Well, we finally make it to Eritrea!
How a painless Egypt Air flight—which takes off exactly on schedule at 3:15 AM in the morning from the Cairo International Airport—actually progresses as planned is well beyond my comprehension and expectations. All previous transportation solutions in Egypt seem to contain enormous and often painful lag. I must admit, however, that I am quite satisfied and actually impressed with Egypt Air’s performance this time. (I guess the Egyptians aren’t messing around when it comes to international aviation.) This pleasant experience even goes so far as receiving my specially ordered vegetarian meal (VGML) which, at first, looks a heck of a lot more appetizing then the main entrée of pouched egg drenched in murky-gray mushroom sauce covered with mini hot links. I soon learn, judging by my stomach rumbles later that day, that my cooked vegetables may have been sitting around the 767-300 galley for at least four days. The meal had been continuously reheated, as needed, and served “specially” for me. Oh well, so much for international airline cuisine. Fourteen sprays of colloidal silver should do the trick. I casually lean my chair back and fall asleep.
I suddenly awake to the captain speaking in Arabic. He then switches to English, “Ladies and gentlemen, would you please fasten your seat belts in preparation for landing.”
I look out the window of the descending plane to see a new day’s dawn illuminating the drab and sparse hills beneath to a majestic golden hue. The view is surreal; the miniature dunes below continuously come into view and then go out of view again as we fly by. The effect reminds me of a chase scene in an old cartoon where the background repeats itself over and over again. The ground comes closer and closer and-bump, thump— we finally land in this foreign land. My stomach turns as my drowsy mind awakens filled with eagerness and excitement. I wonder how Eritrea will be? I collect my belongings and myself and exit the plane; I am instantly overcome with a blast of warm air contrasting the cool airplane environment.
I take a deep breath and walk down a shaky mobile stair unit that has driven up to the plane minutes before. An official directs us towards customs. The line is not long and soon I am face to face with an Eritrean officer who casually stamps my visa. His curiosities become directed towards my guitar and proceeds to search it for illegal items. The thought of me attempting to import illegal items into Eritrea brings a smile to my face. I suddenly remember the man in Cairo trying to sell us the enormous quantities of fragrance perfume oils. I am happy we did not fall into his trap—not that fragrance is illegal, but we would have a lot of explaining to do with 800 viles of “Ahh, Nile Musk” and “Chanel #5.” Upon satisfactorily completing his search, the customs man fills out a tag and attaches it to my guitar.
“You show when leave Eritrea.” The man’s English is limited yet authoritative. He then shoos me on. I grab my guitar and pass the security doors and proceed into the general public of Africa. Of all the international airports I have ever found myself in, I would have to say this one is the most mellow. No one desperately approaches me: no airport scams, no money hawkers, no overpriced taxi touts, and no illegitimate security guards asking for nonexistent documents. I am relieved.
I find an official moneychanger and swap $100 US dollars into Eritrean Nakfa. The moneychanger hands me a stack of crispy bills. I soon learn that Eritrea has just implemented its new currency, effectively breaking away from the Ethiopian Birr and its financial burdens. The new money displays scenes of children reading books, tribal people and trees. It is the most beautiful currency that I have ever seen.
Todd arranges a taxi which we share with Gerhart and John, the lads we met at the other end of the flight in Cairo, and we soon are on our way, zipping down an uncrowded, tree-lined wide road into the capital. In terms of African capitals, Asmara appears quite extraordinary. The center is calm, clean and looks like an altogether pleasant and safe place for a stroll. Hints of Italian influence can be seen intermingled with the overwhelmingly African ambiance. I am thrilled.
In the early 1930s, during their brief occupation of Eritrea, the Italian government developed Eritrea in a grandeur colonial style. The Italians built art-deco office buildings and Mediterranean villas; they constructed windy roads to traverse the mountainous region and implemented a railway that connected the capital to the strategic seaport town Massawa. WWII proved too much for Mussolini’s resources, however, and in 1938 Italy was forced to abandon its beloved East African outpost for more urgent events elsewhere. Fortunately, the Italian legacy remains as seen in the city’s surviving architecture, cuisine, and the ubiquitous espresso machines located faithfully in every kitchen, cafe, and rest stop all over the country.
The aftermath of WWII proved harsh for Eritrea— in one sweeping motion, the United Nation inharmoniously granted the ancient land of Eritrea to Ethiopia. The move was a dire insult to the Eritreans who had considered themselves a proud and independent nation and people for many years. Under Haile Salase’s Ethiopian rule, Eritrea became an isolated northern province of the Ethiopian Empire valued for its strategic natural harbor of Massawa.
Conditions worsened for Eritrea as neglect and corruption took their toll on the once independent nation. Fed up, the Eritrean Liberation Front declared war with Ethiopia in 1961. The bloody civil war lasted 30 years and badly damaged Eritrea’s infrastructure and economy. Most towns were completely decimated, yet Asmara was somehow spared destruction. Triumph finally did prevail for the Eritreans, and in 1993, they recieved their hard-earned independence. And now, what remains in Asmara is a charming capital city filled with pride and hope. Phrases of liberation and freedom are etched and painted on walls and in the windows of storefronts; a proud people march the palm lined wide avenues, and electricity is in the air.
