Published: April 22nd 2006August 17th 2005
3:30am. A petrol station in Assab. The daily bus to Asmara is about to leave. Our entire room, sheets, mattress, etc reeked of (someone else's) sweaty penis, but I still wish I could have slept a couple more hours. We're facing a 1 ½ day journey up the Red Sea coast in August -- following the Danakil Depression, one of the hottest places in the world - until we reach the cool highlands' spring weather. It's pitch dark, but we're already sweating profusely in the absence of even the slightest breeze.
Trying to lug my sack onto the bus, and simultaneously fight with a fat lady who's taken my seat, I slip in my sleep-deprived state and end up with a bloody mess where I once had a big toenail. I will devote most of the next 2 days to trying to keep flies away.
The stretch between Assab and Massawa is black volcanic seaside desert, with nothing but checkpoints manned by bored soldiers hunting for deserters. Eritrea is still on the brink of war with Ethiopia, over a small village of 400 inhabitants and 20 sq km of barren desert. The entire male population is accordingly conscripted indefinitely:
Up the Red Sea
A rest stop on the way to Asmara.
10 years of military service isn't uncommon. They say Ethiopia really wants Assab: a port without a hinterland for a hinterland without a port makes good sense to me, especially since Assab is now a ghost town with a rotting and disused port and a large unemployed population. But National Politics have never been my strong point, and I'm probably wrong. In the meantime, Eritrea's 6 millions are threatening war against Ethiopia's 80 millions. It must be great for those in power: Ethiopia's ruling party can crack down on dissidents and open fire on students, while Eritrea's regime can whip up anti-Ethiopian hysteria to consolidate its rule.
The bus stops around sunset, in a small village where they rent us rope beds and provide food. Eritrea is so much more expensive than Ethiopia! The people are incredible, though: I haven't seen much of Africa, but Eritrea is the first place where I wasn't given preferential (or worse) treatment for being “white”. I'm just another human being here, and the change is refreshing. The economy isn't doing well, though, and even Coca-cola and Pepsi have pulled out due to the lack of hard currency: Coke is now smuggled in on
Beles in Keren
The summer fruit is "beles" (cactus pear) delicious cheap and refreshing.
donkey-back from Sudan, while cans of Pepsi, knockoff perfumes and plastic flowers are carried by dhow from Yemen.
At 2:30am the bus driver is already furiously honking and revving the engine to get the passengers to hurry up. Most people seem to equate “sleeping in the desert under the stars” with romantic hours spent watching shooting stars and pondering the insignificance of the human race; in my experience it's usually meant passing out from exhaustion and seeing heat-induced vivid dreams. As expected, we drive 100m to the checkpoint where they (displeased at being waken at this ungodly hour) make us disembark and proceed to “search” the bus in the pitch dark without any artificial light. Frustration is futile, and I pass out in the dirt by the road. By the time we start moving it's 5:30am. The driver apparently got caught trying to smuggle grain from Djibouti (brought in from Ethiopia; nothing grows in Djibouti) to Asmara, and had it all confiscated.
I'm stripped down to only shorts, in order to fully appreciate the slightest breeze, while Janvier sweats in his heavy military pants, socks and boots. I never miss an opportunity to make fun of those less
fortunate than myself. After Massawa, the buss climbs from summer to fall to spring in the span of 3 hours, and Asmara greets us with a cool rain.
Asmara, an Italian city with tree-lined avenues and cathedrals is about as un-African as a city could be. Young Eritreans back on holiday from their new homes in America or Europe dress like rappers and hang out in the street of our hotel. The Italian legacy is evident in pizza, pasta, good macchiato and pastries, and people speak such good English that we don't even bother learning any Tigrinya and use our few Amharic phrases when necessary.
Eritrea is a fairly small country, with very little to see or do, and Barentu (chosen by Janvier for its reputedly topless tribeswomen) turns out to be a small collection of thatched huts (with beautiful, but fully clothed, women). All the same, I was stopped by an officious resident and asked (in Arabic) for my permit to take pictures (of a donkey, in this case). Perfectly understanding him, Janvier and I mysteriously forgot the little Arabic we knew, smiled and walked away, well knowing that the zealous police won't be willing to take
responsibility for releasing us (and therefore hold us indefinitely) once we set foot in a police station. The lessons of Africa.
In Keren we meet a Hungarian couple, who we later go down to Massawa with, in the search for “skrinp”
as one menu read. There we get into a fight with the hotel manager (who was immorally trying to overcharge us 5cents - we had to reassure the horrified Hungarian girl that it's the principle, not the amount) and walk out with our bags as she cries to her customers for help, tries to bar the doors and calls after us “you are very thief!” while the old men mutter about how Janvier has no respect for women. Possibly because of the volume of cruise boats, the locals consistently try to rip us off so we return to the relative cool of Asmara, where the Hungarian guy gets diarrhea and wears maxi-pads as emergency protection and Janvier relates stories of shitting his pants and sitting in it for 10 hours on a jeep trip in Pakistan. I am thoroughly disgusted by my choice of friends.
Yemen is next in line, but it's unclear whether we'll
Do not photograph the Donkeys!
This is the picture that almost bought me a run-in with the Authorities. Barentu.
be able to find a dhow from Assab (LP says it's impossible), so we budget enough time to go to Assab, get rejected, come back to Asmara to get a Djibouti visa, go back down again, and then get to Djibouti city to catch a boat from there. I don't think we could have survived that trip. We get our Yemeni visas with nothing worse than having to spend $70 for a “health check” comprising someone asking about “any abnormalities?” followed by a pinprick to the finger, resulting in a “negative” HIV result 60 seconds later. I wish I had counted how many times Janvier said “F*ck”. On the bus down we meet an old German man who is bright red and is doing the trip “to see Assab”, and will be returning the same way. We avoid him as his mental condition may turn out to be contagious. This time we only get 3 hours of start-lit sleep, and arrive exhausted in Assab. It's a testament to the adaptability of the human body that we managed to sleep some on the return trip, despite the bouncing bus and mid-August heat.
By a stroke of extremely good luck we
The perks of traveling: fresh guava juice and cute waitresses.
find a boat the very day we arrive, drink one last farewell “Asmara” beer over one last meal of tibbs, and set sail on a twin-outboard-motor wooden dhow as the sun sets red over Africa and we cross the Red Sea to finally enter the Promised Land.
When we make it to Taizz, with its skirt-and-kefiyyeh wearing men, meter-tall “madda'a” sheeshas, qat dens, delicious rice, and loud polluted traffic so typical of the Middle East, I have to brush back a tear: I'm home again!