Saturday, March 31, 2012

Salutations! The Sudanese Way!

Greetings and salutations are a characteristic part of most cultures and generations. In Sudan, things are no different.

When we were in school, girls would greet each other with three kisses on the cheeks. Mwah, mwah, mwah in the air and outer cheek, every morning of every day, alternating sides. As our generation got older, you had to make sure to avoid lipstick stains and mussed hair, after a particularly enthusiastic greeting.

Male cousins and family were greeted with a pat on the shoulder, before the hand shake. The angle you lean in for the pat, and the length of the greeting was directly proportional to how close you were to the male in question. For non-relatives/male friends, the pat was short, but resounding, and socially acceptable. At one point, our esteemed government in one of its sporadic attempts to influence social behavior, and turn our largely African social norms towards others deemed more "Islamic", introduced a “sketch” that reflected that this amounted to too much physical contact and people should stick with the handshakes. Not sure it worked.

As we grew older, some males forewent the shoulder-pat-cum-bear-hug and some of both genders stopped shaking hands with members of the opposite sex. I’m still going strong. What difference does it make, really? To humor my OCD, I just scrub my hands extra hard before partaking of any meal.

Back to the air kisses.

At some point in time, Sudanese women collectively decided that three kisses take up too much time. A new greeting was introduced that combined elements of all the above. Today, when adult females greet each other in Sudan, it is with a single kiss, on the same side as the bear hug, thus saving a lot of time and avoiding the occasional accident where lips met in mid exchange, causing a moment of awkwardness. I approve of this method. Enthusiasm is duly conveyed, with minimal risk.

It is amusing to see the moment of confusion, when Sudanese come home, after a prolonged period. They are not aware of the single kiss express salutation and try to switch to mwah the other cheek, while the locals who have forgotten this obsolete greeting, are not sure what is going on. Am I holding too hard? Has my greeting gone on for too long? Do I smell? *facepalm* A few weeks into their stay, they get with it. No harm, no foul.

Things were different back in my grandmother’s day. Her generation kissed on the neck. This was a multiple threat, because they inhaled loudly as they planted the resounding kiss, making a clucking noise. Sudan is hot, people sweat, making this form of greeting as uncomfortable as it is unpleasant and embarrassing. While this action was taking place, your upper arm was squeezed until the tears came. I kid you not. I always wondered at this strength test. Was it to gauge whether you were well fed? If you would flinch? I have no answer to these questions. While you were being smelled and squeezed – wait a minute, it really is called, quite literally, “Smelled”. Our elders would say, “Come let me smell you” ("t3aali annashummik") which is equivalent to the American granny saying, “Come give Nana a kiss”. Okay, while you were being smelled and squeezed, a barrage of stock phrases and questions were being repeated and echoed, while no one listened to the other. I can attest to this fact. I used to answer with “I’m awful. Life sucks. Who are you, again?” and the litany would go on and on. Never to stop.

As a matter of fact, after everyone was seated, someone might get up and start it all over again! This provides for a lot of entertainment when family comes over from out of town, and at this point in our lives, we chime in with gusto. Squeezing and reciting with the best of them.
Allah ysallimik. Allah ybaarik feek. Allah ysallimik. Awlaadik. Allah ysallimik. Taybeen. Allah ybaarik feek. Keifkum kadi. Allah ysallimik. Ybaarik feek. Taslami. Allah ysallimikJ

So, the way you greet your family and friends pinpoints your generation and associations, at a glance.

Sudanese are a lot of things, but they are very rarely boring.

(Photo link: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=354036317961631&set=pb.352371574794772.-2207520000.1348743053&type=1&theater )

 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

From Khartoum to China - The Accidental Business Traveler: Part II

I was told that we were to fly on Egypt Air, Business Class. A rudimentary Google search revealed the fact that Business Class on Egypt Air was the equivalent of Economy Class on any one of the luxury airlines, but no one was asking my opinion and the flight was just part of this adventure that I had decided to embrace.

In order to maintain the boys’ schedule, I rented a car (Thank you, Rashid) to convey my trusted maid to and from her house. She didn’t begrudge us the extra hours in exchange for relieving her of the 3 bus rides she averaged, one way, on a daily basis. With her transportation allowance intact coupled with her sympathy for my non-stop tears, she made no objections to this arrangement.

My parents were duly drafted for backup and entertainment. They enjoy their role as doting grandparents, in addition to taking the opportunity to tackle those issues we didn’t see eye to eye on – such as leaving the children alone for 5 minutes to explore their surroundings, and piling them into the car for the haircut they so desperately needed.

