2018/10/27

A Journey from Massawa to Asmara, Eritrea



We hear that now, finally there may be peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia, after decades of on-again off-again war. This reminds me of our visit to Eritrea during our millennium circumnavigation by ship in 1999/2000. (See blog posts of December 2008 for more about that remarkable voyage.)

We docked at Massawa. Natasha and I had decided not to take one of the package shore excursions, since we knew this was such a rare visit, we wanted to have some freedom.  It was a bit of pandemonium at the dock, since no passenger ship had visited Massawa in a very long time because of the war.  The locals were surprised to see this shipload of foreigners.  A group of women sang a welcome song. 

It was hot, and dry.  Soon we found a driver and van, and gathered up some fellow passengers to share the costs.  None of us had ever been to Eritrea, or had any idea how long it would take to drive to the capital of Asmara, up in the mountains.

Off we went.  First thing we spotted were the holes everywhere in the buildings and houses – scars and ‘souvenirs’ from the deadly conflict.   During the 1998-2000 war, over 80,000 people were killed.

One of the many war-ravaged buildings in Massawa, the port city of Eritrea.


The dwellings were in a miserable state -- this was one of the poorest nations in the world.

Driving out of Massawa, the land was brown and barren.  Here and there a camel could be seen, tied to a tree.  Houses were more like huts. But we had an excellent view of the coastal desert of the Red Sea.

Along the roadside, people stopped and stared at us.  Some with upheld fists and angry faces at this luxury van carrying ‘rich’ tourists.

When we asked our driver what had caused this ongoing hostility and war, he did not commit himself, other than saying access to a sea port, amongst other things, may have had something to do with it.

The official word was the war was “over claims to border towns largely due to cultural and historical differences in the aftermath of Eritrea’s independence.  The disputed border towns had no significant economic value, with the fight once described as “two bald men fighting over a comb.”

About an hour into our journey, and it was still very hot.  Our driver stopped at a small fruit stand.  Soon it was clear we were not welcome, the women outside, some in army fatigues, started to throw rocks at the van.  Needless to say we went on our way, leaving this hostile group.

From that point on for the rest of the day, we did not encounter any more aggression.   Instead, as we climbed higher and higher through a lusher, green landscape, we noticed a lot of baboons near the roadside. Also lots of wildflowers, and overhead – eagles, ravens, and weaver birds.

Curious baboons along the roadside
 

We climb higher and higher towards the capital, Asmara

The route up to Asmara seemed to be taking forever, and there was no sign of any village or town along the way.  Endless winding, switchback roads and dramatic vistas, with the occasional camel.
We marvelled at the excellent condition of the road – smooth, looking like new.  It had been constructed by the Italians many years ago during the days when Eritrea was a colony of Italy from 1880 to 1947.
 
Since our stopover in Eritrea was just for one day, we were starting to wonder whether we would make it back to the ship in time.  Since we weren’t booked on one of the ship’s official shore excursions, if we were delayed, the ship would not wait.

Finally we entered Asmara, the capital and the sixth highest capital in the world by altitude, at 2,325 metres (7,628 ft). Seventeen years after our visit, Asmara was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Since time was short, our driver took us first to a special restaurant known for its local cuisine.  We were presented with a delicious lunch served on large ceramic plates, with intricately and brightly coloured designs.
 Market, Asmara

We asked the driver to take us to the local market which was in full swing.  Out of the corner of our eyes, Natasha and I noticed a bundle under one of the vendor’s tables.  Curious, we asked the woman to show it to us.  Turned out to be two parchment scrolls of the saints.  


 Panel one of two parchments of saints, discovered in the market, Asmara

Strangely, all the eyes of the saints were covered over.  A mystery.  We later asked a couple of experts and they were stumped too.


The journey from Massawa up to Asmara seemed to take forever, but our return trip felt like it was short.  The driver accelerated when he came to that fruit stand where the women threw rocks at us. 

We had an hour to wander around the streets of Massawa. Everywhere reminders of the conflict, bombed buildings, holes in the walls of the very simple houses.  By now, word had gone around that the people on the ship were well-intentioned bearing no threat, and so we received many smiles and waves.

Let’s hope the latest peace settlement prevails, between Eritrea and Ethiopia, ending decades of hostilities.











2018/10/26

Episode One of Five - beginning of our quest to get to the Galapagos Islands. Stage one: Colombia and Equador, 1969




Our mentor, an experienced traveler and I, arranged a journey to visit the ‘enchanted islands’ – otherwise known as the Galapagos.  A group of artists – sculptors, ballet dancers, singers, writers and painters – flew to Miami in early May, 1969 and from there to Cali, Colombia where we spent a few days. I arranged for a bus to get us to the coastal town of Guyaquil, the port of embarkation, in Equador.

'Was able to hire a brand new Mercedes bus, along with a husky, moustached Colombian at the wheel.  Everyone was in good spirits.  Both of us sat next to the driver since I spoke Spanish. We reached the border of Colombia and Equador and went through customs and immigration. This went smoothly and our passports were all duly stamped. 

But what was not expected was our Colombian bus – our beautiful Mercedes – would not be allowed into Equador.  There had been a recent soccer match between the two countries which led to an uproar and the Equadorians were not on a good footing with their neighbours.

Meanwhile, we had paid for the bus and driver all the way to Guayaquil, and had a heck of a time getting (some) of the money back. That settled, we now continued on our journey, but this time in a dilapidated Equadorian bus with metal seats.

