Friday, January 21, 2005
Christmas in Eritrea: family and birding in the Horn of Africa
On December 9, just when I would usually be attaching a Christmas wreath to the front door, deciding when to start my Christmas baking, and puzzling over what present to give to a daughter-in-law, my husband and I were boarding a plane for a 23-hour trip (including a seven-hour layover in Frankfurt) to Asmara, Eritrea. We were on our way to spend the holidays with our son Will and his family, who are living in this small country in an area known as the Horn of Africa, across the Red Sea from Yemen, bordered by Sudan, Ethiopia, and Djibouti, and near Somalia. Will is teaching high school math at the American-financed International School in the capital city of Asmara. He and his wife Lyudmila, their eight-year-old son Neil, and six-month-old daughter Jocelyn have been in the country since August and plan to stay for the next two years.
Eritrea is a small, poor country that over the centuries has been occupied by the Turks, Egyptians, British, French, Italians and most recently by their neighbor Ethiopia. The Italians colonized the country in 1884 and built much of the country's infrastructure. After Italy was defeated in WWII, Eritrea was federated to Ethiopia. In 1961, a war for independence from Ethiopia broke out, lasting until 1991. On May 24 1993, Eritrea formally gained its independence. Unfortunately, in 1998 a dispute with Ethiopia erupted into another war, starting at the border town of Badme and resulting in several hundred thousand casualties and widespread civilian suffering. Fighting ended in 2000, but there continues to be a dispute over the border, with the UN moving in to police a 25-km wide zone on the Eritrean side of the border.
Now back to our trip. Once our son announced his plans to teach in Eritrea, my husband Ken, a serious birder, was overjoyed with the idea of an opportunity to bird in northeastern Africa, where he has never been. Of course, we were excited about spending the holidays with our family, but the chance to see new birds was something not to be missed. It must have been September when books on African birds could be seen piling up in different locations all around the house. It also became clear that because of unmapped and unmarked roads, military checkpoints, and leftover land mines that this was not a country for a drive-yourself rental car. So by November, Will had lined up an Eritrean driver, Tekle, with a Land Cruiser. After a round of e-mails with a German professor who had studied baboons in Eritrea, Ken also got in touch with an Eritrean birder, Dawit.
During the week before we were to leave for Eritrea, busy packing our bags with Christmas presents and other items that our son had asked us to bring, Ken received disturbing news from Will. He had heard from a professor at the University of Asmara that visitors were forbidden to bring binoculars into the country! A birder without binoculars? No way, responded Ken. He would leave his telescope at home, but in no way could we visit the country without binoculars. After obtaining letters written by friends with dazzling testimonials to Ken's expertise as an ornithologist, including one from Peter Alden of Concord, author of the National Audubon Society Field Guide to African Wildlife, we boarded the plane for Africa. The thought that we might lose our binoculars going through customs in Eritrea was with us all along the way.
On arrival in Asmara, while passing through customs close to midnight the next day, Ken was asked if we had anything to declare. Responding to the request, he pulled out his camera, which the customs worker noted in her file without much interest. Much to our surprise, she asked no more questions and with a nod directed us out the door. This was our first experience with the changing rules and regulations from the Eritrean government. We would soon learn of the many hours that our son Will had had to stand in line to obtain permits to travel with us to special areas of the country. This was understandable once we realized the security and control the government believes it must impose while the border dispute with Ethiopia remains unresolved. We had already obtained our permits, without difficulty, thanks to Tekle, our driver.
Getting to know Asmara
Luckily we arrived in Asmara a week before Will's school was to close for the two-week Christmas recess. Asmara is a beautiful city, at 2400 meters elevation atop the Eritrean highlands, with a population of 500,000. Here the weather is pleasant all year long. On the coast it is hot and rainy in December. During the 1930s, under Italian colonial rule, buildings in the city were constructed using the Art Deco style of Italian modernist architecture. Asmara was spared the destruction caused by the wars over many years and today is known as one of safest and most beautiful capitals in all of Africa. As the Lonely Planet guide writes, "Asmara has generally been spared the litter-strewn, sprawling ghettos of many developing-world cities and the bleak Western-style high-rise office and apartment buildings of post-colonial Africa."
During that first weekend in the country, we went with Will and a group of UN and embassy personnel for their monthly hike in the hills outside Asmara. The next day we met with a group of Will's friends from the school for a picnic along a stream, near a reservoir north of the city. Here we had the opportunity to meet several Catholic Relief Service workers involved with bringing food into the country for the poor and starving. Of course, wherever we went Ken was out looking at birds.
During that first week I attended Neil's third- and fourth-grade play "Aesop's Fables" at the school, and Ken and I started taking trips out of the city with Tekle. Our first trip, 70 km north of the city, was a two-day visit to the Elabered Estate Farm. The challenge in Eritrea is how to collect and manage the scarcest resource: water. This 1200-hectare vegetable and dairy farm uses a network of reservoirs and a holistic, organic approach to agriculture. It also supplies the only pasteurized milk in the country, which Asmarans wait in long lines to buy. We stayed overnight there in a homey bungalow, enjoyed the wonderful meals produced from ingredients grown on the farm, and were especially pleased to find many interesting birds along its dams, ponds and canals, and even spotted a leopard slinking through the long grass.
Back in Asmara, on Friday night the whole family went to the opening of a one hundred-year-old synagogue in the center of town, which had been closed for many years. Because of Neil's friendship with a classmate, the son of the Israeli Ambassador (whom we had met hiking the previous weekend), we were all invited to attend the special ceremony, which took place during the celebration of Hanukkah.
Down the mountains
to the Red Sea
Now with school out and a week left before Christmas, Will and Neil were able to join us for a more extended trip. This trip, descending on narrow, unfenced, hairpin-turn, cattle-clogged mountain roads, would take us down to Massawa, one of two Eritrean ports on the Red Sea. Massawa was the best port on the east coast of Africa before suffering extensive destruction during the wars. There we would be joined by birder Dawit and head out to the Dahlak Islands by hired boat for two days of birding, swimming and exploring.
The conclusion of this article will appear in next week's newspaper.
© 2005 The Carlisle Mosquito