| 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
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
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
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.