Monday, February 8, 2016

SALLY (1934-2016)

I just received word that an important person in my life and someone I called my friend passed away last month.  Sally died when she was 81.   

I remember where we were when she told me she had been diagnosed with Parkinson's.  We were riding the Stevens Creek loop on our bicycles, which meant a long climb and a steep descent into the village of Saratoga, where we always took a break at a cafe where people hung out with their dogs.  Besides loving to bike, Sally adored her animals, so this particular cafe had more appeal than just loading up on caffeine and enjoying conversation.   

When she told me, we had passed the reservoir and were riding single file on a narrow bumpy road, and as usual, I was behind her, bringing up the rear.   People who ride in the back intentionally are called the sweep, but I didn't deserve that esteemed title.  I rode back there because I was slow.   Sally turned her head and yelled something back at me, but the wind made it difficult to hear, so I didn't catch it all.  I heard her say I haven't told many people yet, but then her words were garbled until I heard her say Parkinson's.  Hearing that word stunned me.  I didn't know whether I should ask her to tell me again or ask her to get off her bike so I could hug her.   

"Let's stop," I said, but she didn't hear me so we kept on riding until we came to the bathrooms at the bottom of the first steep climb.  We leaned our bikes against the fence, and that's when she said  "I've talked with Bob,  and told him I want to go to Oregon when it's time to die.  I don't want to be hooked up to a machine."   Just a few years before, the State of Oregon had passed the Death with Dignity legislation that allowed terminally ill patients to end their life voluntarily.   When I heard these words, I looked at her more closely than I had looked at her before.  She didn't seem any different, she didn't shake, nor did she look sick.  The symptoms of Parkinson's were not obvious.  How could she be sick?  She rides strong, I thought.  I don't remember what else I said, if anything.  I'd like to think it was something comforting like  I hope you don't go to Oregon for a long time.  She swung her right leg over the bike seat, clipped the cleats of her shoes into the pedals, and started to climb the hill before us.  We never talked about her Parkinson's again.  I wasn't ready to face her mortality and talking about it might have made me face mine.  

I met Sally on a club ride around 1994, shortly after I bought a bike.  She and her biking girlfriends were older than I, but they didn't take themselves too seriously, and as a new rider I felt more relaxed riding with them than with an established bike club where testosterone could be called an infectious disease.  When riders talk about bike clubs, they often assess whether it's easy or difficult to fit in, but for me it wasn't so much about fitting in.   I suffered from lack of confidence.  I had anxieties about keeping up.  And most of the time I didn't, and no one likes being dropped on a club ride.

After riding with Sally off and on for about year, I thought I might do a bike tour in New Zealand.  Sally pushed me to give the tour company my credit card and sign on the dotted line.  She urged me to rent a lighter bike so that when I came home, I'd be ready to trade in my heavy hybrid for a lighter road bike. The best advice she gave was to take my own pedals and my own bike seat.  As it turned out, the shop in Christchurch only had mountain bikes for rent, and although the rental bike was even heavier than the one I had at home, it didn't matter because Sally made sure I understood that bicycle touring was also about having fun.   

As a role model, Sally energized me, and helped me to believe that some day I would ride as fast as she did.  She inspired other people too.  Many of us, especially women, who rode bikes looked up to her as someone we wanted to be when we grew up -- even though we were all grown ups at the time.  Until I met Sally, I never knew a  woman who had ridden her bike across the country.  Across the entire United States, I would tell people.   And I'm not sure, but I think she did that ride self-supported, meaning she carried all of her clothes and other gear in panniers that were attached to her bicycle.  She often clocked 10,000 miles a year on her bike.  You could do it too, she would say to me, but you need to buy a lighter bike and spend more hours in the saddle.   She loved to challenge us physically.  When I met her in the early 90s and didn't know what more hours in the saddle really meant, she was the strongest woman cyclist I knew.  She even passed my then-husband going up a steep hill, and for days after, he talked about how Sally passed him.  Her legs moved like pistons.  Although she was a good climber, her nemesis was Quinn Hill, but she made it to the top.   Not too many people can do that.   She stood in her saddle and her weight shifted side to side as she cranked up that hill with fast riders, but she never complained when she rode with me as I climbed slowly in my granny gear, promising her that some day I would buy a lighter bike.   And although I eventually bought a carbon-fiber bike,  I never came close to riding like Sally.

