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Eritrea, Land of Cappucino and Enjera

Written on: Wednesday March 12th, 2008

A journal entry from: Thailand to Turkey

Albert II comes into Port Massawa under clear skies in the early afternoon. We are told to go to the anchorage and wait for 3 hours, then check in at 4pm. Jim and Ged take a nap, and I stir them from slumber just before 4. We hop in the dinghy and head for the immigration office, tucked away in the labyrinth of warehouses, ISO containers and workshops. When we arrive, no one is there and we are told they have left for the day. We come to discover this is a running theme in Eritrea. People leave for breakfast and sometimes they are not around after breakfast because they are praying or taking a nap. Then there is lunch and more nap time which will get you to early evening, when you can take off for supper until the next industrious day comes around. The places that never seem to close are the dozens of cafes lining the streets, especially in the inland mountain capital of Asmara. For a third of a dollar one can have an exceptional espresso or cappuccino (1 part espresso, 2 parts hot milk, cinnamon garnish atop a thin layer of foam?. Delicious!), for a full dollar you can get a doughnut or other cake as well. "Chay" or tea (I?m no tea expert but I think it?s the same as the tea they use to make "sweet tea" in the South) is also available at a slightly cheaper rate. The local currency, the "Nakfa" is exchangeable at the bank for 15 to 1 USD, but you can find black market exchange rates that are considerably better. The best I found was 17.5 nakfa to the dollar, which yields about 15% more nakfa for your buck in comparison to the bank exchange rate. The only catch is that it is illegal. The reason for this is that the locals know their money is weak compared to the dollar so anyone who can afford to hold onto dollars know it is a good investment, as over the years the exchange rate will continue to slip in favor of the dollar. The government forces tourists to declare their assets and you cannot change money in the bank without a customs declaration.

I go with Jim and Ged to Asmara by bus, a four-hour journey, inclusive of a hour stop in a town at the halfway point for tea. These people are as serious as the British about their tea-time, perhaps even more so? Asmara is about 1k meters and 5 degrees cooler than the coastal Massawa. The rough sketch of Eritrea?s history is that it is a big strip of coast that the Italians sort of purchased via an Italian company and then later it declared it?s independence and became a country. A big thorn in the side of Ethiopia, since now it has no coastline due to being land-locked by Eritrea. There have been many small wars and casualties on both sides were fairly heavy. I met a student whose brother and uncle were both killed in the ongoing fighting. His name is Ermias, and he took me to meet his family and dine with them. I forget his mother?s name, but it begins with a "G". His father is Abraham, and his brothers that I meet are Yop, Rober and Etembe (in decreasing order of seniority) and sisters Almas, Selam and Hosit, also in D.O.S. His mother takes raw white coffee beans and lights some charcoal, over which she proceeds to roast the beans. Once they are sufficiently darkened, she hand grinds them and places the grounds in a clay pitcher over the coals. The result is some of the finest espresso I have ever had, bar none. And it flows plentiful as she brews three pitchers over the course of an hour and a half!

A few days later, Jim and Ged return to Massawa; I stay in Asmara to return with Ermias (his university is located in Massawa). I take the bus to his neighborhood and run into a local futbol match on my way there. Having an extra hour, I cannot resist the temptation and set my bag down to join the boys in the hot African dust. There is some betting going on, but I refuse to take part, even though my final was 5-2. These people are poor enough already without losing money to me in wagers. Etembe had left to go to the bus stop to ensure my safe arrival but on the way to the bus he espys me in my distraction. We play a match on the same team before returning to the house for lunch. I take a "shower", that is to say I dump icy water over myself in the toilet room to take away the hot sticky futbol sweat. In Eritrea, shorts are a fashion faux pas, so I have been wearing my Carhardts, even in temperatures about 75+F and relative humidity of 50+. The water is such a shock to me I cannot resist the impulse to laugh and shout exuberantly as I bathe. I thought of Ermias? family hearing me and laughing at my silliness only adds to my amusement and I become semi-hysterical with a fit of the giggles interwoven with my gasps of shock. The whole situation is hilarious, me standing naked on a small wooden stool above the hole-in-the-ground toilet pouring frigid water over myself and howling like a monkey. Ah well, if you can?t laugh at yourself?