The Palace Hotel in Port Sudan, established in 1975 as the wall plaque says, unabashedly describes itself as a ``first class'' hotel. Many of those who have had the dubious honor of staying at the Palace might dispute this, but it does have one of the best rubbish dumps in town.
For despite the hotel's sagging beds, malfunctioning air conditioners, and peeling walls, its meals are not all that bad by Sudanese standards. As a result, every afternoon, shortly after the day's leftovers have been put out, a medley of camels, cats, and crows gathers from the dusty sidestreets and gardens nearby to work the dump.
While the camels nudge the refuse, occasionally raising their heads in aristocratic contemplation, the cats crouch at their feet waiting for mice. The crows sit cheekily on the camels' backs anticipating the choice tidbits that will be uncovered by the camels' initial efforts.
For years, this symbiotic trio has characterized the port. The urban camels, in particular, have led the show. Like sacred cows they saunter through traffic, beachcomb for garbage at low tide, or ruminate in the shade of the town park during the heat of the day.
Since my last visit more than three years ago, however, the scene has changed. The camels, cats, and crows are still there, but they have been joined by children, victims of Sudan's famine.
As in other Sudanese towns, thousands of the destitute have converged on Port Sudan. On the outskirts, where the desert begins, they have pitched their wood and palm mat shelters in the hope of finding the means for survival.
To the observer, Port Sudan comes across as a tired and dilapidated town that has seen better times. It possesses little of the prosperity one might expect from a major harbor, a sad reflection of Sudan's own steady economic decline since the mid-1960s. ``Logically, this town should be rich, but it isn't. It's poor,'' said one European resident.
But it is not an unpleasant place to live. Despite the humidity, there is usually a fresh sea breeze, and the coral reefs off the coast are rated among the best marine attractions in the world.
Port Sudan was a British idea. For more than 1,000 years the former Arab slave town of Suakin, some 25 miles down the coast, served as the western Red Sea region's principal port. It traded with camel caravans from the interior, bringing ivory, hides, and slaves in return for spices, cotton, and silks.
But when the British arrived toward the end of the 19th century, Suakin failed to suit their requirements as a deep-water port for steamers passing through the Suez Canal. Port Sudan came into being and from then on, the new Red Sea port served as the gateway to Sudan.
Under the British Sudan enjoyed political and economic stability, a period fondly remembered by older Sudanese, even if somewhat begrudgingly by the more politically active. When the British departed in 1956, they left behind a nation with a promising future.
``We thought we had everything. A parliamentary democracy and an economy that could not go wrong,'' recalled one well-to-do Sudanese businessman. Just as Khartoum was ``a great place to live'' during the 1950s and early '60s, so was Port Sudan, remembers one Greek entrepreneur. ``Even today,'' adds an American harbor contractor, ``there is no reason why Port Sudan cannot be developed as one of the Middle East's leading ports.''
But even before its second decade of independence, Sudan began to decline because of political turmoil, economic mismanagement, corruption, and a brutal civil war in the south. The decline worsened steadily under former President Jaafar Nimeiry -- and you can sense it as you stand in one of Port Sudan's streets.
The market bustles with hawking and buying, heavily laden transports rumble up from the port, and international relief workers or shipping agents charge to and fro in their Toyotas and Land Rovers.
Yet for all the town's activity, there is the suggestion of an abandoned Hollywood film set. The colonial shopping arcades and administrative buildings stand faded and rundown; the ceremonial cannon outside the Red Sea provincial headquarters points absurdly at odd angles. The prewar hotels and caf'es seem to yearn for the more invigorating days portrayed in the yellowing prints at a small photo shop just off the main street.
Even new buildings fall apart before they are finished. And despite the almost daily arrivals of ships, the selection of consumer goods in shops is paltry. Only the weathered signs of the former Greek holdings hint at a more thriving past. Once the Greek community -- a mainstay of the economy -- numbered 15,000. Now, less than 1,000 Greeks remain.
With last month's coup, however, a new mood has emerged. There is hope that new investment will come in, that talented Sudanese will return, and that Port Sudan will blossom. Some gestures are already being practised. One bank raised its dollar-exchange rate in an attempt to break the black market. ``In this manner, we hope that people will bring some of their money back into the country,'' a banker explained.
Some of the young and talented have returned. But many will think twice about leaving good jobs abroad where they can earn 10 or even 20 times as much, or about entrusting their funds to Sudanese banks. ``The fact is Sudan cannot survive without these people,'' said an official at Port Sudan's general hospital. ``It is absolutely scandalous. We have over 5,000 Sudanese doctors working abroad and less than 2,000 in the country.''
I decided to go snorkling out by ``Kilo 16,'' a series of shallow reefs just off the main Port Sudan-Khartoum highway and settled on the vantage point of a nearby lagoon. The Red Sea hills shimmered in the distance. In the lagoon itself a flock of roseate flamingos fed. Snow-white spoonbills pruned their feathers on the edge of the mudflats, while pelicans slid peacefully through the water.
From the highway, beyond the lagoon, come the sounds of trucks in convoy.
They were, I knew, loaded with food for those starving millions who inhabit this country's interior.
The writer is taking a six-month overland trip through Africa. His reports will appear periodically.