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.


How My Painting Career Began (a different kind of Santa)

 Zonnestraal Sanatorium many years ago

We all have some anecdotes and memories of the Christmas season.  Long ago, in 1952, I had tuberculosis on both lungs, and was bedridden for several years at Zonnestraal (“sunbeam”) sanatorium in the Netherlands. 

Each patient had his own room.  The rooms were a unique design: no windows, but one side of the room was completely open to the outdoors. The Sanatorium was located in a small pine and oak forest, so this allowed for a lot of fresh air.

Having much time on our hands, and being young (then I was 22, now 89), we were encouraged to do something, like handicrafts.

Believe it or not, some made photo albums from old X-rays of patients who had died. Others, like me, worked with raffia, creating all sorts of animals.

Many of the patients worried about their illness, which of course is counter-effective to healing.

Then I had the idea to do some sketching.  It wasn’t long before several fellow patients began to draw too. 

The town had a local, elderly artist, Jan Zondag (“Jan Sunday”).    When he heard some patients at the Sanatorium were doing artwork, he came to visit.

He encouraged us, gave pointers, and all this morphed into us wishing to do art in colour.  Now, it’s called “art therapy”.  But then, it was “you need to do something to prevent worrying and feeling sorry for yourself.”

My father brought me chalk pastels, but these were soon rejected by the nurses.  It made a mess on the sheets. There was no oil pastel, it hadn’t been invented yet at that time. 

Jan Zondag said we could work in coloured pencil, gouche, watercolour or even oil paint.  Since one side of our rooms were completely open, the turpentine and oil paint odours did not linger about.

There was one problem – art supplies were costly.  They still are.

By now, it was late November, close to the day of Sint Niklaas, the holy man from Myra, Greece (now Demre, Turkey), after whom Santa was modelled, and a day much celebrated in the Netherlands, especially for children.

Without us knowing, Jan Zondag began collecting funds for art supplies from doctors and friends. 

And on Saint Niklaas Day morning, December 6, to our joy, six of us received art supplies that would last for quite a while.

Jan Zondag

Although working himself, Jan Zondag – the Good Samaritan - visited us twice a week, to see how we were doing.

Myself, I had unknowingly embarked on a career that has lasted more than 65 years.  When I was released from the sanatorium, the doctor told my father this creative work had speeded up healing and shortened my stay by years.

All started because of the mentorship and care of that kind “Artist Santa”.

p.s. In an earlier post, I wrote about how the Zonnestraal building has become a UNESCO World Heritage site.  “Founded by the Diamond Workers Union of Amsterdam, the sanatorium was part of a larger aftercare colony for tubercular patients. It was funded by Union dues as a facility that would train members who had been afflicted with the disease for their return to society. Zonnestraal is emblematic of the emerging ideals of social democracy in the Netherlands during the 1920s, and it reflected the new concept of using occupational therapy in health cure.”   World Monuments Fund