Upon scoping Asmara’s varying skyline, we discover a peculiar octagonal hilltop structure standing above all else in the hazy distance. Curiosity sets in and our guidebook reveals that this is the Cherhi Bar and Chinese restaurant (A Chinese restaurant?!); and so we charge for it with all our might, thoughts of wontons and cold beer emanating in our minds. To get to the hilltop retreat, we navigate shantytown alleyways that lead to the base of the hill. Structures abound are made of any material available: reddish mud, warped wood, dry hay, bent chicken wire, worn-out tyres, wrinkled plastic, ripped vinyl, and torn cement bags. We arrive to the restaurants unharmed and, interestingly, unhasseled (I love this place). To our pleasant surprise, we find that beer (cold) is an easy three Nakfa! That’s 45¢ US for a beer (at a bar!) I quickly remember the LE 25 ($8 US) can of Holsten beer “on sale” at the Cairo International Airport duty-free lounge and quietly laugh to myself. This deal is too good to be true. Gulp, gulp. A nice buzz relieves my over-stimulated mind and a calming sensation fills my body; I begin to feel lighter.
After several drinks each, we stroll down a path outside and are greeted by a small, yet outgoing boy. “My name is Shi Shay,” the boy proclaims and laughs in embarrassment. “What is your name?” The boy pauses. We don’t answer him, as we are too preoccupied with our surroundings and the alcohol flowing through our veins. “Will you be my friend?” the boy questions. I look at him and my eyes squint with a confused expression. Todd is a bit on guard as well. (I guess Egypt has tainted our ability to find sincerity in outgoing street kids.) I figure that since we are about to walk right through the poorest part of Asmara, it might be a good idea to have Shi Shay join us. I mention this fact to Todd, and we willingly accept his proposal for friendship. Shi Shay excitedly joins our procession as we march through the expansive back alleyways of Asmara. What seems, at first, to be a hawking venture from the boy soon turns into an honest exchange of gestures as Shi Shay attempts to show us around, pointing out items of potential interest: a “school” here, a “hospital” there.
My first experience with “Safe, potable drinking water” happens during our tour with Shi Shay. I suddenly notice that I am parched and my dry mouth is begging for some liquid relief that only water can quell. It is funny how the need for water sometimes comes on so suddenly when wandering around foreign lands. I pass what appears to be a small café with strands of multicolored plastic beads hiding the entrance. I cautiously poke my head between the strands and spot a cooler inside on the left. I smile. As I pry open the lid to the cooler, mists of vapor are released and vanish instantly in the hot, dry air. I grab a cold, wine bottle sized container of what looks like water. Shi Shay helps to negotiate the transaction. Ten Nakfa are exchanged and I pop the cap. I suddenly enjoy the first of what would become my new liquid staple, Eritrean mineral water, Dongollo style. Bottled at the source in the Eritrean mountains, Dongollo proved to be some of the purest, most revitalizing water I ever tasted. Only Siwa Water in Egypt could compete. The natural effervescence of Dongollo, however, places it in a category above all others. (As my stay in Eritrea passes, I find that I drink at least four bottles of Dongollo day, and often at a much reduced price then my original purchase here.)
After my water binge, the three of us continue our trek around town. Shi Shay begins to point in an opposite direction of where we are walking. He speaks some phrases that I don’t understand. I think Shi Shay would like us to come to his house for dinner and/or a coffee ceremony. We decide that we are not that risky yet and keep walking in a direction away from what is probably his hut. After several more paces, Shi Shay lowers his head and waves good-bye. Before parting we exchange addresses. One more interaction with the children of Africa ceases. Shi Shay proves to be an honest and smart kid. Although more wars and hardship are to come Eritrea’s way, I pray that Shi Shay continues to be safe and do well.
The day begins to pass and dusk approaches. We hop from various eating places: cafe, snack shops, bars. We indulge in pastries, mini-pizzas but avoid the tantalizing guava-banana juices. Unfortunately, my fear of catching an odd disease is still winning the battle against my craving for such tempting foods. I am still quite new to this region and my paranoia of stomach ailments is running high. But, this fear won’t last long (I soon will be drinking African tap-water.)
We devour a tasty dinner that night in the Milano, a restaurant that is described as being one of the country’s highlights in the 1996 Lonely Planet Africa on a Shoestring. We feast on spongy, sour injera bread piled high with various food combinations including a potato and carrot stew, shredded spicy goat drenched in fiery hot sauce, and a legumes in another hot, red sauce. Using our rights hands only, we use the injera as a utensil for picking up the food items and bringing them to our eager mouths. What a brilliant idea, I think to myself, as I eat away: I can eat my fork and have less dishes to clean. For desert we attempt to order two servings of the famed honey wine, but receive two bottles instead. Silly waiter. The sugary nectar is like heaven as it splashes down my esophagus. I tend to avoid sugary alcohol drinks, so after several sips, I offer Todd my remaining beverage and watch astounded as he slurps it down. Hiccup.
Upon walking back to the hotel, we attempt to have some fun at an Eritrean basement nightclub, but I am too exhausted. I go back to the hotel and crash. My first day in sub-saharan Africa is a big success. I love Eritrea.
“Yo, Todd, I am crashing. Goodnight.”
“Hey Todd?” No answer. “Todd, you wake up.”