Nevertheless, everyone was in a good mood and were singing popular Beatle’s songs of the times such as “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”, “All You Need is Love”, “Yellow Submarine” or “Octopus Garden in the Shade”, and Bob Dylan’s “The Answer is Blowin’ in the Wind”.

Always on the lookout for something creative or new, we suggested we all go to Ingapirca, a little-known place I’d read about.

“Es muy pequeno”, our driver said.  “It’s very small”, the site of Ingapirca.   We asked about the location.  The first three places we enquired said they’d never heard of it.  Finally at a local post office, there was one person who knew about Inca Pirca but laughed when we said we wanted to visit the site.

He pointed to a postage stamp and said in Spanish, “That’s how small it is!” And that we’d need jeeps or horses to get there.

We assembled five Jeeps.

That took some time but we did corral them, each with a driver.  After negotiating the fare, we were on our way.

Ingapirca was, in those days, not your everyday tourist attraction like the more famous ruins of Mexico and Peru. Only one of the drivers knew where Ingapirca was located.

Torrential rains had put an obstacle in our path – a washed-out bridge.  The jeeps could go no farther. We continued our journey towards Ingapirca on foot, criss-crossing ice-cold Andean creeks.  The rains did not let up.


Maybe I could find some horses?  Off I went, into nowhere.  Amazingly, I encountered two gauchos on horseback.  I told them our dilemma.  They were able to get us eight or nine horses.  I negotiated a deal, including two guides.  This was what I came to call Miracle Number One.

Some had to carry on by foot, there weren’t enough horses for all of us.  The day was getting on by this time and every minute counted if we wanted to get back before dark.

After some time, we asked the horsemen if it was far to go to reach Ingapirca. 

“This is it”, they replied.  We were, literally on top of the ruins of Ingapirca.  Drenched but happy. We made it!  The site was basically a rubble of unremarkable stones, and without the guides, we would have ridden right over it.


“That’s all?” we asked in disbelief.  “Si Senor, es todo”.  Yes, Sir, that’s all.”
Ingapirca today - much more developed than in 1969

We spent no more than half an hour altogether at Ingapirca. And back we went to rejoin the jeeps where a few had stayed behind. So they were not joking back at the post office, about the size of Ingapirca. Nevertheless, it felt like high adventure in the high Andes of Equador.

The scenery was magnificent.  In the distance there was a snow-capped volcano, nearby waving tall grasses and grains – with once in awhile the sun peeking through the rainclouds complete with rainbows.

We made it back to the jeeps by dusk. One of the gaucho’s exchanged his whip (I still have it) for my sunglasses – yes, sunglasses in the pouring rain!

The drive through the Equadorian Andes was unforgettable, and when we finally descended in Guyaquil on the coast, the temperature had changed gradually from 5 degrees to 32 degrees Celcius, plus high humidity.    

Next episode (to come) - Galapagos, here we come!






2018/10/25

Episode Two of Five: Arrival in Guayaquil and Boarding Ship. Our Quest to the Galapagos continues . . .



We continue with the second episode in our Galapagos quest, 1969, in the port town of Guayaquil, Ecuador. 


 Guayaquil, Ecuador

Our group all booked into the Humboldt Hotel.  The ship that would take us to the Galapagos was called the “Cristobal Carrier”. The vessel had been making the trip for 30 years and was an icon, a legend in Ecuador.  

 I went down to the dock to take a first look at the ship.  There we found an old-looking, wooden vessel painted a dull grey. There were not enough lifeboats. 

In addition to our big group there were also many locals either returning to work or visiting family on the Galapagos.  They had chickens and all sorts of cargo.

Somehow I managed to have them load two dinghies which could serve as lifeboats. It was a Saturday and we were scheduled to sail at 17h00.

A rare-photo of our ill-fated ship, "Cristobal Carrier", 1969

Eventually we were on our way by 19h00.  There was much fanfare and shouts of “Adios!”. We lifted anchor for what was to be another routine sailing for the venerable ‘Cristobal Carrier’.  The upper decks were reserved for us.  All cabins had upper and lower bunks. 

We were happy to be on our way to these enchanted “Darwin” islands, the world-famous Galapagos.I already mentioned our group was an eclectic one with artists, ballet dancers, architects, and writers.

We had a magnificent clear, starry night above.  Everyone’s spirits and expectations were in high gear and we’d all retired for the night.

In the middle of the night, it happened.  Boom!  I was thrown out of my bunk and was suddenly clear awake.  What on earth could that “boom” have been? 

I made my way up to the bridge.  There was no one there. 

The stars were glittering above in the clear sky. Turned out to be 4 o’clock in the morning.

We peered over the railing and had a shock.  It looked like we’d hit an island. The bow rested a good way up on the shore.


Shipwrecked! Would you believe it?  “Where is everyone?” we asked. “No captain, no pilot or officers on the bridge – in fact, nobody.”  The locals panicked.  Some women and children were crying.

The day began to break and now of course everyone was up and about. The “Captain” had left the ship and was sitting dazed on a rock with a bottle of rum in his hands, shaking his head.  He was a tramper captain, and could have stepped right out of novel by Somerset Maugham.  The members of our group didn't panic, but were more in a state of disbelief.

The ship started to list.  I went to get my passport and luggage, as did a few others. Just in time, for now the ship was really listing to starboard.

We got to the highest point of what turned out to be not a very high island. Children were crying, roosters were crowing. Altogether quite a consternation. Then we spotted some triangular-shaped fins in the water, telling us not to go out for a swim!

The radio man, the “Marconi man”, already had contacted the mainland and sent out a SOS for help.

Any hopes of seeing the Galapagos were now smashed.  But our journey wasn’t over.  

Episode Three coming up next.