Pamela Blair
AN “UGLY AMERICAN” MOMENT

April, 1973

“You can’t go down there by yourself. You’re a woman!” The official at the Khartoum office charged with issuing permits to travel to Southern Sudan yelled at me in exasperation. “It’s not safe!”  

“But I’ve traveled all across North Africa, and haven’t had any problems. And now that there’s peace, I don’t see why I can’t go.”  

“Why don’t you fly?  It’s much safer.”

“Yes, but it’s also more expensive, and I’m getting short on money.” 

This last part wasn’t exactly true. I had $400 in cash wrapped around my waist, tucked into the money belt I’d made out of an old pair of Navy bell bottoms after I sold my VW van in Beirut. But I wanted to save that cash for a plane ticket home.

“Would you make it this hard if I were a man?”

The official was not moved by my suggestion of sexism. I hoped I wouldn’t have to use tears to get the permit—although they had worked in the past. His next move was to make me wait. 

“It will take at least two weeks to get a visa. We have our anniversary celebration of the Peace and Haile Selassie will be here this weekend. You probably don’t want to wait that long.”

“I don’t mind waiting.” 

Finally, seeing it was useless to dissuade me, the official agreed to issue me a permit.  “Come back in two weeks,” he said coldly.

I walked out of the office, feeling triumphant. I could travel to Southern Sudan!

* * *

The two weeks in Khartoum weren’t uneventful. Haile Selassie did come for the anniversary celebration, and I saw him as his motorcade paraded through Khartoum’s streets, his frail body and grizzled beard belying the power he’d wielded for decades. The Palestinian Black September Organization came, too. They invaded the Saudi Arabian Embassy during a party, took several hostages and demanded the release within 24 hours of Palestinian prisoners held by the Israelis—or the hostages would be killed. President Nixon refused to negotiate with the terrorists and after only twelve hours one Belgian and two American diplomats were dead. The Palestinians held the Embassy for three more days, finally surrendering and releasing the remaining hostages, all Muslims. 

All this while, I was hanging on tenterhooks. Would this terrorist attack influence my chances of getting a visa for the South? Ultimately it didn’t, but it was a very tense three days, and I felt quite self-centered, worrying about my precious visa.

The day after the Black September Movement terrorists surrendered, a haboob, an annual sand storm, swept into Khartoum. With winds blasting north across the Sahara from the Gulf of Guinea, they brought with them all the sand from the desert they flew across. The sound of the wind roaring was deafening. It carried so much sand with such force that it stung my arms and legs, invaded my eyes, mouth, nose, and hair; I wore a kerchief over my nose and mouth just to keep from breathing sand. It was impossible to leave the Youth Hostel. I burrowed into my sleeping bag, as there was no other way to avoid the sand; it entered every crevice of the room. When I woke the next morning, the room looked like a scene out of Rip Van Winkle—the bed, my sleeping bag, the floor, my face, everyone in the dormitory, were covered in sand, as though they’d been asleep for years. But it was silent. The haboob had passed, and in its place was a cooler, much quieter Khartoum.

* * *

When I decided to drop out of a professional job at the age of thirty and travel to Tanzania, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I was determined to do it, and do it overland. I wanted to know the countries I was traveling through more intimately; to meet people of all social classes and ethnic groups, rather than only those wealthy enough to fly or travel first class. By the time I reached Sudan I’d been traveling in Africa and the Middle East for nearly two years, sometimes hitchhiking, sometimes on buses, sometimes in the beds of clunky trucks, sometimes on trains when nothing else was available, and, for five months, in an old VW van I bought in Rome and sold in Beirut. So when I applied to get permission to travel to Southern Sudan, I looked on that trip as I had all my previous trips in Africa—it would probably be uncomfortable, but doable, and I would get to be close to local people. 

But as soon as my visa for the south was issued and I realized I’d be traveling solo, I became anxious. I imagined all sorts of dangerous scenes, but had no idea how likely any of them were. Thieves, sexual aggressors, illnesses, accidents—I was entering into the center of Africa, alone. I felt a little like those 19th-century explorers who faced unknown dangers. I calmed myself by remembering the wonderful things that had happened when I’d traveled alone in North Africa—I’d met kind, generous people all along the way and had felt charmed with good fortune. Why shouldn’t that continue? People were, I had come to believe, essentially good. And yet this next journey was entirely uncharted. All I could do was trust that all would go well, and keep myself in the best possible shape, physically and mentally. 

