Saturday, 3 June 2017

'Early Morning Run in... Khartoum'

It was the 10th May 2008. I gaze out of the small portal window, across the tarmac, from a Boeing 777 Qatar Airways flight to Doha. Two colleagues are flying to Europe, en-route to Canada; they are two planes over.
Khartoum International Airport is about to shut down. I see plumes of creamy black grey smoke swirl upwards, helicopters circle, explosions, distant gunfire. Will we take off?

A Darfur separatist group, from out west, has surprisingly entered Khartoum in force and is enjoying an old-fashioned Mexican style shoot-out with government forces.

The last two planes to leave. Unfortunately, mine rattles down the runway first. What rotten luck. I wave awkwardly, slightly embarrassed, at the rapidly disappearing tarmac... my hand gesture, my intense gaze, is interrupted by the tell-tale rattle of the drinks trolley... "Oh, thanks, I'll have a large G&T..."
I recline my seat; I'm sure my shipmates will be okay. What movies are showing?
The very word 'Khartoum' conjures up a certain romance. The desert, the searing heat, the meandering banks and convergence of the Nile, the Arabs, the flowing robes, the tortured history. I loved this place, once. Khartoum is Casablanca without the heroes.
Fast forward eight years. October 2016. Back to a still ostracised and heavily sanctioned country. Second only to Iran. I worked here for many years, once.

"Salam El Keeni."
"Salam Mr Mark, do you like it? Please meet our driver, Mohamed."
We shake hands.
"I love it, well done El Keeni. I was expecting four wheels, but this works. Salam Mohamed. Your rickshaw should make you very proud."
El Keeni, a guest runner in the first Juba post, makes a welcome return. I've known El Keeni 17 years.

0600 hrs. We head north from the Rotana Hotel through Amarat. The memories come flooding back. Street 53. Street 41. Street 27. Street 23. Street 60. The roads where we lived. The international airport is on our right. We 'speed' towards Nile Avenue. En-route we quickly visit the old apartment blocks.
We arrive on Nile Avenue. River Nile on our right, history to our left. "El Keeni, let's go..."
Armed with a smartphone and remembering photography here is involved. Paranoia everywhere, including El Kenni.

The sun slowly rises behind us as we head west along the banks of the Nile. You might recall El Keeni folded quicker in Juba than the time it takes to boil a soft boiled egg.
To our left Khartoum University, previously Gordon Memorial College until independence in 1956. The college was founded in 1902, in memory of General Charles George Gordon.

History surrounds us. This road continues into Omdurman. Over the far bank of this vast river sits Khartoum North. Numerous bridges span the Nile, like this one, constructed over 100 years ago.
El Keeni goes well this morning, probably two soft-boiled eggs worth. 
So many recollections. The Presidental Palace over there which we'll have to divert around. The Khartoum Sailing Club on our right.

The Malaysians have their hotel, the Holiday Villa. As do the Chinese. My worst day's consulting experience took place right in there. I smile just thinking about it. An off-colour Chinese joke to 50 Chinese fellows to open a four-day workshop. I'll save that for another day... 
Our destination, and turnaround point, this early hour is the former Hilton Hotel (now 'The Coral').

This hotel was the best back in the day. Someone described it as a Lyme Regis coffee shop from the 1970s. Harsh? One thing I remember about this hotel was providing our high ranking visitors with 'liberal' contraband. Sudan was under Shariah Law, as now. However, there was a vibrant black market. How much you paid depended on your position in the supply chain.

The Hilton sat between the two Niles. Take a front room and overlook the Blue Nile, a room at the back and it's the White Nile. The convergence is a few hundred metres away. 
Back to contraband. Boris rang me one day from the Russian Embassy. "Mark, you want a beer? Cash deal."
"Boris, silly question."
"200 cases at $30."
I gulp. Beer in plentiful supply, coming out of the back door of the Russian Embassy. I like a beer as much the next man unless that next man is Oliver Reed. I'm in way over my head here. The black market was pushing $80.
"Boris, I could perhaps take 20 cases?"
"Mark, I like you a lot. You're funny. 200 my friend."
I pictured Boris with a bottle of vodka in one hand and a lump of meat attached to a bone in the other. He was wearing a black and white hooped turtleneck sweater. Negotiating with a hairy arsed Russian isn't easy. Phone a friend time; Rodney, in another oil company.
"Rodney, I've a great deal, loads of in-date Russian beer, I need to offset this. Help me."
"Mate, a result. Brilliant. Put me down for 3 cases."
"Rodney, I like you a lot. You're funny.
I talk Rodney up to 6 cases after about three hours. I never saw myself in the alcohol business; needs must...
To cut a long story short, I manage to offload another 50 cases at varying rates. Fortunately, the Country Manager I worked for stepped in and bought the remainder.
I telephone the hairy arsed Soviet, "Boris, of course, I'll take the 200 at 30."
"Good. Bring the money, blankets, and vehicles to the back door of the compound at midnight tomorrow."
We assemble a posse of Canadian oil workers. I swear some turned up dressed head to toe in black with balaclavas and boot polish on their faces. Let's call them Ringo, George, Paul & John. In reality, it was more like the Wet Bandits from Home Alone. 
Joking aside, this wasn't exactly straightforward. Sudan, Ruskies, large sums of cash, Shariah Law, checkpoints, 200 cases of beer, and a nervously excited crew of helpers. What could go wrong...
Thankfully nothing. Nostrovia! A toast as we approach Christmas 2016 to everyone involved in the Sudan project in those memorable four years. 
After the Hilton, it's back the same route. 75 minutes run/walk this morning. El Keeni, a great effort. Thanks for everything.

Have we a choice of refreshments? We do. Milky tea with 7 sugars on a 3 legged stool on the street? Or coffee in a promising western chain over in Riyad?

Hobson's choice. Hawa and that winning smile all day long.
I hope you've enjoyed this morning's excursion along Nile Avenue and some memories from Khartoum. 
In closing, I'd like to wish everyone a Happy Christmas and good health and good fortune for 2017.