The day before the trip, I camped out in front of an “Exchange” or “Money Changer” as they are often called in certain parts of the world. When Sudan lost its oil revenue to the country baptized as “South Sudan”, the government introduced currency restrictions which gave birth to a thriving black market. The official rate on that particular day was 2.89SDG to a dollar, while the black market rate was hovering over 5SDG to the dollar.

Under current financial laws, Sudanese pounds can rarely be transferred abroad legally and travelers are entitled to specific amounts, based on destination. $500 for Egypt and $1,000 for China. My fellow traveler collected his Bank of Sudan approved thousand, and sold it on the spot for 5.5SDG and proceeded to congratulate himself on his business acumen, as he regaled the story to us losers.

With quality products lacking in Sudan, I tend to hoard hard currency to arrange international purchases for my household, through my long suffering friends abroad (Thank you, Siema).

So, I wasted a few hours of my life to purchase one thousand US dollars and left. Mission accomplished. Went home and updated my Facebook status, “Of all the idiotic policies in this country, Banking/Foreign Currency Policy is way up there. (Stuck in the Exchange all day)” and of course, that made everything all better.

For the record, said dollars are received at the airport, as slackers are entitled to squat. People that choose to sell their government approved dollars can only deliver upon their return.

My father, a seasoned traveler, advised me to resist the lure of the VIP lounge and to check in with the commoners, as they had more direct access to the hard currency counters. Being the angel that I am, I heeded his advice only to be stuck in passport control with a mandatory renewal procedure, as the one week delay in our schedule had placed my passport in the red zone, six months less one week till its expiration date.

Let’s rewind a little to recount that while me and my family were rushing to the airport, as a traffic jam had us behind schedule, we came across a train stuck in the middle of McNimer Road. Only in Sudan, I thought would congested traffic be augmented by a train. Maybe China just isn’t meant to be, I thought. Too good to be true. I was not going to make it to the land of Confucius after all.

Eventually, we reached the airport, and I bade my children a teary farewell, as I gave my parents meaningful looks that they correctly interpreted that I was counting on them to look after the babies. Sure, my husband was there but let’s just say that I felt better knowing that they were my contingency plan.

My mother kept repeating her instructions to leave, consider it a break, relax and have fun, as soon as work was through. My dad spoke less but squeezed my hand and patted my shoulder, as he provided me with a constant supply of tissue paper; his eyes telling me, “We got this”. I could see them holding back their tears because they knew that I didn’t need any encouragement in the water works department.

I walked in and everyone left, and I was left to the mercy of government officials who stated that even if they let the six month condition slide, the Chinese might send me back, thus giving a selfless luster to their bureaucratic obstacles.

Having duly renewed my passport with the chance 98 or so Sudanese pounds that I was lucky enough to be carrying, I proceeded to the Business Lounge. Starting my online journal with my buddies (infused with a lot of "Woot's!") , I took pictures of the place like the tourist I was, and went to get me some tea. The kind man at the counter told me I could eat and drink anything (ANYTHING!) and it was all free. So, I picked up a cup, which I had to change because it was a little iffy, and made myself tea, while asking the man at every turn, enjoying my role as bumpkin, even going so far as to say, “You have to show me, I’m not used to all this,” in my best Dorothy in Oz expression.

I got some bottled water and sat back to await the flight that I was told I would be summoned for. Business travelers don’t need to pay attention to PA speakers, they call them!

Over the years, as the youngest child of adventurous parents, we have traveled around the world. Said parents being college teachers means that our trips were on a budget, which covered food and accommodation, sometimes completely foregoing shopping, to just enjoy the experience. So, yes, I have been here and there, but Business Class was a first. Hence the title.

After a while, I asked the lady seated next to me directions to the Ladies’ Room. It was a war zone. Tissue paper strewn haphazardly, smeared with lipstick, unflushed toilets and a busted soap dispenser that had dripped onto the counter and was forming a puddle on the floor. I may not do fancy but hell, I know a glorified outhouse when I see one.

Taking my OCD back to my seat, I couldn’t resist remarking to my helpful neighbor, “Don’t go in there” with a dramatic whisper to convey the seriousness of my warning. She opened her eyes wide to acknowledge that the message had been well received and we nodded our heads simultaneously in a travelers’ bond that is so easily broken.

While the bond was still intact, she leaned into me and said, “Can I say something, please? I’m so sorry,” which is the universal way to state that I’m going to say something that you won’t like but since I said, “Sorry” you have to listen and you’re not allowed to be offended.