“Yeah Bri?” Todd’s eyes are still closed, his mind still holding on to the abstract dreams only minds create.
“I’ve been thinking. We are on our way to Yemen now. But I think we should briefly go to Addis Ababa. I mean we can’t be this close to the home of Haile Selassie and just not go. We could do a brief three-day ‘go-come back’. I think we will really thank ourselves if we do this.”
“I don’t really want to go to Ethiopia, Brian.” Todd shakes his head as he attempts to wake up.
“Well, let’s just go to the Ethiopian Embassy and get visas, just in case.”
“OK.” Todd dozes off and momentarily reawakens.
We find the Ethiopian Embassy with ease. The high flying Ethiopian flag is the dead giveaway. In addition, there are only several embassies in Eritrea (US, Yemeni, Sudanese [closed], Italian, British, Egyptian) and they are all nestled in the diplomatic, upscale part of town.
We enter the minimum-security/low-tech Ethiopian embassy. We ask the receptionist/guard where we can apply for visas. “Room nine; sign-in first.” Upon signing-in, we look and cannot find room nine, but instead go to a room where there are a bunch of Europeans standing around. We go to a window in that room and hand our passports to an official who demands the exorbitant amount of US $76.00 per visa. “76 dollars! That’s outrageous.” I scoff. “We just want to go for a couple of days!”
At this exact moment, a pushy and masculine British woman with gray hair cuts in. “You bloody better count you blessins. Those 76 dollars gets you a two-year, multiple-entry visa. Shtchupid Americans always gettin’ the best deals. We only get a one-month visa for a similar price.” The woman looks back towards the wall where above is a poster displaying a young beautiful girl wearing silver coil bracelets all the way up her arms. Above the photo is the phrase: Welcome to Ethiopia / 13 months of Sunshine. Below the photo is the word Beckwith.
I shrug my shoulders and reluctantly throw down a US hundred travelers check. Todd does the same. I reassure Todd again, “Just think how cool people will think we are when we say we went to Ethiopia.” Todd squints his eyes and turns and walks out the door. I look at my passport and view a shiny-new-two-year-multiple-entry-visa for Ethiopia.
We spend the remainder of the day wandering around Asmara. We head to the outskirts of town (a mere mile from the center) and foray around the fields. We stumble upon a school of some sort, possibly with religious connotation, and then continue on back into town.
My knack finding the view is again realized when we pass the church in the center of town. Upon an inquiry, a portly female student collects several Nakfa and then guides us up ladder after ladder inside the brick steeple. We reach the top out of breath but are treated to the best view (guaranteed) in Asmara. We witness a 360° view of the entire region. Suddenly, the church bells ring, and even though they are twice our size, it is not too loud. At the same time, my entire being seems to vibrate with each pound of the ancient bells. My body is overcome by a rush of adrenaline while I smile at how beautiful the day is. We must be the luckiest people in Africa at this exact moment.
It is morning and I lay in bed thinking about upcoming plans. I am becoming quite anxious that we are spending all our time in the big cities. I yearn to see what village life is like. I wake Todd up and explain the dilemma. Todd attempts to come to grips with reality as his dream world slowly fades away. I suggest to Todd that we should look into hiring a car so that we can visit the in-between-and-hard-to-get-to places. Todd is game for the idea. Two hours later, after thorough negotiation and laying down a hefty security deposit of several hundred US dollars, we find ourselves rolling out of Asmara in our new baby—a white, early 80s NIVA 1600 4x4. Suddenly, those hard-to-get-to-places are found, witnessed, and experiences as we go bumpity-bump down some dirt road out of the town.
The road we follow is the famous trans-Eritrean highway connecting Asmara with Massawa—Eritrea’s main seaport town. In a mere 60 miles, our road descends 7,700 feet(!) from mountains to ocean. The journey could be compared to hiking down a steep mountain trail complete with winds, turns, switchbacks and blind spots. The steep route straddles the descending mountain ridge offering great views on all sides. Surprisingly, it is well maintained and we travel in relative comfort—a great feat in even a developed country. On our way, we pass frequent Snack Shacks and occasionally pull over to take in the beautiful views. I snap picture after picture of the rugged, terraced mountains. These pictures will never do justice for how beautiful this place really is. I snicker with this thought as I put another depleted roll in my backpack.
The first town we pass is named L’sa. It is a quaint town built on the side of the hill. It is quite green and lush—a sharp contrast to the surrounding arid mountains. I see a small white church in the center, several snack shops, and many local Eritreans walking about.
“See that road there?” I say pointing to a dirt road leading off of the main road and heading down a perpendicular valley.
“Where?” Todd questions whilst quickly looking around.
“Reverse,” I say. “We must see where this road goes.”
Instead of reversing, Todd hastily U-turns the car and, upon seeing the road, revs the engine and drives down it full speed. The car shakes as we hit rocks and rivets in the eroded dirt road. I notice that Todd is having a great time. We both agree that this is what we have been looking for—the ability to roam freely in the African wilderness. We drive further down the road and find ourselves deeper in the valley. Eventually the road merges with and then becomes a dry riverbed creating a confluence of human and nature. We drive along the riverbed and become surrounded by steep canyon walls. Tropical foliage and grasses line the canyon walls creating an exotic aura. A cool breeze pampers us from the harsh heat. I hop out of the car and take pictures of Todd while he four-wheels it through the various obstacles of the riverbed. The NIVA successfully jumps over rocks, rotten logs, sand banks and anything else that gets in its way.
