There are a few basic things one needs to know when traveling to Sudan and which can make or break a trip. Sudan is not as dangerous a place as people think, provided you follow basic rules and you stay away from the war zones. Mind you, you won’t be allowed to travel there anyway.
1. Permits, permits, permits
Sudan is the country of controls and permits. Everything requires a permit, from driving outside of Khartoum to visiting some of the tourist sites to taking photos. Most of these are obtained from the Government authorities, be it the Ministry of Culture, Humanitarian Affairs, the Tourism Office or the Police. Beware, obtaining them independently is a real hassle, lots of queuing and bouncing from counter to counter and you may be declined. Speaking Arabic is almost a must. Consider using a travel agency or a fixer to help you out with that. You will have to get transportation from someone in any case as public transportation is not available so you might as well tie it all together
2. Taxis are decrepit
Taxis are the only form of transportation in Khartoum and these are, possibly, older than you. Finding holes on the floor where your feet are resting, is not uncommon. They provide a window into the roads and will make you feel like the Flintstones.
3. No alcohol, no music, no party
Yes, this is a full-on Sharia State and anything which resembles abundance, entertainment, or fun is forbidden. As opposed to most other countries in the Middle East where shopping malls offer the only form of passing time Sudan does not have anything like that. There are no activities, no international brands, no ways to keep busy. Relax and do as locals do: go out for a drink or an ice cream and sit outside, taking in the night and the conversation, that is the true way in which our ancestors used to pass time.
4. No ATMs
It’s not your card or your bank, cards are simply useless in Sudan. This is primarily because of the embargo which left all banks completely isolated so bring enough cash for the duration of your stay. Once you have used it all there won’t be any additional supply.
5. Register with the police
If you are coming for 3 days or more make sure to register with the police. Your hotel will be able to help and do it for you. That involves getting an additional stamp and sticker on your passport in blue color, check before you leave, you will get in serious trouble if you don’t have that and may not be allowed to travel. You also need to register with the police every time you arrive at a new town to spend the night. Rest assured the police will find you before you find them, news of foreigners arriving travel fast.
6. No covering
Despite this is a predominantly Muslim country and all women are covered you don’t have to. Foreigners abound in the many NGO and humanitarian agencies and so locals are pretty used to seeing Western women and don’t expect you to cover up. Unlike other countries, men won’t stare at you either. However, dressing conservatively is only a gesture of respect. It is also a good idea given how strong the sun is and the amount of mosquitoes carrying risk of malaria.
Not just the alcohol type. Sudan is mostly desert, expect extreme dryness. I had to buy creams and concoctions alike to use while I was there because my nose became so dry that it was permanently bleeding, don’t underestimate the harshness of the climate. That also means bringing enough water with you at all times. Because it is so dry you are not going to sweat a lot but you will dehydrate nonetheless so don’t be a fool and carry water at all times
8. Don’t drive
The law in Sudan considers that if you are involved in an accident it is your fault because if you had not been there the accident would not have taken place so beware if you plan to drive. If you are involved in an accident you may end up in jail and death penalty is still enforced. Blood money is common. Hire a driver, it is not worth the hassle and the risk plus this way you will be able to take in the surroundings, which are half the beauty in Sudan
9. Register with the embassy
It is wise to register with the embassy in any country where you will spend any relevant amount of time but in Sudan this is extra important. When you register you will be informed of the way forward in case of evacuation (think war, terrorist attacks, etc.) and also of any parties or gatherings, which is even more important. Embassy parties are not accessible to locals because alcohol is being served but they are a good way to meet other expats living in the country which always provides an interesting insight into life on the ground and may be a good way to get help in obtaining the permits (see point 1) in case you insist in traveling independently. If you are traveling with a friend from a different nationality even better, as you will spread your chances of events taking place while you are in Khartoum. Alternatively, if there are no events scheduled during your stay, feel free to frequent the very few restaurants that foreigners will go to so that you can mingle and get the connections anyway. There won’t be too many options and most of them will be long-standing institutions. Ask your hotel or drop by your embassy. I always found the opinions and thought of aid agency personnel extremely enriching when visiting such isolated countries. They don’t replace the experiences in talking with the Sudanese but they will give you an insight into life in the country and into the topics that can;t be discussed with locals.
What I remember most vividly of my time in Sudan is the hospitality of the people. As a foreigner, you will be considered an honor to the locals you will meet. They will help you if you need anything and invite you over to their houses and even to local weddings where you are likely to steal the spotlight. I was invited to a traditional wedding which had over 1,000 guests and felt the center of attention. It was an experience and the only time I heard music being played in my long term work there. Weddings are a huge affair as the couple is expected to invite friends and family and the respective families are expected to invite everyone, from business partners to local authorities and all acquaintances. The couple spends the entire evening greeting everyone while the guests eat and dance. It is a very interesting experience. Other than weddings, locals will invite you for meals or for tea. Take every opportunity to interact and remember that rejecting an invitation is considered very rude.