* * *

The first part of the trip had gone splendidly, aside from a train break-down lasting nearly a half-day. But in El Obeid, I ran into my first snag. When I entered a hotel and asked for a room, the clerk seemed upset, and when I saw the room, I realized why—it was set up with four single beds, one in each corner. I was issued, and paid, for only one of them. The others would remain unused unless three women came in, which the clerk knew probably wouldn’t happen. I’d taken up an entire room, when he would have been able to rent it to four men, each one paying for a bed. I began to see why the official in Khartoum had been reluctant to issue me a visa to the south. Women simply didn’t travel alone in the Sudan. 

* * *

After almost a week of train travel, I was beginning the last leg of my long train voyage, from El Obeid to Wau, the end of the line. This final leg would last four days, taking us over hot, sandy terrain, with little more than spiky acacias to define the passage of kilometers, jouncing one after the other, as the little train creaked along. I prepared myself to be bored.

  The third-class car was so full I couldn’t squeeze my backpack in through the door, let alone get in myself. Many boys from school in the north were returning to their homes in the south for spring break. The car itself swelled with people; heads, arms and bodies poked out of the open windows and the roof of the train was covered with boys in their billowing dirty-white jalabiyas. It’s going to be a very long four-day ride, I thought to myself. 

I stood on the platform, stranded, not knowing what to do. The conductor saw my problem. “Come,” he said in Arabic, and led me to the first-class car. “Stay here,” he motioned, pointing to the floor. The first-class car contained about ten private cabins with berths, each opening onto the narrow corridor. I could stay in that corridor, along with twenty or so men also inhabiting the floor. Good idea, I thought, considering my options. I thanked the conductor for this “upgrade,” sat on the gritty floor, leaned against my backpack, and began reading. At 31, I could still manage a hard floor.

We’d been lurching through the desert for about an hour when a northern Sudanese man approached me. He was tall, dressed in a light-brown cotton suit, a shade darker than his skin. His face, with wire-rimmed glasses and a bushy mustache, bore a look of concern for me. “My wife would like to invite you to stay in her cabin,” he said in perfect English. 

I was both grateful and delighted, not only because it would be far more comfortable than the floor, but because it would allow me to meet some Sudanese women. “Shukran,” I thanked him, showing off one of my few Arabic words. He opened the door of his wife’s cabin, introduced me to her and left for his own cabin.

The cabin was tiny, just two long benches with high seat backs facing each other. On one side sat two women who I presumed were a mother and daughter, the younger woman with a girl about four years old and a baby. They wore tobs, sheer, floor-length dresses with pastel-colored floral designs, and had removed their hijabs of the same material. We had one of those pidgin-English-Arabic-mime conversations—sweet, heartfelt, not going deep, but where affection is expressed in gestures, warm smiles, soft eyes and sighs. After an hour it was time to go to bed. 

Just as I was climbing into the upper berth we’d converted from the seat back, the conductor knocked at the door. The older woman opened it. Seeing me in the upper berth, he began shouting at me in Arabic. The women looked on silently. I didn’t understand his words, but it was clear that he was ordering me to leave the cabin. I said shukran to the women and children, gestured goodbye, and reluctantly returned to the corridor floor. I slept fitfully, my head on top of my backpack, with the twenty other sweaty Sudanese men in their jalabiyas surrounding me. At last morning came, and with it some relief.

But not for long, because soon the conductor approached me, saying half in Arabic and half in English, “You stayed in first class. You have to pay first-class ticket.”  I was incensed. Had I been able to stay in the sleeping compartment, I’d have felt I should pay. But to pay for a first-class ticket when I had to sleep on the floor with twenty men?  Not on your life!  It was totally unfair! 

Arms crossed, eyes glaring, I shouted back at him defiantly, “But I had to sleep on the floor! I’m not paying!” forgetting he probably didn’t understand my outraged English, although my body language clearly spoke my refusal. The conductor was equally insistent and outraged, yelling back at me in Arabic.

We must have created a scene, because soon the husband of the woman in the sleeping cabin appeared and spoke to the conductor in Arabic. I couldn’t tell what they were saying, but finally the conductor calmed down, punched a different ticket and handed it to me. The man said, “That ticket is for the second-class car,” and directed me where to go. News of my encounter with the conductor must have sped through the train, because when I arrived at the second-class car the women in my assigned compartment explained to me in pidgin Arabic-mime, “The kind man paid.”

My face burned with shame. The generosity of the man and his wife was touching. In contrast, I felt very small. I’d hoped I would never be an “Ugly American,” but there I was, entitled, righteously indignant, without even thinking about the reality of the situation: the primitive state of Sudan’s infrastructure, the poverty of the country, how intimately linked poverty is with corruption, and how, as an American, choosing to ride third class, I was seen as rich. The conductor wanted to add something to his meager earnings and saw he had an opportunity with me. Would I do that if I were poor and needed to feed my family?  

I realized I might.

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