I hop back in the car and we drive on. The road bends to the left and the gorge opens up revealing a meadow and a small village with mud huts and straw roofs. “This village is exactly what I am looking for!” I exclaim. “Where are the tribal people?” We look around in amazement, but find no one. “I hope that we have not scared everyone off.” I begin to get an eerie feeling. Thinking that we are trespassing, I visualize a speeding spear penetrate my body and puncture my heart. My announcement is loud and clear. “I think we should turn around and go back.”
Todd is silent the whole time, but now looks at me questioningly. “Are you sure you want to go back?”
“Yes.” I respond quickly and determined. “Let’s get out of here before we are eaten!”
“You have been watching too many movies.” Nonetheless, Todd agreeingly attempts a wide U-turn in the sand and we charge back. The NIVA begins climbing out of the canyon on the road that now appears much steeper than it was when we were going downhill. The tyres skid occasionally on switchbacks as we rise higher. I suddenly get concerned. “I hope we don’t break down out here. I mean what the heck would we do out here, broken down, in the middle of Africa. It is not like we can call AAA and arrange a tow. What the heck would we do?”
Todd looks at me with squinted eyes. “Don’t worry about it, we won’t break down.” At which moment the car bogs out and stalls. My stomach turns. “Sorry Bri,” Todd smiles. “I didn’t downshift soon enough. Let’s try that one again.”
I hop out of the car while Todd turns the ignition key. The car tries to start, but the engine fails to turn over. I look around at the uninhabited landscape while thoughts of being stranded for weeks on end enter in my mind. “Oh, this is great! We are going to spend my birthday (tomorrow) here, with this car and…” I am interrupted by the sound of our car’s engine firing. The gears grind and the car jams up the hill. “Wait for me…” I yell as I chase after Todd and the NIVA. We reach the main road again and pull over at a small café for a frosty beverage. Todd goes for his usual Coke and I order my new love—a bottle of icy Dongollo water. Gulp, gulp, yum. Life is good.
We continue our drive down the main road, the smooth asphalt a pleasant contrast from our previous bumpy adventure. The road curves and bends like a snake. We pass a lorry traveling in the other direction. The truck is putting up hill—its engine strained by its huge load of various good atop which sit 20 or 30 men. The men wave at us with smiles revealing white teeth that contrast their dark faces. It seems like one slight movement of the truck and all the men would topple off the truck like dominoes; nonetheless, they seem to hold on as the truck swerves around the corner. I cannot decide which is a greater spectacle: A truck full of waving Africans or two white-boys driving around Eritrea. Using both arms, I wave back to the men on the truck with a huge grin on my face. What a great moment. This is the real Africa—the Africa I have been looking for. The truck putts further up the steep road and bends out of site. The inviting warm wind blows in my face as the NIVA 1600 coasts down the descending road with ease.
We traverse several more blind corners when we suddenly spot something new. A bizarre animal scurries across the road on its hind legs and disappears into the bush. This is no ‘ordinary’ animal I think to myself comparing it to the usual squirrel or other classic roadside animal found back home in the States. “What was that thing?” I ask. Suddenly another animal of the same species darts in front of our car and then climbs a tree on the side of the road. We notice several more creatures on the hill leading from the side of the road. “Good lord!” I exclaim. “These are baboons!” I bounce for joy in the car as I realize that we have just experienced our first African wildlife encounter. My love for Africa grows exponentially at this exact moment. I hop out of the car and begin taking a couple pictures with my camera. Click, click. The monkeys respond by directing howling low gruntle “uhhh, uhhh” sounds toward us. This behavior fascinates me and I attempt to copy them by returning their call. “Uhhh, uhhh!” I scream at the top of my lungs jumping up and down waving my arms. The monkeys become silent and stare at me in disbelievement—as does Todd. We both laugh as we hop back in the car. What a great day. I am really starting to feel Africa.
As we drive away I repeat the word “Baboons” several times while laughing. Little do I realize what a menacing frustration these same animals will cause latter on. However, at this moment, I love the baboons and seeing them affects both Todd and I quite deeply. For myself, some feelings inside that were previously dormant are now wide awake—a spark ignited. I begin to have the desire to explore more and to connect further with the animals that live in the African continent. I want to go on safari. I know Todd is thinking the same thing when I turn and see his smile. We give each other the ritualistic handshake in congratulations of the rite of passage: our first animal spotting in Africa. At the time, I think we are lucky to see these animals and figure it will be the last we will see such a spectacle. Neither of us, however, really know what lay ahead.
We arrive to small town that is filled with mud huts with straw roofs. A quick map check informs us that we have arrived in Ghinda. “Ah, Ghinda,” I say. “This place is famous for its goat stew. It’s getting pretty late. Let’s stay here.”
Todd is keen with the idea as well, at least the ‘staying for the night’ bit. He is not at all interested in the goat stew, as I am to later to find out. Todd announces that we will need to find a hotel with a courtyard in which we can securely park our car for the night. I am indifferent at first but soon realize this is a vital idea as we would be in big trouble if the NIVA disappeared.