After Sally mentioned her illness, we biked off and on for a couple of years, but as her disease took hold, she didn't ride as much, and because she wasn't biking with her girlfriends, neither was I.    At the same time I met a couple of other women who loved to bike and were about my speed.   Over time I heard from people who knew Sally well that she still rode her bike, but to be safe she and her husband rode the Baylands trail or around the neighborhood to avoid the hazards of traffic.   We didn't see each other after that, but I would hear about her decline from friends who were close to her. 

Now that she's gone I am sorry I didn't stay in touch,  that I didn't make an effort to visit her.   Someone told me that she'd had some type of procedure that enabled her to type and use email, so I emailed her once, but she never wrote back.   When I saw her friends, I would ask how she was doing, but their news was never encouraging.

Sally leaves a legacy within the biking community.  Her many friends will always remember  her encouraging words and what an inspiration she was.  Sally, we miss you.  Wherever you are, may the wind always be at your back and your sweet dog, Ginny, close by your side.

(Taken at a party for my biking friends to meet Lisa who was our guide on the New Zealand trip)


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

TIMELESS SUDAN: The Last Chapter

In a previous chapter about Sudan, I wrote about finding the nomads in the desert, but there wasn't just one nomadic encampment, there were two, and the second family greeted us just like the other -- first with suspicion and then eventually with smiles, probably because they were told in pigeon Arabic by our guide, Laura, that we had come with gifts.  Then there were the nomads on camels who had traveled with their herds from afar to reach the communal well and stock up on water to quench their animals and themselves.   

Picture this.  We are driving in the desert without anything significant to look at except blowing sand when we come upon what looks like a scene straight out of The Bible.  There were men wearing turbans and long white robes, stained ruddy from the red wet clay, working hard to fetch water from the well.  We also saw women and young girls working too, typical of gender assignments in Africa. 

This is how they got their water.

A large bag made of animal skin and attached to a rope was lowered hundreds of feet down into the well until it reached the water table. The other end of the rope was stretched over a pulley at the top of the well and attached to a team of two donkeys.  When the bag was full of water, the handlers steered the donkeys quite a distance away from the well, pulling the heavy bag to the surface for the men to grab and distribute the water in various vessels for both animals and humans. 

Although our visit was relatively short, the nomads must have been there all day.  They looked tired.  While some men worked, others rested, a few smoked cigarettes and most seemed to enjoy our visit.  Some even posed for pictures.  Young girls driving the donkeys yelled in high-pitched voices and used a switch on their behinds to get the beasts of burden moving.  There were camels, goats, sheep and, of course the donkeys.  



Fortunately we came upon two wells in one day, a good distance apart.  The setting was much the same at each, but photography at one was hampered by the fact that in almost every scene someone from our group stood in the way, trying to capture an image of the same thing.

The last few days in Sudan flew by.  Before we knew it we were shaking the fine sand out of our smelly shoes and getting ready to head back home.  Most people in our group had god-awful connections that had us waiting for hours in remote places to change planes in the middle of the night.  I will never forget the vivid sights we saw in those last days in Sudan because they were unique and exotic in today's modern world.  

If you would like to see my five minute slide show (with music), click on this link.  TIMELESS SUDAN

Thursday, December 10, 2015


It's About The People

Within days of arriving in Sudan we knew we were among some of the world's most gracious people.  It started with the immigration officer who welcomed us, helped speed up the arduous process of obtaining a visa, and exchanged currency for us discreetly at a black market rate.  The warmth continued when we were enthusiastically greeted by Ibrahim, who represented our tour operator, Italian Tourism Company, and then at our hotel, where everyone made sure we were happy and content.  



While touring the city, I don't remember an instance when someone didn't smile at me first or smile at me after I smiled at him or her.  People riding buses waved at us.  Some gave us a thumbs up sign.  Kids on the street turned to look, waving and shouting something to us that sounded friendly, even though we had no idea what they said.  At the same time, our guide, Laura, cautioned us never to take photos of the police, military or government buildings, or even bridges, which could lead to trouble.  But, to our surprise, a man wearing a police uniform asked if we would take his picture with him standing next to one of us.  We were in a courtyard of a restaurant where we had just finished lunch, so the man may have taken liberties with us in that location where he wouldn't be seen.  Given Laura's warning, he never would have been so friendly to us on the street.  White faces like ours were a novelty and attracted attention. 



