Circumnavigation – Red Sea Pt. II

20 Jan

Part Two of our Red Sea Sailing Adventure, Eritrea, Africa – We are often asked, “What was your favorite part?” when people hear that we sailed around the world. And while the standard answer is that every country had it’s high points for us, the best area we cruised, or the best and most interesting memories at least, came from sailing the Red Sea. Which is why it is so disappointing to hear that these days, just six years later, cruisers are facing such a tough decision when it comes to choosing whether or not to sail these waters.

march 31 2006 : massawa, eritrea

Yesterday we had one of the coolest experiences. We were walking through town when we came across an old lady who was busy watching a young boy knock a few bricks off of a crumbling building. We said hello as we walked by and she smiled warmly. After a moment she asked if we liked café. We stopped, turned around, and were sort of unsure what she meant. But then she beckoned us to follow her.


She led us to her home and called for her daughter, Almaz, to come from next door. We were welcomed into her home, which, like all buildings in Massawa, seemed to have taken a number of direct hits from bombs, grenades, and machine guns. It was a combination of brick, stone, and concrete, with fifteen foot ceilings, and just one room about fifteen feet square. There was one bed, a small sofa, a couple of plastic chairs, large tapestries hanging on the walls, and a bunch of plastic bags covering the rest of the walls in the areas where it appeared to be crumbling the worst.


A few moments later Almaz came in with a small metal box that had coals burning on top. She quickly went to work on the extremely drawn out process of making coffee. First she roasted the coffee beans, a ten minute process that filled the room with a delicious aroma. Then she put them in a bowl and ground them. From here the grounds were spooned into a pot, similar to a small genie bottle. She then added water from a plastic container, as there is no running water in the home. The genie bottle then went on the fire. With Almaz constantly fanning the coals the genie bottle sat on the fire for another fifteen minutes. Finally, the coffee was ready.


Already set out were four small espresso type china cups, and just before pouring she stuffed what looked like grass into the opening of the genie bottle. We asked what the grass was, thinking it was a spice or something, and she told us it was hair from a cow's tail that they used as a filter for the coffee grounds. I don't think that they sell those filters at Wal-Mart. 


During all of this, we had been attempting small talk in their limited English and our completely non-existent Tigrinya. We eventually found some common ground that everyone could understand in a photo album from Almaz's wedding. The wedding seemed elaborate and very similar to our own, with a big white wedding gown, a three tiered cake, and a car decorated with what we assumed said "Just Married" on the back. There was even the obligatory picture of the two of them feeding each other wedding cake.


While the coffee was being prepared, we were also given a small shot of gin and a plate of bread with some curry paste. They were obviously eager to share anything they had with us. The bread both looked and tasted exactly like a sponge and was quite disgusting, but we managed a few bites each, which made them happy. All in all it was an amazing encounter in which we got to see exactly what life is like for people here in one of the poorest places in the world. And to top it off, the coffee was excellent.




We also had them exchange some money for us on the black market. They got a nice commission and we got a better exchange rate. When we cleared into Eritrea customs gave us a form in which we were supposed to declare how much foreign currency we were bringing in. We were then supposed to take that form to the bank whenever we exchanged our money for the Eritrean nakfa. Whenever a country forces you to do this you can be absolutely sure that you are getting screwed. The bank rate, as it turned out, was only 15 to 1. The black market rate was 18 to 1. Twenty percent is a pretty major difference, so we were happy to get that done.


We then went to the bank to exchange twenty bucks and satisfy customs. Something that caught our eye at the bank was that there was not a single computer. A bank without a computer seems impossible in our minds, but here they had paperwork stacked to the ceilings.



Later that night we went out for dinner. First we stopped by a nice little bar and had a few drinks out on the sidewalk. We then wandered down the street to another little local bar/restaurant. The beer here was practically frozen, which was a nice change and ordering dinner I decided to just ask the waiter to bring me out whatever he thought was good from the list of five local Eritrean dishes. That turned out to be a mistake. He brought out a plate with a giant piece of that wet spongy bread and a sort of meat stew. It was mystery meat at its finest. The flavor was good, but the meat was so chewy that instead of chewing it up I eventually decided that I would have to just wash down whole mouthfuls with a drink of beer. I would have felt bad not making it at least look like I had enjoyed it, so I managed to get down about half the bowl.