I check the guidebook for accommodation. “The Red Sea Pension looks like it might fit our criteria.” Remembering a conspicuous sign we passed as we drove into town, Todd turns around and heads back. We arrive at a greenish cinderblock building with vines growing up the walls and over the roof like a web. A white sign with red letters says, “Red Sea Pension” Beneath the English are some squiggles which I later find out is written in the language Tegrenia, one of the national languages of Eritrea— Arabic and English being the others.
After filling out the mandatory hotel guest registration forms, the hotel manager swings open the courtyard gates and Todd pulls the NIVA in to rest for the night. Our room opens into a courtyard that is small, but pleasant. There are two uncomfortable beds and bars on the windows that reveal a beautiful garden behind the hotel. Banana trees stand proud.
As there is a bit of light left, we decide to go on a walk. I find a path that leads itself up the side of a steep hill. Todd reluctantly follows fifty feet behind me. I pass huts on the left that are positioned close together. I see a woman squatting behind one hut, obviously relieving herself from previous meals. She is not startled by my presence, but simply ignores me. Several feet away from her, behind a torn, hanging cloth is the woman’s family. They are sitting together on the ground eating and drinking out of metal cups.
I realize that this is the way most of these people have spent their entire lives. I wonder how people staye sane living in such close proximity. How do they find privacy? Where do they have sex? (Judging by the amount of children around, the latter concern proved not a big a problem.) The entire set up seems so communal. Whereas I have had communal experiences in the past, I always had the option to back out when I was too annoyed by the group dynamic. However, it seems that these people do not have this option.
The trail winds higher and higher up the mountain. We slowly ascend as the day melts to dusk. As I walk, I let my mind wander and reflect about my path in life. What a cool hike this is; My last hike of 25 years. Tomorrow—rather in 3.5 hours—it will be April 8 once again; 26 years to the day that I popped out of my mom. I hope everyone is thinking of me. The idea of turning 26 is a bit rough on my psyche. Seems like I am getting pretty old. I actually can’t deal. Well, I guess I can. Funny thing, in Eritrea, 26 is getting quite up there in a society where 40 years is considered elder. I smile as my thoughts run wild. Some years later, when having a conversation with my grandmother, my ripe old age is placed into perspective when she says simply to me, “My dear, to me you will always be a baby.” I wish I had these comforting words now.
We pass several beautiful children. They smile and continually wave to us. As we pass, they look at us in disbelief. They watch us as we walk on. Eritrea, oh Eritrea, may God bless you and your many abundant children.
We return to the hotel and head for the café. Todd and I both enjoy a frosty beverage while I eagerly await my goat stew. I have basically been a vegetarian for several years now, and this goat stew will effectively put an end to that part of my life.
A steaming bowl of stew is placed in front of me. There are bits of meat in a steaming brown broth. I begin to devour the tender meat. “Boy, this is good!” Although further attempts would be made to relive this moment, this would be the best goat stew I would ever have. Future soups would only bring chewy and cartilaginous goat bits. Memories of this meal would remain eternally in my mind and become synonymous with the Eritrean town Ghinda.
This morning is my birthday and we are in Room 14 of the Red Sea Pension, in the lush village of Ghinda, Eritrea on the continent of Africa. Pretty damn cool if you ask me. A nice day, a nice place.
We awake and return almost immediately to the Hotel’s café. We are no sooner eating what becomes our classic African breakfast of omelet with diced red tomato and onion. Accompanying this fare is a rock hard biscuit that still manages to taste good. After devouring our food, we pay our hotel dues and hop in the NIVA and drive back uphill to Asmara. Upon returning our car to the rental agency, I inform Todd that we absolutely must spend my birthday at the beach in Massawa and so we grab our gear and walk towards the central bus station.
No matter where you are in the world, a bus station must always contain a certain level of stress. It really would not be a true bus station without the inevitable chaos of the various hawkers trying to lure you into one of their merciless plots. In fact, I am willing to wager that the majority of backpackers’ stress manifests in or near the ubiquitous bus stations that infest the world. The Asmara bus station is no exception. In fact, Asmara has seven bus stations where innocent civilians may lose their sanity. Our ordeal begins by having to find the correct bus station where buses await passengers opting to go to Massawa. We are lucky this time. An angle finds us hopelessly walking around like young children at a country fair. The mans asks us “Where we are going?”
“Massawa” is our hopeful response.
“This way gentleman… ” Using his entire hand as a pointer, the generous man directs us the right way. We follow his lead and end up in a yard teaming with revving busses and anxious drivers yelling out the various exotic destinations.
“Adi Quala, Adi Quala, Adi Quala…!”
“Keren, Keren, Keren…!”
“Massawa, Massawa, Massawa…!”