On the university campus where we visited, many students, mainly young women, approached us and asked in  English What brings you to Khartoum? They were as eager to take photos of us with their mobile phones as we were of them.  One student, in particular, stood out.  Khalid finished graduate school where he majored in human rights.  While his dream was to work in the United States, he was happy to have a job as a teaching assistant at the law school.  We saw more female students than male, and were surprised to learn that women have a better chance of landing a job than a man.  Our positive reactions were quickly diminished when we learned that the reason was because beauty ranks higher than brains.  


In Khartoum's busy market one man vigorously shook my hand and welcomed me to his country.  "Sudan loves America, and we are very close," he said with conviction.   I thanked him for his kind words, and then as we walked away, I said to Bruce, "That man has no idea what he's talking about.  Obviously he doesn't know the U.S. has sanctions against his country, and our State Department discourages citizens from traveling to Sudan."


The Nubian people in the northern deserts were friendly too, more reserved perhaps, but still smiling and happy to share a little of themselves with us, even though only a few of them spoke English.   The staff at the guesthouse worked hard to please us, but this high level of hospitality was not just about doing their job.   This is who these people are.  


When we returned home, some of our friends asked two simple questions:  Were you scared traveling in Sudan?  How did you get those people to pose for your photos?  Some of our friends have called us crazy, but then they are the same ones who have called us crazy before.

I must repeat what I wrote in previous posts.   We always felt safe in the areas of Sudan where we traveled.  We did not go to South Sudan, Darfur or the Blue Nile States.  Had we included those uncertain areas on our itinerary, then the moniker of crazy would definitely be justified.


As some of you know, taking portraits of people appeals to me  more than shooting landscapes, although in the northern desert there was ample opportunity to do both.   I always tried to ask permission as gracefully as possible, using sign and body language, if I didn't think they understood me.  I often showed people the pictures I had taken the day before.  Some times when I received a positive nod, the person felt the need to pose, and when they did, they often took on a serious face.  Others didn't have the time or the interest to pose, and that's when I either took a lousy photo or I was just plain lucky.  Other photographers in our group pointed out how best to capture the light and stressed the importance of the subject's background.  As I have learned from experienced photographers on past trips, every photo we take should be considered a practice. 


Our guide Laura had a bag of tricks up her sleeve and knew the way to take us to places that were off limits to visitors, like excavated tombs.  She also got us invited to local people's homes for lunch or chai tea, and although some of her magic came from sweet talk and cigarettes, most of it came from the strong and caring relationships she built with the Sudanese people over time.  Clearly Laura was adored, but as she wrote me after reading my blog post Chapter One,  She was never a queen in her past life.  A princess maybe, or a nomad.



"When we travel in the desert today," Laura would say, "we cannot be certain to find where the nomads are, but if we are lucky, I want you to do what I say. Stay in your cars until I say it's okay, and then come out one or two at a time and do not start taking pictures right away.  Give the people time to check you out."  We nodded in agreement, taking her warning to heart because we knew that our brief time with the nomads would be precious encounters that we would long remember, and the last thing we wanted to do was scare them away.   

After a couple of hours of traveling off road in sand and stopping only long enough to find a small dune or a bush behind which to pee, we came upon our first glimpse of a nomadic family out there in the middle of nowhere.   All four of our vehicles stopped a few hundred feet from the two or three huts built of sticks.  Laura got out first and approached a man who walked towards her to see who we were and what we wanted.   This was the time for Laura to use her sweet talk and magic.  We saw the man light up the cigarette that Laura offered and soon they began to talk.  None of us could hear the conversation, nor would we have been able to understand Arabic, but this is what we thought she was saying.   

HelloI am traveling here in your beautiful desert with some people who live a long ways away.  They would like to meet you and shake your hand.  They have gifts for you and your family.  And, by the way, they have cameras and would like to take your picture.  


A minutes later Laura signaled for a few of us to come and the rest of us to follow slowly.   Behind the man but staying close to their huts, the women and a few children watched what was going on with curiosity, but soon they walked forward to see us too.   We spoke to them sotta voce, using the few Arabic greetings we knew.  "Salamalikium," we said.   Laura spoke a few more Arabic words to the man and they both laughed, and then he said something to the women.  And they laughed too.  We were all smiling and laughing.  This was good. 


What happened next was heartwarming.  An older women took the hand of a younger woman in our group and lead her over to her stick hut to show her where she lived.  We all followed like little sheep.  



