Sudan relations passed by on account of my book greed. . .

One last highlight of this trip.  And yes, I realize that this blog has devolved into 'immigration agent' and 'bus' stories – but you try traveling around the world on the ground and tell me what strikes you.

As I said, Sudan is a strict, very strict, Muslim state.  Sharia law is not to be scoffed at and by all accounts, they take everything, mostly their religion, seriously here.  The woman are all fully cloaked up.  Alcohol is prohibited, strictly (we know – we tried to find some).  The government censors the internet – there are a number of websites that are banned.  Police checkpoints.  A government permission document is even needed to take a single picture inside Sudan.

The memory I shall take from the bus ride, aside from the police checks, was the selection of videos playing on the TV's in the bus.  First, there was a really horrible 1970's Hong Kong kung fu movie that was dubbed into English, with Arabic subtitles.  Fine – crappy entertainment seems par for the course on buses around the world.

But after that – in very straight-laced and Muslim Sudan – four hours of DVDs showing World Wrestling Federation championships.  O' and don't be mistaken.  These weren't just any championships.  This was Wrestle Mania XX – the Women's Championships.

Four hours of very scantily clad women throwing themselves around a ring and doing everything short of pulling off each other's clothes, in an effort to amuse and entertain Bubba out in the live audience.  One of the competitions was between two former Playboy playmates – both of which stripped off their costumes to wrestle in . . . well, about nothing.

Sean and I looked at each other simply amazed at what we were seeing.  I had figured that if I had this sort of stuff on my laptop and the police found it – I'd be doing five years hard time in some Sudanese prison.

The kicker: the Muslim women on the bus were loving it.  They were pumping their fists and rooting on their favorites.  I wanted to tell them that I could introduce them to some guys they might like back at home, but. . . well, another moment of possible U.S.-Sudan reproachmont went by the wayside.

I'd be a horrible diplomat. 


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