“Sure,” I replied warily, thinking “God, I hate travelers’ bonds. Why didn’t I just ask the service staff where the bathroom was?” and I braced myself.

“I’m really sorry, but I think you have your clothes on wrong.”

Looking down, I realized there was no “thinking” about it. The stitching was showing all around the tunic that I had elected to fulfill my “travelling wardrobe” role. I’d packed 2 extra ones, while wearing this one (inside out) to ease the layering process from 37 degrees Celsius to 3 degrees below zero that was promised in Beijing.

“Thank you,” I gushed, back in bonding traveler mode, “I just left my babies and I’m really worried and I don’t know what we’re going to do” and so on and so forth, ruining my plan to have a conversation with somebody that does not lead to my sons, or the allergies that plague my youngest or showing pictures of all the above.

I went back to the Business Outhouse and walking around suspicious pools of something, found a corner to quickly don my tunic, right side out and inside in.

I went back to my seat, and sure enough, I was called to start the boarding process. In the lines leading up to the boarding gates, we had to have our bags x-rayed once again and be subjected to a rather personal body search that took place in a booth.

As the woman patted and probed, I asked her what she was looking for and if she actually ever caught someone. “Of course!” she exclaimed, “All the time! Women try to smuggle out gold, dollars and drugs. And you know where they hide them?” she asked me, “Here, this area” reaching for my waist and unmentionables. I burst out laughing, as she opened the curtain to let me out.

Another satisfied customer, just happy to be touched. The eternal yearning for human contact. Or a perv.

These would have been my thoughts if I had been in line seeing someone so obviously happy to be searched. But, what had amused me was her jolly attitude in a thankless job, coupled with her na├»ve wonder at the criminal mind. “I wish they wouldn’t” she added, as I walked out. Her words conjuring up graphic images that I pushed out of my mind, but fast.

As I stood in line, I saw a former classmate of mine, looking uncomfortable and frustrated and another old acquaintance that was chatting excitedly to the woman beside her, as happy as if she was traveling Business Class. Both didn’t see me.

Eventually, I found myself on a plane to Cairo, Egypt. A city I love cautiously, as our relationship is both tempestuous and guarded. We have trust issues but enjoy each other’s company.

When I boarded the plane, I found my fellow travelers duly seated, as their choice of checking in via VIP Lounge had apparently given them dibs on boarding. I shook hands all around, sat myself down, adjusted the seat belt to allow for my girth, fastened it like the people tell you to and sat back with a smile on my face.

Here goes nothing.
Bismillah...

Thursday, March 15, 2012

From Khartoum to China – The Accidental Business Traveler


February 28th 2012
15:40 Khartoum Time, 20:40 Dezhou Time
From Khartoum to China – The Accidental Business Traveler: Part I


When I was told that my presence was requested (if we can be so delicate) in China, I had mixed feelings. I know my husband had said that he had no objection with any travel my job might require, and that he could take care of the children on his own, but my heart was heavy, even as it soared. Any perceived objection would not be marital but that of a hard working father who would have to come home to take care of three small boys alone. God knows that with the both of us home, it was still draining. His work often required him to work late, and on the days that I had to do it alone, my physical and mental strength were strained to the core.

China! What could be more exotic? What could be more exciting? Cold! I don’t like cold! I’m way too African for cold. My babies! Who is going to love my babies when I’m not home? They might find someone to feed them, someone to clean them up, but who will squeeze them with love and kiss their tiny feet while praying to Allah to preserve them safe, healthy and happy? Daddies love, for sure, but mommies love fierce. Very fierce.

China! The Great Wall and the Forbidden City! Bird’s Nest and Tiananmen Square! Gold and red and bamboo. China, I tell you!

Then my Sudanese coworkers, tried to strip away my excitement, as only Sudanese can. You’ll starve, they told me. No food in China. I asked what Chinese ate because they seemed to be doing alright. They eat Chinese food that we can’t eat. Hearing that made me feel better, because I have no problem experimenting when it comes to food. I am not of the Sudanese school of thought that if my mother doesn’t make it and I ate it several times growing up, then it is inedible.

I refuse to think that I have tasted the perfect dish. There are so many more worlds to discover and my world may be comfortable, but I am not under any illusion that it is the best. Try everything once, I tell myself, and pack loads of meds.

The smell is overpowering, the Sudanese continued. You will not be able to tolerate it. They will steal you blind, you know, a visitor to the office chimed in. They will show you quality products and send you cheap ones.

The list went on and on.