That's when Laura gave us the word that taking photographs would be o.k.  They seemed to enjoy having us visit.  No one minded the camera, and a few even posed. When they saw themselves on the camera screen, it wasn't clear whether they had ever seen their faces before.  One woman pointed to the little girl and said something which we took to mean, That's you, because the little girl smiled. That's when I realized that small hand mirrors would have made great gifts.  I also wished I had a Polaroid camera.  People in our group pulled out the gifts they'd brought from home: tee shirts,  blouses, and scarves, which we hoped the women would like, but we felt bad when we realized we didn't bring a gift for the man, who honestly didn't seem to mind.   I also had a handful of perfume samples that a Nordstrom's saleswoman gave to me before I left.  These perfumes had a short life as they were just smears on a card hidden under a tab, which, when pulled, would expose the sweet smelling perfume.  In an effort to explain to the women what this was and how to access the perfume smear, I held the card in my left hand, and pretended to tug on the tab with my right, as I said the words, Pull the tab, pull the tab.   I also demonstrated with my hands.  Pull the tab, touch the card,  dab the sweet-smelling perfume behind your ears.  The only sounds they could hear were my words pull the tab.  Of course they had no idea what I was trying to say or explain, but they had fun laughing and mimicking my words saying  pooldatub, pooldatub.  Fortunately, I had previously explained to our driver how the perfume card worked and the need to pull the tab, so I asked him to explain what the women had to do to access the perfume.   He said some words in Arabic and then he showed them, as I did, to pull the tab.  They giggled, saying pooldatub and then laughed harder.  This, of course, had me laughing too, but I was so grateful that they finally got what I meant when I said pooldatub.   

PULLDATUB   (She's holding the white perfume card in her hand)

Saturday, December 5, 2015


Why Africa?  Why Sudan?  When someone asks me these questions, I often respond with the same answer.  I want to rub shoulders with people who live in a land and a culture that is 360 degrees different from the land and the culture I live in.  I want some adventure.  I want to learn about life.  And when you travel in Africa, that is what happens.   This was definitely the case in Sudan -- one of the most ethnically, geographically and culturally diverse countries in Africa and yet, so misunderstood.


If you Google the State Department's web posting for "Travel in Sudan" a warning pops up on your screen advising you against visiting there.  It reads:  "It's difficult and expensive to get a visa, and it's extremely dangerous and highly discouraged."   The website continues to explain the decades of civil war, and how in 2011 the country was divided into two countries,  Sudan and South Sudan.  However, the description ends with this statement:  "If you do manage to get in and you stick to the safe areas, you will probably have a memorable experience.  The Sudanese people are very hospitable, and you can visit some awesome places without ever seeing another tourist."  Yes, the State Department actually used the word awesome.  While we knew all the negatives in advance, we felt safe because we would be traveling in North Sudan and not in regions like Darfur and the Blue Nile States.  We were also going with a reputable tour operator, who came highly recommended.  Knowing that we would be sharing the experience with nine other adventurous friends, we decided to go, applied for and received the visa, and in November, 2015, we embarked on another one of those trips of a lifetime, of which there have been many, especially in Africa.


The first three days we explored the busy capital of Khartoum, where we watched a Sufi Dervish ritual, and then drove a long distance north in four 4-wheel drive vehicles into the Nubian and Bayuda Deserts.  This remote area is sparsely populated with small villages,  nomadic encampments sprinkled throughout, and stunning archeology sites of the ancient Nubian and Meroe civilizations.   In the north along the Nile, the economy is driven by agriculture, not tourism, but traveling with an Italian tour company that has established itself as the main operator for Sudan, we were very comfortable in accommodations they built, especially for their clients, near archeology sites that go back thousands of years.  And for frosting on our cake, we had beautiful Laura, a very experienced guide, who many of our fellow travelers knew because she guided them before in West Africa.   In fact, Laura suggested Sudan to our friends as an opportunity to experience another unique African country with tribal influences that blended with antiquities from ancient civilizations. 

Khartoum is like many African cities.  Big, dirty, crowded, smoggy, and with traffic gridlock equal to what we had seen in Cairo.  Horse and donkey-pulled carts heavily loaded with merchandise from China, noisy tuk-tuks, small beat-up sedans, and big trucks compete for the privilege of traveling from one side of the city to the other.  People plan their day by how long it takes to get to their destination, a symptom of overcrowding, which is quite common even here in Silicon Valley.  The difference, of course, is that I'm not sharing roads filled with potholes,  slow-moving donkeys or smelly tuk-tuks spewing exhaust.  I'm on a fast-moving freeway and changing lanes with Teslas and Mercedes.  



