Monday, June 25, 2012

The Ambassador's Arbitration

There was a strange texture of strong cigar and hookah smell in the enormous white open-air room inside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan. The tall fierce looking Ambassador wore a white throbe and an igal to hold his gutra in place, which reminds me of my mother’s striped red and white kitchen tea towel. The strong Arabian culture likes to dress concealed rather than revealed. Two co-workers surrounded the respected man. He seemed confused who my friend and I were and what we were seeking.

My Belgian friend Emlyn and I were exhausted after traveling 16,000km across the endless continent from Cape Town, South Africa.  Bribing and negotiating countless corrupted African boarders, we were surely used to these situations, but this one was different. Our beloved epic retired Landie 96 is getting closer to Europe towards home but the entire decision was up to the Ambassador.

Egypt was out of the question, we didn’t hold a Carnet De Passage, a car passport designed to stop people importing and selling cars from Europe into Africa.  Wadi Halfa, the boarder to Egypt holds hundreds of rotten cars by those who failed to provide a Carnet. Emlyn and I couldn’t bare the thought of that. Therefore the Ambassador of Saudi was our only hope. For a Carnet, we would have had to pay six times worth of the car and we would get the money back if we shipped the car back to SA from the UK. The chances were small. We couldn’t afford to waste a dime and petrol was our first priority of this trip. We were totally skint and neither of us had a visa card.

The Ambassador wanted to know what our plan was in Arabia and so I went on explaining the plot. A large old map that smells like the Beano comic was spread over the Arabian’s gold carved desk as he moved his ashtray and pens aside allowing more room.  I pointed out that we would get the ferry from Port Sudan to Jeddah, that was less than 150 miles across the Red Sea and we would then drive Jordon under a week. My heart was pounding and my palms were sweating, as we were closer to the moment of truth.
   The man twisted his mustache and frowned as I pointed out which road we would be taking. He tilt his head up and started to chuckle as he looked at Emlyn and I.  
“You cannot dive across the deserts of Arabia, the heat will kill you.” he stared into my eyes waiting for my response but at this moment I was speechless. He paused,  “You will need to stop by at every village on the way allowing 4 weeks to drive across my country,” the powerful man emphasized.
I told him that we have driven from SA and completed the worlds most dangerous road in 3 days across Marsabit to Ethiopia and that we can drive easily 20 hours a day. He frowned even more then looked down at my Peruvian   pajama looking trousers and an odd set of flip flops that I had on. My enormous ginger beard got him even more curious as he tried to work out who I was and what I really wanted. Emlyn went on explaining the UNICEF project we were doing and our bright blue charity t-shirts we wore helped to made us look important.

All he had to do was stamp the Visa on our passports. I could see the actual wooden stamp on the corner of the golden desk. The man had too much power and his ‘small’ decision could end our trip.
   Some 15,000 migrants a year make it to the pilgrimage (the Haj) in Mecca and why was the Ambassador making such a fuss just for Emlyn and I?

Eventually the emissary of the embassy had already made his choice. “For the visa you request,” he raised his voice and began to stand up. “We can send your application off to Riyadh for process but your visa’s may not be approved,” he said as he moves one hand about in the air like an angry Italian. After I asked how long the process could take, he explained briefly that it could be 3 months or more. It felt like someone had stolen all my Christmas presents when I was a little boy. I turned around with horror to see Emlyn’s response, he went pale and looked as if he was stabbed with a thousand daggers. We both knew deep down our unique special outlandish trip had come to an end.

I ruined the chances even more by suppliant the ambassador with my hands together. Emlyn actually pointed out to the wooden stamp and offered to bribe him, which he was certainly not impressed.  

We were back outside the building on the dusty sandy street approaching our Landie. Emlyn is no fool or coward he wouldn’t give up. The Belgian breed surfing look type guy lit a cigarette. He had a habit of holding the smoke in his mouth until he spoke soundless with his hands so that little puffs would tumble out along with his breathing. He looks deeper into other options and nearly developed an idea of sneaking in Chad a few miles away from the boarder as the crossing is closed since the war. Our Landie was nowhere near strong enough to try plan C, and after a week our ideas ran out. There was nothing we could do but to go home.

After a few more nights taking in turns sleeping in the car in the dark streets of Khartoum were the worse nights of my life. So many times local Africans have tried to steal our vehicle especially in Sudan as we were not far off from a civil war zone (Darfur).  Staring into the dark sky out of the roof window inside the car, not a single star shined during my time in Sudan. It must have been at 2am I was alone with my dagger that I had traded with a local Maasai in Kenya for my protection. I decided to look up out of the side windows of the red Discovery. I saw a man about 20 yards, he suddenly disappeared into the dark streets as soon as he saw me. I wonder how long he was watching me or planning something against me.  The endless nights were soon over after we decided it was time to go home. With less than $20 left between us, no bank cards no phone we managed to get in touch with family and friends via MSN messenger and they booked our one-way flight tickets leaving in the evening.

Through our epic trip we got mugged several times and in the end I only had my camcorder, passport and a great big elephant Jaw I found in Zimbabwe. Since my entire rucksack was gone with all my clothes in, the last thing I was ever worried about was the elephants jaw, I wanted to bring this home more than anything.
We spent all afternoon looking for somewhere to leave the car. Street after street there was a dark underground den out of the place that came across my eyes. From the bright sunny day my pupils took a while to open as we drove down underground into pitch black. The place seemed like no-one would ever come here although there were some other rusty cars there.
   We gathered our belongings and I watched Emlyn give our Landie one more kiss. He was heart broken. I had never seen him cry before, even through all those years in school and university we spent together. God he looked ugly, I wanted to film this but I could see his heart had been ripped out into pieces. He wanted to be the first deaf person to drive from Cape Town to London. We nearly made it.

After hours arguing at the airport with the security over the elephant’s jaw, somehow I illegally managed to get it on the plane (don’t ask me how) and home it was for us.
   Emlyn’s older brother quickly arranged a last minute welcome home party in London and I just couldn’t wait for an extra cold Guinness. During the party, we had one last mission….
  Our friend, Ahmed Mudawi is originally from Sudan but lives in London. He was going to see his family fro Christmas in Khartoum in a few days just after we returned.  Ahmed was going to take responsibility for our beloved Landie.
   Away from the crowd, Emlyn dragged Ahmed away, he pulled out of his pocket a torn crunched up paper and unfolded it. It was a map, a map for the hidden Land Rover. Ahmed carefully studied the map with the lonely planet map of Khartoum as well. He scratched the back of his head and looked slightly confused.
“It’s quite out of place” Ahmed said.
“you will find it, there is  not much to do in Sudan, so this treasure hunt will be the best part of your vacation” Emlyn said confidently. He went on and said “when you find the car, there are some codes. The door may not open, if it doesn’t you can push down the window and climb in”. He sighed, “it sometimes happens. When starting the car, turn the key hard and let go three times and eventually the engine should start up. Get control of this unique biting point that will do anything to shut down.” “Rev rev rev, and your wife is definitely going to have to give the old baby quite a push and that’s the start” he said with amazement.
   I never forgot the moment we give him the keys.

Three years later, the other week, the car was finally sold for $4,000 in Africa and Emlyn received the cash. I completely forgot about it and assumed it would rot in the desert as it was falling into prices.

Life is full of surprises; you never know what’s coming for you.

 Emlyn chilling with locals in north Ethiopia near the boarder of Sudan
 These were the days
 OUR Landie

 Washing clothes

 The elephants jaw
Ahmed collecting the car keys in London

I have finally uploaded 1% footage of my trip, the rest is best kept concealed...

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