I love my countrymen but what have they achieved lately? We keep hearing that China is the next superpower but in my opinion it is the only one. The US has failed to keep up, and now China owns the US debt (among others, Sudanese included) and has made leaps and bounds in commerce and technology, as the rest of the world seems happy to rest on their laurels – assuming they have any.

After borrowing a coat (Thank you, Rawa) and stocking up on meds (Thank you, Alyaa), in addition to downloading a translation app, and packing a few snacks and some tea (yes, I know it’s China, but in true Sudanese form, I want my tea just so, and don’t mess with it, thank you very much) I was on my way.

The company I work for decided that they were not the ones sending me on the trip (sure), hence they were not responsible for me, and forewent the allocation of a per diem, after a charade that lasted a few days. I assume the alternative was to reject the invitation and allow a more accommodating employee grateful for the chance to take my place. For a less exotic destination, I probably would have passed but the Prophet PBUH told us to seek knowledge, if it be as far as China, and I planned to follow that advice, verbatim.

I was to leave with another co-worker, who outranks me on the project, and two Client representatives. I learned that the Client was sending their people with about $300/day, which was about $3,000 more than my zero. Not to begrudge the nice folk, just pointing out that customary business travel practices are alive and well. Our host had arranged for "pocket money" and that was deemed satisfactory:-|

(My computer keeps pausing, as I type and I can’t help wondering if Big Red Brother is downloading my hard drive through the internet cable I was so happy to find in my Executive Hotel Room Office. But I’m getting ahead of myself).

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Parallel Parking Light Bulb Moment

March 3rd 2012
Today, we went to Taian Mountain. Amazing.

After we came down this World Natural and Cultural Heritage Landmark, we went to a Muslim Noodle restaurant. After the meal, I watched a woman take almost 5 minutes to parallel park. When she parked the first time around, and got out of the car, a man on the street shouted at her that she hadn’t parked between the two lines. (No, I don't speak Chinese and I was observing from a distance but that's what was being said). She went back and in due time, aligned her car perfectly with the sidewalk and between the offending lines.

Even if I didn’t see any men snickering at the time, I imagined the snide comments about women and parallel parking and how it took her so long while they could do it from the first try. I agree. They would do it from the first time, but not to this perfection.
I then had a light bulb moment.
Men do a half ass job and are actually proud of it, while women achieve perfection but still worry that they could have done it better.
When she got out of her seat, she went round to the back and picked up a tiny bundle, and held it close in the freezing weather. An infant. A mother. That’s how we mommies roll. Perfection and stress, while men half baked and proud. We could learn from each other.


Le Passage Cairo Hotel - Just Say No

If you are ever in Cairo, and need a place to stay, I would advise camping out in Tahrir Square, instead of staying in Le Passage Cairo Hotel.
As a Business Class Traveler with an 8 hour layover, Egypt Air booked me a room there on March 6th 2012. It was deplorable. The room was badly lit, toilet was broken, toilet door didn’t lock, phone/intercom only connected me to the sound of static. In addition to all of the above, stands the unforgiveable sin – internet connection not working.

No slippers in the room, so I had to choose between showering and sticking moist feet in my shoes or walking barefoot across the freezing tiles. I tried both. Equally unpleasant. Hotel stationery consisted of one bent piece of paper. The safe was only lockable via credit card so I had to walk around with my purse at all times. I do not have a valid credit card, and there was nothing to state what they were charging for this “service”. There were no electrical sockets for computers or phones, so I had to unplug the lights to recharge.

In the elevator, I ran into one of my co-workers who told me he had to change rooms because his was so dirty when he checked in.

On my out, I asked for water, as no drinking water was available in what should have been an executive room but wasn’t. The waitress/hostess/whatever they call them now brought me a glass that was so dirty, I would not let a dog drink from it.

To complete the check out of our delegation, we were left in the mercy of 3 concierges who made the decision that we should wait for the shuttle to join another hotel guest who was leaving on the same flight. I informed him that I did not care about their other guest and I wanted to go to the airport. In their Egyptian way, they stated that I was not to worry I was going to catch my plane. I stated that I wanted to leave and it was not their business to tell me when. True to Egyptian form I was told to calm down, which is the common attitude that the person that does not agree with them is hysterical and irrational.

We left the hotel 15 minutes after we were originally scheduled to, but did make our delayed flight with a detour at the Duty Free Shop, no thanks to them.

Next time you hear “Le Passage” run in the opposite direction.

For the record, I filled up the “Feedback Form” and expressed my overall rating of “Poor” and informed them that, no, I would not be interested in staying at their hotel again.

I also posted this on Tripadvisor.com and must agree with another reviewer on the skimpy towels.