Meanwhile Ali was slurping down her bowl of tomato soup, which was at least edible, and when the order of french fries finally arrived I scarfed them down as well. Not our most successful meal. One nice side benefit though was that we were forced to drink a whole bunch more 50 cent beers than we otherwise wouldn't have. Something we found strange was that no matter how many empty beer bottles you had they never cleared them away when they brought you a new one. There was one table with two guys sitting at it that had a dozen empties teetering on the small table, and I won't even mention how big our own pile grew.



This morning we headed into immigration to receive our visas. Eritrea would allow us to stay two days without a visa, but if we wanted to stay longer, or travel inland, we needed to shell out the $40 for one. The visa actually cost 600.10 nakfa, which comes out to $40.006. We thought the six tenths of a penny was a nice touch. After paying the fee in one office, we had to go to another office to pay seven nakfa each for a folder that they put our one sheet of paperwork into before tucking it in their file cabinet. It's sort of funny though, the Eritrean bureaucracy seems pretty involved, but it is actually one of the most efficiently run processes that we've dealt with.


After finishing that, we went back to our coffee friend's home. We had thrown together a little thank you package with some clothes, a picture frame, and a two pound bag of sugar. The picture frame was a hit with mom, and everyone seemed very pleased with the sugar, passing it around in a circle and feeling the weight of it. We're not sure how the shirts went over, but they all had been wearing Western-style clothes, so we have a feeling we'll see them in a couple of days walking around in their new duds. Of course, they couldn't let us get away with just dropping off our gift, and once again we went through the entire coffee process.


Later that day, we took a bus over to the next small town of Edaga. The ride cost a mere ten cents. Our intention was to stop in at the long range bus station and see what time the bus to Asmara left the next day. Instead we found a busy market where we sat and watched life for a while. We didn't need to buy anything but watching all the different people was fascinating.


The women wore just about anything. There were a few girls wearing Western-style jeans and shirts, and a bigger group that wore beautifully colored sarongs in every color and pattern imaginable. There were only a few women walking around in full black gown and veil. The men here are a much rattier bunch, most wearing tattered golf shirts and some sort of khaki pants, or else dressed in camouflage military garb. We never did make it to the bus station but are certain that there are buses leaving pretty regularly.








april 2 2006 : asmara, eritrea, africa

Yesterday morning we caught a bus to Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, about four hours away. The bus was a small Japanese minibus converted to seat about twenty-five people, a couple of babies, dozens of boxes of salt, possibly some livestock, and whatever else needed transporting. The first bus we were corralled onto was already full, but they tried to rearrange people, moving them to seats in the center aisle so we could have the window seat. Nobody seemed thrilled with that arrangement, so we backed out and went to the next bus in line allowing us to take our pick of which seat we wanted. Somehow we managed to pick the one with a broken aisle seat, giving us an unprecedented amount of space. We opened the window wide and sat back to enjoy the ride.


As we got underway we were surprised to see everyone start closing up their windows. It was ninety degrees outside, but with the breeze it felt great. Within half a mile all the windows had been shut, except ours. And soon we got a tap on the shoulder asking us to close ours as well. It was crazy.


The second the windows were all closed up the temperature inside the bus soared. We couldn't understand it. Occasionally a window would be opened for somebody to yell to a friend as we passed by and if it was left open for more than a few seconds people would start to hike up their collars and shiver. The locals body temperature must have been at least forty degrees cooler than ours, because Ali and I were soaked through from the heat.


Besides from the temperature the bus ride was pretty nice as far as third-world bus rides go. Our driver actually seemed to care that his bus didn't topple down the mountainside in a ball of flames, which was a pleasant change. Of course he loved his music, and he loved it on full blast. Ali and I are now singing ballads to each other in Arabic. "Ashtaak, ashtaak, ashtaak, w-asaal a'ankoum el-ashwaaa."


The mountains were interesting in that they were tiered every twenty feet. At a distance each mountain appeared to have hundreds of horizontal lines across it, but up close you couldn't really see them at all. I figured at first they were just natural paths, but then noticed that the stones were piled up into nice even walls for miles and miles. I can't imagine who did all that work, but it seems to keep the mountainside from simply washing down to the bottom when they do get rain.


