You read that right, arrested and detained in the newest country in the world, South Sudan.
I should have known when the South Sudan Embassy in Ethiopia asked for a written letter in order to take a picture. I should have known when a group of police officers told me I needed special permission from a random office in order to take a picture. I should have known not to run from the police in Africa because they run faster… than motorcycles. I should have remembered to purchase reinforced tank tops in case someone is trying to drag me from a moving motorcycle.
I should have known…..
I think when you’re going to do something, you have to go all out. What would be the point of just getting arrested if I wasn’t detained? And getting detained wouldn’t be any fun if I wasn’t arrested, right? Safe to say it was a terrifying experience that I can go back and laugh at, just like my experience getting kidnapped and shot at in Venezuela.
It started on an overcast day and I decided not to day trade since I left my charger in Ethiopia. I walked through the gate of the new 12 ft high security wall that was being built to protect the property compound. Apparently they didn’t get the message that the war was over. As I eagerly walked towards one of my favorite taxis in the entire world the most bizarre thing happened, out of the overgrown grasslands across from the hotel a group of men appeared.
It wasn’t just regular men; it was men that seemed 8 ft tall (240 cm) with intricate scar designs on their faces, tribal tattoos, wearing typical African attire, with bright colored hair. They were walking out of the heavily packed grasslands across from the hotel.
In other words, they walked out of nowhere. Picture yourself living in your Disney World suburban home, next to a forest, and a group of men in business suits walk out of the forest. It was strange yet interesting at the same time:
It seemed like the African version of entourage
I didn’t know who the star or the assistant was, I didn’t want to stare, but I wanted to ask for a photograph at the same time. I found out later they were from the nearby village and they were coming into town for some supplies.
After gawking like the tourist that I am, I walked to the corner to find my favorite modes of public transportation, the back of a motorcycle. This was Africa in its rawest form, the capital city of Juba is one of the most underdeveloped areas in the world and I was ready to go to the extreme to explore it. By extreme I mean being personally walked into an office where men are being whipped into the floor.
No pain, no gain, right?
The young gentlemen that won the auction for my services started by taking me around downtown. He felt very lucky then, he didn’t feel so lucky when he had to stay at the police station after I was released. I was taken to all the important parts of the city; the best hotel, the market, the police station, the cell phone station, and even a wedding. That is not an exaggeration, the cell phone store and best hotel are quite the attraction in South Sudan.
I was lucky to stay at the hotel which happened to be the only licensed tour operator in the country. He couldn’t operate tours of course because of a misunderstanding with the government, welcome to Africa!
A few hours passed, I took tons of pictures, I saw the massive waste of money that is called the American compound, and we fixed a flat tire (in that order). I finally arrived at a very special location, the actual place where South Sudan proclaimed its independence. I took a few pictures from the motorcycle and asked my tour guide to stop.
He said he needed to park in the corner because of the military police
Being the kind law abiding tourist that I am, I decided to approach the military police, “what’s up guys” (insert cheezy smile here). I didn’t wave, we only wave in Europe or America, we don’t wave in Africa. I asked if I could take a picture of the monument and one of the officers replied in a completely straight face “we saw you taking pictures from the motorcycle”. (insert cheezy smile) “Great then is it okay if I take a picture of the statue?” I asked.
I was told that I need to go to the minister of internal affairs that specializes in journalism that handles permits for the bla bla bla bla bla. I honestly stopped listening and asked again if it was okay to take a picture. He said no and asked to see my camera, I thought to myself I hope he doesn’t see the dirty pictures. My room was pretty messy, what did you think I was talking about?
I was permitted to delete all of the pictures of the statue in which I decided to do quickly as they watched, I then proceeded to head out of that danger zone and take a picture while driving away. When there is a will there is a way, I am pretty flexible anyway. I got my pictures, snapped my fingers, did the Latin women head bob, and I was on my way.
I arrived at the bus station and wanted to take pictures in order to share it on this travel site. I did mention that I was the first travel blogger to visit South Sudan didn’t I? Just as we were leaving I leaned off the edge of the motorcycle to get a good shot of the bus station and out of nowhere a man starts yelling at the top of his lungs.
He finally approaches my cutting edge modes of transportation and asks what I am doing. I said I was on my out of the bus station and he asked where my permit was. He barraged me with a series of questions including:
- Am I journalist?
- Where is my permit?
- Why am I taking pictures of a bus station?
- Do I have my identification?
- Where is my permit?
I said of course I am a journalist, he screams in my face showing me his fancy official ID card so I handed him my fancy business card, I thought that will surely impress him, it is from America. Africa is one of the few places where Americans are still looked up to. The cowboy hat that the current South Sudanese president refuses to take off was give to him as a gift by president Bush.