“Wait a minute.” I interject into the chaos. “That man over there is yelling Massawa.” We charge in the direction of our screaming man and are immediately met by a gang of youths fighting for what appears to be our bags. A lucky winner manages to heist both bags from our reluctant hands. Suddenly, both of our bags are going up the rear ladder of the bus in what looks like a caterpillar climbing a branch. I do not quite understand how one small boy could haul both our heavy bags up a flimsy ladder simultaneously. I was having a hard enough time walking on solid earth with my bag. The bag attendant hastily busts out a coil in between a crate of roosters and a bundle of leafy greens. Upon completion of his noble task, the boy descends the ladder and holds his hands out to Todd and I. We each drop a crispy One Nakfa note into his empty hands. A smile appears on his face while all the other kids around him start shouting and jumping and waving their hands in the air. I guess they want some money as well. Maybe next bus ride they will be the lucky ones. to grab our bags so they can “Adi Quala, Adi Kala!” “Massawa, Masawa, Masawa!”
After our bags are checked we board the bus and commence our first African bus ride. I must profess at this point the truth behind the legendary bus ride because everything I had heard about them in stories now is a reality. No sooner do we sit in the bus then a women steps aboard with an armful of squawking chickens. A man with a baby goat boards and sits behind us while the woman attempts to quiet her hens from their nervously cock-a-doodle-doos. Another woman comes aboard draped in woven white cloth with braids in her hair. With her are two young kids and a sleeping baby. A man with several bags of grain each weighing 50 pounds attempts to find a seat big enough for his load. The bus driver begins to yell out the man, so he instead places the bags in the bus aisle and sits on them. I soon learn another interesting fact about African bus travel, the concept of personal space. I am often accustomed to sitting next to strangers. Todd and I seldom sit next to each other on buses so that we can each have a window seat. However, I must admit, though, that I become a little shocked when a third person decides to share our seat with us. Todd starts laughing at this spectacle, but soon hushes when a third person sits on his bench as well. Now is begin laughing. The man next to me is literally forced into me and lets his arm rest on my lap. He then falls asleep like a baby and allows his head to rest on my inviting shoulder. I managed to look back at Todd without awakening the resting soul and see him making fun of me by grabbing his belly with both hands and squinting his eyes in confused way.
The engine roars and we are off. The bus driver picks a selection and blasts Eritrean music. At the sudden burst of sound, the man next to me awakens and the woman’s baby begins crying. Another man becomes car sick five minutes into the ride and pukes into a plastic bag.
Sitting here in a hotel room in Keren, Eritrea, it’s 7:52 am.
I am reflecting upon my “old life”, remembering how much I enjoyed it…sleeping till noon, staying up until 3. Partying. Living for the day, not thinking about anymore. Chasing our souls in the wind. And we ask, “Whatever happened to that afternoon-whatever happened to good old Bonny Dune?” And while we were sitting on some back porch in July, what was the rest of the world doing? Singing, farming, herding goats, selling grain? And now that I’m on world tour (finally) I ask, where are those other Americans who so courageously feel that they are futhur? Whatever happened to all those people. I don’t buy the “it’s too far/expensive variable for obvious reasons of spending the same amount of energy at home. Remember-while we were racing our VW’s across the great expanse we call America, flying Tower Air from coast to coast, others were trying to figure out the cheapest way from Uganda to Mozambique, or solving the mystery of getting the prized Uzbekistan entry visa. That’s what a lot of other kids, in our similar state of mind, who didn’t have Jerry to follow around, did… WORLD TOUR.
Is it an escape from the reality of more school or a 9 to 5, or is it from the heart worthy and noble. I do not know, but it sure is fun. In Eritrea now, then Ethiopia, Djibouti, Yemen and Oman???
West or East, depending (hopefully East) See you soon.
Eritrea turns out to be quite delightful. Very relaxed, unbelievably safe, quite accommodating, and altogether down home style. The music is either this weird, stringy harpsichord instrumental piece with someone chanting Tigrinia in the background or this most melodic pseudo-Asian vocals with an up-and-down-the-scale mix which grows quite delightfully on the soul.
Keren, which is where we are now, is the most pleasant place. The weather, unlike the extreme heat and humidity of Massawa, is quite dry, on the hot side, but bearable. Todd and I awake a bit late today—Mondays always seem to always be a bit difficult. The clock is edging towards 11:00 AM when my sleepy eyes finally focus on the analog display ticking away. I am a bit nervous that we are going to miss the once-a-week famous and grandeur Keren livestock market happening right now. I insist that we get up, and so we hesitantly scrambled out of bed. After buying a mysterious snack at the store downstairs, we head down the dusty road in search of the legendary market. The sun is shining high already, and insects are abuzz like an anxious orchestra preparing for a great symphony.
I inquire to several locals about the whereabouts of the Keren livestock market. To my dismay, no one seems to understand my English today. I grow a bit impatient and begin speaking faster which really doesn’t seem to help matters much. We eventually follow the advice of one helpful fellow who repeatedly waves his hand in the direction of a downward sloping dirt road leading away from town. It looks promising enough so we follow the man’s lead. The road dips down gradually and become increasingly surrounded by green shrubbery on both sides. The vegetation thickens even more; it is a sign that water is near. Todd and I round the corner and find a shallow river rippling in the slight breeze.
“What a great place for a livestock market.” I exclaim. The tranquil river would provide a pleasant break from the harsh day allowing both humans and livestock to relieve themselves from the increasing heat caused by the rising African sun. (What a great place for a cholera market.) We pass the river, but to our dismay, find no signs of any markets. “Man, we are heading in the wrong direction. The market must be here, but it is not. Where is everyone? I hope it is not over.” I am quite upset, and the sweat and dirt are not helping my nerves either.
