Trip Reports

The Road To Asmara (07-Mar-2002-15-30):
3:30 PM local time, Thursday, March 7 (1230 March 7 UTC) 15 39 N 039 27 E. Temp. 86, Humidity 72%, Cloud Cover 100%. At anchor in Massawa, Eritrea.

Warm greetings from the crew of Maverick.

In Eritrea there are plenty of brand new $40,000 white SUVs driving around, but they're from the United Nations. Eritrea is one of the poorest countries in the world and this is where some of your tax dollars are being spent. Seems like a good investment.

The country is recovering from a ten-year battle with Ethiopia that they call "The Struggle," and more than thirty years of instability. Wounded veterans are plentiful and the economy is a mess. Yet the people don't seem desperate, nor have social mores collapsed. There are no muggings, no looting, and there are no parentless, starving children wandering the unpaved streets. People smile easily, a big smile if you're American, and welcome you to their country. A couple of them want to leave, though, if they can do it aboard Maverick. It didn't hurt our first impression that, surprise surprise, Americans were given a discount on their visas. Citizens not holding US passports were charged $40; your guys $25.

The report we got from cruisers who went to either Aden or Djibouti first was a mixed bag. In Djibouti one boat, Adrena-line, with our friends Jan and Susanne of Holland, was robbed; Susanne was slapped by a man for a reason she could not decipher on another occasion; some other cruisers returned to their boat to find someone aboard. A cruiser gave some money to someone who was disabled, and the person, who was in a wheelchair, was immediately mugged. In Aden some people, particularly the British, got a warm reception; others were happy to leave.

We still haven't heard of a pirate attack.

The fact that the people are nice here in Eritrea doesn't mean it's a good place for everything, and when Mr. Shrode's temperature rose to 103 degrees a few days after we arrived, it made the Captain fret a bit. You never know what kind of a disease may be floating around in Africa, and medical care might be difficult to come by. I emailed Dr. Frank, but as it turned out, Terry started showing improvement within 24 hours and his fever passed.

Nevertheless, he didn't feel well enough for the trip we had planned to the capital city of Asmara, a three hour, 70-cent bus drive into the mountains near the coast. The Captain, satisfied he was on the mend, headed out for the inland adventure in the company of Spencer, of New York, and Nana, of Columbia, the crew of "Adverse Conditions."

As the small, crowded bus headed out of Massawa, we climbed, slowly at first, and then steeply, on dusty switchbacks and hairpin turns, up the hot and dry gullies dotted with miserly and thorny vegetation. The temperature is in the high eighties, though it's still winter; Eritrea has one of the highest average temperatures on earth. About midway we paused at the African equivalent of a truck stop near a town in the mountains, where taxis, in the form of donkey carts, awaited the travelers disembarking. Goats and camels wandered around the many small restaurants where cold Sprites and Cokes were sold.

We paid with local money, Nakfa, we had gotten on the black market in Massawa. Banks offered 13 to the dollar, if they were open, but if you wandered into almost any store at any hour but the break from one to four o'clock, they would give 18 to the dollar or 19 for a C-note. We wouldn't have sought this out, but it was the normal way to get money in Massawa. Sometimes someone was called in, and the whole transaction had the atmosphere of a drug deal. Not that the Captain has ever been witness to one of those.

As we jammed ourselves back into our cramped seats the little bus climbed further into the mountains. The road cuts revealed upturned and broken layers of sandstone, evidence of the shallow marine origin of the rock. The area has been uplifted and distorted by tectonic forces, as they divide Africa from Asia at a rate similar to the growing of a fingernail. The result of this divergence is the three-armed fissure consisting of the Great African Rift Valley, the Gulf of Aden, and the Red Sea, although some consider the Red Sea an extension of the Great Rift Valley. The divergence itself does not tend towards orogeny, rather a widening valley, but the region has also been lifted and stretched due to volcanic activity associated with the continuing dismemberment of Pangaea that began approximately at the beginning of the Cretaceous. In addition to the moderately high mountains we were climbing, this activity produced the Ethiopian Plateau, on which Asmara, our destination, was situated.

It is, to say the least, an inconvenience that the railroad built during the Italian colonization of this area is no longer functional, as almost everything necessary for the maintenance of life in Asmara has now to be trucked from Massawa up the same narrow road we traveled, along which the old tracks looked in pretty good shape. I asked the locals why Asmara was located so far from any river or sea, one of its many unusual aspects. They didn't know, but one might surmise that the high plateau has the most fertile land, and as a result was the center of Eritrea's agriculturally based economy. On the slopes along our way we saw the terraces typical of mountain farming in Asia, but they were overgrown; on the lee side of the mountains, they were dry and barren. Again I tried to ask my neighbors on the bus why the terraces were no longer cultivated, but could not find an answer.

We came to a village situated on a high mountain pass, looking, through the haze, like the end of the world. But instead of continuing over the saddle as I expected, we turned and drove precariously along the shoulder of the adjoining range, still gaining altitude, and gazed down at a precipitous drop. At the pass I noted prickly pear cactus (genus Opuntia; the native name is Beles), which was strange to see at this altitude, but even odder was the presence, cheek-by-jowl with the cactus, of Eucalyptus (the genus; native name Kelamintos). In this environment the tree did not grow to the size we are used to seeing in California, where, like here, it has been introduced.

We had passed several guarded checkpoints along the way, where papers were inspected and the Captain presented his $25 visa that worked just as good as Nana's $40 one. But when we arrived at the city, there was no feeling of siege and no more military guards than you'd see in California. In fact, here, we saw none of the bomb damage and bullet holes we witnessed in Massawa. Maybe it was too long of a drive for the enemy soldiers.

The city doesn't fit your idea of east Africa, whatever that may be. It has paved streets and is large, home to perhaps a third of a million people, perhaps two thirds in western dress. It is pleasantly quiet, even in the midst of a bustling day on the main street, Independence Avenue. The air is still a bit dusty, but has the crispness one would associate with a mountain valley on a beautiful day. There are European style hotels, and the Captain sprang for one to have a private bath, hot and cold running water, and CNN. It was worth the investment, because along with the BBC and CNN I was able to watch Saudi Arabian TV news, printed on the screen in English while the Koran was sung, and found the content not as different as one might have thought. I noticed they also present "Sesame Street" and "Candid Camera," programs evidently thought to be not too lascivious for the Saudi audience.

And I found Britney's new video on MTV.

Returning to the boat the next day, I found Mr. Shrode almost completely recovered. The following afternoon we had some excitement when a 90-foot derelict steel fishing boat came adrift from its moorings and floated through the anchorage. It finally ran aground without hitting anything and we convinced the harbormaster to move it before the next high tide. He sent a small boat that got it off and tied to another derelict with the help of some cruisers.

Maverick is covered in dust and salt, the former from Massawa, the latter still not rinsed off from the wet trip from the Maldives to Oman. The halyards and sheets are a dirty brown and stiff as wire from the salt. The topsides are stained with oil from the harbor and marred from rubbing against the various craft that carry officials to check us in the countries we visit. These will need some work with abrasives, perhaps at the next haulout. But hey, she floats.

ADDENDUM: Because internet facilities in Eritrea are primitive, the photos we owe you from here and Oman will have to wait to be transmitted until we get to Egypt. Connecting from the boat to send basic email has also been difficult because of the interference in the harbor and our distance from the nearest station, in Belgium.

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