Those unfamiliar with Cairo will not realise that it is pretty cold in winter. The builders of my appartment block obviously didn't realise it either as there was no heating and the wind was whistling through my (closed) windows. It was coming up to the Christmas break and I was wondering where I could go on holiday that would be warm but not too far away. I presumed seeking warmth meant going south so perusing a map, I quickly ignored Sudan and came upon Eritrea. Fresh out of another war with Ethiopia (it was the world's newest country having gained independence in 1993) there would be few tourists and it should prove interesting.
The Eritreanian embassy certainly was - a ramshackle house not far from where I lived. Upon entry I was relieved of my passport and invited to sit on the sofa and chat to some Eritreans. I wasn't sure whether an interview was part of the process for procuring a visa but they seemed friendly enough. The embassy turned out to be a microcosm of the country - in pretty bad shape, but well organised (my visa was ready in 15 mins) and with incredibly friendly and helpful people.
Arriving in the capital Asmara on the weekly flight from Cairo, everything looked like Africa - dry and dusty with a few acacia trees dotted around. However the scene changed to Southern Italy (after all it used to be a colony) when I arrived downtown. My hotel was just off the central tree lined boulevard which in turn was flanked with bars, cafes and pastry shops. I suppose unlike Southern Italy, Bing Crosby could be heard crooning 'White Christmas' from the cathedral. A little out of place as there wasn't a cloud in the startlingly blue sky. At an altitude of 2500 metres Asmara has one of the bluest skies I had ever seen. Later sitting in one of the sidewalk cafes sipping a capuccino I knew I was going to like it here.
I spent a good few days in Asmara relaxing, enjoying the Italian cuisine and exploring the streets and markets before heading bush. My first stop was down to the coastal town of Massawa. Much more ramshackle than the neat Asmara but this was not surprising given the pasting it had got during the war. In contrast, Asmara was the one town which had managed to avoid any fighting. However this gave it a certain charm which was added to by a certain old sea-dog feel to it. Not surprising I suppose as it had been a base for Moorish pirates for 300years.
From the coast and back into the hills and on to Keren. If anything even more pretty and peaceful than Asmara, nestling in the foothills of the ...range. this belies its past as a scene for a terrible battle during WWII. The immaculately maintained Italian and British war cemetaries are a reminder of this.
I went to an interesting market while in Keren which took place in a dried up river bed near to town. There was only one thing for sale - wood, which was strapped to the backs of many camels. I suppose this illustrates the aridity of the region. Like most towns in Eritrea, Keren also has its fair share of half decent bars serving half decent beer - Melotti. I presume it was the same beer I was drinking all over Eritrea as I never saw a single label! I did have one unnerving moment however as one of the old guys in the bar stumbled off his chair, accosted the barman and started pointing at me. Bloody drunk I thought. However he turned into my best mate when I realised he was attempting to pay my bar tab. He and a few of the other blokes in the bar then implored me to head off from Keren to Nacfa.
Nacfa is famed throughout Eritrea as the symbol of resistance to the Ethiopian occupation. During the war every building except the mosque was completely obliterated by constant bombardment. I suppose I had to see it for myself. I wasn't too keen as I knew the road to Nacfa followed a dried up river bed for most of the way - or rather WAS a dried up river bed. While my bones shook along this track my friendly companions kept my mind off my arse by readily pointing out landmarks from the war for independence. One of these was the village of Afabet. Today it is a barren wasteland with a few shacks, but formerly it had been a large barracks town where in one battle for independence 18,000 Ethiopian soldiers were killed. Further on, a beautiful canyon was pointed out as the site of a famous tank battle. Many of their rusting carcasses are still visible. Further still we stopped for coffee at a shack where all the stools were shell casings. Tellingly, the shellcasing stools felt more comfortable than the bus seats.
After recuperating from my trip to the highlands, I headed west down the escarpment and into the desert towards the Sudanese border. Like a lot of Eritrea, there was nothing much to see, except the stark landscape but it was just somewhere to go and experience. The town of Tesserei on the border was fairly non descript, but interesting in that the only hotel didn't have any rooms. Myself and the other guests slept outside on string beds.
Heading back to Asmara I saw many refugee camps. Presumably for people coming back from Sudan. For although Eritrea was supposed to be in bad shape and recovering from a terrible war, I felt that there was much hope for the future. The refugees must have thought so too. Eritreans are well educated and well organised and with few resources everything seemed to work better than a lot of countries I had been to. In fact the most depressing thing I saw during my travels were the convoys of sparkling white UN vehicles which had arrived to establish the new border. (I had thought the red carpet that was there for my arrival was going a bit far - until I realised Kofi Annan was due to show up an hour after me). Where the UN go, the aid organisations, also identified by sparkling new Land Cruisers, follow. The new invasion was supposed to help the new nation. Locals had told me however that all they had seen were an increase in prices, the appearance of corruption unheard of previously, and an influx of prostitutes to service the UN. I think the Eritreans would have been better off on their own.