He clearly wasn’t impressed and asked to see my permit, I said that is my permit. He gets distracted and I do what any sane white person within a 20 mile radius would do, I tell the motorcycle driver to get the hell out of there!
He starts to drive and we turn on the main drag out of the bus station, I should have known that it would have been a dirt road filled with pot holes. We get up to a good speed and all of the sudden I hear the same yelling voice I heard at the bus station. Stop! Stop white boy stop! I made up the white boy part but that’s what it sounded like.
He catches us, grabs my shoulder, and rips my tank top. We pick up speed but it is no match for the 7 foot Sudanese official dressed in a suit. I was told in Kenya that If I was ever getting robbed not to run, they are faster than you, and motorcycles apparently.
I thought I had better odds on a motorcycle.
We pick up speed and the official catches us again. This time I decide to take my chances and walk back to the office with the official. I should have known I would have to make the walk of shame back to bus station police office. We walk back and he takes a look at my pictures and he treats me like 3 year old that doesn’t share his toys with other kids. He does the tisk tisk sound with his lips and we arrive at the office/police station. It was a very impressive office to be honest, it looked like a high school bathroom.
We entered and I was reassured that I would be okay when I saw a man getting beat with a whip on the floor. This was my “holy shet moment”, definitely shouldn’t have ran from the cops. As soon as I walk in I immediately turn around to see the man getting whipped and he is gone. The only thing I see left are the whips on the floor, definitely reassured now.
Every man in unofficial t-shirts and suits are paying attention to me, my camera, and my ripped t-shirt
They all look at the pictures on my camera and give a disapproving face. Apparently I killed someone with the looks on their faces, they explain that I need a special permit in order to take picture. I wanted to let them know that we aren’t in a Muslim country anymore, it is a predominately Christian country now after independance! Northern Sudan, and many other Muslim countries, are very strict about pictures.
You should never take pictures of women, even if they are flirting with you, and in Northern Sudan everyone needs special permission to take pictures inside of the country and especially inside the Khartoum city limits. I play the fool and explain how I am a travel writer and have a travel site.
I was on the edge of my seat considering all of my options and they tell me that everything is going to be okay. I almost forgot the young gentlemen that was getting whipped on the floor, of course everything was going to be okay. Have a look at the report on prisons in South Sudan, I could have ended up here:
I finally decide to show my US Passport and the entire mood of the room changes. They go from belittling me to saying it’s okay, everything will be okay. I have citizenship in a few different countries, I don’t think I have ever been that happy to have my American passport on me.
The fastest man in South Sudan that decided to chase me makes sure the entire room understands that I wasn’t hurt.
I explain that my shoulder hurts a little, I think you sprained it I said. He explains again in English that he didn’t hit me directly, we played charades since I wanted to make him look like a fool in front of his friends. The motorcycle driver smiles, covers his lips, because he notices what I was doing.
I finally agree to the fact that he didn’t beat me and reassures everyone that I am okay. He comes over and ties my ripped tank top so it looks presentable, awww, we are bonding. Apparently they called a big wig from downtown to have a chat with me, try to confiscate my camera, and see what the fuss was about.
They clearly couldn’t tell me themselves to delete the pictures and needed someone in a fancier suit to do that. While waiting for the big wig we have a great time; they tell me about the cowboy hat that was given to the current president of South Sudan by president Bush, they explain a little about their customs and why they have the intricate scars on their faces, we even joke around a bit about how I ran and he caught me. He even jokes around and says “don’t you know never to run from an African man?” I said I didn’t have a big enough motorcycle.
We call each other my first names, he asks what I do for a living, we are friends now
Not. The big wig enters the room and tells me that he has to keep my camera until Monday. It was a Friday afternoon and I quickly respond that I am leaving on Saturday. They tell me to the delete all the pictures, I comply, they verify it, and I am on my way. I asked if the motorcycle driver could take me back home and they said oh no, he is staying with us for a while.
I don’t know what happened to the motorcycle driver but I can only imagine that it was something horrible. When I arrived back at my hotel I was told by the manager that he should have explained the situation with pictures. South Sudan while underdeveloped has money, lots of oil money, and they don’t care if you are white, brown, or purple. In the justice system you are guilty until proven innocent.
What did I learn from this story? Only run from police officers that can’t catch you… while you’re on a motorcycle. The highlight is that I was able to get some day trading in while in South Sudan which makes me the first travel blogger and day trader in the newest country in the world.
I honestly would go back to South Sudan just to see the differences between my visits. It was an unusually interesting country to visit not only because it is the newest country in the world.