Once we left Khartoum and drove north on a smooth paved road, we felt like we were in another world -- a world of camels, donkeys, spiky acacia trees, basalt rock formations, and sand.  Lots of sand.   Fine sand that you can sift through your fingers.  Course sand that takes the polish off salon-style painted toenails.  And blowing sand that makes everything you eat taste gritty.  But it's the color of sand -- the reds, the yellows, the oranges and various shades of brown -- that really affects your senses.  And then add tufts of light green tumbleweed and dark green acacia, and you have dramatic scenery that is candy to the eye.  On long drives, I would set my camera on sports mode and, through the window of our moving SUV, take image after image of stunning desert landscapes.   Of course, many of these photos ended up in my computer's trash basket, but here are some I thought worth saving.





We spent four nights in attractive accommodations, called a guest house, that the Italian tour company built, and while the rooms were not fancy, they were efficiently designed, spacious and very comfortable.   We appreciated the luxury of air conditioning in this harsh environment.  While nights in the desert were pretty chilly, a bright blue cloudless sky with a blazing sun caused daytime temperatures to quickly soar into the high 90s.  By ten o'clock we were sweating.  And with the scarcity of trees, the shade, for the most part, came from the brims of our hats and the sun glasses protecting our eyes.  The hot air was dry, so it felt like a true 90, and not a humid false temperature of 110. Despite the heat, we wore long pants and either long sleeves or at least sleeves of a length that covered our shoulders.  As foreign visitors to a conservative land, we wanted to respect their customs regarding dress. 


From the guesthouse (near the town of Karima) we were just steps away from Jebel Barkal, the huge red sandstone mountain, considered very holy since ancient times.  An impressive archeology site sits just below it.  We watched the dig conducted by an Italian archeology professor from the University of Venice.  He and his expert team of researchers, with the assistance of local workers, delicately scraped away sand and rock to expose more of what was the royal necropolis of the ancient city of Napata, the Nubian capital from 800 to 400 B.C.  While the professor generously shared information about this dig, funded partly by Qatar, we watched the local laborers haul bucket after bucket of fine red sand, a back-breaking chore which seemed endless and also low paying ($5/day).  


In a previous life, our guide Laura must have lived like a desert queen, studying hieroglyphics and traveling with pharaohs and kings up and down the Nile.  At least this is what we thought after spending ten days under her tutelage.  She was a wealth of knowledge, in fact, a walking encyclopedia, especially about the 25th Dynasty (760-656 BC) of Ancient Egypt (now northern Sudan).    Only someone who had lived during these ancient times would  know and reveal such stories in vivid detail.  She talked with passion about the Nubians, one of Africa's earliest civilizations going back 3000 years BC.  She directed her fluorescent light on the dark walls, so we could see the beautifully restored images deep inside two unlighted tombs, as she related legends about each of the ancient paintings.   Every day we visited another site, and we marveled, not only about the facts, but about how one person could know all that information and only occasionally refer to her written notes.  




"At sunset we will climb Jebel Barkal," Laura announced boldly one afternoon.  "And after we reach the top and admire the view, we will descend by running down the large sand dune, the one you can see on the south wall."   With raised eyebrows, we looked at each other to see who would be the first to ask, are you serious?  But no one did.  We figured if Laura could do it, then we could do it too. That was before we learned that Laura had been climbing the holy rock for years.   





As we started to climb, Bruce and I took up the rear.  This gave us the opportunity to take photos of others up ahead, and a good excuse to move slowly.  We also didn't want to hold anyone back.  Climbing seemed easy at first since we were on a switchback path, but as we moved higher, the path disappeared, and all of a sudden we were slipping in loose sand and grabbing on to any rock we could find that would hold us, as the rocks were now further apart and sand filled the space in the middle.  Fortunately, Laura, who was close by,  gave us a couple of one-hand tugs, and when we finally made it to the top and walked over to the edge, we were speechless.  Wow, what a view! 