The locals on the bus were extremely quiet, which is something we're getting used to here in Eritrea. They don't show any interest in us at all, which is fine, but it does feel a little strange after our experiences pretty much everywhere else.


The bus made one stop along the way for everyone to get off and take a break. Soon a hundred kids surrounded the bus selling little straight sticks that are used as a toothbrush substitute. They peel the bark back from one end and mash it up until it looks like a brush, then they sit there all day rubbing their teeth with it.


When we got to Asmara we asked a local if he knew of a nice hotel. We had absolutely no information on Asmara so were just kind of winging it. He recommended the Albergo Italia so we hopped in a cab and asked him to take us there. The hotel turned out to be a five star place. We had no idea that Eritrea would even have a hotel like this. We walked in and found out that it was ridiculously expensive and were about to leave when the manager hustled up and offered us a deal we just couldn't turn down. I don't think there are more than about three guests in the place.


The hotel is the oldest in Eritrea dating back to 1899 and was just redone last year. We dropped off our bags and went straight back down to the terrace for lunch. It was time for a pizza. The best part of eating pizza in Eritrea is that the people on the bulletin boards who get all in a huff over our eating patterns can't even say anything about it since pizza is actually a local food here. Granted, the Italians have been gone 40 years now, but some traditions must live on.


Something we've noticed in our travels is that the food menus around the world invariably have something on them that they call "American." Here the American pizza consisted of mushrooms, pineapple, and mint. Of all the many crazy pizza combinations we American's might eat, I think we can be pretty sure that has never been one of them. The next day we were in a café and noticed that the American burger included a big fat fried egg on it. Personally I hate eggs, but never once in America have I ever had to ask for my cheeseburger without egg on it, that's a Kiwi/Ozzie thing. We ended up ordering a pizza of the non-American variety and it was excellent.


After lunch we went for a walk around town. The city is billed as the cleanest capital in Africa, and I would guess probably lives up to the name. The main street is lined with cafés, shops, and little bars. The cafés had tables out on the sidewalks and every table was full of well dressed locals having tea and pastries. The locals were all dressed as if it was winter in Chicago instead of Asmara. They were all wearing pants, long sleeves, and heavy winter coats. All the clothes were very nice however, and Ali and I were actually feeling pretty scrubby in our jeans, t-shirts, and flip-flops.



Today we went out intending on stopping at the Egyptian embassy to get our visas for our visit to Egypt. We don't necessarily have to have them, but thought it would make life a little easier. The embassy turned out to be closed so instead we found a nice café for a snack and stopped in at the internet café to see what else there might be to do here. It turned out there was nothing to see other than the city streets themselves. So we just continued to wander around town. The sidewalk cafés only appeared to be for tea and coffee so for a beer we eventually found ourselves popping in on some of the local bars down the back streets instead.


Each bar is about 25 feet deep and maybe 15 feet wide. Our first stop didn't have much atmosphere, pretty much relying on the 13" television with EriTV blasting at full volume for entertainment. Next door we found Bar Africa (all bars have single word names, and all are about as unique as this one) to be much more interesting. Inside they had a billiards table with a bunch of locals gathered around having an intense game. We sat down and watched them play for a while. They called the game billiards, but it was totally different than our billiards back home. It was actually just like bocce ball except on a table instead of a lawn. The locals continued to be extremely quiet with us, until one guy finally gathered up the courage to say hello and tell us a little about the game.


While playing their game everybody kept one eye on the table and one on us. Ali was the only woman in the place, which can sometimes be a little awkward, but when we left she gave the guys a big smile and said goodbye. They all instantly smiled, waved, and yelled goodbye as we walked out the door. Sort of like shy little schoolboys.




Today we realized how much our standards have changed as far as restaurant bathrooms go. At Bar Africa I made the scouting mission and came back to Ali with a glowing review. I told her, "It's great! It's just right down at the end of the alley, AND there is even a piece of metal you can use to lock the door." We now tend to overlook the fact that the toilet is just a stinking hole in the middle of a dirt floor.


Notice in that picture of Ali that the bar name is on a Coke sign. The signs are everywhere. You see Coke advertised all across the country, yet you will never find any. The only place we've found that has Coke is our hotel, and it cost 25 nakfa, whereas a beer only cost 7. Just about every little store we go in to has one of those big Coca-Cola refrigerators sitting in the corner completely empty.









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