Friday, January 28, 2005
Christmas in Eritrea:
on the road and out to the islands
This is the second and final installment of an article that began in the January 21 issue, "Christmas in Eritrea: family and birding in the Horn of Africa."
Our three-week visit to Eritrea during December included time with our family in Asmara during the holidays and trips around the country with our driver Tekle and Eritrean birder Dawit. But before going any further, let me say that of all the countries we have ever visited, we got to know Eritrea the best. Yes, having our family living in the capital city of Asmara was a great advantage, but we couldn't have seen the country, which is about the size of Pennsylvania, the way we did without Tekle our driver and Dawit, who knew the best places to look for birds.
Tekle knew the roads — the main highways, the dirt roads, the desert tracks. He greeted friends all along the way, and had the know-how to find fuel for our vehicle at a time when there was a severe petrol and diesel fuel shortage in the country. He directed us to hotels (I'll say more about that later), and he had the right documents to get us through the military checkpoints when we headed south towards the U.N.-occupied Ethiopian border.
Dawit, besides knowing where to look for birds, was friendly and outgoing and found ways for us to visit village homes out in the countryside. He also knew where land mines might be when we walked into the bush, and kept us out of danger. Our relationship with those two men is what made our trip so special. The Eritrean people are known for their remarkable kindness, humility, and warm response to visitors, and we can certainly attest to that.
On to Massawa and the Dahlak Islands
Our son Will and our grandson Neil joined us for the trip to Massawa, a major port on the Red Sea, where we would take a boat to the Dahlak Islands, an archipelago of over 300 islands and islets, only ten of which are inhabited. The road from Asmara to Massawa descends 2,400 meters, down mountainous hairpin roads, through the clouds, past herds of cattle on their way to market, and finally to Massawa, once one of the most beautiful cities on the Red Sea. The city was severely damaged during the first war with Ethiopia, but the architecture still reflects the Turkish and Egyptian regimes that occupied the city centuries ago.
We found our way to the harbor and then the boat landing, where our hired boat was ready to take us on the 50- kilometer, two-hour ride to Dahlak Kebir Island, the one island in the archipelago where we could rent a small bungalow. Once settled on the island for a two-day visit, my husband Ken and Dawit went off to look for birds. Will and Neil explored the island looking for a beach where we could swim, and I settled down for an afternoon nap. Asked what we would like for dinner that evening, we all agreed that fish would be great. A short time later we watched as a fisherman set out in his boat to catch fish not far off shore. By dinnertime the fisherman was still out there, and we were asked if pasta instead of fish for dinner would be okay.
The Dahlak Islands are known for their coral reefs and deep-sea diving (still undiscovered by many divers), birding (likewise, visited by few birders), and fishing. Exploring several of the islands, on one we found rusting Russian anti-aircraft guns near an abandoned Soviet naval base, a relic of the Ethiopian occupation. On another, our boat pulled up on a white sandy beach, occupied only by crab plovers and sooty gulls. With clear blue water, this was the perfect spot for an early morning swim. On a third, we found a nesting colony of brown boobies. Nowhere during this two-day exploration of the islands did we meet other visitors.
Back on land in Massawa in the late afternoon, we checked into the Gurgussum Beach Hotel and then drove back to have dinner in downtown Massawa, in one of the outdoor fish restaurants. Let me explain how these work. First we went into the restaurant, peered into a tank and picked out our dinner (we chose a large red snapper) and watched as it was lowered down an opening in the counter onto a blazing log below. As it cooked, we made our way back outdoors to a table on the street (there is no traffic on the narrow alleyways in old Massawa) to wait for our fish. Once it was served, accompanied only by a bottle of water and chunks of bread, a collection of frisky cats assembled under our table waiting for the bones to be discarded along with leftover pieces of fish. I have to admit that the fresh fish, which we ate Eritrean style without utensils, was delicious.
Heading south along the Red Sea
The next day, after an early morning swim, we dropped Will and Neil off at the bus station for their trip back to Asmara and headed south along the Red Sea coast. Skirting by the Gulf of Zula and past the Buri Peninsula into a near-desert landscape, here we saw our only ostriches. This was my first full day of birding, so it was interesting, and I must admit a bit exhausting as we stopped and started for birds, with the frequent request heard throughout the day "could you back up, there's a courser (or shrike, or snake-eagle) back there we need to take a better look at."
As the afternoon wore on, I asked Tekle where we would be spending the night. He mentioned a hotel in one of the small villages on the road, maybe an hour or so away. Tired and eager for a rest, I imagined a nice but simple hotel, maybe a two-story-high stone or concrete structure where I would have time before dinner to take a nap. This unfortunately was not to be the case. Around four o'clock, when we pulled up to a simple wooden hut-like building with a thatched roof and communal style rooms with six or eight beds on an earthen floor, I had a bit of a shock. I wasn't prepared to spend the night in a room with six or seven men, many of whom I had never met. (In the Eritrean culture, especially in the countryside, women would not be staying in hotels away from their homes.)
Responding to my concerns, Tekle suggested we continue on a bit further, to Mersa Fatma, where he knew of another hotel. By the time we reached the second hotel, which was much like the first, it was time for dinner, and by then I had accepted the idea that this was the type of accommodations I should expect when traveling in rural Eritrea. However, I have to admit that things turned out much better than I could have expected. At dusk, four beds were taken outside and lined up not far from the building, on the hard-packed earthen ground. As night fell, without undressing we climbed into our beds, pulled the sheets over our heads and, believe it or not, had almost 12 hours of sleep under the stars, before being awakened by an early morning call from the nearby mosque. Because the weather was warm, with a slight breeze from the sea keeping the mosquitoes away, this turned out to be our best night's sleep of the entire trip. As for bathroom facilities, there were none. Instead we were directed across the road where we might find a clump of bushes to hide behind.
On to Senafé, a town close to the Ethiopian border
After celebrating Christmas with our family back in Asmara, we set off on another trip heading to the southern highlands and the town of Senafé near the Ethiopian border. To get to Senafé we had to pass through three military checkpoints before passing into a Temporary Security Zone, manned by UN military police from India. Senafé suffered extensive damage during the war with Ethiopia, when thousands of people lost their homes and are still living in refugee camps surrounding the town. Two kilometers south of Senafé is one of Eritrea's most important archaeological sites at Metera, a community dating back to the 5th century BC. Birds were abundant near the site, including a flock of 33 wattled ibises sailing over the ruins. On the trip back to Asmara, we stopped at a second site, Qohaito, near the highest mountain in Eritrea, 3013-meter Mt. Ambassoira.
With just a few days left before our New Year's Eve flight back home, Ken, Will, Dawit, and Tekle made one last trip, to the western lowlands and the town of Barentu, not far from the border with Sudan. I decided to stay behind in Asmara with time to walk with my grandson around town and on another walk, with Lyudmila and Jocelyn, stop for a cup of a cappuccino at an outdoor cafe.
Finally, on our flight back to Boston, we had plenty of time to reflect on all we had seen and learned in those three weeks in Eritrea. Here was a country where people remained in poverty, partly as the result of an ongoing squabble with neighboring (but ethnically very similar) Ethiopia. Yet in spite of hardships, the Eritreans are the friendliest, kindest, and most accommodating people we have ever met. Here was a culture where religious groups live together without animosity Christian Orthodox, Muslims, Catholics, and others. We, and all the Eritreans we talked to, fervently hope that relations with Ethiopia can be healed without the devastation another war would bring.
© 2005 The Carlisle Mosquito