Standing on the rocky edge and looking straight down scared us, since Bruce and I are a little timid about heights.  "Time to move," Laura announced, noting the setting sun, and reminding us we still had to make the steep sand dune descent.  She urged us to protect our cameras when coming down.   Already stored in a plastic bag, I tucked my camera snugly in my waist pack, removed my red gym shoes, tied them together by their lacings, and slung them around my neck.  I walked to the edge of the sand dune and looked all the way down.  I saw Laura already at the bottom motioning for me to come.  It looked scary.  One step and my feet quickly sunk in the soft, deep sand, but I was able to walk.   It looked so steep I was sure I might topple over.  With her hands on her hips, Laura stood at the bottom of the dune and yelled, "Run, run, run."  "I'm afraid I will fall," I yelled back at her.  "Just run, you won't fall, it's fun," she continued to holler.  Just before starting to run, I turned around and looked up at my traveling buddy Phil.  He aimed his long camera lens at me and that's when he took this picture.


The adventure continues............

Thursday, November 19, 2015


I felt teary when we left our hotel in Khartoum and drove to the airport to begin our long journey home.  Two weeks ago I had no idea what to expect from our trip to Sudan, and here I was leaving the country and feeling sad.  I have felt this way on past trips before, and interestingly enough, most of them have been after visiting countries in Africa.  There is something about this continent that resonates with me.  Perhaps, it's because of the struggle I see in people's lives, and yet, along with the struggle, I see a sense of contentment, as well as honor in their knowing we want to learn the truth about their country, who they are as a people, and not what we read about their government in the paper.  For me it was not only an honor, but a privilege to meet  people who let us in on just a tiny slice of their struggle, as well as their contentment.  It is this aspect of travel that moves me.  My step-daughter, Amy, who works with African immigrants, asked me if I discussed the issue of human rights in Sudan with the people I met, but I told her that this trip was for us to learn about the ancient history and the culture, not the politics, and this is what we did.

Our Arrival in Sudan

Our entry into the capital city of Khartoum was hassle free.  A young man from immigration met us as we stepped off the plane and kindly shepherded us through the complicated visa process.  This has never happened before.  "You are Americans?" he asked, even though we were coming off a plane from Cairo, Egypt.  "I will help you," he said, and while we were a little skeptical about his immediate attention, we saw on his badge that he was from Sudanese immigration and most likely legitimate.  Even with his facilitation, it took more than hour to complete the visa process.  In the meantime, the young man helped Bruce exchange American dollars into Sudanese pounds through the black market at a substantially better rate than we could get at a bank, since no ATMs exist, nor are credit cards accepted.  This all took place in the airport men's room, which seemed only slightly seedier than exchanging money with a man wearing an oversized coat on the street in Argentina when we were there last year.

There is a lot of background information that I could provide about how we arranged this trip, and how we were able to get such an exceptional guide named Laura.  But there is so much more to tell, so I will save this for another time.  Right now I'm exploding with emotion and enthusiasm that I don't want to lose.

For some of you who know me and are also interested in adventure travel, you understand my motives and what drives my fascination with tribal cultures.  What I didn't fully appreciate about Sudan was  how much tribal exposure we would have.  I thought the trip would be mostly to learn about ancient Nubian and Merowe civilizations and to visit archeology sites; and yes, while we did learn about this fascinating history, I did not know how much time we would spend in rural villages and nomadic encampments in the isolated northern desert learning about current culture and life in this harsh land.

The Sufi Dervish Experience

I wrote on Facebook that in Khartoum we would be entertained by the Whirling Dervishes, similar to what we experienced at a caravansary in Turkey, except this time we could take photographs, although we were warned to do so discreetly.  What a misperception.  This is what happened.  Eleven of us, all friends traveling together as we often do, were taken by a small bus out of the hectic city and dropped off in an area that looked like several football fields with different size stones scattered randomly about.  In the center of the field was a smallish mosque and there were quite a few people just standing around.  Once we focused on the field, we realized that we were standing on the edge of a large cemetery, where the stones represented the deceased in above-ground dirt graves.   There were no elaborate headstones like at home, and certainly no flowers to memorialize the dead, but there was no doubt in our minds that we were standing in a very holy place.  With my camera hidden deep inside my waist pack, I, along with Bruce and the others, followed a path leading us to a small circle where we found a place to stand close in.  Except for the women in our group, the crowd consisted of men wearing their white jillabia, a long dress, which Muslim men often wear, especially on Fridays, which in Islam is the holy day.  Also, many wore white turbans and others wrapped their heads in colorful scarves twisted in a very exotic way.  The Sudanese women sat together near and up on the ledge of the mosque's wall, separated from the men, but respectfully watching the festivities from afar.  Other women, mostly younger mothers, were on the periphery attempting to manage their children in the same way that a Christian mother might do during a service at church.  