We perform a 180° turn around and head right back into town in a sort of a jog-walk stride. Back in town, we meet an excited boy who speaks limited English. He sends us in the opposite direction, this time uphill towards a dry and dusty knoll in the distance. After walking several hundred meters I know we were going the right way. You can sometimes feel these things. Locals are suddenly everywhere leading flocks of sheep and other animals in both directions of the road. How could we have missed this spectacle earlier? There are goats, sheep, cows, and people everywhere. Some are walking in our direction—eager venders waiting to sell their goods—and others are going the other direction content with their recent purchases.
We round a corner, and there it is. To our delight, we see a group of twelve or more camels sitting on the dirt under the baking sun, resting. Poor beasts, they look so miserable. Behind the lethargic and clumsy camels lay a crude stone wall enclosing a compound. Although golden and mysterious the wall seems uninviting. We circled the compound, nonetheless, looking for a way in. We creep up some stairs and cannot believe our eyes. I suddenly feel like I am in the Lonely Planet television show. “Hello, I am Ian Wright and this is Eritrea.” I know it sounds cheesy, but this is exactly how I feel. I am a star. The first foreigner to ever find this pristine place. I am all smiles.
There is chaos everywhere as hundreds of fierce looking men wrapped in protective cloth and turbans shielding them from the harsh rays of the sun lead timid animals to-and-fro in a buying and selling frenzy. It is absolutely the most wonderful spectacle I have ever laid my naive eyes upon.
It is getting very hot and tense in the unprotected market and I suddenly feel quite out of place. There is nothing I can do to fit in. I realize that my attire—shorts, T-shirt, and sandals—not only present me as a complete clueless outsider but also offer me no protection from the harsh elements abound. I am going to soon be scratched, dehydrated, and burned via the environmental elements, but I don’t care. Witnessing in entirety this newly discovered livestock market is the highest priority. I must report back to home immediately and let them know what treasures await!
There are huddles of goats, sheep, and camels everywhere. In addition, there are these huge cows—actually what appears to be bulls—walking everywhere with gargantuan horns protruding from their skulls. I am quite weary of these stalky monsters and try to avoid them at all expense. They seem to sense their superiority and simply walk and stand idle with a calm look of indifference on their face. The smaller animals, on the other hand, seem to be absolutely petrified. Not knowing what to do, they simply turn towards each other and lower their heads down into a huddle as if planning a crucial play in a competitive sporting event. I guess the animals feel that if they can’t see us then we won’t see them. Poor, poor beast, I think to myself, smiling, love emanating from my heart. I love every one of these beast and have a level of pity that no one else around here seems to have. I think that the best thing to do is to buy several of these guys and set them free in the wild African bush. Then again, that might not be the best idea. At least they are getting fed now.
“How much for this sheep?” The man squints his eyes and shakes his head from side to side as if my question is unreasonable. Hmmm, I think maybe he doesn’t understand me. I point to the sheep and then to myself. The man smiles and starts speaking in a mysterious dialect so exotic that it sound like an alien from space calling on the attack. He holds up several bills much larger than my daily budget. I wave this request off in a way that someone would swat an annoying fly. The tone of this man’s voice suddenly becomes more fierce. He starts speaking very fast and calls his fellow herder friends over. I started feeling a bit cold and quirky and back up and walked away. Everyone is suddenly yelling at me, wanting to sell their stock. I think I need a Coke.
I realize that I must have lost Todd amongst the craziness because I turn around and realize that he has vanished. So I just wonder by myself and let the forces that be guide me through the maze of activity. It seems odd but no one seems interested in my presence. I can approach people and try to bargain for an animal, but no one approaches me; this is most definitely an anomaly in African markets the continent abound. Everyone seems to always want my attention. I guess these people think there is no chance a Farenge would buy a camel or a goat. What would he do with it anyway? Well, as it turns out, they are right—at least for Todd and myself. What would we do with such beasts anyway? A smile or two from anyone sure would help ease my anxiety however.
After an hour I begin to look for Todd again. I wonder if he bought a lamb. I think he is getting mighty tired of our goat spaghetti. I exit the arena and walk down outside. I find Todd standing next to a “last-chance” group of camels waiting to be sold. Todd is transacting with the apparent owner. I think he is trying to buy a camel for the equivalent of $20 US dollars. Funny. I ask Todd if he has figured out the cost for the various livestock. Todd responds quite confidently, “I guess it is about 150 Nakfa for a goat, 1200 for a full grown camel.” However tempting it is, we end up not buying any livestock this time. Instead, after becoming quite parched in the midday sub-Saharan sun, we headed directly to our favorite eating locale in beautiful downtown Keren—the Restaurant Peace and Love.
“I’ll have my usual, please: vegetables, potatoes and injera.” I order quite confidently knowing already that the kitchen has passed my standard for cleanliness. I enjoy a cold Dongollo and begin feasting with the memories of the morning still etched in my daydreams. What a great day it has been so far.
