Walking through as-Sawagi, you might come across big clumps of mud and rock which look as if they are just part of the land. On closer inspection, you realise that they are actually termite houses. My Kassalan friends were non-plussed, but having never seen one before, I was quite impressed! They are incredibly solid, and it is hard to believe that a tiny insect could build such a huge palace. For a sense of scale, I asked one of my students, Jezira, to pose beside the termite skyscraper...he was most bemused by the idea!
A weird sight in Kassala is the symmetrical palm tree. Tall and thin trunks, completely bare, reach great heights before splitting into two, then splitting again, topped off with green leaves. If you look out of the bus as you pass the large cemetery on the way to Khatmiya, you'll see a number of these trees, some looking like candle holders...I snapped this shot when there was a full moon one night, walking through the Khatmiya Sawagi, and decided to be a bit arty and attempt a night shot. I should have known that it would never come out as intended, but this picture will give you a general idea of the tree...
OK, before I start, I will say that Areba is not a tourist destination by any standards. It isn't even nice to look at. Areba is the tax-collection point for goods bypassing Kassala on their way to or from the Red Sea. So it is a big lorry park, with truckers' caffs and a ramshackle collection of stalls selling all sorts of things you don't want. So why did I go there? Well, one of my students was a tax-collector, so I was invited to spend a day watching him at work. We started the day bumping over the desert on a motorbike to avoid having to explain to security why I was going to Areba, which was followed by breakfast of fried meat and fuul, tea, chicha, coffee, more tea, more coffee, a bit of sleeping, then a bumpy ride back again for lunch in town. Gosh, what hard work! The place is dusty and bleak, but sometimes there are enormous herds of camels to watch, and the people working there are glad to see a khawaja to distract them from the boring daily routine.
If you want to hitch a lift, this is the place to come, and there are shared taxis from Souq ar-Rashaida.
Mowgif Tessenei and Souq A'amiriya
Nothing to get excited about really, but this was a new discovery for me. I moved to the district of A'amiriya in August, and was quite surprised to find a local souq selling fruit and vegetables. If you want to see what a local souq is like (far more basic that the main Kassala souqs), then you could do worse than take a trip out here. It is on the way to Khatmiya, and you can actually take a pleasant walk from the market through the gardens and farmland to Khatmiya.
The wide empty space next to the market is what is known as Mowgif Tessenei, the bus station for the Eritrean town of that name...if the border finally re-opens, then this will be a hive of activity too.
Take a Khatmiya bus and get out at the cemetary, taking the street alongside it...or ask for the rare buses that head to A'amiriya...the bus conductor will be astonished to find a khawaja among his passengers, but it will take you right to the market.
Zoureeba is the chaotic animal market on the road to Khatmiya opposite the large cemetary. But it isn't just goats, cows and camels...it is also a place to buy thatch roofs for your hut, thatch walls in case your mud ones have fallen down, and other thatch products. There are plenty of tea huts too, where flirtatious women in colourful tobes serve spiced tea or gingery coffee in a big clay jebbana, complete with popcorn and the latest Kassala gossip. If you're feeling peckish, there are other huts serving various types of gloopy sauces with kisra, or you could head to the animal section and buy yourself something to eat "off the hoof".
Behind Zoureeba is a UNESCO school for Eritrean and Ethiopian children...they are taught in English every afternoon, and the teachers welcome any khawajas who find their way there.
To get to Zoureebam take a Khatmiya or a Sha'abiya bus, and get out at the big cemetary.
This isn't really off the beaten path, but most tourists don't find it. Souq ar-Rashaida is a tiny market for the Rashaida tribe. Now, as I said in my tips about tribes, the Rashaida mostly live in villages outside Kassala, but every morning their market is thronging with life...Arab-looking men in coloured jellabiyyas dragging goats by their ears, women in brightly-patterned red and black dresses bargaining over the latest Rashaida fashions. The Rashaida are well known for smuggling (shhh!), and as a result, they tend to own very plush vehicles and are always immaculately dressed. They are not too bothered by the sight of a khawaja, although of course they are likely to object if you take photos without asking. The best way to interact with this tribe is to sit at one of the many roadside coffee-stalls around the souq, and let them come to you. The Rashaida women are unusual in that they have no qualms about drinking coffee in the street, unlike other Sudanese women.
