SUDAN: Welcome to Southfork on the Nile

The plains of Sudan are vast but not inhospitable - in the town of Sinja they have TV, with which to eavesdrop on the best of Western culture
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Indy Lifestyle Online
We left behind Khartoum's wide dusty streets and their lines of colonial buildings, and headed out on a single-decker bus towards Sinja. We were two young, single women, going to stay with some friends of my travelling companion who had moved there for a year, and who'd described it to us as a prosperous market town on the Nile. As the bus approached Sinja, the mud roads and circular mud houses with thatched roofs somehow belied this description and although I had travelled widely, I suddenly felt very far from home.

We soon found the house where the friends-once-removed were staying. It was one of the few brick houses in Sinja and it had a tap - the height of prosperity - but no electricity. Despite the running water, I was totally neurotic about the supply and refused to ingest any of it unless it was purified or boiled. One of the friends had had dysentery twice, and now had hepatitis, and I felt justifiably paranoid.

There were half a dozen Europeans in the village, but the others had all chosen to stay in a mud house - not only were they very efficient at keeping the heat at bay, but many liked the idea that they were really living as most of the locals did. We soon adopted some of the local habits, too. Walking with a slow, seductive, swaying motion seemed to come quite naturally in the heat.

The village also had a few televisions. Back in England some would claim that TV rots the brain and destroys conversation, but there it was a focus for community. A single programme would be watched by a large group and the experience shared and discussed afterwards. Unfortunately for us, the most popular programme locally was Dallas, and this was taken as the yardstick by which the morality of Western women was measured.

One day, we were invited into a home we were passing. They asked us about our lives at home, in particular about sex, whether it was allowed before marriage, whether people lived together without being married, and so on.

We gave a realistic picture from our middle-class, educated stereotype, protesting that we did not all have as much money as they did in Dallas, we did not constantly have a gin and tonic in hand, and certainly did not jump in and out of bed with new partners (well not us, anyway). But they had seen the evidence in the form of Dallas, a sophisticated American drama. Surely it must all be true?

The local people were beautiful - with smooth skin, even features, and a ready smile. They were curious but never threatening, even when we were potentially in a dodgy situation. We had read in our guidebook that we should get a permit to travel out of Khartoum, but the friend who met us knew nothing of this and escorted us to Sinja without one. The local officials there merely gave us a mild telling-off, signed our papers, and one invited us for a meal at his family home.

The Dallas stereotype followed us. After the meal, two of the men said they would like to show us something beautiful. It didn't sound like a line, and it wasn't. They drove us to the River Nile, where the full moon shone on the water. The total absence of street lighting at night gave the moonlight a pure quality and the warmth of the night air was seductive. It was one of those truly blissful moments.

They then wanted to show us another place, we weren't very clear where, but it soon transpired that it was somewhere where we could have sex, albeit rather uncomfortably. "We have to go now," my friend and I said in unison, as if suddenly joined by some telepathic force. Our refusal was accepted graciously, in a totally non-aggressive way. This was an uncomfortable moment, but not scary, in fact not as scary as it would have been had it occurred at home with two British men.

In search of some high-rise landscape (much of Sudan consists of vast plains), we travelled to Kassala, another market town near the Ethiopian border. Beyond the town was a group of extraordinary dome-shaped mountains, beautiful to our deprived eyes after weeks of complete flatness. The locals obviously thought so, too, and consequently depicted them in murals all over town.

People here looked different from the Sinjan population. The men had high cheekbones and dressed in long belted tunics. Across their shoulders they bore a wide, curved sword and wrapped their arms back and up around it, so that their hands dropped down in front. They looked like ancient warriors but, despite the preponderance of dangerous armour on show, people were friendly and helpful.

Credit must largely go to my travelling companion, who inspired great friendliness on account of her very short, very blonde hair, and her outgoing personality, but I soon warmed to Sudan. Before long, what had first seemed strange and unfamiliar, started to seem exciting. On our last day, a solar eclipse occurred; stunning in any situation, but astonishing when accompanied by drumming and whooping.

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