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An Architect’s Life: Jamaica, The Miller Bill, and Travels to Sudan

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A trip to Jamaica on a mission, albeit one of life’s more frustrating missions. The explanation requires some background, but can be summarized in “The Miller Bill, 2015”. On my last entry to the US I was hauled into the dreaded back room of the Immigration Office at Miami airport and informed that, because I had been to one of the countries listed in the Miller Bill, I was now deemed a potential threat to the US, and my ESTA was cancelled, and that I will not be allowed back into the US until I have a legitimate US Visa. This new legislation was obviously causing some confusion and frustration amongst the immigration staff but they had no alternative but to comply, and three hours later I was released into the Miami community with I assume the designation of “potential terrorist” and notice to leave the US. This lack of access to the US is obviously a challenge, with virtually all access to anywhere in the world from Cayman being through the US, and another minor challenge of OBMI having its head office there.

My sins were a trip to North Sudan back in 2013 to attend a Saudi client’s wedding. It was a truly fascinating trip (but perhaps not worthy of the blacklisting). I was in Sudan for three days, staying at the Corinthia in Khartoum, with all expenses paid for by my client, which was fortunate because they did not accept foreign credit cards (or any credit cards) in Sudan. The hotel overlooked the junction of the White Nile and the Blue Nile, both of which had the murky appearance of a variety of shades of brown Niles. The banks of the Nile was a local gathering spot, with groups of old men discussing the day’s events; teenagers gossiping, kids playing in the shallows; all of the vitality of town life. Whilst walking through the crowds I was very much the stranger and a novelty, standing out from the crowd yet greeted by all with curiosity, a smile and friendly “hello”.

The main wedding celebration was quite an event. The first night was a male-only event, with a famous local singer serenading the crowd and much dancing. As in all of Sudan, the event was alcohol-free, so it took some time before my western inhibitions were let loose to join in the dancing. I was rather keen to avoid the sword that was being dramatically swirled around the groom’s head. The main wedding celebration was attended by a crowd of thousands (it seemed like most of Khartoum). A Cirque de Soliel–esque team had been flown in from Eastern Europe to entertain the crowd and once again, much merriment and dancing to follow largely lead by the men. It was a wonderful spectacle with a blend of colorful pastel traditional Sudanese garb, white Arabian thawbs capped with red and white ghutras and the few staid western suits.

The next day three of us decided to hire a driver to take us up to the Nubian pyramids in northern Sudan. This was quite a trek up a variety of roads, from tarmac highways to sand tracks, interrupted by some negotiation with the local police at a checkpoint who were happy to return our passports to us in exchange for a few US dollars. The journey was well worth it. The Nubian pyramids are the smaller and slightly younger (around 1000BC) in relation to the Egyptian pyramids, but make up for it in number. Unfortunately, over the years the pyramids have suffered the ravages of time and some pillaging, but there is an attempt to restore some of the pyramids. Much of the detailing and the hieroglyphics is very similar to the Egyptian pyramids. What was truly amazing was that we were the only tourists wandering thru these remarkable ancient ruins – truly surreal. A young local kid offered me a ride on his camel through the desert between the groups of pyramids. I had no local currency so gave him US$20 and he looked totally confused, never have seen a USD before but seemed happy.

We then set off to visit our driver’s village, which happened to be near the pyramids (near is a relative term in the desert). We had a couple of minor mishaps en-route, involving some digging the car out of the sand and some strenuous pushing with spinning wheels but eventually arrived at his village to be greeted by the male village elders to share strong coffee with them in a whitewashed mud-brick hut with dirt floor, sitting on metal framed beds draped in colourful rugs. They spoke no English and we spoke no Sudanese so communication was with warm smiles.

I would highly recommend a visit to the northern part of Sudan, other than the challenge of getting blacklisted by the US government. Some wonderful memories of a beautiful country and a very friendly people, destined to stay off the tourist track for a few more years.

Back to Jamaica. Living in Cayman the closest US Embassy was Kingston. I had scheduled an appointment (another long story for a conversation over a cold beer) for 6.45am on a Tuesday morning for a visa interview, so I naively turned up expecting to have a quick personal appointment, only to find that I was one of a vast crowd, joining a queue stretching around the block. I was later to find out that they process about 1,000 visas a day through this embassy. I also had not read the small print – no electronics so, after some discussion, I had to negotiate with some friendly Jamaican lady outside to look after my iPad, two phones, calculator, and various flash drives whilst I joined the queue to access my interview. Once getting to the security at the front of the queue they discovered a small sachet of hand crème (some forgotten airline gift) in my briefcase so I was turned back out onto the street to find a garbage bin and join the queue again. The interview went well and I managed to get the Visa in one day – even more remarkably the lady was still outside with all of my electronics, so all ended well. Now I can even boast Global Entry to my US Immigration status…….so despite my wandering off the beaten track, I have been accepted back into the fold.

by: Tim Peck