My last vision of England is the plane gliding like a white ship over the black tarmac runway. Then I am in the sky, and what seems like just moments later, I spot the illuminated coastline of Africa, outlined in orange by Cairo’s city lights.
Waiting to transfer in Cairo airport, I slowly become aware that I am now in the minority, and, anxious not to draw attention to myself, awkwardly shroud my head in a blue headscarf. All around me, brown eyes peer curiously at me; but surprisingly, with no hostility. They look at me as if recognizing a good friend, their eyes lingering long enough to make me feel uncomfortable. Funnily enough, I am just as curious about them, and decide that this is a perfectly fair exchange. I ponder the variety of headscarves, some reaching far below the women’s waists, and the gaudy patterns of the material. Unlike gulf Arabs, whose attire is a morbid black, the Sudanese have thankfully stuck to their African roots. The men wear long tunics called Jallabiyah and tall caps or Taqiyah perched precariously on their heads. In the bathroom, after having washed my hands, the cleaning lady gestures with a role of paper towel. My cultural upbringing forbids me to accept her offer, uncomfortable at the idea of being served like this.
At 7.30am, I ascend the steps to my flight to Khartoum and the second half of my journey begins. The African sun already burns bright and intense and I am blanketed in hot air. We fly over the Nubian desert, which is a breathtaking view and my eyes, though swollen with lack of sleep, stretch wide. Below me lies dry, barren landscape with not one trace of green. I marvel at the recurring contours of the sand dunes. Approaching Khartoum, the Nile slices like a curved shard of mirror through the otherwise bare land. As we descend, I see that the river runs brown through the fertile Nile delta. I gain an idea of the kind of damage the recent flooding has done, as I see farms, villages and refugees camps along the river’s banks are immersed.
Entering Khartoum airport, I am greeted with misty air, thick with some sort of gas that has recently leaked. The airport staff seem unperturbed, and continue their work, holding handkerchiefs to their mouths. Once my visa has been checked, I walk over to the luggage conveyor belt, where porters in pale blue tunics eagerly await us with trolleys. A young man from Pakistan accompanies me through these procedures, insisting that he must assist me due to it being my first time in Sudan. I wonder if the real reason is my gender, and feel vaguely irritated as I know I can cope perfectly well alone. Collecting my huge backpack and holdall, I notice the smaller bag has been marked with angry yellow crosses. An official ushers me over to one side and questions me about the contents of the bag. I reply simply with “clothes”, an answer she accepts without further discussion. Puzzled, I finally reach the exit, where I am greeted by SVP representatives and the merciless midday sun.