Souq ar-Rashaida is opposite the Town Hall and all the bus companies' offices, not far from the main souq.
Wad Sherifei and the Eritrean border
Going off the beaten path in Kassala means casuing havoc for yourself. Security Police don't really like tourists in Kassala full stop, so if you try to wander around outside the central area, they are likely to get annoyed. To visit places outside Kassala, you will need extra permission, something not usually granted to those not working for an aid agency. So anywhere past Totil mountain is off limits...Wad Sherifei, Jebel Musa, Laffa...try to go anywhere like that and you are asking for trouble.
You can see the mountains of Eritrea in the distance, but this has been the scene of a mini-war in recent years...even if the border regions do open for tourism (unlikely), there are likely to be too many landmines to be able to enjoy the mountains.
Kassala is fairly off the beaten path anyway...so if getting away from tourists is what you're after, Kassala is surely good enough.
On the way back from Halfa al-Jadeeda, we made a slight detour to a local beauty spot known as Khashm al-Girba. The Atbara River was dammed, creating a new lake, and Khashm al-Girba is a popular picnic spot on the shores of that lake. It is quite surreal to see tall trees sticking up in the middle of the lake, and the place is very quiet (although I imagine the scene on a Friday is somewhat less peaceful), but there isn't really anything there to rush out of your way to see. In fact, I think the only reason we stopped was to allow the vice-chancellor's secretary to be carsick in peace!
When Lake Nasser was built, the Nubian villages around Wadi Halfa in northern Sudan were flooded. Some set up home in Wadi Halfa, while others were resettled in Kassala Province in a town now known as Halfa Al-Jadeeda (New Halfa). The town is also home to Kassala University's Faculty of Agriculture, hence my trip. The vice chancellor of the university turned up at one of our lectures one day and announced that it was cancelled because he was driving us to Halfa to see the Agriculture campus...so off we went in his air-con Landcruiser, and while he was involved in meetings, we were treated to a tour of the agricultural projects in process by the students. We saw an experiment on chicken-feed (one lot fed on scraps of meat, the others on seeds...which laid the better eggs?), another on raising chickens under different conditions, and also learnt how cheese is made. While the guided tour round broken down tractors and ploughs is maybe not everyone's cup of shai, we did enjoy the trip in the afternoon to the sugar plantations where we ate sugar directly from the sugarcanes. We saw absolutely nothing of the town, and from all accounts there isn't much to see there. Buses leave to Halfa all day long, and the trip takes about an hour and a half...be warned that if you don't have a special permit, you won't be allowed back into Kassala again, unless you happen to have a VIP in your car!
Visit a local school
Our fourth year English students have to do a semester training as teachers in a local school, so we have visited many at work. Paying a visit to a school is often quite a traumatic experience, as we are usually expected to talk to classes of over 200 students with no notice whatsoever! If you go, you will be centre of attention, showered with biscuits and drinks, and as soon as the camera comes out, everyone goes crazy! However, it is good practice for our students, and having a khawaja or two in school supposedly provides motivation for the children to learn English...if you get the chance, don't miss it!
Kassala does not get many tourists, and we are the only two foreigners in town, so there is not much chance for language students to practice their English. I work in the Faculty of Education at the university, and have about 500 students who study English...they all badly need to practice, so if anyone happens to pass through Kassala, please pay us a visit! We have an English Club once a week, and guest speakers are most welcome, or if you'd prefer, come for a chat and a drink in the university cafeteria. Most students are shy at first, but somewhere like the cafeteria, they can be coaxed to try out their English eventually! For the Education Faculty, take a Shamal Al-Halanga bus and ask for "Al-Kuliya". Alternatively, head to the Faculty of Medicine over the gash (take a Banat bus), and meet the medicine students who are taught in English.
Searching for monkeys
During a trip to As-Sawagi Al-Janubiyya, our hosts led us across the Gash (empty at the time!) to the other side of the mountains. If you have the energy, you can climb up some of the rocks (you need ropes and equipment for the mountains themselves, but the smaller rocks are easily climbable). Sometimes there ae monkeys, sometimes there are just monkey droppings...either way, you will have great views over the Gash, Ash-Sherifei refugee camp and the mountains in Eritrea