The Sufi Ritual

I found a good spot on the inner edge of the circle to watch two men chanting, skipping and dancing as they banged on tambourine-like drums,  as if playing a game with the audience.  They too wore white jillabias and turbans, not black dresses with white underskirts like the Whirling Dervish who perform for tourists in Turkey.   These people and the growing crowd around them, ostensibly all Sufi's, were the real deal, engaging in a kind of mystical religious experience.  Until they saw us, they weren't expecting any tourists, since this wasn't a show per se,  and we were the only non-locals in the crowd, as far as I could tell.  These men didn't spin around as if in a trance and attempt to connect with a higher power, at least not in the beginning.  Instead they smiled as they sang and made eye contact with anyone who would meet their glance, surprisingly, even me.  It was easy to get caught up in the rhythm of the music, the energy of the dance, and the power of being in a holy place among people who smiled at me and laughed with me.  I put my right hand over my heart and repeated after them, "Salaam," as I bowed my head in reverence to their devotion.  This definitely was the right thing to do because I found myself standing in a key spot right on the inside of the circle.  It never occurred to me to feel self conscious.  Instead, I was enthralled.

At the same time, my camera, hidden deep within my waist pack, screamed let me out, especially since the Sudanese I saw in the crowd were also taking photos with their smart phones. I took a leap of faith, pulled out my camera and began taking pictures.  No one seemed to mind, even the musician/chanters in the circle.  Other locals in the crowd entered the circle and pranced around, raising their arms to the sky and chanting something in Arabic that I didn't understand, although I knew the performance was about praising Allah.  A disfigured and disabled young man was wheeled to the edge of the circle by his family, and the dancers showed signs of love and affection for the boy as his twisted arms and fingers pointed at them, and he too tried to raise his crippled limbs up to the sky.  When an elderly man shuffled into the circle supporting himself with a bamboo cane, several people reached out to help him, and using some sort of inner strength, he managed to move his feet, in sync with the music.

As the dancing continued, the performers signaled for the group to make the circle bigger, and suddenly I felt swallowed up by a surging crowd.  I wasn't afraid. I was fascinated.   I caught sight of Bruce using his video camera, and saw others in our group with their eyes big and wide, like mine, glued to what was happening in the circle.  

Knowing that everyone was all right, I felt more freedom to explore what was going on outside the circle because the deeper the circle, the more difficult it was to see, as people cut in front for a good view.  Suddenly the circle broke apart, and almost on cue, a parade of what I would describe as holy men carrying large decorative flags with a large crowd behind them marched in.  The chanting increased three-fold in volume, as several more singers stood at  microphones placed at the edge of the former circle.  I was envious of Bruce's ability to take video because I knew that this was the best way to document the scene. (As he did so well in the YouTube link below.) 

The Women

Given that Bruce was strategically placed, I left the crowd and moved closer to the mosque where the women were sitting on the ledge of the wall.  They were beautifully dressed in flowing, colorful fabrics of orange, pink and blue, and again I was sticking out like a sore thumb in my khaki pants with a camera hanging from my neck.  As I moved closer, they looked me up and down, but then motioned me to join them. That's when I asked a woman if I could take her photo.  Smiling, all the time and saying Salaam to make myself approachable seemed to be working.  The woman's face lit up by my request, and others seemed more curious about me than what was going on in the circle.  Taking photographs of faces, especially faces different  from mine, is what I enjoy best.  Unlike Morocco, where we had just traveled from, the Sudanese seemed pleased when I asked if I could take their photo.  They were proud of their beauty when they saw themselves on my camera's LCD screen.  In the background I could hear Sufi music playing, but I was in my own world on the periphery taking pictures of the women. 

When I heard someone call my name and saw Laura, our guide, motioning for me to come, I said good-bye to the women around me.  They waved their hands, and one woman even hugged me, an unusual gesture for this culture.  Expressing myself in the only few Arabic words I know, and with my right hand over my heart, a custom in Sudan, I said Shukraan (thank you) and Ma'a Assalaamah  (goodbye).  I wished I knew the Arabic words to say how grateful I was to be accepted so openly by them and with such trust.

Please click on this YouTube link entitled Friday Sufi Dervish Ritual, Khartoum, Sudan to see Bruce's two minute video of our experience.   You will love it!