The first five stories of 2018 are all from a trip the bearded stranger made to Kassala in Sudan. Different characters tell their stories as they meet the stranger in different environments: a school, a courthouse, a coach, a dinner, a bedouin encampment.
Five minutes to departure and the bearded stranger looked as if he was really going to enjoy this journey. I'm the coach driver and he had told me about his last bus journey in Sudan, 24 hours of what he called the ‘Death Ride to Dongola’. He had been last to buy his ticket, so had sat at the back behind the rear axle. Since there was no road, just dirt track and desert, he had bounced and bruised. I hoped he would be able to enjoy this journey, a smooth ride, mostly on tarmac, to Kassala near the Ethiopian border.
It is a nine hours journey, without much to look at if I’m honest. Its flat flat flat until after we cross the Blue Nile at Wad Medani. Huge herds of goats, oxen with massive V-signed horns and, nearer Kassala, bedouin encampments with their camels. And this time there’d be no bouncing or bruising: he was sitting in the front seat of a modern coach, with a view through clean windows front and sideways and, amazingly, a vacant seat next to him.
But. Sometimes Allah sends a but. One minute before departure I nearly slide from my seat. The coach tips dramatically to one side as someone climbs the steps. I had earlier noticed this large young Sudanese man arguing with a taxi driver. He was smoking Pall Mall, which is unusual since most of us put our ‘sambak’ (tobacco) between front lip and lower teeth, and shoot saliva through it. It was him climbing slowly aboard.
And he was the one who had booked the seat next to the stranger. They chatted most of the way. They got on so well together that in Kassala they went off together to stay at the young man’s uncle’s house. Even if they did make friends it probably hadn’t been the most comfortable of nine-hour journeys for the stranger: in climbing the coach steps sideways the young man had struggled to get his waist and tummy through the door, and he most certainly didn’t fit into a single seat. As he got off and stretched I asked the bearded stranger if he’d enjoyed the journey. He smiled, nodded, rubbed a hip bruised from being pushed into the side of the coach and described his neighbour as ‘30-stone (190 kilo) of friendliness’.