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Sudan - Eating and sleeping
Sudanese food is uncomplicated. It is based around a few staples with spices used only sparingly. Some people complain of bland repetition, but it is possible to eat a good and varied diet on the road. Many of Sudan’s staples are vegetarian, although travellers should be aware that some dishes such as stewed vegetables often use meat stock as flavouring, or are cooked with a few small pieces of meat lurking in the pot. Most restaurants are of the cafeteria variety, with the kitchen and food on display at the front. With no menu to consult you’ll need to poke around the pots to see what’s on offer. Cutlery isn’t used so you eat with your right hand, using bread as a scoop. Most cafeterias open in the morning in time for breakfast – the most important meal of the day in Sudan – which is taken any time between 09.00 and 11.00.
Sudan’s favourite dish is ful, brown beans stewed for hours in a large metal cauldron (gidra). The ful is ladled out into bowls, often mashed slightly and served with a generous squirt of oil (zeit), a sprinkling of spice, and a round of bread (kisra). At its simplest, ful can be pretty uninspiring, but it’s usually enlivened by adding salad (salata), cheese (jibneh), hard-boiled egg (bayda) or falafel (taamiya). Served this way a bowl of ful makes a delicious and filling meal.
In some places, a poor man’s ful is served using the bean water left over in the gidra, mopped up with bread and onions. This dish is called bush, as it derives from the shortages of the early 1990s when the first President Bush cut aid to Sudan in response to Sudanese government support for Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War. Fasuliya is another bean dish, served in a tomato-based sauce – the Sudanese equivalent of baked beans. Yellow lentils are served as a thick broth, adis, which is often made in the mornings. Other vegetable dishes include stewed potatoes (batata), okra (baamiya), and peppers or aubergines (egg plant) stuffed with rice (maashi).
The most common meat dish is the kebab, although the meat is often tough and stringy. Kebabs are usually cooked on skewers, but one variety you’ll often see is sheya, where very fatty meat is cooked on flat stones sitting on a bed of charcoal. In large towns, Western-style fast-food joints serve shwarma kebabs from a vertical spit; these are most commonly lamb, but are occasionally chicken. The same places offer burgers in a bun, always with a fried egg on top. Kibda is fried chopped liver, a popular breakfast dish. A meat dish from western Sudan is agashay, where meat is flattened and breaded before being cooked over coals – a type of Sudanese schnitzel.
Along the Nile, fish (samak) is popular. Large fish such as Nile perch are filleted before being fried and are accompanied with bread and a fiery chilli dipping sauce (shotta). Smaller fish are cooked whole and it’s possible to spend as much time fishing for bones as meat. Many places cook their fish throughout the day, piling them up in a glass cabinet on the street for customers to choose from. For some reason, the taste for fish doesn’t extend greatly to the Red Sea, and good seafood can be difficult to find there.
Taamiya (the Sudanese version of falafel) is a popular street snack, although people used to the salad and yoghurt flat bread wraps from the Middle East might be disappointed. The chickpea balls are served dry in a bread roll with no accompaniment, or with a slice of tomato at best. Buy a bag from a stand and eat them on the move.
If you’re looking for dessert, the Sudanese love of sugar will provide. Every town has a sweet bakery, where you can splurge on cakes and pastries. The most popular is Middle Eastern-style baklawa, a super-sweet confection of pastry, honey and nuts. Zalabia, a deep-fried treat that’s similar to a doughnut, is made in the morning at tea shops as a light snack to tide people over until mid-morning breakfast.
Along with ful, Sudan runs on tea (shai) and coffee (gahwa). Tea houses tend to be dark and gloomy places, with a couple of old men invariably sucking on a water pipe. Far more common are the tea ladies you find on almost any street corner. These women run impromptu tea stalls consisting of little more than a brazier and a lockable chest covered in jars of tea, coffee and spices. Stools – or old cooking oil cans – provide the seating. They are a great place to watch the world go by over a drink, while the stallholder keeps court over a never-ending routine of kettle juggling, coffee pounding and fire stoking.
Different drinks are favoured throughout the day. Black tea (shai saada) can be drunk at any time, but drinking it with milk added (shai bi laban) is reserved for the early morning and evening. Hot milk (laban) is also popular and often flavoured with nutmeg. Tea is also made with mint (shai bi na’na’) and spices, most typically cloves (shai bi habahan). Whichever you choose, the tea is always served with a vast amount of sugar (sukar), although as a sop to Western sensibilities you’ll sometimes be asked if you want it without sugar (bidun sukar).
Coffee is made by simply boiling up grounds, and can be slightly gritty. A Sudanese variation sees the coffee flavoured with ginger or cinnamon and transferred to a long-stemmed pot and served in small china cups. The distinctive pots (jebana) give the drink its name. Finally the tea ladies may offer you karkaday, made from hibiscus flowers. It’s just as refreshing served cold.
Sudan abounds in fruit, and juice bars are deservedly popular. Availability varies, but some of the best are mango (manga), lemon (limoon), grapefruit (grebfrut) and occasionally banana (moz). Not to mention Sudan’s real treats which are raisin (za bid), baobab (tabaldi) and grewia tenax (godeam). A personal favourite is a mix of guava (guafa) and watermelon (batikh). A glass of cold juice can feel like the healthiest drink around, but be aware of the blocks of ice providing the cooling, as they are usually made from untreated water.
