Saturday, May 31, 2008

First impressions of Khartoum

The first thing that hits you as you land in Khartoum is the heat. Stepping off the plane in England, you brace against the grey wind of England or disappear down a shabby tunnel into the bowels of the airport. But at the top of the plane steps in Khartoum, a hot, dry mugginess invades you.

Closely followed by the smell. A faint, acrid odour of burning rubbish accompanies the airport bus, jolting you out of your longhaul-induced semi coma on the way to the terminal. You already feel part of the atmosphere.

But venturing out of the hotel the next morning I realise what really defines Khartoum – light, dust and traffic. An intense, white, burning light reflects off everything, searing your eyes, and by its heat forcing retreat into the comfort of buildings to shelter in the cool blasts from the air-conditioning units high up on the walls.

This light and heat is only mitigated by the cover thrown up by the dust, as though fighting the sun for supremacy in this city. The whole town is a dull, desert brown, a straggle of half-finished buildings testament to the population explosion from 50,000 in the 1950s to around 4 million today. Blocks of flats and large mansions stand unfinished and unplastered, revealing their dark, colourless earth-brown bricks. Even plaster and white or garish pink paint rapidly turns light brown.

"The dust finds a way in"

The buildings are not the only ones to suffer. Even slipping from an air-conditioned car to the welcome shade of your house, your skin picks up a fine film of dirt. And inside, despite sealing doors and windows and blocking up the tiniest gaps, the dust finds a way in. After one of the many haboobs during the dry season, every surface is covered. Not for nothing every middle class house in Khartoum has a cleaner.

At their most spectacular, haboobs approach as high, dark walls of sandy cloud. More commonly but equally effectively, a light wind gradually gathers pace – no gusts, simply a growing momentum, dragging the desert up and into the face of anyone who dares to be outside. And then it is gone, leaving the town to the mercy of the intense heat once again.

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