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6 months ago I had never heard of Eritrea. I don't think many people have heard of Eritrea. It's one of those places that most people don't know about or visit, like Wales and the public toilets. But this tiny nation has probably been my favourite country to date.
After crossing a tiny bridge in the middle of nowhere, Brian, Junko and I walked by border security, looking more like a black 70s grunge band with ripped clothes and machine guns, and up to immigration. Formalities over,
we got on the only bus to the closest town, Teseney, where the hotel manager graciously lent us money, no questions asked, so that we could get dinner. I drank my 3rd beer ever, a personal reward for finally getting out of Sudan.
The next day gave us an indication of things to come. I went to the bank to change money but was told that I first had to visit the town's immigration department. The immigration department seemed equally perplexed at to what they were supposed to do, and so wrote a note to the bank telling them to give me what I wanted. I jokingly asked if I was the first foreigner to come to their bank and they replied nonchalantly that I was. Having finally changed money we left for the next town, Barentu. There was nothing much to do here except walk around and see what the deal was. We came across some random guy playing a traditional Eritrean guitar, who let us have a go. I tried a rendition of Lady in Red, but to be honest, I was crap. Brian, being able to play the guitar, was much better, though he refused to play Lady in Red, despite being Irish.
Brian and Junko went looking for food, whilst I played basketball with some of the local kids. Was a good laugh, except when they threatened to beat me up with a basketball but it was okay; for once I enjoyed being the tallest player on the court and noone decided to beat me up. When it got dark I went looking for my 2 friends. It was easy tracking them down with my inspector-like skills. Every restaurant I went to said they had seen a tall white guy with a small girl walk by recently and obliged me with a finger point in the direction I should walk.
On the way I met a nice English speaking waiter who insisted there was no alcohol available:
Me: Do you have whiskey here?
Bar: Sorry sir, we don't serve alcohol, only soft drinks and beer
Me: Uuuuhhhh, so you dont have any gin either?
Bar: Sorry sir but we really don't serve alcohol here. We have beer. We have wine. We have water. We have soft drinks.....but no alcohol.
These people have some weird ideas.
The next day we tried to get to Keren, the next town on the way to the capital. But were turned back at a checkpoint, where we were told we needed a travel permit for anywhere outside the capital. Why no-one had stopped us before remains a mystery, and despite several attempts to get by we were forced to head back to Barentu, the town we had just left, to obtain a piece of paper which said we could leave again.
By the time it was all finished we were exhausted and so decided to head straight to the capital, Asmara. The scenic road was sublime, curiously dotted with many rusty tanks, remnants of the war with Ethiopia 20 years ago, tha noone had bothered to clean up.
Asmara is the most beautiful capital I've been to. We all loved it immediately. Street side cafes, wide palm-lined roads, amazing people and a relaxed atmosphere all conglomerated into a truly unique city. It was easy for us to recuperate here after several weeks of hardcore travel. The days were spent sipping coffee, eating doughnuts, wandering, drinking too much alcohol and recovering from hangovers. The Italian / African mix was a great combination.
Our plan had been to head to Nakfa to see the underground towns that Eritrean Resistance had used against Ethiopia. But as of last year we were no longer allowed to go there. We were also prohibited from heading to the south of the country, which was our route to Djibouti, our next country. In fact we couldn't go anywhere because of 'security reasons'. So we stayed in Asmara for a few days before heading to Massawa, the Red Sea town. Myself, and maybe Brian, were going to try and hitch a ride on a boat to Djibouti.
It was a nice place, especially the Old Town, which still showed much evidence of the Eritrean Struggle for Independence. But it was totally dead. The only highlight was a fish restaurant, which made delicious fish, despite a kitchen that looked like it may have been apt for a Thai prison, and a chef who looked like a dead version of Uncle Fester, but with hair.
Brian and Junko left the next morning. I stayed about because I heard rumours that there was an Australian guy with a private boat who might be going to Djibouti. So for the next day and a bit I waited in a tea shop, where he might have turned up, hoping that he would turn up. And just when I was standing up to leave Massawa he turned up. He said he wasn't going to Djibouti unless the wind took him that way. So I said goodbye. 5 minutes later I'm getting in a bus to the capital, when he turns up again and says he's changed his mind. I can go with him, and he'll try and get to Djibouti. The deal was that I wouldn't pay any money but that I would work for him; cooking, lookout, etc.... He would teach me how to sail, there was a spare bed on the boat and would I mind sleeping on any islands we came across on the way down? I was happier than Robin in a cape. Unfortunately port immigration, who had suggested I hitch a ride with him in the first place, said that I couldn't leave by boat. I had to leave by land. When I said that I couldn't leave by land because I wasn't allowed to they were confused. They mumbled something between themselves and finally said I had to leave by air then.
So that was it, the dream of sailing down the red sea with an eye patch was over. I got on the first bus to the capital, booked my plane ticket to Djibouti that night and met up with Brian and Junko for one last meal.
Eritrea has been one of the most amazing countries, with an equally amazing capital city, but the rules of the country have once again been a stumbling block to my travels.
So I had no choice; I was off to Yemen.