After lunch, we lackadaisical leave the restaurant and decide that were are not yet marketed-out. We stroll down the town center circle and head down an alley where we believe the textile and produce market to be. To my delight, we are soon amidst storefront after storefront of local things for sale. It appears that various sections curtail to particular items. One area has thousands of tubes of vibrant cloth waiting to mended and sewn into clothing. Juxtaposed amongst the tubes of fabric lay eager tailors waiting for a deals. Those already occupied, stitch away with their imported Chinese machines, happily making yet another garb. Another area contains a wide assortment of rusty tools, nails and hinges. We turn the corner and find the silver market—the famed silver market, where one can purchase the most inexpensive silver this side of the Sudan. For a mere two Nakfa per gram, you may buy some of Eritrea’s fine jewelry—a steal, if you ask me. My eyes catch a most beautiful orthodox Coptic cross and I begin the negotiations trying not to display my excitement.
“How much for this?” The seller’s eyes widen while a smile comes to his face.
“One hundred Nakfa” is the man’s firm and confident answer. My heart sinks as one hundred Nakfa was more than a day’s budget ($13).
“One hundred? That is way too much. That is over seven Nakfa per gram.” I protest. “You will have to lower your price.”
The man laughs, he probably doesn’t understand my English, but still knows that I am not that naive. His response, “Seventy Nakfa, last price.”
I pick up a second cross and offer one hundred Nakfa for the both. The man accepts. He counts my money while I excitedly put the jewelry in my pocket. I look at his other merchandise and am fascinated by enormous anklets (currency) and intricate necklaces.
I continue shopping and show other storeowners the cross that I purchased. They ask me how much I paid. I never tell the truth as I am always embarrassed that they might think I was ripped off. I probably was ripped off, but I am happy, and that’s all that counts. I take the crosses to another silversmith and ask if they truly are made of silver. The wise man takes out an interesting kit and drips some liquid on one of the crosses. He adds a bit of flame and examines it carefully. He nods his head up and down. I take it to mean a ‘yes’—a yes that it is silver and a yes that it is not silver. Hmm. I finally come to the feeling that only one is silver—the nicer one, and the other is some type of crude steel. I still have my doubts as we walk away; I guess I will need to learn more about the art and science of Alchemy for future purchases.
The rest of the day I rest on the balcony of our hotel a weaving a hemp necklace to hold my new silver cross. Ouch, a blister erupts on my middle finger, causing cursing. Todd ventures out to join a game of basketball going on in the distance. I hear the crowd cheer as he walks up and joins the game. I latter learn that he is the star player. We have a nice dinner at the Restaurant Peace and Love. Good night.
What a day today! Last night, after bussing and microbussing all day from Keren (Cheren) to Asmara and then to Adi Quala on the way, after a brief rain in Asmara, the most brilliant rainbow, then sunset, then we arrive and stay at the nicest place, the Tourist Hotel. 20 Nakfa total. Trees and flowers fill the courtyard. When we left, I was a bit hesitant because I knew it would be rough from here on out. I didn’t want to leave Eritrea.
Well,… after sitting around the Adi Quala Bus Station, a.k.a.: a yard with pieces of shit everywhere, rubblestones, boroughs, camels, and random dudes, we put our backpacks in line. We get the #’s 22 & 23 respectively. There is not a shortage of buses, and I must admit, this is a first in Eritrea, greater demand than supply. Anyway, finally, the one bus that is registered to make the run pulls up, and we squeeze in. 20 km’s to the border. One hour later we pull up to a bunch of huts and a small building with an Eritrean flag: Customs. Painlessly, we are given exit stamps, told we didn’t stay long enough, and we are on our way. Right? No, wait here.
So we wait for 45 minutes and I finally explain to the man that we would like to walk. “It is 500 meters!” That’s O.K. Well, it really w’ OK, but we went for it. So we are walking, and it is hot. Some faster walkers are passing in the same direction. Coming from Ethiopia are an entire herd of cows with big horns. Real mellow, though. And we get to the bridge, rebuilt, I guess, the Mareb River, quite dry, but still some water. Someone gestures that this pathetic amount of mud drip eventually goes into the Sudan, and I think that the Sudan must be a pretty dry place.
Anyway, we finally make it to a village of huts. No customs, no nothing. Just a bunch of wide eye kids who stare at us in amazement as I play “ Bouncing Around the Room” by Phish on my guitar.
A bus pulls up and is bum rushed by hordes of anxious Ethiopians/Eritreans and Todd manages to slip in to get two seats. Meanwhile, I am still playing the guitar but get this telepathic message to carry over our bags. So I hire a little kid who carries over Todd’s rucksack and we load it atop the already overpacked minibus. And away we go for US$1. And we pull up to a shack and some random says “Customs, we must search your bags.” Meanwhile, we are standing in a dust bowl on the side of the road, it is heading towards 95 outside and I ain’t about to let the random go through my bags. But eventually, Mr. Haile Salasie, by showing me some sort of refugee/customs badge assures me that there is no problem, so Todd lets the other plain clothed random go though his stuff. They go through me bag and then walk us up to the immigration office. Inside, it is now definitely 100 degrees and sweat is dripping down my arms and face, so the woman offers Todd and I a warm Team soda and a Marinda. (Pepsi’s Fanta). We reject the Marinda, and it is replaced with a second warm Team soda. Umm Umm good. “Stamp, stamp” and we are in. And we manage our ways into another bus, and get the whole back seat to ourselves and away we go on a delightful journey through the Ethiopian sunset.
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