The Fuel Stop
Cover Image for The Fuel Stop

The Fuel Stop

Everyone around me stirred nervously in the cramped plane.

It is usually a relief when the engines shut down to signal the end of a flight, but on this day, after the whine of the engines died, the sudden silence was more ominous than I expected. Only a few people got up and started rummaging for their bags. Everyone else just sat there in the silence.

Normally I am that guy who still looks like a 12-year-old on his first flight as I crane my neck and try to see everything I can out the window. This time, though, I held back a few inches, pulling my face back out of the midday sunlight falling steeply through the window.

It was already getting warmer in the silent plane. Inside it was still the same white and grey interior of the plane that had left Germany. Outside, as far as the eye could see, was the dust and brown air of Sudan.

I could hear talking at the front of the plane. A short, bearded man stepped into the aisle and held two aerosol cans aloft. Looking straight through the people standing in front of him in the aisle, he pressed down the nozzles on both cans and started walking briskly toward the back of the plane.

Everyone edged back into their seats as he approached, hissing lines of insecticide streaming from each hand like miniature contrails. As he passed, we all instinctively pulled our shirts up over our faces. Coughing and sniffling followed his passing all the way to the back of coach.

It was a strange and unwelcome feeling to land in a country most westerners think of as inhospitable and dangerous and then be treated like we had brough dangers with us. Judging by the looks on the tense faces around me, most of the passengers still thought the dangers lay outside our plane.

In many airports I have visited, it is impossible to see the “real” country from the tarmac. A wide verge of terminals, concourses and customs halls keeps you nestled in that bubble of no-man’s land that is the international travel network. In Khartoum, this was not the case. Our plane had nosed up against the only terminal building, and past the guards with AK-47s, only one line of glass doors separated us from a very different world.

Next to us on the searing black pavement stood a pure white plane with only the letters UN on the tail in that characteristic bland, utilitarian font. It was 2008, and the horrors of war that would descend on the people of South Sudan were still years away. I wasn’t sure if I should be comforted or concerned by this symbol of international intervention. Here any reminder of the western world seemed welcome In my experience, United Nations vehicles usually don’t show up to garden parties.

The toxic cloud of bug killer had settled. A few purposeful-looking men worked their way down the aisle to the front of the plane and out into the blinding sun. I looked back out the window at the tarmac.

Past the UN jet was a more unnerving sight. A small jetliner sat on the scorching pavement, but it was going anywhere. The nose gear was completely missing, and whatever career this plane had lived, its last trip brought it down here in Sudan. I wondered if it was a quick repair, or whether the landing gear had been “donated” to keep another plane in the sky.

Past the black tarmac stood one massive red and white radio tower. Looking out beyond it everything blended into a universal brown. A small cluster of taller office buildings huddled on the other side of the terminal. In every other direction, the land, with its few scrubby trees gave rise to a dizzying patchwork of adobe walls and buildings, all of which matched the soil they were made from. Above it all stood the sky … lighter, but still the same brown. Only looking straight up did a customary blue begin to soften the monochrome world I had dropped into.

I looked back at the glass doors of the terminal. Women in burkas could be seen moving behind the darkened glass. A procession of men in loose white robes moved back and forth around our plane, pointing and yelling to one another. No one wore the safety vests, ear protectors and blue cargo pants that ramp workers the world over universally wear.

Our Luftansa cabin crew, all trim blonde and Hollywood-German re-emerged from the galley at the back of the plane. The stewardesses looked tense behind their iron smiles, pressed grey vests and colorful scarves. In the sanitized world of travel, we are not used to seeing emotion from airline attendants. Even the slightest tension can prove contagious.

For a long time, nothing happened. At last, the cabin door closed again. It was now stiflingly hot in the plane. I don’t remember any announcement telling us to keep our seats, but everyone had done so instinctively. Moments later, the engines spooled up, and soon a burst of cold air cascaded down from the tiny vents in the ceiling.

As our plane pushed back from the terminal, you could feel a tension release throughout the cabin. We were not getting off the plane in Sudan today. As foreign as a trip to Ethiopia might have seemed to a Midwestern boy like me before I left the States, somehow Addis Abeba represented safety and comfort compared to sitting here under the eerie brown sky of the Sahara.

As we taxied out to the lone runway, I wondered about the divides between cultures. Normally travel is about unity, crossing boundaries, reaching across borders. Here, for a few minutes, our little group of westerners seemed like a drop of balsamic vinegar in olive oil. It felt as though no amount of mixing would emulsify anything out of these two cultures.

Climbing above the city, I looked down onto the patterns created by the walled yards of Khartoum. There was no geometric rigidity of suburbia. The walls and houses simply became more sparce, and the courtyards larger, until they eventually gave way to the endless desert. As we gained altitude and wheeled above the city, the shadows of the walls became lost in the hazy air. Soon we were swallowed in a featureless brown haze above Northern Africa.

Suspended in space with no horizon and only the faint blue above, there was no sensation of movement. The earth below had faded into nothingness. The whole episode had felt like accidentally getting off the highway in a rough neighborhood, but that got me wondering. Had there even been real danger or was it just fear? How much prejudice from both sides had clouded even the most routine interactions? How much history was here that I did not know? I was the only member of our party who had not made this flight before, and I had been told even this stop in Khartoum was to be taken seriously.

A string of thoughts followed each other through my head … everything from Orwell’s 1984 to Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of civilizations” to the news coverage of America’s military interventions in the Gulf. Did civilizations need enemies? Are people really so different that it was impossible to find enough common ground to stand on? Who is really responsible for the failed states spread across the world? I was troubled by the deep sense of unease I had felt wash over me looking out at that plane sitting nose-down on the tarmac.

I would like to think of myself as being a savvy, culturally-conscious traveler, but I found no clear answers to these questions as we pushed further through the endless brown sky. We had left a few passengers on the ground, but the cultural baggage we carried was still firmly on board.

Hours later, the sun eventually began to sink. As we flew steadily down the Blue Nile, I fell asleep 40,000 feet over a soon-to-be divided land I could no longer see, and could barely imagine.