The usual international brands of fizzy drinks usually referred to as sodas are available everywhere in Sudan, along with a few homegrown varieties, like the fizzy apple-drink Stim, and Pasgianos, a sort of fizzy kardakay. Mineral water is also widely available, but in small remote towns it can be expensive. Reliable brands include Soba, Safia and Crystal. In Khartoum the water is generally safe to drink, although the tang of chlorine may put you off.
On any street in Sudan you will often see a couple of large earthenware pots on stands. Kept in the shade and covered, each pot (zir) is slightly porous – as water slowly seeps out it evaporates, keeping the contents cool for passers-by to refresh themselves. Whether or not you want to drink from the never-washed cup tied to the zir (and in some places the water can be distinctly murky) is up to you, but it’s a neat communal approach to drinking water in a hot country.
Alcohol is illegal in Sudan, a prohibition ignored by some. The most commonly encountered under-the-counter drink is araki, a lethal spirit made from dates that’s roughly akin to rocket fuel. In the west you may come across merissa, a beer brewed from sorghum. A non-alcoholic beer called Birell is available in large towns, although it hardly seems worth the effort.
You’ll often see Sudanese men producing a small pouch of indeterminate green material, rolling it into a ball and inserting it between the gum and lip. This is sa’oud, or snuff; it’s actually tobacco soaked in spiced water. The nicotine rush from sa’oud is very strong, but, if you do try it make sure you don’t swallow any of the juice or you’ll suffer the consequences. Do as everyone else does and expel a gob of fluorescent green spit every so often. A mellower experience can be had smoking the shisha (water pipe) over a drink in a tea house.
Rooms in Sudan cover the whole spectrum of accommodation, from rope beds in courtyards to luxury hotels. You won’t have any trouble finding somewhere to sleep, but in smaller towns your choice may be very restricted. Accommodation in Sudan can be divided into budget, mid range and upmarket. Bedding is a rarity in Sudan in budget and many mid-range hotels so a sleeping sheet is highly recommended. Visitors should note that under sharia law it is prohibited for unmarried couples to share a room. Although in practice this requirement is normally overlooked, particularly in Khartoum, it is not unheard of for hoteliers to ask to see your marriage certificate before they will give you a room.
The mainstay of accommodation at the cheapest end of the spectrum is the lokanda. Most typically, a lokanda is a series of rooms around an open courtyard. Rooms are basic, but the majority of guests pull their beds into the courtyard to sleep in the open – very cooling on hot summer nights. Washing facilities are similarly communal, and squat toilets the norm. Many lokanda owners will assume that as a foreigner you’ll want to pay for a private room, rather than sleep communally. Prices will be quoted accordingly, so make it clear which arrangement you’d prefer. Single travellers can often get penalised here, particularly if the owner insists you rent a whole room with several beds. This will also be the case for female travellers, and if there are no whole rooms available you are likely to be turned away.
Lokandas can vary enormously in quality. In the smallest towns they may only have simple washing and toilet facilities, with water coming from a communal drum. At the other end of the spectrum, many are kept spotlessly clean, and offer laundry and kitchen facilities akin to a hostel. In cities, the line between a lokanda and hotel (funduq) can become blurred, although the trend is still towards communal sleeping arrangements. Rooms with four beds are commonest, but you can still find the occasional double. Lokanda prices vary from around SDG5–20, depending on the sleeping arrangements. The communal nature of lokandas make them a good place to meet people, but keep in mind security considerations.
Hotels in the mid-range bracket are aimed at local businessmen – there is no tourist class per se in Sudan. As a rule, rooms tend to be en suite and often come with a satellite TV. Air conditioning (or at least a ceiling fan) is normal, although power cuts aren’t uncommon, even in Khartoum. Hotels usually have a restaurant attached and breakfast may be included in the price. Prices depend more on location than on quality of service. You can find some real gems in this bracket, but rooms at the higher price range can often appear poor value (particularly in Khartoum). Look for facilities such as self-contained water heaters before making your choice. Mid-range hotels tend to be priced between US$50 and US$130.
Khartoum appears to be enjoying a boom in self-proclaimed five-star hotels at the moment, and with a couple of exceptions in Port Sudan and Karima, the capital is where you’ll find all the upmarket accommodation. In terms of price, these hotels would be classified as top range anywhere in the world; room prices are upwards of US$130 and the sky is very much the limit. Facilities and the quality of service may not always match the price tag. While you can bargain if you’re staying for longer periods and the rate can include bed and breakfast or even full board, it’s important not to be left short especially when you have to carry enough cash for your entire trip in Sudan and credit cards are definitely not accepted.
Sleeping under canvas is most likely to suit those travelling with their own vehicles. Indeed, the ability to strike off and make camp on your own is one of the great attractions of overlanding in Africa. There is certainly no shortage of space in Sudan. The more adventurous traveller may find it interesting to camp alongside locals in villages or even major towns. If the appropriate request is made to the family who occupy the land they are likely to allow you to pitch your tent near their tukul (‘kitchen’). Payment should be offered; if refused some other form of compensation is expected though it may not be said. In fact, it is best simply to give gifts rather than ask. It is best to find a group of tukuls that are fenced off and have a nearby source of water and pit latrine. Also try to avoid camping in or near dry riverbeds, as flash floods can and do occur with approaching rains. There are a couple of campsites in Khartoum, but nothing organised elsewhere.
With the exception of the Nuba Mountains and Jebel Marra, Sudan has little to offer the dedicated hiker, so if you’re carrying your luggage on your back rather than in a vehicle and not planning on hiking, we’d suggest leaving your tent at home.